William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > XVIII. Hits and Misses
William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
XVIII. Hits and Misses
IN this sketch I do not attempt to follow chronological order, except in so far as this is necessary to make clear the connection between lines of policy, or to define the structural growth of character. But in Roosevelt’s life, as in the lives of all of us, many events, sometimes important events, occurred and had much notice at the moment and then faded away and left no lasting mark. Let us take up a few of these which reveal the President from different angles.   1
  Since the close of the Civil War the Negro Question had brooded over the South. The war emancipated the Southern negroes and then politics came to embitter the question. Partly to gain a political advantage, partly as some visionaries believed, to do justice, and partly to punish the Southerners, the Northern Republicans gave the Southern negroes equal political rights with the whites. They even handed over the government of some of the States to wholly incompetent blacks. In self-defense the whites terrorized the blacks through such secret organizations as the Ku-Klux Klan, and recovered their ascendancy in governing. Later, by such specious devices as the Grandfathers’ Law, they prevented most of the blacks from voting, and relieved themselves of the trouble of maintaining a system of intimidation. The real difficulty being social and racial, to mix politics with it was to envenom it.   2
  Roosevelt took a man for what he was without regard to race, creed, or color. He held that a negro of good manners and education ought to be treated as a white man would be treated. He felt keenly the sting of ostracism and he believed that if the Southern whites would think as he did on this matter; they might the quicker solve the Negro Question and establish human if not friendly relations with the blacks.   3
  The negro race at that time had a fine spokesman in Booker T. Washington, a man who had been born a slave, was educated at the Hampton Institute, served as teacher there, and then founded the Tuskegee Institute for teaching negroes. He wisely saw that the first thing to be done was to teach them trades and farming, by which they could earn a living and make themselves useful if not indispensable to the communities in which they settled. He did not propose to start off to lift his race by letting them imagine that they could blossom into black Shakespeares and dusky Raphaels in a single generation. He himself was a man of tact, prudence, and sagacity with trained intelligence and a natural gift of speaking.   4
  To him President Roosevelt turned for some suggestions as to appointing colored persons to offices in the South. It happened that on the day appointed for a meeting Washington reached the White House shortly before luncheon time, and that, as they had not finished their conference, Roosevelt asked him to stay to luncheon. Washington hesitated politely. Roosevelt insisted. They lunched, finished their business, and Washington went away. When this perfectly insignificant fact was published in the papers the next morning, the South burst into a storm of indignation and abuse. Some of the Southern journals saw, in what was a mere routine incident, a terrible portent, foreboding that Roosevelt planned to put the negroes back to control the Southern whites. Others alleged the milder motive that he was fishing for negro votes. The common type of fire-eaters saw in it one of Roosevelt’s unpleasant ways of having fun by insulting the South. And Southern cartoonists took an ignoble, feeble retaliation by caricaturing even Mrs. Roosevelt.   5
  The President did not reply publicly. As his invitation to Booker Washington was wholly unpremeditated, he was surprised by the rage which it caused among Southerners. But he was clear-sighted enough to understand that, without intending it, he had made a mistake, and this he never repeated. Nothing is more elusive than racial antipathy, and we need not wonder that a man like Roosevelt who, although he was most solicitous not to hurt persons’ feelings and usually acted, unless he had proof to the contrary, on the assumption that everybody was blessed with a modicum of good-will and common sense, should not always be able to foresee the strange inconsistencies into which the antipathy of the white Southerners for the blacks might lead. A little while later there was a religious gathering in Washington of Protestant-Episcopal ministers. They had a reception at the White House. Their own managers made out a list of ministers to be invited, and among the guests were a negro archdeacon and his wife, and the negro rector of a Maryland parish. Although these persons attended the reception, the Southern whites burst into no frenzy of indignation against the President. Who could steer safely amid such shoals? 1 The truth is that no President since Lincoln had a kindlier feeling towards the South than Roosevelt had. He often referred proudly to the fact that his mother came from Georgia, and that his two Bulloch uncles fought in the Confederate Navy. He wished to bring back complete friendship between the sections. But he understood the difficulties, as his explanation to Mr. James Ford Rhodes, the historian, in 1905, amply proved. He agreed fully as to the folly of the Congressional scheme of reconstruction based on universal negro suffrage, but he begged Mr. Rhodes not to forget that the initial folly lay with the Southerners themselves. The latter said, quite properly, that he did not wonder that much bitterness still remained in the breasts of the Southern people about the carpet-bag negro regime. So it was not to be wondered at that in the late sixties much bitterness should have remained in the hearts of the Northerners over the remembrance of the senseless folly and wickedness of the Southerners in the early sixties. Roosevelt felt that those persons who most heartily agreed that as it was the presence of the negro which made the problem, and that slavery was merely the worst possible method of solving it, we must therefore hold up to reprobation, as guilty of doing one of the worst deeds which history records, those men who tried to break up this Union because they were not allowed to bring slavery and the negro into our new territory. Every step which followed, from freeing the slave to enfranchising him, was due only to the North being slowly and reluctantly forced to act by the South’s persistence in its folly and wickedness.   6
