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Who was Theodore Roosevelt? Most of us think of him as one of America's greatest presidents, a champion of progressive politics, and a master statesman. But many feared the political power that Roosevelt wielded. Woodrow Wilson once called him "the most dangerous man of the age." Mark Twain thought him "clearly insane." William James scorned the "flood of bellicose emotion" he let loose during his presidency. Even his biographer, Edmund Morris, is astonished at Roosevelt's "irrational love of battle."
In this book, Sarah Watts probes this dark side of the Rough Rider, presenting a fascinating psychological portrait of a man whose personal obsession with masculinity profoundly influenced the fate of a nation. Drawing on his own writings and on media representations of him, Watts attributes the wide appeal of Roosevelt's style of manhood to the way it addressed the hopes and anxieties of men of his time. Like many of his contemporaries, Roosevelt struggled with what it meant to be a man in the modern era. He saw two foes within himself: a fragile weakling and a primitive beast. The weakling he punished and toughened with rigorous, manly pursuits such as hunting, horseback riding, and war. The beast he unleashed through brutal criticism of homosexuals, immigrants, pacifists, and sissies—anyone who might tarnish the nation's veneer of strength and vigor. With his unabashed paeans to violence and aggressive politics, Roosevelt ultimately offered American men a chance to project their longings and fears onto the nation and its policies. In this way he harnessed the primitive energy of men's desires to propel the march of American civilization—over the bodies of anyone who might stand in its way.
Written with passion and precision, this powerful revisioning of an American icon will forever alter the way we see Theodore Roosevelt and his political legacy.
"A superb scholarly study of how Roosevelt built his political base on the aspiration and fears of men in a rapidly changing nation and world."—Charles K. Piehl, Library Journal
"A thought-provoking and innovative study of the dark side of Roosevelt's personality. . . . [Watt's] arguments are clear, passionate, and thoroughly supported."—Elizabeth A. Bennion, Journal of Interdisciplinary History
— Elizabeth A. Bennion
— Eric Rauchway
— Christina Jarvis
Is America a weakling to shrink from the world-work?
-Theodore Roosevelt, to the 1900 Republican National Convention
I owe more than I can ever express to the West.
-Theodore Roosevelt, "In Cowboy Land"
For those men at the turn of the century who were psychologically ripe for
models of essential masculinity, Roosevelt almost single-handedly caused a
"sudden, radical shift," Theodore Greene argues, in the American hero
model. "It was one of those utterly unthinkable coincidences," William
Allen White, the Kansas editor, remarked, "that a man of Roosevelt's
enormous energy should come to the Presidency of exactly that country
which at exactly that time was going through a transitional
period-critical, dangerous, and but for him terrible." Roosevelt emerged
as a central purveyor of the cowboy-soldier hero model because he more
than any man of his age harnessed the tantalizing freedom of cowboys to
address the social and psychological needs that arose from deep personal
sources of frustration, anxiety, and fear. More than any other hesensed
that ordinary men needed a clearly recognizable and easily appropriated
hero who enacted themes about the body; the need for extremity, pain, and
sacrifice; and the desire to exclude some men and bond with others. In one
seamless cowboy-soldier-statesman-hero life, Roosevelt crafted the cowboy
ethos consciously and lived it zealously, providing men an image and a
fantasy enlisted in service to the race-nation.
Rather than creating the new archetype, Roosevelt accelerated and focused
several cultural themes that converged in it. As we have noted, men were
changing their ideas of how to be men, appropriating more aggressive
models in response to a growing sense of male diminishment. The republican
heroes of antebellum America, Greene found by studying elite magazines,
consisted largely of those gentlemen, scholars, and patriots whose
reputations rested less on their wealth than on evidence of their
character-honesty, sobriety, hard work, and civic service. By century's
end these heroes had been joined by Daniel Boone, Leatherstocking, and
Civil War generals, but while all remained enormously popular, they
somehow fell short in providing what was needed in a specifically modern
hero. In keeping with changing models of masculinity, Greene says,
mass-circulation magazines began to feature a Napoleonic "idol of power,"
a man of action who used iron will and "animal magnetism" to crush his
rivals and dominate nature. Biographers of plutocrats and robber barons
encouraged readers to envision themselves in a social Darwinist world of
ruthless competition where character alone appeared effeminate and
sentimentalism dangerous. Earlier notions of manliness had counseled
reason over passion; now the hero must unleash his "forcefulness."
Enter a new type of charismatic male personality after 1870, a
cowboy-soldier operating in the new venue of the American West on sheer
strength of will and physicality. Eastern readers instantly recognized him
as more masculine precisely because he met the psychological desires in
their imagination, making them into masters of their own fate, propelling
them into violent adventure and comradeship, believing them at home in
nature, not in the hothouse interiors of office buildings or middle-class
homes. Writers pitched the cowboy ethos against Christian values of mercy,
empathy, love, and forgiveness, against domestic responsibility and the
job demands that complicated men's lives and dissolved their masculine
will. The cowboy was not interested in saving souls or finding spiritual
purity or assigning meaning to death. His code of conduct arose as he
struggled against the overwhelming wildness of men and beasts and carved
out a prairie existence with guns, ropes, and barbed wire. Readers
suspended ordinary morality as they fantasized about life at the margins
of civilization and sampled forbidden pleasures of taming, busting,
subduing, shooting, hanging, and killing.
