History Vs. Episode 7: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Other Presidents

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.

“Shifty, adroit logothete. Cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician. No more backbone than a chocolate éclair. A flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him. Puzzlewit! Fathead! Brains less than a guinea pig!”

Yes, those are the words of Theodore Roosevelt. President of the United States, author, philanthropist, avid reader, and inspiration for the teddy bear. He was, from most accounts, a kind and sociable man. But if Roosevelt found flaws, he was quick to articulate them—a fast and furious torrent of putdowns designed to bombard the target of his attack with insults that might require a dictionary to fully process.

Roosevelt didn’t unleash these particular tirades at just anyone. He reserved them for individuals he held to the highest standard because they held the highest office in the land. For Roosevelt, anything less than the naked, harsh truth directed at the commander-in-chief would be a disservice to his country. When it came to other presidents, Theodore Roosevelt pulled no punches. How rough did it get? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. This week’s episode is TR vs. Other Presidents.

Roosevelt’s famously tempestuous attitude toward politicians may have started with his impossible standards. His role model for all things presidential was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th commander-in-chief of the United States, and one of the few presidents Roosevelt had no quarrel with. He grew up in a household where Lincoln was revered—at least by his Republican father, Theodore Senior, or Thee. (His mother Mittie, a southerner and Confederate sympathizer, likely had other feelings.) Thee had worked with Lincoln’s administration during the Civil War and had even joined Abraham and his wife Mary at church.

After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his funeral procession ran through New York City. From his grandfather’s mansion in Union Square, 6-year-old Roosevelt and his brother, Elliott, watched as the president’s coffin was carried through the streets.

A photographer even captured the moment, a young Theodore peering out of the window in what would be the first of his many eyewitness experiences in history. Here’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Jenkinson: Lincoln, in Roosevelt's view, was the savior of the country. He was also a friend of his father and TR worshipped his father and his father's associations, and he regarded Lincoln as somebody who had the moxie and the moral strength to do the right thing against almost impossible odds and he knew that Lincoln had paid the ultimate price for that—that he had been assassinated in part because he grew in office, whereas most presidents, as you know, don't grow in office, they decline. But Lincoln was one of the few who actually grew in a big way during the course of his presidency.

Roosevelt’s admiration for Lincoln endured throughout his life. As president, Roosevelt referred to him as “my great hero,” a degree of affection he reserved for very few people aside from his father.

With Lincoln’s portrait hanging both in the White House and in his home office at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt was constantly reminded of Lincoln’s legacy. “I look up to that picture,” he said, “and I do as I believe Lincoln would have done.”

He even kept a lock of Lincoln’s hair in a ring, which Roosevelt wore for his inauguration in 1905. It was given to him by John Hay, who had served in Lincoln’s administration—and went on to serve in Roosevelt’s.

Tyler Kuliberda: It was kind of like a Victorian thing, and they would make jewelry into them, so that's what Hay does, and he keeps these, and I think he has two of them made, and he has them for quite a while, and gives them to TR to wear at his inauguration in 1905.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, the education technician at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s onetime home and now a National Historic Site.

Kuliberda: I think Roosevelt saw Lincoln as kind of this incredible president, and I think in his own presidency would have liked to been president during a time like Lincoln when the nation was in crisis, and he had to solve these kind of major problems as president.

Roosevelt enjoyed having a memento of Lincoln so close to him. But he was not so fond of one of the other presidents who would end up on Mount Rushmore alongside him.

Roosevelt was famously cool toward Thomas Jefferson, blaming the long-deceased president for his ineffectual efforts in building a military force during the War of 1812 and for Jefferson’s subversive opposition to George Washington’s policies while serving as his secretary of state.

But it was Roosevelt’s contemporaries that received most of his scorn. That rant about a “cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician”? That was directed at Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president from 1889 to 1893 and the same man who appointed Roosevelt as a civil service reform commissioner around the start of his term.

Roosevelt had campaigned for him when he was on the Republican ticket. So where did things go so wrong?

For one thing, Harrison didn’t really want reform for federal employees. The position was more of a figurehead role. That didn’t suit Roosevelt and his high standards at all. In his mind, if someone was granted a federal job, it should be because they deserved it and not because they were owed a favor.