  The President could not say these things in public because they tended, when coming from a man in public place, to embitter people. But Rhodes was writing what Roosevelt hoped would prove the great permanent history of the period, and he said that it would be a misfortune for the country, and especially a misfortune for the South, if they were allowed to confuse right and wrong in perspective. He added that his difficulties with the Southern people had come not from the North, but from the South. He had never done anything that was not for their interest. At present, he added, they were, as a whole, speaking well of him. When they would begin again to speak ill, he did not know, but in either case his duty was equally clear. 2   7
  Inviting Booker Washington to the White House was a counsel of perfection which we must consider one of Roosevelt’s misses. Quite different was the voyage of the Great Fleet, planned by him and carried out without hitch or delay.   8
  We have seen that from his interest in American naval history, which began before he left Harvard, he came to take a very deep interest in the Navy itself, and when he was Assistant Secretary, he worked night and day to complete its preparation for entering the Spanish War. From the time he became President, he urged upon Congress and the country the need of maintaining a fleet adequate to ward off any dangers to which we might be exposed. In season and out of season he preached, with the ardor of a propagandist, his gospel that the Navy is the surest guarantor of peace which this country possesses. By dint of urging he persuaded Congress to consent to lay down one battleship of the newest type a year. Congress was not so much reluctant as indifferent. Even the lesson of the Spanish War failed to teach the Nation’s law-makers, or the Nation itself, that we must have a Navy to protect us if we intended to play the role of a World Power. The American people instinctively dreaded militarism, and so they resisted consenting to naval or military preparations which might expand into a great evil such as they saw controlling the nations of Europe.   9
  Nevertheless Roosevelt, as usual, could not be deterred by opposition; and when the Hague Conference in 1907, through the veto of Germany, refused to limit armaments by sea and land, he warned Congress that one new battleship a year would not do, that they must build four. Meanwhile, he had pushed to completion a really formidable American Fleet, which assembled in Hampton Roads on December 1, 1907, and ten days later weighed anchor for parts unknown. There were sixteen battleships, commanded by Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans. Every ship was new, having been built since the Spanish War. The President and Mrs. Roosevelt and many notables reviewed the Fleet from the President’s yacht Mayflower, as it passed out to sea. Later, the country learned that the Fleet was to sail round Cape Horn, to New Zealand and Australia, up the Pacific to San Francisco, then across to Japan, and so steer homeward through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, across the Atlantic, and back to Hampton Roads.   10
  The American public did not quite know what to make of this dramatic gesture. Roosevelt’s critics said, of course, that it was the first overt display of his combativeness, and that from this he would go on to create a great army and be ready, at the slightest provocation, to attack any foreign Power. In fact, however, the sending of the Great Fleet, which was wholly his project, was designed by him to strengthen the prospect of peace for the United States. Through it, he gave a concrete illustration of his maxim: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” The Panama Canal was then half dug and would be finished in a few years. Distant nations thought of this country as of a land peopled by dollar-chasers, too absorbed in getting rich to think of providing defense for themselves. The fame of Dewey’s exploit at Manila Bay had ceased to strike wonder among foreign peoples, after they heard how small and almost contemptible, judging by the new standards, the Squadron was by which he won his victory. Japan, the rising young giant of the Orient, felt already strong enough to resent any supposed insult from the United States. Germany had embarked on her wild naval policy of creating a fleet which would soon be able to cope with that of England.   11
  When, however, the Great Fleet steamed into Yokohama or Bombay or any other port, it furnished a visible evidence of the power of the country from which it came. We could not send an army to furnish the same object-lesson. But the Fleet must have opened the eyes of any foreign jingoes who supposed that they might send over with impunity their battleships and attack our ports. In this way it served directly to discourage war against us, and accordingly it was a powerful agent for peace. Spectacular the voyage was without question, like so many of Roosevelt’s acts, but if you analyze it soberly, do you not admit that it was the one obvious, simple way by which to impress upon an uncertain and rapacious world the fact that the United States had manpower as well as money-power, and that they were prepared to repel all enemies?   12
  On February 22, 1909, the White Fleet steamed back to Hampton Roads and was received by President Roosevelt. It had performed a great moral achievement. It had also raised the efficiency of its officers and the discipline of its crews to the highest point. There had been no accident; not a scratch on any ship.   13
  “Is n’t it magnificent?” said Roosevelt, as he toasted the Admirals and Captains in the cabin of the Mayflower. “Nobody after this will forget that the American coast is on the Pacific as well as on the Atlantic.” Ten days later he left the White House, and after he left, the prestige of the American Fleet was slowly frittered away.   14
  So important is it, if we would form a just estimate of Roosevelt, to understand his attitude towards war, that I must refer to the subject briefly here. One of the most authoritative observers of international politics now living, a man who has also had the best opportunity for studying the chief statesmen of our age, wrote me after Roosevelt’s death: “I deeply grieve with you in the loss of our friend. He was an extraordinary man. The only point in which I ever found myself seriously differing from him was in the value he set upon war. He did not seem to realize how great an evil it is, and in how many ways, fascinated as he was by the virtues which it sometimes called out; but in this respect, also, I think his views expanded and mellowed as time went on. His mind was so capacious as to take in Old-World affairs in a sense which very few people outside Europe, since Hamilton, have been able to do.”   15
  Now the truth is that neither the eminent person who wrote this letter, nor many others among us, saw as clearly during the first decade of this century as Roosevelt saw that war was not a remote possibility, but a very real danger. I think that he was almost the first in the United States to feel the menace of Germany to the entire world. He knew the strength of her army, and when she began to build rapidly a powerful navy, he understood that the likelihood of her breaking the peace was more than doubled; for with the fleet she could at pleasure go up and down the seas, picking quarrels as she went. If war came on a great scale in Europe, our Republic would probably be involved; we should either take sides and so have to furnish a contingent, or we should restrict our operations to self-defense. In either case we must be prepared.   16
  But Roosevelt recognized also that on the completion of the Panama Canal we might be exposed to much international friction, and unless we were ready to defend the Canal and its approaches, a Foreign Power might easily do it great damage or wrest it from us, at least for a time. Here, too, was another motive for facing the possibility of war. We were growing up in almost childish trust in a world filled with warlike nations, which regarded war not only as the obvious way in which to settle disputes, but as the easiest way to seize the territory and the wealth of rich neighbors who could not defend themselves.   17
  This being the condition of life as our country had to lead it, we were criminally remiss in not taking precautions. But Roosevelt went farther than this; he believed that, war or no war, a nation must be able to defend itself; so must every individual be. Every youth should have sufficient military training to fit him to take his place at a moment’s notice in the national armament. This did not mean the maintenance of a large standing army, or the adoption of a soul and character-killing system of militarism like the German. It meant giving training to every youth who was physically sound which would develop and strengthen his body, teach him obedience, and impress upon him his patriotic duty to his country.   18
  I was among those who, twenty years ago, feared that Roosevelt’s projects were inspired by innate pugnacity which he could not outgrow. Now, in this year of his death, I recognize that he was right, and I believe that there is no one, on whom the lesson of the Atrocious War has not been lost, who does not believe in his gospel of military training, both for its value in promoting physical fitness and health and in providing the country with competent defenders. Roosevelt detested as much as anyone the horrors of war, but, as he had too much reason to remind the American people shortly before his death, there are things worse than war. And when in 1919 President Charles W. Eliot becomes the chief advocate of universal military training, we need not fear that it is synonymous with militarism.   19
  On one subject—a protective tariff—I think that Roosevelt was less satisfactory than on any other. At Harvard, in our college days, John Stuart Mill’s ideas on economics prevailed, and they were ably expounded by Charles F. Dunbar, who then stood first among American economists. Being a consistent Individualist, and believing that liberty is a principle which applies to commerce, not less than to intellectual and moral freedom, Mill, of course, insisted on Free Trade. But after Roosevelt joined the Republican Party—in the straw vote for President, in 1880, he had voted like a large majority of undergraduates for Bayard, a Democrat—he adopted Protection as the right principle in theory and in practice. The teachings of Alexander Hamilton, the wonderful spokesman of Federalism, the champion of a strong Government which should be beneficent because it was unselfish and enlightened, captivated and filled him. In 1886, in his Life of Benton, he wrote: “Free traders are apt to look at the tariff from a sentimental standpoint; but it is in reality a purely business matter and should be decided solely on grounds of expediency. Political economists have pretty generally agreed that protection is vicious in theory and harmful in practice; but if the majority of the people in interest wish it, and it affects only themselves, there is no earthly reason why they should not be allowed to try the experiment to their heart’s content.” 3   20
  Perhaps we ought to infer from this extract that Roosevelt, as an historical critic, strove to preserve an open mind; as an ardent Republican, however, he never wavered in his support of the tariff. Even his sense of humor permitted him to swallow with out a smile the demagogue’s cant about “infant industries,” or the raising of the tariff after election by the Republicans who had promised to reduce it. To those of us who for many years regarded the tariff as the dividing line between the parties, his stand was most disappointing. And when the head of one of the chief Trusts in America cynically blurted out, “The Tariff is the mother of Trusts,” we hoped that Roosevelt, who had then begun his stupendous battle with the Trusts, would deal them a staggering blow by shattering the tariff. But, greatly to our chagrin, he did nothing.   21
  His enemies tried to explain his callousness to this reform by hinting that he had some personal interest at stake, or that he was under obligations to tariff magnates. Nothing could be more absurd than these innuendoes; from the first of his career to the last, no man ever brought proof that he had directly or indirectly secured Roosevelt’s backing by question able means. And there were times enough when passions ran so high that any one who could produce an iota of such testimony would have done so. The simple fact is, that in looking over the field of important questions which Roosevelt believed must be met by new legislation, he looked on the tariff as unimportant in comparison with railroads, and conservation, and the measures for public health. I think, also, that he never studied the question thoroughly; he threw over Mill’s Individualism early in his public career and with it went Mill’s political economy. As late as December, 1912, after the affronting Payne Aldrich Tariff Act had been passed under his Republican successor, I reminded Roosevelt that I had never voted for him because I did not approve of his tariff policy. To which he replied, almost in the words of the Benton extract in 1886, “My dear boy, the tariff is only a question of expediency.”   22
  In this field also I fear that we must score a miss against him.   23
  Cavour used to say that he did not need to resort to craft, which was supposed to be a statesman’s favorite instrument, he simply told the truth and everybody was deceived. Roosevelt might have said the same thing. His critics were always on the look out for some ulterior motive, some trick, or cunning thrust, in what he did; consequently they misjudged him, for he usually did the most direct thing in the most direct way.   24
  The Brownsville Affair proved this. On the night of August 13, 1906, several colored soldiers stationed at Fort Brown, Texas, stole from their quarters into the near-by town of Brownsville and shot up the inhabitants, against whom they had a grudge. As soon as the news of the outbreak reached the fort, the rest of the colored garrison was called out to quell it, and the guilty soldiers, under cover of darkness, joined their companions and were undiscovered. Next day the commander began an investigation, but as none of the culprits confessed, the President discharged nearly all of the three companies. There upon his critics insinuated that Roosevelt had indulged his race hatred of the blacks; a few years before, many of these same critics had accused him of wishing to insult the Southern whites by inviting Booker Washington to lunch. The reason for his action with the Brownsville criminals was so clear that it did not need to be stated. He intended that every soldier or sailor who wore the uniform of the United States, be he white, yellow, or black, should not be allowed to sully that uniform and go unpunished. He felt the stain on the service keenly; in spite of denunciation he trusted that the common sense of the Nation would eventually uphold him, as it did.   25
  A few months later he came to Cambridge to make his famous “Mollycoddle Speech,” and in greeting him, three or four of us asked him jokingly, “How about Brownsville?” “Brownsville?” he replied, laughing; “Brownsville will soon be forgotten, but ‘Dear Maria’ will stick to me all my life.” This referred to another annoyance which had recently bothered him. He had always been used to talk among friends about public matters and persons with amazing unreserve. He took it for granted that those to whom he spoke would regard his frank remarks as confidential; being honorable himself, he assumed a similar sense of honor in his listeners. In one instance, however, he was deceived. Among the guests at the White House were a gentleman and his wife. The latter was a convert to Roman Catholicism, and she had not only all the proverbial zeal of a convert, but an amount of indiscretion which seems incredible in any one. She often led the conversation to Roman Catholic subjects, and especially to the discussion of who was likely to be the next American Cardinal. President Roosevelt had great respect for Archbishop Ireland, and he said, frankly, that he should be glad to see the red hat go to him. The lady’s husband was appointed to a foreign Embassy, and they were both soon thrown into an Ultramontane atmosphere, where clerical intrigues had long furnished one of the chief amusements of a vapid and corrupt Court. The lady, who, of course, could not have realized the impropriety, made known the President’s regard for Archbishop Ireland. She even had letters to herself beginning “Dear Maria,” to prove the intimate terms on which she and her husband stood with Mr. Roosevelt, and to suggest how important a personage she was in his estimation. Assured, as she thought, of her influence in Washington, she seems also to have aspired to equal influence in the Vatican. That would not be the first occasion on which Cardinals’ hats had been bestowed through the benign feminine intercession. Reports from Rome were favorable; Archbishop Ireland’s prospects looked rosy.   26
