Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States – Book Review
Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States: His own words selected and arranged by Daniel Ruddy. Smithsonian Books, 2010. Hardback, 318 pages plus foreword, introduction, and source notes. No photographs. $27.99.
It unabashedly, unstintingly reflects a man whose love for his country ran as deep as the Mississippi.
People who attain great fame are often even more contradictory in their personalities than the average person is. Certainly, that can be said of Theodore Roosevelt, a fact that is abundantly clear in Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States. The man who said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick" comes through as both starry-eyed optimist regarding the American people and a curmudgeon in his opinion of particular individuals.
Daniel Ruddy says in the book’s introduction that he decided to compile this book after realizing that if he could talk with anyone from American history, living or dead, that person would be Roosevelt. His approach was to "create Roosevelt’s part of the conversation," based exclusively on the soldier-politician-adventurer’s own words. Those words come from T.R.’s own books, letters, speeches, newspaper articles about him, and the accounts of those who recorded what they heard Roosevelt say. Ruddy sorted those writings by subject and stitched those original words together to create individual paragraphs.
By the author’s admission, though he says he went to great pains to avoid any distortion, this approach means the book is "the best possible representation of Roosevelt’s beliefs, as I saw those beliefs," (Ruddy’s emphasis) and other writers would have emphasized things he downplayed and vice versa.
Does that approach work? Yes, it does, because this is not an objective examination of the history of the United States. It is a book that shows us how Roosevelt interpreted that history, his opinions of selected people and events. And, boy, did he have opinions.
If you don’t find something to offend you in this book, you just aren’t trying. Roosevelt pulled no punches. It is unlikely anyone will agree with all of his black-and-white, good vs. evil interpretations.
But it is T.R.’s strong opinions that make the book eminently readable. In our modern era, when we guard what we say to avoid offending one group or another and politicians generally express strong opinions only when they calculate such a stand will win them votes, Teddy Roosevelt’s unabashed statements seems like a breath of fresh air. Reading this book is much like listening to an opinionated, beloved uncle hold forth; it is almost a romp through American history.
Roosevelt was unyieldingly pro-America, even complaining that giving our cities names like Memphis and Cairo showed a lack of imagination; we should have made a clean break with the "old world" and made everything we created uniquely American. Yet, he also wrote disparagingly, "There are always men who consider it unpatriotic to tell the truth, if the truth is not very flattering." Elsewhere, in discussing Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to James K. Polk’s war with Mexico, he states, "Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president."
Though he said, "I am as proud of the South as I am of the North," he had complete disdain for Southern secessionists who tried to break up the country he loved; he has great praise for Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, however. (He was about 10 when the Civil War ended, a conflict he called "a great war for righteousness." One of his uncles built CSS Alabama.) At one point he describes the people of Charleston, South Carolina, by writing, "The Charleston aristocrats offer as melancholy an example as I know of people whose whole life for generations has been warped by their own willful perversity."
Yet, he evidences the same disdain for the radical Abolitionists, saying, "much of what they did was positively harmful to the cause for which they were fighting."
He said William McKinley had "no more backbone than a chocolate éclair." Likewise, he felt he could "carve out of a banana a judge with more backbone" than Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes."
Not all of his opinions were acerbic. He writes admiringly of "the towering greatness of Lincoln," and Supreme Court Justice John Marshall was "among the greatest of the great." George Washington "was not a genius" but, "I regard him as the greatest man in our history." America and its working-class citizens he views with unbridled enthusiasm and optimism.
No, this is nothing like an objective history, but it is a great read, if for no reason than the refreshing difference between a man like Roosevelt and so many leaders of our age, political and otherwise, whose backbones seem to have been carved out of a banana. It unabashedly, unstintingly reflects a man whose love for his country ran as deep as the Mississippi. It also reveals an ego bigger than Texas, but T.R. still comes across as likeable and often admirable. It is easy to understand why Ruddy chose him as the American he would most like to have a conversation with.
Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States is highly recommended, though those who hold their own opinions as strongly as Teddy held his will likely find much to disagree with and be offended by. Just remember, this book is one man’s opinion of the history of which he writes so passionately.
Read about how the years he spent in the American West helped shape the young Roosevelt in Teddy Roosevelt’s Ride to Recovery on HistoryNet.
Gerald D. Swick is senior online editor for ArmchairGeneral.com, HistoryNet.com and GreatHistory.com. He edited Historic Photos of Theodore Roosevelt, by Stacey A. Cordery (Turner Publishing Co.. 2007).