Teddy Roosevelt’s bully pulpit
Biography | Using Biblical principles as president to battle socialism and social issues, Part 2
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 7/06/19, 02:15 pm
Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky concludes his monthly biographical series on key individuals from late 19th and early 20th century American history. In February and March, we looked at the life of John D. Rockefeller. In April and May, we studied Grover Cleveland. In June, we presented the first of two parts on the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Here is Part 2.
Six months after Theodore Roosevelt became vice president, President William McKinley was shot while working a reception line in Buffalo, N.Y. Roosevelt and his family were vacationing in the Adirondack Mountains when news that McKinley was dying arrived. Roosevelt rode a swaying wagon down a narrow mountain trail, boarded a train waiting at the county station, and took the oath of office on Sept. 14, 1901, in one room of a house, with McKinley’s body in another room. Roosevelt at age 42 was the youngest man ever to become president.
Roosevelt became known as a trust-buster during his first term as president because he favored action against very large corporations that worked to reduce competition. What he became most passionate about, however, were not big economic issues but social issues involving questions of family and sexual morality.
The primary job of government, he said, was not to bring “economic justice” but to provide for the common defense against attacks on decency such as “rape, or the circulation of indecent literature … or gross cruelty to women and children, or seduction and abandonment, or the action of some man in getting a girl whom he had seduced to commit abortion.” None of these crimes was beyond that into which ordinary people could fall, if they did not fight against “the wild-beast qualities of the human heart.” But there was a way out: “Fear the Lord and walk in his ways.”
Midway through his presidency Roosevelt specified two cases where he had been asked about pardons and had lost his temper: “One where some young roughs had committed rape on a helpless immigrant girl, and another in which a physician of wealth and high standing had seduced a girl and then induced her to commit abortion.” In those situations, he not only turned down the requests for pardon but also “wrote to the individuals who had asked for the pardon, saying that I extremely regretted that it was not in my power to increase the sentence. I then let the facts be made public, for I thought that my petitioners deserved public censure.”
Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt strongly emphasized male responsibility. He saw as symbols of irresponsibility the burlesque theaters and gambling rooms that stood a few blocks from the White House. He was not amused that congressmen and others patronized the nearby Lyceum Theatre, where “nightly can be seen peroxide blonde burlesque troops in astonishing displays of female nether extremities.” Nor was it good news that the adjacent red-light district featured streets conveniently dark—possibly to enable ‘statesmen’ to prowl about without so much publicity,” according to one guidebook.
Roosevelt himself did no prowling, even though it was the custom for many affluent men to have a mistress. He was authentically a family man in his 40s with a loving wife and fun-loving children. During Roosevelt’s second term, his youngest son, 9-year-old Quentin, formed with other children a “White House Gang.” Roosevelt led them on a “pirate expedition” down the Potomac, encouraged their play in the White House attic, and otherwise gave them the run of the White House.
Roosevelt drew the line, however, when Quentin thought his privileges gave him free rein everywhere. Once, when the children left muddy footprints in the corridors of what is now the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, and were brusquely told to leave, they retaliated by standing on the White House lawn and using hand mirrors to flash blasts of reflected sunlight into the office windows of their insulters. Soon, a military aide strode across the lawn to them and told them to pay attention to some semaphore signals that would soon begin from the roof of the office building. He translated for them as the soldier on the roof signaled with flags: “YOU UNDER THE TREES. ATTACK ON THIS BUILDING MUST CEASE IMMEDIATELY. CLERKS CANNOT WORK. GOVERNMENT BUSINESS INTERRUPTED. REPORT WITHOUT DELAY FOR YOU KNOW WHAT. THEODORE ROOSEVELT.” Quentin received a severe talking-to and never acted up in that way again.
Many adults, however, shirked their responsibilities and acted up in adulterous ways. Roosevelt always tried to keep those realities in mind. When asked about government aid to widowed or deserted mothers with children, he emphasized that “care must not be given in such way as to encourage the man to shirk his duty. His prime duty is to provide for his wife and his children; if he fails to do so, the law should instantly seize him and force him to do so.” Roosevelt thought that those who impregnated and ran should be treated severely, because American society would fall if such activity ever became general: “The man has not merely grievously sinned against another human being, but has grievously sinned against society. …”
Troubled by a rising divorce rate, Roosevelt argued, “Not only easy divorce, but the shameful shirking of duty by men and women which leads to such divorce and to all kinds of domestic unhappiness … should be unsparingly condemned.” Speaking against the proto-feminism of the Progressive Era, he said that “any attempt to bring about the kind of ‘economic independence’ which means a false identity of [male and female] economic function spells mere ruin.”
ONE GUIDEBOOK FROM THE BEGINNING OF THIS CENTURY described Washington as “this gay, high-colored, aristocratic city, possessing many of the attributes of her monarchical sisters of the Old World, rivaling the Rome of the Caesars in her magnificent entertainments.” President Roosevelt, however, saw himself as a defender of an old Jerusalem threatened by chaos, rather than the creator of a new Rome.
