History Vs. Episode 10: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Death

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

In 1914, when Theodore Roosevelt trekked into the Brazilian jungle to explore a previously uncharted tributary of the Amazon River, it must have seemed like just another adventure on a very long list of adventures—one that would briefly get him out of the public eye after his disappointing loss in the 1912 election.

The loss stung, and his reputation had taken a hit. But none of that would matter in the jungle.

Of course, Roosevelt knew this adventure wouldn’t be easy—if it were, it wouldn’t be appealing. And he knew it would be dangerous, which only made it more enticing for the 55-year-old former president.

“If it is necessary for me to leave my remains in South America,” he wrote to a friend, “I am quite ready to do so.”

And now, a month and a half into his trek down the River of Doubt, it looked like he might do just that.

From the outset, the journey had been besieged by calamities—malaria and dysentery had cut through many of the men on the expedition, not to mention the dwindling food supply and the lingering threat of South American tribes who didn’t take kindly to armed strangers showing up uninvited.

Roosevelt had lost 50 pounds. A few days ago, he’d bashed his leg open on a rock, and it became infected. Now, as thunderstorms raged, he was in the throes of a severe malaria fit. Convulsively shivering, with a 104-degree fever, he recited the same poem over, and over, and over:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea ...

Though no one expected him to live the night, he did. By morning, he had regained his senses—and he had reached a decision.

He gathered the team—his son Kermit, co-captain Candido Rondon, and naturalist George Cherrie among them—and told them, “The expedition cannot stop. On the other hand, I cannot proceed. You go on and leave me.”

But TR’s journey wasn’t over. Ultimately, the Amazon wouldn’t claim Roosevelt. In fact, after countless brushes with death over the five previous decades, it was starting to look like nothing could.

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 in this round, we’re pitting Theodore Roosevelt against the greatest opponent of all: Death. It’s a foe that Roosevelt fought his entire life—in family tragedies, on the battlefield and on the hunting ground, and during run-ins with assassins.

But for TR, death wasn’t something to fear—it was just the opposite. “[The] worst of all fears,” he wrote in his autobiography, “is the fear of living.”

So how did he take on the grim reaper time and time again? We’re about to find out.

To understand Roosevelt’s life, you have to understand how death colored his formative years.

His first real encounter with death came on February 9, 1878, when his father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., passed away while TR was still a student at Harvard. It was a loss he wrote about often, detailing his devastation in his journals. He threw himself into his schoolwork to cope. For the rest of the semester, he was “grinding like a Trojan,” according to historian Edmund Morris, scoring high marks on exams, teaching Sunday school, and obsessively exercising.

During this tornado of productivity, he continued to grieve privately in his diaries.

Alyssa Parker-Geisman: Theodore doesn't know what he's thinking, what he's doing. He's kind of in a … zone. You know, it seems, my impression of what I've read is that he kind of just turns off to the world, maybe internally he's struggling. I don't know. I mean, I'm thinking of the way that I would react if I lost a very important person in my life. You know, the type of person that you later call the best man I ever knew and the only man I was ever afraid of.

That’s Alyssa Parker-Geisman, lead ranger at Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City.

Parker-Geisman: So it heavily impacted him, and I think it just follows with him. When he's president and he's facing a difficult decision, he usually asks himself, "What would my father do in this case?" So, it's kind of ever-present, the impact of losing his father.

Roosevelt would go on to experience many tragedies in his life, but the torrent of grief, the outpouring of emotion he wrote in his diary after his father’s death, never really happened again.

Six years later, when Roosevelt was a young assemblyman in New York, he lost his first wife, Alice, and his mother, Mittie, on the same day. He was back to work in Albany just four days later, where, Morris writes, “his activities … were so prodigious that one gropes … for an inhuman simile. Like a factory ship in the whaling season, he combined the principles of maximum production and perpetual motion.”

Roosevelt’s strategy for beating his depression was to outwork it. Whenever he encountered tragedy, he followed the same pattern: Work to the point of exhaustion; exert yourself until you can no longer feel; repeat as necessary. As he once wrote, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”

In this quest to avoid and dull his grief, TR didn’t just face death—he seemingly invited it. In Wilderness Warrior, historian Douglas Brinkley discusses Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, Exuberance, which features TR as a prime example of the emotion. Brinkley writes that, “His set of symptoms—propulsive behavior, deep grief, chronic insomnia, and an all-around hyperactive disposition—demonstrate both the manic and the depressive phases of bipolar disorder.”

