History Vs. Episode 6: Theodore Roosevelt vs. Corruption

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Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s 2 a.m. on a cool and rainy night in June 1895. Two men in dark coats are loitering on Second Avenue in New York City, observing a police officer across the street. The officer is sitting on an upturned butter tub, asleep—and snoring so loudly that the two men can hear him clearly above the rain.

Finally, one of the men steps off the curb, crosses the street, and rouses the officer, who tells the stranger to get lost.

Bad move. He just gave lip to Theodore Roosevelt, the head of the city’s four-man police commission—and his boss—who is in disguise, wandering the streets on what he calls a “midnight ramble.” He wants to make sure that his officers are actually working.

He finds, however, that they are not. Versions of this same scene would occur, in the words of photojournalist Jacob Riis, TR’s friend and companion that night, “for three hours along 1st and 2nd and 3rd avenues, from 42nd Street to Bellevue.” Police would be standing on street corners outside saloons, chatting or sleeping or otherwise not doing their jobs. All of them would sass Roosevelt, and all would later regret it.

A local newspaper reports that Roosevelt gives the delinquent officers “a raking down which they will not soon forget.” Later, he crows to his sister, Bamie, “These midnight rambles are great fun.”

He begins going on the rambles nearly every Thursday night, sometimes with Riis, sometimes with reporters. Once, he busts an on-duty officer as he’s slurping oysters in a restaurant. The officer—who clearly doesn’t know who he’s speaking to—tells Roosevelt to kick rocks. TR demotes him the next day. It’s just one more chapter in his quest to reform the police department.

As his friend Jacob Riis would say, “There is very little ease where Theodore Roosevelt leads.” From the bars of the Bowery to the halls of power in Washington, TR made a career out of taking on corruption—and we’re about to find out how.

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 today, we’re pitting TR against profiteering politicians, treacherous trusts, and fraudulent food. This episode is TR Vs. Corruption.

Nineteenth-century American politics were defined by the spoils system. Party bosses maintained power by handing out favors, like jobs or government contracts, to supporters. In New York City, Tammany Hall was the biggest distributor of spoils, but the system extended to Washington, too.

Theodore Roosevelt hated it. He wrote: “No republic can permanently endure when its politics are corrupt and base; and the spoils system, the application in political life of the degrading doctrine that to the victor belong the spoils, produces corruption and degradation.”

An incident involving his father may have been the reason behind TR’s feeling.

In 1877, when TR was 19, President Rutherford B. Hayes nominated Theodore Senior, or Thee, as Collector of Customs in New York. Thee assumed it was a reward for his philanthropic work. But Hayes actually intended Thee’s nomination to obstruct his rival, Senator Roscoe Conkling, boss of the corrupt New York State Republican machine, who backed his own nominee.

The Senate confirmation process dragged on and on, with Thee at the politicians’ mercy. After more than a month of tortured waiting, his nomination was rejected.

Clay Jenkinson: The political machine crushed him and belittled him, humiliated him.

That’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Jenkinson: It was a giant personal setback and a kind of humiliation of all that Thee stood for, and young Roosevelt witnessed this, and it made him very angry. It kind of added fuel to his righteousness about reform.

Shortly after being rejected for the customs post, Thee died from stomach cancer. TR was then at Harvard studying natural history, but his father’s death helped alter the direction of his life. He now felt that a career in public service would be the best way to honor his father’s memory, and in 1881, was elected as the youngest member of the New York State Assembly.

Jenkinson: He began as a New York snob, a highly educated dandy who wore really weird clothing and had a high pitched voice and was just a kind of an eccentric and an outlier and kind of a bluestocking.

Roosevelt was determined to break the spoils system. But in Albany, he was shocked to see lobbyists openly bribing legislators in the hallways of the capitol. Meanwhile, lawmakers sponsored bills that were unfavorable to corporations, then blackmailed companies so they wouldn’t pass them.

Jenkinson: His view was government is good … but government has to be honorable. That you have to expect that the people that you've elected, that the people that you've appointed, or hold bureaucratic positions, are trying to do the right thing, and when they're not, when they are corruptionists or cronies or lazy or inept, then that discredits the very idea of government intervention in the life of the American people.

According to historian Edmund Morris, in Roosevelt’s first 48 hours on the Committee on Cities, he introduced four reform bills. Only one passed, but he had made an impression—and a few enemies.

When Roosevelt decided to push a reform bill through the committee he was chairing, several corrupt members teamed up to block it. TR realized he might need to use a stronger weapon than persuasive rhetoric. He hid a broken chair leg behind his desk, then announced he would unilaterally approve the bill while accusing its opponents of blackmail—which nearly caused a riot from his colleagues.

Roosevelt wrote later, “The riot did not come off; partly, I think, because the opportune production of the chair-leg had a sedative effect.”

Another time, Roosevelt’s enemies tried to smear him by enticing him into a compromising position with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Roosevelt balked, then had a detective follow her and discovered that he’d avoided a trap.

Jenkinson: Everyone wanted him to shrug his shoulders in the face of the real world, and TR could never do that. So then his view was, "Well, if you find a problem, you've got to fix it." When he discovered that many of his political associates and even allies were not actually interested in fixing it—that they kind of liked the system of cronyism and they benefited from it—then, that really threw him for a loop. And so he then has to decide, "Am I going to go along or am I going to follow my integrity and maybe flame out early?" And, turns out he was able to master it.

But his nascent career in Albany was marred by the tragic deaths of his wife and his mother on February 14, 1884. TR also felt pressure from the Mugwumps—a faction of the Republican Party—to support the Democratic presidential nominee, Grover Cleveland, over James G. Blaine, the controversial Republican presidential nominee. Roosevelt reluctantly stuck with Blaine.

After Cleveland’s victory, TR sensed his time in politics was up. He left his infant daughter, Alice, with his sister Bamie and took off for his ranch in the Dakotas. In the West, Roosevelt felt he could reinvent himself, free from Eastern rules. He dove into frontier life on his ranch and lived as a local, writing books, galloping across the plains on his horse, and managing a herd of livestock.

But he was still drawn to New York … and to politics. For years, he traveled back and forth. He attended political events and began secretly courting Edith Kermit Carow, whom he would marry in 1886. That winter, severe weather killed his cattle, and he had gone through much of his inheritance. His ability to make a living off of his ranches was seeming less likely by the day. And so he turned to politics again, although a career there also seemed uncertain.

According to Kathleen Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, the West failed to satisfy TR. She writes, “He recognized that he had not yet lived up to his father’s—and now his own—expectation that he would make something of himself, but he did not know what to do next.”

Still, TR threw himself into campaigning for Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 presidential election.

Jenkinson: He wanted a job in the administration of Harrison and he wasn't going to get one, because he wasn't far enough along yet and people were frightened of him. And so he had to settle for U.S. Civil Service commissioner, which could have been just a routine sort of thing … I mean, I can't name a single other U.S. Civil Service commissioner ever, but he decided to make the most of it and he did.

The Civil Service Commission managed the government’s civilian employees. Immediately, Roosevelt complained that Harrison’s hand-picked postmaster general, department-store magnate John Wanamaker, was replacing all of the Democratic postmasters with Republicans and extorting money from them. Harrison largely ignored him, leading Roosevelt to fume, “Wanamaker has been as outrageously disagreeable as he could possibly be … We have done our best to get on smoothly with him; but he is an ill-conditioned creature.”

Undeterred, Roosevelt launched a successful campaign to root out corrupt postal officials. As historian Leonard White writes [PDF], TR “struck terror into the hearts of contumacious postmasters and collectors of customs.”

Jenkinson: He wasn't afraid to take on his own political party. Because, if they challenged him and said, "Well, back away from this corruption in this post office," or, "Back away from Wanamaker," and he'd say, "Well, wait a minute, I'm reading the law. The law says we need to clean up these things and that's precisely what I'm doing. Are you telling me you want me to give up merely on the basis of partisan politics?" And they, of course, they wanted to say, "Yeah, that's exactly what we're telling you," but they couldn't because he was right. They were always about to fire him.

After five years as commissioner, TR was itching for a new challenge. One revealed itself in his home city of New York: a committee of Republican officials tried to draft him as their candidate for mayor. TR’s wife Edith argued against that plan: It would cost too much money, especially if he ended up losing. TR conceded, but immediately regretted it.

A reform-minded Republican, William L. Strong, eventually won. He offered Roosevelt, who had been campaigning for a job, an intriguing gig: New York City Police Commissioner, one of four men to hold the role. TR was elected the board’s president.

At that time, corruption was as much a part of the police department as badges and nightsticks. It supported a seedy underworld where prostitution, alcohol, gambling, and graft thrived. As one example, a captain named Joseph Eakins was accused of allowing brothels in his precinct to operate while he looked the other way.

On Roosevelt’s first day at police headquarters, a chief told him that his efforts at reform would be useless. “It will break you. You will yield. You are but human,” Chief Thomas Byrnes said.

TR never took a threat lying down.

Jenkinson: You've got to clean that up so that people have trust in government and then when government has to do the hard things, which it sometimes has to do, the people will swallow hard and accept it. But if government is filled with just these thuggish people who are in it for themselves and their cronies, then the people are not going to have confidence in government's ability to improve our lives. So that's sort of the groundwork for what he called the square deal.

Roosevelt enlisted Jacob Riis to show him the real face of the city after dark—and the photojournalist knew what to show him. Saloons where whiskey flowed on Sundays. Brothels operating under police protection. Two immigrant families renting a single room in a tenement. Children sleeping in the filth-slicked streets.

The sights deeply affected Roosevelt. A year after he became police commissioner, a deadly heat wave struck New York City. TR saw children sleeping on roofs and fire escapes to beat the heat. Sometimes they fell off during the night.

