I was an adult when I first "discovered" Theodore Roosevelt. And no, it had nothing to do with Night at the Museum. I began running across quotes and stories about this man who was primarily known for being a president, but was also so much more. Then, in my first year as a high school history teacher, while researching more about the "Gilded Age" (AKA Era of Corruption and Robber Barons), I started to see Roosevelt as Iconic. A template not just for the modern president, but a template for leadership, humanity, and justice.
I also learned that Roosevelt was human. Oh, so very human. He made mistakes. He was a man of his era, which is to say that he might have said things that today would be seen as maybe a bit offensive, not politically correct, and if he had Twitter, I imagine he would be attacked for his views frequently. Many point to his comments on immigration as evidence of his ethnocentrism, and that I cannot deny. But we will look at some of those quotes later in this book in context, as well as what- if any- place they hold in American society today.
But he was also ahead of his time. In Edmund Morris' Theodore Rex, Morris relates the story of Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington, the African American educator, to the White House for dinner. In 1901, just as the South was gearing up to disenfranchise African Americans, Roosevelt sought to do the opposite. His meeting with Washington was attacked from all sides, yet, he never backed down. Instead, he felt only regret for subjecting Mr. Washington to such scrutiny. Morris' follow-up, Colonel Roosevelt, details his request to Jane Addams of Hull House fame to second his nomination as Progressive Party candidate. This, in 1912, pre-dated women even having the right to vote.
But this book is not a historical re-telling of Roosevelt's achievements and failures. At least, not in any deep capacity such as found in other works. Instead, we will be unpacking and perhaps applying some of the most powerful quotes from his life to the modern questions we have today.
At the writing of this book, in the summer of 2020, the world is in chaos. Still reeling from the effects of Covid-19, which in turn cause economic unrest worldwide, we are on the cusp of a Presidential election. Demonstrations and, in some cases, riots are breaking out seeking equality for African Americans in light of another black man's death at the hands of the police. There is finger-pointing and distrust on all sides. Americans seem more divided than ever.
In the midst of this, people are looking for leadership- and questioning if true political leadership still exists. Politics today seems to be about soundbites and witty rejoinders offered in speeches or social media. Oddly, I think Roosevelt would perform well in this environment, even though he lived over one hundred years ago. He was an extremely well-read man, and coupled that gleaned wisdom with an apparent child-like wonder. But he was known to have a biting wit, as well.
Above all, Theodore Roosevelt believed in the ideal of America. He believed in individualism, he believed in character. These ideals will be at the core of the quotes discussed in this work.
When necessary, more than a brief historical anecdote surrounding the quote will be provided. Context will be provided for all quotes, as well as discussion of why they are relevant for today.
I do not intend to use this small space to press my political agenda, nor do I intend to attack any leaders or movements. My goal is merely to talk about the power of century-old words for an ever-evolving new world. Roosevelt fought to end corruption, and holds the historical position of being the first U.S. President to win the Nobel Peace Prize (Morris, 2002) for his efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War. He was at once a Renaissance Man and a walking paradox. He is a hero of mine and an inspiration to me as an educator and as a leader.
I hope Theodore Roosevelt can be to you, as well.