For the six years he held the post, Roosevelt was defiant, putting lackadaisical civil service workers and departments in his crosshairs. He advised Harrison to fire George H. Paul, postmaster of Milwaukee, for granting jobs to his friends. His investigation into the Baltimore Postal Service—where Roosevelt found workers soliciting money for political purposes on government property, which, according to historian Edmund Morris, was against the Civil Service Code—put him against Postmaster General John Wanamaker even more directly.

Wanamaker tried to run his own investigation into the matter and reported that it found that no wrongdoing had occurred. But a House Investigative Committee, acting on Roosevelt’s insistence, found that Roosevelt was right. Here’s Jenkinson:

Jenkinson: It was just a natural instinct of his to read the job as boldly as possible and to make sure that he got himself in the newspapers and to make sure that he was on the right side of these questions and he wasn't afraid to take on his own political party. He'd take it right up to the edge, and … where they're just like so annoyed and disgusted with him because he won't … he won’t play the game. You know, he just couldn't play the game and they wanted him to be a figurehead at least and to be … they knew that he was the best stump speaker they had and that he could galvanize an audience, but they wanted him to be less hectic and to be less certain of things and to go along more than he did.

This wasn’t how government was supposed to work—government wasn’t supposed to be fair. Cynicism and cronyism mandated that politicians did favors and the winning team showed support. But Roosevelt didn’t care what party anyone belonged to. He was on a mission, and if Harrison’s allies were in the way, he had no problem taking them down.

That commitment had consequences for their relationship. When Harrison and Roosevelt met, Harrison took to tapping his fingers, a nervous tic that developed as a result of the aggravation Roosevelt caused him.

There was, of course, the situation with the money-soliciting Baltimore postal workers.

And the fact that Roosevelt went after William Wallace, the postmaster of Indianapolis and a man who also happened to be Harrison’s best friend, for hiring incompetent—and corrupt—workers because they were Republicans.

Later, Harrison would say of Roosevelt, “The only trouble I ever had with him … was that he wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset.”

Harrison’s overt displays of favoritism needled Roosevelt, perpetuating some of his most articulate insults. He called Harrison “the little gray man in the White House” and “a genial little runt” behind his back.

Roosevelt managed to last through Harrison’s term, and would end up being re-appointed civil service reform commissioner once Grover Cleveland entered office in 1893. He left his post in 1895 and became president of the board of police commissioners in New York City. His next brush with the presidency would come when William McKinley ran for the office in 1896.

McKinley’s campaign had given Roosevelt pause. Before McKinley’s first term, Roosevelt wrote to his friend and Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that “it will be a great misfortune to have McKinley nominated … If I could tell you all I have learned since his campaign has progressed, you would be as completely alarmed over the prospect of his presidential nomination as I am.”

When it seemed like McKinley would soon be named the Republican nominee, Roosevelt dashed off a letter to his sister, Bamie: “McKinley, whose firmness I utterly distrust, will be nominated; and this … I much regret.”

Roosevelt didn’t dislike McKinley. He noted he was an “honorable man, of very considerable ability and good record as a soldier and in Congress.” But where Roosevelt felt Harrison was politically savvy, he got the impression that McKinley was without a spine. “He is not a strong man,” Roosevelt said. “Unless he is well-backed I should feel rather uneasy about him in a serious crisis, whether it took the form of a soft-money craze, a gigantic labor riot, or danger of foreign conflict.”

Roosevelt’s tune changed slightly when McKinley was elected.

Jenkinson: TR was an ardent Republican and he could never stray from the Republican camp. And so that dictated a lot of what he did.

McKinley appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy in 1897. But the peace didn’t last long.

Jenkinson: He thought that McKinley was unimaginative and unnecessarily cautious and that McKinley was timid about going to war against Spain in 1898. And TR really went on a somewhat questionable campaign to sort of force McKinley's hand to declare war against Spain when McKinley said, you know, "We've had one big war during my lifetime. I hesitate to begin another one." But TR read every possible story coming out of Cuba in the way that made the Spanish look worst, made it sort of a righteous issue of whether we stand for anything and especially after the sinking of the Maine. That's why he called McKinley names and said that he had the backbone of a chocolate éclair.