When the city failed to respond to the crisis, Roosevelt had his police officers give out free ice to poor residents—according to Edward Kohn, author of Hot Time in the Old Town, TR personally supervised the distribution of ice—and visited their homes to make sure they were OK.

Jenkinson: He felt a deep sympathy for the underdog, the underclass in America, and realized that these were not bums. They were recent immigrants for the most part, helpless, with little or no English and no skills that really would command the market, and they were exploitable and they were being exploited. And he felt, "This just isn't fair. We're too great a country to have this sort of desperation being preyed upon by corporate capitalism."

Roosevelt and the three other police commissioners systematically removed the police brass—including Eakins and Byrnes—who had allowed graft to flourish. He appointed Peter Conlin as the new chief of police. Next, Roosevelt took on enforcement of the ban on saloons selling liquor on Sundays.

The Sunday excise law, as it was formally called, had been around in some form since 1857, but there were loopholes allowing hotel restaurants to sell alcohol to their guests. It also didn’t address private clubs, which sold drinks to their dues-paying members. That meant the law largely affected working-class bars frequented by immigrants.

But to TR, it seemed like a win-win. Richard Zacks, author of Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, writes that TR had two main reasons for enforcement.

One, he wanted to demonstrate the newfound incorruptibility of his police force. Zachs writes that Roosevelt “tried to frame it not as a crusade against liquor, but rather against blackmail and selective enforcement of the law.”

Two, Roosevelt knew that “saloons acted as unofficial clubhouses for Tammany Hall,” Zacks continues. By closing them on Sunday, he could strip the Democratic machine of its favored meeting places.

TR told the New York Evening Sun, “I do not deal with public sentiment. I deal with the law.”

But his actions caused enormous controversy.

Jenkinson: We now know that it was really hard on immigrants, who were working six days a week, and these saloons were not like bars you go slam a few down in. They were social clubs at the time. People were rightly offended by this, in knowing that the rich had access to all of their private clubs, but that the regular citizens of New York—and particularly German-American immigrants—were being singled out by the enforcement of this law.

On Sunday, June 23, 1895, Roosevelt deployed more than 2000 officers to monitor about 8000 saloons across New York. Pub owners signaled their compliance by raising their window shades to reveal empty barrooms. The campaign deprived thousands of New Yorkers of a relaxing beer on their only day off from work, but some found a way around the Excise Law. Drinkers traveled all the way to Coney Island in Brooklyn, which was a separate city until 1898, and outside TR’s jurisdiction. Others tried to enter saloons through the side door, but many were turned away.

The next Saturday, Mayor Strong and Roosevelt gave a press conference on the steps of City Hall. A large crowd of German-American residents—who traditionally drank beer at family gatherings on Sundays—denounced TR’s enforcement as too broad.

It was unfair, they said, for vice-ridden saloons and wholesome family picnics to be caught in the same net. Moreover, German immigrants as a whole supported Mayor Strong, and felt betrayed.

According to Zacks, Otto Kempner, a leader in the German-American community, shouted, “Only bigots could enforce such laws. It is an asinine exercise of authority.” TR roared back: “You people want me to enforce the law only a little bit, a little teeny bit … I do not know how to do such a thing, and I shall not begin to learn now!”

The disagreement looked like it would come to a head in September 1895. About 30,000 German-Americans turned out for a huge parade up Lexington Avenue to celebrate liberty and beer.

One of the organizers trolled Police Commissioner Roosevelt with a formal invitation to the festivities, “more as a taunt or a joke,” according to Zacks. But they evidently didn’t know TR very well.

Jenkinson: My favorite of all the stories is when he's invited to the German-American parade ... And he goes, even though they didn't really want him to come. They just wanted to snub him. He goes and he's up there and he's watching the whole parade and then some guy in the group, he calls out, "Wo ist der Roosevelt?"

For those of you who don’t speak German, that’s, “Where is Roosevelt?”

Jenkinson: And instead of, like, ducking, he says, "Hier bin ich, hier bin ich."

Which translates to, “Here I am, here I am.”

Jenkinson: And he kind of turned it around. They kind of loved him, like "Jesus, this guy has so much courage. And he's so game. He's so willing to do this stuff."

Roosevelt also fought the city’s rampant prostitution. Unlike his peers, he believed the male customers were as much a part of the problem as the female workers. In his autobiography, he wrote, “public opinion and the law should combine to hunt down the ‘flagrant man swine’ who himself hunts down poor or silly or unprotected girls … Our duty to achieve the same moral level for the two sexes must be performed by raising the level for the man, not by lowering it for the woman.”

As with the saloons, corruption in the police department allowed illegal brothels to remain open for business. Roosevelt fired at least one officer for negligence in enforcing laws against prostitution, but some newspaper editorials accused Roosevelt of prudish heavy-handedness. The New York Mercury called the officer’s firing “as gross an act of injustice as was ever seen at a Massachusetts witch burning” and said Roosevelt was a “blue-blooded Knickerbocker Puritan gone to seed.”

A minor scandal ensued when an officer arrested a young woman, who was merely lost and asking a man for directions, on suspicion of being a prostitute. Newspapers protested the besmirching of an innocent girl’s honor by an overzealous police force. She was acquitted of the charges, and Roosevelt suffered an embarrassing defeat. An attempt to regain the moral high ground by raiding the city’s most elegant brothel also backfired.

Roosevelt would not be dissuaded. If the law was on the books, he would enforce it. But his black-and-white worldview was not universally popular or practical. TR squabbled with the other commissioners despite their common motives. Citizens evaded the saloon closures and solicitation laws. Some officials felt that TR’s outsize personality got in the way. And in 1898, the consolidation of all five boroughs into the City of Greater New York meant that the city’s police commission would be replaced with a new leadership structure. Seeing the end of his usefulness in New York, Roosevelt campaigned for a higher-profile position in the McKinley administration—and he got it.

We’ll be right back.

In 1897, Roosevelt began to emerge as a national political figure. Newly elected president William McKinley appointed him assistant secretary of the Navy. Against the wishes of his boss, Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long, Roosevelt pushed to build up the nation’s fleet of battleships while keeping a close eye on matters in Asia and the Caribbean.

After a suspicious explosion destroyed the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba, the U.S. declared war on Spain. TR quit his post and formed the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.

He and his troops, the Rough Riders, charged up Kettle Hill and helped win a decisive battle on San Juan Hill that quickly led to a U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War.

Back in New York, the Republican Party persuaded TR to run for governor on the strength of his war record. He won by a narrow margin, but soon moved up in the world—partly because the Republican machine wanted the reform-minded Rough Rider out of their hair. He became McKinley’s running mate, and on November 6, 1900, he was elected vice president of the United States when McKinley won a second term.

Less than a year later, McKinley was assassinated, and TR was sworn in as president. And if anyone thought he would ease up on his campaign against corruption as president, well … that was wishful thinking.

As chief executive, Roosevelt continued his war on spoils. He took on the trusts—mega-corporations that controlled multiple companies at once, which were increasingly prevalent in the Gilded Age. Trusts could be used to create monopolies, which might unilaterally dictate prices for goods and services. Monopolies were great for tycoons, who argued that they eliminated inefficiencies among the companies they owned, but they were bad for consumers, who had to pay whatever prices the monopolies charged.

Congress had attempted to regulate trusts to prevent the creation of monopolies with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890. The legislation prohibited “every contract, combination … or conspiracy in restraint of trade,” as well as any attempt to form a monopoly to unreasonably impede fair trade. Unfortunately, the law failed to define terms like “trust,” “monopoly,” and “conspiracy,” and the loose wording made the law hard to enforce. In 1895, the Supreme Court decided in an anti-trust case that the defendant, a sugar company that controlled 98 percent of all U.S. sugar refining, had not violated the Sherman Act. That ruling basically ended the government’s attempts to reign in trusts.

In 1901, railroad magnates James J. Hill and E.H. Harriman, along with banker J.P. Morgan, formed the Northern Securities Company, merging three of the largest railroads in the Upper Midwest. Instantly, Northern Securities became the second-largest company in the world, behind U.S. Steel, and had a capital stock of $400 million.

Critics feared that Northern Securities’s monopoly would allow it to dictate shipping prices from Chicago to Seattle—in other words, impede fair trade.

Enter President Roosevelt.

Jenkinson: He realized, government’s going to have to play a role here because there's no other counterweight to these gigantic accumulations of wealth and power in the hands of people like Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan or in corporations like U.S. Steel or the railroad trusts. And so he realized that unions weren't ready yet to be a sufficient counterweight, and that government was going to have to find some way of protecting the have-nots, to provide what TR called the square deal. If you actually unpack the metaphor of the square deal, it's profound. You know, his view is that this life is a game of poker and the cards are shuffled, you might get a great hand and I might get a weak one. That's just how life works. But if the dealer is putting cards from under the deck into his crony's hands or is misshuffling, then that's not a square deal. As long as the dealing is square, people will accept that life is not equal and fair for everybody, and they won't question the system. … He felt that it was essential that the people have a great deal of trust in their government.

Roosevelt hinted to Congress that he was planning to challenge the Northern Securities Company when he said in his annual message, “the government should have the right to inspect and examine the workings of the great corporations engaged in interstate business.”

The following February, ignoring advice from GOP leaders, Roosevelt instructed his attorney general Philander Knox to sue the monopoly on the grounds that it violated the Sherman Act. According to Larry Haeg, author of Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War, it was the only thing TR, being TR, could do: The law was on the books, and he had to enforce it.

Haeg writes, “Legally, of course, it was Roosevelt’s duty, just as he thought it his duty to enforce the Sunday liquor laws when he was police commissioner. He had solemnly sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”

It was the first time a president had confronted the biggest corporations in America, Dalton writes, and Knox’s suit succeeded in breaking up the company.

