William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > XXIII. The Brazilian Ordeal
William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
XXIII. The Brazilian Ordeal
THEY will be throwing rotten apples at me soon,” Theodore had said to his sister, on the day when New York went frantic in placing him among the gods. His treatment, after he championed Progressivism, showed him to be clairvoyant. Not only did his political opponents belabor him—that was quite natural—but his friends, having failed to persuade him not to take the fatal leap, let him see plainly that, while he still had their affection, they had lost their respect for his judgment. He himself bore the defeat of 1912 with the same valiant cheerfulness with which he took every disappointment and thwarting. But he was not stolid, much less indifferent. “It is all very well to talk with the Crusading spirit,” he said after the election, “and of the duty to spend and be spent; and I feel it absolutely as regards myself; but I hate to see my Crusading lieutenants suffer for the cause.” He was thinking of the eager young men, including some of his kinsmen, who had gone into the campaign because they believed in him.   1
  His close friends did not follow him, but they still loved him. And it was a sign of his open-mindedness that he would listen to their opinions and even consult them, although he knew that they entirely rejected his Progressivism. General Luke E. Wright, who remained a devoted friend but did not become a Progressive, used to explain what the others called the Colonel’s aberration, as being really a very subtle piece of wisdom. Experienced ranchmen, he would say, when their herds stampede in a sudden alarm, spur their horses through the rushing cattle, fire their revolvers into the air, and gradually, by making the herds suppose that men and beasts are all together in their wild dash, work their way to the front. Then they cleverly make the leaders swing round, and after a long stampede the herd comes panting back to the place it started from. This, General Wright said, is what Roosevelt was doing with the multitudes of Radicals who seemed to be headed for perdition.   2
  Just as he had absented himself in Africa for a year, after retiring from the Presidency, so Roosevelt decided to make one more trip for hunting and exploration. As he could not go to the North Pole, he said, because that would be poaching on Peary’s field, he selected South America. He had long wished to visit the Southern Continent, and invitations to speak at Rio Janeiro and at Buenos Aires gave him an excuse for setting out. As before, he started with the distinct purpose of collecting animal and botanical specimens; this time for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which provided two trained naturalists to accompany him. His son Kermit, toughened by the previous adventure, went also.   3
  Having paid his visits and seen the civilized parts of Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, he ascended the Paraguay River and then struck across the plateau which divides its watershed from that of the tributaries of the Amazon; for he proposed to make his way through an unexplored region in Central Brazil and reach the outposts of civilization on the Great River. Dr. Osborn had dissuaded him from going through a tract where the climate was known to be most pernicious. The Brazilian Government had informed him that, by the route he had chosen, he would meet a large river—the Rio da Duvido, the River of Doubt—by which he could descend to the Amazon. Roosevelt’s account of this exploration, given in his “The Brazilian Wilderness,” belongs among the masterpieces of explorers’ records.   4
  There were some twenty persons, including a dozen or fifteen native rowers and pack-bearers, in his party. They had canoes and dugouts, supplies of food for about forty days, and a carefully chosen outfit. With high hopes they put their craft into the water and moved downstream. But on the fourth day they found rapids ahead, and from that time on they were constantly obliged to land and carry their dugouts and stores round a cataract. The peril of being swept over the falls was always imminent, and as the trail which constituted their portages had to be cut through the matted forest, their labors were increased. In the first eleven days, they progressed only sixty miles. No one knew the distance they would have to traverse nor how long the river would be broken by falls and cataracts before it came down into the plain of the Amazon. Some of their canoes were smashed on the rocks; two of the natives were drowned. They watched their provisions shrink. Contrary to their expectations, the forest had almost no animals. If they could shoot a monkey or a monster lizard, they rejoiced at having a little fresh meat. Tropical insects—of which the pium seems to have been the worst—bit them day and night and caused inflammation and even infection. Man-eating fish lived in the river, making it dangerous for the men when they tried to cool their inflamed bodies by a swim. Most of the party had malaria, and could be kept going only by large doses of quinine. Roosevelt, while in the water, wounded his leg on a rock, inflammation set in, and prevented him from walking, so that he had to be carried across the portages. The physical strength of the party, sapped by sickness and fatigue, was visibly