Posted: April 4, 2011
heodore Roosevelt belonged to that dying breed of amateur historians, such as George Bancroft and Francis Parkman, who had no professional training in historical research but nevertheless composed sweeping historical narratives, told with great dramatic flair. Daniel Ruddy, a marketing consultant to Fortune 500 companies with a lifelong interest in T.R., has stitched together selections from several of these histories along with excerpts from Roosevelt's letters and reminiscences of T.R. by associates and friends, to produce Theodore Roosevelt's History of the United States. More than just another anthology of the wit-and-wisdom variety, Ruddy has made an ingenious attempt to weave together Roosevelt's own words into a coherent whole.
Roosevelt's career as an amateur historian is all the more remarkable because he took only one history course while at Harvard, the required sophomore survey of Anglo-American constitutional history. One of the assigned texts was Edward Augustus Freeman's Outlines of General History, a tome that located Anglo-American constitutionalism within the larger "Aryan" tradition. At Columbia Law School, T.R. studied with John Burgess, who similarly traced the "germ" of free institutions back to the Teutonic past. During this time, Roosevelt wrote his first work of history, The Naval War of 1812, critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for its accuracy, thoroughness, and impartiality. What reviewers failed to mention, however, was how central the notions of "race" and "stock" were to his analysis—factors that would become a constant theme in his historical writings.
On the strength of The Naval War of 1812, Roosevelt was commissioned to prepare a biography of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. In contrast to the two years spent laboriously researching The Naval War, Roosevelt dashed off the biography in five action-packed months while cow-punching in the Dakota Badlands in the spring of 1886. In a letter to Henry Cabot Lodge, who had helped get him the commission, Roosevelt confided that he did not know much about Benton's life after he left the Senate, not even the date of his death, and had been forced to "evolve" his subject largely from his own "inner consciousness." Being "a truthful man," T.R. preferred "to have some foundation of fact, no matter how slender on which to build the airy and arabesque superstructure of my fancy," and asked Lodge to hire an assistant (at Roosevelt's expense) who could research some of the facts of Benton's life. From such modest beginnings was this "major historian," in Ruddy's words, born.
In all, Roosevelt published eight historical studies, which included Gouverneur Morris and Oliver Cromwell (the latter written while he was Governor of New York), his recollections of the Spanish American War in The Rough Riders, biographical essays of American Men of Action and Hero Tales of American History (the latter written with Henry Cabot Lodge), New York, and his six-volume magnum opus, The Winning of the West.
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Published between 1889 and 1896, The Winning of the West traces the exploration and settlement of America from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi and beyond. In a sweeping first chapter, Roosevelt took note of the great period of "race expansion" by the English-speaking peoples over the past 300 years as they spread out into Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Canada, and the United States. This race-expansion was itself the result of earlier historical developments that could be traced back to the "half-mythical" exploits of the Germanic tribes. Of all the European peoples, only the Germans were able to resist being absorbed into the "all-conquering" Roman Empire, and to retain their distinctive laws, language, and habits of thought. In time, these tribes conquered most of Europe, though they failed to impose their culture on the vanquished people of the south and were eventually absorbed by them. Only in England did the Teutonic "sea rovers" succeed in slaying, driving off, or assimilating the native population and imposing new customs, creeds, and laws. As a result, England "was destined to be of more importance in the future of the Germanic peoples than all their continental possessions, original and acquired, put together."
In time, the Germanic people of England mixed their blood with that of the Celts and Scandinavians, producing a distinct English nationality that had spread around the globe, spawning further variations and adaptations. Roosevelt hastened to assure the reader that this proud racial inheritance was
not foreign to American history. The vast movement by which this continent was conquered and peopled cannot be rightly understood if considered solely by itself. It was the crowning and greatest achievement in a series of mighty movements, and it must be taken in connection with them. Its true significance will be lost unless we grasp, however roughly, the past race-history of the nations that took part therein.
The "Winning of the West" was simply the latest, most glorious chapter in this drama, pitting two great branches of the English-speaking peoples against each other and then following the victorious Americans as they battled the native Indian tribes for control of the continent.
Seen from this perspective, it is not easy to recount Roosevelt's history of the United States in a way that will appeal to today's readers and still do justice to his principal themes. Ruddy reserves his own comments to the roughly 30 pages of "Explanatory Notes" at the back of his book, followed by another 50 or so pages of "Source Notes" that identify where every passage comes from.
