History Vs. Episode 5: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Language

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Have you ever looked at a word—like although, for example—and thought: There are just too many letters in this word? If so, congratulations: You have a little something in common with Theodore Roosevelt, author of more than 30 books and 150,000 letters.

You know who else thought there were just too many letters in English words? Philanthropist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

In 1906, Carnegie created, and financially supported, the Simplified Spelling Board. According to The New York Times, Carnegie thought that English had the potential to be “the world language of the future,” and that would help lead to world peace.

But according to the Board, English was “handicapped by one thing and one only—its intricate and disordered spelling, which makes it a puzzle to the stranger within our gates and a mystery to the stranger beyond the seas.”

The Board decided to pursue a course of reform by omission: Drop letters that were unpronounced or deemed unnecessary. Teaching would be made easier, written correspondence would be faster, printing would be more efficient, not to mention cheaper. One publisher estimated that using Simplified Spelling in the publishing business would save up to $40 million—which is over a billion dollars in today’s money.

The Board’s proposed reforms were published and somehow found their way to President Theodore Roosevelt, who thought that what the board was proposing made a lot of sense.

He threw his support behind their reforms, which included chopping although from A-L-T-H-O-U-G-H to A-L-T-H-O and knocking the extra S’s and ED’s from words like missed and kissed so that they were spelled M-I-S-T and K-I-S-T, respectively. P-H-A-N-T-O-M became F-A-N-T-O-M. Cats wouldn’t P-U-R-R, they’d P-U-R. And so on.

But on August 27, 1906, when TR signed an Executive Order that made the Board’s spelling reforms required in government documents, he never could have predicted how controversial his actions would be.

Simplified Spelling wasn’t the only way TR took on language in his life—he warped the pronunciation of words to get noticed, coined iconic phrases, and used the English language as a political tool. Just how did he use language to achieve his desired ends? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR vs. Language.

By the time he became president, Theodore Roosevelt was a master of many languages: He could read in French, German, Italian, and Latin (though he called reading in Latin “dreary labor”). He also spoke French and German, although his French was, in the words of his Secretary of State John Hay, “lawless as to grammar.”

He also had a very unusual speaking style—so unusual that, according to Edmund Morris, it “has the effect of burying his remarks, like shrapnel, in the memory of the listener.” Once they hear what he’s said to them, they don’t forget it.

Arika Okrent: It seems like he did have a very distinctive way of talking since it was remarked upon by people who wrote about it, and they noticed it. So it must've been … seemed a little odd or strange.

That’s Arika Okrent, linguist and Mental Floss contributor, and the person I call whenever I have a question about language.

There are some recordings of Roosevelt speaking, but as Okrent notes, most of what we know about how he spoke is through other people writing about it. And whenever they talked about how he spoke, they also usually talked about his teeth, so we’ll continue that fine tradition here.

According to Morris, Roosevelt’s “white and even” teeth would “chop every word into neat syllables, sending them forth perfectly formed but separate, in a jerky staccatissimo that has no relation to the normal rhythms of speech.”

One of TR’s colleagues summed it up by saying, “I always think of a man biting tenpenny nails when I think of Roosevelt making a speech.”

His manner of speaking led some to believe that he’d had a speech impediment as a kid. A college classmate noted that when they deliberately riled him up, he would “sometimes lose altogether the power of articulation,” and according to a colleague in the New York State Assembly, “he would open his mouth and run out his tongue and it was hard for him to speak.” Morris notes that his diction was “syncopated … sibilants hiss out like escaping steam; plosives drive the lips apart with an audible pfft.”

Okrent: Plosive P, I imagine would be like an extreme build up. So a Ppp, a lot of air coming out, maybe some spit, very forceful. P-Powerful.

Whatever the reason for how he spoke, Roosevelt leaned into it. As a young assemblyman, he’d warp the pronunciation of the word speaker, yelling “MR. SPEE-KAR, MR. SPEE-KAR!” over and over, sometimes for 40 minutes, to get the speaker’s attention.