That did not go over well with J.P. Morgan, who attempted to reason with TR and Knox at a meeting at the White House. Morgan suggested casually, “if we have done anything wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up.” Roosevelt snorted, according to Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex, that that could not be done.

The Northern Securities Company sued to overturn the decision, and the appeal went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court announced its decision on March 14, 1904. In a 5-to-4 ruling, the justices sided against the Northern Securities Company. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in the majority opinion that “no scheme or device could more certainly come within the words of the [Sherman] Act … or could more effectively and certainly suppress free competition.”

Roosevelt had won. He had shown that anti-trust legislation, part of his broader attack on corruption in government, withstood judicial scrutiny. From then on, TR’s reputation as a trust-buster was cemented, and his victory at the Supreme Court helped Roosevelt’s election campaign that year.

In November, TR was elected to his first full term as president. Having broken up the second-biggest company in the world, he set his sights on rampant corruption in the food and drug industry—the kind of corruption that threatened people’s lives.

Jenkinson: Then he becomes president and he steps back and thinks, "What are the things that need to be done here? What can a president do? What can I do?" He looks at all these problems and he realizes, well, for example, our food supply has changed because in Jefferson's era, 97 percent of the American people were family farmers and they were essentially feeding themselves. Well now, we're an increasingly urban nation. People are living in cities where they don't even have a garden plot. And so they're buying food in tins. If the food is awful, if it's not clean, if it's tainted, then people don't really have any options because they have to eat and they're not producing their own.

According to Deborah Blum, author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, food had to travel farther and for longer periods of time to reach city dwellers. Manufacturers increasingly used preservatives to ensure that food didn’t rot in transit. The problem was, most preservatives were toxic—and unregulated. Formaldehyde was added to milk to keep it fresh, while boric acid was used to preserve meat. Eating these substances in three meals a day could make people extremely ill. Not to mention that what was listed on the label might be completely different from what was in the can.

Adulterated foods and drugs were a huge public health problem, and there were few federal laws for protecting consumers. Journalists had tried to expose the unsafe conditions in the slaughterhouses and the need for federal inspections, but their efforts were foiled by the so-called Beef Trust. Five major meatpacking companies had joined together to fight government oversight of their Chicago-based industry.

Jenkinson: He then gets a copy of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle

That’s the 1906 novel that exposed corruption and unsanitary practices in Chicago’s meatpacking plants.

Jenkinson: … reads it and is appalled and he then contacts Upton Sinclair as only Roosevelt would, and says, "I'm sure you're wrong. This looks like just the worse kind of sensationalism. And by the way, I don't appreciate the socialist track in the last chapter, but I'm going to look into this and if you're right, well then, we'll do something about it."

Roosevelt himself had had experience with America’s lax food laws. As a Rough Rider during the Spanish-American War, he experienced putrid meat supplied by the Army. News reports claimed that meatpackers provisioned the military with tons of rotten canned beef preserved with boric acid to mask the stench. Many soldiers who ate it fell ill, and some died.

Roosevelt wrote to the Army’s commanding general to complain, thus stirring the scandal: “The so-called canned roast beef that was issued to us for travel rations … and which we occasionally got even at the front, was practically worthless. Unless very hungry the men would not touch it … There was also a supply of beef … supposed to be fitted by some process to withstand tropical heat. It at once became putrid and smelt so that we had to dispose of it for fear of its creating disease. I think we threw it overboard.”

Jenkinson: And he looks into it and turns out it's worse than in Upton Sinclair and then Roosevelt calls in the meatpackers and said, "What are you going to do about it?" And they say, "Nothing." He says, "Well, I'll give you some time."

Meanwhile, Roosevelt commissioned a secret undercover investigation into meatpacking industry practices, which issued its findings in the damning Neill-Reynolds report.

Jenkinson: They come back and they tell him, "If we did what you're asking, you would bankrupt the industry and blah, blah, blah." Then, Roosevelt says, "All right. You give me no choice. I'm going to publish the report." And the public is appalled and they demand change and Congress … is forced to attend to this and he gets the Meat Inspection Act of 19-6.

When Roosevelt delivered the Neill-Reynolds report to Congress, he wrote [PDF] in an accompanying letter, “the report shows that the stock yards and packing houses are not kept even reasonably clean, and that the method of handling and preparing food products is uncleanly and dangerous to health … the conditions shown by even this short inspection to exist in the Chicago stock yards are revolting. It is imperatively necessary in the interest of health and of decency that they should be radically changed.”

Congress did pass the Meat Inspection Act, and Roosevelt signed it into law on June 30, 1906. It banned the sale of adulterated or mislabeled meat products as food, and required that livestock be slaughtered in a sanitary environment. It also mandated federal inspections of food animals before and after slaughter.

On the same day, Roosevelt signed another bill with a similar purpose. The Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded food or drugs. In grocery stores and pharmacies, consumers would no longer find spoiled meat freshened with borax, children’s candies tinted with lead, whiskey consisting of prune juice and cheap alcohol, or fruit colored with coal-tar dyes. They could be sure that the drugs they purchased for common colds were actually the medicines they claimed to be.

Two weeks after the Pure Food and Drug Act came into force, The New York Times reported, “Already the effects of it are amazing. The masquerade of alcohol, opium, cocaine, and other injurious drugs as nerve tonics or cure for stomach and lung diseases is at an end … The trade in nostrums and patent medicines is utterly demoralized.”

Jenkinson: One of the things that's so important about Roosevelt is he could never back down. He does this on a whole range of areas where he sees a problem. He tries to handle it quietly. When that won't work, he uses the bully pulpit and publicity to attend to these issues and actually winds up getting stuff done. He's absolutely masterful in his capacity to use publicity as a tool to move the public to accomplish things that he had in mind.

Roosevelt’s reputation as a trustbuster and enemy of corruption was solid before the public. He had gone after more than 40 trusts. But when a national crisis demanded it, TR was willing to negotiate.

We’ll be right back.

In 1907, an economic panic was brewing. People who had deposited their savings in America’s banks and trust companies—a type of financial institution that competed with banks—had no insurance against loss when the companies made bad investments with their money. As Dalton writes, “inadequate regulation left depositors unprotected, and as long as trust companies could speculate in stocks and make unreliable loans to customers who bought stocks on margin, no one could guarantee that any worldwide downturn would not provoke an American panic and depression.”

And that’s what was beginning to happen. Wild speculation had led to the failure of several companies, and worried customers began to pull their money out of the ones that remained. Some felt that Roosevelt’s anti-trust activities also made companies nervous and liable to make fewer investments.

Jenkinson: And so we didn't have a Federal Reserve system yet, and so we had no backstop, and the economy was subject to wild fluctuations, and people were just getting used to the stock market, and to the big banks, and the deep investments and trusts and so on. And so in 19-7, the economy comes apart, and there's a panic.

J.P. Morgan called a meeting with New York’s other leading bankers and U.S. treasury officials. They devised a plan to shore up the failing companies by pooling the bankers’ funds and $25 million from the U.S. Treasury. It wasn’t enough. Then Morgan suggested that U.S. Steel buy the failing Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company to avert the collapse of its investors. Morgan was concerned, however, that Roosevelt’s trust-busting stance could get in the way of the deal.

Jenkinson: Roosevelt didn't really understand economics. He was deeply versed in history, and war, and political theory, and international relations, and American literature, and a lot of other things, but he was not an economist, and he didn't really understand how it worked. That sounds more critical than I mean it to be, but it wasn't his best suit. He gets convinced that if he lets U.S. Steel purchase a Tennessee-based steel corporation that's in trouble, that this will stop the hemorrhaging, that this will help to shore up and provide public confidence in some other ways. And J.P. Morgan plays a critical role in this. He's essentially a one man Federal Reserve system for the time.

Roosevelt and Morgan made a gentlemen’s agreement: Morgan’s deal would stave off complete collapse of the stock market and save American jobs, and Roosevelt would not prosecute U.S. Steel under anti-trust law.

U.S. Steel had other motives, though. Its executives wanted to eliminate its competition and acquire the Tennessee company’s assets—facts they kept from Roosevelt.

Jenkinson: And so he goes for it, and years later it's made clear to him that he was actually kind of tricked or duped. That he wouldn't have had to do that, that that was a much more self-serving acquisition than he was led to believe, that it's not the best use of the federal government to wink at restraint of trade, and that he probably had other options. So was he duped? I don't know. I think that's maybe a little strong. He was susceptible ... he knew we were in a very significant national economic emergency, and like all people who are working suddenly and in a reactive way at a perceived or real emergency, he did things that if he'd had a year to think about and read about, he might not have done.

The agreement became a wedge between TR and his Republican successor in the White House, William Howard Taft. While TR had a reputation as a major trust-buster, Taft actually went after more trusts in his single term, and his Justice Department accused U.S. Steel of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act with its acquisition of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. Taft’s charge blew up Roosevelt’s deal with Morgan and took a swing at his integrity. And if that wasn’t awkward enough, Taft didn’t warn Roosevelt ahead of the news breaking on October 27, 1911—TR’s 53rd birthday.

The case—and the rift between Taft and Roosevelt over control of the party’s ideology—led Roosevelt to challenge Taft in the 1912 presidential election. Roosevelt ran as the nominee of his own pro-labor, anti-corruption Progressive Party, seeking to continue his trajectory of reform that began 30 years earlier. With his “New Nationalism” platform, Roosevelt advocated a judiciary that worked better for the people, women’s suffrage, labor rights including worker’s compensation, a national health service, and other demands. The promises were so radical that the conservative Taft and his followers broke from Roosevelt completely, along with some of Roosevelt’s former allies.

