The Atlantic | May 1912 | Mr. Roosevelt | Sedgwick
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The Atlantic Monthly | May 1912
ontemporary 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.
by Ellery Sedgwick
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.
If the painstaking historian reviews the five-column executive messages which certain typesetters have examined in extenso, and other citizens in part, he will not often discover an elaboration of argument on topics which the ordinary man would find either too dull or too complex for an offhand opinion. The tariff and currency legislation are still awaiting adequate treatment from Mr. Roosevelt's pen. The dull subject of economical government was intrusted to a commission, while the expenses of his administration increased by leaps and bounds. The duty of mothers to bear large families, the necessity for "big business" to be honest, the vindication of the theory that murder is murder, the importance of not being an extremist, the advantages of incorrect spelling, the desirability of making life simple, strenuous, and successful—these and a hundred more generalizations are the favorite topics of his pen. In no epoch of modern history, if we except the First Empire of France, has the interest of a national executive ranged over so infinite a series of topics, and in no other instance has it lingered so benignly on matters usually relegated to discussion in the home, the schoolroom, and the church.
It is easy to scoff at Mr. Roosevelt's method of substituting sermons for economics. Economists may well say that the cost of this method to the people of the United States during the seven years of Mr. Roosevelt's presidency approximated a billion of dollars; but no man can justly value in terms of money the change of attitude of the American people during those seven years. Of that change, as has been implied, Mr. Roosevelt was not the creator, but who shall say that he was not its gigantic advertiser? For seven years he preached as no revivalist ever preached on this continent. And how well he talked! His speech was racy with compact and vivid expression. The "hound's clean tooth," the "mollycoddle," the "square deal," the "muckrake," the "spear that knows no brother"—they stuck like burrs in the every-day speech of his hearers. America was his parish. From Wall Street to the ranges of the West, his sermons were heard not one but seven days a week. Men listened and believed. It is not too much to say that his speeches marked a revolution.
While President McKinley lived, sober-minded men generally believed that if the government should take violent issue with the power of combined capital, the government would be taught its place. To-day, when a dollar trembles on its way to an investment, it is hard to believe that it ever went forth with proud intolerance.
History will not repeat the charge of Mr. Roosevelt's enemies that his preaching was insincere. No missionary ever believed his dogma more absolutely. But the non-partisan cannot maintain that his service was without thought of self. A modern psychologist tells us that genius is but the channel through which huge natural forces run. He who lets the winds of Heaven blow through him is doing Heaven's work in the world. Not so with Mr. Roosevelt. He is no simple mouthpiece of some world's desire. In his ample ambition, cause and personal advantage are blended into something one and indivisible. To him truth is not truth more naturally than he is truth's exponent. Those who know Mr. Roosevelt can scarcely doubt that his perfect identification of his own triumph with the triumph of his cause is the great secret of his self-confidence and his success. Into the world of practical affairs he has introduced a force not unlike the wonderful power of men who have felt themselves partners of God; but into the spirit-world itself Mr. Roosevelt has never penetrated. For him the moral world and the world of successful men sum up the universe.
Here it is that we come upon one of the most serious of Mr. Roosevelt's limitations. In terms of the depths of human experience, his education has been but a shallow one. He has touched life at innumerable points of its surface, but he has never climbed its heights, and its depths he has never fathomed. He has never tasted the bitterness of defeat. To profound and lasting sorrow he has been a stranger. It is true that as a young man he underwent bereavement, but life was too alluring to let him pause, and it was not reverence and understanding, but the exhilaration of excitement, which saved him from despair. He has never brooded in quiet, nor has his support of a cause ever been to his own hindrance. For him every success has been the gateway of a new victory. In discouragement and suffering, in anguish of spirit and hope deferred, the nobler training for the soul resides. Fortune would have been more just to Mr. Roosevelt had she been less generous.
But the qualities of his defects Mr. Roosevelt possesses abundantly, and abundant has been their harvest. He has been a mighty teacher of morals, and this high achievement cannot be controverted by those who maintain that he has not practiced what he preached. It is one of the painful mysteries of life that a man may be as helpful to his fellows by seeming to be virtuous as by being so. The ideal becomes the real, and to many millions of his fellow countrymen Mr. Roosevelt, if not the Sir Galahad of politics, has at least sought the Grail. Indeed, so close is Mr. Roosevelt's identification with the interests, the prejudices, the loves and the hates of his countrymen, that as they see him, he sees himself, and the white shield with which he fronts his enemies seems to him unspotted by the world.