Okrent: “This is what everyone else in Congress sounds like,” or, “This is what everyone else in New York high society sounds like.” I guess he would be picking up on that, but he used these devices to get attention, and maybe he also bristled against the elocution training that they did back then. If you went to school, and they did this at Harvard, you had elocution lessons where they taught you how to pronounce things, and do public speaking, and the right gestures to make when you do public speaking, and the right way to breathe and hold your body. And maybe he bristled against that, or maybe thought it was too British, or I don’t know...

Interestingly, when he was out in the Dakotas in the mid-1880s, TR changed his way of speaking, too. In his book Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands, Roger L. Di Silvestro quotes the Pioneer Press as writing that “The slow exasperating drawl and the unique accent the New Yorker feels he must use when visiting a less blessed portion of civilization have disappeared, and in their place is a nervous, energetic manner of talking with the flat accent of the West.”

Whether or not Roosevelt was a good public speaker is up for debate. In the 1940s, a grad student named William Auburn Behl put that question to those who had known him, and the reviews were … not favorable. Jeremy C. Young, author of the book The Age of Charisma, put these reviews together in a blog post.

One person called TR’s gesticulations and his high-pitched voice “terrible,” while another said he “wasn’t a great speaker but one felt the force and magnetism of his personality and … his great honesty and genuineness.” As one journalist noted in 1900, “Theodore Roosevelt is a marvel as a campaigner, more from his tremendous strength, energy, force, and endurance than from finish and grace of delivery or diction.”

Young notes that, in Roosevelt’s era, most public figures, like William Jennings Bryan, used an emotional style of speaking called “personal magnetism.” But this was precisely the opposite of what Roosevelt learned at Harvard from his rhetoric teacher, Adams Sherman Hill, who said that “our feelings ought to be regulated by the facts which excite them.”

Young says that Roosevelt’s speeches “were often dry, equivocal, and monotonous,” because he’d revise them over and over and then read the typed speeches rather than speaking off the cuff, as Bryan did.

But make no mistake: Even if his speeches could be dull, TR definitely had a way with words. He coined terms and phrases that we still use today, like “bully pulpit,” “nailing jelly to a wall”—he actually said “They might just as well ask me why I do not nail currant jelly to the wall”—and the political usage of “my hat is in the ring.”

Supposedly he’s the one who called Maxwell House coffee “good to the last drop.”

One phrase we all think of when we think of TR is “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” He said it was a West African proverb he was fond of, but according to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that it was actually a West African proverb.

He popularized many other words and phrases, like "strong as a bull moose," "lunatic fringe," "mollycoddle," and "pussyfooting." He also popularized the phrase “weasel words,” which originally referenced the legend that a weasel can suck the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell intact. He said he heard a friend’s brother use it in reference to another person who could, in the brother’s words, “take a word and weasel it around and suck the meat out of it like a weasel sucks the meat out of an egg, until it don't mean anything at all, no matter what it sounds like it means.”

It’s a favorite phrase of Okrent’s.

Okrent: It's a metalinguistic look at language. This person is speaking this way, and the things they're doing with their words are weaselly, or the words aren't bearing meaning in the way they should. That's interesting in a sort of the pre-Orwell way of looking at what people do with words, and how they work with words, and manipulate with words.

We’ll be right back.

 

TR also used language to craft devastatingly colorful insults: One supreme court justice was “an amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains,” while frequent presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was “a professional yodeler, a human trombone.”

Roosevelt called novelist Henry James a “little emasculated mass of inanity” while Mississippi Congressman John Sharp Williams was a “true old-style Jeffersonian of the barbaric blatherskite variety.” A blatherskite, by the way, is someone who talks a lot without making a lot of sense. Burn.

This mastery of language may not have been evident in all of TR’s speeches, but it was definitely present in some of them. There’s a reason why his 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic” or, as it’s more commonly known, “The Man in the Arena,” is still quoted more than a century after it was delivered:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

But it can’t all be eloquent speeches and dee-lightful insults and catchy phrases. In his correspondence, Roosevelt used derogatory language and slurs in regards to other races and nationalities. Thomas G. Dyer addresses TR’s use of language like this in his book Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, noting that, “While TR seemed to derive considerable pleasure from the frequent private use of racial and ethnic epithets, he rarely used the terms in public … The extent of this language and the frequency of its usage indicates the preoccupation with racial differences that Roosevelt and his contemporaries had, but it also suggests Roosevelt’s professed objectivity in matters of race should not always be taken at face value.”