When the votes were cast, TR didn’t win—and neither did Taft. Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy split the Republican vote and handed the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

In his 1913 autobiography, Roosevelt reflected on his legacy of taking on corruption: “Where there is no chance of statistical or mathematical measurement, it is very hard to tell just the degree to which conditions change from one period to another. This is peculiarly hard to do when we deal with such a matter as corruption. Personally, I am inclined to think that in public life we are on the whole a little better and not a little worse than we were 30 years ago, when I was serving in the New York legislature. I think the conditions are a little better in national, in state, and in municipal politics. Doubtless there are points in which they are worse, and there is an enormous amount that needs reformation. But it does seem to me as if, on the whole, things had slightly improved.”

Erin McCarthy: Were things genuinely better after his reforms? Were people safer, were they healthier, were they more politically aware of what was happening?

Jenkinson: You know, I think that for many people the jury is still out. … Did he make our food supply safer? I think that there's an honest debate about that. Did he bring attention to the problem of a nation that's no longer agricultural and self-sufficient? Yes. And do we now largely agree with him? Indeed. You know, every drug has to be vetted, all foods are monitored, we go farther and farther to honesty in labeling, to nutritional labeling, and so on. We are from any libertarian point of view a nanny state, and the nanny state was inaugurated in large part by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt believed that in an advanced urban industrial country, there has to be an entity that's looking out for people and for small companies and for the have-nots, and that entity, whether we like it or not, is government, and we shouldn't wring our hands about it. We should just make sure that government is honest, that the people are ethical, that the standards are being evenly applied, that we study things before we just slap solutions on them. I think Roosevelt was right about that, and so you can make the libertarian case against Roosevelt, and people do, but I think on the whole he inaugurated modernity in a world where the stakes are so high.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Kat Long, with research by me, Kat Long, and Michael Salgarolo. Fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand voiced TR 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 Clay Jenkinson.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs.

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

When Theodore Roosevelt Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

History Vs. Episode 11: History Vs. Theodore Roosevelt

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

The carvers stand on the scaffolding hundreds of feet high, clad in overalls and face masks, small pneumatic hammers in hand. The clatter of drills and granite dust fills the air, as they have almost every day of construction on Mount Rushmore. For years, these men have worked to sculpt four presidential faces out of the mountain, and now, they’re about to begin finishing work on the massive sculpture’s final face.

Work on the face had begun in 1937, and it had been dedicated with much fanfare—including a fireworks show—two years later, before it was even close to finished.

To get to this point, men called pointers had marked where and how deep to drill; powder monkeys—or workers in charge of the dynamite—had dangled from the top of the mountain and carefully placed small charges to precisely blast away rough exterior rock to reveal white, sparkling granite. Drillers using air-powered jackhammers had further removed stone to get to the carving surface; and carvers—many of whom had worked their way up [PDF] from other jobs on the mountain—had created polka dot-esque honeycomb grids on the stone, using a hammer and chisel to remove extra granite. Throughout the process, the features on the 60-foot-tall face had slowly, slowly emerged and gained definition: Two 11-foot-wide eyes. A 20-foot-tall nose. A massive mustache. And the mere suggestion of glasses across the bridge of the nose and the upper cheeks, an illusion which will look like full frames to the spectators below.

It's now time for what sculptors call fine finishing. The carvers switch on their pneumatic hammers, also known as “bumpers.” Each is equipped with four bits of steel that clatter against the rock, removing or “bumping” it a fraction of an inch at a time. Cautiously, they apply the hammers to the stone, buffing the honeycomb grid off of Theodore Roosevelt’s massive chin.

We know that TR was an adventurer, a man who fought corruption and advocated for a Square Deal for all, the sporting hunter who lent his name to the Teddy Bear, a person who cared deeply about conserving nature for the next generation, and, yeah, the guy in the Night at the Museum movies and on Mount Rushmore. But there is so much more to Roosevelt’s legacy.

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 for this, the final episode of our first season, we’re taking a look back TR’s legacy. This episode is History Vs. Theodore Roosevelt.

Mount Rushmore is probably one of the things people think of first when they think about Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. The mountain—named for New York lawyer Charles Rushmore in the 1880s—is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and I head there on a humid August day with the goal of talking to some other visitors about Theodore Roosevelt, his legacy, and why they think he’s on the mountain. I don’t know about you, but I hate striking up a conversation with strangers, so I spend a fair amount of time procrastinating. It rains, and then it hails, and in the safety of the gift shop, I contemplate buying some TR socks that say “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and also giving up on this whole interviewing random people thing.

But when I head back outside, some interview subjects find me. They’re the Popes—parents Ben and Sally, and kids Harry and Alice—and they’re from London. They came here in part because Alice saw Mount Rushmore on an episode of Phineas and Ferb. Harry’s favorite president on the mountain is Washington. But Alice prefers Roosevelt, because he was in Night at the Museum.

Erin McCarthy: So what else do you know about him besides his exploits in Night at the Museum?

Alice: He liked to ride horses and he was a cool guy.

Ben: We wanted to bring them here anyway, but it was a particular wish of Alice's because she'd grown up seeing that image on TV.

That’s Ben, Harry and Alice’s dad.

McCarthy: If you had to guess why he was up on the mountain today, why he was chosen, what would you say?

Here’s Harry.

Harry: He probably has made a big commitment to the country and did something that people wanted to remember.

Next I chat with Lane Johnson, who hails from Texas. Lane knows all about TR’s trip to the Amazon, so his response when I ask why TR is on the mountain makes sense:

Johnson: I would say because of his sense of adventure.

Sharon Wright from Wisconsin says a lot has changed since the first time she came here.

McCarthy: What was it like back then?

Wright: Very quiet and very serene.

McCarthy: What can you tell me about TR?

Wright: Well, he was kind of the go-getter for the national park system. And he really was one to help preserve the outdoors for everybody, to keep it from being, everything being commercialized. Although I'd say this is getting pretty commercialized. It's free to come here, but you have to pay to park, so it's not really free. You used to be able to come here and enjoy it without having to pay to park.

Finally, I chat with Aretha Wilson from Ohio. Of the presidents up on the mountain, she says Roosevelt is her favorite.

Wilson: Roosevelt respects his supporters no matter how big or small. So that's a good thing.

We’re all standing here today thanks to South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson, who wanted to create a tourist destination in the Black Hills so more people would come to South Dakota. Initially, he wanted to carve famous figures from the history of the West into granite spires located nearby, but the artist chosen to create the monument, Gutzon Borglum, had completely different location, and vision, in mind: the presidents.

When it came down to which presidents to put on the mountain, most were no-brainers: Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and had expanded the country through the Louisiana Purchase. Washington was the father of the country and allowed Jefferson’s ideas to become a reality. Lincoln kept the country together in a time of great strife.

But TR? Well, TR was controversial. Here’s Maureen McGee-Ballinger, chief of interpretation and public affairs at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

McGee-Ballinger: The whole carving process, that idea, begins in 1925. Well, Roosevelt had died in 1919, so most people alive at that point, in 1925, they knew him. They knew of his politics, they knew of his presidencies, and there were a lot of people that didn't like him, so he was controversial. But Borglum did like him, and it was Borglum's work of art, and he made the final decision, “Theodore Roosevelt will go up there, and he'll go up there because of the Panama Canal.” Today, people look at it and say, “Well, of course Theodore Roosevelt’s up there. The conservation president,” but that's not what Borglum was thinking.

Borglum also knew TR personally—he had campaigned for the Bull Moose when he ran for president in 1912.

Mount Rushmore consists of a fine-grained granite called the Harney Peak granite. The fine grain means the rock holds together well when you carve it, but it also makes it harder to carve. On the plus side, that means it takes awhile to erode.

McGee-Ballinger: The erosion rate of the Harney granite is an inch every 10,000 years. This is tough rock.

In other words, people are going to be staring at those faces on the mountain for a long time.

Creating Mount Rushmore was not easy work; finishing the sculpture took 14 years, and Borglum died before it was completed. His son, Lincoln, took over for him. TR’s face was the last one finished, in 1941. According to Rex Alan Smith in his book The Carving of Mount Rushmore, at its dedication in 1939, 12,000 people attended—the largest attendance of any of the face dedications. Today, the memorial gets more than 2 million visitors annually.

Here’s one funny thing about TR being on Mount Rushmore: He probably would have hated it.

Michael Cullinane: He didn't want any monument of him, like a statue of him, or him on horseback. He hated those kind[s] of monuments. He wanted monuments to be either utilitarian in nature, like naming a building after him, or to be artistic.

That’s Michael Cullinane, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Roehampton in London and author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon. Cullinane is a presidential historian and a diplomatic historian, and he’s spent the last 10 years looking into TR’s legacy, as well as his accomplishments and foreign policies.

McCarthy: What's the strangest place you've seen the Roosevelt legacy sort of manifest in pop culture?

Cullinane: You know, he shows up in the weirdest places. Miley Cyrus has got a tattoo on her arm of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt.

Miley’s tattoo aside, or maybe included, Cullinane describes Roosevelt’s legacy over the last 100 years since his death as a “rollercoaster.”

Cullinane: When he died in 1919, the first American red scare is going on and communism is, you know, is a ... Communists are a boogie man and Roosevelt is very much seen as this patriotic American, and also a conservationist and a progressive and all those things as well, but it's almost like he's a saint after he dies.

That all changed when historian Henry Pringle published his biography of TR in 1931. Cullinane describes Pringle’s book as a “purposeful revision” of Roosevelt that downgraded him from a saint and helped inaugurate what has been called the ‘Crazy Teddy’ period. That image of Roosevelt as a juvenile guy who made impulsive decisions lasted until the 1960s.