He especially did not want the government to become the furnisher of bread and circuses. Roosevelt’s prime political concern became the defeat of a growing socialist movement. The U.S. Socialist Party would stumble during World War I and shoot itself in its left foot as internal struggles grew with the emergence of Soviet communism. Before the war, though, it was making deep inroads in many cities, and Roosevelt went after it: “Socialists and others really do not correct the evils at all, or else only do so at the expense of producing others in aggravated form.” Roosevelt saw socialism as the political manifestation of covetousness. Like all sins in this life it could not be stopped, merely contained.
What containment meant in practice was that Roosevelt was willing to accept very limited governmental action in specific circumstances—where it would increase rather than decrease competition. When those who dreamed of a welfare state asked him for support, however, Roosevelt chastised them for “mere sentimentality.” He noted, “None of us should be hard-hearted, but it is no less desirable that we should not be soft-headed.” He had the understanding, gained by Jacob in the Book of Genesis, that it would be necessary to wrestle all night to receive a blessing.
Roosevelt noted in 1907, in a speech against “deadening socialism,” that “the only permanently beneficial way in which to help any one is to help him help himself; if either private charity, or governmental action, or any form of social expression destroys the individual’s power of self-help, the gravest possible wrong is really done to the individual.” Sin could overturn good intentions. The practice of philanthropy, Roosevelt insisted, required “incessant supervision lest it lose all vitality and become empty and stereotyped so as finally to amount to little except a method of giving salaries to those administering the charity.”
Roosevelt argued that socialism could be fought most successfully by applying Biblical ideas about helping the poor. The greatest hope lay through “voluntary action by individuals in the form of associations,” particularly when the goal was “that most important of all forms of betterment, moral betterment—the moral betterment which usually brings material betterment in its train.” Church- and communitybased charity of the right kind was essential. Those who truly wanted to help had to stand “against mere sentimentality, against the philanthropy and charity which are not merely insufficient but harmful.”
In response to those who thought that would-be helpers, even when naive, should be cheered, Roosevelt argued, “I really do not know which quality is most productive of evil to mankind in the long run, hardness of heart or softness of head.” He took such a message directly to the helpers, telling an audience at the New York City YMCA that the Bible tells each of us “to stretch out his hand to a brother who stumbles. But while every man needs at times to be lifted up when he stumbles, no man can afford to let himself be carried, and it is worth no man’s while to try thus to carry someone else.” Governmental aid, he stated, should be limited and “extended very cautiously, and so far as possible only where it will not crush out healthy individual initiative.”
Mere economic redistribution would not help. It might be politically popular, but the leader who appealed to covetousness “is not, and never can be, aught but an enemy of the very people he professes to befriend. … To break the Tenth Commandment is no more moral now than it has been for the past thirty centuries.” Some were sarcastic. Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed congratulated Roosevelt on his “original discovery of the Ten Commandments.” But Roosevelt pointed out that politicians who preached covetousness might lead a poor person “to hope for redress elsewhere than in his own industry, honesty, and intelligence.” Ideas had consequences.
His way of analyzing poverty issues carried over into other areas as well. Roosevelt always insisted on clear and concrete applications of Biblical commandments. He typically noted, “The Eighth Commandment reads: ‘Thou shall not steal.’ It does not. read: ‘Thou shall not steal from the rich man.’ It does not read: ‘Thou shall not steal from the poor man.’ It reads simply and plainly: ‘Thou shall not steal.’”
After Roosevelt retired in 1909, he kept speaking out and coming back to some basic Biblical themes concerning the relation of private and public ethics. In five lectures that he gave at Pacific Theological Seminary in 1911, he emphasized “the harm done by the practice among so many men of keeping their consciences in separate compartments; sometimes a Sunday conscience and a week-day conscience. …” In “The Public Servant and the Eighth Commandment,” he continued to emphasize that there was no preferential option for the poor, and that it was wrong for the politician to “do something that is just a little bit crooked” to benefit either corporate or labor union interests.
Roosevelt also wrote essays on subjects such as “deliberate sterility in marriage,” in which he criticized those who were deliberately childless. Such a decision, he wrote, was due to “coldness, to selfishness, to love of ease, to shrinking from risk, to an utter and pitiful failure in sense of perspective and in power of weighing what really makes the highest joy and to a rooting out of a sense of duty, in a twisting of that sense into improper channels.”
When individuals did their duty, a nation could be saved. Duty involved taking Biblical risks, which included having children. Did it also include returning to politics? In 1912, Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, disappointed him. Roosevelt also disliked Woodrow Wilson, calling him a “Byzantine logothete” (by which he meant that Wilson’s speeches had little substance). If Roosevelt could wait until 1916, the Republican nomination and probably more time in the White House were well within reach. But a fight with Taft seemed likely to split the Republicans and elect Wilson.
