Skip to main content

Theodore Roosevelt and the South

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

On a pleasantly warm afternoon late in May, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt worked off a little surplus energy by playing tennis on the White House courts. His companions were James R. Garfield, a member of his Cabinet, Captain (now Major General) Frank Ross McCoy, and Captain Archie Butt, who was the President’s military aide. They were joined in an hour or so by Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Longworth and by Gifford Pinchot, the rising apostle of conservation. White House servants brought mint juleps for the party; those tall, frosty, fragrant mint juleps whose composition is a fine art.

Captain Butt, who was to die when the S. S. Titanic crashed into an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, described the afternoon in a letter to his mother. It was published, together with many others, after his death. Butt’s relations with President Roosevelt had been exceedingly cordial; a basic reason was the fact that he was a Georgian. He had discovered, soon after his assignment to the White House, that the President was very proud of his own Southern blood. The mother of Theodore Roosevelt, whose name had been Martha Bulloch, was also a native of Georgia.

And so, as the little group of Roosevelt’s intimates sipped their mint juleps and rested and talked, Captain Butt laughed and remarked that the glasses of the President and himself were the first to be drained.

“That’s so, Butt,” Roosevelt answered, “but we can’t expect the New England Yankees and Middle West people to drink with us old Southern Gentlemen.” A footnote should accompany this story to explain that Roosevelt rarely imbibed mint juleps or any other form of intoxicant; he was, indeed, almost a teetotaller. The relevance of the incident lies in the light thereby shed on one of the paradoxes which marked this paradoxical and gusty American. Roosevelt’s pride in his Southern heritage was based on sentiment rather than reason. One could cite many occasions on which he boasted that “half my blood is Southern.” He got himself into trouble, politically speaking, when he wrote in one of his books that the men of the Confederacy were better fighters than the soldiers of the North. When running for Vice President in 1900, Roosevelt said that he was “proud of the courage of the men who wore the gray.”

But he never really understood the South or the hopes, aspirations, virtues, and limitations of Southern men and women. He may have been anxious to do so, but he never did. No President with the faintest comprehension of Southern prejudices would have made the colossal blunder of inviting Dr. Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, a blunder which Roosevelt deeply regretted after he had made it. No President with any real appreciation of Southern apprehensions would have insisted, as Roosevelt did, upon the appointment of a Negro as Collector of the Port at Charleston, S. C.

In April, 1906, soon after the publication of “Lady Baltimore,” Roosevelt dispatched a lengthy letter to the author, Owen Wister, on the faults of Southerners in general and of Charlestonians in particular. He wrote, in part:

. . . the Southerners have developed traits of a very unhealthy kind. They are not as dishonest as, they do not repudiate their debts as frequently, as their predecessors did . . . but they do not send as valuable men into the national councils as the Northerners. They are not on the whole as efficient, and they exaggerate the common American tendency of using bombastic language; which is not made good by performance. Your particular heroes, the Charleston aristocrats, offer as melancholy an example as I know of people whose whole life for generations has been warped by their own wilful perversity . . . They drank and dueled and made speeches, but they contributed very, very little toward anything of which we as Americans are now proud. . . . Reconstruction was a mistake as it was actually carried out, and there is very much to reprobate in what was done by Sumner and Seward and their followers. But the blame attaching to them is as nothing compared to the blame attaching to the Southerners for forty years preceding the war, and for the years immediately succeeding it. . . . As for the days of reconstruction, they brought their punishment on themselves, and are, in my judgment, entitled to not one particle of a sympathy.


Clearly, prejudice and irritation twisted and warped Roosevelt’s reactions to the South and its problems. The psychoanalysts trace such complexes to childhood years and it is logical to enquire, without subscribing slavishly to their dicta, whether the early days of Theodore Roosevelt may be held partly responsible. He was born, it will be recalled, in October of 1858 in New York City. His father was a successful business man whose forbears had settled on Manhattan Island in the seventeenth century. Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, was handsome, vigorous, and strong and his influence on the children was far greater than that of his wife, the gentle Martha Bulloch, to whom he had been married in Roswell, Georgia. This was five years before the birth of his first son, whom the family often called Teedie but never Teddy. Theodore Roosevelt, Junior, was hardly three years old when the Civil War started, but there is no doubt whatever that his sympathies were exclusively with the North. The Georgian blood of his mother flowed feebly in his veins. Nor was this sympathy due, in so far as the family documents show, to any conscious attempt by the father to influence the son. The elder Roosevelt was the most considerate of husbands. There was heartache enough; two of Martha Roosevelt’s brothers were in the Confederate Navy. Mr. Roosevelt could not face the awful possibility of killing or wounding other members of his wife’s family; and so, during the war, he engaged in non-combatant activities.