While some manic-depressive patients—which is Jamison’s preferred term—withdraw from life, Brinkley writes that “those afflicted with exuberance … go in the opposite direction; behaving as relentless human blowtorches … unable to turn down their own flame … Only by exhausting oneself in physical activity … could an exuberant maniac like Roosevelt turn himself off.”

This kind of energy allowed Roosevelt to achieve incredible things, but, as Jamison notes, exuberance has its downsides. Working so hard and sleeping so little was detrimental to TR's health. But if doctors had tried to get him to take better care of himself, or slow down a little, he probably would have responded as he did when a Harvard doctor told him that his bad heart meant he needed to live a sedentary life—by disregarding their advice entirely.

TR also faced death as a big game hunter. In pursuit of a target, he could be relentless. Take, for example, his first bison hunt. Roosevelt insisted on pursuing his goal even when the weather conditions became horrendous, even when his guide, Joe Ferris, wanted to give up. (As a friend recalled, “He nearly killed poor Joe. He would not stop for anything.”) Roosevelt pushed himself hard—and sometimes took risks—to bag a quarry, whether it was a bison, a lion, or a hippopotamus.

His closest call during a hunt came during a trip out West in 1889. TR, then a Civil Service Commissioner, had just come out on the losing end of a political clash over a postmaster in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and decided a hunting trip was just the thing he needed to clear his head. On this particular trip, he was, he said, “especially hot for bear.”

He found one in Montana at twilight.

The grizzly was in the valley, 60 yards away. TR fired a round, but the bear did not fall; instead, the wounded animal “uttered a loud, moaning grunt,” in Roosevelt’s words, and took off. He followed the wounded animal, which Roosevelt would later say was making “a peculiar, savage kind of whine,” and in the confusion of the trees and thicket, the two were suddenly upon each other. “He turned his head stiffly toward me; scarlet strings of froth hung from his lips; his eyes burned like embers in the gloom,” Roosevelt wrote.

He fired another round, again hitting the bear—and again, it wouldn’t go down: “Instantly the great bear turned with a harsh roar of fury and challenge, blowing the bloody foam from his mouth, so that I saw the gleam of his white fangs; and then he charged straight at me, crashing and bounding through the laurel bushes so that it was hard to aim.”

The animal charged at Roosevelt, and, as he would later recall, he fired again, and then once more, and leapt out of the way of the approaching animal. Through the smoke, he could see its huge paw as it took a swipe at him … and, finally, dropped to the ground. It would be the closest he’d come to death at the hands of a big game animal—and the bear’s pelt quickly became one of his favorite trophies.

The danger Roosevelt threw himself into didn’t just involve wild hunting trips. In the Dakotas, he clashed with the Marquis de Mores, a French aristocrat with eyes on establishing a cattle empire in the area. (He founded the town of Medora, which was named after his wife.) The Marquis’s domineering personality made him an obvious foil for someone with a presence as strong as Roosevelt’s, and the two soon found themselves at odds.

Andes: And somehow, the Marquis decided that Theodore Roosevelt wanted to kill him, which wasn't the case.

That’s Eileen Andes, the Chief of Interpretation and Public Affairs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota.

Andes: They not only had strong personalities, but they were both aristocrats that were probably both used to being the alpha male.

McCarthy: The big boss man.

Andes: And then there's the story about when Theodore Roosevelt was in Wibaux. Wibaux is a little town, let's see, six miles on the other side of the Montana border, and it's really small. And he was there in a saloon, and some guy challenged him to a fight, because, you know, men who wore glasses were weak.

The man called him four-eyes—which he would quickly come to regret: Roosevelt, in his own words, stood up and “struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw.”

Andes: Roosevelt pummeled him. And I think TR was the kind of person who never would back down ... In his life, there were very few things that he ever regretted, and he didn't believe in backing down.

