Saturday, March 23, 2013


A review of Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex (2001)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Morris’ earlier book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt that focused on the mere forty-two years Roosevelt went from birth to being the President of the United States, the fastest rise on record.  The election of 1900 was supposed to silence the rebellious Governor of New York by making him the Vice President.  However when an assassin’s bullet mortally wounded President McKinley fate put Roosevelt in a great position to act.  This book covers the accomplishments and failures of an administration.

The first thing of significance that Roosevelt decided to do was infuriate the entire solid south over their favorite issue: Black people.  Booker T. Washington was the least offensive African-American that white southerners could ask for.  Popular in the African-American community in his own time, Washington has since fallen out of favor after the ‘black power’ movement in the 60s and 70s.  Washington’s philosophy was focused on practical things now, political rights later.  Roosevelt, on race, was enlightened for his time, although not quite with ours.  He tended to agree with society’s view on race (that White people were the best), but Morris points out that Roosevelt viewed was different in that he thought White supremacy would be temporary.  He thought races could become better as time went on and ‘catch up’, and that each individual should be judged on his or her own merits.  And Roosevelt thought absolutely nothing about inviting the accomplished Washington to the White House for dinner, but the South had other ideas. 

“The storm squalled louder when reporters discovered that Roosevelt had entertained blacks before, in the gubernatorial mansion at Albany and at Sagamore Hill.  Hate mail and death threats swamped the White House and the Tuskegee Institute.  In Richmond, Virginia, a transparency of the President’s face was hissed off the Bijou screen.  In Charleston, South Carolina, Senator Benjamin R. Tillman endorsed remedial genocide: ‘The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing of a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.’” (p.55)
One has to wonder how Senator Tillman would react after the 2008 election.
Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt

After infuriating the South the new President decided to take on the seemingly all-powerful trusts.  When Northern Securities Co. threatened to take over all the railroads in the United States, it was President Roosevelt who stood up and stopped it.  Morgan was shocked because no President of the United States had ever stood up to him before.

 “Whatever qualms the President may have had in granting an interview, he had little difficulty handling Morgan.  Or at least Roosevelt chose not to remember any, when recounting the conversation afterward.  Morgan had seemed less furious than puzzled.  Why had the Administration not asked him to correct irregularities in the new trust’s charter?

Roosevelt: That is just we did not want to do.
Morgan: If we had done anything wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up.
Roosevelt: That can’t be done.
Knox: We don’t want to fix it up, we want to stop it.
Morgan: Are you going to attack my other interests, the Steel Trust and others?
Roosevelt: Certainly not—unless we find out that in any case they have done something we regard as wrong.

Alone with Knox later, Roosevelt mused, ‘That is a most illuminating illustration of the Wall Street point of view.’  Morgan could think of the President of the United States only as ‘a big rival operator’ with whom he could cut a deal.” (p.91-2)
Roosevelt vs. the Trusts

Roosevelt would gain a reputation for being pro-labor, but he was not pro-labor so much as he was pro-fairness, and for the last few decades management did not need to negotiate as the government was always there to back them up.  Roosevelt moved the government into a more neutral corner, and allowed for labor to deal in a fairer environment. 

“Some weeks after the Coal Strike Commission had begun its work, and anthracite fires were glowing in forty million grates, George Baer encountered Owen Wister and roared at him, ‘Does your friend ever think?’  The railroad executive was still furious over Roosevelt’s ‘imperious’ intervention between free-market forces.  Even the most conservative economic experts were predicting that United Mine Workers would win at least 10 percent wage increase, plus fairer and safer working conditions and the right to arbitrate all disputes.” (p.169)
Roosevelt shared the international stage with a host of other characters.  King Edward VII of England was one who Roosevelt rather liked.  One who Roosevelt despised was King Edward’s psychotic nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.  

“What made Roosevelt wary was Wilhelm’s inclination toward bejeweled fantasy.  ‘He writes to me pretending that he is a descendent of Frederick the Great!  I know better and feel inclined to tell him so.’  The Kaiser liked to dress up like Frederick; when he posed for photographs in his hero’s thigh-boots he revealed rather wide hips.  Roosevelt, alive to any hint of effeminacy, understood that in negotiating with Wilhelm he must at all times remember the importance of show.  It would be foolhardy to humiliate him in the Caribbean.  The Kaiser was enough of a man to stand tough, confidential message—and enough of a woman, presumably, to retreat if it could be made to look glamorous.” (p.186)
Roosevelt’s most famous and long-lasting accomplishment was the Panama Canal.  When Columbia decided to back out of its deal with the United States Roosevelt turned his eye to a little revolution that was going in the province of Panama.  If Columbia did not want to deal than perhaps the revolutionaries would. 