Cullinane: There's a reappraisal, but it never really goes back to the saintly version or back to that Crazy Teddy version. Instead, what we get is the much more moderate version, a nuanced man with his faults, you know, warts and all, as some people say, and I think, actually, that's been good for the TR brand over the last few years because it means he's this really human character that people can relate to. So he's not perfect, and he's not a demon. He's something in between, which I think most of us are.

TR’s family was extremely protective of his legacy—especially Edith.

Cullinane: I've always referred to Edith Roosevelt as a gatekeeper of TR's legacy because she was able to pass over documents to historians; she was able to restrict other writers from using those documents. In fact, there's some famous incidences in terms of copyright law in which Edith tried to stop people that had letters that Roosevelt wrote to them, she tried to stop having those published. And so really she acts as the gatekeeper for his memory and his legacy, and throughout her life, until she died in the late '40s, she ... That's her role and she really helps the memorial association's work towards the image that she wants to see promoted.

TR’s legacy was so complicated that even his own family couldn’t agree on exactly what it was. The Hyde Park Roosevelts—a.k.a. Franklin and, by marriage, Eleanor—and the Oyster Bay Roosevelts—Alice, Ted Jr., etc.—famously butted heads over it.

Cullinane: It’s because at that point, after TR dies, the legacy becomes the next generation’s, so they get to shape the legacy of TR, and Alice and Ted are pushing in one direction, and Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt’s niece, Eleanor, who, of course, marries Franklin, are pushing in an opposite direction, and that plays out really up until the 1960s, when Eleanor and Franklin and Ted are dead. Alice lives on until the 1980s but by that stage, Theodore Roosevelt had kind of become a bipartisan figure. Maybe in part because Franklin Roosevelt promoted him as a … as the Square Deal as being the forerunner to the New Deal.

When we talk about TR’s legacy, we often talk about how he was the first modern president. As Kathleen Dalton wrote in Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, “He is heralded as the architect of the modern presidency, as a world leader who boldly reshaped the office to meet the needs of the new century and redefined America’s place in the world.” When Roosevelt became president, technology was changing rapidly, and so was life for everyday Americans, thanks to industrialization. Here’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.

Kuliberda: The country is changed by the time Roosevelt's president. It's the 20th century. Roosevelt becomes president in 1901, and all of a sudden you have the United States operating on a world scale, where it previously had been pretty isolationist. Now you have territories in the Pacific. You'd fought a war with the Spanish in Cuba. Roosevelt begins his presidency and the United States is still occupying the Philippines. They're building the Panama Canal during his presidency. You have adjustments in technology. So the presidency all of a sudden is kind of a full-time job. You can't have a break for the summertime. He was called to be a modern president because of these changes in technology and changes in policy, changes of the United States policy on the world stage. The presidency has changed, and Roosevelt being a young man, I think was fit for things to rapidly change during his presidency.

In my opinion, it was also Roosevelt’s image control that made him a decidedly modern president. When he got into politics, he started writing “posterity letters” for historians to study, and he was doing it for the ‘gram, as the kids say, long before social media was a thing.

To cultivate his desired cowboy image, for example, he had a photo snapped of himself in a buckskin suit that he’d had made for his time in the Dakotas, but someone who knew him later commented that it “was indisputable evidence of the rank tenderfoot.” Also, though the photo appeared to have been taken in a forest, it was actually taken in a studio in New York. When he pursued boat thieves down the Little Missouri River, TR made sure to bring a camera with him—and to get a photo of himself watching over the bandits. But it was a re-enactment. And according to some, the men in the picture weren’t even the actual thieves.

But there were also sides to Roosevelt that he wouldn’t let the public see—like how he wouldn’t allow himself to be photographed in his tennis outfit. Just one more example of his image control.

For Cullinane, it was Roosevelt’s use of the bully pulpit as a PR tool that made him the first modern president.

Cullinane: I think Roosevelt's ability to speak to the average voter and to get across a version of policy that he wants to see take shape, it's really his administration that’s the first to do that. He is a public relations dynamo.

He points to the war in the Philippines as an example. Roosevelt declared the war over in 1902 … but it wasn’t over.

Cullinane: I mean, the war goes on really until 1915, but officially the war is ended in 1902. And that, in a public relations perspective, is a huge move. The role of president as chief promoter is the one that Roosevelt really takes on and makes ... That's what makes the big change in office.

Many of TR’s actions during his tenure fundamentally changed the office of the president. Like, say, his decision to get things done via executive order. He’d make the call, and then leave Congress to debate it.

Cullinane: He didn't act impulsively. He thought things through very carefully. I think he had very strong convictions and he acted very assertively. Maybe that's the word that I would choose to use, that he is incredibly assertive as a president and I think every president since him, maybe with the exception of the Republican presidents in the 1920s, but besides those three presidents, more often than not, presidents have acted assertively, and they've said that it's their prerogative to act that way, and I think Roosevelt paved the way for the presidency to be that kind of an instrument of power.

TR’s view that he could do anything not expressly forbidden by the Constitution or by law was also a game-changer for the presidency.

Cullinane: The presidency has sort of gone that way of TR's constitutional view in that the president, if there are non-enumerated powers, the president can still execute them. I mean, things like going to war is a really good example. When he sent the warship to Panama to support the Panamanian revolution, he was effectively sending American troops into a war zone to support a revolution and since then, that's happened quite a bit.

According to Cullinane, TR's decision to intervene internationally has been one of the most lasting legacies of his administration. Many other presidents have followed suit.

Cullinane: Woodrow Wilson did this a lot but you can think about other interventions later on, from, say, Vietnam to Afghanistan, where the United States' president has deployed troops and then Congress has had to respond, and Congress has tried to rein in presidential power in a number of different realms but perhaps most in war powers, and they even passed a War Powers Resolution in the '70s to restrict the amount of time that the president can send troops abroad, but that's not really been an effective measure to stop the president.

Historians today are still debating about some of TR’s actions on the international stage, including those he took to speed up the Panama Canal.

Cullinane: So the Panama Canal and how you feel about the Panama Canal often has a very clear correlation with how you think about American power more generally and American imperialism and empire. If you view Roosevelt's decision to make Panama or to force Panama to have this revolution and then take the canal, then you see American power as something that's a benevolent force in the world, but if you see that as an overstretch of American power, then you probably think that Roosevelt was acting beyond, you know, the norms and the regulations of the constitution and of what America is supposed to be. I think actually the Panama decision strikes an ongoing paradox in American history, and particularly about American foreign relations, which is that either the United States is to act as an example for the world, or the United States is to actively set the example for the world.

In other words: Should America stand passively as an example, and hope others follow suit? Or should America be more proactive?

Cullinane: I think all foreign policies wind up putting the United States in one of those two roles and Roosevelt very much, very much saw the United States as acting, you know, not just as an example but setting the example for the world, and so that's why he acts the way he does with Panama. It's one of those things that successive generations of politicians have continued to debate. It's been a flash point and it's a really good case study to think about the differences that we have in our foreign policies.

Some of TR’s other actions on the global stage perhaps sent the message they meant to at the time, but didn’t necessarily change the course of history. I’m talking about TR’s display of American naval power, the Great White Fleet.

Cullinane: It was showing off and it was an opportunity to show the world that there is this emerging naval force, and there's no question that after 1909, the United States as a naval force will only grow in stature from that point on. It's a two-ocean naval force. There's only one other country in the world that's a two-ocean naval force and that's Britain, you know, famed at this time for ruling the waves. So this was a big pronouncement on the world's stage, but did it really have any effect? Did it stop Japan, for example, from taking over colonies in the Pacific and eventually becoming one of the Axis powers in World War II? I don't think so. It certainly made the Japanese more deft at how they negotiate. It meant that foreign relations with Britain, say, for example, in the Pacific, became more important. But Roosevelt's fleet didn't actually change the balance of power in the Pacific.

We’ll be right back.

 

I came into this podcast wanting to show Roosevelt not as a caricature but as a real person. And no discussion of Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy would be complete without talking about his views on race, which we’ve touched on a bit in other episodes.

Cullinane: Well, TR's views on race, I have to say, are probably one of the most interesting bits about him. I don't think we've given enough airtime to his views on race. I think we're living in a kind of soundbite culture where if you can't get your view across very quickly, then, you know, no one understands it, or they don't want to understand it, you know? And I think TR's views on race were really quite complicated and they're presented as, effectively, white supremacy … or just plain racist, I guess, but there's so much more to it than that.

Cullinane is right. I’ve read a bunch of books about TR for this podcast, and have read that his views of race were “complicated,” that he had a “divided heart on matters of race,” and that when it came to African Americans, his attitude was “enlightened.” Many books seem to only touch on the subject, perhaps because TR’s thoughts on race are incredibly complex.

So, with that said, we won’t be able to unpack all of TR’s views on race here. If, after you listen to this, you’re interesting in learning more, I’d recommend picking up Thomas Dyer’s book, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race.

In previous episodes, we’ve discussed how TR’s thoughts on race impacted how he dealt with other nations. So in this discussion, we’ll be focusing mostly on his attitudes toward African Americans and Native Americans.

But before we get into TR specifically, it’s important to put his views into context. We all know that TR was a curious guy who thought of himself as a scientist, so what were the quote-unquote “scientific views” of race at the time? To find out, I called Dr. Justene Hill Edwards, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia whose focus is on African-American history, the history of slavery, and the history of capitalism.

Edwards: There were scientists who were then trying to find a scientific research-based rationale for segregation and for white racial superiority. Really, in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, there was a rise in racial science, in particular, eugenics, so that it kind of provided a more kind of scientific rationale for ideas of white racial purity and why that should be the standard and the ideal. And so it was really finding a scientific way to explain why white superiority was good and why it should be a goal in social policymaking.

McCarthy: Why would white people be looking for a scientific reason to prove that they were superior?