Take, for example, an encounter Roosevelt had with a man named E.G. Paddock, who was working closely with the Marquis de Mores on his cattle business. Paddock had spread word around the area that Elkhorn Ranch was his property, not Roosevelt’s, and that if TR wished to have it, he’d have to pay for it in dollars or in blood. Once Roosevelt got wind of the threat, he immediately sought out Paddock at his home. Here’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Jenkinson: So Roosevelt gets on his horse and goes 35 miles into Medora and knocks at the guy's door and says, "Hey, I hear you want to shoot me. When do you want to start?" The guy essentially goes, hubba, hubba, hubba, hubba. "I didn't mean it. I've been misquoted,” and then they work it out. But Roosevelt always confronted the problem. He never ducked or tried to elude it. He always went straightforward and said, "Here I am. Ich bin hier." I think that's one of his greatest qualities.

Perhaps the most legendary story of TR’s days in the Dakotas occurred when his boat was stolen from Elkhorn ranch in March 1886. From the start, Roosevelt knew the crime was likely the work of a man named Mike Finnegan and his gang, who, Roosevelt would write, had previously been implicated in cattle killing and horse-stealing in the area.

Instead of alerting the authorities, or just letting the three armed and potentially dangerous men go, he had his ranch hands, Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow, build a new boat so they could all go after the thieves. TR grabbed a camera and a couple of books (including Anna Karenina), and the trio headed down the icy Little Missouri River, as temperatures dropped to zero degrees.

Despite the fact that the thieves had a head start of several days, Roosevelt had an advantage: The thieves had stolen what TR said was “the only craft there was on the river” and would never suspect a chase was even possible. On the third day of the pursuit, Roosevelt spotted the stolen boat and ambushed one of the thieves, who surrendered immediately. Soon after, the other two returned, and Roosevelt and his party aimed their rifles at them and ordered their surrender, which they did without a drop of blood being shed. It was then up to TR to hike the thieves back to face justice in Dickinson.

Today, by car, the trip from Elkhorn Ranch to Dickinson is more than 80 miles and would take around two hours. Roosevelt and company were north of the Elkhorn, and it wasn’t just distance that made the trip challenging. Here’s Andes.

Andes: It was hiking through badlands, and then over the prairie. So, it was … not only distance, it was really rugged country. And the boat thieves, no doubt, were not happy about the situation.

McCarthy: Like obviously he needed the boat to get across the river to check on his cattle, but if it's easy enough for your farmhands to build you another boat, why go after your first boat? What is it? Is it just the principle of the thing?

Andes: I think so, yeah. Theodore Roosevelt, I think, had a very acute sense of right and wrong. And he felt that he had been wronged. And the boat didn't belong to them, it belonged to him, and he wanted it back. Roosevelt wanted things to be done the right way and the honorable way, and that's part of his character. I'm sure that people thought he was kind of a pain, but that's part of his charm. I'm not sure that Roosevelt thought about going after boat thieves as being dangerous. It was just something he did because he felt he should and he had to. He was impulsive, we know that.

A sense of bravado also seemed to be at play when it came to TR and the Spanish-American War. He had been loudly and publicly beating the war drum as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He believed that it was the country’s duty to intervene in the war for Cuban independence, which sometimes made him act against the wishes of his superiors. Once the U.S. became part of the war in 1898, Roosevelt resigned from his post, forming the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry—the Rough Riders—and heading to Cuba to get in on the action himself.

TR’s fearlessness in the face of physical danger would become the stuff of legend in June 1898, when Roosevelt and the Rough Riders took part in the Battle of Las Guasimas. There, in the sweltering jungle, a newly discovered Spanish stronghold blocked a military advancement.

It was here that Roosevelt faced live fire for the first time. Hails of bullets peppered his position, and the Rough Riders suffered their first casualties of the campaign. Roosevelt himself was said to be so excited by the action that he made no effort to take cover; instead, he frantically moved about as he awaited orders. Once, a bullet missed him by mere inches, piercing a tree right next to him and spraying his face full of bark.

Days later came the famous charge up Kettle Hill, during what’s now known as the Battle of San Juan Heights. The Rough Riders were tasked with helping to capture Kettle Hill as part of a larger campaign by the U.S. to take Santiago de Cuba. On this day, time was not a luxury—the Americans were firing artillery by 6:30 in the morning. Soon after, the Spanish responded with explosions that rocked the Rough Rider camp, leaving four dead and Roosevelt himself with a shrapnel wound on his wrist.

Orders to charge the hill were slow to come from General Sumner, and Roosevelt, growing impatient to see action, was on the verge of unilaterally sending his men up the hill on his own just before he was given official word to make his move: “I sprang on my horse, and then my ‘crowded hour’ began.”