The cowboy cult drew on other important cultural themes as well. Its
racial component arose in part from developing notions of national unity
that began to overcome Civil War sectionalism. As industrial society's
racial and class tensions grew and war wounds healed, Nina Silber finds,
Northerners adopted a more sympathetic view of Southern white manhood, one
in which Southern elites came to be admired for their racial acumen.
Northerners abandoned critical views of slavery for nostalgic
reminiscences of plantation life in which white Southern men had
effectively managed a racial society, keeping blacks where they belonged
and protecting white women's virtue. In the theaters, novels, and
traveling shows of the 1890s, popular themes of happy plantation slaves
reflected Northern acceptance of the Southern white view of race and the
Jim Crow limitations on suffrage, mobility, education, and economic life.
Even if many, though not all, Northerners drew the line at excusing
lynching, Silber observes, they nevertheless accepted the idea that
Southern white men lynched black "rapists" in the attempt to prove
themselves men. Concerns about protecting Southern womanhood reflected
Northern men's anxieties about promiscuous sexual behavior and the
preservation of women's proper sphere. Finding a common ground of white
manliness among former enemies, Silber explains, helped Northern whites to
"cast African-Americans outside the boundaries of their Anglo-Saxon
nation," to romanticize Southern notions of chivalry, and to justify
turning Southern race relations over to Southern whites entirely.
Northerners drew racialized bonds of white brotherhood around men so
recently considered traitors by conjuring an abstracted, essentialized
white manhood untainted by sectional or class divisions. In the 1890s, the
appearance of Flag Day and veterans commemorations and organizations like
the Daughters of the American Revolution emphasized sectional harmony and
elevated a new form of nationalism based not on identifiable values, but
on an empty and exceedingly blind loyalty. In an 1895 Memorial Day speech,
"The Soldier's Faith," given at Harvard's Soldier's Field, a football
arena named in honor of six of the school's Civil War dead, Oliver Wendell
Holmes Jr. best expressed this new patriotism: "The faith is true and
adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a
blindly accepted duty, a cause in which he little understands." Such
logic, which placed unthinking dutifulness over understanding, left little
room for moral discretion and made blind response a virtue. Such martial
abstractions rallied many men, patriotic speakers knew. In the
installation ceremony for the General William Tecumseh Sherman monument in
Washington, D.C., Roosevelt honored the "valor and devotion to duty" of
former Confederate as well as Union veterans, for the Confederate soldiers
had merely responded to a "loyalty toward what they regarded as right."
These abstractions suited well both the demands of national unity and the
myth of the cowboy as a loner true to his own code of honor. The cowboy
style of manliness drew on the antebellum notion that white men possessed
the core, essential quality that Melville's Ishmael detected in Starbuck,
the Pequod's first mate, who radiated "that immaculate manliness we feel
within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the
outer character seems gone." Toward century's end, Mark Twain, one of
Roosevelt's favorite interpreters of the American West, identified this
essence in the "magnificent, glorious giants" who tamed the American
It was a driving, vigorous, restless population in those days.... It
was the only population of the kind that the world has even seen
gathered together.... For, observe, it was an assemblage of two
hundred thousand young men-not simpering, dainty, kid-gloved weaklings,
but stalwart, muscular, dauntless young braves, brimful of push and
energy, and royally endowed with every attribute that goes to make up a
peerless and magnificent manhood-the very pick and choice of the world's
glorious ones. No women, no children, no gray and stooping veterans-none
but erect, bright-eyed, quick-moving, strong-handed young giants-the
strangest population, the finest population, the most gallant host that
ever rode down the startled solitudes of an unpeopled land.
In Twain's heroes, it was not virtuous character or principled action but
a forceful physicality, totally male and forever young, that primed his
idealized giants to ride over smaller beings and virgin landscapes, doing
what Roosevelt later called the "world-work" of soldier statesmen. Jacob
Riis, only one among many who avowed that Roosevelt embodied in real life
the masculine essence Melville and Twain expressed in literature,
predicted that America "shall make of [Roosevelt] a king in his own right,
by his undimmed manhood," In depicting a "royally endowed," "immaculate,"
and "peerless and magnificent" manhood, Melville, Twain, and Riis
uncovered an essentialism born of a desire for an aristocratic,
exclusionary yet unifying, purified strongman. "If this sounds like a
prescription for Theodore Roosevelt," Greene points out, "it was."
