The Latest Theodore Roosevelt Scholarship

I’m sitting here with a couple fresh biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, getting a little downtime around the 10:04PM hour. To my right is Edward P. Kohn, Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt (Basic Books, 2014) and Paul Grondahl, I Rose Like a Rocket: The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt (Free Press, 2004). Being from North Dakota, these are nourishing reads since, naturally, North Dakota has claimed Theodore Roosevelt because Theodore Roosevelt claimed North Dakota.

They are nourishing reads because Kohn’s central idea challenges traditional TR scholarship (a Great White Battleship’s worth) which accepts TR’s ideas about himself as being a cowboy and American westerner. Kohn says no. He says TR was a New Yorker through and through. Kohn opens the introduction by saying, “Theodore Roosevelt’s path to the White House may have gone through the West, but it did not start there.” This is true.

Grondahl’s work situates TR as a young man in his freshman year with the New York State Legislature. In 1882, TR entered the assembly chamber in Albany, New York. In the second paragraph of the prelude, “Practical Politics,” he sets the stage for the reader, at least what TR was facing, using the present tense for added reality and to situate the reader in 1882:

“The atmosphere in Albany during the legislative session is part carnival, part college fraternity. Some of the city’s denizens are just passing through, looking to ride along on the political parade for a while. Others arrive full of idealism and a burning desire to make meaningful change. A few seem perplexed to be elected public officials in the state’s capital, as if they had awoken from a Rip van Winkle-like slumber to find themselves holding a seat in the Assembly or Senate. It’s a dream job for some, a nightmare for others. Many build their reputations here. A few sacrifice their respectability on the alter of politics, learning the rules only to abuse them. The Legislature is a closed system, a kind of political union shop. The principles of prep school secret societies guide its old boys’ network, clubby familiarity, oaths of loyalty, and rituals of initiation.” 

This is what TR faced when he caught wind of the plans of “Big John” McManus, one of Tammany Hall’s “persuaders.” McManus wanted to haze TR by tossing him in a blanket. TR, though, having fought his childhood through asthma and monetary privilege, made a bee-line for McManus and, flat out, said to him, “By God! McManus, I hear you are going to toss me in a blanket. By God! If you try anything like that, I’ll kick you, I’ll bite you, I’ll kick you in the balls. I’ll do anything to you — you’d better leave me alone.” This method, later popularized by Rooster Cogburn, worked.

While I’m only in the introductions to both, I don’t see the biographies by Grondahl and Kohn challenging the traditional TR scholarship so much as they do to humanize TR. Life is about change, and it is about evolving as human beings, and as circumstances warrant and dictate. It’s important to remember that, lest we think of historical actors as monolithic (a fancy way of saying 1 dimensional).


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