Roosevelt gleefully powered through on horseback with his men running behind him, bullets flying at them from all sides. TR himself would take down a Spanish soldier using a pistol. He doubled up as “neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt would proudly proclaim.

The Rough Riders suffered the most casualties of any regiment in the cavalry division on that day; Roosevelt himself dodged death on numerous occasions. Bullets always seemed to be just missing him—sometimes whizzing by in the scenery, sometimes hitting fellow Rough Riders just feet away. During one early-morning bombardment by the Spanish, Roosevelt found cover under a tree as a shell exploded overhead. Five men directly behind him were killed or wounded; Roosevelt came away unscathed.

“I really [firmly believe] now they can’t kill him,” family friend and fellow soldier Bob Ferguson wrote in a letter to TR’s wife, Edith. But TR himself saw it all through a boy’s eyes: "The charge itself was great fun," he said. "Oh, but we had a bully fight!"

The Rough Riders helped secure a victory for the U.S. that day, and the image of Roosevelt charging up the hill on horseback, sneering at death, would become a part of American folklore and help turn him into one of the most popular men in the country upon his return to the States in August 1898.

Tyler Kuliberda: This is what propels his career. He becomes famous, nationally famous, becomes a household name after the Rough Riders win the battle of San Juan Heights, and he becomes so popular that the New York political machine, or Republican party they want him to run for governor, they run him for governor, he's successful.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, who explains that Republican machine Boss Thomas Platt—who had clashed with Roosevelt before, and probably should have known that he would not fall in line as governor—was fed up with TR’s reform policies. So they “kicked him upstairs,” according to Kuliberda, to be McKinley’s running mate.

Not everyone was pleased with that development. When TR was chosen as McKinley’s running mate, Mark Hanna, McKinley’s right-hand man, said, “Don’t any of you realize that there is only one life between that madman and the presidency?”

Roosevelt was hiking on the New York-Vermont border when McKinley was hit by an assassin’s bullet. At first he went to Buffalo to be by the president’s side, but when it looked like McKinley would recover, TR went back to the mountains. He was on Mount Marcy—the highest point in New York State—when word reached him that McKinley had taken a turn for the worse … and was dying. Roosevelt took off flying down the mountain.

Here’s Clay Jenkinson.

Jenkinson: Roosevelt made this heroic journey and [was] reckless. Could have himself been killed. Urging the stage rider, "Faster, faster. Don't hold back." And they were going on these really dangerous paths in the darkness and he's trying to get to a train that was waiting for him. And so he gets to the train and goes to Buffalo and then when he arrives, he already knows that the president is dead. And now he's in this really strange position because he has wanted to be president. He has intended to be president, but he certainly didn't think it would come this soon. You have to tread very, very carefully in the wake of an assassination. You can't be gleeful, but you have to assume control. You have to make sure that the people who are McKinley's aides and insiders will accept you and not flee and yet you have to establish your own administrative mastery and control of the leaders of power pretty quickly. And he did it beautifully.

Still, Theodore Roosevelt was Theodore Roosevelt. TR—who came into office thanks to an assassin’s bullet—was the first president to have formal protection by the Secret Service, but he wouldn’t make it easy on them. According to historian Kathleen Dalton, “He resisted Secret Service protection at first, preferring to carry his own gun.” TR did, eventually, accept their protection … but, as Dalton writes, only begrudgingly.

And when Roosevelt wished to observe the capabilities of one of the Navy’s earliest submarines, the USS Plunger, he didn’t do so from the safety of the presidential yacht; instead, he joined the crew of the vessel as it dove under water for hours. This despite the fact that submarine technology was still in its infancy. "Never in my life have I had such a diverting day nor can I ever recall having so much enjoyment in so few hours as today," he said.

Danger seemed to find Roosevelt even when he wasn’t looking for it. On September 3, 1902, the president was heading to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in a horse-drawn carriage. With him were Winthrop Crane, governor of Massachusetts, future Secretary of the Treasury George Bruce Cortelyou, and Secret Service agent William Craig.

As the carriage crossed some trolley tracks on the way into town, it was hit by an electric trolley. The carriage flew 40 feet; Roosevelt was thrown, landing on his face and bruising his leg. Crane and Cortelyou were OK, but Craig had been run over by the trolley. He was dead—the first Secret Service agent to die on presidential duty.