He would later campaign extensively for McKinley’s second term. By this point, Roosevelt was more than just a supporter. After a two-year term as governor of New York, he was the vice-presidential candidate on the McKinley ticket.

Jenkinson: Roosevelt campaigned for McKinley in a really big way in 1900 against William Jennings Bryan; McKinley didn't leave his home in Canton, Ohio. He ran that front porch campaign and sent out this voluble, hectic, crazy, energetic vice presidential candidate to do all the work on the stump. Roosevelt of course threw himself into just head and shoulders and had the time of his life. And took on Bryan and probably McKinley would have won anyway, but it's Roosevelt who did the heavy lifting in the campaign and really found his voice in the American West while doing that. He said horrible things about Bryan. He said he was a human trombone, which is virtually my favorite thing, my favorite Roosevelt insult of all. So he believed that McKinley was sound economically and he realized especially after 1898, that McKinley could be manipulated or managed, let's put it, to pursue a more vigorous American role in the world than he might instinctively have intended.

One would think that Roosevelt would exert a little more patience with the guy on his campaign ticket, but … it’s Theodore Roosevelt we’re talking about here.

For one thing, Roosevelt didn’t really want to be vice president. He thought the office was ineffectual and constricting. “I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president,” he said.

Here’s Kuliberda:

Kuliberda: This is a man who cannot sit still, and you put him in the vice presidency, which he just regarded as an idle office.

But Roosevelt’s friends knew it was a step closer to the presidency. Senator Lodge urged him to take it on and stick by McKinley’s side, declaring it “invaluable” for his future in politics.

So why would McKinley select him as a running mate? It was more indifference than anything. Supporters buzzed in McKinley’s ear that Roosevelt, then the governor of New York and a war hero, would bring some much-needed fire into the campaign. Plus, the New York Republican party machine desperately wanted him out of the state.

And so McKinley and Roosevelt became the Republican hopefuls of 1900. Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, who viewed Roosevelt as a loose cannon, was not a fan. “Don’t you realize,” he said, “that there is only one life between this madman and the White House?”

Roosevelt’s concerns about the role proved accurate. McKinley never consulted him on policies and refused to let him interact with the Senate as a liaison, as he had done with his previous vice president, Garret Hobart. Roosevelt, meanwhile, found McKinley’s glacial decision-making process infuriating. But he wouldn’t have to endure it for long.

On September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot in the stomach by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

He died of gangrene only a little over a week later. According to an eyewitness, when Roosevelt heard the news of McKinley’s shooting, “a look of unmistakable anguish came to his face, and tears immediately filled his eyes.”

Jenkinson: Well, TR was in upstate New York. He had presided over the Senate for I think five days before they adjourned and now he was sort of just wandering and giving speeches and going hiking and camping and, you know, writing and doing all the things the Theodore Roosevelt does. He got the word that McKinley had been shot. And he made an emergency trip to Buffalo to be at McKinley's bedside and then he realized McKinley was probably going to recover. He went back. He thought it was unseemly for him to hang around the sick man's bed. And so he went to upstate New York. He was on Marcy, the highest point in the state, when a messenger came running up the path and informed him that the president was going to die that night.

Roosevelt raced to Buffalo to be by McKinley’s side, although he would be too late to see the president before he passed. Though they had their differences, the tragedy overshadowed any political divide.

Following McKinley’s assassination, it was time for Roosevelt to step into the role held by men he had often criticized.

The so-called madman was now in the Executive Mansion. Would that experience afford him a new perspective on the challenges of the job? Of course. Would it prompt him to bite his tongue when it came to his successor? Probably not.

We’ll be right back.

 

Imagine what it would be like to disappoint someone with the standards of Theodore Roosevelt. Just … think about that for a moment.

William Howard Taft didn’t have to think about it. He experienced it first-hand.

Taft was Roosevelt’s secretary of war. When Roosevelt left office, he selected Taft as his choice for the presidential nomination. Taft was named the nominee in 1908, and Roosevelt believed he would welcome advice with an open ear.

Hmm. Not quite.