Henry Cabot Lodge, TR’s mentor, sometimes scrubbed that language, along with some of TR’s insults, from their published correspondence, so Lodge must have known that its use would not have painted TR in the best light.

Roosevelt also felt, in his words, that “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.” He believed that immigrants loyal to America should assimilate completely and be required to learn English, and that only English should be taught in schools.

In a 1916 speech to the National Americanization Committee, Roosevelt said that immigrants should become fully Americanized by learning English. This, he said, would give them more opportunities in America, and they wouldn’t be seen “only as an industrial asset.”

“Let us say to the immigrant not that we hope he will learn English, but that he has got to learn it,” Roosevelt said. “Let the immigrant who does not learn it go back.”

This type of attitude, according to Okrent, doesn’t reflect the reality of what actually happens when immigrants come to America.

Okrent: It does look kind of scary I guess when there's a lot of immigrants coming in at once, which there was at the turn of the century, and you go to neighborhoods where everyone's speaking Italian, or you go to towns in Wisconsin, everyone's speaking German and you think, “Oh no, what is this going to do to our national identity?” But looking at one snapshot like that doesn't show the whole picture, which is from generation to generation, things change very rapidly, and it's in the direction toward English. You don't have to do much to make that happen.

The first generation, the old folks, they might never really learn English, and then their kids will be bilingual, and then their kids will be fully English speakers and even forget the original language. These days, that's even frustrating for families that their kids, their grandkids don't keep up the old language, and then they lose it. The pressures of English are so great, and kids are so adept at learning language and giving over to whatever the majority culture is that they learn it, and it seems unnecessary to mandate it or make it some sort of requirement or law.

Um, even today it’s a great thing about our country that we have access to a lot of people who speak a lot of languages, and that's useful. When we need native speakers of a language, we have them, they're citizens. And there's no reason to try to stamp that out.

Not to mention the fact that English is a frequent borrower of words from other languages.

Okrent: English is not picky about what it will let in or accept. We don't have an academy. We don't have … you know, we don’t have to vote on whether we want to let this word in or not. People just start using it, and that makes the language really robust.

In fact, one TR’s favorite words was borrowed from another language. We’re talking, of course, about bully.

Okrent: That apparently comes from a Dutch word originally meaning, like, mate or brother, my buddy, my friend. It was first this term of endearment, and then it meant sort of a ruffian, and then it was specifically the guy who protects prostitutes, and eventually to what we have today. But it didn't come from English.

And then there are languages like German, which has so many words for which there’s no English equivalent. My favorite is kummerspeck, a term for the weight you gain from emotional overeating that literally translates to grief bacon.

Okrent: Yeah, and angst, and all of that schadenfreude, all the things we totally make good use of.

McCarthy: Yeah. We’ve just got to keep letting those words come in.

Okrent: Mm Hmm.

Before we get back to Simplified Spelling— the system by which words are reduced to their most basic expression in spelling, a system that TR championed—I want to take one quick diversion.

In May 1918, TR went to Springfield, Massachusetts, on a mission: To honor those Boy Scouts of Troop 13 who had sold $1000-worth of war bonds. It was there that he—a current titan of language—had an encounter with a future titan of language.

There were 10 boys being honored that May afternoon in the town’s municipal auditorium. As Donald E. Pease writes, “Roosevelt went down the line congratulating each of the young men, repeating a laudatory statement praising each boy’s accomplishment and pinning a medal on the honoree’s chest. … Each presentation was met with thunderous applause.”

There was a problem, though. TR had only nine medals.

So when Roosevelt came upon the 10th boy on stage, and had no medal to pin to his lapel, the understandably confused former president bellowed to the scoutmaster, “What’s this little boy doing here?”

The boy’s scoutmaster didn’t stop to explain the situation, just whisked young Theodor Geisel off-stage. The incident gave the future Dr. Seuss terrible stage fright, and honestly, who can blame him?