Roosevelt had barely escaped. John Hay, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, later said that “Had the trolley car struck the rear hub … Crane and the president would have been tossed to the left and under the wheels just as poor Craig was.”

How close a call was it? According to Morris, a mere two inches.

In true TR form, he soldiered on, campaigning in the Midwest—at least until the trip was cut short when the bruise on his shin developed into an abscess that required emergency surgery.

One of Kuliberda’s favorite TR stories is an anecdote of Edith’s casual reaction to seeing her bloodied husband come inside one day at Sagamore Hill after colliding with the blades of the windmill that still stands on the property.

Kuliberda: Apparently, Edith tells him very calmly, "Theodore, I wish you'd do your bleeding in the bathroom." For me, it gives me a sense that she was used to this ... She [had] experienced him hurting himself, and she knew that he would be fine and everything would be OK. She's worried about: just … don’t bleed here.

Just because she was accustomed to it doesn’t mean she didn’t worry, and even after he was out of office, Edith still couldn’t shake the fear that McKinley’s fate would also befall her husband.

And it almost did on October 14, 1912, during a campaign stop in Milwaukee when TR was running for president for a potential third term, not as a Republican but as the candidate for the Progressive Party.

It’s one of the most famous pieces of the Roosevelt mythology: He was shot by John Flammang Schrank, a deranged would-be assassin who claimed the ghost of McKinley was guiding him to gun down Roosevelt right before he was set to deliver a speech.

With a bullet lodged in his chest and death closer to his front door than ever, TR handled the situation in trademark “Bull Moose” fashion, powering through a roughly 90-minute speech as blood continued to escape the wound. Only after he was done with his work would Roosevelt go to the hospital.

Edith wasn’t by her husband’s side for this trip—instead, she was back home in New York, watching a production of Johann Strauss’s The Merry Countess at the Casino Theater in Manhattan. When she got the news, a weeping Edith bolted from the theater and was heard to demand, “Take me to where I can talk to him or hear from him at once.”

She was taken to the Progressive National Headquarters at the Manhattan Hotel and spoke over the phone with TR’s doctors, who informed her that the wound had been X-rayed and dressed, and they were in the process of determining if the bullet could be safely removed or not.

After midnight, she received a telegram from her husband that attempted to downplay the situation. It read: “I am now in the American Hospital. The bullet did not hit anything vital and I think they will find it somewhere around. It is no more serious than the injury the boys received. My voice is holding out well and I will go on with the trip. Don't worry. Love to all.”

The doctors did, indeed, find the bullet around somewhere—it was lodged in Roosevelt’s rib, and the doctors decided to leave it where it lay.

Following the assassination attempt and his loss in the 1912 election, a familiar Roosevelt pattern reemerged. He decided to overcome the post-election melancholia by shaking off the modern world and going on his famed trip down the Amazon’s River of Doubt.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock to Edith that, even after surviving runs-ins with grizzly bears, a carriage accident, and a bullet to the chest, TR was still willing to take enormous risks, tempt fate, and set off on boyish adventures, even at the age of 55. Here’s Andes.

Andes: Who could make this up? He went for the adventure, but he also went to be the first to do this. That was a big thing. But that was a big thing among the explorer class back then. I'm sure Edith looked at him like, "That's dangerous," but Edith knew him really well. But I don't think the thought of danger ever stopped him from doing anything. He almost died on that trip, and he never really recovered his health after that. And Kermit almost died, too.

With the malaria, a bacterial infection, the gash on his leg—Roosevelt wasn’t just close to death during his Amazon trip, he was also growing concerned that his condition would spread and endanger the other men in his group. He had brought along morphine on the trip, as he always did on expeditions like these, in case things got bad.

As he later told a friend, who recounted the story in 1925:

“One never knows what is going to happen, and I did not mean to be caught by some accident where I should have to die a lingering death. I always meant that, if at any time death became inevitable, I would have it over with at once, without going through a long-drawn-out agony from which death was the only relief. I have had a very full life, and am not at all afraid to die.”

On the Amazon trip, things got bad, and Roosevelt told his friend that “when I found myself so ill that I was a drag on the party, and it began to look as if we could not all get out alive, I began to think it might be better for me to take my morphine and end it.”