Roosevelt felt Taft was a little too careless with his image. Seeing Taft fishing and golfing instead of shaking hands and kissing babies, he urged Taft to “put yourself prominently and emphatically into this campaign.”

Of his recreational activities, he said: “I am convinced that the prominence that has been given to your golf playing has not been wise, and from now on I hope that your people will do everything they can to prevent one word being sent out about either your fishing or your playing golf.”

Roosevelt had very particular ideas about how a president should behave, and what kind of image they should project. Presidential candidates weren’t supposed to be seen enjoying themselves. “I never let friends advertise my tennis, and never let a photograph of me in tennis costume appear,” he said. And Roosevelt believed that Taft should allow his constituents to see him smiling: “Always. Because I feel that your nature shines out so transparently when you do smile—you big, generous, high-minded fellow.”

According to Kuliberda, TR had tight control over his public image—very much a thing with politicians today but a new concept in TR’s time. It’s one of the things that made him the first modern president.

Kuliberda: He was very aware that you are going to be written about in newspapers. Your image is going to be broadcast through newspapers, people are going to see you, even the ones you don't interact with, so if you're playing golf, like William Howard Taft did, that has its sort of own connotation, if you're playing tennis that has its own connotations. Roosevelt thought it was feminine. He didn't want to be seen as feminine, so he doesn't allow anyone to photograph him playing tennis.

If it sounds like Roosevelt was acting as an image consultant for Taft, well, he was. He was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, and his success—or failure—would in some way reflect back on Roosevelt’s legacy.

According to Jenkinson, Roosevelt was right to lecture Taft about golfing, because average people back then couldn’t afford to golf.

Jenkinson: That was a rich man sport. It takes time, it takes money, it takes privilege. Roosevelt said, "If you want to be the leader of a people, you have to narrow the distance between yourself and the common man, not accentuate it by being photographed in an aristocratic hobby." Roosevelt had incredible political instincts. He wanted to be photographed climbing a mountain or being lowered on a rope in front of a waterfall or killing something because then that would be something people could really respect. But if you're photographed doing something that only the privileged get to do, then you're sending the wrong signal to the country.

It’s not hard to imagine that Roosevelt’s nagging irritated Taft. The press’s spin on things may have also rubbed him the wrong way: They decided that his last name could be an acronym, short for Take Advice from Teddy.

Taft beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan, and TR was sure his successor would continue his legacy of reform. Roosevelt left on a hunting trip to Africa for a year, allowing Taft a chance to make his own mark in office.

Jenkinson: So TR was not as good a judge of character as his wife, Edith. He loved Taft and Taft was an incredibly able man, but Taft really wanted to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court. And that's what he was well suited to. It was his wife, Nellie, who forced him to accept the presidency. He didn't really want it but she was ambitious for him. And so TR thought that Taft would continue his policies. What he didn't realize is that Taft was not strong. He was big, but he wasn't strong. And so in the Republican Party at the time, there was a progressive wing of people who wanted reform and child labor and to lighten the burdens of the poor and clean up our food supply and so on, and then there was the stand-pat wing of rich capitalists who just wanted government to either be their handmaiden or to get out of the way. And Roosevelt was able to hold those two tribes, those two factions of the Republican Party, together, because he was a war hero and because he was our first cowboy president and because he was Roosevelt. But Taft wasn't able to do it. He didn't have enough firepower, enough charisma. And so Taft had to choose, and he chose to move back towards the old stand-pat J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller wing of the party.

Taft didn’t live up to Roosevelt’s lofty expectations. He found it easier to be complacent with existing laws than to become combative. A former lawyer, he wanted to remain within the boundaries of office, whereas Roosevelt was keen on exerting as much control as he could. Taft possessed none of Roosevelt’s firebrand policies, none of his aggressive attitude towards improving the country. At the end of the Africa trip, he wrote to Roosevelt to complain: “I do not know that I have had harder luck than most presidents, but I do know that thus far I have succeeded far less than … others. I have been conscientiously trying to carry out your policies but my method of doing so has not worked smoothly.” Poor Taft bemoaned that he couldn’t even lose weight.

