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.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

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Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

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Video games

Sony

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Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

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Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

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Beats/Amazon

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Movies and TV

HBO/Amazon

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Toys and Games

Amazon

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Casper/Amazon

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Haus/Amazon

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Clothes

Ganni/Amazon

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History Vs. Bonus Episode: Fact Checking Theodore Roosevelt

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You often hear Theodore Roosevelt described as “larger than life,” which I think we can all agree is pretty accurate. And, as with many other larger than life characters, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions surrounding TR—some of which were encouraged and perpetuated by Roosevelt himself. As Kathleen Dalton writes in Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, “He sought to keep his inner life and less attractive traits well hidden. He also encouraged his friends and authorized biographers to tell an upbeat, socially acceptable, stiff-upper-lipped version of his life. Many of his friends and biographers obliged him.” Dalton goes on to say that the guardians of his story would edit or destroy letters they deemed embarrassing, and would even hide the family’s secrets to present a better picture of Roosevelt’s life.

Austin Thompson: A lot of this fact checking stuff is to do with his legacy. They really intertwine because these myths and legends are such a part of the story.

That’s Mental Floss’s fact checker, Austin Thompson, who has been taking a magnifying glass to stories on Mental Floss’s website and to our YouTube videos for years, and he looked at every script of this podcast, too. He knows better than many how complicated unraveling the truth behind history can be, so for this final bonus episode of History Vs., I couldn’t wait to get him on the phone to debunk some TR myths and talk fact checking one of the most famous figures in history.

Thompson: I found an absolutely brilliant 1912 New York Times article about Theodore Roosevelt which was saying if you had four experts who swore that he boiled his grandmother and ate her in the 1890s, he would come back with documentary proof that she actually died in the 1880s.

Just a quick break here to say that when Austin was fact checking this script, he realized that he’d misremembered what the article said—it was actually 20 experts, not four. OK, carry on.

Thompson: If you have people who swear under oath that he had a meeting with Standard Oil at this date, he would come back with a dated photograph of him talking to a mother's congress. I think it really has to do with ... that he does come to the White House, and all his history, from a perspective of being a historian. He knows that he's great. He knows his greatness. Everyone his entire life has been clear, he is great. He can produce dated evidence for anything you might say he did. I think it's because he wanted to control his historical view in a way that other people wouldn't, but nowadays we wouldn't think is that weird.

When we were putting these episodes together, the general process went like this: I came up with the themes for each episode, then put together outlines that pulled together a ton of information around those themes. In each outline were sources, quotes, and beats that I wanted to hit, along with pieces of the interviews I conducted that I wanted to include. Then the writer—sometimes me, sometimes another Mental Floss staffer—would use that outline to write the script, which would go through an editing process where myself and members of the production team would weigh in and make tweaks. And finally, before I recorded, the script would go to Austin, and he’d dig in. And I mean really dig in. Not only did he find errors—hey, I’m not perfect—but he would also nearly always find some new piece of information or interesting story that I’d want to include.

Thompson: As I was researching Theodore Roosevelt and looking at all sorts of things, there were two things that struck me about him. One makes fact checking a lot easier, the other one made it basically impossible. He mythologizes, but you can get so much information about him from other sources that aren't him. It'll be like, you spent five minutes with him 10 years ago, you're suddenly writing a book, the time I spent with Theodore Roosevelt. The family he's staying with in Germany who's saying, "Oh he's going to be President." That all exists independent of anything he did. So … he is in control of his image to a certain extent but there's such a world that you can pretty much verify most things he's saying.

And then the other thing that makes this harder, that we've talked about, is the changing views of Theodore Roosevelt. It's like, if you read something from the 1910s, it is a different perspective than if you read something from the 1940s. It's lucky because with Theodore Roosevelt we have so many of his primary documentation, but it's still really hard to sort of sift through all of that to say, well is this person saying this about Theodore Roosevelt because this is actually how it is, or is it just because that was the prevailing view at the time?

Also, socio-culturally we like to think of history as this great monolithic thing. It happened and now we can just kind of go back and look at bits and pieces of it. We as a culture, I don't think we really like to view history as having trends. That there are differences in how history is being viewed from one day to another, one culture to another. We're not taught to think of history in that way.

Erin McCarthy: So when you're fact checking something like the podcast scripts, do you usually try to go for the primary documentation first? Or, in the case of Theodore Roosevelt when you know that he did not like to write about things that were difficult, like, for example, he didn't include his first wife in his autobiography at all, are you looking elsewhere when you're fact checking?

Thompson: Well it depends on the thing. I mean, you know he's there to tell a story. So as long as you read it knowing, read what he says knowing this is the story he wants you to hear, then I always like to go back to primary sources, cause Roosevelt just gave us so many of them. And as I said, so many of the people who even interacted with him briefly would be writing books about the events that happened.