But then it occurred to Roosevelt that Kermit wouldn’t abandon him—not even if he died. He would insist on bringing his father’s body back, which TR knew would be impossible. “So there was only one thing for me to do, and that was to come out myself,” he said. “It was a hard fight, but I made it.”

The River of Doubt is now known as the Roosevelt River, in honor of the expedition that TR was all too ready to sacrifice himself for. But his penchant for cheating death was suffering from diminishing returns. His body was broken down, he’d lost much of his formidable size, and he was looking more mortal than ever.

Over the next few years, TR faced failing health and even more tragedy when his son, Quentin, died after his plane was shot down in Germany during World War I. TR faced his grief quietly: “There is no use writing about Quentin,” he wrote to novelist Edith Wharton, “for I should break down if I tried.”

The Roosevelt routine of plunging into adventure to combat the loss of a loved one had run its course. Even before Quentin’s death, it was becoming clear that TR’s body simply wouldn’t allow him to be the “Bull Moose” anymore—by 1918 he was suffering from rheumatism, lumbago, anemia, and vertigo, which made it difficult to walk or even stand at times. Various infections would put him in and out of the hospital, and illnesses he faced on the Amazon would still affect him—something he called his “old Brazilian trouble.”

In November 1918, Roosevelt was brought to the hospital to treat the recurring abscesses in his legs. He came home around Christmastime, though he was still suffering from worsening pain due to his rheumatism.

By this point, Edith had his bed moved to the chamber adjacent to their room—one with corner windows facing south and west, the warmest room in the house. The coal fire was kept lit all day and night, keeping Roosevelt comfortable as he rested in his mahogany sleigh bed.

Despite the litany of ailments, he was still working: Morris writes that on January 3, TR dictated an editorial to the Kansas City Star on the proposed League of Nations, and on January 5, he dictated an article for the Metropolitan voicing his support for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. And, he wrote a long letter to his son, Ted, with a draft of his Metropolitan article enclosed.

Around midnight, Roosevelt’s caretaker, James Amos, helped the Colonel get into bed. After watching the fire for a while, Roosevelt asked, "James, will you please turn out the light?” before closing his eyes to go to sleep.

Just a few hours later, early in the morning on January 6, 1919—after decades of dodging it physically, mentally, and emotionally—death finally came for Theodore Roosevelt.

Here’s Kuliberda.

Kuliberda: He dies quietly. It's kind of the opposite of how I think he thought he would die. It's kind of ironic to die quietly in your family home in your sleep, whereas Roosevelt I think was somebody who I think would have seen himself as somebody who’d die in battle, or somebody who would die giving himself to a great cause.

Roosevelt’s battle with death was probably best summed up by Vice President Thomas Marshall, who, upon hearing that the Colonel had passed away, said, “Death had to take him in his sleep, for if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

Roosevelt’s death was a shock to the nation, and to the world—there had been talks of him running again for president in 1920, and to the public at large, he had always been a figure that seemed invulnerable.

Within hours of the news, the Senate and the House of Representatives were adjourned, U.S. flags were ordered to half-mast around the globe, and military planes made ceremonial flights over Oyster Bay, dropping laurel wreaths onto the lawn of the Roosevelt family home. Mourners swarmed through Oyster Bay—leaving Edith and son Archie to direct traffic and console the very people who had come to comfort them.

The tributes to TR poured in. Aimara Sato, former Japanese ambassador to Washington, reflected on Roosevelt’s legacy and his efforts to bring about peace during the Russo-Japanese war, saying TR was “perhaps the only great American who understood us.”

Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, wrote to Edith, saying “France loses in him an excellent friend.” British Prime Minister David Lloyd George remarked, “Mr. Roosevelt was a great and inspiring figure far beyond his own country’s shores and the world is poorer for his loss.”

Later, a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey, where a choir sang Roosevelt’s favorite hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” followed by a rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the church organs.

Theodore Roosevelt’s funeral was held on January 8, 1919. His body lay in a coffin in the North Room of Sagamore Hill, resting on a prized lion’s skin, adorned with flags for both the United States and the Rough Riders. His daughter Ethel said that “He looked as if he were asleep—and weary. But not stern.”