waning. Still the cataracts continued to impede their progress and to add terribly to their toil. The supply of food had shrunk so much that the rations were restricted and amounted to little more than enough to keep the men able to go forward slowly. Then fever attacked Roosevelt, and they had to wait for a few days because he was too weak to be moved. He besought them to leave him and hurry along to safety, because every day they delayed consumed their diminishing store of food, and they might all die of starvation. They refused to leave him, however, and he secretly determined to shoot himself unless a change for the better in his condition came soon. It came; they moved forward. At last, they left the rapids behind them and could drift and paddle on the unobstructed river. Roosevelt lay in the bottom of a dugout, shaded by a bit of canvas put up over his head, and too weak from sickness, he told me, even to splash water on his face, for he was almost fainting from the muggy heat and the tropical sunshine.   5
  On April 15th, forty-eight days after they began their voyage on the River of Doubt, they saw a peasant, a rubber-gatherer, the first human being they had met. Thenceforward they journeyed without incident. The River of Doubt flowed into the larger river Madeira where they found a steamer which took them to Manaos on the Amazon. A regular line of steamers connects Manaos with New York, where Roosevelt and Kermit and Cherrie, one of the naturalists, landed on May 19, 1914. During the homeward voyage Roosevelt slowly recovered his strength, but he had never again the iron physique with which he had embarked the year before. His friends had urged him not to go, warning him that a man of fifty four was already too old to waste his reserve force on unnecessary enterprises. But his love of adventure, his passion for testing his endurance and pluck by facing the grimmest dangers, and his wish to keep out of American political turmoil for a time, prevailed against wiser counsel. The Brazilian Wilderness stole away ten years of his life.   6
  I do not know whether later, when he found himself checked by recurrent illness, he regretted having chosen to encounter that ordeal in Brazil. He was a man who wasted no time over regrets. The past for him was done. The material out of which he wove his life was the present or the future. Days gone were as water that has flowed under the mill. Acting always from what he regarded as the best motives of the present, he faced with equal heart whatever result they brought. So when he found on his return home that some geographers and South American explorers laughed at his story of the River of Doubt, he laughed, too, at their incredulity, and presently the Brazilian Government, having established the truth of his exploration and named the river after him, Rio Teodoro, his laughter prevailed. He took real satisfaction in having placed on the map of Central Brazil a river six hundred miles long.   7
  New York made no festival for him on this second homecoming. The city and the country welcomed him, but not effusively. The American people, how ever, felt a void without Roosevelt. Whether they always agreed with him or not, they found him perpetually interesting, and during the ten or eleven weeks when he went into the Brazilian silence and they did not know whether he was alive or dead, they learned how much his presence and his ready speech had meant to them. And so they rejoiced to know that he was safe and at home again at Sagamore Hill.   8
  Roosevelt insisted, imprudently, on accompanying his son Kermit to Madrid, where he was to marry the daughter of the American Minister. He made the trip to Spain and back, as quickly as possible, and then he turned to politics. That year, Congress men and several Governors were to be elected, and Roosevelt allowed himself to be drawn into the campaign. As I have said, he was like the consummate actor who, in spite of his protestations, can never bid farewell to the stage. And now a peculiar obligation moved him. He must help the friends who had followed him eagerly into the conflict of 1912, and, in helping them, he must save the Progressive principles and drive them home with still greater cogency. He delivered a remarkable address at Pittsburgh; he toured New York State in an automobile; he spoke to multitudes in Pennsylvania from the back platform of a special train; he visited Louisiana and several other States. But the November elections disappointed him. The Progressive Party, if not dead, had ceased to be a real power in politics; but Progressivism, as an influence and an ideal, was surviving under other forms.   9
  Probably the chief cause for this wane was the putting into operation, by President Wilson and the triumphant Democrats, of many of the Progressive suggestions which the Democratic Platform had also contained. The psychological effect of success in politics is always important and this accounted for the cooling of the zeal of a certain number of enthusiasts who had vociferously supported Roosevelt in 1912. The falling-off in the vote measured further the potency of Roosevelt’s personal magnetism; thousands voted for him who would not vote for other candidates professing his principles. Finally, other issues—the imbroglio with Mexico, for instance—were looming up, and exciting a different interest among the American people. Before we discuss the greatest issue of all, in which Theodore Roosevelt’s career as a patriot culminated, we must recall two or three events which absorbed him at the time and furnished evidence of vital import to those who would appraise his character fairly.   10
