Theodore Rex

by Edmund Morris

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1823

Theodore Roosevelt is one of the United States’ most beloved presidents thanks to the Teddy Bear as well as his grand enthusiasm for life, which he often expressed in the terms of an adolescent (or even younger: a friend once noted that Roosevelt sometimes acted as if he were about six years old). Many of his statements or expressions have become common lore, such as using the presidency as a “bully pulpit” and to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” A many-sided individual, he was a rancher and cowboy, war hero, moral reformer, astute politician, brilliant diplomat, recipient of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor, and a notable author—no U.S. president wrote more books and articles than Roosevelt. The nation’s youngest president, he and his family (which included six children) captivated the country during the first decade of the twentieth century. His presidency in many ways was the paradigm for the twentieth century in his use of executive power, and he was a powerful influence on his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, he is immortalized in granite at South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore.

Roosevelt’s presidential reputation has varied over time. When he died in 1919 at the age of sixty, his approval rating was at its apogee, and if he had lived he likely would have been the Republican presidential nominee in 1920. In the reaction to the destruction of World War I and in the years of the Great Depression, his energetic personality and enthusiastic optimism seemed, in restrospect, misguided by some, and his reputation was overshadowed by the other Roosevelt. However, by the end of the twentieth century, most historians ranked him among the top four presidents, behind only Washington, Lincoln, and his cousin Franklin. Theodore Roosevelt’s high standing is due in part to several biographical works which have appeared in recent decades, not least Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), which related Roosevelt’s youth and pre-presidential years. The work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and Morris’s sequel was widely anticipated.

It would be more than twenty years before Theodore Rex appeared. In the interval, Morris had become the official biographer of Ronald Reagan. The result was Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, published with great controversy in 1999. Apparently unable to fathom the depth—or lack of it—in Reagan’s intellect, Morris invented scenes and added characters which made Dutch appear to be more novel than historical biography, a result which incensed many reviewers. What was successful in Dutch, however, was Morris’s very readable narrative style. Theodore Rex is also eminently readable, and its publication just two years after Morris’s work on Reagan indicates that Morris had continued to work on the Roosevelt biography even as he attempted to come to grips with the often opaque Reagan.

There was little that was opaque with Roosevelt, as is indicated in his own extensive writings, including the 100,000 letters that he wrote over the years. One does not have to invent or fictionally create a Roosevelt persona. If Dutch might be called the first deconstructionist presidential biography, Theodore Rex is utterly orthodox in its historical approach, as is indicated in the extensive sources cited in the 165 pages of notes accompanying the narrative. The biography begins dramatically in September, 1901, with Roosevelt madly racing through the night from Mount Marcy in New York’s Adirondacks to Buffalo, where President William McKinley lay dying, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. Morris argues, correctly, that few persons in the history of the United States were better qualified...

(This entire section contains 1823 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

to be president than Theodore Roosevelt in spite of his relatively young age of forty-two years (John F. Kennedy was forty-three when he was elected). He had served in the New York legislature and as that state’s governor after his heroic and well-publicized actions in the Spanish-American War. He had been a federal civil service commissioner and the assistant secretary of the Navy in Washington, D.C. A member of one of New York’s old Dutch families, Roosevelt was partly driven to excel and to serve because of a class sense of noblesse oblige and partly perhaps to compensate for the physical weaknesses he had experienced as a child. Always ambitious, he tested himself in the political arena as well as in the wilderness, and victory was the goal, whether it be over foreign foes, political rivals, or grizzly bears.

The early twentieth century was an era of bitter rivalry between the nation’s political parties. A Republican by inheritance—his father was a friend of Abraham Lincoln—Roosevelt had little use for Democrats, but he also had little respect for many of the conservative leaders of his own party. Roosevelt, who supplemented some inherited wealth by publishing books and articles, was often suspicious of the nouveau riche industrialists and bankers, the so-called captains of industry and finance, such as J. Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. His animosities against his opponents, political and industrial, were tempered by an acute political sensitivity that belies Roosevelt’s reputation as an impetuous adolescent or a simple moralistic bully. A moralist Roosevelt most definitely was, but he also understood the nuances of politics. When he succeeded McKinley, he promised to not swerve from McKinley’s policies, and he kept that promise long enough to reassure not only the country but also its economic and political elite. Mark Hanna was his chief rival for the 1904 presidential nomination, but Roosevelt quickly and cleverly outmaneuvered the Ohio senator.