Roosevelt was laid to rest in Young’s Memorial Cemetery, just about a mile away from Sagamore Hill, at the top of a hill looking out over the bay. The weather, and the hike to the site, were pure Roosevelt: The mourners—who included mentor and senator Henry Cabot Lodge and friend-turned-rival William Howard Taft—had to make a 45-degree trek up the hill while trudging through a layer of wet snow that had fallen that morning.

It’s a humid July day when Jon, one of Mental Floss’s video editors, and I make the trek out to Sagamore Hill and to Young’s Memorial Cemetery. The hill is no joke—we are sweating buckets by the time we reach the steps to Roosevelt’s grave.

McCarthy: It’s 26 steps up.

Jon Mayer: Did you just know that?

McCarthy: No, I looked it up ahead of time. But, you know, 26th president, so 26 steps. Makes sense. ... This place is called Youngs Memorial Cemetery, and that's because this used to be the Youngs' farm. They were longtime Long Island residents, and they started burying their own family members here in ... 1658? Yeah. And then later on, they made it available to their neighbors. And so TR and Edith bought plots here, according to this pamphlet, "some years before the President's death. His simple country grave, reached by 26 steps signifying that he was the 26th President, soon became the focus for pilgrimages by groups and individuals," like me.

At the top of the hill is TR’s gravesite. It’s a simple tombstone, adorned with the Great Seal, surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

There’s a small concrete pathway around the grave, which is covered with plants. There are two small American flags and one blue flag that reads “medal of honor recipient.” Roosevelt was awarded the medal of honor posthumously in 2001. He was the first—and only—president to receive the distinction.

The site is tranquil. The trees rustle in the wind; the bay glitters in the sun. And above the distant sound of screaming kids and the drone of a lawnmower and the whooshing of cars going by, you can hear what Theodore Roosevelt thought was the sweetest sound in the whole world.

McCarthy: He loved birds.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jay Serafino, with research by Erin McCarthy, 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 Alyssa Parker-Geisman, Eileen Andes, Tyler Kuliberda, and Clay Jenkinson.

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.

History Vs. Episode 11: History Vs. Theodore Roosevelt

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

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.

How Teddy Roosevelt Became a G.I. Joe Action Figure

Jon Mayer
Jon Mayer

Hasbro's special-edition Theodore Roosevelt G.I. Joe figure from 1999 doesn't have kung-fu grip or an arsenal of tank-busting accessories to go into battle with. Instead, his signature toothy grin, glasses, and Rough Rider uniform from the Spanish-American War are all meticulously recreated on a figure that's better suited for display than play. Though the toy doesn't quite fit in with the likes of Duke, Snake Eyes, and Cobra Commander from G.I. Joe's '80s heyday, it turns out that the rancher-turned-soldier-turned-president was a perfect fit for a toy line that was ready to embrace reality again.

The "Real American Hero" Gets Canceled

At its peak in the 1980s, Hasbro estimated that two out of every three boys between the ages of 5 and 11 owned a G.I. Joe action figure. But by the mid-'90s, the once-famous "Real American Hero" line of 3.75-inch figures that had been the brand's foundation was discontinued in the face of slowing sales.

"They were losing kids to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other new brands," Derryl DePriest, the former vice president of global brand management and author of the books The Collectible GI Joe and Star Wars: The Vintage Collection Archive Edition, tells Mental Floss in an email.

A changing toy market and stiff competition were partly to blame for these cancellations, but a key shift came in 1991, when Hasbro bought rival toy maker Kenner, which soon assumed control of both G.I. Joe and Transformers.

"Kenner was a boy's toy powerhouse, having held the license to Star Wars, Batman, [and] Ghostbusters,” DePriest says. "[They] had a hot hand, and naturally with the change of management, they wanted to put their own stamp on it."

Though the company tried new initiatives in '95 and '96—like the 5-inch "G.I. Joe Extreme" line, which DePriest called "a disaster"—they were usually discontinued within a year. Joe was still a moneymaker, but it was clear that its popularity was sagging, especially now that it was under the same roof as the Star Wars juggernaut. Turns out, to evolve, the brand just needed to go back to its roots.

G.I. Joe Goes Retro

When G.I. Joe first launched in 1964, it entered the market as a series of 12-inch figures, complete with cloth outfits, 19 points of articulation, and plenty of accessories. By the ‘90s, fans of those originals were now adults with disposable income looking to recapture a bit of their youth and share the 12-inch version of Joe with their own kids. Hasbro was starting to take notice.

