Roosevelt and the National Psychology | The Nation


Roosevelt and the National Psychology

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The former president's personality was part of the national wealth.

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Mr. Roosevelt's great and fascinating personality is part of the national wealth, and it should, so far as possible, be preserved undiminished. Since his death those who have spoken of him have observed somewhat too sedulously the questionable maxim De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. To say nothing but good of a great man is generally fatal alike to biographical vivacity and to truth. In this case it is a serious detraction from that versatile and inexhaustible energy which Lord Morley admired when he declared that the two most extraordinary works of nature in America were Niagara Falls and the President in the White House. "He made," says William Hard with the intensity of one catching breath after the close passage of a thunderbolt, "he made Theodore Roosevelt the most interesting thing in the world," and he made "the world itself momentarily immortally interesting." That touches the heart of the matter: it explains comprehensively why his friends loved and his enemies admired him. It leaves him with his aggressive definiteness, his color, and his tang. Mr. Roosevelt, as he proudly insisted and as he admirably painted himself in many a capital chapter of his "Rough Riders" and his hunting and exploring books, was stained with the blood and sweat and dust of conflict. No image presents him whole that lacks a dash of the recklessness which appears in Frederick Macmonnies's vaulting trooper and a touch of the ruthlessness hinted by the fiercely clenched fist in a well-known photograph of him pacing the deck of the flagship with "Fighting Bob" Evans. He lived and died fighting, and he gave a thousand proofs that the keenest joy he knew was the joy of battle. No memorial so little preserves him as a white-washed plaster bust. Better than all the eulogies pronounced in public places I suspect he would have relished the tribute paid to him in private conversation by one of our distinguished visitors from abroad. "It may be," he said, "that Mr. Wilson possesses all the virtues in the calendar; but for my part I had rather go to hell with Theodore Roosevelt." Mr. Wilson, he implied, might get off in a corner somewhere with Saint Peter and Colonel House, and arrange something of the highest importance to the heavenly host; but all the cherubim and seraphim of healthy curiosity would be leaning over the impassable gulf to see what Mr. Roosevelt would do next.

It is because such notes as these recall the most interesting man of our times, "the great Achilles whom we knew," that I have heard and read with a certain languor the conventional tributes evoked by his death, and, more recently, have gone through the posthumous biographies without entire satisfaction. Excepting Mr. G.S. Viereck's saucy apology for being a pro-German, the cue of recent writers has been canonization. Mr. MacIntire, for example, prefaced by General Wood, has written a purely "inspirational" narrative

with a conquering hero ready for the moving-picture screen or a Henty novel or a place on the juvenile bookshelf beside "The Boys' King Arthur." As a specimen of its critical quality, I select the following passage, with the suggestion that it be read in connection with the report of the Federal Commission on the Packers: "One shudders to think of what fate would have befallen the United States if the monopolies which Roosevelt curbed while he was President had been allowed to flourish until this era of revolution." The first three volumes of "Roosevelt, His Life, Meaning, and Messages" is a collection of important speeches, articles, and messages arranged by William Griffith; the fourth volume by Eugene Thwing is a rapid biographical compilation, journalistic, readable, and concluding with the happy thought that if the meaning of Roosevelt's life is fully appropriated we shall find in the next generation of Americans "a veritable race of moral giants." Mr. Lewis's book, for which Mr. Taft supplies an introduction, is, of course, a work of quite another order. For the earlier period it is almost as entertaining as the Autobiography, and for the later years, particularly for the history of the Progressive movement, in which the author was an important participant, it is an independent authority and an animated and agreeable one with many small intimate strokes of appreciation. Mr. Lewis candidly announces that he considers his subject too near for "impartial judgment," and he lives up to this declaration most loyally, contending that practically everything Roosevelt said and did was exactly the right thing to say and do.

