Symposium shows dark side of T.R.

Theodore Roosevelt was an immensely popular president in his time. Even today he continues to be a favorite among scholars, students and politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Theodore Roosevelt was an immensely popular president in his time. Even today he continues to be a favorite among scholars, students and politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Few people, though, know him like historian Dr. H.W. Brands.

"(People) generally assume I'm a fan of Theodore Roosevelt," said Brands, who wrote a biography of the 26th president.

Brands is the keynote speaker at the second annual Theodore Roosevelt Symposium, which is being held at Dickinson State University this week.

Brands offered presentations Thursday evening and Friday afternoon on Roosevelt's place in the world arena.


"I'm going to confess to you I don't think I'd like Theodore Roosevelt," Brands said at lunch on Friday. "His personality is too egregious. It's not a personality I warm up to."

Brands, who teaches at the University of Texas, said he tries not to make value judgments on his biography subjects, preferring to leave that up to the reader.

Leaving personal opinions out of the biography isn't always easy for Brands, who has authored more than 20 books. Brands said for comparison, he shed a tear when writing Benjamin Franklin's death scene in the Founding Father's biography.

"I felt a twinge of regret when Roosevelt died but also a sigh of relief," Brands said. "Roosevelt wore me out. From 11 years old until he died, he never stopped."

Roosevelt's active life is apparent in the more than 900 pages that make up Brand's biography, "T.R.: The Last Romantic."

"T.R. was the kind of person best viewed from a distance," Brands said.

Brands said near the end of Roosevelt's life, and therefore the end of the biography, is when he saw the president as a more human figure.

Brands said while Roosevelt's infatuation with war is well known throughout the scholarly community, it isn't until his youngest son died in World War I that the impact of conflicts become more real.


"It's almost as though he comes to terms of what the meaning of his life has been," Brands said. "It was the first time he feels the cost of going to war."

Brands said when Roosevelt's son Quentin died the president's motor gave out, and it was no surprise he died a few months later.

Masculine side

Dr. Kristin Hoganson, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also spoke of Roosevelt's darker sides during the conference.

Hoganson wrote a book titled "Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars." Both conflicts occurred around the turn of the 20th century, when Roosevelt was vice president and then president after William McKinley's assassination.

Hoganson said imperialism struck a chord with the largely male voters of the times in which Roosevelt lived.

"I make an argument (the masculinity of the times) deserves serious consideration, but I don't want to imply it's the only factor," Hoganson said during a presentation Friday morning.

She said the imperialism and masculine sentiments were strong at that point in time, which helped Roosevelt to bond with a couple of other pro-imperialism politicians.


Hoganson said Sen. Albert Beveridge, a pro-imperialist friend of Roosevelt's, wrote a book in which he said, "Be a man; that is the first and last rule to be a success in life."

Another friend and politician, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, regarded physical strength as his real education.

"He regarded the Spanish-American War as a much needed challenge, and a challenge they had met," Hoganson said.

During the turn of the century, a strong anti-imperialist movement emerged as well, but Hoganson said the men in favor of brute strength derided them as effeminate.

She said the imperialist movement ended shortly after the Philippine-American War, when the general public learned of the atrocities of U.S. soldiers, such as prostitution and drunkenness.

"I can't say if not, because (the imperialist spirit) absolutely existed and pervaded the time period," Hoganson said. "You can't get untangled from it."

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