“There was no doubt now that the province would soon—must—secede from the Colombian federation.  Bogota’s rejection of the canal treaty, and Washington’s apparent acceptance of that rejection, amounted to dual deathblows to the Istmusenos.  Not only had they lost their long-dreamed waterway, spilling wealth on both sides forever, but their railroad, too, would become redundant, once the Nicaragua Canal opened for business.  With no paved highways, no bridges, little industry, and less commerce, they might just as well revert to jungle living. 
 The President could not help feeling sympathetic.  Here was a little ridge of country, about as wide as southern Vermont, a half-drowned hogback of mostly impenetrable rain forest, walled off from the rest of Colombia by mountains.  Geographically, it belonged to Central America.  Its only surface communications with the southern continent were by sea or mule train.  Letters took fifteen days to get to Bogota, if they got there at all; about the only reliable deliveries were those carrying tax money out of the Isthmus.
 Panama’s political status as a provincia of Colombia was equally tenuous.  It had spontaneously joined the New Granadian Federation in 1821, and seceded with its disintegration in 1830.  Bogota had reasserted control twelve years later, and from then on Panama had alternated stormily between semi-autonomy and subjugation.  Roosevelt counted no fewer than fifty-three isthmian insurrections, riots, civil disturbances, and revolts since 1846.  None had been perpetrated with any American help.  On at least ten occasions (six times at Bogota’s request, twice during his own presidency), Washington had blocked rebel movements and shipments along the Panama Railroad.” (p. 273)
It is easy to see how useful the Panama Canal was

No President who entered the office by means of succession was ever elected—much less nominated—to a term of their own.  Roosevelt would achieve both at the expense of the party elders and conservatives.  Roosevelt would redefine how a President campaigned to retain his office.  After President Jackson, only three incumbent presidents retained their office after a presidential election. (Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley)  In over a hundred years since Roosevelt left office only five have failed to retain it. (Taft,Hoover, Ford, Carter, and Bush I)
“In the meantime, the President felt free to set his own Republican agenda, in a series of indiscretions calculated to heave fresh sod on Hanna’s grave.  He preached conservation to the National Wholesale Lumber Dealers’ Association, and political morality to Republican professionals.  He meddled in the gubernatorial politics of New York and Missouri, ordered a draft platform for the convention, considered and approved a mysterious proposal to translate American campaign literature into Bohemian, and grossly flattered the first national assembly of American periodical publishers: ‘It is always a pleasure for a man in public life to meet the real governing classes.’
 Old Guard Republicans worried about the undignified spectacle of a President campaigning for his own office.  He was supposed to put himself in the hands of party professionals.  McKinley had successfully sat out two campaigns at home in Canton, Ohio; here was ‘Teddy’ virtually setting up pre-convention headquarters in the White House.” (p.319)

Roosevelt loved being a member in the party of Lincoln; it was Roosevelt who put Lincoln on the penny.  John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, who was U.S. Secretary of State when Roosevelt took office, gave him a special ring to where at his inauguration in 1905.   

“Close observers noticed a strange, heavy gold ring on his third finer.  It contained a strand of Abraham Lincoln’s hair.  John Hay had given it to him with a request that he wear it when he was sworn in: ‘You are one of the men who most thoroughly understand and appreciate Lincoln.’” (p.376)
Another great Roosevelt achievement that occurred in Kittery, Me, despite the claim that it took place in Portsmouth NH.  In Kittery, Roosevelt mediated the settlement of the result of the war between Russia and Japan.  Roosevelt had a great respect for Japan and could not stand the Tsar or his government.  The great challenge for Roosevelt was having to deal with a Tsar that did not want to deal with reality. 

“Roosevelt detected a resurgence of the Russian lack of logic that had so infuriated him with Count Casini.  His Majesty would not give up Sakhalin, yet Sakhalin, was already occupied by the Japanese.  Russia was not conquered—she had merely been beaten in every land battle of the war, and lost almost all of her navy.  He soil was undefiled, but if she did not soon treat with Japan, she could say good-bye to eastern Siberia.” (p.410)
Treaty of Portsmouth

The one sour spot on Roosevelt’s record was his action during the Brownsville Affair.  Some African-American infantrymen were accused of murdering a bartender and injuring a cop.  When none came forward Roosevelt discharged the entire black regiment for engagement in a ‘conspiracy of silence’.  These orders would not be reversed until the Nixon administration.   

“Roosevelt remained silent.  He closeted himself with the original Brownsville report of Major Blocksom, rereading it carefully.  Its findings did not alter his conviction as to the guilty of the men.  But after studying another view of the case, by a retired Union Army general, he betrayed the first trace of regret over the hastiness of his action.  He wrote Taft a confidential note, saying he was now ‘uncertain whether or not the officers of the three colored companies… are or are not blamable,’ and asking for ‘a thoro investigation’ to clarify his thinking.”  (472-3)
            Roosevelt’s crowning achievement on his presidency was the ‘Great White Fleet’.  Ever since he was a boy he loved his country's Navy.  He wrote the Naval War of 1812 and served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy as an adult.  After Roosevelt was done the U.S. Navy had become the third best in the world ranking only under Great Britain and Germany.  The tour of the Great White Fleet confirmed it. 

“Roosevelt considered the options, and his own as President and Commander-in-Chief.  He had just seventeen months left in office, and wanted to make a grand gesture of will, something that would loom as large historically in his second term as the Panama Canal coup had in his first.  What could be grander, more inspirational to the Navy, and to all Americans, than sending sixteen great white ships halfway around the world—maybe even farther?” (p.494) 
Great White Fleet

 Morris’ book is very well done.  It has a great following narrative and would be enjoyable to someone who knows a lot about history or a causal reader.  In terms of style I really like that he includes his pictures within the text not in a separate section like many other books do.  I really like the capitalization.  Morris is thorough back who capitalizes titles, as I believe we should.  I would recommend this book to anyone.

{Video is from TR's inauguration in 1905}

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