Edmund Morris, 2001
This page will eventually be archived as "Theodore Roosevelt, part two", so, to recap: part one covered The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris's excellent, Pulitzer-winning biography of Roosevelt from birth to the moment he became president. Theodore Rex picks up where that one left off. It isn't quite as sharply written, and when I was through, I felt as though I'd been presented with a lot of information but not actually all that much of a narrative. But this is why I keep writing these things — in the course of going through my notes to try to figure out what to say in this article, a pretty clear through line started to take shape.
We can start with an observation Duncan Black has made a few times: "Everybody Thinks They Rule The World". The militaries think they rule the world because they have all the guns. The spies think they rule the world because they know all the secrets. The Washington socialites think they rule the world: seriously, every time a president's poll numbers start to slip, you can count on an article popping up in the Washington Post in which some heiress contends that the president can't get anything done because he didn't ingratiate himself with the people who throw the dinner parties where all the really important connections get made. And of course the tycoons think they rule the world, because they have all the money. At the turn of the 20th century, this last group was more or less correct, at least in the United States. It was the era of the robber barons, and the lion's share of the national economy was in the pockets of a handful of inflation-adjusted billionaires. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil controlled 88% of the nation's petroleum; James B. Duke's American Tobacco Company produced 90% of the nation's cigarettes; Domino Sugar owned 98% of the nation's sugar processing capacity; U.S. Steel, formed by J.P. Morgan out of Andrew Carnegie's empire, had a comparatively paltry market share of 67%. Also in the robber barons' pockets were most politicians. Sometimes these arrangements rose to a level that could be called bribery, as when Ohio senator, presidential aspirant, and corporate cheerleader Joseph Foraker was discovered to have done some remarkably lucrative legal work for Standard Oil, whose vice president happened to write letters to him about legislation Standard Oil didn't approve of. But very often this wasn't necessary. Wealthy businessmen, such as Mark Hanna, could just sponsor the campaigns of men who already shared their views, such as William McKinley. McKinley wasn't going to cross swords with big business: the business community constituted virtually his entire power base.
The same was not true of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt's power base was the American public, with whom he was immensely popular. He was the Teddy the Rough Rider! The Hero of San Juan Hill! When he refused to claim an already incapacitated bear as a hunting trophy, the story became such a sensation that over a century later, little children still cuddle with their "teddy bears"! It helped that, a century before John McCain and his tire swing, Roosevelt had discovered the trick to playing the press: give members of the media special access, the feeling of being in the inner circle — a one-on-one interview during Roosevelt's daily one o'clock shave, an occasional "What's your opinion on this?" — and watch the hagiographical writeups from newspapers and magazines roll in. There was a downside to having the public as his power base: Roosevelt couldn't afford to do anything too unpopular. For instance, one of his first acts as president was to invite the foremost African-American figure of the time, Booker T. Washington, to the White House for dinner. Washington was pretty much the furthest thing from a radical, but white Southerners nevertheless freaked the fuck out. "The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President, when he invited a nigger to dine with him at the White House," thundered a leading Memphis paper. Roosevelt professed that "I regard their attacks with the most contemptuous indifference," but in fact he kept talk of African-American civil rights to a minimum for the rest of his administration. He never did regain the favor of the South — in the 1904 election, he lost every former rebel state — but he won every Union state except for Kentucky, with a smashing 63.4% of the two-party vote. Beholden to corporate kingmakers he was not.
This was not the first time that Gilded Age industrialists and financiers had found the White House occupied by a man of phenomenal personal popularity rather than a handpicked nonentity. From 1869 to 1877 the presidency had been held by the revered general of the Union army, Ulysses Grant. But Grant had proven as manipulable as McKinley. Before the Civil War, Grant had been a failure. All of his money-making schemes had tanked, and at age 37 he'd been reduced to working retail in his father's store, with his little brother as his boss. People who had made millions of dollars left him awestruck, and on economic matters he deferred to their judgment. Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, had grown up as a scion of one of the richest families in New York. Money didn't impress him. Intelligence did, but as a Harvard graduate, published historian and naturalist, and mental prodigy with the ability to read three books from start to finish in an evening, Roosevelt bowed to no one in that department. Virtue did, but as a thoroughgoing prude who had made a specialty of cleaning up corruption while heading up the Civil Service Commission and the New York Police Department, he considered himself a paragon. The quality he valued above all others was masculinity, and that was one area in which he had at one time displayed some anxiety: much as he had overcompensated for his bedridden childhood by becoming a frenetic bodybuilder and outdoorsman, he had overcompensated for his lack of military experience by giving unapologetically warmongering speeches. But serving as a victorious battlefield commander in the Spanish-American War had put those anxieties to rest to well. In short, Grant had spent eight years trying to prove to himself that he had won the presidency because he was extraordinary, and the money men used that anxiety to steer him toward their way of thinking. But Roosevelt knew that he was extraordinary. When he assumed the presidency, he had nothing to prove to anyone, not even the billionaires. He had no doubt that he was in his rightful station.
