Teddy Roosevelt and the pressing need for a new Americanism

In an era of unbridled optimism and outright racism, Americanism was the idea that the principles of democracy, the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by a free people, driven by free enterprise and the free exchange of ideas, and governed by the equal application of the law were destined to transform the world, ushering in prosperity for all peoples and races.  Today, we need to discover its modern incarnation or continue the decline.

For a white man, the end of the 19th century had to be one of the most exciting times to be alive.  The United States had recovered from the Civil War and was emerging as a true international power with an economy unrivaled around the world.  The dream of Manifest Destiny had finally been achieved.  America now sprawled coast to coast, and even beyond, reaching all the way to Hawaii.  Four states were added to the Union in 1890 alone, North and South Dakota, Montana, and Washington.  Wyoming and Idaho would follow in short order.  The Industrial Revolution was reaching its peak and technology powered by electricity was beginning to change the life itself.  The World’s Columbian Exhibition, held in Chicago in 1893, featured President Grover Cleveland presiding over the opening of the Palace of Mechanic Arts.  “As by a touch the machinery that gives life to this vast Exposition is now set in motion, so at the same instanet let our hopes and aspirations awaken forces which in time to come shall influence the welfare, the dignity, and the freedom of mankind,” he declared as he set the show in motion with the touch of a thick finger on a button.  A massive engine coughed, lurched, and sprung to life in response, an elaborate piece of machinery that powered some 7,000 feet of shafts that caused fountains to gush, 700 flags to flutter, and a Statue of the Republic to be revealed.  Altogether, it seemed the future could not be brighter and that nothing was impossible for America.  A woman who lived through the period captured the unfurling economic and technological might, “Our country’s conspicuous bounty seemed to overflow.  Never again shall any of us see such abundance and cheapness, such luxurious well-being, as prosperous Americans then enjoyed.”

Perhaps no one embodied the optimism and era more than Theodore Roosevelt, President, Police Commissioner, Civil Service Reform Commissioner, New York Assemblyman, hunter, mountain climber, cowboy, rancher, naturalist, and historian, author of The Winning of the West.  The scion of a wealthy, blue blood New York family that dated back some seven generations, Roosevelt was equally comfortable dressed in silk at a salon or out on the range, speaking both the erudite language of high society and the borderline vulgarity of the Wild West.  He dined on a regular basis with some of the greatest luminaries of the age as a frequent guest of Henry Adams, the great grandson of Founder John Adams and grandson of President John Quincy Adams, a man so well-learned it was said that experts in all fields generally deferred to his positions.  It was not unusual to witness Roosevelt discussing literature with Rudyard Kipling, the finer details of geology with globe-trotting scientist Clarence King, or sculpture with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose work still stands in Washington, DC.  The legendary author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, once observed him holding court in a literary circle before delivering justice in a police court, and wrote in his diary, “Must be President some day.  A  man you can’t cajole, can’t frighten, can’t buy.”  Outside of this elevated sphere, he could be found sleeping on horseback while managing herds of thousands of cattle, hunting grizzly bear and bison by himself, and generally fraternizing with the complete opposite end of the human spectrum, be it rough and tumble mountain men or marginalized ethnic groups in New York City.  This was a man who would speak with, or perhaps to be more precise, speak to, anyone.  Well ahead of his time, he was also an early advocate for equality between the races.  Even at a young age he was instrumental in having a black man chair the New York State Presidential Convention in 1884.  Later in his career, he sought the promotion of Native Americans to positions within the government, and was known to spend hours in less than stellar neighborhoods, fraternizing with all of New York’s various ethnicities.  He was on the cutting edge of the conservation of natural spaces and woodlands, founding some of the first groups in the world devoted to preserving nature’s beauty.  He was also a fervent fighter against political spoils and payoffs, believing that the government should work on behalf of all citizens equally.