But this father, recalled the son who was to become President of the United States, “was the best man I ever knew.” The youthful Theodore became markedly more pro-Northern than his kindly parent, a phenomenon which becomes understandable enough in the light of the character which was forming in the boy. He was rarely, throughout his life, to be either dispassionate or objective on any subject. After all, he passed through adolescence in the North. He joined the Republican Party in the fall of 1880 and a year later was a candidate for the legislature of his native state. This was the time when the Bloody Shirt waved furiously in every political campaign. It was the era when Union Army Generals were nominated for high office and, too often, disgraced themselves after their election. No political campaign was complete without thundering assertions that the Grand Old Party had saved the Union; and on the platform, at every rally, were Civil War veterans hoping that larger and more generous pensions would follow in the wake of their support. They always did; the American Legion of today has sound historical precedent for its demands.

Theodore Roosevelt, a bright young man in politics, succumbed to all this hysteria. It was excessively juvenile. In October, 1885, he wrote an article for The North American Review in which he expressed his views on every conceivable subject. President Cleveland, who had taken office the previous March, was offering a “fairly decent and clean administration.” But the nation erred, he went on, in treating ex-Confederate soldiers too considerately. Why, he asked, should the flag be placed at halfmast when one of them died? It would be just as logical, he added gratuitously, to pay tribute to Jefferson Davis, a man “who enjoys the unique distinction of being the only American with whose public character that of Benedict Arnold need not fear comparison.”

This insult did not pass unchallenged. Mr. Davis promptly wrote that it was “libellous and false.” But Roosevelt, although taught better manners by the years, did not amend his views very much. In 1904, while President, he told James Ford Rhodes, the historian, that “right was exclusively with the Union people and the wrong exclusively with the secessionists.” At about the same time, in another private letter, he again linked the names of Davis and Arnold.


So much for the background of Roosevelt’s attitude toward the South. The wheel of fortune turned. Theodore Roosevelt became Assistant Secretary of the Navy and aided Leonard Wood in organizing the Rough Riders. He became the outstanding hero of the curious and unnecessary Spanish War; and the people of New York State, growing faintly weary of Civil War heroes, were elated in their discovery of a new one. They sent Roosevelt to Albany as Governor. He served with ability and courage; and he dreamed, as all Governors of New York dream, that the White House lay not too far ahead. He made, however, two mistakes. By certain indiscretions of utterance he alarmed Mark Hanna, who was then boss of the G. 0. P. in the nation, and he incurred the wrath of Tom Platt, the Republican leader in New York. The result was a conspiracy, which need not detain us here, whereby Roosevelt took office as Vice President in March, 1901. He was greatly disheartened and told himself that his career was at an end. He assured himself that this was so, but he did not really believe it.

At this point, unfortunately, the historical record is vague. One of the defects of research into the past is that the past so often defies exact, scientific analysis. But a few facts may be set down. First, Theodore Roosevelt was actively at work in 1901 to win the Republican nomination for President in 1904. Second, he knew that this could not be attained except with the support of Southern Republicans. Roosevelt, as President, was to enjoy the backing of the machine which, in 1900 as in 1932, existed only for the purpose of growing fat on federal patronage. He had no illusions regarding it, and the unfortunate dinner with Dr. Washington was actually part of a Quixotic and hopeless attempt to effect reforms. The evidence tends to show, although it is not conclusive, that Roosevelt, early in 1901, hoped to create a new G. O. P. organization below the Mason and Dixon line. The practical result of this would be a defeat for Mark Hanna, who controlled the existing Southern Republican delegates.

Uncle Joe Cannon, Speaker of the House and not too friendly to T. R., declared in a posthumously published autobiography that Roosevelt had arranged to visit Tuskegee Institute in the fall of 1901 to confer with Dr. Washington regarding this idealistic dream. This is not confirmed by any of the private letters in the Roosevelt papers at the Library of Congress, The papers do disclose, however, that the Negro educator had been entertained by Roosevelt prior to the White House dinner. On August 26, 1901, the Vice President asked Dr. Washington to “present my regards to Mrs. Washington.” A few days afterwards the head of Tuskegee expressed gratification over “the privilege of meeting Mrs. Roosevelt and the members of your family.” The Roosevelt papers also reveal a plan to have the Vice President visit the home of his mother in Georgia some time during the fall of that year.