The eulogists and biographers claim rather too much, and one could wish that they would take a little more pains to harmonize their favorite facts. In order to illustrate the power of mind over matter they all foster the tradition of Roosevelt's sickly youth. But Mr. MacIntire speaks of him in the New York Assembly as "this puny young chap" at just the period in which Mr. Thwing, after a reference to his "puny voice and puny hand," exhibits him knocking out the slugger Stubby Collins and mopping up the floor with "several" others. There is a similar discrepancy with regard to his linguistic attainments. Roosevelt himself testified that he was "lamentably weak in Latin and Greek"; but Mr. Thwing asserts that he was "a scholar of the first rank in the classics." One observer describes his conversational French at a luncheon in the White House as voluble, but regardless of accent and grammar; but Mr. Thwing says that "the savants of the Sorbonne heard him address them in as flawless French as they themselves could employ." Mr. MacIntire credits Roosevelt with the message ordering Dewey to sail into the port of Manila; Mr. Lewis says it has been established that Secretary Long sent it. Mr. Thwing makes him the discoverer and namer of the River of Doubt; Mr. Lewis represents him as only the explorer of that river which in his honor was renamed Teodoro by the Brazilian Government. When there is a difference with regard to verifiable facts, Mr. Lewis appears generally to be right. In the total estimates, however, there is no significant difference: the biographers agree that Roosevelt was "our typical American," and possessed every important virtue that we admire.

When the critical biographer arrives he will re-examine this total estimate. Perhaps he will be challenged to re-examination by a certain passage towards the end of Mr. Lewis's book: "In the year 1918, a friend referred to the year 1921 as the year when he [Roosevelt] would again enter the White House. He had been in one of his jocular moods, but he immediately became very serious. 'No,' he said, 'not I. I don't want it, and I don't think I am the man to be nominated. I made too many enemies, and the people are tired of my candidacy.'" Mr. Roosevelt knew "the people." When he said, "I made too many enemies, and the people are tired of my candidacy," he admitted what none of the biographers concedes, the waning of his star, his perception that he could no longer, as in 1904, say "We believe" with strong confidence that he was uttering the convictions of the overwhelming majority of his countrymen. Both he and "the people" had changed, but the people had changed more profoundly than he in ways which I shall attempt to indicate by sketching an answer to three questions: First, what were the dominant aspects of the national character at about the time of Mr. Roosevelt's advent in public life? Second, what significant alterations in the national psychology did he produce in the period during which his personality was most heartily accepted as an incarnation of the national character? Third, how and to what extent has his national representativeness diminished?


Mr. Roosevelt did not emerge conspicuously on the national horizon till late in the nineties. The preceding decade appears to have contained extraordinarily little to kindle the imaginations of spirited and public-minded young men. There had been no war since the youth of their fathers. The Government pursued a policy of sombre rather than "splendid" isolation. The country offered its imposing attractions chiefly to the big business men. Captains of industry flourished like the green bay tree. For diversion there was riotous striking in the Carnegie Steel Works at Homestead; but the State militia put it down. In 1893 there was a financial panic; but it blew over. In 1894 Coxey led an army of the unemployed to Washington; but it dispersed like the chorus of a musical comedy amid general laughter. The Columbian Exposition, at the opening of which Chauncey Depew assisted, was on the whole a symbol of a period of unexampled material prosperity in commerce, agriculture, and manufactures. In 1896 William McKinley, son of an iron manufacturer and author of a tariff bill designed to protect the farmers from the plain people as the manufacturers had already been protected, was elected President under the skilful management of Mark Hanna, wholesale grocer, coal and iron merchant, later United States Senator.

Mr. Roscoe Thayer remarks in his life of Hay that the most representative American in the third quarter of the century was P.T. Barnum; and the methods and ideals of Mark Hanna as political manager he compares to the methods and ideals of Barnum. From the popular magazines, reflecting current standards of success, the aspiring youth learned that by frugality and industry he might become as rich as Andrew Carnegie or John B. Rockefeller or as noble and distinguished as Chauncey Depew. The Plutocratic era lacked--outside the field of businessideas, imagination, animating purpose.

