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.

Michael Martin

Michael Martin is a teacher and independent historian currently residing in Eastern North Carolina. He's the author of Southern Grit: Sensing the Siege of Petersburg from Shotwell Publishing and you can find more of his work on his YouTube channel, Truth Decay.


  • Albert Alioto says:


  • David says:

    Good article and hard to disagree with.

    That said, Roosevelt was an interesting character. Unlike a lot of politicians today who vote for war and don’t go to war or send their children, Roosevelt did go into a war that he helped start and three of his kids were in a war. That is more than you can say for most of today’s ruling elites.

    • scott thompson says:

      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…. kerry and the viet nam gun boat? bush training in a fighter jet?

  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    As an employee with the Department of the Interior, former Confederate partisan, Col. John Mosby was sent by President Roosevelt to end the encroachment of cattlemen throughout the Midwest and West into public lands forbidden by a law that had lain unenforced for many years. While these lands could be used to pasture cattle and sheep, the great Cattle Kings had fenced in this land. Efforts to stop these illegal usages had been tried before but had come to nothing. Roosevelt sent Mosby for whom, it was said, he had great respect. Unfortunately, when it came down to the cattlemen and their states supporting Roosevelt’s own election efforts or supporting Mosby’s efforts, Mosby, of course, lost and was removed for insulting reasons, a matter that happened once more in 1910 but this time it was President Taft – another Republican – who was responsible for the injustice.

    From the book: Col. John Singleton Mosby in the News 1862 ~ 1916 (V. P. Hughes)

    Butler Weekly Times – December 4, 1902
    President Roosevelt Threatens to Send Troops There.

    Sadly, Mosby’s naïveté came to the fore once again. He believed in Roosevelt as he had believed in Hayes and Garfield and Arthur and Harrison (in the beginning) and McKinley! As a result, he would suffer the same dismaying blow when he discovered that Roosevelt’s passion for the law—and thus his support for that faithful servant of the law, John Mosby—became of less worth than the political price he would pay in the next election. But rather than admitting that matters had “changed” and advising Mosby to “back off,” Roosevelt stepped nimbly aside and permitted his agent to be ridiculed, humiliated, and made to appear a fool so that he could be got rid of with no one hurt but the honorable old warrior. Sad to say, this was not the last time that this scenario played out in Mosby’s life; but the next time it came to pass, John Mosby would lose his position with the government and be cast into poverty in his old age. Mosby’s situation with the Department of the Interior was in constant flux. But in reality, he did not “lose favor” until Roosevelt had to choose between the fence law and the support of Western Republicans in his election bid in 1904. When that situation arose, Mosby’s removal was the easiest way to indicate the president’s choice.

    Alexandria Gazette – December 18, 1902 (Edited)
    As heretofore stated, Col. John S. Mosby, special agent of the general land office in the matter of the illegal erection of fences on government land on the ranges in Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Utah, has arrived in Washington for a short visit. The statement has been made the Col. Mosby has been recalled from his post of duty on account of the trouble in which he became involved with some of the cattlemen who insisted on maintaining fences on government property. The Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Hitchcock, denies that this is so, and states that so far as he knows the President is fully satisfied with the manner in which Col. Mosby has conducted himself. His visit at this time has no significance whatsoever.

    And suddenly, the charge against Mosby relative to the “criticism” of Nebraska’s senators was back in the news while he was charged here with waging a “campaign against land-grabbing cattlemen.” Apparently, at least the paper understood that Mosby would be punished for doing his job:

    Richmond Dispatch – December 18, 1902 (Edited)
    The Colonel’s Campaign Against Land Grabbing Cattlemen. (Chicago Chronicle.)
    Of course, “it is highly probable that Colonel Mosby will receive an intimation that his remarks were improper and will be asked for an explanation of his criticisms of the Nebraska Senators.”
    Colonel Mosby declares—and most people will believe him—that he has had intimations from these statesmen that he might do well to be less active in his proceedings against the cattle barons. He has very properly refused to be swerved from his duty, and he has made public the facts.
    It will be interesting to see how far Colonel Mosby’s superiors will dare to go in reproof of his refusal to wink at scoundrelism, even though it is tacitly defended by United States Senators. If it be true—and it probably is—that President Roosevelt is back of Mosby in the matter, there may be some slight difficulties in having the ex-guerrilla disciplined for his characterization of rascality as rascality no matter by whom committed.

