Blogs > Cliopatria > What We Can Learn from TR

Jul 28, 2005 1:29 pm

What We Can Learn from TR

Reading Kathleen Dalton's biography of TR--the one thing every American knows about American history is who TR was--has reminded me of all the things there are not to like about him. His love of war (he said that war with Spain was a good thing because it would toughen up Americans; like many intellectuals of the time he was convinced that civilization was weakening men's moral fiber). His indifference to women's rights (he favored as governor the slow granting of women's right to vote but opposed the Anthony amendment; he never understood his daughter Alice's desire to become something more than a good Victorian housewife). His excuses for torture committed by Americans during the war against Aguinaldo in the Philippines (he said that Aguinaldo's men were the first to use torture and our soldiers were simply responding in kind).

But then there is the TR who is so admirable. TR the conservationist (who fought Congress and the western ranching interests to save wilderness for future generations). TR, the Road show Hero (at times he dressed up as a cowboy, making some people think he looked like one of those colorful characters in Buffalo Bill's shows). And TR the Reformer (he championed the 8 hour day as governor for government employees and for contractors doing business with the state, among other reforms).

All this is well-known, and makes TR such a fascinating figure, whether you love him or hate him. But I was surprised to read Dalton's account of TR's book about Oliver Cromwell.

I had never paid much attention to this book. I should have. We all should. Here we have an American politician who employed a moral vocabulary in his everyday political speech studying a moral leader who employed a moral vocabulary in his everyday political speech.

So TR liked Cromwell, right? Wrong. TR, says Dalton, believed that Cromwell's "goal of creating a world 'where civil government and social life alike should be based upon the Commandments set forth in the Bible'" was dangerous. "Though he judged that the Lord Protector's fearlessness and moralism had been virtues, he 'lacked the power of self-repression possessed by Washington and Lincoln,' notably when he lost his temper after a fruitless negotiation between Parliament and the army and childishly threw a pillow at the speaker before he stomped out of the room.'"

TR opined that Cromwell had become arrogant, in other words, in his use of power. Being right and moral weren’t sufficient. To achieve wise leadership Cromwell needed to exercise restraint.

TR himself worried about his own powers of self-restraint. Some may wonder if he always achieved the correct balance. One can imagine him throwing a pillow at fellows with whom he disagreed. But he at least was aware of the possibility he might go too far--evidence of self-knowledge not often in evidence in moral politicians of his type.

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Milo G - 8/13/2005

There is a legacy of contempt for TR among Americans of German descent, mostly owing to his anti-German demagoguery during the first world war (during which time there was still a strong sense of German identity among the millions of Americans who had come here from there during the nineteenth century). These kinds of perceptions can become entrenched within families, and passed down from generation to generation. My father grew up hearing what an SOB Roosevelt was from older family members, as did my siblings. One suspects it was at least part of the reason why we ended up a strongly Democratic family.

Jim Williams - 8/10/2005

Judging from Martin Fausold's portrait of Roosevelt's political annihilation of James W. Wadsworth (the elder), Roosevelt sometimes didn't tolerate opposition well. See Fausold's James W. Wadsworth, Jr.: The Gentleman from New York.