TR wasn’t the first person to support a phonetic spelling system—Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and Brigham Young had all advocated for spelling reform. Noah Webster, for example, is probably the main reason the letter U was removed from spellings of American words and the Cs were replaced with Ses, which are distinguishing features between American and British English. Then again, he also suggested we spell machine M-A-S-H-E-E-N and women W-I-M-M-E-N, so, you know, they can’t all be winners.

So when Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order in August 1906 directing the Government Printing Office to use the board’s proposed spelling system—what he called an effort to “make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic”—he was in pretty good company.

The Simplified Spelling board was thrilled for sure: They even released a “Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book”—that’s phonetic with an F—after the order.

And here’s the thing: The Simplified Spelling Board, Webster, Roosevelt—they all may have been onto something … kind of.

Okrent: You know, if you ever meet Dutch people, or German people, they speak such good English, it can't be that difficult cause people do manage it. But it does have a reputation of certain parts of it being difficult, and a big one is the spelling. You have to learn it. You can't just get a few rules of thumb and then follow that like you can with most other languages. You just have to memorize all these spellings. Your engineering mind goes, like, “We could do this over, we could make this so much better. Why not?”

Well … here’s why not: Simplified Spelling looks ridiculous.

Okrent: If you already know how to read and write, you're just … you’re never going to accept these simplified spellings. It looks so funny. It looks like … you know, like a cat wrote it or something. Our spelling is just embedded in our education, and we're used to it. And sure, you know, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds might be able to do better with phonetic spelling, they probably would. But our educational process is the process of bringing children into what we already do. And um, it's really hard to get over just the comic look of it.

And that’s exactly what the press and critics latched onto after Roosevelt signed the executive order. The backlash was immediate.

We’re going to take a quick break.

 

After Roosevelt signed his executive order mandating simplified spelling in government documents, everyone freaked out.

A paper in Kentucky wrote, in barely legible spelling, “Nuthing”—N-U-T-H-I-N-G—“escapes Mr. Rucevelt”—R-U-C-E-V-E-L-T. “No subject is tu hi fr”—that’s T-U H-I F-R—“him to takle”—T-A-K-L-E—“nor tu lo”—that’s T-U L-O—“for him tu notis”—spelled T-U N-O-T-I-S. “He makes tretis”—T-R-E-T-I-S—“without the consent of the Senit,” S-E-N-I-T. “He enforces such laws as meet his approval, and fales”—F-A-L-E-S—"to se”—S-E—"those that du not soot”—do spelled D-U, suit spelled spelled S-O-O-T— “him … He now assales”—A-S-S-A-L-E-S—“the English langgwidg”—“L-A-N-G-G-W-I-D-G”— “constitutes himself as a sort of French academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot”—T-U S-O-O-T—"himself.”

The reaction overseas wasn’t any better. One English paper wrote, “Here is the language of 80 million suddenly altered by a mere administrative ukase”—that’s a Russian word for arbitrary command, by the way, and it’s usually reserved to describe the actions of a czar. The paper went on to say, “Could any other ruler on earth do this thing?” while another raged, “How dare this Roosevelt fellow … dictate to us how to spell a language which was ours while America was still a savage and undiscovered country!”

Amidst the brouhaha, The New York Times said that, “Roosevelt’s spelling order has done him more harm than perhaps any other act of his since he became president.”

Okrent: It's actually harder to read a long text in simplified spelling because you have to stop and sound it out, and we don't do that when we read after, you know, first, second grade. And that makes it actually harder.

It’s no wonder TR wanted to simplify spelling. Though he supposedly had a photographic memory, he was a notoriously bad speller—in fact, his wife, Edith, joked that he supported the system because he didn’t know “how to spell anything.”

Roosevelt spun the order as an experiment, writing that if the “slight changes” to the 300 words garnered popular approval, they would “become permanent without any reference to what public officials or individual citizens may feel.” If they were not popular, he said the spellings would be dropped—spelled D-R-O-P-T—concluding, “and that it all there is about it.”