It is when you get into more sort of obscure—especially obscure leaders or figures in history—that it does start to really become a problem of, how much weight are you willing to put on this secondary source? I'm sure if you read some of my podcast suggestions, there are times when it'll be really awkwardly suggesting saying, "This person says this," and that's because it's maybe true but these other sources, say, aren't necessarily as strong.

McCarthy: So we often go back and forth and play a little bit of like, is this OK? What do you think about this phrasing? 'Cause we don't want to mislead anybody, right? We want to make sure that we're being accurate.

Thompson: I have spent ages, like I don't even know how long, debating whether a single word is correct. 'Cause it does make a difference.

McCarthy: Do you want to get into some myths now or do you … do you have other thoughts?

Thompson: I think so. I don't think I have anything else I wanted to talk about with the process of fact checking. It's just kind of like, you go through documents and try to decide is this reasonable? Is this accurate? Does this person say what this person says? Is this person correct? Is this person citing some lost documentation that was found at the top of a monastery in Outer Uzbekistan and then the monastery burned down so you're relying entirely on them? It's hard. 

TR myths, coming up after the break.

 

In the course of making this podcast, we came across a number of TR myths and misconceptions, some of which we touched upon briefly in the regular episodes, and some we just didn’t have time to get to. So we figured we’d finish up this season by digging deeper into a few of them. And if you’re going to take on TR myths and misconceptions, you might as well start at the beginning.

Everyone knows that Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly, asthmatic kid, who, after a directive from his father, built his body to the point where he had cured himself of asthma. Right?

Well … not so fast.

Thompson: According to Theodore Roosevelt, that is what happened. But there's a really interesting paper from a couple years ago, "The Misunderstood Asthma of Theodore Roosevelt." What makes the article interesting, so it says no, the asthma went away when he was somewhere between 12 to 15. And that's about the age you'd expect the asthma to lighten itself up, even if he was doing absolutely nothing.

As the paper notes, “[This] phenomenon is well recognized by clinicians today but was unknown in TR's time. Looking back at TR's inference, it is tempting to speculate about how his misplaced sense of accomplishment may have influenced his thinking about what else he might achieve if he set his mind to solving new problems.”

In reality, his asthma didn’t fully go away and, in fact, it sometimes reared its ugly head later on in his life.

Thompson: When Edith was in labor, Alice—his daughter Alice—remarked something like "the train and my father came in wheezing as he rushed to be by her side." He had asthma attacks throughout his entire life, but they were not as bad. According to the article, at the time and for all of Theodore Roosevelt's life, asthma was thought to be psychosomatic.

The idea that they thought at the time asthma was psychosomatic, I think probably was a really big part of why Theodore Roosevelt wanted to proclaim himself as having cured his asthma. I mean, this was a guy who thinks basically everything is weaker than he is. So if he's truly feeling that his asthma is entirely in his head, it makes sense to me why he would then pretend that it wasn't. That's my opinion on the matter, but yeah.

McCarthy: OK, this is one of my favorites. So there is a photo floating around on the internet in which Theodore Roosevelt is riding a moose. So … did Theodore Roosevelt ever ride a moose?

Thompson: Well not that we know of. He spent a lot of time in Maine, so … but no. The picture is definitely fake. But it was never supposed to be viewed as real. It was from a 1912 New York Tribune. If you just take the picture by itself it's "whoa, manly, that's awesome." But the whole triptych is Taft riding an elephant, Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose, and Woodrow Wilson riding a donkey. It's for the president, and they were whatever the 1912 version of Photoshopped was onto the animal of the respective party. And then I can only imagine someone found a copy of that picture and thought "Theodore Roosevelt, manly!" and went with it.

What I think is kind of interesting about that picture, though, is since it was debunked several years ago, there’s a secondary myth that has since emerged, that the New York Tribune made up that picture as a way to help Roosevelt. When that's not true either—there's no evidence. I mean, yes in the picture, Theodore Roosevelt is bigger than the other two but there's nothing in the New York Tribune to suggest that it's being done to support Roosevelt at the expense of the other candidates. But it's just this sort of weird secondary myth that emerged after the first myth was debunked.

It says a lot about a president by what kinds of myths surround them as we go back. So George Washington, he's not telling a lie. Abraham Lincoln, he's beating 300 people in a wrestling match. It's a myth, but we still want to attach because it's truthfulness and ruggedness on the frontier.

Meanwhile, the great myth about William Howard Taft is he gets stuck in the bathtub. So I think it says a lot about Roosevelt's misconceptions, almost all of the misconceptions we're going to be going through they have to do with how manly he is. By force of will, he punks his asthma. He rode a moose. I think that says a lot not about Theodore Roosevelt, but about how our view of Theodore Roosevelt is shaped.

McCarthy: So one thing that you will often see floating around has to do when TR was sworn in after William McKinley was assassinated. So TR was on vacation in the mountains. McKinley takes a turn for the worse. He barrels down to Buffalo to try to make it to the President's side. The President dies and TR is sworn in, in some guy's house in Buffalo on not a bible. And so the myth is, or the popular conception is, that TR is the first president who was not sworn in on a bible.

