Theodore Roosevelt and His Time, Shown in His Own Letters

His Own Letters, by Joseph Bucklin Bishop. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1920. Two vols., 8vo, 505 and 516 pp. Illustrated. $10.00.
THIS is a biography of a somewhat unusual type. It is sufficiently intimate and self-revealing to have all the merits of an autobiography; on the other hand, it is more comprehensive and displays a far better sense of proportion than the general run of autobiographical writings. Napoleon Bonaparte, in one of his petulant moods, chided the world for thinking that he could not write. No man in his senses ever harbored any such idea concerning Theodore Roosevelt. During forty years he was a mighty worker with his pen, and he left behind him enough material for a half-dozen biographies. What other statesman in the whole range of human history ever wrote, and kept copies of, more than 150,000 letters?
Now Mr. Bishop has not merely printed a selection from this mass of material, with the intimation that it tells its own story. Neither has he projected into the narrative a surfeit of his own delineations. The middle course between these two extremes commended itself to him as the wisest plan, and the outcome attests the soundness of his judgment. By skilfully selecting the significant things and weaving them together, by bridging the gaps with his own first-hand knowledge, and by editorial craftsmanship of a high order, he lias succeeded in giving us two volumes of great value and readability. Much that will prove enlightening to the student of history is inscribed upon these thousand-odd pages, and a good deal that is highly amusing as well.
No biographer ever had a better subject. Colonel Roosevelt would have been an interesting figure in any age, but he lived through an epoch in which events of great importance followed close upon each other’s heels. And in many of these happenings Roosevelt was an active, even a dominant figure. So it can truly be said that his letters show us history in the making, for he spent a good portion of his strength in the making of it. Assemblyman, Civil-Service Commissioner, Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor, Vice President, and President — he was all of these within twenty years. Need one be surprised to find him remarking, as he does in one of his letters, that he ‘had a good run for his money’? A truly remarkable career, when all is said and done, and one from which no ardent young American will ever fail to gain inspiration.
If there is any one thing which finds repetition in every chapter of this book, it is the practical application of rugged ideals. Roosevelt undoubtedly agreed with Grover Cleveland, for example, that ‘ public office is a public trust,’ but it was not his habit to put his ideals into such compendious form. As a rule he waited till a concrete situation arose, and then drove his own concepts of public policy into it with a vigor which left no room for misapprehension. He believed in party government, and played the game so long, but only so long, as the style of play could be reconciled with his own ideas of honesty and patriotism. Reformers and politicians alike believed that this course spelled political suicide, and in their purblind sight Roosevelt committed it a dozen times; but his whole career turned out to be an impressive demonstration of the old truth that there is no real difference between honesty and expediency in practical politics. Men thought him a child of good fortune, but the careful reader of these volumes will reach the conviction that he was nothing of the kind. He never got anything in the way of public preferment that he did not earn. On the whole, as his earlier letters prove, he was ardently fond of public service although singularly devoid of personal ambition, which is a rare combination in any age.
There is a marked difference between history and biography, as Mr. Thayer has recently reminded us. But some books are able to combine the best features of both, and this is one of them.
W. B. M.