The other Roosevelt. July 17, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Gouverneur Morris, numismatics, Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt
It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk a bit about one of my favorite presidents: Teddy Roosevelt. The name “Roosevelt” usually brings Franklin D. and Eleanor, Teddy’s cousins, to mind, while Teddy himself is usually dismissed as a lightweight, a cartoon, the big-game hunter who gave his name to the teddy bear and said “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” But in his own day, TR, as he was known, was not just idolized by the American public, he was adored—the best-loved president since Lincoln.
As a child, I wondered why on earth they had carved Teddy Roosevelt of all people on Mount Rushmore alongside those titans, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. To me, they might as well have stuck Calvin Coolidge or Chester A. Arthur on there instead. But in his own time, including the “old lion” with the three greatest presidents made sense, and for more than one reason, as we’ll see. Now that Teddy is once again making headlines, it’s time to give him another look.
‘Til recently, if I thought of Teddy Roosevelt at all, it was as a caricature—a walrus of a man with that oversized mustache, the gold pince-nez specs, and his omnipresent top hat, sort of like the little guy on the Monopoly box. Or perhaps in his alternate guise as the Great White Hunter, attired in buckskins or pith helmet and safari garb and blasting away at buffalo, bears, and every other creature that came within reach of his gun. It was only when I was researching one of my favorite Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, that my views on Teddy began to change. I discovered that one of the biographies of Morris was written by none other than Teddy Roosevelt. Huh? Teddy Roosevelt wrote books?!
Turns out that TR not only wrote books, 18 of them, including a naval history of the War of 1812 that was considered the definitive work on the subject, but he also read books. Lots of books. He apparently read several books a day, in several languages, despite having a few other things to do, including running the country. In all, he read tens of thousands of books, and ranks with Jefferson as the two best-read American politicians. Huh? Teddy Roosevelt was smart?!
Damned smart. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and studied a wide range of challenging topics while there, acing his studies despite spending most of his college years socializing and enjoying a variety of sports. He wrote and illustrated his first natural history monograph, “The Natural History of Insects,” at age nine. (And even as a child he was an excellent artist, sketching birds and other natural subjects from life.) He had a photographic memory, and could recall every word not just of his books but of the huge stack of newspapers he read each morning at lightning speed and scattered all over the floor around him, despite carrying on a lively conversation and/or dictating memoranda at the same time.
Hmmm. Looks like I’d been selling TR short, especially since I already knew two admirable things about him: First, that we pretty much owe our National Parks system to him—during his presidency, he set aside 194 million acres for national parks, wildlife refuges, and nature preserves, including the Grand Canyon. And second, that it’s thanks to him that we have the most beautiful and evocative coinage ever created in America. As a coin collector, I’m grateful to Teddy for insisting that our coinage be updated. He not only gave us the Lincoln cent and buffalo nickel, but also the loveliest of all our coins, the St. Gaudens $20 and $10 gold pieces. And he opened the door for the other great coins of the century, the walking liberty half dollar and the Mercury dime. I know there’s been a lot of agitation in recent years to take FDR off the dime. If it happens, it would be far more fitting to replace him with the Father of the Golden Age of American Coinage, his cousin Teddy, than with any other president.
Anyway, not long ago I came upon a book called Mornings on Horseback by the historian David McCullough, chronicling Teddy Roosevelt’s life from birth through his twenties. Since I wanted to learn more about Teddy and it was a very interesting period in American life, covering as it did the period from the end of the Civil War (the child Teddy actually saw Lincoln’s funeral cortege) through the Gay Nineties and into the new century, I snapped it up and have been reading steadily ever since.
McCullough stressed one element of TR’s character and public life that I hadn’t known about—his strong moral character and lifelong fight against corruption. As Commissioner of Police, he reformed the corrupt New York Police Department, and as Mayor of New York, he trashed Tammany Hall and broke the power of the aldermen and their legendary bribe system. Throughout his career, he was known as a trust-buster, bringing 44 lawsuits against trusts while president and doing his utmost to bring the Robber Barons down. (Hmmm, maybe that resemblance to the Monopoly guy is no coincidence. Perhaps the inventor of Monopoly gave TR an ironic tip of the top hat, since Roosevelt spent his life trying to break up monopolies.)
Roosevelt also proposed the “square deal” and was responsible for both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Between preserving places of natural beauty for Americans to enjoy, safeguarding their food, and fighting Big Money and the corruption it spawned, no wonder the people loved him.
What else did Teddy Roosevelt do? He created Panama as an independent nation and was responsible for the completion of the Panama Canal. He created a volunteer corps, the Rough Riders, and led them on the famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, posthumously receiving America’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, for his bravery and service to his country, the only president to do so. (Geez, how about a posthumous award for George Washington, folks?!) He negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, becoming the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize as a result. He remains the only person ever to have won both a Nobel Prize and the Medal of Honor.
Teddy Roosevelt was also the first modern president. He was the first president to ride in an automobile and in a submarine; he was the first to travel abroad as president. His insistence on making safe food and green spaces available to all citizens is also very modern.
TR wasn’t perfect; he had flaws of judgment like any man, smart and educated or otherwise. But he was incorruptible, and his strong moral character is legendary. His desire to do what was right at all times, his personal fearlessness while pursuing what was right (alone among politicians, he never even paused when taking on the wealthiest and most influential, and incidentally corrupt, men of his day, such as the great Robber Baron Jay Gould), and his unique gift for getting things done set him apart. No wonder historians consistently rank him as one of the five—and often one of the three—greatest presidents. No wonder he was honored at Mount Rushmore.
The historian Henry Adams said of Theodore Roosevelt, “Roosevelt, more than any other living man… showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that mediaeval theology assigned to God—he was pure act.” But that thought, impressive as it is, doesn’t really do TR justice. For he obviously absorbed huge amounts of knowledge and combined thought with action. But more than that, he was that rarest thing, pure of heart. It’s time we gave Teddy Roosevelt a “square deal,” took him out of the toy box, and restored him to the honored place in our history that he deserves.