And I think this is the key to understanding the way Roosevelt approached his job as president of the United States. The United States is a republic. The word "republic" derives from the Latin "res publica", which translates to "public thing". Normally, people tend to treat public things very differently from how they treat the stuff they consider their own. Count the wads of discarded chewing gum on a public sidewalk and compare it to the number of similar wads on the floors of people's homes. But Theodore Roosevelt was an aristocrat. You know how European nobles grew up knowing that there was a piece of land they would eventually be governing, and then passing on to their heirs? How they were so identified with their lands that they were called by geographical names, such that in Shakespearean plays you have York talking to Northumberland, and human beings referred to as Burgundy and even France? Roosevelt evinced a similar attitude toward the United States. Many people who won public office, or were awarded public land, or controlled public franchises, asked themselves, "What can I get out of this?", and acted accordingly. That's why the capitalists of the Gilded Age were dubbed "robber barons": the original robber barons were members of the medieval gentry who had extorted money and goods from travelers passing through their lands. Both sets of robber barons behaved as though something valuable had fallen into their hands, from which they wanted to extract maximum value while the getting was good. But Roosevelt didn't act as though the presidency had fallen into his hands; from the beginning of his political career he'd genuinely believed that it eventually would be his for the taking if he decided that he wanted it. So like a secure aristocrat managing a country that was rightfully his, he aimed not to extract value from America, but to add value to it. America's prosperity was his prosperity, and its prestige was his prestige.
"One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight," Roosevelt contended. For instance, someone with foresight who found himself in possession of a forest would figure out how many trees could be chopped down each year and be fully replaced by new growth, thus securing a sustainable yield of wood. But a corporation would just chop down the entire forest for the immediate profit, and then either seize another forest and repeat the process, or else collapse. Roosevelt therefore took over a hundred million acres' worth of woodland out of the reach of private industry, designating the lands as national forests. He also created four national game refuges, five national parks, eighteen national monuments, and no fewer than fifty-one federal bird sanctuaries. A "great wonder of nature," Roosevelt declared, must not be commercially exploited, but rather preserved "for your children, your children's children, and all who come after you." The "children's children" he was talking about were my grandparents' generation, now almost gone, and Roosevelt's foresight extended beyond them, all the way to the present day, and onward. That is why we still have a Grand Canyon rather than a Grand Open Pit Mine.
Today we don't normally think of environmentalism and militarism as a natural fit, but to Roosevelt, foresight also meant a military buildup sufficient to neutralize any future threats to the nation's security. Under Roosevelt — just as president, not even including his earlier post in the Navy — the number of battleships increased from 8 to 25; of cruisers, from 9 to 27; of torpedo boats, from 18 to 33; of submarines, from 1 to 16. America had no destroyers in 1901; by 1903, it had sixteen. Had Roosevelt never fought in Cuba, this would probably mean that he was gleefully preparing for a war against somebody, anybody — but now he professed that his expansion of the Navy from an afterthought to the second most powerful in the world was genuinely aimed at keeping the peace. "No one dreads war as I do," he said, even in private. "The little I have seen of it, and I have seen only a little, leaves a horrible picture in my mind." But the commissioning of these ships marked a dramatic turning point in the behavior of the United States, which now possessed the ability to project power all over the world. Abruptly, the narrative reads like the headlines of my lifetime. Outlaws take an American hostage in Morocco; Roosevelt sends a few warships to Tangier, and the hostage is released. The Ottoman Empire is unaccommodating to American missionaries; Roosevelt has a squadron sail to Smyrna, and the Sultan suddenly sees no reason why an agreement can't be reached. Most famously, when the Colombian government tried to up the price for the rights to complete the French attempt to dig a canal across the province of Panama, Roosevelt responded by signaling to Panamanian separatists that they would receive American support should they declare independence and sign over the canal rights themselves. When the Colombian army attempted to take back the breakaway province, it was stopped by the USS Nashville long enough to make the independence of Panama a fait accompli. The canal would make it that much easier to conduct this kind of gunboat diplomacy in the future, by enabling the commander-in-chief to quickly shuttle naval forces between the Atlantic and Pacific — long after Roosevelt would be out of office, of course, but again, Roosevelt thought in the long term.