  But the post of Cardinal is so eminent that there are always several candidates for each vacancy. I do not know whether or not it came about through one of Archbishop Ireland’s rivals, or through “Dear Maria’s” own indiscretion, but the fact leaked out that President Roosevelt was personally interested in Archbishop Ireland’s success. That settled the Archbishop. The Hierarchy would never consent to be influenced by an American President, who was also a Protestant. It might take instructions from the Emperor of Austria or the King of Spain; it had even allowed the German Kaiser, also a Protestant, indirectly but effectually to block the election of Cardinal Rampolla to be Pope in 1903; but the hint that the Archbishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, might be made Cardinal because the American President respected him, could not be tolerated. The President’s letters beginning “Dear Maria” went gayly through the newspapers of the world, and the man in the street everywhere wondered how Roosevelt could have been so indiscreet as to have trusted so imprudent a zealot. “Dear Maria” and her husband were recalled from their Embassy and put out of reach of committing further indiscretions of that sort. Archbishop Ireland never became Cardinal. In spite of the President’s forebodings, the “Dear Maria” incident did not cling to him all his life, but sank into oblivion, while the world, busied with matters of real importance, rushed on towards a great catastrophe. Proofs that a man or a woman can do very foolish things are so common that “Dear Maria” could not win lasting fame by hers. I do not think, however, that this experience taught Roosevelt reticence. He did not lose his faith that a sense of honor was widespread, and would silence the tongues of the persons whom he talked to in confidence.   27
  No President ever spoke so openly to newspaper men as he did. He told them many a secret with only the warning, “Mind, this is private,” and none of them betrayed him. When he entered the White House he gathered all the newspaper men round him, and said that no mention was to be made of Mrs. Roosevelt, or of any detail of their family life, while they lived there. If this rule were broken, he would refuse for the rest of his term to allow the representative of the paper which published the unwarranted report to enter the White House, or to receive any of the President’s communications. This rule also was religiously observed, with the result that Mrs. Roosevelt was spared the disgust and indignity of a vulgar publicity, which had thrown its lurid light on more than one “First Lady of the Land” in previous administrations, and even on the innocent Baby McKee, President Harrison’s grand-child.   28
  We cannot too often bear in mind that Theodore Roosevelt never forgot the Oneness of Society. If he aimed at correcting an industrial or financial abuse by special laws. he knew that this work could be partial only. It might promote the health of the entire body, but it was not equivalent to sanifying that entire body. There was no general remedy. A plaster applied to a skin cut does not cure an internal disease. But he watched the unexpected effects of laws and saw how that influence spread from one field to another.   29
  Roosevelt traced closely the course of Law and Custom to their ultimate objects, the family and the individual. In discussing the matter with Mr. Rhodes he cordially agreed with what the historian said about our American rich men. He insisted that the same thing held true of our politicians, even the worst: that the average Roman rich man, like the average Roman public man, of the end of the Republic and of the beginning of the Empire, makes the corresponding man of our own time look like a self-denying, conscientious Puritan. He did not think very highly of the American multi-millionaire, nor of his wife, sons, and daughters when compared with some other types of our citizens; even in ability the plutocrat did not seem to Roosevelt to show up very strongly save in his own narrowly limited field; and he and his womanhood, and those of less fortune who modeled their lives upon his and upon the lives of his wife and children, struck Roosevelt as taking very little advantage of their opportunities. But to denounce them with hysterical exaggeration as resembling the unspeakable tyrants and debauchees of classic times, was simple nonsense. Roosevelt hoped he had been of some assistance in moving our people along the line Mr. Rhodes mentioned; that is, along the line of a sane, moderate purpose to supervise the business use of wealth and to curb its excesses, while keeping as far aloof from the policy of the visionary and demagogue as from the policy of the wealthy corruptionist.   30

Note 1. Leupp,231. [ back ]

Note 2. February 20, 1905. [ back ]

Note 3. Roosevelt: Thomas H. Benton, 67. American Statesmen Series. [ back ]



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