Theodore Roosevelt on Race

In Theodore Roosevelt we see the racial views of a 20th century president. We have seen the views of Jefferson, a man of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and of Lincoln, a man of the middle 19th. How will a man of the 20th century differ?

While T.R. was in many ways a great friend to the negro, he was no racial egalitarian. That races might differ in intelligence was an idea so evident to him as not to occasion much remark – he was more concerned with bravery and organization anyway. In his critical review of Benjamin Kidd’s book Social Evolution, Roosevelt notes that

A perfectly stupid race can never rise to a very high plane; the negro, for instance, has been kept down as much by lack of intellectual development as by anything else; but the prime factor in the preservation of a race is its power to attain a high degree of social efficiency. Love of order, ability to fight well and breed well, capacity to subordinate the interests of the individual to the interests of the community, these and similar rather humdrum qualities go to make up the sum of social efficiency. The race that has them is sure to overturn the race whose members have brilliant intellects, but who are cold and selfish and timid, who do not breed well or fight well, and who are not capable of disinterested love of the community. In other words, character is far more important than intellect to the race as to the individual. We need intellect, and there is no reason why we should not have it together with character; but if we must choose between the two we choose character without a moment’s hesitation.

But T.R. was greatly concerned with Negro affairs. In his 1905 Lincoln Dinner Address he expressed great concern for the American negro, in particular his condition in the south, basing himself on the principle of color blind citizenship:

One of the gravest problems before our people, the problem of so dealing with the man of one color as to secure him the rights that no man would grudge him if he were of another color. To solve this problem it is, of course, necessary to educate him to perform the duties a failure to perform which will render him a curse to himself and to all around him. Mind that. And it is true of every one. In addition to rights in every Republic there are correlative duties. And if the man, black or white, is not trained to do his duty he becomes necessarily a festering plague spot in the whole body politic.

He holds to the

principle of giving to each man what is justly due him, of treating him on his worth as a man, granting him no special favors, but denying him no proper opportunity for labor and the reward of labor.

and adds that

Our effort should be to secure to each man, whatever his color, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment before the law.

T.R. hoped to educate and improve the black man, but he never doubted that the white man is superior to the black man, and that whatever improvement education might offer would not reverse this distinction of rank:

Every generous impulse in us revolts at the thought of thrusting down instead of helping up such a man. To deny any man the fair treatment granted to others no better than he is to commit a wrong upon him — a wrong sure to react in the long run upon those guilty of such denial. The only safe principle upon which Americans can act is that of “all men up,” not that of “some men down.” If in any community the level of intelligence, morality and thrift among the colored men can be raised, it is, humanly speaking, sure that the same level among the whites will be raised to an even higher degree, and it is no less sure that the debasement of the blacks will in the end carry with it an attendant debasement of the whites.

The problem is so to adjust the relations between two races of different ethnic type that the rights of neither be abridged nor jeoparded; that the backward race be trained so that it may enter into the possession of true freedom — not false freedom — true freedom, while the forward race is enabled to preserve unharmed the high civilization wrought out by its forefathers. The working out of this problem must necessarily be slow; it is not possible in off-hand fashion to obtain or to confer the priceless boons of freedom, industrial efficiency, political capacity and domestic morality.

Still less would T.R. countenance any notion that the Negro’s problems were simply caused by the behavior of whites. He deplored many aspects of the Negro’s treatment, but emphasized that the principle causes of social problems among the Negroes lay in their own behavior:

it is true of the colored man, as it is true of the white man, that in the long run his fate must depend far more upon his own effort than upon the efforts of any outside friend. That applies to every man. There is not one of us that does not occasionally stumble, and shame to each of us if he does not stretch out a hand to help the brother who thus stumbles. Help him if he stumbles, but remember that if he lies down, there is no use in trying to carry him. It will hurt both of you. Every vicious, venal or ignorant colored man is an even greater foe to his own race than to the community as a whole. The colored man’s self-respect entitles him to do that share in the political work of the country which is warranted by his individual ability and integrity and the position he has won for himself. But the prime requisite of the race is moral and industrial uplifting.

Laziness and shiftlessness, these, and, above all, vice and criminality of every kind, are evils more potent for harm to the black race than all acts of oppression of white men put together. The colored man who fails to condemn crime in another colored man, who fails to cooperate in all lawful ways in bringing colored criminals to justice, is the worst enemy of his own people, as well as an enemy to all the people. Law-abiding black men should, for the sake of their race, be foremost in relentless and unceasing warfare against lawbreaking black men. If the standards of private morality and industrial efficiency can be raised high enough among the black race, then its future on this continent is secure. The stability and purity of the home are vital to the welfare of the black race as they are to the welfare of every race.

The Lincoln Dinner Address also contains an interesting remark concerning interracial fraternization. In an approving discussion of the work of a southern bishop who opposes “social intermingling of the races,” he notes that this is

a question which must, of course, be left to the people of each community to settle for themselves, as in such a matter no one community, and indeed no one individual, can dictate to any other; always provided that in each locality men keep in mind the fact that there must be no confusing of civil privileges with social intercourse. Civil law cannot regulate social practices. Society, as such, is a law unto itself, and will always regulate its own practices and habits. Full recognition of the fundamental fact that all men should stand on an equal footing as regards civil privileges in no way interferes with recognition of the further fact that all reflecting men of both races are united in feeling that race purity must be maintained.

The idea that society is a sphere separate from government and that it has an independent dignity which ought to be respected is today positively quaint. The belief in the desirability of social engineering is universal among the modern elite. Consider this a gesture towards an analysis of this historical shift in the relationship between society and government and its deleterious consequences. The ambitious reader should carry out such an analysis himself.


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A Hero of Our Time
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