Edwards: Well, I mean, you're talking about a time, especially in the U.S., post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction, where, in particular, African Americans are working to really gain their civil rights. You have the increase of immigration from places like Japan, and China too, a little bit. You have this kind of increase in kind of racial and ethnic diversity that begins to occur in this period. And so … interestingly, it's not just in this period where you have kind of white Americans, in many ways publicly struggling with the fear and the idea that they're kind of losing ground to racial and ethnic minorities.

Dyer writes that TR “grew up in an atmosphere of Victorian privilege, was bombarded from early childhood with ideas that stressed the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of non-whites.” And his privilege undoubtedly shaped his views of race.

Edwards: Now interestingly enough, because he was born in New York City, because he was born in the North and not in the South like in South Carolina or Georgia, he probably held what we would consider more... or what his contemporaries would probably consider more progressive thoughts about race. Let's not kind of conflate his progressivism with ideas of … that he was in favor of racial equality because surely he was not.

Growing up, TR’s mother had told him stories about her childhood in the South, which painted slaves as childish dependents and ignored the horrors of slavery; the tales must have had some influence on his views. He also read a lot: Dyer writes that Roosevelt “gloried in Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf, which celebrated the Nordic tradition, a key ingredient in 19th-century theories of white supremacy” and that he was also influenced by the Teutonic myth Nibelungenlied, which he read during his time living with a German family when he was a teenager. (Dyer says that its influence can clearly be seen in Roosevelt’s Winning of the West.)

Mayne Reid’s books and the magazine Our Young Folks were among TR’s favorites things to read, and they contained ugly racial stereotypes about Native Americans and African Americans.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was also an influence, as were some of Roosevelt’s professors at Harvard. TR continued to read voraciously after his college career, and also corresponded with a number of scientists of his era. According to Dyer, you can see all of these influences in TR’s views and writings about race, which he viewed both in terms of nationality and in terms skin color.

Roosevelt believed that the white, English-speaking race was the most advanced race. But he was also a proponent of neo-Lamarckianism. The idea came from a French scientist named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who predated Darwin and believed that certain traits could be cultivated and passed to later generations.

Edwards: While Darwin, for example, thought about a natural evolution, Lamarck's idea more had to do with the idea that species could in some way, choose which traits to pass along to their offspring.

This doesn’t mean that one day you decide you want your future child to be a genius and then bam—they’re a genius. There are differences between Lamarckian and Neo-Lamarckian belief, but a Neo-Lamarckian lecture from the 1890s discusses the idea. A Darwinist would look at the children of pianists and say that they might inherit dexterity or a good ear, but they won’t inherit piano skills. They’ll need to learn the piano the same way their parents did.

A Neo-Lamarckian would counter that the child must inherit piano skills, otherwise humanity would have the same level of piano skills forever. As an example, they say that gymnasts have been getting steadily better. This is the result, according to the lecture, of “lifelong training of the children of acrobats and of their children.” The improvement in gymnastics therefore is “largely due to the transmission of the qualities directly acquired by training.”

This kind of thinking, according to Edwards, allowed people to feel more in control of their destinies, as opposed to Darwinism, where characteristics are hardwired into your DNA, changing only by mutation. And it wasn’t just white people of that time who held these ideas about determinism.

Edwards: The famed thinker, W. E. B. Du Bois, had this idea, not in a scientific way but in a social way, of the Talented Tenth, that the top 10 percent of African Americans, in terms of intelligence, would lead the race out of kind of the misery of being black Americans. This idea has permutations.

Part of Roosevelt’s neo-Lamarkianism was the concept of equipotentiality. Historian Kathleen Dalton writes that “Lamarckians ... tended to accept the idea that all human capacity, including racial potential, was plastic and could be changed.” Here’s Michael Cullinane again:

Cullinane: And really what that means is that Roosevelt believed that within a generation, we could remake ourselves. Not completely, say, but that we could effectively learn from the mistakes of past generations, and that's … that’s remarkable because it means that we are not just beholden to reproduction in order to progress civilization or progress, you know, our gene pool, but that, actually, we can learn from history, which, of course, he was a student of history, we can learn from history and make changes within a generation that have an impact upon ourselves and, in a wider sense, civilization. So that, to me, always struck me as an anti-racist idea, because in its essence, it means that anyone, regardless of skin color or anything really, where you were born or who you were born to, can reach the heights that TR saw as the heights of civilization and the heights of personal greatness. You know, the reality is, though, is that he didn't believe that a lot of different races would get there. He does talk about African Americans as being far behind white Anglo-Saxons, or English-speaking peoples, white English-speaking peoples. There's a capacity in his thinking for equality, but it doesn't always present itself in how he views the world.

We’ve covered Roosevelt’s theory of the “stages of development” before, but here’s a quick refresher: TR believed that all races, nationalities, and civilizations went through certain stages. The lowest stage was savagism, which was marked by chaos; next, barbarism, during which, in Dyer’s words, “military ‘virtues’ were developed.” Then came “social efficiency,” which blended military virtues with a love of order. It was followed by a stage, where, Dyer writes, “the great ‘virile virtues’ diminished and were replaced by love of ease, softness, willful sterility … and too much stress upon material possessions.” And then, finally, the stage of decadence, or death.

This thinking informed his views on race, both at home and abroad. Edwards calls TR’s experience fighting in the Spanish-American war “transformative.” After that war, of course, the U.S. was ceded Guam and Puerto Rico, and got sovereignty of the Philippines.

Edwards: With his role in the Spanish-American War and then his ascendancy as president, he presided over the not … just the expansion of kind of U.S. ideas of democracy and military presence, but it reinforced the idea that the native inhabitants of these new territories were somehow racially inferior and not fully prepared to participate in the democratic project. And this kind of relates to ideas of kind of the stages of development and how he thought about international diplomacy. He believed that certain people in certain nations were not prepared to participate in democracy, were not socially and culturally prepared for that type of citizenship and participation.

According to Dyer, Roosevelt believed that certain members of other races had evolved to the point where they could participate, even if their races as a whole hadn’t gotten there yet. Dyer writes that what Roosevelt said in public and in private suggests that he believed that “the black was largely incapable of assuming the role of citizen,” and that that opinion grew stronger after his presidency. “Roosevelt remained convinced that blacks would become full citizens only very slowly,” Dyer writes. “In the meantime, full citizenship would go only to those ‘good,’ privileged blacks like Booker T. Washington, William Crum, and Minnie Cox.”

Roosevelt did take a stand when it came to the appointments of African Americans Minnie Cox and William Crum. Cox was a college-educated black woman who had been appointed to a postmaster position in Indianola, Mississippi, by Benjamin Harrison. Her time in office was quiet until a white man decided he wanted her position—and a local politician began criticizing the town for the fact that they had accepted her in that role. The harassment got so bad that she resigned her post. But Roosevelt refused to accept her resignation and actually suspended the post office in Indianola for a time.

Edwards: He would not fire her or not let her resign. His standing up for her is significant as well. And so … I think it proves that his ideas on race were complex at best and perhaps unpredictable in many ways.

Unfortunately, it never got safe enough for Cox to return to work, and after she and other black leaders told Roosevelt it would be impossible for any black person to serve in Indianola, he reopened the post office and appointed a white person. According to Dyer, “It is clear that Roosevelt’s defense of Mrs. Cox was made easier by his categorization of her as one of the few blacks who had moved ahead of the masses and thus deserved support.”

Dr. Crum was a physician whom TR attempted to appoint to head up the customs house in Charleston, South Carolina; the controversy over the appointment lasted for years. Dyer writes that Roosevelt hoped “to enhance his standing with black Republicans in South Carolina and in the North,” and that he achieved those ends.

Still, Dyer notes, “It would be erroneous to suggest that TR’s administration had developed a policy intended to promote the cause of black civil rights … the incident stands as another example of Roosevelt’s commitment to the advancement of individual blacks when political advantage coincided with ideology.”

TR’s presidency also coincided with an increase in violence against African Americans. While he was horrified by and publicly denounced lynching, he didn’t do anything to stop the violence.

Edwards: Minus these bigger, more public moments with Booker T. Washington and Minnie Cox, he was fairly passive on intervention in the real incidences of racial violence that African Americans were experiencing in the early 20th century. The increased incidence of lynching that many black journalists, and writers, and intellectuals were trying to publicize in really important ways... And he wasn't their advocate in this way.

Race was also a factor in what many today consider to be the biggest mistake of Roosevelt’s presidency: The Brownsville Affair.

On August 13, 1906, a white man was killed and a police officer wounded in a riot in Brownsville, Texas. One hundred-and-sixty-seven black soldiers at a nearby military base were blamed for the incident, but they all proclaimed their innocence. Roosevelt demanded that the perpetrators be brought forward; when no one confessed or implicated a colleague, Roosevelt dishonorably discharged them all. He did not discharge the white soldiers.

Edwards: These infantrymen were essentially kicked out of the military. This left them without military benefits or pensions, which was a big deal, because some of the members of the unit had served for about two decades and kind of lost all of their military benefits.

Though some tried to get him to walk back his decision, Roosevelt refused. He would not admit that he had been wrong.

Edwards: It wasn't until about five decades later during the Civil Rights movement that activists rallied for and pressured members of Congress to consider Roosevelt's decision. There were Congressional hearings. And it led to the military revoking the discharge. And the sole survivor received remuneration for his service, but this was too late, of course.

Outside the American Museum of Natural History is a statue of TR on horseback. Next to him, on the ground, are two figures: One African, one Native American. The statue is controversial today, because it presents those two figures as submissive to Roosevelt—a clear picture of racial hierarchy. The museum is addressing that, and Roosevelt’s views on race, in an exhibition called “Addressing the Statue.”

