The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt

by Paul Mathers


“There must be the keenest sense of duty, and with it must go the joy of living; there must be shame at the thought of shirking the hard work of the world, and at the same time delight in the many-sided beauty of life.”

I suppose the best place to start is to state that Theodore Roosevelt is my favorite president of the United States and, I think, the last great man to hold that office.

His autobiography paints explicitly my reasons for feeling this way. It’s an odd book in some ways, almost seems uncharacteristically incomplete at parts, but I think this can be explained by the perception of importance at the time of its publication. The most fractured parts of the narrative are either about some of the best known portions of his life (the Rough Riders, the Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine all spring to mind) or, the odd notes the book ends on which are rebuttals of issues contemporaneous to the publication of the book (he ends by rebutting some statements by Woodrow Wilson, statements which we, the casual 2013 reader, are unlikely to be familiar with). Barring these odd points, it is a rip-roaring good read.

There are a few other oddities. One might expect him to talk about the experience of the attempted assassination which left him carrying a bullet inside of him to his grave. But he only mentions it in passing, to say that his old Dakota cowboy friends couldn’t understand the fuss over Roosevelt making a 90 minute speech just after being shot in the chest. They didn’t see anything about getting shot in the chest that would prevent him from making a speech and, indeed, it didn’t stop him. Roosevelt tells this story in the middle of his account of his cowboy years. His non-linear time structure seems to be borne more of irrepressible enthusiasm than any stylistic choice.

He also spends a lot of time talking about how much he hates what Taft did.

Roosevelt was a sickly young man whose father, who seems to have been the sort of man who sought every opportunity to improve his time, encouraged him to “build his body.” Roosevelt became an advocate for and liver of “the strenuous life.” He was a renaissance man and, save possibly Jefferson, one of the best-read presidents we’ve ever had. All of this has a lot to do with the sort of man he became.

He was one of the East Coast American Brahmins, however, his view of wealth and privilege is quite different from what one might expect from that background. His policy of “The Square Deal” comes from a belief that the best business transaction, be it in sales or in employer to employee relations, is one in which both parties gain the best advantage from the deal. I am so accustomed to a world in which it is accepted as matter of course that business transactions are about one party seeking to gain the most possible advantage over the other party. At this point, I had a bit of a revelation about myself.

I’ve always aligned myself with the Left in our country. In recent years, I have fought tooth and nail to maintain that as I’ve watched the Left behave in atrocious ways (not wanting to degenerate into a political post, I won’t list my specific grievances here). But I’ve felt like a man without a party because as poorly as the Left has behaved, the Right seems outright monstrous to me. I now see the problem. If I were living in pre-Ayn Rand times (that most horrid, vile, anti-Christian of self-proclaimed philosophers), I would be a Bull Moose Progressive Republican. I’ve thus far been a life-long Democrat, save for the wild, hairy-chinned days in which I would have called myself a Socialist. Midway through the path of life, I find that I would be a Theodore Roosevelt Republican. If such a thing even existed today.

I mean, could you imagine a modern Republican candidate saying, “The great masters of corporate capital in America [must] fully realize that they were the servants and not the masters of the people, that they were subject to the law, and that they would not be permitted to be a law unto themselves.” Or a Democrat for that matter. I think this love for and practice of Order is a large part of what appeals to me so much about his policy.

Roosevelt was staunchly anti-corruption. He built his career on that cornerstone. He was the anti-corruption police commissioner of New York who was so effective that he won the Governorship of New York. He then kicked the corrupt corporate bosses who had New York politics in their hip pocket out of power and influence. This was so popular with the people that the people demanded he be nominated for the vice-presidency of the United States. The bosses thought this might be a good way to get rid of the problem as the vice-presidency at the time had little real power. Roosevelt agreed to the nomination after ascertaining that it was the desire of the people. And he would have been farmed out to a figurehead position, except that he was vice-president to McKinley. McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist.

One of the more depressing realizations of the book is that the system is such that a truly honest and virtuous, anti-corruption, actually truly pro-conservation, pro-progress, pro-civilization man could never rise to such a position today. In fact, even in his day it was a fluke. With all due respect to the memory of McKinley, it was one of the best accidents that ever happened to America.

His policies of anti-corruption and The Square Deal extend to his presidency. Corrupt senators end up serving actual jail-time and Roosevelt himself, in a harrowing account, mediates a nearly disastrous labor dispute in the coal mining industry. He furthermore has no qualms about insisting that government ought to put restrictions on business to prevent corruption so long as it is to prohibit abuses by the wicked and not to inhibit the work and profits of the honest.

I mentioned pro-civilization earlier, which longtime readers know is one of my key points in politics. Roosevelt, as you might know, was an enthusiastic conservationist, at which point some cynical people like to point out the seeming discrepancy of his big game hunting. It is important to note that one of the purposes of his big game hunting was preservation of specimens for scientific study, most of which are still preserved at the Smithsonian. It is also important to understand time and place. I mentioned elsewhere online his banning of the traditional White House Christmas tree out of his conservationist agenda. A friend mentioned the environmental impact of artificial trees. Of course, in the early 1900s, there were not the sort of Christmas tree farms we see today. People were cutting down actual forest trees for Christmas. One thing that was excruciatingly evident to me while reading this book was that the policies of 1903 are not generally applicable 110 years later.

There is so much more to talk about, but suffice it to say I loved the book. I highly recommend the book. Along with getting me to think about some major issues in different, refreshingly wholesome ways, it also helped me with some of my mental state problems. Roosevelt was not a man of fear or anxiety. He said,

“There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”

And, really, for me and the life that I lead, the life that I have to lead, this lesson alone made reading this book worthwhile. Here at this jaded middle-aged time in my life, I may have found an increasingly endangered species.

I may have finally found a hero.