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Teddy Roosevelt's Complicated Legacy 100 Years After His Death

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, sitting at his desk working. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, sitting at his desk working. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The 26th U.S. president died 100 years ago this year.

Theodore Roosevelt was an environmentalist and progressive social reformer who laid the groundwork for the modern Democratic party. But he was also an advocate for white nationalism and eugenics.

So how should his presidency be remembered?

Roosevelt’s views were racist, says  Gary Gerstle ( @glgerstle ) , a professor of American history at the University of Cambridge. But he was very much “a man of his time.”

“I think his legacy was in constructing a modern liberalism that would come to full fruition in the presidency of his cousin [Franklin D. Roosevelt],” Gerstle tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “The idea that one could not allow private wealth to accumulate without regulation; that the government had a role to play in regulating the economy; that it had a role to play and evening the playing field between the rich and the poor.”

Perhaps the most visible piece of Roosevelt’s legacy is the National Park System, which grew during his presidency, Gerstle says.

“He was a great believer that America’s greatness lay in its wilderness, and he became determined to protect that wilderness for all generations coming after him,” Gerstle says.

Interview Highlights

On the political divide over Roosevelt’s legacy

“He called himself a ‘new nationalist,’ and he felt very strongly that America had to be reconstructed on a more egalitarian foundation. He slipped out of the news in our memory because neither party really knows what to do with him right now because he, in essence, he anticipates the modern Democratic Party, but he’s a Republican. So the Democrats really don’t want him. And because he anticipates so much of what the Democratic Party will become, the Republicans don’t want to recognize him as one of their own. So there is a conspiracy of silence about the man.

“He’s known as someone who carries a big stick and a loud mouth and antagonizes opponents. He was a man of his time in the sense that he had many racist views about how America ought to be constructed and those views have to be understood, and both in the context of that time and from the perspective of our own. But I would not want his reform program to be lost sight of because it sets the terms for much of the politics of the 20th century.”

On Roosevelt’s passion for the wilderness

“He was a very sickly, asthmatic boy who spent countless years of his childhood pretty much confined to his room because he was so sickly. And in those circumstances, he began to dream of a very different kind of life, and he was determined by the force of his personality to make himself into another man and that meant strong, muscular, conquering his infirmity. And so in a sense, his own experience of infirmity became a motivation for him to test himself and make himself into a very different kind of man.

“He also was a member of a New York elite, gentry elite, but it was old wealth rather than new wealth. And while they were comfortably elite in New York City of the 1860s and 1870s, by 1900, 1910, they were being supplanted by the fortunes of [Andrew Carnegie], [John D. Rockefeller], the other so-called robber barons. And he became critical of them for being entirely consumed with the struggle for wealth. And he began to articulate an ethic of life, which could not be achieved simply by the accumulation of fortune, but by man as an individual testing himself constantly against the elements. And he imagined the wilderness as a place to be preserved, not just so Americans could experience the sublime, but so that they could test themselves against the elements and against their antagonists.

“[The Badlands were] where he went to find himself [after his wife and mother’s deaths], and he repeatedly put himself in those situations in moments of extreme hardship. It was a place that he felt utterly comfortable, and I think we have trouble understanding that. But this is where he felt at home, personally at home.”

On his economic legacy being similar to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren

“If we brought him back, that’s exactly where he would fit on the political spectrum. And it’s extraordinary to have a mainstream figure of a major political party speaking in these terms. On another occasion, he said this, ‘The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to the prophet must now give way to the advocate of human welfare who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require.’ That puts him squarely in Bernie Sanders’ camp. Now, he was not a socialist, but everyone who was running for president in 1912 understood that the biggest issue facing America was the inequality between rich and poor. And a candidate who did not stand up for the poor in 1912 was not going to get himself elected to the presidency of the United States.”

On his belief in eugenics and other pseudo-scientific ideas of racial hierarchy

“Well, he had very well-developed and racist views towards both Indians and blacks. He regarded Indians as savages. He respected them because they were ardent warriors. But he expected that they would be eliminated, exterminated from America in contest with the white men who were settling the continent, to the people who he hailed as backwoodsmen. And he required the Indians to be there to be the strenuous opponent through which Americans could prove their valor. But he was very clear that in a modern America that he was building, he expected they would be exterminated either through battle or through simply the inability to adjust to modern life.

“He would have had no patience with the indigenous and original inhabitants of a sacred American space interfering with his conception of the American sublime. He was a white supremacist, but he was a fierce opponent of slavery. He regarded slavery as a sin visited upon America by aristocratic Englishmen who came close to ruining the experiment of America by placing people of African descent on his glorious continent.”

On what we should take away from Roosevelt today

“I see Teddy Roosevelt as a figure who fully expresses the two most important nationalist traditions in American life. On the one hand, there’s a civic nationalist tradition, which says any person can succeed in America irrespective of their race, religion, class, gender as long as they proclaim fealty to American ideals, agree to obey the law, work hard for self advancement. There’s a part of Roosevelt who believes sincerely and deeply in America as an opportunity for every man and every woman. But he also believes deeply in racial nationalism, America as a land for racially superior peoples descended from Europeans, not a place for Asians, not a place for blacks, not a place for Indians, not a place for Latinos.

“It’s easy for us today to say Obama is the great civic nationalist, and Trump is the great racial nationalist, and that’s a true statement. But for much of American history, these two nationalist traditions have been mixed up in the minds of the same individuals. And once we understand that both civic aspirations and racist aspirations are present in so many Americans, it helps us to understand the difficulty America has had in terms of eradicating racial nationalism from American soil. It is so deeply ingrained in the American experiment, in the American republic. There are constantly efforts to reform it, but it always comes back. It is, in a sense, America’s original sin. Roosevelt, I’m drawn to him because he encompasses those two nationalisms so fully, and they cohabit in his mind, in his personality, in his presidency, in his America.”

Savannah Maher produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Here & Now co-host Jeremy Hobson started telling stories on the radio when he was a kid and hasn't stopped since.