Blogs > Cliopatria > Lewis Gould: Review of Patricia O'Toole's When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House (Simon and Schuster)

Dec 31, 2005 9:33 pm

Lewis Gould: Review of Patricia O'Toole's When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House (Simon and Schuster)

In 1992, John Milton Cooper argued that Theodore Roosevelt's decade as an ex-president from 1909-1919 represented a more important contribution to American history than did his service in the White House. Patricia O'Toole's new study of that same ten-year span, when Roosevelt was out of office, does not engage that kind of historiographical issue. Nor does she do much to locate Roosevelt within the context of the progressive movement. Her narrative, instead, is a well-researched tale of the former president's political travails with William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, his journeys to Africa and South America, and his relations with his large family. Written in a smooth style without a strong underlying thesis, When Trumpets Call blends the overall perspective of George Mowry about Roosevelt's political leadership with personal comments on the former president's character and personality that suggest Henry Pringle's theme of Roosevelt as a perennial adolescent.

O'Toole does not add much new to the saga of Roosevelt after March 4, 1909. Her notable contention is that William Howard Taft suffered from physical disabilities, tied to his weight and anxiety about his presidency, impairing his ability to fulfill his duties. She used the complete diaries of Archibald Butt, military aide to Roosevelt and then to Taft, to develop this argument. Otherwise, she tracks the broad outlines of Roosevelt's post-presidential career and seems most comfortable when she has her subject on safari in Africa in 1909 or enduring the ordeal on the River of Doubt in the Amazon jungles five years later. O'Toole alternates between fascination with Roosevelt's ebullience and exasperation, and his lack of self-awareness about his motives and actions. Her work will replace Joseph L. Gardner's Departing Glory (1973) as the best treatment of Roosevelt's final years.

For historians of American politics, however, the book will be disappointing. O'Toole does not really understand the partisan environment in which Roosevelt functioned. As a result, she does not provide a clear picture of the choices Roosevelt made, the way in which he influenced politics, or the impact of his career. For example, O'Toole's narrative skips from an election night vignette in 1908 to Roosevelt's departure for Africa in March 1909. She does not address in chronological sequence the events of November 1908 to March 1909 when the Roosevelt-Taft relationship frayed. Later on she comments about Taft's letter where he told Roosevelt that"you and my brother Charlie" helped to put him in the White House.[1] But there was more to the Charles Taft story than just an inept Taft sentence that infuriated Roosevelt. The president-elect's brother wanted to be elected senator from Ohio to succeed Joseph B. Foraker. In the end, Charlie lost out to Theodore E. Burton in December 1908 and January 1909. The episode left further hard feelings with the Taft family in general since there were suggestions that Roosevelt had undercut the president's brother. These developing tensions of the Roosevelt-Taft transition were crucial for the emergence of their personal rift.

But the largest thematic problem that O'Toole encounters has to do with the main ideological position of the Republicans in these years, the protective tariff. For O'Toole, the tariff was simply a device by which monopoly capitalism exploited the poor and downtrodden for personal profit. When Roosevelt left office, she says,"a tariff that enriched manufacturers but penalized nearly everyone else urgently needed reform" (p. 33). To provide evidence of Republican perfidy about protectionism, she relies on Democratic articles from popular journals of the day and even treats one of Woodrow Wilson's speeches as a definitive critique of GOP arguments about the merits of the Dingley Tariff of 1897. O'Toole can have whatever position she likes on the tariff question, but her failure to understand the Republican devotion to the issue or Roosevelt's position on protectionism is a major drawback of her work.

Accordingly, she overlooks Roosevelt's role in dodging the tariff question during his presidency and the troubled legacy he left for Taft. She repeats the old bromides that Nelson Aldrich dominated the Senate and could do anything he wanted with the Payne-Aldrich Tariff. In fact, Aldrich lacked a secure majority in the upper house, which accounted for the concessions he had to make to his protectionist colleagues. Taft was more involved in the tariff negotiations than she realizes, especially on the key issue of free cattle hides. Taft's statement that the new law was the best tariff bill ever passed was both inept and contained, from his position as a Republican tariff reformer, a measure of truth. The absence of a serious study of Republican protectionism as a political doctrine and economic policy remains a large gap in our understanding of Progressive Era party politics.

Out of the Payne-Aldrich episode flowed Taft's campaign for Canadian reciprocity and the initiative of 1911. Since O'Toole does not regard the tariff as significant, she misses the way Roosevelt waffled on the question until he came out against the executive agreement during 1911-1912. As Richard C. Baker showed in his 1941 volume, The Tariff Under Roosevelt and Taft, Roosevelt's opposition to the Canadian initiative proved a large element in his electoral appeal in such farm-oriented border states as Minnesota, Michigan, and Washington in 1912.

Convinced that Taft was an inept president, O'Toole does not give him enough credit for his shrewd tactics in denying Roosevelt the nomination in 1912. When Charles D. Hilles became Taft's secretary in 1911, he led an adept effort to round up delegates for the president well before the Republican National Convention. Though O'Toole used the Hilles papers, she missed the significance of Hilles's work which put Roosevelt at a serious disadvantage throughout the winter and spring of 1912 in the fight for the nomination.

O'Toole's treatment of the 1912 campaign between Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt is also incomplete. Louis Brandeis's influence on Wilson's New Freedom does not even rate a mention. Nor does she examine in depth the complexities of Roosevelt and the New Nationalism or the way in which Wilson adopted many aspects of Roosevelt's program before the 1916 presidential contest. Roosevelt was first and always a political leader, but O'Toole seems uncomfortable when he plays that role. Sometime in the future an historian will tackle a study of Roosevelt as a politician, much as John M. Blum did in The Republican Roosevelt half a century ago. When that occurs, there may be at last a fresh narrative that addresses Roosevelt in the capacity that made him a major figure in American history in and out of the White House.

O'Toole joins other non-professional historians who have deemed Theodore Roosevelt a fascinating subject. From Carleton Putnam to Edmund Morris to Patricia O'Toole, these writers underscore how intriguing Americans have found and still find the twenty-sixth president. With political history now a discredited craft in the profession, Roosevelt may have to wait yet longer for a biography that combines a knowledge of historiographical issues, a mastery of primary sources, and analytic insight about his mercurial character. That writer will find When Trumpets Call, a useful addition to the Roosevelt literature but not a reliable guide to how Roosevelt waged his final campaigns in the public arena.


[1]. Taft to Roosevelt, November 7, 1908, William Howard Taft Papers, Library of Congress.

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