Roosevelt’s reasons for not waiting seem to have been personal rather than political. Early on he had been a man in a hurry, but Alice’s death and his subsequent remarriage and parenthood had given Roosevelt a longer-run perspective. Yet when he felt old age approaching, he lay aside his telescope and lost the ability—which given his fast-pulsed nature was always hard for him—to “wait on the Lord.” His closing campaign was the statesman’s equivalent of what Dylan Thomas would write:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Once Roosevelt put himself into a rage, he could readily convince himself that waiting was immoral. He ran a third-party campaign so frantic that he sometimes fell into the promise-making that he had avoided in previous contests. With William Howard Taft not a lame duck officially but a dead duck politically, Roosevelt worried more about his competition to he left, including the surging Socialist Party candidacy of Eugene Debs. Under such pressure, Roosevelt sometimes pandered, rhetorically accepting a far greater degree of government economic intervention than he had allowed during his administration.
Wilson won with 42 percent of the popular vote, but Roosevelt triumphed when he was shot in the chest on his way to giving a speech. Coughing and putting a hand to his mouth to see if there was any blood, he saw no red and decided the bullet had not hit a lung. Roosevelt walked onto a stage, raised his hand to silence the crowd, and announced he had just been shot. He even held up the metal eyeglasses case and the folded manuscript that had slowed down the bullet on its way to his chest and probably kept it from killing him. He then delivered a stemwinder: If Taft Republicans slanted laws to favor the rich, and Wilson Democrats slanted laws supposedly to favor the poor, Americans would become divided, haves against have-nots, one nationality against another. Roosevelt said, “When that day comes then such incidents as this tonight will be commonplace in our history.” He then headed to the hospital, and electoral defeat.
Politically frustrated, Roosevelt left the country to go on an expedition up the Amazon River that nearly killed him. Broken in health, and having broken the Republican Party, he was in no position to run for president m 1916: Roosevelt had to watch helplessly as Wilson, whom he despised was reelected. He called Wilson “the worst President by all odds since [James] Buchanan, at heart neither a gentleman nor a real man … always utterly and coldly selfish … a silly doctrinaire at all times and an utterly selfish and cold-blooded politician always.”
When the United States entered the world war in 1917, Roosevelt, worn down as he was, volunteered to recruit and lead a regiment as he had in the Spanish-American War. Although President Wilson did not keep faith with those who voted for him because “He Kept Us Out of War,” he did keep Theodore Roosevelt out of war. Roosevelt pleaded and pressed but Wilson, whether for political or military reasons, refused. Roosevelt’s sons all served, and his youngest, Quentin the former prankster, was killed.
Unable to contribute to winning the war on the battlefield, Roosevelt tried to help win the peace by aiming his oratorical guns once again at the left. He spoke frequently in 1917 about how America’s great enemy was socialism, not because that movement legitimately could help the poor but because it represented “an effort to enthrone privilege in its crudest form.” Roosevelt noted the existence of political payoffs and corporate swindles but said there is “no greater example of a corrupt and destructive privilege, than that advocated by those who say that each man should put into a common store what he can and take out what he needs.” He wanted Americans to fight socialism not because it was inefficient but because it was immoral, a theft of “the earnings of the intelligent, the foresighted, and the industrious,” and a blow to self-reliance.
Roosevelt also emphasized in his last two years the role of churches in teaching right and wrong. One memorable article in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1917 tried to explain why promoting church attendance was good public policy: “In this actual world a churchless community, a community where men have abandoned and scoffed at or ignored their religious needs, is a community on the rapid downgrade.” Even though some individuals or families could remain apart from worship and yet be excellent citizens, “this does not affect the case in the world as it now is, any more than that exceptional men and women under exceptional conditions have disregarded the marriage tie without moral harm to themselves.” American movement away from Biblical religion “if at all common,” Roosevelt insisted, “means the complete moral disintegration of the body politic.”
But Roosevelt’s own bodily health was disintegrating all the while. In late November 1918 he told a visitor, “No matter what comes, I have kept the promise I made to myself, when I was 21, that I would work up to the hilt until I was 60, and I have done it. And now, even if I should be an invalid—or if I should die, what difference would it make?” Roosevelt had run the race. Having braved the Badlands, the African and Amazon jungles, and American politics, he died in January 1919, at age 60, in his own bed, in his family home.
Roosevelt had never seemed a humble man in his statesmanship, but he energetically followed the Biblical precepts of fair play and honesty. Broken by his first wife’s death, Roosevelt had renewed his life in the Badlands and for the next quarter century set a pace in devotion to his new family and his new public roles that few others have equaled. Both publicly and privately he put into practice his professions of faith: When he put the lives of others on the line he did the same with his own. He became a president who addressed not only questions of economics but difficult social issues as well, upgrading the presidential podium into a bully pulpit.