Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, has identified Theodore Roosevelt as her favorite president and her “dream running mate.” This choice may seem uncontroversial, even politically astute: Roosevelt was a trailblazing conservationist and, like Warren, a stalwart of consumer protection, his iconic status confirmed by his placement on Mount Rushmore. Yet Senator Warren, who has run an often inspirational campaign, may find that her identification with Theodore Roosevelt is an albatross.
Warren’s image of Roosevelt is seemingly derived from a sanitized high school textbook version of his presidency rather than a sober assessment of his record. In an interview with CBS News, Warren said, “I’m a huge Teddy Roosevelt fan. And do you know why? He said, ‘We’ve gotta get rid of those giant corporations. We gotta break ’em up.’’
But this is a grossly overblown characterization of his policy. Though Roosevelt won the antitrust case against the railroad conglomerate Northern Securities—hence his reputation as the “great trust-buster”—he generally preferred to regulate rather than break up monopolies. He refused to file antitrust actions against what he considered “good” monopolies such as Standard Oil (accused of 1,462 violations of federal law), and United States Steel, known for ferocious opposition to unions and shocking rates of workplace casualties. “It is generally useless to try to prohibit all restraint on competition…and where it is not useless, it is generally hurtful,” he explained. It fell to Roosevelt’s more conservative successor, William Howard Taft, to file an antitrust suit against Standard Oil; in fact, Taft filed far more antitrust actions during his four years in office than Roosevelt did in nearly eight.
If Roosevelt’s views on trust-busting were ambivalent, his views on race were unequivocal. Roosevelt believed that Anglo-Saxons stood atop the racial hierarchy, embodying “civilization,” which was itself entangled in global conflict with nonwhite “savages.” Though Roosevelt acknowledged that in such wars “no pity is shown to non-combatants…the weak are harried without ruth, and the vanquished maltreated with merciless ferocity,” he nonetheless insisted that “the rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him,” since “the most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages.”
Roosevelt was a passionate proponent of what he euphemistically called the “large policy” of overseas territorial expansion. Yet, as of early 1898, the United States had not yet joined Britain, France, and other European powers in their frantic quest for overseas colonial possessions—much to Roosevelt’s frustration. “I should welcome almost any war,” he “for I think this country needs one.”
As assistant secretary of the Navy under William McKinley, Roosevelt demonstrated that he was not a man of mere words. On February 25, 1898, as tensions were mounting with Spain, he dispatched ships to the Pacific without authorization, though the secretary of the Navy had told him simply, “Look after the routine of the office while I get a quiet day off.” And when McKinley hesitated to go to war, Roosevelt fumed that the president had “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair,” and fretted, “McKinley is bent on peace, I fear.”
After Congress finally declared war against Spain in April 1898, the imperialist policies advocated by Roosevelt and his allies aroused bitter opposition from some of the nation’s leading figures—among them William James, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, Jane Addams, Grover Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan, and the editors of The Nation—who denounced imperialism as a violation of the American principle of self-governance. Roosevelt was contemptuous of this growing anti-imperialist movement, deeming anti-imperialists “futile sentimentalists” determined to reserve whole continents “for the use of scattered savage tribes whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beast.”
For Roosevelt, who favored direct American rule over territories won in war (“We ought to take Hawaii in the interest of the White race,” he once declared), the Philippines posed a problem: Its inhabitants had long been waging a war of independence against Spain, and took seriously an American promise made during the Spanish-American war to recognize the independence of the Philippines. When the United States reneged on its promise, a popular Filipino independence movement quickly emerged. Espousing American ideals and modeling their Constitution on the American Constitution, the Filipinos hoped to bolster anti-imperialism within the United States; for his part, Roosevelt denounced the insurgents as “Chinese half-breeds” and “Malay bandits.”
By the time Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency in 1901, a bloody Filipino insurgency was underway. In response, the United States unleashed progressively harsher tactics, including the widespread use of waterboarding, resulting in the deaths of 134 Filipinos. Ultimately, the war, endorsed and later presided over by Roosevelt, was catastrophic for the Philippines: Over four years, an estimated 775,000 Filipinos died—a number greater than the total number, soldiers and civilians alike, who died in the American Civil War.
The racism evident in Roosevelt’s advocacy of imperialism also shaped his stance toward African Americans at home. Blacks “as a race are altogether inferior to whites,” he wrote. Roosevelt believed that their “laziness and shiftlessness” and “vice and criminality of every kind” did “more harm to the black race than all acts of oppression of white men put together.” Indeed, in 1906, he blamed lynching on its victims, writing, “The greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape.” Though lynching claimed over 500 African Americans lives during Roosevelt’s time in office, he was unwilling to confront this brutal violence.
Nor was Roosevelt willing to address the continuing disenfranchisement of African Americans that took place during his presidency. And in the years after his time in office, he made his own contribution to black disenfranchisement; running for president in 1912 as the nominee of the Progressive party, he endorsed the creation of a lily-white Progressive party in the South, excluding blacks from the party’s national convention. He later confided to his friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, his belief that “the great majority of negroes in the South are wholly unfit for suffrage,” warning that black suffrage could “reduce parts of the South to the level of Haiti.”
Roosevelt’s anti-black racism was not simply a product of his time. In February 1909, while Roosevelt was still in office, the NAACP—founded jointly by African-Americans and whites—was formed to fight disenfranchisement, segregation, and the lynching of African Americans. And three years earlier, the Niagara Movement issued a manifesto declaring, “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil, and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to assail the ears of America.”
To Roosevelt, some groups normally classified as white were also inferior: He once recounted a dinner at which “various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of Italians in New Orleans. Personally, I think it a rather good thing, and said so.” Roosevelt was troubled that Southern and Eastern European immigrants had greater fecundity than Anglo-Saxons: “If all our nice friends in Beacon Street, and Newport, and Fifth Avenue, and Philadelphia have one child, or no child at all, while the Finnegans, Hooligans, Antonios, Mandelbaums, and Rabinskis have eight, or nine, or ten,” a friend recalled Roosevelt saying, “it’s simply a question of the multiplication table.” Fearful that Southern and Eastern European immigrants were “winning the warfare of the cradle,” Roosevelt fretted, “The greatest problem of civilization is to be found in the fact that well-to-do families tend to die out,” creating “a tendency to the elimination instead of the survival of the fittest.”
Tormented by visions of “race suicide,” Roosevelt welcomed the publication in 1916 of Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, a tract so racist and anti-Semitic that Adolf Hitler thanked the New York patrician in a letter for writing what he considered “his Bible.” Yet Roosevelt praised it warmly, writing to Grant that “The book is a capital book…. all Americans should be sincerely grateful to you for writing it” and granting permission for the use of his praise in promoting subsequent printings.
Whatever Roosevelt’s many accomplishments, this is not the record of a “dream running mate” for any Democratic candidate for president. If Elizabeth Warren wishes to continue her campaign as a 21st century progressive, she would do well to dissociate herself from Theodore Roosevelt—a man who, by word and by deed, repeatedly violated many of the core values that have animated her spirited bid for the presidency.