Although Roosevelt became president in a freakish way and was moreover, at not quite forty-three, the youngest man ever to hold the office, few United States presidents entered the White House who were as well qualified. John Quincy Adams had been at least as well read and had spent more time abroad in diplomatic activities before he, like his father, became president. But Roosevelt's numerous publications showed him to be a man of respectable scholarly accomplishments (his The Winning of the West was reviewed seriously in the American Historical Review by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1896) and a serious thinker about major contemporary issues, notably military strategy. His western exploits and his brief military career had given experience that Adams conspicuously lacked, to Adams' great disadvantage in his rivalry with Andrew Jackson. And Roosevelt had also traveled abroad frequently, both as a child and as an adult. He moved easily among the genteel and governing classes of England and Germany, and established there lifelong friendships sustained by a massive correspondence. When in 1886 he married Edith Carow, his second wife (his first, Alice Lee, had died in childbirth in 1884), it was in London, and Britain's future ambassador to the United States, Cecil Spring Rice ("Springy," to Roosevelt), served as his best man.
As John Morton Blum has astutely observed, Theodore Roosevelt spoke and wrote expansively on order, duty, justice, and power—but rarely on happiness, the word that stands at the center of liberal thought. Except for his commitment to a parliamentary and electoral politics, Roosevelt in fact showed few liberal characteristics. He spoke righteously for freedom but placed individual liberty in the context of a greater obligation to the nation. He acknowledged that most individuals probably preferred business as usual, to be left to cultivate their own gardens and to pursue modest livelihoods and comforts, but he viewed such an outlook with scorn. He found peace good but grandeur better. He vigorously defended the rights and privileges of private property, but he would have them subordinated to political priorities. Business competition in an unmanaged, open market, then the centerpiece of the liberal economic order, he regarded with skepticism, as wasteful, disorderly, and given to irrational outcomes. The rule of law, equally central to the legitimacy of power in a liberal state, Roosevelt regarded as an ideal that should be applied to customary matters and ordinary people; but power, he believed, was a better, more reliable guarantor of justice, progress, excellence, order, and nobility. Roosevelt as president strove to build an American national state that could serve as the focus of an orderly justice, but in that cause he himself evaded constitutional and legal constraints that were designed to guarantee orderly government.
In such characteristics lay the greatness, but also the danger, of Theodore Roosevelt. Greatness often requires a reaching beyond conventional limits, a recognition of the possibilities and opportunities that beckon beyond the horizons of ordinary law and custom. The America that Roosevelt contemplated at the turn of the century was about to enter seriously upon international happenings. The nation's business, its size, its expansive history and spirit had thrust it abroad. Yet Americans typically remained ignorant of the implications of such developments, innocent of the country's military and economic vulnerabilities. When, without consulting Congress, Roosevelt "took Panama," sent the fleet around the world, and signed secret agreements with Japan, he filled a void not merely in the constitutional distribution of powers but in the vision of contemporary Americans and their mostly provincial political leaders.
Similarly, the revolution in industrial production, organization, and marketing since 1875 had swiftly made archaic a constitutional and legal system that continued to treat private economic power as if it were still exercised mostly by small proprietary farmers and businessmen who serviced local or state communities. The sudden rise to dominance of a few very large interstate corporations was rapidly turning the open price and market system into a managed continental economy that rewarded the big and the powerful to the gross disadvantage of the masses of smaller business people of the country. Meanwhile, unrestrained private exploitation of natural resources threatened to squander the means whereby future generations might enjoy the same opportunities as did contemporaries. Roosevelt saw both danger and injustice in what was happening and also that the courts and Congress appeared incapable of taking notice. When the president bypassed Congress, expanding the use of executive orders to put some public lands beyond the reach of private exploitation, and when he fought to establish independent administrative agencies in the executive branch to supplement the courts' supervision of private economic behavior, he took the first small steps toward bringing the problems invoked by industrialization within the purview of a national policy. In all these things, in both domestic and foreign policies, Theodore Roosevelt showed remarkable vision, while he also set some precedents for the abuses of power by twentieth-century American presidents.
His private reaction to McKinley's death reveals the raw side of the man. While McKinley lay dying, Roosevelt wrote to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge:
We should war with relentless efficiency not only against anarchists, but against all active and passive sympathizers with anarchists. Moreover, every scoundrel . . . who for whatever purposes appeals to evil human passion, has made himself accessory before the fact to every crime of this nature, and every soft fool who extends a maudlin sympathy to criminals has done likewise.. . . Tolstoy and the feeble apostles of Tolstoy . . . who unite in petitions for the pardon of anarchists, have a heavy share in the burden of responsibility for crimes of this kind.
The "war" Roosevelt proposed here he meant in a moral sense; he never urged legislation that would in fact bring "soft fools" within the law's definition of an "accessory." But he did sign the Immigration Act of 1903, which permitted the deportation of "alien anarchists" and banned "anarchists" from entering the country or seeking citizenship. For the first time since the long-repudiated Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the United States applied a political test for immigration and citizenship. Most insidious, the act left it to local officials to define what kind of activities or speech made one an anarchist.
Roosevelt was not responsible for the act. A great surge of excess and violence followed in the wake of McKinley's assassination, which fed longstanding fires of antiradicalism and nativism. But the new president did and said nothing to deter the nativists' assaults upon civil liberties or to quell the lynch-law "justice" to which they gave expression. Although Roosevelt usually preferred a more orderly and legal form of justice, his own instincts sometimes drifted in other directions, as his behavior in the Brownsville incident suggests. In November 1906, Roosevelt summarily issued dishonorable discharges to more than 160 black soldiers because it had been alleged that members of their battalions rioted in the town of Brownsville, Texas, in August. In the melee, a bartender was killed and a policeman was wounded. No individual was ever indicted; no trial was ever held. But the punishment the president inflicted on the men was severe. Many of the men were close to retirement but were deprived of all benefits because of the dishonorable discharge. Several held the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. After a congressional outcry against the president's challenge to the Anglo-American legal principles that an individual is innocent until proved guilty and that individual guilt cannot be inferred from membership in a group, Roosevelt compounded his offense, denying that Congress had any right to interfere. In a much publicized speech, he boasted, "The only reason I didn't have them hung was because I could not find out which ones . . . did the shooting." As William Harbaugh points out, it is unlikely that racial bias entered significantly into Roosevelt's action in the case; there is no evidence that he would have treated white troops any differently. That may say something for Roosevelt's racial views but not much for his regard for law.
In office, Roosevelt rarely vented such impulses to impolitic righteousness. As Blum has remarked:
In order to win office and to make government function, he taught himself to restrain any politically dangerous impulse, to study complex matters of policy before dealing with them, and to balance his objectives against the likelihood of achieving them—an exercise he often obscured by clothing the art of the possible in the rhetoric of the imperative.