But in the end, what Roosevelt wanted didn’t really matter—no one was having his strange spellings. The Supreme Court refused to follow his order, and in December 1906, Congress voted to get rid of simplified spelling, writing—in normal spelling—that the government’s documents “should observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”

Clearly defeated, TR withdrew his executive order, writing to simplified spelling proponent Brander Matthews, “I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in. And it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten … But I am mighty glad I did the thing anyhow.”

Spelling finally returned to normal.

But if you think about it, in a way, Roosevelt was ahead of his time—the proof is in your text messages, where T-H-O-U-G-H is almost certainly shortened to T-H-O.

So if you’re looking to get noticed, here’s a TR pro-tip: Play around with pitch, punch those plosives, and instead of a demure “excuse me” to get someone’s attention, a loud “ex-skwas-me!” might do. And on that note … TTYL!

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Arika Okrent.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs. That’s MentalFloss.com slash H I S T O R Y V S.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

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History Vs. Bonus Episode: The Statue

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One thing that happens when you make a Theodore Roosevelt-themed podcast is that whenever there’s TR-related news, you get a ton of messages about it. Which is exactly what happened to me when news broke that the American Museum of Natural History had asked for the equestrian statue of TR that stands outside its Central Park West entrance to be removed.

The request comes at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Statues of historical figures, including those of the Confederacy and monuments dedicated to figures who owned or sold enslaved people, are being defaced, removed, or pulled down entirely—and not just here in the States, but all around the world as well.

Although the museum’s request to remove the statue—which features TR on horseback, flanked on the ground by one Native American and one African figure—was made in light of the current movement, this particular statue of TR has been controversial for a very long time. In 1971, activists dumped a can of red paint on Roosevelt’s head in what a paper at that time called “the latest incident against the Roosevelt statue.” In 1987, former New York City parks commissioner Gordon Davis said he would support the statue being blasted away from where it stood—“unless,” he noted, “Roosevelt got off and walked with them.” Beginning in 2016, activists have protested the statue by organizing marches, covering it with a parachute, and splashing red paint on the base.

Removing the statue was considered as recently as 2017. The Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers—which was, according to a report issued in January 2018 [PDF], “committed to a process of historical reckoning, a nuanced understanding of the complicated histories we have inherited”—was split about what to do with the statue.

Ultimately, the city decided to keep the statue where it was, and asked the museum to add context to the work—which the museum did in its exhibit “Addressing the Statue.” We touched briefly on the statue and on the exhibit in a larger discussion of Roosevelt’s views on race in the episode “History Vs. TR.”

Why was the city involved in the decision, you ask? Because even though many associate the statue directly with the museum thanks to its location, Roosevelt’s own history with the institution, and things like the Night at the Museum movies, it’s actually part of a public memorial to Roosevelt located on public land.

While some have issues with the statue because of Roosevelt himself, the museum has said that its request to move it isn’t about Roosevelt but rather because of the statue’s composition and what it implies.

So, in this bonus episode of History Vs., we’re going to talk about the statue—why it’s there, what the artists intended, and why it’s viewed as controversial today. And we’ll dive into Roosevelt’s own views on legacy.

The statue’s story begins in 1920, when the New York State Legislature established the Roosevelt Memorial Commission. Nine years later, construction began on a memorial within the museum that, according to the prospectus of the competition, should “express Roosevelt’s life as a nature lover, naturalist, explorer, and author of works of natural history.”

The memorial may have ended up at AMNH because of Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was then both president of the museum and the head of the New York State Roosevelt Memorial Commission. Osborn had also known Roosevelt—who contributed specimens to the museum, and whose father was one of the founding members—personally.

The memorial was designed by architect John Russell Pope and included the museum’s Central Park West entrance, its Theodore Roosevelt rotunda, and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. In 1925, the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt was commissioned to become a part of that larger memorial.

In 1928, Pope wrote that the statue would sit on a granite pedestal “bearing an equestrian statue of Roosevelt with two accompanying figures on foot, one representing the American Indian and the other the primitive African. This heroic group … will symbolize the fearless leadership, the explorer, benefactor and educator.”