Readers interested not only in the narrative but also the sources need to check both sets of notes. Even more irritating is that the narrative often draws in a single sentence or paragraph on multiple sources, creating a patchwork of thoughts, and the sources can come from texts separated by years or even decades-a method that sees and raises historian John Morton Blum's assertion that Roosevelt never had a new thought after the age of 40.
Ruddy makes no effort to rank these sources—each is treated equally—and excerpts from the histories are interspersed with selections from private correspondence. Nor does he distinguish between the views that Roosevelt shared with close friends such as Henry Cabot Lodge and those expressed to more casual acquaintances. Ruddy veers away from direct sources even further when he relies upon reminiscences. And for some reason, never explained, he seems to privilege the accounts of certain historians, such as William Harbaugh's Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (1961). When citing Roosevelt's works, Ruddy gives only the volume and page of the 20 volume National Edition, compiled by Herman Hagedorn in 1926. Most readers will not have that set at their fingertips, and so will have no idea to what particular work the "Source Notes" is referring. But it matters if Roosevelt is making a statement in 1896, when he was warning of the menace of the demagogue, or in 1912, when he was practicing those political arts himself.
Ruddy manages to impose his own structure on Roosevelt's writings by opening with a chapter "On Writing History," followed by five chapters organized by eras, beginning with the Revolutionary period and ending with the 20th century. Unlike the grand narrative sweep found in Roosevelt's actual histories, these "eras" consist largely of opinions about key political actors, as if Roosevelt's actual histories were compressed into his Hero Tales. Here and there, Ruddy does throw in a few passages from The Winning of the West that give the flavor of T.R.'s assertive nationalism, but the race-expansion of the first chapter has been airbrushed out of the picture. To make matters even more frustrating, the table of contents lists only the "eras," and none of the personages, making it almost useless (though there is an index that lists key players).
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It is in these portraits of American political figures that the book is most successful. Roosevelt was a man of strong views, with a talent for lapidary phrases. He "cordially despised" Thomas Jefferson for taking on the British with his Embargo Act and then failing to prepare the country for the war his policies incited. Alexander Hamilton he judged "the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived," largely because, in T.R.'s view, the author of The Federalist anticipated Roosevelt's "stewardship" theory of the presidency and his "New Nationalism." John Marshall ranked among "the greatest of the great" because he, too, seems to have divined the living Constitution. George Washington was no genius, but genius counted less than character, and on this score our first president possessed the greatest virtues. On rare occasions, Roosevelt revised his views: Thomas Paine was not, as he once famously declared, "a filthy little atheist," but a filthy little deist. At times, Ruddy offers genuine finds. Tucked into the section on Paine one discovers Roosevelt's own distillation of the "essence of religion," neatly summed up in the words of Micah 6:8, "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
Surprisingly, given Roosevelt's admiration for Abraham Lincoln—"perhaps the only genius in our political history"—the entry for the 16th president is disappointing. We learn that T.R. considered him the "most real of the dead presidents," but hear nothing of his misguided efforts to conscript Lincoln to the Progressive cause. Ruddy does offer up a few of the most famous gustatory put downs: William McKinley, T.R. thought, had "no more backbone than a chocolate éclair," and concerning Oliver Wendell Holmes, he observed, "I could carve out of a banana a judge with more backbone." The portly William Howard Taft escaped any reference to food, but fares no better: "a flubdub, with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him." Still, for all these quarrels, we get very little sense of what it is that Roosevelt himself stood for when he launched his Bull Moose campaign in 1912. Where are T.R.'s scalding critiques of the courts, the corporations, and the malefactors of great wealth? And what about his own progressive platform? As for his greatest political foe, Woodrow Wilson, T.R.'s bitter feud with him gets little attention, even though he wrote several volumes castigating the Democratic president for his policies, especially his refusal to take America to war.
Ruddy has performed an enormous labor of love in compiling Theodore Roosevelt's History of the United States, but he might have profited from following T.R.'s own advice to historians. Addressing the American Historical Association in 1912, T.R. observed that the best historical studies, though based on painstaking, laborious research, should also be animated by a vision that is "wide and lofty." Theodore Roosevelt's histories focused on American greatness as it manifested itself in the struggles of a brave and hardy people to expand their rule across the continent. What Ruddy has given us is part of the story, and by no means the whole of it. Nevertheless, for the average American, this is not a bad place to start, not least because T.R. speaks here in his own words, skewering his enemies, admiring his friends, and withal, celebrating the "boundless possibilities" of America.