For generations, both mainstream and armchair historians alike have perpetuated a variety of myths about Teddy Roosevelt. According to their interpretations, Roosevelt practically defeated the Spanish in 1898 by himself, dug the Panama Canal with his bare hands, and took on the evil, monopolistic corporations against all odds and in spite of his wealthy upbringing.
However, not all of his contemporaries agreed with this assessment. Mark Twain, for example, was extremely critical of Roosevelt and once said the following about Teddy:
“We have never had a President before who was destitute of self-respect & of respect for his high office; we have had no President before who was not a gentleman; we have had no President before who was intended for a butcher, a dive-keeper or a bully, & missed his mission by compulsion of circumstances over which he had no control.”
The truth is that Teddy Roosevelt was a career politician that spent his entire life overcompensating and working to craft a very particular image of himself. This behavior probably stemmed from the fact that his father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., was a draft dodging chicken-hawk. Despite his outspoken support of the North during the Civil War and his membership in the Union League Club, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. decided to pay for a replacement rather than serve in the army once New York instituted a draft.
Young Teddy Roosevelt wanted to redeem his family’s prestige and worked very hard to portray himself as a tough, common man. At age 23, he dropped out of Columbia Law School to run for New York State Assembly and won – becoming its youngest member. At age 27, he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York city and tried desperately to cultivate the image of himself as “The Cowboy of the Dakotas” because he had recently purchased a ranch in North Dakota. By the time he was 36, he had become President of the board of New York City Police Commissioners.
From there, Teddy Roosevelt was appointed to the Office of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He used this position to agitate for war with Spain, then resigned from the job to form his regiment, the “Rough Riders”. This helped Roosevelt reinvent himself again, this time as a fake “war hero”. A careful examination of the events of San Juan Hill will show that the battle involving Roosevelt was actually Kettle Hill, in which the Americans outnumbered Spaniards 15-1, fighting on foot. In reality, Roosevelt’s horse became tangled in barbed wire and he would later be denied a request for the Medal of Honor – possibly because Army officials knew Roosevelt was seeking a headline (he received the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2001).
Mark Twain saw right through this kind of attention-seeking behavior and said of Roosevelt:
“Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off and he would go to hell for a whole one.”
Anti-imperialism was a strong part of Mark Twain’s philosophy. He sympathized with the Chinese in the Boxer Rebellion and wrote a 1901 essay for the North American Review, reprinted by the Anti-Imperialist League, where he compared the actions of the United States in the Spanish-American War to piracy.
While Twain chose not to support intervention in foreign conflicts, Teddy Roosevelt used his fake reputation as a hero to launch his presidential career and set the United States on a new course as the police force of the world. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine is a prime example of Teddy’s twisted logic; while Monroe wanted to prevent European imperialism in the Americas, Roosevelt wanted to justify American imperialism in the western hemisphere.
At the end of his second term, Roosevelt chose not to run for a third and instead decided to once again puff up his image as a tough guy by going on an African safari. On this expedition, Roosevelt and his son killed at least 500 exotic animals in the name of “science” and “conservation”.
Mark Twain once again saw right through Roosevelt’s grandstanding and said:
“He is hunting wild animals heroically in Africa, with the safeguard and advertising equipment of a park of artillery and a brass band.”
On the American people seemingly being mesmerized by Roosevelt, Twain commented:
“Our people have adored this showy charlatan as perhaps no impostor of his brood has been adored since the Golden Calf, so it is to be expected that the Nation will want him back again after he is done hunting other wild animals heroically in Africa, with the safeguard and advertising equipment of a park of artillery and a brass band.”
Roosevelt was so desperate to look rugged that the New York Tribune doctored a photo to make it look like he was riding a moose through a lake. Note Taft on the left riding an elephant and Wilson on the right riding a donkey.
So was Twain correct in his assessments of Roosevelt? A quick analysis of Teddy’s presidency shows that he signed over 1,000 executive orders and vastly changed the public’s perception of presidential power. In his later years, Roosevelt continued to push for foreign intervention and was excited for the possibility of America entering the First World War, even going as far as labeling anti-war Americans as “traitors”. Teddy tried to raise a regiment to serve in the war but was rejected, and the war he so strongly supported ultimately led to the injury of two of his sons and the death of another. As a politician, Roosevelt was arguably a power-hungry egomaniac. Mark Twain’s criticisms were completely justified and America could benefit from having more literary giants of his caliber speaking out about our leaders.