Sculptor James Earle Fraser—who had created, among other things, a bust of Roosevelt, a statue of Ben Franklin, and the Buffalo nickel—was chosen to create the sculpture, which was based on a statue by Andrea del Verrocchio.

The statue was completed in 1939 and unveiled in 1940. Fraser said that the figures beside the former president “are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” The figures have no names, and are below, and trail behind, Roosevelt.

So, we’ve talked about what the artists intended when they created the statue. Now, let’s talk about how the statue is viewed today.

Because a white man is ahead of and above an Indigenous American person and an African person, many see a clear picture of racial hierarchy and white supremacy. Others see a monument to colonialism and conquest.

Not only that, but the unnamed figures seem to be a hodgepodge of stereotypes and poor research. The Native American figure appears to be a Plains Indian, but it’s a generic and stereotypical rendering. According to the museum’s exhibit about the statue, the shield on the African figure appears to be based on the Maasai people, whom Roosevelt met during his time in East Africa. But the museum explains that “the hairstyle and facial scarification on the figure do not accurately reflect Maasai traditions,” and the cloth draped around the body is more akin to a Greek or Roman sculpture.

In 1999, James Loewen wrote in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong that “some authorities claim the flanked figures are ‘guides’ or ‘continents,’ but visitors without such foreknowledge internalize the monument without even thinking about it, as a declaration of white supremacy. When the statue went up the museum was openly racist.”

At that time, the museum had strong ties to eugenics. Under Osborn’s tenure, two conferences about eugenics were held there. Roosevelt himself also supported certain aspects of eugenics, especially later in his life.

Now … about TR’s quote-unquote “friendliness to all races.” If you listened to the “History Vs. TR” episode of this podcast, you’ll remember just how complicated and sometimes contradictory TR’s views on race were. But simply put, TR held white supremacist and racist views that were shaped by his childhood, the books he read, his education, and his correspondence with scientists. Roosevelt developed a theory of the stages of civilization, a racial hierarchy that put the white, English-speaking man on top.

According to historian William S. Walker in Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders, Fraser’s statue is basically a visual representation of the prevalent thinking about race at the time—a “troubling hierarchy of human groups that places whites above Indigenous peoples and other people of color on a universal scale of human civilization,” he writes. “The statue’s symbolism corresponds with overtly racist statements Roosevelt made in his writings … and actions he took, such as his wrongful condemnation and punishment of Black soldiers after the Brownsville affair in 1906. Moreover, the racial imagery of Fraser’s statue matches the dominant paternalistic attitudes that many whites, including Roosevelt, displayed toward people of color in the early 20th century.”

We’ve covered a lot of the frankly horrible things Roosevelt said about other races in previous episodes of the podcast, but right now, I want to look at just a few examples of what he said about Black people, to show just how contradictory his thinking could be.

The first is from remarks he made in February 1905: “Our effort should be to secure to each man, whatever his color, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment before the law. As a people striving to shape our actions in accordance with the great law of righteousness we cannot afford to take part in or be indifferent to the oppression or maltreatment of any man who, against crushing disadvantages, has by his own industry, energy, self-respect, and perseverance struggled upward to a position which would entitle him to the respect of his fellows, if only his skin were of a different hue."

Sounds pretty good, right? But. In 1906, Roosevelt wrote in a letter to Owen Wister that Black people “as a race and as a mass … are altogether inferior to the whites.” And in 1916, he wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge, “I believe that the great majority of Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for the suffrage.” Extending them that right, he said, could “reduce parts of the South to the level of Haiti.”

Historian Thomas Dyer breaks down TR’s thoughts on a number of races in depth in his book, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, and if you want more information than I’ll ever be able to deliver here, you should definitely pick it up.

Dyer notes that while Roosevelt didn’t support segregation or disenfranchisement of Black Americans, and while he championed specific Black individuals, like Minnie Cox, there’s no question that Roosevelt felt that Black people as a whole were inferior to white people. And he believed it was the white man’s job to help the Black man become as civilized as the white man—a process that he believed would take an extremely long time.