Thompson: Yeah, most of those facts are fine until you get right to the end with the bible fact.

The story is that they were in such a rush they couldn't grab a bible. But the guy whose house it was, Ansley Wilcox, he commented later that there were loads of bibles around the house it just didn't occur to anyone to use the bible because that was not the tradition in the area they were in at the time. So you do have earlier that definitely didn't do a bible. John Quincy Adams says explicitly in his diary it was on a book of law. And then later it's sort of hit or miss who's on the bible because most people weren't explicit in recording that until later. What I think the interesting one is after Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, when he's inaugurated after the death of Harding, he did the exact same thing. That they had a bible at hand but it wasn't used because that wasn't the tradition of the area. So it just would not have occurred to anyone that, "Oh yeah we need to use this bible," until later. So yes Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in without a bible. No, he wasn't the first. And despite what some seem to think, no, there's absolutely zero meaning to such a thing, other than nobody thought of it at the time.

McCarthy: But then, you know, like when he was actually elected of his own accord, wasn't he sworn in on a bible at that point?

Thompson: Yes. See, he wasn't making any point. In Upstate New York, they didn't use bibles, and nobody thought anything of it until afterwards, and they're like, “oh yeah, that's how you do it in the rest of the country. Huh.”

McCarthy: OK, I have one more note here for something that ... It's just a question mark. Tattoo? Question mark?

Thompson: Oh god.

McCarthy: And I feel like we have to talk about it because we've talked about it before.

Thompson: Yes. It's like, tattoos and judicial recall. Those are the two stories I'd been hoping to avoid.

McCarthy: OK, so the rumor goes that Theodore Roosevelt had a tattoo on his chest of the Roosevelt Family crest. And it's everywhere. But, dot dot dot, and I'll let you take it from there.

Thompson: Probably not but maybe—is that enough? So I spent, I don't even want to think how long, trying to figure out, like ... did he have a tattoo? And in the end, my guess is probably not, because there are clear descriptions of him doing things bare chested when a tattoo would have been notable, but nobody commented on it. That being said, they might just not have commented on it. And there aren't many pictures of, like, a shirtless Roosevelt during the time period where he's said to have the tattoo. I was really hoping that I could find his autopsy report, but turns out that he didn't have an autopsy after he died, so ...

McCarthy: This got dark.

Thompson: That's the kind of thing you have to look at. Yeah.

McCarthy: It just goes to show the lengths that you will go to ... to figure something out.

Thompson: Yeah. And so, I then tried to trace the myth back, and I don't think I was able to get the myth before the 1970s. So there's like a 50-year gap where there's no mention of Theodore Roosevelt having a tattoo, then it just kind of appears. And I've never, despite lots and lots of looking, been able to close that gap. So ... that is not proof that he didn't have a tattoo, but I'm pretty confident he didn't because, as I said, there were times when people are describing his bare chest and a tattoo would have been noteworthy, and they didn't comment on it.

McCarthy: Yeah. So we end where we began: tattoo, question mark?

Thompson: Yeah, basically.

McCarthy: Are you sick of Theodore Roosevelt yet?

Thompson: No, I'm not sick of Theodore Roosevelt because he's just interesting. I mean, he's definitely such a good person for the first season of this podcast ‘cause I was thinking: There aren't that many people who have reinvented themselves so many times. Most people are fairly consistent in their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, he was like, never more than five, six years at any one thing in his entire career, which makes him a very interesting person to research. And you just keep learning new things about him.

I mean one of the things I find amazing about Theodore Roosevelt is that his entire life he just kind of … he just kind of overshadowed everyone around him. People at the time were saying William McKinley was essentially the next Lincoln. He was viewed as a truly great president. And now: William McKinley who?

McCarthy: Yeah.

Thompson: He makes lists of the most forgotten president and that's because Theodore Roosevelt is just this force of nature that everything around him is dimmed by his incredible Theodore Roosevelt-ness.

McCarthy:
Yeah, a very bright light.

A huge thanks to Austin Thompson for hopping on the phone to chat and for fact checking every episode of this podcast. I truly could not have done it without him.

And with that, we’re wrapping up this first season of the podcast. I have to be honest, we did not intend to stick with TR this long. We had initially planned to launch a new season in June, and then COVID-19 happened and messed up all of our best-laid plans.

But I’m happy to announce that we’ll be back in early 2021 with a brand new season of the podcast, although it’s going to be slightly different than what we did for this first season.

First, we’re going to be changing the name of this feed so that we can put all of our Mental Floss podcasts here, though we’ll only be doing one season at a time, so don’t worry, we won’t be spamming you.

Also, rather than bring you another season of History Vs., we’re going to explore a different topic with a different host—but I promise it’s incredibly compelling, and the host is someone you’ve heard on this podcast before. And there is a bit of a TR connection. So stay tuned!

Credits

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

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

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

For transcripts, photos, and even more about Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

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