    Minneapolis Journal – December 18, 1902
    St. Paul Globe – December 19, 1902
    Nebraskan Senators and Cattle Men Call on the President
    They See the President About Encroachment upon Public Lands.

    Washington, D. C., Dec. 18—Senators Dietrich and Millard, of Nebraska, called upon the president today, accompanied by a of prominent cattle raisers of their state, to discuss the alleged encroachment upon government lands by the big cattle interests of Nebraska and other Western states. They entered a vigorous protest against the action and words of Col. John S. Mosby, who has been investigating the matter as an agent of the interior department. Many of the Western cattlemen are here not to appear before the interior department and their members of congress with a view of protecting their interests. The subject is being carefully considered by the president and interior department. The president has let it be known that he will permit no improper or illegal encroachment upon government lands, and the interior department is acting along that line.

    As had happened before, the focus of the matter was moved from the illegalities of the cattlemen and those who supported them in and out of office and the alleged behavior of the investigator. The only accusations against Mosby were of being “undiplomatic” and “severe.” So on one side, there was a crime and efforts to support and continue that crime; and on the other side, the claim of a lack of diplomacy. These are hardly equitable matters in law.

    And finally, it was over. No muffled drums, no cigarette and blindfold before a shot- scarred wall, but John Mosby knew that he was beaten as he told a Dispatch correspondent that his stay in Washington was “indefinite” and that he, the correspondent, would have to ask “the gentleman in the White House” if he would return West. But as usual, the correspondent was not really paying attention; for in the very next sentence, he reports that Mosby would “visit Richmond before he returns West.” No wonder John Mosby couldn’t make himself understood—nobody was listening:

  • Lee says:

    It’s enlightening to read someone’s opinion from the history of the United States. When it is a former US President, then the opinions begin to show the writer’s bias.
    In the case of former President Theodore Roosevelt, I’m inclined to respect a writer when they give the full story, and include the good with the not so good.
    Without going into particulars, let’s just say, I’d be grateful if you’d give each person’s story with less bias and negativity.

    • scott thompson says:

      has someone opinionized or stated historical texts?

    • Valerie Protopapas says:

      I, too, respected TR and was rather dismayed to find that he chose his election over the matter he had sent Mosby to rectify ~ that is, removing fences from government land. As I noted in my narrative, Roosevelt could have at least attempted to prevent Mosby being “removed” from his job on the basis of wrongful charges against the man, charges that were both insulting and humiliating. That was not only unfair of Roosevelt but dishonest. Mosby respected and liked Roosevelt even after he was removed and sent to Alabama on another job. In fact, Roosevelt wrote him a letter before the election claiming that he was distressed to see his efforts misjudged in the South. Mosby had sent Roosevelt a letter from a friend supporting the President and it was Roosevelt’s response to Mosby that he later sent to the newspapers. However, he sent it AFTER the election believing that the President would not have wanted his personal correspondence to be made public before the vote. However, at least one of the papers suggested that it was MOSBY who was wrong about Roosevelt’s motives and that indeed, TR had wanted the letter published widely in the South as a means of getting favor from Southern voters. Whatever was the case, Mosby remained a “friend” to Roosevelt despite how badly he was treated in the land issue.

  • Robert Powell says:

    AS one who hs been interested in Historical events in general, I am a bit circumspect concerning articles, while most enjoy the information contained. One of my ancestors Col. Nathan Powell was a journalist. The posting is informative, while literal acceptance is questionable without opposing positions.
    This site is most interesting, and a most worthy member of the venue.
    For comment, Woodrow Wilson on a Donkey is perceptive. He was hired by the media, Rockefeller and JP Morgan who funded in the entirety the “Bull Moose” campaign as a splitter to insure Taft ( who noted his intent to veto the Federal Reserve Bill ) had to be defeated. And so it goes.

  • Dee Stafford says:

    TR was the first progressive president and the first to initiate many legislative actions and over use executive orders. He directed his staff to find ways of doing what he wanted by finding ways to circumvent the Constitution. He was a media made president just as was JFK. Twain was right on the mark as supported by other things I’ve read about TR.

  • Tom Wiggins says:

    Informative article, thanks.
    Not surprising though, him being raised by a member of the terrorist group, the “union league”

  • Tom Wiggins says:

    … another fine ambassador for the empire

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