This is what brought him into conflict with the robber barons: they seemed to him to be utterly lacking in foresight. At the beginning of his career, he looked like he'd be a reliable ally of theirs; as I mentioned last time, when Roosevelt was a legislator in Albany he had led the fight against a $2-a-day minimum wage, and more recently, he had been the Republicans' attack dog against William Jennings Bryan, whose populist platform Roosevelt dismissed as an attempt to cater to envious losers. But as time went on Roosevelt came to see the behavior of big business as manifestly self-defeating. Consider the case of railroad rebates. A company like Standard Oil, with a dominant market share, would approach a railroad and say, we have a huge amount of oil we need to transport to market. If you want the contract to carry this oil, we have two conditions for you. One, we'll pretend to pay your regular shipping rate, but you're going to secretly pay a big chunk of that money back to us. Two, you're not going to offer a similar deal to any other oil company. Don't like it? Fine — we'll find another railroad that does, and without the proceeds from this contract, you'll go out of business. Roosevelt objected to these schemes on two grounds. First, he was all for rewarding entrepreneurship — if you put up the capital to dig an oil well, then by all means, you deserve to make a fortune from it! But this kind of economic bullying wasn't a matter of making a rich profit off a contribution to the commonwealth. It was just a criminal shakedown designed to keep competitors out of the marketplace by making it impossible to sell their product, keeping prices artificially high in the bargain. Second: remember, Roosevelt was an aristocrat. As much as he extolled the virtues of the hardworking common man, he had a deep abhorrence of "the mob". And this kind of conduct just gave the mob more ammunition! Roosevelt had heard about what was going on in Russia while he was brokering the peace deal that concluded the Russo-Japanese War: it was in grave danger of falling into the hands of the communists at any moment. Why risk that happening here? If you can make $90 million a year in perpetuity, why on earth would you launch a scheme to up that to $100 million, if it meant that a few years later you'd be put up against a wall and shot? Are you really that incapable of thinking beyond the next quarterly earnings report?
It's hard to read any account of history and not find echoes of the present. See whether this sounds familiar. For the majority of his administration, Roosevelt governed as the ultimate centrist, the muscular moderate of the press corps' dreams. Morris gives accounts of many of Roosevelt's speeches, and nearly all of them take the form "on the one hand… on the other hand…", leaving listeners uncertain where Roosevelt actually stood. He claimed to favor labor unions no more than he did the trusts, and declared himself an advocate of a "square deal" for everyone. In return, Wall Street figures and the right-wing press screamed that Roosevelt was clinically insane and an alcoholic "opium fiend." William Howard Taft's brother accused Roosevelt of "a pretty pronounced type of socialism." A toast to Roosevelt's health at the Chamber of Commerce was met with silence. And Congress watered down, blocked, or failed to take up much of the popular, centrist legislation Roosevelt lobbied for. Even the Pure Food Act, which seemed like a slam dunk after the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, met with enough opposition among meat industry advocates in Congress that a provision to put expiration dates on canned food had to be removed. These were still the days when the State of the Union address was a written document, sent to Congress to be read by a clerk; one of Roosevelt's was actually tabled unread, so poor had his relationship with Congress become. "Nobody likes him now but the people," the British ambassador noted.
It will come as no surprise that Roosevelt the aristocrat did not take kindly to such treatment from his inferiors. He called for more power to be concentrated in the presidency, arguing that it would in fact be more democratic than the existing system. There's actually a pretty good case to be made there: all too often, elections do not have consequences, because the course of action people call for with their votes inevitably gets checked and balanced to death. There are those who argue that because the system set down in the Constitution generally results in gridlock, and anyone who questions the Constitution must be a crazy subversive who doesn't understand that it is a perfect document written by untouchable gods, there must therefore be great value in governmental gridlock. But, you know, not so much! In any event, if Roosevelt's opponents thought that reacting hysterically to his moderate proposals would make him retreat back to his earlier conservatism, they were in error. Roosevelt came to the opposite conclusion: whereas before he'd thought that capital and labor were equally to blame for whatever economic strife the nation was suffering, capital's freakout had demonstrated that the real problem lay with "the most dangerous members of the criminal class — the criminals of great wealth." And if they didn't like the government capping railroad shipping rates or inspecting meat, they were going to hate what came next. For it had become clear to Roosevelt that the only way that capitalism could be made sustainable and, more importantly, "ethical", was for the federal government to impose an income tax. And an inheritance tax. Oh, and the workday should be capped at eight hours. No less a personage than William Jennings Bryan averred that "all friends of reform have reason to rejoice that the President has used his high position to call attention to the wrongs that need to be remedied."
But it was too late to do much more than call attention to them. Congress certainly didn't act on Roosevelt's proposals, and then his term was up. It is a near certainty that Roosevelt would have won a third term had he run, but he had announced in 1904 that "under no circumstances" would he accept another nomination, and in 1908 he wasn't about to go back on his word. So his progressive rhetoric remained rhetoric as he left office. What he did next will be the subject of part three.
continue to part three >>