David Hurst Thomas: Some of what he wrote about Native American people, about African people, make your teeth hurt today.

That’s David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, and he is right. Roosevelt believed that Native Americans, according to his stages of development theory, were at the savage level, and he did not hold back in horribly and falsely maligning them. He wrote that Native Americans had an “inhuman love of cruelty for cruelty’s sake,” and would torture men, women, children, and even animals; he also indulged in stereotypes of Native Americans as drunkards.

In 1886, Roosevelt gave a lecture in which he said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are … The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”

The fact that white men were pushing Native Americans out of their homelands didn’t bother Roosevelt in the least. In his view, it was destiny for the white race to take over the continent, and it wasn’t surprising that the superior white race had conquered the savage Indian race. Here’s Edwards.

Edwards: They were inhabiting land that was meant for white Americans. He's kind of inheriting a legacy from his presidential predecessors—the fact that they believe that Native American lands were not for Native Americans.

As president, Roosevelt supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually owned lots, with the goal of assimilating them into white society. He also said that programs like Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879, “do a special and peculiar work of great importance.” At these schools, which were located far from reservations, students were given new names and, quite often, baptized. They also weren’t allowed to speak their native languages. In his second address to Congress, Roosevelt wrote that, "In dealing with the Indians, our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people.”

But, again, Roosevelt’s views were complicated. He admired the ferocity of Native American fighters, and condemned white brutality against Native Americans that he had witnessed. And according to his biographer, Hermann Hagedorn, he treated individual Native Americans with respect, despite his “detestation of the race” as a whole.

In 1905, six Native Americans rode on horseback in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade—a bid, according to Gilbert King at Smithsonian, who cites a contemporary newspaper, to show that they had “buried the hatchet forever.”

One of those Native Americans was Geronimo. Though tales about him were exaggerated, the Apache’s reputation meant that he was the tale parents in the American West told their children to get them to behave. But he had surrendered in 1886. He and his men had agreed to an exile of two years. They were shuttled to Florida, and while they were there, hundreds of Apache children were relocated to the Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

The prisoners of wars were eventually reunited with their families in Alabama in 1888, but their journey wasn’t over. The Apaches ended up in Oklahoma, where the captives were allowed to live around Fort Sill.

By the time Geronimo met with Theodore Roosevelt on that March day in 1905, he had been a prisoner of war for almost 19 years. King writes that the warrior begged Roosevelt to send him and the rest of the Apaches back to Arizona, saying, “Take the ropes from our hands.”

But Roosevelt told Geronimo that he had a bad heart: “You killed many of my people; you burned villages … and were not good Indians.” He said he would wait “and see how you and your people act.” Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis Leupp remarked, “It is just as well for Geronimo that he is not allowed to return to ‘Arizona’ ... If he went back there he’d be very likely to find a rope awaiting him.” He was safer in Oklahoma.

Geronimo had converted to Christianity in 1903, joining the Dutch Reformed Church, likely in part to influence Roosevelt. But Roosevelt never changed his mind. Later, after promising to confer with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and Secretary of War about his case, he told Geronimo that there was no hope of letting him return to Arizona. It would only lead to more war. TR apologized, saying that he had “no feeling against” Geronimo.

Geronimo never returned to Arizona. He died, still a POW, in 1909.

According to David Hurst Thomas, Roosevelt’s views toward Native Americans may have changed, however slightly, toward the end of his life, thanks in part to a trip taken out to the Four Corners in 1913.

Thomas: My interest of course is American Indians, so I looked at what he did to Indian people while he was president, and I have some real problems with that, with the Indian schools and cutting off their hair and they can't speak their language and kill the Indian to save the man, all this argument. He went out to the Four Corners and took a trail ride with one of his kids. And they ended up going to Hopi country. He wrote three pieces about that.

Roosevelt observed the Hopi Snake Dance, a complex ritual that includes elements of handling rattlesnakes. But it was the ordinary lives of the Hopi that really had an impact on him. He called them “a reasonably advanced, and still advancing, semi-civilization; not savagery at all.” He noted that there was “big room for improvement; but so there is among whites.”

Thomas: What he comes out of it seeing is he didn't say he was wrong, but he says, “Now, I can see there are things in these other cultures that deserve to be preserved.”

He still wanted the Hopi to be gradually assimilated “to the life of the best whites,” he said, but now, he wanted that assimilation to be shaped “as to preserve and develop the very real element of native culture possessed” by the Native Americans, which, he said, “in the end may become an important contribution to American cultural life.” He hoped they would be “absorbed into the white population, on a full equality.”

In Roosevelt’s four-volume The Winning of the West, he writes not just about Native Americans but also about slavery. And, just a warning, this section includes terms that some might find offensive.

Slaveholders, he wrote, were “the worst foes, not only of humanity and civilization, but especially of the white race in America”: “The negro, unlike so many of the inferior races, does not dwindle away in the presence of the white man. He holds his own; indeed, under the conditions of American slavery, he increased faster than whites, threatening to supplant him."

And it gets even worse from there: “He actually has supplanted him in certain of the West Indian islands, where the sin of the white in enslaving the black has been visited upon the head of the wrongdoer by his victim with a dramatically terrible completeness of revenge. … Slavery is ethically abhorrent to all right-minded men; and it is to be condemned without stint on this ground alone. From the standpoint of the master caste it is to be condemned even more strongly because it invariably in the end threatens the very existence of that master caste. From this point of view the presence of the negro is the real problem; [the] slavery is merely the worst possible method of solving the problem.”

Edwards: He opposed slavery because he believed that the way that it evolved in the U.S., it meant that the United States was not created for anybody who wasn't white. And so he believed that when the British brought African slaves to the colonies that became the nation, it kind of marked the history of the United States in a negative way because from that point on, black people then had claims to their rights and their citizenships in a nation that was by and large created for whites. He was opposed to slavery not on moral grounds, but really in many ways, on white supremacist grounds. If he believed fundamentally that slavery was a stain on the republic because the republic was created for white men, it means that ideas of kind of the West, of Americans dominating and taming the Wild West, about really ideas of manifest destiny even, those ideas were created by and for whites, white men in particular.

McCarthy: Did TR ever change his views on African Americans and Native Americans? 

Edwards: Particularly with Native American and African Americans, I don't think that his views evolved that much. While they may have changed for him, that didn't translate into meaningful policy and political change for people of color.

For someone who really admires Roosevelt, it can be hard to square these views and philosophies with his incredible life and accomplishments. But to gloss over this would have left us with a two-dimensional view of Roosevelt, and an incomplete picture of our own history.

Given the many ways other historians have characterized TR’s views on race, I asked Edwards how she would describe his views.

Edwards: First and foremost, I think he believed in white supremacy. I would hesitate to say that he's a white supremacist. I think that he harbored, and articulated, and expressed certain white supremacist agendas that translated to how he governed as president, particularly on issues of race. Yet, at the same time, I do think that he was a man of his time and was influenced by his surroundings. But I also think it's important to evaluate, well, were there people around him or were there contemporaries who were expressing more progressive ideas on race and race relations? The answer is a resounding yes, right?

Just calling him a racist, I think, is the easy way out. I think it's more interesting and more important to interrogate, well, why and how? It’s easy for us to categorize historical figures in binary terms, good or bad, in terms of our moral perceptions of them. But I also think it's true that, as you know, that understanding the time in which Roosevelt lived and understanding the ways in which race relations were horrible at that time is important to understanding who he was as a president, who he was as a person, and really getting a fuller understanding of his so-called progressivism. Because he may have been progressive in terms of his thoughts on the economy, trust busting. He may have been progressive in certain other policy ways, but on race, he wasn't.

That's an important part of understanding our political figures, right. 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.

The fact that 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 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.

And on that note, we’ll take a quick break.

 

I don’t know about you guys, but I think about alternate histories, or parallel universes, a lot. (This might have something to do with my obsession with the TV show Lost, but … I digress.) I’ve been thinking about them a lot during this podcast, too.

We live in a timeline where Theodore Roosevelt became president, but there’s probably a timeline out there where he was a successful rancher, or pursued natural history. Or perhaps a timeline where he never dropped out of law school and instead became a lawyer. In another, he was focused on writing. And in another, Theodore Roosevelt was never even born.

So what does the world look like in these universes?

Will Shafroth: Our country would have been a lot less conservation minded.

That’s Will Shafroth of the National Park Foundation, who notes that, in addition to creating wildlife refuges—which protected the nation’s wildlife—and greatly expanding the National Forest System—which set aside millions of acres for preservation—TR also planted the seeds for the National Park Service.

Shafroth: President Roosevelt really saw these public lands that were being set aside for their scientific value. The future was part of his motivation for this and that I think also very forward thinking and recognizing the sort of a place of humility, I think for him as a human being, to see that we're just here now, but there's so much we need to learn from what happened before to inform how we live in the future, which is pretty powerful I think.

Here’s David Hurst Thomas.

Thomas: If you look at presidential actions over the last couple of centuries, what Roosevelt did with the landscape and wilderness is the most important thing that any president did between the Civil War and World War I. He was able to take those brief years of his presidency, from 1901 to 1909 and make a lasting impression on this country that it's hard to even imagine what it would have been like had he not done that.

But of course, Roosevelt did more than just preserve lands. He quite literally changed the international landscape by helping to make sure the Panama Canal got built. Here’s Clay Jenkinson.

Jenkinson: We would have gotten the canal. It was inevitable that there was going to be a canal. The United States would have almost certainly had to build it. But there's nothing like a strong person to cut the Gordian Knot and cut through all the diplomacy and nonsense and BS and the lobbying and so on.

Without TR, it probably would have just taken longer. A lot longer.

There would have been political implications, too, if TR had never been president. Here’s Michael Cullinane.

