My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was actually twofold. Initially, I read Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt by William Henry Harbaugh. I found that one to be extremely dry, to the point where I was forcing myself through. After getting to the end, I decided a fresh look was worth it for Roosevelt, and ended up reading Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton and Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt by William Henry Harbaugh
Theodore Roosevelt is certainly one of the more fascinating figures in United States history. Both biographers I read pointed out the gulf between the assumptions about his life and legends about the man and the facts of his life. Certainly, the legends and general knowledge have a basis in reality, but his real life is fascinating as well. Time and again, the old aphorism that “Truth is stranger than fiction” applies very accurately to history.
Roosevelt is not what people would describe as the American dream. Unlike some other Presidents who went from relative poverty to the White House, he was born into immense wealth. He did, however, still struggle to make something of himself. Struggling with illness through his youth, it was his father, “Thee” (nickname for the elder Theodore), who pushed him hard to get past physical weakness. His father’s worldview was embraced by Teddy, who himself pushed for what the biographers called a “muscular” Christianity. This term can be misleading in its meaning, but essentially it is a combination of orthodox Christian teaching with an amalgam of cultural baggage largely based around perceptions of what it means to be robust and, by extension, masculine. That same image of Christianity unfortunately is very alive and well in our times as well, as people combine Christian belief with cultural baggage even while claiming it is the latter that just is the former. That aside, it is clear that both Roosevelt and his father were faithful Christians who attempted, however imperfectly, to apply their beliefs to their lives.
Roosevelt before his Presidency is full of the legendary tales that have established him firmly in American folklore. The rough riders, the traveling around the world–all of that is fascinating reading. It also helps show the character of the man himself. Roosevelt did not back down from a fight, whether with force of arms or with weapons politic. He charged forward in his attempts to bring about labor reform, especially working to try to push such reforms through the Supreme Court. He was bitterly opposed in this by basically everyone with money, who did not wish their wealth to not simply increase in massively disproportionate ways.
An absolutely fascinating part of Roosevelt’s vision of reality is his commitment to seeing scientific knowledge and insight as a guiding light for policy and practice. Pair this with his Christian commitments, and it made for a powerful worldview that withstood many tests. But it also led to some serious difficulties. For example, Roosevelt’s worldview held to a strong belief that all people were valuable and that each person should be given a fair chance/fair deal at life. But the science of his time also had some pushing eugenics and “scientific” race theories that argued that people of different backgrounds were, in fact, unequal simply based upon their heritage or birth. Race science is deeply rooted in prejudice and has very little basis in actual fact (for some fascinating reading on this, read Superior by Angela Saini or The History of White People by Nell Irving Painter), but it was and sometimes still is accepted as sober truth. Roosevelt, being well-read and interested in science, struggled to balance his belief in the equality of all people with the notion that people were, in fact, unequal in reality as well. Dalton does not over-emphasize this in his policy-making, but it seems like it did impact him in some ways.
Alongside Roosevelt’s fight to protect what he saw as workers’ rights, he also fought against the peonage system which he saw as little more than an extension of slavery. This fight put him again on the other side of those in power through wealth, which is somewhat surprising given Roosevelt’s own background. But Roosevelt’s fight both against peonage and for workers’ rights demonstrates in reality his actual commitment both to Christian principles of equality and his general belief that everyone deserved a fair chance at life. Another place this was demonstrated was in Roosevelt’s view was ahead of his time was in women’s abilities more generally. When challenged by anti-suffragists who made the argument that only those who could defend the right to vote ought to be given it (i.e. only those suitable for military service), Roosevelt replied by saying that women could one day become “effective combatants” (75). Women, Roosevelt said, should have equality before the law because “though placed by education and surroundings at a disadvantage,” women were “in no wise inferior as regards quickness or acuteness” (ibid).
Roosevelt also truly tried to walk the line between parties, moderating some aspects while pushing for liberalization of others. Whether it was his battle for fairer labor laws or his hawkish foreign policy, Roosevelt truly was a man of principles that he would follow even if they went against the grain of his party or other powerful people/groups. He’s perhaps best known for his conservation work–itself tied into his vision of scientific leadership–and looking back on his legacy, there’s no question that this is properly placed as a major accomplishment for him. Additionally, his foreign policy is a major component, whether his questionable use of force to get the Panama Canal forced through or his personal brokering of the peace talks for the Russo-Japanese War, he was all over the map on foreign policy (sorry), but he also massively expanded the power and prestige both of the President specifically and United States generally in international relations. Going along with that, his support of the navy helped modernize the U.S. Navy and project U.S. interests–colonial or not–globally.
Roosevelt was not a perfect man or President, but he was a fantastic, admirable one. His record of defending the rights of all citizens of the United States–and many non-citizens–is exemplary. He was guided by his devout faith to regard everyone as deserving a fair chance at life, and his policies followed that belief. It is commendable, too, that he allowed the scientific knowledge of his time to guide him more than any previous President–an example that occasionally led him astray, but that has self-correction built into it in such a way that Presidents to this day ought to take note. Though legends often blow their subject out of proportion or downplay their flaws, Roosevelt’s “real life” truly seems to live up to the towering shadow he casts over United States history.
Theodore Roosevelt (26th President – Original Ranking #2)- Theodore Roosevelt exemplified what it ought to mean to be President. He put the needs of the people–all people–first and fought against any who would attempt to take away votes, privileges, or rights from citizens of the United States. He allowed himself to be guided both by his Christian faith and by modern (for him) science, which did lead to the occasional mistake, but largely allowed him to correct himself on several positions. His immense strides for conservation helped usher in an appreciation for nature and science that grew with his efforts. He could have been better on many counts–his imperialism was only occasionally reigned in by his inconsistency of foreign policy–but he constantly tried to be better. He was a man of fine principles who stuck to them, even when it was difficult. Not only that, but he was an excellent, immensely successful President. It is difficult to understate how important and great Roosevelt was.
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