The Crafted Cowboy
For an Easterner to cross the divide into essential manhood, he must
somehow appropriate the amoral energy of the American West that Mark Twain
had described. Roosevelt's own cowboy-soldier life testified to that, but
first he had to create a persona that he most surely was not born with. He
entered the New York state assembly in 1881 at age twenty-three, having
overcome poor health just like his idol Abraham Lincoln. He still appeared
unmanly, and newspapers and his fellow assemblymen ridiculed his "squeaky"
voice and dandified clothing, referring to him as "Jane-Dandy,"
"Punkin-Lily," and "our own Oscar Wilde." The New York World proclaimed
him "chief of the dudes." Duly insulted, he began to construct a new
physical image around appropriately virile Western decorations and
settings, foregrounding the bodily attributes of a robust outdoorsman that
were becoming new features in the nation's political iconography.
At age twenty-five, on his first trip to the Dakota badlands in 1883,
Roosevelt purchased a ranch, bought a herd of cattle, hired ranch hands,
and, spending considerable time there, began to develop his Western image.
He took "obvious delight," his younger cousin Nicholas observed, in the
"apparently pathological extremes" of his exploits in the Dakotas-"rides
of seventy miles or more in a day, hunting hikes of fourteen to sixteen
hours, stretches in the saddle in roundups of as long as forty hours."
During his early years as a ranchman, Roosevelt's appearance, in studio
photos at least, suggested a Leatherstocking frontiersman of the
eighteenth-century Appalachian wilderness. In 1883 or 1884, he posed in a
fringed buckskin outfit, complete with hunting cap, moccasins, cartridge
belt, silver dagger, and rifle (figure 24). Yet without Western attire, a
horse, or an open prairie, he still looked like an Eastern would-be.
In 1885, returning East after a bighorn hunting trip to Montana, Roosevelt
had another studio photo made. This time he appeared as a self-consciously
overdressed yet recognizable Western cowboy posed as bold and determined,
armed and ready for action (figure 25). "You would be amused to see me,"
he wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge in 1884, in my "broad sombrero hat, fringed
and beaded buckskin shirt, horse hide chaparajos or riding trousers, and
cowhide boots, with braided bridle and silver spurs." To his sister Bamie,
he boasted, "I now look like a regular cowboy dandy, with all my
equipments finished in the most expensive style." Only the fringed
buckskin shirt remained from his Leatherstocking outfit. Buckskin, he
said, represented America's "most picturesque and distinctively national
dress," attire worn by Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and by the
"reckless, dauntless Indian fighters" who led the "white advance
throughout all our Western lands." Buckskin and whiteness notwithstanding,
this 1885 image still seems forced, and his attention focused on the
costs, accoutrements, and style of cowboy life. He does not even wear his
glasses, without which he could see only poorly.
During his time in the Dakotas, Roosevelt hardened his body, a task,
Nicholas remembered, that was not completed "to his satisfaction" until
his late twenties. Roosevelt's struggles against cattle thieves and
lawless gangs and his skill in breaking and riding wild cow ponies
provided the physical courage "which his soul had aspired to in boyhood,"
William Roscoe Thayer observed. His asthma abated, and finally he
developed a body "which could back up any resolution he might take." "I am
well hardened now," Roosevelt wrote to his sister Anna in 1884; "I have
just come in from spending thirteen hours in the saddle."
Strengthened by the rough life of a cattle rancher, Roosevelt continued to
develop his Western image. Beside his horse in another photo, undated but
probably from the late 1880s, he wears essentially the same outfit as he
did as a studio cowboy, minus the chaps (figure 26). This image reveals a
more resolute, saddle-worn, authentic cowboy standing beside a working cow
pony against a bona fide Western backdrop. Still posed, though not so
stiffly as in the studio shot, he rests his hand on his gun and is more
believably ready for action because he now wears glasses.
As Roosevelt's cowboy image evolved, his popular image changed along with
it. When he bought his first ranch, both Westerners and the Eastern press
ridiculed him for looking like an overdressed, overeducated tenderfoot. By
1886, his Western exploits had visibly hardened him. "What a change!" the
Pittsburgh Dispatch exclaimed; "he is now brown as a berry and has
increased 30 pounds in weight." His high and squeaky voice was now "hearty
and strong enough to drive oxen." Reviewers of Hunting Trips of a
Ranchman: Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888) and The Wilderness
Hunter (1893) allowed Roosevelt the full legitimacy of Western cowboy
life. The New York Times certified that "Mr. Roosevelt has had full
practical experience of what he writes about" and noted that "to be a
cowboy ... is by no means an easy task." Ranching life held "a special
charm for the gilded youth of the Eastern states," The Dial's reviewer
reported, "and Mr. Roosevelt seems to have followed it."
It was not just how a cowboy looked that separated him from Easterners,
but how he lived. In their struggle against nature, the New York Tribune
noted, cowboys had to live lives of "intelligent barbarism" that involved
"barbarous and crude forms of dissipation."
Excerpted from Rough Rider in the White House
by Sarah Watts
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
List of Illustrations
1. Historical Knowledge and the "Hot Life of Feeling"
2. Inner Demons
3. Women, Apes, and "Baneful Things"
4. Cowboy Soldiers