"The team at Hasbro was aware of the nostalgic interest in [12-inch G.I. Joes] beginning in the late ‘80s," DePriest says. "They first tested the waters with a 12-inch product at the request of Target in 1991, with a version of Duke with sound effects marketed under the ‘Hall of Fame’ collection."

That initial 1991 attempt didn’t scratch the nostalgia itch—the figures were 12 inches like the originals, but they were overly bulky and lacked the articulation of their ‘60s counterparts. So the team tried again in the mid-‘90s, but this time they fully embraced the retro look and feel for a new line called the “Classic Collection,” which launched in 1996.

The toned-down body design was far less chunky and restrictive, meaning the team was no longer shackled to only producing toys based on squared-jawed heroes with barrel chests and sleeve-shredding biceps. The new line stuck close to its vintage bread and butter: U.S. Army tank commanders, helicopter pilots, and Marine snipers were some of the early offerings.

But the team decided to take advantage of the newfound flexibility by introducing figures based on real-world war heroes, presidents, and other important historical figures, too. It was something that appealed both to older collectors and the history buffs at Hasbro.

"At one point, we had George Washington, we had done a General Patton, General Eisenhower, Colin Powell. And then we had also done Congressional Medal of Honor recipients; the first one being Francis Currey," Kurt Groen, the former designer behind the 12-inch line at Hasbro, tell Mental Floss.

The line soon found an audience, and, of course, more figures (and more media attention) followed.

"Some of the real-world personalities that got the most attention included a WWII tribute to John F. Kennedy, as well as astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the voice of the common soldier, Ernie Pyle," DePriest said. There was such demand that even offbeat choices like Bob Hope and Ted Williams got the green light.

Teddy Roosevelt: The Perfect G.I. Joe

When asked why he chose Roosevelt for the 1999 line, Groen's answer was simple: "I wanted to do him." That's the type of carte blanche he was given by Hasbro on the 12-inch line. Groen also knew, as an admirer of Roosevelt, that the colorful hero of the Spanish-American War embodied the spirit the company was looking for.

"Teddy Roosevelt was a natural fit," Groen says. "He's bigger than life. So, that was an easy pick in the whole process."

The moment the design process started, Groen knew that the Roosevelt figure couldn't be just TR as president ready to sit down for a meeting at the White House. G.I. Joes need to be ready for war—so Roosevelt needed to be a Rough Rider again.

"[Before] he did the Rough Riders, he would dress up and play the part or go out West and kind of live the Remington life," Groen says. "And then after he did the Rough Riders, he was focused fully on the political side of life. So there was no other place to go then."

Picking the outfit was the easy part—next, Groen needed to pay close attention to every detail if this figure was going to work.

"[I] contacted a couple of parks, a couple historians. And then I've got books [on his uniforms] like you wouldn't believe," Groen said about the process of nailing down the design details. Every inch of the sculpt was important to get right, but some of the details that Groen still remembers more than 20 years later are Roosevelt's smile, which practically beams off the figure's head; the distinct shape of his mustache; and his glasses.

A photo of Theodore Roosevelt as seen during the Spanish-American War.
Hasbro's Theodore Roosevelt G.I. Joe figure was based on his Rough Rider uniform worn during the Spanish-American War.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The research paid off. Roosevelt’s entire ensemble from the war is represented on the figure—highlighted by the slouch hat, Colt revolver, and polka-dotted bandana that can be seen in so many paintings and photographs from the time.

"If you remember the picture of him standing with the troops on top of San Juan Hill—that's where the big inspiration came from for the figure," Groen said.

The figure would officially hit store shelves in 1999—and 20 years later, many can still be found untouched and in their original box for anywhere from $60-$80 online.

The fact that people are still buying Roosevelt and other "Classic Collection" figures in mint condition today was all by design. As Groen said, "We weren't really designing toys." Though Groen was concerned with playability during the design phase, figures like these were made for collectors who likely never remove them from their window-box packaging.

Whether or not Groen and the team at Hasbro ever imagined kids pitting Teddy Roosevelt against Duke, Snake Eyes, or Cobra Commander is anyone’s guess. But in terms of fitting seamlessly into the world of G.I. Joe, it's hard to argue against TR.

"If you look at him and the way he held himself, he was a perfect character,” Groen said. “I mean, when you talk about characters of history, he is a character of history."

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.

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