  During the campaign of 1912, his enemies resorted to all sorts of slanders, calumnies, lies, ignoble always, and often indecent, to blacken him. On October 12th, the Iron Ore, a trade paper edited by George A. Newett at Ishpeming, Michigan, published this accusation: “Roosevelt lies and curses in a most disgusting way; he gets drunk too, and that not infrequently, and all of his intimates know about it.” When he was President, Roosevelt had appointed Newett as postmaster, but Newett stayed by the Republican Party, and did not scruple to serve it, as he supposed, in this way. The charge of drunkenness spread so far and, as usual, so many persons said that where there is much smoke there must be some fire, that Roosevelt determined to crush that lie once for all. He would not have it stand unchallenged, to shame his children after he was dead, or to furnish food for the maggots which feed on the reputations of great men. So he brought suit against Newett. His counsel, James H. Pound, assembled nearly two-score witnesses, who had known Roosevelt since he left College, men who had visited him, had hunted with him, had served with him in the Spanish War, had been his Cabinet Ministers, journalists who had followed him on his campaigning tours, detectives, and his personal body-servant; General Leonard Wood, and Jacob Riis, and Dr. Alexander Lambert, who had been his family physician for a quarter of a century. This cloud of witnesses all testified unanimously that they had never seen him drink anything stronger than wine, except as a medicine; that he took very little wine, and that they had never seen him drunk. They also declared that he was not a curser or blasphemer.   11
  After listening to this mass of evidence for a week, Newett begged to withdraw his charge and to apologize, and he confessed that he had nothing but hearsay on which to base his slanders. Then Roosevelt addressed the court and asked it not to impose damages upon the defendant, as he had not prosecuted the libeler with the intention of getting satisfaction in money. He wrote one of his sisters from Marquette, where the trial was held: “I deemed it best not to demand money damages; the man is a country editor, and while I thoroly 1 despise him, I do not care to seem to persecute him.” (May 31, 1913.)   12
  Roosevelt had to undergo one other trial, this time as defendant. The managers of the Republican Party-and the Interests behind them, not content with blocking his way to the nomination in 1912, wished utterly to destroy him as a political factor; for they still dreaded that, as a Progressive, he might have a triumphant resurrection and recapture the confidence of the American people. To accomplish their purpose they wished to discredit him as a reform politician, and as a leader in civic and social welfare.   13
  Roosevelt himself gave the occasion for their on slaught upon him. In supporting Harvey D. Hinman, the Progressive candidate for the Governor of New York in 1914, he declared that William Barnes, Jr., who managed the Republican Machine politics in that State, had a bi-partisan alliance with the Democratic Machine in the interest of crooked politics and crooked business. Mr. Barnes, in whose ears the word “Boss” sounded obnoxious as applied to himself, brought suit for libel, and it came to trial at Syracuse on April 19, 1915. Mr. Barnes’s counsel, Mr. Ivins, peered into every item of Mr. Roosevelt’s political career with a microscope. Mr. Barnes had, of course, all the facts, all the traditions that his long experience at Albany could give him. And as he dated back to Boss Platt’s time, he must have heard, at first hand from the Senator, his relations with Roosevelt as Governor. But the most searching examination by Mr. Barnes brought him no evidence, and cross-examination, pursued for many days, brought him no more. When it became Roosevelt’s turn to reply, he showed how the Albany Evening Journal, Mr. Barnes’s organ, had profited by illegal political advertising. He proved the existence of the bi-partisan alliance with the Democratic Machine, and showed its effects on legislation and elections. After deliberating two days, the jury brought in a verdict in favor of Roosevelt.   14
  The trial, which had lasted two months, and cost Roosevelt $52,000 (so expensive is it for an honest man to defend his honesty against hostile politicians!) decided two things: first, that Mr. Barnes was a Boss, and had used crooked methods; and next, that Theodore Roosevelt, under the most intense scrutiny which his enemies could employ, was freed from any suspicion of dishonest political methods or acts. As William M. Ivins, attorney for Mr. Barnes, left the New York Constitutional Convention to try the case at Syracuse, he said with unconcealed and alluring self-satisfaction to Mr. Root: “I am going to nail Roosevelt’s hide to the barn door.” Mr. Root replied: “Be sure it is Roosevelt’s and not some other hide that is nailed there.”   15

Note 1. I copy “thoroly,” as he wrote it, as a reminder that Roosevelt practiced the spelling reform which he advocated. [ back ]



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