Uncle Joe Cannon may have been correct in his assertions. Any possible plans were made unnecessary, for the moment, by the death of President McKinley in September, 1901. One thing is clear. Roosevelt’s highly developed sense of the righteous was offended by the corruption which marked the G. O. P. of the South. He was invariably filled with wrath, too, when he reflected on the fact that Negroes were denied the franchise supposedly assured them by the Civil War and the valor of the Union armies. As early as 1885, in a public address, Roosevelt denounced South Carolina because she did not permit her blacks to vote. Three-quarters of the 1,000,000 people in the state were Negroes, he said. But in the 1884 elections 70,000 of the 90,000 votes cast were Democratic.

“Do you ask what we can do to remedy this evil?” he asked. “We can at least bring the great forces of an enlightened and aroused public opinion to bear against it.”

As Roosevelt was ultimately to find out, it was not as simple as that. When he reached the White House he was less anxious to enfranchise the blacks. He was more concerned with the low status of the G. O. P., and even this concern was soon to fade. “In the South Atlantic and Gulf states,” he told his friend, Cabot Lodge, in October, 1901, “there has really been no Republican Party . . . simply a set of black and white scalawags . . . who have wrangled fiercely among themselves . . . who are concerned purely in getting the Federal offices and sending to the national conventions delegates whose venality makes them a menace to the whole party.”

Roosevelt continued to tilt at windmills. He made it known that he would appoint Democrats to office in the South in the event that competent Republicans could not be found. But he made the incredible mistake of inviting Dr. Washington to make suggestions. I am quite certain that Roosevelt, granting his good intentions, delayed rather than hastened that far-off millennium which will mark the advent of respectability in Southern Republican politics. He confused the issue because he did not understand it. Moreover, he allowed expediency to swing him from his course. On October 7, 1901, he announced the appointment of Thomas Goode Jones, a Democrat, to the Federal Bench in Alabama. This, quite naturally, was applauded. The South was not aware that Dr. Washington had recommended the selection.

The applause changed to shrill outbursts of wrath when it became known that Dr. Washington had been dined at the White House. In the uproar a number of facts were obscured. It has been offered in extenuation that the Negro leader was not actually invited, that he had chanced to be at the White House, and that the meal was a luncheon and not dinner. It seems to me that this is a fine point in the involved complications of Presidential etiquette. It was not, as a matter of accuracy, the case. President Roosevelt invited Dr. Washington for dinner on the night of October 16, 1901; the invitation was, obviously, accepted. The Negro left for New York on the same night and but for an obscure item in the New York Journal on October 17 the whole matter might have been ignored. The Journal mentioned that Dr. Washington had been entertained and soon Southern editors were dipping their pens in gall. The New Orleans Times-Democrat demanded: “White men of the South, how do you like it?” The Scimitar of Memphis screamed that it was “the most damnable outrage” in the annals of recorded history. Marse Henry Watterson, more reasonable, said that Roosevelt had done “a grievous wrong to the black people of the South and all their real friends.”

The President appears to have been astonished. Inspired dispatches from the White House said that he would not be deflected from his position. In private letters Roosevelt blustered that “they can’t bluff me,” that he was filled with “melancholy and disappointment” over the “narrow stolidity and the imperiousness” of Southerners. He was, however, really chagrined by his mistake and he told the historian, Rhodes, that he would not repeat it. At about this time he invited Finley Peter Dunne, the humorist, to dine at the White House and added a postscript to the letter.

”. . . you need not black your face,” the President wrote.


Roosevelt’s confusion increased as he began to give consideration to the probability of being nominated for a full term in 1904. The complexities of politics in the South are infinite. The President who hopes to effect reforms, and is a member of the Republican Party, is in a sad predicament. Sometimes, as in the case of Roosevelt, he seeks a nomination at the same time. At the least, he must preserve the solidarity of his party. Southern Republicans, although they play an obscure role in the general election, constitute an essential cog in the machine whereby candidates are chosen at a national convention. The Republican President who pleases the intelligent Southerner by advocating reform is certain to alienate the machine politicians of the South. He is sneered at as a “lily white” when he opposes the domination of Negroes in the Southern G. O. P.

Roosevelt worried a great deal, unnecessarily in my judgment, over the possibility that Senator Hanna might not support him in 1904. His apprehension was based on two points, the first that Hanna, in 1901, had declined to commit himself regarding 1904. The second was Hanna’s command of the Southern delegates. Should this bloc be aligned against him, Roosevelt realized, his nomination would be in doubt. He started, late in 1902, a drive to heighten his standing among them. Emissaries journeyed through the South to assure these office-holders that the President was no “lily white.” Negro leaders were herded to the White House and given further pledges.