In some ways, Taft was like a sibling, looking up to a bigger brother for approval. He invited Roosevelt to the White House, but Roosevelt refused. “I don’t think it well for an ex-president to go to the White House, or indeed to go to Washington, except when he cannot help it,” he sniffed. Time and again, Taft would make advances and Roosevelt would rebuff them. Taft would later say Roosevelt’s chilly demeanor “deeply wounded” him.

Jenkinson: He had felt that he had assurances from Taft that Taft would continue the progressive initiatives, particularly on conservation questions. And when Taft didn't, Roosevelt felt angry, betrayed, and somewhat righteous and vindictive. Plus, I mean, it’s just the case that Roosevelt couldn't stand not to be empowered. He just couldn't stand not to be the guy. He was the youngest former president because he was youngest president and he made a stupid mistake by renouncing a third term. He left at the height of his powers before he had finished all that he wanted to do.

The friction grew worse when Taft finally made a sweeping change, advising the government to sue the monopolistic U.S. Steel—an industrial behemoth Roosevelt had tacitly approved of in 1907 in order to avert financial panic. Not only was Taft slow to act, but when he did, it was to try and reverse one of Roosevelt’s decisions. An irate Roosevelt actually penned entire published essays devoted to separating his policies from those of his onetime friend.

The problem? Roosevelt’s decision on the U.S. Steel situation was probably a mistake. According to Jenkinson, the key players in the merger concealed their true motivations from the president. Economics was not TR’s strong suit, and he acted quickly to stave off the panic—but if he’d had more time to read up on his options, he might not have approved the merger. Still, nothing stopped him from defending the decision he had made.

Jenkinson: When it became abundantly clear that he had been manipulated and that it was probably an unnecessary thing and maybe an unethical thing for him to have done, he just got more and more and more righteous about it. The same was true about Panama when the Wilson administration gave the Colombian government $25 million. He threw just a gigantic hissy fit over that and broke with the Wilson administration.

A poison pen was not Roosevelt’s only comeback. He decided to challenge Taft in the ultimate arena of the presidential election. Roosevelt announced he was returning to run in 1912, vying for the Republican nomination against Taft. Those references to a “flubdub” and “someone with brains less than a guinea pig”? Roosevelt was referring to Taft. The incumbent was quick to retort, calling Roosevelt a “honeyfugler,” or someone who gains an advantage by cheating, as well an egotist, a demagogue, and a flatterer. And after Roosevelt said he was no longer going to attack Taft personally, Taft proclaimed, “having called me everything in the category of bad names that are mentioned in polite society, he now wishes to indulge in less emphatic expressions.”

Jenkinson: So now, their friendship has been damaged and frayed by all of this, but now it was really a tragic business because Taft loved Roosevelt. He actually wept and said, "He was my closest friend. I loved TR." And TR was much less emotional about it. He was really caught up in his own righteousness. So they began to call each other names. And, you know, Roosevelt was great at insults. He called him a fathead and all the other things that he said. A puzzlewit.

McCarthy: How did the public react to his insults, especially with Taft because it's not like you're insulting just anyone when you call them a guinea pig power brain, you're insulting the president.

Jenkinson: Well, most people didn't know about this. Most people were … So they knew that TR was this cowboy and that he was shot from the hip and that he was not afraid to punch somebody metaphorically or physically if necessary. Certainly, that was his public persona—that he was a Christian warrior and that he was not afraid to take on trusts or anything that got in his way, and he loved that, and he circulated those stories. He was glad that they circulated because he felt that they gave him a political advantage. But we know more about this than they did because some of this was in private letters.

The Republicans tried to curb the rivalry, offering to arrive at a compromise and find a third candidate. Roosevelt would have none of it. “I’ll name the compromise candidate,” he said. “He’ll be me. I’ll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform.”

After a controversial convention that saw the Republican National Committee award Taft the necessary delegates to guarantee his selection, Roosevelt could have been gracious in defeat. Instead, he remained in the race, breaking away from the Republicans and running as a Progressive in his Bull Moose party. The sniping continued.

Jenkinson: These were picked up in the newspapers and it was like the public was following this feud and Roosevelt wasn't sorry—he knew that his only path to victory was to bring down the sitting incumbent president of the United States. And so he wanted the public to share his view that Taft really wasn't up to it.

