Theodore Roosevelt: President of the United States, 1901-1908

Marcus Cunliffe re-estimates a big man in several respects, of a scale that the American presidency demands and does not always get.

Theodore Roosevelt died in January 1919. His followers felt that America had lost a truly great man: indeed, “the first citizen of the world,” as one had called him. A few weeks after his death, Roosevelt’s former Secretary of State, Elihu Root, declared that:

He continually attacked abuse... His voice reached the minds and hearts of the people of the United States as no other voice ever had... So just was his judgment of fundamentals, so manifest the sincerity of his purpose, so tremendous the power of his personality, that everywhere dim and vague feelings that something was wrong and uneasy dissatisfaction over unwilling acquiescence in what was wrong, hailed him as a leader...

Against this awkward panegyric may be set the crisp comment of Oliver Wendell Holmes, justice of the Supreme Court, who told Sir Frederick Pollock in 1921:

Of course, I made up my package about [Roosevelt] a good while ago, and I don’t think I was too much disturbed by what you admit to and what was formulated by a Senator in his day, thus: “What the boys like about Roosevelt is that he doesn’t care a damn for the law.” ...He was very likeable, a big figure, a rather ordinary intellect, with extraordinary gifts, a shrewd and I think pretty unscrupulous politician. He played all his cards—if not more. R.I.P.

Root was delivering a formal address to a group of clubmen, whereas Holmes was writing privately to a friend. Allowance must be made for that, but it is not uncommon for public men to be seen in such different lights—crusaders and patriots to some, intriguers and jingoists to others. After they die, their reputation is apt for a while to run downhill. This has happened to “T.R.’s” namesake, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who resembles him in several ways, and it certainly happened to “T.R.”

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