Thursday, September 13, 2007

Presisidential Courage: TR Style.

Over the past several months, I have been reading "Theodore Rex," the second of a three volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. ( ) Morris's first volume, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt", won the Pulitzer Prize. This second installment covers the years of Roosevelt's presidency (1901-1909). Since it took me such a long time to read, readers might find it strange when I assure them that the action in each chapter carries readers along at a quick pace; there is never a dull moment with Theodore Roosevelt. Getting to know Theodore Roosevelt makes one wonder where the men of superior vision and intellect are to be found in the current political arena. The most many know about Theodore Roosevelt is that his face is on Mount Rushmore. After reading this biography by Morris, no one could refuse to rank Roosevelt among our greatest Presidents.

To analyze Roosevelt's domestic achievements would take many articles, so this post will focus upon just one area: race relations.

Theodore Roosevelt was President during an era of over-whelming racial prejudice. The context of the times makes his record on this subject all the more impressive. One of his very first acts as President was to invite America's most famous African American to dine with him at the White House. This invitation was the first time an African American had been invited to dine with the President in the White House. That African American was the former slave and noted educator, Booker T. Washington. The firestorm of protest, especially in the South, is an ugly chapter in our nations history. South Carolina Senator Benjamin R. (Pitchfork) Tillman's reaction was the most notorious. (Here is his reaction with my editing: "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that...will necessitate our killing a the South before they will learn their place again." Morris, p.55) Roosevelt had more than a symbolic dinner in mind when he invited Washington to dine with him. Roosevelt's intention was to work with America's best known African American to remake the Southern political landscape, improve the lot of Southern blacks, and ease the simmering tensions between the two races before those tensions erupted into a war between whites and blacks. Previous Presidents, Republican and Democrat, sought the support of Southern whites by appointing the most prejudiced of whites to Federal offices. Roosevelt and Washington agreed to cooperate in placing moderate whites (Republican and Democrat) as well as African Americans in office with the intent of breaking the monopoly of racially prejudiced office holders. The record of success was mixed. Yet for such a politically ambitious man as Roosevelt to incur the wrath of a whole region for what he knew was right in such a climate as existed then reflects profound moral courage. This climate existed in the entire country as well and so Roosevelt was in effect taking on the entire nation on this issue.

But Roosevelt did more on this issue of race. He spoke out publicly against the practice of lynching, which was occurring nation-wide at a rate of one hundred hangings per year. (Morris, p. 47) When the Governor of Indiana declared that blacks accused of murder had the right to a fair trial and dispersed a mob intent on lynching, Roosevelt sent him a congratulatory letter, which was the first anti-lynching statement by a U.S. President: "My dear Governor Durbin...permit me to thank you as an American citizen for the admirable way in which you have vindicated the majesty of the law by your recent action in reference to lynching...All thoughtful men...must feel the gravest alarm over the growth of lynching in this country, and especially over the peculiarly hideous forms so often taken by mob violence when colored men are the victims-on which occasions the mob seems to lay most weight, not on the crime but on the color of the criminal...There are certain hideous sights when which once seen can never be wholly erased from the mental retina. The mere fact of having seen them implies degredation...Whoever in any part of our country has ever taken a part in lawlessly putting to death a criminal by the dreadful torture of fire must forever after have the awful spectacle of his own handiwork seared into his brain and soul. He can never again be the same man." (Morris, p. 261-262) For a U.S. President to make such a statement during those times was a radical act indeed.

Politically, Roosevelt could do no more than speak out, yet he was far more courageous concerning race relations than his cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even though FDR was known as a friend of African Americans, FDR had not the courage to support a bill in Congress outlawing lynching. (Harry Truman later signed such a bill into law.) Theodore Roosevelt's record on race relations was not perfect. His unjust dismissal of an entire company of black soldiers is fully chronicled by Morris. Roosevelt believed that whites were superior to blacks. (He considered Booker T. Washington to be an example of how blacks could eventually catch up with the white race.) However, for a President with such prejudices to risk his political career by seeking the well-being of an oppressed race within his own country at such a time is an example of political courage very few public figures could equal.

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