At the same time, Roosevelt was more of a doer than a thinker, a man of action who happened to study a lot about the world and write millions of words, but preferred the thrill of the fight to almost anything else.  Henry Adams described him as having “that singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter – the quality that medieval theology assigned to God – he was pure act.”  The intricacies of a coherent philosophy or governmental bureaucracy had little appeal to him unless they were useful to the task at hand.  He summed up his view of the world and the United States place in it with one word:  Americanism.  That is the unshakeable belief that the principles of American democracy, the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by a free people, educated and instilled with Judeo-Christian values, driven by free enterprise and the free exchange of ideas, and governed by the equal application of the law were destined to transform the world itself, ushering in prosperity for all peoples and races.  Roosevelt saw this Americanism as the pinnacle of the rise of the English people a thousand years earlier, what he described as a “perfectly continuous history” from the days of King Alfred the Great (prior to 1,000 AD) to George Washington.  To him, English itself and the values that came with it were what united this history together.  In Queen Elizabeth’s time, what was spoken in “a relatively unimportant insular kingdom…now holds sway over worlds whose endless coasts are washed by the waves of three oceans.”  American expansion across the continent was, in his mind, the “crowning and greatest achievement” of this magnificent sweep of history, but he didn’t believe it would end there, nor did he think the world would be controlled by white, proper English speaking elites ensconced in Washington, DC.  He was instead a believer in what historian Frederick Jackson Turner described as the combination between intelligence, practicality, and the drive to explore new frontiers found primarily in the West.  “That coarseness of strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things; lacking the artistic, but powerful to effect great ends; that restless nervous energy; that dominant individualism.”

 It was there that Roosevelt believed the wisdom could be found to solve “grave problems” and fight “threatening evils,” where we “must face facts as they are.  We must neither surrender ourselves to foolish optimism, nor succumb to timid and ignoble pessimism.”  To be sure, Roosevelt’s choice of words to describe this Americanism frequently sounds horribly racist at worst, or decidedly paternalistic at best, to modern ears.  His was not an era in general concerned with diversity or ethnic niceties.  He regularly referred to Indians as “savages” and gloried in the beastial warfare against them, viewing it as a necessity and the savagery of it part of some noble ideal.  Likewise, he decried the “warped, perverse, and silly morality” that sought to preserve the American continent for “the use of a few scattered savage tribes, whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they held joint ownership.”  In his view, the pioneers were doing “race important” work and anyone who stood in their way was an enemy of American (and global) advancement.  Nor did he believe this advancement was the sole province of white people.  The conquering of the West was an interim step to unleash American values for all, and everyone of any race could take advantage of them.  Indeed, he found nothing more satisfying than the idea of a racial or ethnic minority beating the white man at his own game.  They were all free to compete, could all belong to the “fellowship of doers,” and in doing so were superior in his mind to the white man who failed or perhaps even worse, failed to try.  As such, he accurately predicted that Europeans seeking to rule over Africa and India were doomed to fail, though he thought the failure would be further off in the future.  “The Greek rulers of Bascria were ultimately absorbed and vanished, as probably the English rulers of India will someday in the future–for the good of mankind…themselves be absorbed and vanish.”  In Africa, it was “almost impossible to believe that they will not in the end succeed in throwing off the yoke of the European outsiders.”  There is a sense that America itself is the world’s only melting pot, open to all races.  Biographer Edmund Morris described Roosevelt’s long term dream as “nothing more or less than the general, steady, self-betterment of the multicolored American nation.”  The rest of the world, however, would be ruled by the people who originally inhabited these spaces and it was only a matter of time – and access to Western principles – before native people reasserted themselves.

He did not fear this occurrence either, as many white people did.  By the time these revolutions came to pass, “the descendant of the negro may be as intellectual as any Athenian…we shall simply be dealing with another civilized nation of non-Aryan blood, precisely as we now deal with the Magyar, Finn, and Basque.”  Whether you choose to call him a prophet, a racist, a nationalist, or even a fascist, as many  have along with his philosophy, there is little doubt that Roosevelt was largely correct about the sweep of history and America’s role in it.  In 1894 he wrote, “At no period in the world’s history, has life been so full of interest, and of possibilities of excitement and enjoyment.”  If a person was observant, “he notes all around him the play of vaster forces than have ever before been exerted, working, half blindly, half under control, to bring about immeasurable results.”