Cullinane: I reckon the Republican party would have gone on to win elections until the Great Depression. There would have never been Woodrow Wilson. I think the United States probably would have intervened in World War I sooner, because the Republicans were much more ... They were more pro-allied than Wilson was. I think we probably could have had a short World War I, and can you imagine if World War I ended sooner and the Germans lost sooner? It would have been … Millions of lives would have been saved. But, yeah, it's a fun question. If Roosevelt wasn't president, would we have all these lands preserved, like do we have national parks the way we have them today? I very much doubt that. Without his really remarkable ability to push the Antiquities Act and then successive executive orders preserving these lands, we probably don't have places like the Grand Canyon preserved, or the vast woodland of the North Pacific.

And there’s one other big thing that probably wouldn’t have happened if TR had never been president.

McCarthy: Do you think we get an FDR without TR?

Cullinane: I mean, if we're doing counterfactuals on FDR, I think probably not. He's got this ideological connection to Theodore Roosevelt and if Theodore Roosevelt hadn't been president, I can't imagine how FDR would have developed his own ideology. And … I mean, obviously, in 1920, the only reason why he gets to run as vice president is because he's got that name, and there's loads of evidence about that from the Democratic National Committee saying that, you know, he's OK because he's got the right name.

McCarthy: Which one of his accomplishments or policies had the biggest positive impact?

Cullinane: Well, I don't think it was just conservation that was a major positive impact, although that's got to count as one of the big ones, but I think his ability to manage the big businesses and labor relations of his time really kicks off the progressive era. The capital and labor question was the biggest question of his time, it's what defined the gilded age, it's why we have a progressive era, is because the role of government was becoming greater and greater and Roosevelt is really the key figure at the helm of that movement, even if, of course, there's a lot of activists in grass roots movements that are moving the United States towards that.

McCarthy: And which of his accomplishments or policies do you think had the biggest negative impact?

Cullinane: I think Roosevelt could have done more for equality, more for equality of the sexes and more for equality among races. I think having Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner is a good thing but I think other policies were far, far worse, you know? Discriminatory. And I mean that in terms of immigration, I mean that in terms of Native Americans, I mean that in terms of African Americans. There's a lot more that he could have done around inequality. On the sexes, it's interesting that there's this cultural feeling, even within his own family, that women … really they're not ... It's not that they're not fit to vote, it's just this sort of, like, lingering tradition that women don't vote. Roosevelt wrote an undergraduate thesis about women and suffrage and I think actually he had progressive views, and voices those progressive views in 1912 when he's running for president, but he never really sees these through while he's president or when he's, you know, planning to ... When he's a Republican, and I suppose he takes on suffrage in 1912 because it's political expedient. It's not something that he has this passion for, and I think one of the things that he could have done better would have been to work for greater equality amongst the sexes, the races, etc.

We live in the timeline where TR was president, where his mug ended up on Mount Rushmore. Bully for us. After visiting that site, I pick up Tyler Klang, one of the producers on this podcast, and we drive from Rapid City straight up into Medora, North Dakota, where TR retreated after the deaths of his wife and mother in 1884.

When TR came here from New York, he was clearly an outsider: A dude in a buckskin suit, with a knife from Tiffany. In my all-black ensemble, I, too, feel a little bit like a dude when we roll into Medora, population 112.

Klang: Describe Medora for the listening audience?

McCarthy: So ... Medora is Medorable, I would say. I'll show myself out. It looks like, you know, your typical little Wild West town. There's like, those storefronts, or like … the fronts of the buildings that are really flat and square. There's these beautiful buttes … rock formations, or something, I don't know what they're technically called, just like … around town.

Medora has made much of its association with TR: Tyler and I are staying in the historic wing at the Rough Riders hotel, which has little Teddy Bears, dressed as Rough Riders, on the beds. There’s a statue of TR as a Rough Rider, a one-man TR show starring Joe Wiegand, whose voice you’ve heard in this podcast, and a burger place called The Maltese Burger, after TR’s ranch, Maltese Cross. And, of course, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is here, with the actual Maltese Cross cabin.

Roosevelt also plays a role in the Medora Musical, which is described as “the rootin'-tootinest, boot-scootinest show in all the Midwest.” Before the show, Tyler and I attend a cowboy cookout, during which steaks are cooked on pitchforks—they are literally stacked on pitchforks and stuck into a grill!—and it is WILD. Then we settle in for the musical, which is a variety show that features Medora’s famous and infamous characters with a healthy dose of musical theater belting. It is extremely my thing.

We see TR’s arrival in Medora and the charge up Kettle Hill.

"We all turned out to greet the local cowboy who made it to the White House."
"It is here that the romance of my life began. I would never have become president had it not been for my time spent in the West."
"If he had but one memory of his life that he could take with him, what would it be? His response? 'It'd be of my time hunting and ranching in Dakota.'"

And then the show ends with TR belting out a song from “The Greatest Showman.”

Afterwards we chat with Ken Quiricone, one of the Burning Hills singers, who plays TR. Quiricone has been with the show for eight seasons but has only played TR since last year.

Quiricone: I think we are so lucky to have that, to have that presence when he was, at that time, as a conservationist, as a president, it's so awesome that we had that person that loved the land, loved the people who used the land. It was cool that he used the land properly. And, so, he was truly one of my favorite presidents for that and it's very humbling and it's awesome that I get to do it on stage every night. It's pretty cool.

We only had a couple of days here in North Dakota before we have to turn around and make the trek back to the Rapid City airport. Beyond visiting the Elkhorn site, we didn’t have time to journey into the park, which is a bummer, because we were both really, really hoping to see a bison.

We opt against getting up at 6 a.m. to drive through the park and decide instead to make a quick stop at the Painted Canyon on the way out of town. Maybe, I tell Tyler, we’ll see a bison there.

It’s hard to describe Painted Canyon, but … I’m going to try.

In some other timeline, it’s possible that this landscape would be dotted with oil derricks or machines digging out the coal, but in this one—the one where Theodore Roosevelt prioritized saving lands like these—there are mounds of various sizes as far as the eye can see. The mounds have been worn away by erosion to reveal colorful layers: The brown and tan layers are sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone; the blue-gray layers are bentonite clay, a.k.a. the stuff that’s used in some brands of kitty litter, which was created by the ash from volcanic eruptions. Black is a layer of coal, and red is clinker, which is created when the layers of coal catch fire and cook the layer above it, and also a word I will never get tired of saying. Some faces of the mounds are covered in grass and trees. The sky above is full of gray clouds, and I can see distant rain.

It is breathtaking.

We turn around to head back to the car, and…

McCarthy: It's a bison!

The bison is across the road from the visitor’s center, head down, grazing on grass, his tail flipping away files. Male bison can weigh up to 2000 pounds and stand 6 feet tall, and this guy is huge.

In 1885, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “The extermination of the buffalo has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world.” At that point, less than a thousand of the animals existed. Twenty years later, as president, he became one of the founding members of the American Bison society, which used bison from the Bronx Zoo in New York to bolster wild herds.

The bison we’re looking at is a very physical symbol of Roosevelt’s legacy. So is the undisturbed beauty of the Grand Canyon, the sequoias in Yosemite, the hills of Painted Canyon.

As I’ve wrapped up work on this podcast, I’ve been thinking a lot about something Michael Cullinane said—about how we can never really know what TR would do in situations today, or who he’d support politically, or even who he really was.

Cullinane: The reality is that he's lost to the past and the past is different from history. We get to make up history. The past is something that we can never recreate perfectly and that is ... That's a good thing. It means that we can learn a lot about ourselves through how we understand the past, and it's why Theodore Roosevelt's legacy is all over the place from the 1920s, because, in different generations, people remember him differently.

McCarthy: What do you think is TR's ultimate legacy?

Cullinane: It's whatever we want it to be. Tomorrow, you know, everything might change and we might have a completely different view on Roosevelt and whatever it is at that moment is whatever we're interested in, and right now it's about the environment and it's about conservation. Twenty years ago it was about a hero. I mean, Edmund Morris' book comes out I think in '79, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and that was in a time when, you know, Watergate had happened, Jimmy Carter wasn't very popular, America wanted a hero, so Edmund Morris provides this book about a hero. But I think we don't know what's going to come up in the next year, two years, 20 years, but whatever does come up, Theodore Roosevelt remains popular, and we will extract from his legacy what we want.

Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy might be malleable. We might never be able to really know who he was. But standing in these places he helped preserve, staring at a species he helped save, maybe we can tap into how they made him feel, and why he felt it was so important to save them—and, ultimately, how lucky we are that he did.

So, this is it—the final regular episode of the first season of History Vs. I have had so much fun making this podcast. This has been my passion project, but it wasn’t just me who brought it to life: Behind every podcast host is a great team helping to make it happen. This project wouldn’t have been possible without the Mental Floss staff, who helped me write scripts as well as supplemental TR content on mentalfloss.com/historyvs, or without the support of the people at our parent company, Minute Media.

And I really couldn’t have done this without the incredible production team at iHeartRadio, who very patiently walked me through this process and made these episodes sound so amazing. Finally, I want to thank the experts who very generously gave so much of their time to this project, and I want to thank you—yes, you!—for listening. If you have any questions for me about TR, or just want to see pics of all the TR stuff on my desk, you can find me on Twitter @erincmccarthy.

We’ll be dropping bonus episodes from time to time, and our second season will come out later on this year. Until then, speak softly, and carry a big stick!

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer.

Joe Wiegand 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 the Popes, Lane Johnson, Sharon Wright, Aretha Wilson, Justene Hill Edwards, Michael Cullinane, Tyler Kuliberda, Clay Jenkinson, Will Shafroth, Maureen McGee-Ballinger, and David Hurst Thomas.

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

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

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