However, according to Dyer, Roosevelt shouldn’t be lumped in with the deeply racist politicians of the Deep South, but instead was “associated with the group of theorists who promoted the vision of racial equipotentiality and with those politicians who publicly deplored the oppression of American Blacks yet opposed ‘social equality,’” Dyer writes. “Thus, although Roosevelt may have been a moderating force in an age of high racism, he nevertheless harbored strong feelings about the inferiority of Blacks, feelings which suggest the pervasiveness of racism and the harsh character of racial ‘moderation’ in turn-of-the-century America.”

Though these may have been prevalent views at the time, and while one could try and justify Roosevelt’s racist views by saying that he was a product of his time, there were plenty of people at that time, like Jane Addams and William English Walling, who did not agree with these views, who were much more progressive on this particular issue than Roosevelt was.

We’ll be right back.

 

Right around the time the museum’s “Addressing the Statue” exhibit went up in July 2019, I spoke with David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American Archaeology, Division of Anthropology at AMNH. Here’s what he had to say about the statue and the exhibit:

David Hurst Thomas: It was put up by the state of New York, memorializing a governor who went on to become a president. Our entire western facade is dedicated to the career of Theodore Roosevelt. And as you walk along there, you know, there are sculptures, there are all sorts of things, but the standalone one of Roosevelt on the horse with the African and the Native American walking along sent one message in the 1930s when it was put up and it sends a different message today to many people. So we're trying to come to grips with that. What are the different points of view here? What does that tell us about where we were then and where we are now?

In the exhibit, the museum grappled with what it called Roosevelt’s “troubling views on race” and its “own imperfect history,” saying that “Such an effort does not excuse the past but it can create a foundation for honest, respectful, open dialogue.”

In a recent statement, the museum said it was proud of the exhibition, “which helped advance our and the public’s understanding of the statue and its history and promoted dialogue about important issues of race and cultural representation, but in the current moment, it is abundantly clear that this approach is not sufficient. While the statue is owned by the city, the museum recognizes the importance of taking a position at this time. We believe that the statue should no longer remain and have requested that it be moved.”

Theodore Roosevelt IV, TR’s great-grandson and a museum trustee, supports the statue’s removal, as does New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who said in a statement that "the city supports the museum's request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue."

It hasn’t yet been decided when the statue will be removed, or where it will go. And the museum isn’t completely cutting ties with TR. Instead, it will name its Hall of Biodiversity for Roosevelt “in honor of [his] role as a leading conservationist.”

It’s possible that Roosevelt would have preferred this memorialization to any statue. Michael Cullinane, the historian and author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost who I interviewed for this podcast, wrote in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post that “Theodore Roosevelt never wanted a statue. Long before he died, he left strict instructions to his wife and children that no likeness of himself—equestrian or otherwise—appear in stone or bronze. He even fought a memorial group that sought to preserve his birthplace in New York City. … As a historian Roosevelt knew that the past necessarily gets rewritten. He anticipated an ever-changing legacy.”

Clay Jenkinson, who I interviewed for several episodes, also emphasizes this point in a new book of essays he co-edited, called Theodore Roosevelt, Naturalist in the Arena. He points out that, in 1910, when North Dakotans wanted to erect a statue to TR, Roosevelt suggested that a pioneer or pioneer family would be more appropriate.

And in 1916, Roosevelt wrote a letter against building monuments to the dead, saying, “There is an occasional great public servant to whom it is well to raise a monument; really not for the man himself, but for what he typified. A monument to Lincoln or Farragut is really a great symbolic statue to commemorate such qualities as valor and patriotism and love of mankind, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the right … As for the rest of us who, with failures and shortcomings, but according to our lights, have striven to lead decent lives, if any friends of ours wish to commemorate us after death the way to do it is by some expression of good deeds to those who are still living. Surely a dead man or woman, who is a good man or woman, would wish to feel that his or her taking away had become an occasion for real service for the betterment of mankind, rather than to feel that a meaningless pile of stone, no matter how beautiful, had been erected with his or her name upon it in an enclosure crowded with similar piles of stone—for such a tomb or mausoleum often bears chief reference not to the worth, but to the wealth of the one who is dead.” In fact, after TR’s own death, Jenkinson notes that “his family was lukewarm, sometimes outright negative, about commemorative statues.”