Mark Twain, in some ways a singularly sensitive person, curiously illustrates the point. He possessed ambition and a restless energy which should, of course, have found satisfaction and ample reward in the production of literature; but in this decade he seems to have been irresistibly driven by the time-spirit to compete with the acknowledged leaders of American life in their own field. He spent himself trying to get rich and live in the grand style like his friend Carnegie and his friend Henry Rogers. Feverishly pushing his publishing house, his typesetting machine, and a half dozen projects for rolling up a fortune, he began to use literature as a mere handmaid to finance and to regard himself as a financier. He felt himself daily on the brink of immense wealth while he was actually headed for bankruptcy. His recently published letters give the emotional reaction. Reading the morning papers, he says, makes him spend the rest of the day "pleading for the damnation of the human race." "Man is not to me the respectworthy person he was before; and so I have lost my pride in him, and can't write praisefully about him any more." He thinks that he detects in Howells something of his own ennui: "indifference to sights and sounds once brisk with interest; tasteless stale stuff which used to be champagne; the boredom of travel; the secret sigh behind the public smile; the private What-in-hell-did-I-come-for." With less bitterness Mr. Dooley --in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's jubilee &dash testifies to the same effect in summarizing the achievements of his own time in America:

"While she was lookin' on in England, I was lookin' on in this counthry. I have seen America spread out fr'm th' Atlantic to th' Pacific, with a branch office iv th' Standard Ile Comp'ny in ivry hamlet. I've seen th' shackles dropped fr'm th' slave, so's he cud be lynched in Ohio... an' Corbett beat Sullivan, an' Fitz beat Corbett... An' th' invintions... th' cotton gin an' th' gin sour an' th' bicycle an' th' flyin' machine an' th' nickel-in-th'-slot machine an' th' Croker machine an' th' sody fountain an'--crownin' wurruk iv our civilization --th' cash raygister."

It would be easy to multiply illustrations of the effect of this busy but mercenary and humdrum national mind upon the finer spirits in the political arena. John Hay, for example, as Secretary of State under McKinley, seems to have gone earnestly about his work, suppressing now a yawn of disgust, now a sigh of despair. "Office holding per se," he writes in 1900, "has no attraction for me." He has some far-sighted policies for his department, but he can't put them through, for "there will always be 34 per cent of the Senate on the blackguard side of every question that comes before them." Even more of this quiet disgust with American public life appears in the now celebrated diary of Henry Adams, a man who "had everything," born into the governing class yet holding no higher office than that of private secretary to his father unless it was the position of assist ant professor of history at Harvard. When the latter position was offered to him, he remarked in a blasé tone which would have thunderstruck his great-grandfather: "It could not much affect the sum of solar energies whether one went on dancing with girls in Washington, or began talking to boys in Cambridge." Still more striking is Adams's analysis of the American character in government circles. It might be true, he said, in New York or Chicago that the American was "a pushing, energetic, ingenious person, always awake and trying to get ahead of his neighbors"; but it was not true in Washington. "There the American showed himself, four times in five, as a quiet, peaceful, shy figure, rather in the mould of Abraham Lincoln, somewhat sad, sometimes pathetic, once tragic; or like Grant, as inarticulate, uncertain, distrustful of himself, still more distrustful of others, and awed by money. That the American by temperament worked to excess, was true; work and whiskey were his stimulants; work was a form of vice; but he never cared much for money or power after he earned them. The amusement of the pursuit was all the amusement he got from it; he had no use for wealth."

While the national mind was absorbed in business why should young men born to wealth and social position strive to thrust themselves in between the captains of industry and their political representatives? Possessing at the start the objects of the race, why should they contend? Politics was generally described as dirty and uninspiring; why should they subject themselves to its soil and fatigue? How some of them were answering such questions, Jacob Riis revealed in his life of Roosevelt:

They were having a reunion of his [Roosevelt's] class when he was Police Commissioner, and he was there. One of the professors told of a student coming that day to bid him goodby. He asked him what was to be his work in the world.

"Oh!" he said, with a little yawn, "really, do you know, professor, it does not seem to me that there is anything that is much worth while."

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