The necessities of politics, as 1902 drew to a close, caused Roosevelt to forget his earlier yearnings for a cleansed and purified Southern wing of the party. He cast his lot with the black Republicans. In November, 1902, came the appointment of Dr. W. D. Crum as Collector of the Port at Charleston. Roosevelt should have known better. He had been entertained in Charleston a few months before. He was familiar with the sensitive pride of Charlestonians. He knew that nowhere in the South were the recollections of the war and the carpetbag tortures of Reconstruction more bitter. But the man whose mother had been a Georgian and who boasted so often of his Southern blood really knew very little about the psychology of Southerners.

The storm of protest over Dr. Crum was almost as violent as that which came after the Washington dinner. Roosevelt made it worse by openly defending his action, by declaring that he would do everything in his power to force confirmation of Dr. Crum by a reluctant Senate.

“I cannot consent,” he said, “to take the position that the door of hope, the door of opportunity, is to be shut upon any man no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race and color.”

This was foggy thinking, was very close to sheer nonsense. “The trouble with the President,” wrote the editor of the Charleston News and Courier, “is that he is discussing a theory, not a condition. . . . Of course the President cannot see the Negro as he is and as he presses upon the life of the people of the South every day. He does not know the race question. . . . He is not vicious; he is simply ignorant.”

It is beside the point that Dr. Crum was an able official and that he exhibited tact and discretion in carrying on the work of his office. I am told that he scrupulously avoided giving offense to the business men of Charleston, that when one of them had to be summoned for a conference a white deputy collector was delegated to send out the order. It was not until January of 1905 that Dr. Crum was finally confirmed in the Senate. He served, meanwhile, as an interim appointment. And for more than two years the debates and the bitterness further retarded the reform of Southern politics. Even the New York Times, surely an unprejudiced journal in so far as the South was concerned, had only criticism for Roosevelt’s policy. It said that the Crum appointment might be viewed in a different light if it were known that the President “had no delegates to win in the South and no desire to win any, if he were making sacrifices for principle instead of being in the way of profiting by the application of the principle”:

So far as conferring lasting benefits upon the Negroes of the South we believe—reluctantly and with some sense of humiliation—that the less they have to do with politics the better it will be for them, and that it is no kindness to them to invite them or incite them to seek political appointments. . . . The Negroes of the South have been used by the [Republican] Party as hounds in the hunting of delegates and until that unprincipled chase is given up it is sheer impudence to talk about fidelity to principles. Unhappily, Mr. Roosevelt is not prepared to give it up, and that is where his asseverations of high moral principles do not command the respect his fellow citizens would like to pay to them.

Theodore Roosevelt, as so many have testified, had unusual powers of self-hypnosis. He convinced himself without difficulty that he was upholding a great moral cause, that he was the protector and benefactor of the Negro. When even the loyal Owen Wister screwed his courage to the sticking point and dared to differ with him on the Crum appointment, Roosevelt was deeply shocked. He argued it at great length. He was sure he had been right. But finally he capitulated.

“Well,” he said, “if I had it to do over again I don’t think I’d do it.”

The years passed. A day came when Roosevelt was forced, very reluctantly, to yield the sceptre of office. He selected William Howard Taft as his successor and he used the votes of Southern officer-holders, the men he had once called “simply a set of black and white scalawags,” to insure Taft’s nomination at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in June, 1908. An ancient proposal was advanced at this gathering. It was suggested that the representation of the South was wholly disproportionate and should be reduced. If the ghost of Mark Hanna roamed through the corridors of the convention hall that night its face must have worn a somewhat cynical smile. The same old speeches were made; the rafters rang with the same old denunciations of Black Republicans who existed only for the sake of federal patronage.

The resolution was, of course, defeated and the representation of the Southern states remained unchanged. It was said, at the time, that orders came from the White House specifying that this was to be so. Four more years passed. It was 1912 and the beautiful friendship between Taft and Roosevelt had been shattered. Roosevelt was standing at Armageddon or, to put it more precisely, was gathering all the delegates he could find for the Republican nomination. There is, I think, no doubt that he was the choice of the rank and file of his party members. But Taft controlled the machine; Roosevelt could not capture the scalawags this time. They belonged to Taft. Such was one of the minor ironies of history. Roosevelt was rejected and prepared to bolt his party. The Southern delegates, he declared as he did so, were scoundrels and thieves. A Republican Party with the slightest pretension to honesty would promptly eject them from membership.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading