The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
Edmund Morris, 1979

When I was in grad school I took a class on Nazi Germany, and to my surprise, the chief approach the class took was gender studies.  Our primary text was a two-volume series called Male Fantasies, in which author Klaus Theweleit delves into the rhetoric of the Freikorps and demonstrates that these far-right paramilitary groups spoke of Jews and communists as threatening to engulf the world in "a flood of red filth" — the exact same terms in which they spoke of the female body.  World War II and the death camps, Theweleit suggests, can largely be chalked up to a society in the grip of hysterical misogyny.  You may or may not find this argument compelling.  The reason it came to mind as I read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is that to say that gender is a useful lens through which to view Roosevelt is much less of a stretch.  It's actually kind of hard to imagine any other approach. 

Theodore Roosevelt was a frail and sickly child.  "He suffered from coughs, colds, nausea, fevers, and a congenital form of nervous diarrhea," Morris reports, but worst of all was the asthma.  It frequently kept his parents up all night with him, and when they went on year-long vacations to Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean — for young "Teedie" had had the fortune to be born into one of the richest families in New York — he alternated trips to the British Museum and the ruins of Baalbek with days spent confined to bed, struggling to take a breath.  At puberty, Roosevelt was a wheezing, bespectacled toothpick whom the bullies had begun to sniff out as a promising target.  His father, whom Roosevelt worshipped, set before him a challenge.  Regrettably, nature had not made a man of him, so Theodore was going to have to make a man of himself.  CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.  Roosevelt set out to make himself into the manliest man who ever manned.  He dedicated himself to bodybuilding, and learned to box and to wrestle.  He'd always spent as much time as he could outdoors — his childhood hobby of collecting bugs and frogs and mice and things had grown into a serious enough interest in natural history that he'd published some well-received ornithological studies, and both he and those around him assumed the he had a distinguished career as "a scientific man" ahead of him.  Now he traded in birdwatching for canoeing and taking 25-mile hikes.  When he got a little older, he impressed Maine backwoodsmen and Dakota buffalo hunters with how such a puny little specimen could have such endless stamina… and when he got a little older than that, he'd grown so brawny that people were surprised to learn that he didn't perform physical labor to earn his living.  But this is trivia.  Roosevelt sought to become an exemplar of masculinity not just in body but in spirit — and that quest wound up having a big impact on American history.

"All the great masterful races have been fighting races," Roosevelt told the Naval War College in 1897, and he intended to see the American people become one of the great masterful races of the world.  Nowadays we are used to hearing even the most hawkish politicians pay lip service to the notion that going to war is always a last resort.  Theodore Roosevelt lived in an era when one could be a proud warmonger, and as Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the beginning of the McKinley administration, he was one of the proudest.  In public, he declared that "no triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war"; in private, he added that "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one."  Those who disagreed were contemptible "beings whose cult is non-virility."  And Roosevelt was more than just a propagandist: at the same time that he pumped out articles with titles like "The Manly Virtues," Roosevelt took advantage of his boss's summer vacation to assume control of the Navy and get it ready to go to war on a moment's notice, taking one excuse for delay off McKinley's plate.  There's another respect in which Roosevelt differed from those who have taken us to war in recent years: he wasn't a chickenhawk.  When the U.S. did go to war with Spain, Roosevelt shocked his colleagues by quitting his post as de facto chief of the Navy and enlisting in the Army to fight on the front lines, taking the rank of colonel and leading charges into enemy fire as his men were cut down all around him.  Killing animals had long been foremost among Roosevelt's hobbies — Morris notes that many of his diaries were "a monotonous record of things slain" — and now he gleefully added humans to the list; a close friend serving as one of Roosevelt's "Rough Riders" reported to Edith Roosevelt that her husband could be found "revelling in victory and gore" whenever he happened upon a trench filled with Spanish dead.  "No hunting trip so far has ever equalled it in Theodore's eyes."

The above may suggest a picture of some unlettered brute blowing his nose on the tablecloths, but little could be further from the truth.  It's true that, having been a rancher out in the territories, Roosevelt had spent a lot of time around such men, and was very comfortable around them and had gained their respect.  But Roosevelt himself was what in other eras would have been called a dandy, fop, or popinjay, but what in 19th-century America was called a "dude."  The long-tailed coat, the painted-on pants, the doeskin gloves, the silk hat, the gold-headed cane and gold-rimmed pince-nez glasses — wherever he went, his clothes made him an instant reputation.  In Albany he was "that damned dude"; in Washington he was "this powdered and perfumed dude"; out on the frontier he was "the dude from New York" (though he tended to be "Four Eyes" until a punch in the face set the name-caller straight).  Presumably he wore these clothes because he liked them, but wearing outfits straight off Savile Row also served notice that Roosevelt had some of the bluest blood in America and was perfectly at home in high society, where real power lay.  As Mark Zuckerberg notes in The Social Network, Roosevelt had "punched the Porc" — i.e., he'd been admitted to the Porcellian, the most exclusive social club at Harvard.  Which brings us to another way Roosevelt deviated from the easy caricature: not only was he a Harvard man, but he was no legacy admission.  Though he claimed to have "only a second-rate brain," Roosevelt had prodigious mental abilities.  He could absorb a printed page at a glance, allowing him to read a book, with full comprehension, in an hour; he consequently read three books from start to finish on an average day.  At the age of 23 — the same age he was elected to the New York State Assembly — Roosevelt had a book of his own published, a treatise on the naval battles of the War of 1812 that within five years became standard issue on every ship in the U.S. Navy.  It was the first of 38 books Roosevelt would write; Morris says their quality is mixed, and none are widely read today, but still, we're talking about an extremely busy guy who wrote 38 books in his spare time.  Political phenom, cavalry officer, cowboy, scientist, historian… as presidential polymaths go, Roosevelt's only rival among his predecessors was Thomas Jefferson — whom he unreservedly loathed.

There remains one more element to the equation.  Roosevelt believed that the quest for perfect masculinity required one to be a man of action, a man of manners, and a man of intellect — but above all, he had to be a man of morals.  In matters of sex, Roosevelt had imbibed the Victorian notion that women were to be "rigidly virtuous," completely chaste before marriage and angels of the house afterward — but unlike many of his contemporaries, he had also internalized the principle that "what was wrong in a woman could not be right in a man."  His brother, who had knocked up a servant girl, Roosevelt deemed a "flagrant man-swine"; even a cousin who had done nothing more scandalous than marry a French actress was "a disgrace to the family" and a "vulgar brute."  Roosevelt was not unaffected by feminine charms — his adolescent diaries suggest that he was dazzled by virtually every girl he ever met — but he prided himself on remaining "perfectly pure."  How did this fly among the lads at Harvard?  Roosevelt once wrote that his father had given him "the feeling that I was always to be both decent and manly, and that if I were manly nobody would laugh at my being decent" — and his classmates soon learned that teasing Roosevelt about his prudishness would result in "instant fisticuffs."  Roosevelt demonstrated the same temperament in his public career.  As a young state legislator, Roosevelt skyrocketed into the leadership of the Republican party, but his colleagues on both sides of the aisle noted his "dangerous tendency to see even the most complicated issues simply in terms of good and evil" and to fight ferociously against what he saw as the latter.  For a legislator and political commentator, this was a formula for streams of invective.  Here's Roosevelt weighing in on the topic of immigration:

It is a base outrage to oppose a man because of his religion or birthplace, and all good citizens will hold any such effort in abhorrence.  A Scandinavian, a German, or an Irishman who has really become an American has the right to stand on exactly the same footing as any native-born citizen in the land, and is just as much entitled to the friendship and support, social and political, of his neighbors.

Seems enlightened enough so far… so how about his feelings on emigration…?

[…] it is in those professions where our people have striven hardest to mold themselves in conventional European forms that they have succeeded least; and this holds true to the present day, the failure being of course most conspicuous where the man takes up his abode in Europe; where he becomes a second-rate European, because he is over-civilized, over-sensitive, over-refined, and has lost the hardihood and manly courage by which alone he can conquer in the keen struggle of our national life. […] Thus it is with the undersized man of letters, who flees his country because he, with his delicate, effeminate sensitiveness, finds the conditions of life on this side of the water crude and raw; in other words, because he finds that he can not play a man's part among men, and so goes where he will be sheltered from the winds that harden stouter souls.

Did I mention that it's hard to figure this guy out without heavy recourse to gender studies?

In any event, what in essays could only come out as heated rhetoric was in executive posts translated into action.  As Civil Service Commissioner under Benjamin Harrison, Roosevelt actually tried to enforce the civil service laws, exposing corruption in the distribution of post office jobs and election fraud committed by those who had received them — even though those involved were members of his own party.  This naturally led to him crossing swords with the administration, particularly with John Wanamaker, the postmaster general, whom Roosevelt caught in a series of lies at a congressional hearing.  Roosevelt's next job was as president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners, and again, Roosevelt took a hands-on approach to cleaning up the organization.  The NYPD was so corrupt that the amount it cost to bribe the cops to turn a blind eye to an illegal brothel, casino, or saloon was printed in guidebooks for tourists.  Roosevelt fired a couple of the big figures in the department, launched a merit-based promotion system, and personally walked the streets of New York in the middle of the night, waking up sleeping policemen and rousting them out of bars and liquor stores.  His next job after that was the Navy job, and once again, Roosevelt eagerly played the white knight — by his lights, to not immediately invade Cuba and kill all the Spaniards you could find demonstrated "cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed." 

After the war, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York.  He was hardly the first choice of the Republican establishment, but his celebrity was such that he seemed sure to win even as an independent, so the bosses deemed it best to keep him inside the tent.  They assumed that Roosevelt saw eye to eye with the power structure on economic matters; not only was he an aristocrat himself, but earlier in his career he had led the fight against a law that granted city workers a minimum wage of two dollars a day, and he'd campaigned ardently against William Jennings Bryan, whom he assailed as a demagogue who sought to "inflame with bitter rancor towards the well-off" people who had "failed in life."  To their horror, once in office Roosevelt set his sights upon a new enemy: corporations.  He announced that a tax on corporations that controlled public franchises would benefit the community immensely, and it just so happened that a bill to implement such a tax was currently languishing in committee.  Roosevelt outmaneuvered the party bosses and got it passed.  When his fellow Republicans expressed concern that Roosevelt was flirting with "various altruistic ideas" and accused him of making an "extreme concession to Bryanism," Roosevelt replied that, on the contrary, his intention was to stave off socialism.  "I do not believe it is wise or safe for us as a party to take refuge in mere negation and to say that there are no evils to be corrected," he argued, and he meant to save capitalism from itself by "correcting the evils."  Otherwise, the unsustainable greed of corporations was certain to bring the economy crashing down, and then Bryan or someone like him would come to power and install some sort of Marxist program.  The party bosses were aghast; for them, unsustainable greed was a feature, not a bug.  When Roosevelt ousted an official who was in the pocket of the insurance companies, that was the last straw.  Republican kingmakers, with no small amount of urging from big business, set out to perform a bit of political judo on Roosevelt.  They might not be able to defeat him for re-election… but what if he were to be offered a spot as President McKinley's running mate in 1900?  Not only would that get Roosevelt out of Albany, but as vice president, he would have virtually no power.  Which Roosevelt knew full well — yet he would still be sure to accept, for he intended to run for president in 1904, and feared that if he were to turn down the VP slot, what Roosevelt called "the kaleidoscope" of American politics might turn enough that the big celebrity of 1898 would be forgotten by then.  So off he went to Washington, where he couldn't do the establishment any harm — until six months after he took office, when an assassin's bullet put Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.

At which point this book ends.  I was a bit dubious about whether I wanted to read three long books about Roosevelt rather than one of the single-volume biographies that are out there, but it's no accident that Morris won the 1980 Pulitzer for this book: it's a very engaging read.  For thoughts on the sequel, follow the link below.

continue to part two >>

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