Contemporary appraisals of men in public life are more apt to amuse than to enlighten posterity, and of all public men of our time, with the debatable exception of Mr. Lloyd George, no one has been the subject of such diverse estimates as Mr. Roosevelt. Yet it is fifteen years since he first engaged national attention, and short as is such a span in history, it is long enough in a man's life to afford a reasonably accurate perspective of his character. If this estimate of an interesting personality is wholly wrong, the error is due, not to discrepancies in the available testimony, but to the obscured vision of the critic.
'nor fearsThe ancient sense of the aristocrat that every path has been trodden, every task assayed, has no hold on him, and he follows the Great Adventure with a mind as free from care, and an enjoyment as irresponsible, as ever marked a man whose shoulders have been weighted with the burdens of a nation.
To shake the iron band of Fate
Or match with Destiny for beers.'
History is no schoolmistress. She does not rank her sons by general average, nor let demerit marks spoil the fair face of a famous record. The best that a man does is his monument, and our children's children will look back on Mr. Roosevelt not without gratitude. In their school-books they will study how Mark Hanna closed one era, and how a new and better opened with Theodore Roosevelt. They will remember that the love of money which defiled so many of his contemporaries left him untouched. They will be taught that, with a frail body and with no special gifts of intellect, he became the rugged and impressive figure of his time. They will mark how, born to ease and a pleasant life, he sympathized with the unfortunate and fought their battles against prejudice and inequality. They will read how he lived and preached a clean and wholesome life. Surely, these are lessons good for boys to learn.
As I write there comes into my mind the figure of a workingman. Some years ago I saw him, seated in front of me in a trolley-car. The creases in his red neck and wrinkled face were soiled with sweat and dirt, and in his hand he held a newspaper close to his eyes as though the look of print puzzled them, while, as his lips murmured the unaccustomed syllables, I saw him trace, line by line, with a grimy forefinger, the words of one of Mr. Roosevelt's exhortations to be decent, to live clean, to play the game hard.
That is the picture of Mr. Roosevelt's achievements.
To the future historian it will be obvious that Mr. Roosevelt was fortunate in the times in which he lived. The troubled period through which we are still passing will be ranked as one of the four critical epochs of American history. First came the struggle for self-government; next, the uneasy reconcilement of the Republic with political democracy; third, the death-grapple with slavery; and fourth, the battle for a completer social and economic freedom, the outcome of which no man can now foretell.
In the opulent days when Mr. McKinley was first elected to the presidency, only the prescient saw the approach of this struggle. Two classes of heroes there were then to whom all citizens deferred—the men who had won the Civil War, and the men who had made the trusts. The phrase, "captains of industry," was set so high that we thought little of the significance of its French equivalent. In those days there was no periodical so poor that it could not print the portrait of the country boy who had grown up to revolutionize an American industry. Steel kings and electric princes were looked upon as great men to be emulated by generous youth. Then came the change which in the retrospect seems marvelously rapid. Strange terms like "social conscience" and "money power" crept into familiar speech. Rebates acquired a new and evil significance. Private envy took the place of national conceit, and loftier emotions joined in the general revolt against conditions which suddenly seemed intolerable. How far the rising cost of living, and the quixotic restlessness of the foreign hordes who failed to find in this country the paradise of their dreams, influenced the will and courage of the American people, posterity must judge. The fact which concerns us here is the indubitable one, that within the last decade and a half a new social ideal has enlarged the heritage of the Republic.
This quickened atmosphere of public life was the living breath in Mr. Roosevelt's nostrils. It was not a rarefied atmosphere. No close, hard thinking was demanded of an executive; no midnight oil and columned figures. The nation was rich and could afford to waste its money. It did not want retrenchment or economy. With a longing as pathetic as that of the French for their mythical equality of a hundred years before, Americans felt a vague passion for a new righteousness. What the public wanted, with its democratic demand for personality, was to see its new ideal take human shape, and Mr. Roosevelt was not unwilling to sit for its photograph.
The stars in their courses have often seemed to fight for Mr. Roosevelt, but never did they do him such valiant service as when they conspired to make the political issues of his epoch moral rather than economic. In a tariff debate this hero of nine at least of the ten commandments would have hesitated and been lost. On the battlefield of rates and percentages, impulse does not count; in the clash of moral issues, knowledge and reason yield to the gift of instinct. The more intellectual of Mr. Roosevelt's mental processes are rather reviews of impulse than any definitely reasoned thought, just as his more elaborate arguments are habitually in defense of positions which he has already assumed and which, as his superserviceable instinct tells him, are not proof against rational assault.