Theodore Roosevelt, known for his boundless energy and daring, adventurous spirit, possessed one of the greatest personalities of any American president. But, he once said, “It is a strong quality of nature that their faults, like their virtues, stand out with boldness.
This could certainly be said of the 26th President, whose complex legacy does not only include his accomplishments as a progressive reformer and conservationist who regulated big business and established the national park system. He also strongly believed in the existence of a racial hierarchy, which shaped his attitudes on race relations, land rights, US imperialism and the emerging – and disturbing – science of eugenics.
“The strength of race in history occupied a singularly important place in Roosevelt’s broad intellectual vision,” wrote Thomas G. Dyer in Theodore Roosevelt and the idea of race. Roosevelt fundamentally believed that American greatness came from its domination by racially superior white men of European descent.
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Roosevelt believed that individual self-determination was possible
Roosevelt argued that although white males hold firm to the top of the social hierarchy, “lower” races could rise from their lower ranks. “Roosevelt believed that individuals could learn positive traits over the course of their lives and assumed that racial mobility was under human control,” says Michael Patrick Cullinane, professor of history at Roehampton University in London and author of The phantom of Theodore Roosevelt: the story and memory of an American icon. But Roosevelt did not come up with these ideas himself. According to Cullinane, his racial ideology was inspired by his readings of great evolutionary theorists such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.
Roosevelt “admired individual achievement above all else,” wrote biographer Edmund Morris – which is why he became the first president to invite an African-American to dinner at the White House when he broke bread with the founder of the Tuskegee Institution, Booker T. inauguration. “The only wise, honorable, and Christian thing to do is to treat every black man and every white man strictly on his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less than he is worthy of having.” Roosevelt wrote of his meeting. .
Roosevelt also defended Minnie Cox, the country’s first African-American postwoman, after she was kicked out of Indianola, Mississippi for the color of her skin. He has appointed black Americans to prominent positions, such as his appointment of Dr William Crum as customs collector in Charleston, South Carolina, which drew considerable political opposition and this presidential response: “I cannot accept to take the position that the door of hope – the door of opportunity – must be closed to any man, however worthy, solely for reasons of race or color.
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He took a darker view of racial groups as a whole
Despite these words, however, Roosevelt hardly saw all black Americans as equals. “As a race and in the mass they are quite inferior to whites,” he told a friend in a letter from 1906. Ten years later he told Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that “the vast majority Negroes from the South are totally unfit for suffrage ”and that giving them the right to vote could“ bring certain parts of the South back to the level of Haiti ”.
Roosevelt also believed that black men made poor soldiers. He disparaged the efforts of the Buffalo soldiers who fought alongside his men in San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War, wrongly claiming that they fled under fire. “The Negro troops shirked their duties and would only go to the extent that they were led by white officers,” he wrote. In fact, Buffalo soldiers served with distinction, and several men were officially recognized for their bravery. Twenty-six died on the slopes of San Juan Hill.
As for Native Americans, Roosevelt’s considerable time ranching in Dakota Territory only hardened his mindset towards them, years before he became president. “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian,” he said in 1886, “but I believe nine out of ten are, and I wouldn’t want to inquire too closely about the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principles than the average Indian. “
Roosevelt viewed Native Americans as obstacles to white colonization of the United States and believed that the white settlers had forged a new race – the American race – through “relentless struggles against savage man and the wilderness.”
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Roosevelt’s views on race impacted his domestic and foreign policies
As president, he promoted the withdrawal of many Native Americans from their ancestral lands, including approximately 86 million acres of tribal land transferred to the national forest system. Roosevelt’s iconic achievements in conserving the environment and creating national parks came at the expense of the people who had ruled the land for centuries. Roosevelt also supported policies of assimilation for Native Americans to integrate into American society at large. These policies, over time, have contributed to the decimation of Indigenous culture and communities.
Roosevelt’s attitude towards race also had a direct impact on his foreign policy as president, says Cullinane: “Because he believed that white Anglo-Saxons had reached the pinnacle of social success, he believed that ‘they were able to teach other peoples of the world who had failed to reach such heights. The United States would help frame and elevate the Western Hemisphere. ”
This worldview formed the basis for Roosevelt’s vocal support for US imperialism, and in the White House he presided over an expanding overseas empire that included territories won in the Spanish-American War, notably Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines. Its Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, also known as “big stick” foreign policy, laid the groundwork for a more interventionist policy in Latin America. He also extended American influence in the region by instigating a rebellion in Panama which resulted in the American construction of the Panama Canal.
And his desire to reset racial hierarchies was not limited to the Western Hemisphere. “It is of incalculable importance that America, Australia and Siberia pass from the hands of their native red, black and yellow owners,” Roosevelt wrote in his 1889 book. The victory of the West ”,and become the legacy of the dominant world races.
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Only citizens “of the right type” should procreate
Roosevelt’s racial philosophy of white superiority dovetailed with his support for the eugenics movement, which advocated selective breeding to create a race of people with more “desirable” characteristics, and the sterilization of “less desirable” people, such as criminals, people with developmental disabilities — and for some, people of color. “Society has nothing to do to allow degenerates to reproduce,” he wrote in 1913. “One day we will realize that the first duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the good type is to leave his blood behind. him. world; and that we have no reason to allow the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type. ”
“Men are to be judged by the age in which they live,” Roosevelt said in a 1907 speech at the unveiling of a pilgrim monument. In his day, Roosevelt was not alone in defending the racial hierarchies, US imperialism, and eugenics, which became the basis of mandatory sterilization laws enacted by more than 30 states. The man who defeated him in the 1912 presidential campaign, Woodrow Wilson, shared similar views on race, and figures like Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller, and Winston Churchill supported the eugenics movement.
In the context of his time, “Roosevelt made a significant commitment to the idea of race. He has read and published on leading evolutionary thought, “Cullinane says.” That said, there were also more progressive voices in Roosevelt’s time that he rejected.