McCarthy: Did any of his remarks come back to sort of bite him or ...

Jenkinson: Well, you never really want to burn your bridges but TR—when I lecture about this, Erin, and I always say that TR, the post-president, was really a very unpleasant person. He just couldn't stand not being in power. And he didn't realize this when he left. He wrote all these letters to his children like, "I've had my time and the public moves on and, you know, nobody has enjoyed this more than I have and it's time for others. And there's a weariness about me in the country," but he didn't believe it. He actually thought that he was the indispensable man.

Indispensable, or indestructible? Preparing for a speech at Milwaukee Auditorium on October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin named John Schrank. He survived. He even finished his speech. Schrank later said he shot him in part because William McKinley had come to him in a dream and ordered him to do the deed. It seemed that Theodore Roosevelt’s clashes with presidents both past and present were far from finished.

We’ll be right back.

 

In competing against each other, both Taft and Roosevelt lost. It was Democrat Woodrow Wilson who secured the 1912 election. And unfortunately, Roosevelt didn’t much care for him, either.

Wilson was bookish and self-aware. He knew Roosevelt appeared to be larger-than-life. “He is a real, vivid person, whom they have seen and shouted themselves hoarse over and voted for, millions strong,” Wilson said. “I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.”

In the face of such self-deprecating commentary, Roosevelt still let him have it with both barrels. Wilson, he said, was “a good man who has in no way shown that he possesses any special fitness for the presidency.” Here’s Jenkinson:

Jenkinson: He just belittled poor Wilson and treated him just so shabbily and undermined him. Most presidents when they leave are graceful to their successors but TR just couldn't be and it wasn't a partisan thing. He was equally awful to Wilson as he was to Taft.

As it often did, Roosevelt’s scorn stemmed in part from a president who deviated from Roosevelt’s well-worn path. In a treaty with Colombia a few months before the opening of the Panama Canal, the United States proclaimed “sincere regret” that anything came between the friendship of the United States and Colombia, like the Panamanian coup Roosevelt had sent a ship to support.

To Roosevelt, that was an admission—a sign of institutional weakness he would never have allowed. That it was in open defiance of his decision rankled him even more.

In a press release, Roosevelt called Wilson’s handling of foreign affairs “such as to make the United States a figure of fun in the international world.” He criticized the treaty and with the help of Senate allies blocked the treaty’s ratification. When the treaty was finally ratified a few years after Roosevelt’s death, the “sincere regret” clause had been removed.

But it was more than a difference of diplomacy. In his heart, Roosevelt was a soldier. He lived for combat, be it verbal, physical, or territorial. When Wilson was faced with the decision to bring America into World War I, Roosevelt criticized his cabinet’s pacifism.

Writing to his friend Arthur Lee, Roosevelt said that “It is not a good thing for a country to have a professional yodeler, a human trombone like [William Jennings Bryan] as secretary of state, nor a college president with an astute and shifty mind, a hypocritical ability to deceive plain people … and no real knowledge or wisdom concerning internal and international affairs as head of the nation.”

On another occasion, he bemoaned Wilson’s lack of action following the German sinking of the Lusitania and told his son Kermit that a “lily-livered skunk” was occupying the White House.

Speaking to the public at large about the sinking of the Lusitania, he said: “This represents not merely piracy, but piracy on a vaster scale of murder than any old-time pirate ever practiced.” Roosevelt said that the act “constituted warfare against innocent men, women, and children traveling on the ocean, and to our own fellow countrymen and countrywomen, who are among the sufferers. It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity, but to our own national self-respect.”

Jenkinson: He belittled Wilson's manhood over this, that he wasn't a real man because he said he was an Aunt Nancy, I think he called him, and made all these slurs about the virility of Woodrow Wilson because Wilson was trying so hard to keep the peace and when Wilson said that he was going to keep us out of war, Roosevelt's view—and Roosevelt turned out to be right, by the way—Roosevelt’s view was, "We will have to get involved in this war. There's no way the United States of America is going to avoid World War I. So we may as well get ready for it. If we're prepared when the war comes, we'll be able to fight it more successfully and the victory will be more complete. If you dilly-dally around, by the time you get into war, you're not going to be ready for it and then that's going to be a delay and that means you're not going to be able to control the postwar arrangement in Europe. You're going to lose some of your leverage over the postwar."