Roosevelt’s initial campaign against the power of the economic elite and their business monopolies focused upon the Northern Securities Company, created by J. Pierpont Morgan, James J. Hill, and Edward H. Harriman, and which controlled the railway network of the nation’s northwest. The government’s suit was successful and Roosevelt picked up the nickname as the “trust-buster.” However, sheer size was never his primary concern, and other presidents “broke” more trusts. For Roosevelt, business behavior was more important than size itself.

Among the many issues and events related by Morris which occupied Roosevelt’s crowded hours, two in particular might be singled out for their relevance to a later era. Roosevelt was a product of his own time and place, and his attitudes on race would not seem particularly enlightened to a different generation. However, in comparison with the other progressive president of the early twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt’s actions and attitudes deserve praise. He was very much a social Darwinist, but when Roosevelt discussed superior races he really meant superior cultures. He was not a believer in the virtues of multiculturalism. For him, American society, largely but not exclusively based upon European civilization, was superior to any other, but he believed that any biological race, be it African, Asian, or whatever, could and would eventually achieve equality and parity in the United States. One of the most controversial acts of his presidency, for which he was much vilified, was his invitation to Booker T. Washington, the prominent African American educator, to dine at the White House. Roosevelt was apparently shocked at the negative reaction, and Roosevelt the politician did not invite Washington back. On another occasion he vociferously condemned a lynching of an African American in Wilmington, Delaware, a response that most politicians of his era would not have made. On the other hand, when African American troops were accused of rioting in Brownsville, Texas, Roosevelt had them all discharged from the Army when none of the soldiers would identify any of the supposed rioters. Would Roosevelt have done the same if it had been a white regiment? Probably not, but he might have, as he invariably made decisions based on morality and honor as defined by himself.

Conservation was the other domestic issue which continues to reverberate through the generations. More than any president before or since, Roosevelt was a conservationist. An outdoorsman from an early age, Roosevelt was an avid hunter of big and small game, something for which he would be criticized in a later and different America. His scientific knowledge of birds and animals was extensive, and he had an aesthetic appreciation for the natural world. He camped in Yosemite with the radical naturalist John Muir, and he established national monuments and bird sanctuaries, supported reclamation projects, and set aside millions of acres of forest land for the public’s use. In May, 1908, to give publicity to the issue of conservation and to plan for the future, he sponsored the nation’s first national conservation conference, which was attended by the nation’s governors and other luminaries. Few of his successors have been so enlightened and so committed to the preservation of the nation’s natural resources.

Morris devotes much of Theodore Rex to the foreign policy events of Roosevelt’s almost eight years as president. No philosophical pacifist, Roosevelt had personally experienced the triumph and tragedy of war in Cuba in 1898. A practitioner of realpolitik, he had an appreciation for the uses of power, for good and ill, in international affairs. In spite of his popular image, Roosevelt was a consummate diplomat, achieving his aims and ends more often than not by stealth and secrecy. A threat by Germany to occupy Venezuela saw Roosevelt use an iron fist in a velvet glove, allowing Germany to back down without loss of face. He labored subtly and successfully to end the Russo-Japanese War, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Japan’s rise to world power status found Roosevelt attempting to meliorate the friction caused by Japanese immigration to the United States, particularly to California, the citizens of which had responded with various acts of discrimination against Japanese immigrants. Roosevelt tolerated if not encouraged the secession of Panama from Columbia in order to facilitate the long-sought canal across Central America, an act for which he was both praised and excoriated. The final act of his presidency was to send an American naval fleet around the world, and he witnessed its safe return just before the end of his term in March, 1909.

Theodore Rex holds the reader’s attention, in part because of Morris’s writing skills, in part because Roosevelt himself was such a formidable figure. The work is largely a study of Roosevelt the public man. Roosevelt the husband and father is portrayed, but not with particular depth or revelation, possibly because Edith Kermit Roosevelt destroyed the correspondence between herself and her husband after his death. Morris generally succeeds in this work, but by closely focusing upon Roosevelt and using a relatively rigid chronological approach, a lack of context and analysis is occasionally apparent. Nevertheless, when completed, Morris’s life of Roosevelt will remain the standard biography for some considerable time.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (October 1, 2001): 268.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (December 9, 2001): 10.

The New Yorker 77 (November 19, 2001): 81.

Publishers Weekly 248 (October 15, 2001): 55.