Yet stains there are which history will not wash away. As the bitterness engendered by his ceaseless warfare has increased, every act, almost every thought of his has been ascribed to the basest motives and the lowest passions, but in his printed record there are harsh facts which even his unrivaled gift of explanation cannot eradicate. The appropriation of the Panama Zone, which in material consequences may well outweigh any other act of his administration, is fairly typical of means which Mr. Roosevelt has felt obliged to use when, in his opinion, the end has justified them. To make a catalogue of instances would be invidious, and it might be wearisome. How many, one asks, of the leaders of history have lived a blameless life? Because a man by great and signal service to his fellows has raised himself to eminence, shall we judge his defects more harshly than we judge the errors of those who have done nothing to throw their sins into the shade? Is it not fairer that our gratitude should lead us to a larger charity?
Time will do much for Mr. Roosevelt in obliterating the turbulent record of his familiar life. The constant hurly-burly, the stinging epithet, the lie given to-day and returned to-morrow, have with all their offensive detail blurred the outline of his large accomplishments. To the sensitive man they have vulgarized Mr. Roosevelt, and to the idealist they have debased him. The historian will see his burly figure large and clear. His lack of self-control, his blazing indiscretion, his consistent inconsistency, his continued denial of statements attributed to him by reputable witnesses, have all made good men his enemies. And yet such faults as these have not their roots in the baser depths of human nature. They spring rather from very intensity of life. As no other man in our history, save, perhaps, Andrew Jackson, Mr. Roosevelt lives completely in the present. Details of the past are as vague to him as promises for the future. The attraction of his presence lies largely in the fact that while he shakes your hand, it is obvious that you are the man of men he wishes to talk with. If ever a man nailed "whim" over his door that man is Mr. Roosevelt. The present is his, and he makes the most of it. In his practical philosophy there is neither past nor future.
"You and I are practical men," wrote Mr. Roosevelt to Mr. Harriman in words which we should like to forget. Whether the money which he sought to obtain from a man who was the natural foe of the cause he stood for was to serve his own or his party's purposes, they strike a note recurring too insistently in the roll of Mr. Roosevelt's drum. It is not pleasant to see the machinery whereby a hero of the footlights stands glorified, or the business arrangements which precede a revival of religion; and far beyond the limits of these things goes Mr. Roosevelt's reliance on the practical. In his distrust of the visionary he too often smirches himself in the mire of things as they are. "Don't flinch, don't foul, hit the line hard," he said in his inspiring talk to boys; but too steadily and too consistently he himself plays the game to win.
Jack of all trades, they call him. Master of none but preaching and the politician's art he probably is, but there are two other professions whose adepts might well sit silent at his feet. I refer to daily journalism and to acting. The "news sense," by whose subtle virtue a man becomes a journalist, is but an instinctive appreciation of public desire. The actor's genius is the power to enter the imagination of his audience. These sister arts, like preaching and politics, have as their common factor a ready understanding of the minds of men; and this quick perception of the social ether, the almost imperceptible bond of union which makes a society out of the myriad atoms of mankind, is the great gift of the gods to Mr. Roosevelt. There is no journalist but recognizes his kinship to the man who sees a headline in every task he undertakes, and no actor-manager but envies him his larger stage and its more perfect setting.
By birth Mr. Roosevelt is an aristocrat. An unfeigned interest in the lives of his fellow millions has made a democrat of him, and through both channels he draws that social understanding of which I have spoken. But partly from the consciousness of a lack of sympathy for his "class," and partly from the inevitable sense that his lot is cast with the multitude, it is the democrat in him which has gained the permanent ascendency. He no longer feels the hurt of the rough give-and-take of politics which keeps so many of the gently-bred out of permanent public life. He is utterly without that respect for property which is the Chinese wall of aristocratic tradition. He enjoys the rougher sports, the more boisterous humor, the freer play between man and man. He loves things not because they are rare, but because they are common. No prejudice of taste or mind cuts him off from the mass of his fellows. He does not seek to conserve the present, but, like the true democrat, he will hazard it against the future on the turn of a die;
The 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.
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The Atlantic Monthly; May 1912; Mr. Roosevelt; Volume 109, No. 5; page 577.