Writing to his son, Archie, Roosevelt was even more accusatory, placing the blame for the victims of the Lusitania directly on Wilson’s shoulders. “As a nation, we have thought very little about foreign affairs; we don’t realize that the murder of the thousand men, women, and children in the Lusitania is due, solely, to Wilson’s abject cowardice and weakness in failing to take energetic action when the Gulflight was sunk but a few days previously.”

(Just a quick fact check here: Though there were reports that the Gulflight had been sunk, it was actually just damaged and towed in. OK, back to the quote.)

“… [Wilson and Bryan] are both abject creatures and they won’t go to war unless they are kicked into it, and they will consider nothing but their own personal advantage in the matter.”

Wilson, however, did put up a fight—when Roosevelt goaded him into one. “The way to treat an adversary like Roosevelt is to gaze at the stars over his head,” Wilson said.

The men reconciled, if ever so briefly, when Wilson decided to join the war. Roosevelt came over to the White House and, over lemonade, pitched himself as going back to the Army to take up his post as a commander of the Rough Riders, which had barnstormed the Spanish-American War in 1898 and helped perpetuate Roosevelt’s reputation as a hands-on combatant. Wilson eventually refused, which once again drew Roosevelt’s ire.

Jenkinson: He said, "Theodore, war has kind of changed since San Juan Hill. It's not done that way anymore. There's no room for a voluntary cavalry unit in France. When Wilson wouldn't do it, it just threw Roosevelt, who was a naturally pugnacious figure and won a gloried war, it threw him in to a complete tailspin. He just wanted someone to punish and there was Wilson. And so he wrote increasingly awful op-ed pieces and then wondered why Wilson wouldn't send them over to France with the Rough Rider unit.

Wilson later said he believed Roosevelt’s cause was borne out of ego and self-aggrandizement. Secretly, he may have also feared Roosevelt becoming a war hero once more could lead to a White House run in 1920.

Roosevelt’s four sons wound up enlisting. One of them, Quentin, died in the skies over France. It was Wilson who confirmed the news via telegram.

Roosevelt wouldn’t live to see the remainder of Wilson’s second term. He died on January 6, 1919. Some of his remaining days were spent authoring editorials for the Kansas City Star about his repeated criticisms of the president. While it concerned Wilson, it summarizes Roosevelt’s feelings about the office he treated with such reverence:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or [his] bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”

Roosevelt was fiercely critical of the office of the presidency, a role he believed needed to be contextualized and challenged constantly, which could be one explanation for why he assessed other presidents so harshly. But there is another possible explanation. Were his insults, criticisms, complaints, and admonishments fed by ego? By a sense that he, Theodore Roosevelt, could and did do a better job? Perhaps.

McCarthy: I feel like a lot of his hostility, you know, was about sort of people failing to live up to his standards for what he thought the presidency should be, but do you think his standard was just like: it should be me?

Jenkinson: Just think of it this way: Who would you think could follow him? Who has his mighty potency and his power of language and his patriotism? There's nobody. I mean, we think that Franklin Roosevelt in many respects saved the country, maybe saved the world, but he was a mere shadow compared to TR and he always lived in envy of TR's vitality and TR's sheer political joy at being at a good slugging match with his opponents or perceived opponents. So I think, we sort of lock ourselves into a problem, because what follows TR? Wilson is a more kind of professorial figure and then the whole series of Harding and Coolidge and so on. These are just nonentities who released power back to the legislative branch. So TR was going to have trouble no matter what, but it was his own personality problem, his own righteousness and his own sense that he was the only one that really puts him in such an ugly light in the years from 19-9 to 1919.

But Roosevelt wasn’t fighting just for the sake of fighting or to have his own legacy polished. He fought because he felt it was the role of citizens to confront government, to force politicians to defend their positions and remain culpable to the individuals they represent. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t want to fight other presidents. He wanted other presidents to fight for him.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jake Rossen, with research by me and fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Clay Jenkinson and Tyler Kuliberda.

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.

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.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER