Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics

By Jackson, David H., Jr. | The Journal of Southern History, February 2016 | Go to article overview

Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics


Jackson, David H., Jr., The Journal of Southern History


Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics. By Harry Lembeck. (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2015. Pp. 544. $27.00, ISBN 978-1-61614-954-3.)

Although President Theodore Roosevelt is viewed as one of America's greatest presidents, the way he handled the largely forgotten Brownsville affair has left a stain on his record. In Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics, Harry Lembeck has compiled a fascinating examination of the 1906 Brownsville incident, in which black soldiers from the Twenty-fifth Infantry regiment stationed at Fort Brown in Brownsville, Texas, were accused of going on a lawless rampage in retaliation for constant harassment, threats, and discrimination by local white and Mexican citizens. Unlike previous scholars, Lembeck focuses on analyzing the struggle that ensued between President Roosevelt and Senator Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio, who took up the cause and pursued justice for the accused soldiers.

Lembeck begins by introducing readers to Foraker and then briefly discussing the actual incident in Brownsville, fleshing out different, and very contradictory, eyewitness accounts. None of the soldiers accused of violence confessed, but Roosevelt believed the men were engaged in a conspiracy of silence to protect each other, supposedly a racial trait among blacks. Ultimately, when none of the soldiers confessed or named any of the alleged shooters, Roosevelt, without a hearing or a trial, dishonorably discharged three companies of black men from the military, a total of 167 soldiers. This move strained Roosevelt's relationships with Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other prominent black leaders.

Taking on Theodore Roosevelt is most brilliant when it addresses the political maneuvering and conflicts between Roosevelt, Foraker, and William Howard Taft over the incident. Chapter 17, one of the more lively chapters, describes a showdown that occurred at a Gridiron Club dinner held at the New Willard Hotel in Washington, D. …

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