Theodore Roosevelt on Race and Gender

Article excerpt

Theodore Roosevelt held many attitudes that the social thought of the 1990s quite correctly rejects. Some of his convictions can be especially troubling to those who view him with inadequate understanding, or without considering the Victorian world out of which he emerged. He was a white supremacist. Women, he believed, had an obligation to breed prolifically. The couple who chose not to have children-- many children-was committing a crime against the nation. He was a staunch nationalist, a big-game hunter, and glorified war.

It is understandingly tempting to evaluate Roosevelt's views according to the standards that have emerged as the twenty-first century approaches. Clearly his attitudes, especially those on race, suffer from such an evaluation. He was a product of his time, certainly, and in his time racist attitudes were more overt than today. But he had no use for the crude racism of his contemporaries (and would have no use for similar beliefs in ours).

His time was also one in which the legal system continued in many ways to treat women more as children than as adults. Neither genetic science nor sociology was sufficiently advanced during Roosevelt's day to contribute constructively to existing attitudes, let alone to provide enlightenment. Nevertheless, long before most men, TR accepted women fully as equals and championed their rights. His glorification of war grew from an era in which personal valor and individual heroism still carried the day. Even so, he was profoundly grieved by the death in World War One of Quentin, his youngest son. He was shattered to recognize that his successful urging of each of his four sons not only into war but into combat was substantially to blame.

Examining Roosevelt's attitudes by standards that had not emerged during his lifetime gains us little in the way of understanding; evaluating them against the standards of his own day can provide greater insights. By so doing, not only does one discover that many of his positions were far advanced, but that to a considerable extent his approach prepared the way for the later standards that the modern world-at least officially-- has adopted.

In addition to assessing TR against the standards of his own day, it is important to view him in a well-- rounded manner.

Not many persons are heroes, but nearly any person regardless of manifest inadequacies can be made to appear in at least a favorable light-and many can even be made to appear heroic. All that is needed is to concentrate on certain things and carefully ignore others. An obvious example of this was the ability of Robert Caro, in expressing his distaste for Lyndon Johnson, to elevate LBJ's early opponent Coke Stevenson (of all people) to political sainthood. The contrary is even more true: any person can be made to appear base, foolish, or generally unsavory if the focus is entirely upon the least favorable qualities. Abraham Lincoln (again of all people) has been subjected to such treatment.

So it hardly is astonishing that the boisterous, vigorous, and outspoken Theodore Roosevelt has been the target of attempts to portray him in the worst possible light. As might also have been expected, there have been numerous portrayals purporting to be objective that nevertheless emphasize the unfavorable in a manner that clearly is less than balanced. Roosevelt's reputation at times has suffered because his flaws were as open for public view as were all his other qualities, and the flaws are ready grist for literary mills.

An early biographer, for example, Henry F. Pringle (whose work won him the Pulitzer Prize) appears to have labored diligently-and without notable success-to be fair to a subject whom he manifestly disliked. Thomas G. Dyer, to provide another example, has produced the most comprehensive study to date of TR's ideas on race. Dyer presents exhaustive and well-balanced detail, but he was so preoccupied with this least satisfactory side of Roosevelt's character that his work-however well-- intentioned-seems overly harsh in its conclusions. …