Less than a century later, the engine of technology and the spirit unleashed by American principles remade the entire world to the point where the bridge between his time and ours seems uncrossable, like these events occurred on a distant star rather right here, in the lives of our grandparents and great grandparents.  Today, we have a tendency to look upon this achievement as a source of shame and discomfort regardless of the billions who have been lifted out of poverty and now enjoy freedom, the millions upon millions who live longer, healthier, more comfortable lives without fear of starvation or diseases like polio, mumps, measles, and smallpox.  Perhaps the world did not want to be remade, or the remaking of it came with too great a cost for people or even the planet to bear.  We no longer seem to believe that “our greatest victories are yet to be won, the greatest deeds yet to be done.”  Greatness for America and the broader West is something in the past, or something to be ceded to those we supposedly stole it from.  Whatever the field, individualism, perfectionism, even basic punctuality and the ability to communicate clearly are now considered the sins of the white man and the agent of white supremacy, rather than the keys to success for all humanity.  It is difficult to diagnose the root cause of this cultural malaise.  Often, conservatives blame it on socialism or multiculturalism run amuck; the idea that equality of outcome has replaced equality of opportunity.  There is some truth to that as many among us see an unequal world and believe it can be equalled by decree, but I myself am reminded of the old line about Alexander the Great, who supposedly wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.  For us, there seems little left to explore or little worth exploring, little more to achieve or little worth achieving, little more to do or little worth doing except further divvying up the spoils, and so we do battle with one another about the best means to manage the inevitable decline, seeking to make it as painless as possible as we succumb to the lethargic angels of our darker nature.

This is not a path Teddy Roosevelt would ever take, however, nor should we.  For him, there was always something more to do and some new field to discover, as it should be for us.  In a life beset by health problems at a young age, the tragedy of losing his father in college, his wife at twenty two years old and his brother barely a decade later, losing a fortune for the time in the raising cattle and other unsuccessful business endeavors, and suffering almost as many political defeats as enjoying victories, a man who was considered equal parts hero and villain even in his own era, he could not help but look to the future as something to be relished, even knowing there were challenges to overcome and evils to fight.  To a large extent, his sole purpose was to fight them and nothing energized him more than the spirit of resistance against forces he perceived as malevolent, whether big or small.  If America is to prosper into this 21st century, we must find a way to capture something of this spirit, to take advantage of at least a little of this drive, determination, and desire to do battle against all odds.  There is no doubt the world has changed forever in many ways.  Since Roosevelt’s day, women have the right to vote, the Civil Rights Act was passed, gay and lesbian people have the right to marry, the social safety net established, many things he would have agreed with even in the late 1800’s, others he would not.  We treat other races and ethnicities with more respect and we do not believe any single race or ethnicity has a monopoly on truth or wisdom.  These are changes for the better beyond our incredible technological achievements, but they do not preclude a fusion of the two worlds, one where we embrace the optimism of the late 19th century and the diversity of the 21st.  We can accept that the core of the American experiment – inalienable rights, representative government, equality under the law, and free market principles – produces better outcomes than authoritarian or communist alternatives.  We can embrace the idea that children of all races instilled with these principles and supported by their families and communities will ultimately prosper far more than those without. We can believe, like Roosevelt did, that these rights and privileges should be enjoyed by all, both within America and outside of it, and that no elite sitting in a seat of power can take it away.

The question facing us now, one that is often on my mind:  Why don’t we?  We’ve seen the alternative, and not many people I know think a future of continued stagnation, decline, disunity, sloth, and the acceptance of failure is desirable.  Putting this another way, what is all of this diversity, equity, and inclusion for except to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in an era even before Roosevelt walked the Earth?  

3 thoughts on “Teddy Roosevelt and the pressing need for a new Americanism”

  1. I think that might be a pipe dream. America (and the peopled-world) has gotten too big and “flat”. Such that one person can define an ideology and make it “work”. Trump tried to unite America with his “America first” and big thinking (Space Force, The Wall, buying Greenland, etc.) platform. But others didn’t just hated him. Like you said TR wouldn’t fly in today’s world. Nor even JFK, for that matter. cheers 🙂

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  2. I have the same fear, but we can’t let that stop us from trying. The irony of our age in my opinion is the complete lack of confidence and optimism. As a species, we are doing more than every before and live in a world that a few decades ago would be considered something out of a far fetched science fiction novel, and yet we are paralyzed by our own insecurities.

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