That’s not to say he was against being honored altogether. Jenkinson notes that Roosevelt was thrilled when, in 1911, a dam in Arizona was named after him. “I do not know if it is of any consequence to a man whether he has a monument: I know it is of mighty little consequence whether he has a statue after he is dead,” Roosevelt said. “If there could be any monument which would appeal to any man, surely it is this. You could not have done anything which would have pleased and touched me more than to name this great dam, this reservoir site, after me.”

“The unmistakable sense one gets from reading Roosevelt on this subject is that he wanted his historical memory to be tied to civic, even civilizational achievement,” Jenkinson writes, “and that the giant cyclopean dam in the Arizona desert—named in his honor for his vision, his Americanism, his legislative mastery, and his love of the American West—appealed to him as the right way to pay tribute to his life and work."

If the Theodore Roosevelt Facebook group I’m in is any indication, opinions about the statue’s removal are heated. To be frank, most people in there are quite angry. But I, for one, think it could be a good thing.

Hear me out. Though I’m fascinated by TR, it’s probably clear by now that he was not without his flaws. He was obsessed with his image and wasn’t above asking his friends to gloss over the facts to paint his life and his accomplishments in the best light. He felt he knew what was right and did not often want to admit when he’d been wrong. He could be as bitter and as nasty as he could be kind. And his views on race ranged from deeply paternalistic to openly racist. But understanding those views is important.

As historian and assistant professor at the University of Virginia Justene Hill Edwards said when I interviewed her:

Dr. Justene Hill Edwards: We live in a country, that from the very beginning, has been polarized along issues of race. And so, yes, it is important to understand our public figures and political figures' perspectives on race because it's such an important part, in my mind, of what it means to be American, thinking about these questions because it's an indelible part of the American story. It would be like not understanding, you know, the Civil War, or the American Revolution, or our participation in World War I or II.

Like many historical figures, TR was a person—an incredibly complex person. He did both good things and bad things, and those things should be considered together. Here’s Edwards again:

Edwards: He did amazing things for idealizing and realizing the beauty of America's natural landscapes, right, for ideas of conservation, that's really important. And we don't have to denigrate that legacy with his more problematic legacy on race. And so I think it's important to view historical figures as they were. They're complex people with complex inner-workings of their lives, and it's just important to understand that human complexity.

In order to even get close to a full picture of TR, we need to consider all of the sides of him rather than picking the parts that support the vision of him that we prefer. History, like TR, is complicated. I think the statue’s removal spurs us to grapple with all of that, as well as with America’s own racist history, and that’s important. Which is why I hope that, even if the statue will one day be gone, AMNH will keep its exhibit about the work around so visitors can learn from it for decades to come.

As Cullinane wrote, the statue “indicates nothing of Roosevelt’s environmental legacy. Rather, it symbolizes the least appealing aspect of his natural history philosophy.” I think Cullinane nailed it when he said, “If we honor complex figures, we should make sure we do so in ways that emphasize their enduring contributions, not their worst failures.”

As Jenkinson points out, TR’s legacy isn’t in a single statue—in fact, it’s all around us. “Theodore Roosevelt’s monumental footprint can be found in nearly every state in America,” Jenkinson writes. “While some of it is appropriately visible … still more is quietly enshrined in the U.S. Navy, in the National Park Service, in the modern identity of the American presidency, and in countless landscapes, parks, and forests across the Western Hemisphere. No other president has such a legacy. No other president even comes close.”

I’ll leave you with something TR expressed to Cecil Spring Rice in 1905, on the occasion of his Secretary of State John Hays’s death: “It is a good thing to die in the harness at the zenith of one’s fame, with the consciousness of having lived a long, honorable, and useful life,” he wrote. “After we are dead, it will make not the slightest difference whether men speak well or ill of us. But in the days and hours before dying it must be pleasant to feel that you have done your part as a man and have not yet been thrown aside as useless, and that your children and children’s children, in short all those that are dearest to you, have just cause for pride in your actions.”

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking and additional research by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website atmentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.