The New Star Chamber and Other Essays Theodore Roosevelt
by Edgar Lee Masters
The rise of Mr. Roosevelt to the presidency of the United States brought into the arena of world interests a third figure similar in temperament and imagination to two others who had before his time occupied conspicuous places in current history. In poetry, in philosophy and in statesmanship movements are distinguished by schools of men who are animated by the same inspiration. Germany furnishes the illustration of Goethe and Schiller; France that of Voltaire and Rousseau; England that of Fox, Pitt and Burke, and later, in poetry, that of Shelley, Byron and Coleridge. In America, Emerson, Alcott, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller developed the transcendental philosophy; while in statesmanship we associate upon general principles the names of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe; or those of Webster and Clay.
The tide of imperialism did not reach America until the war with Spain was concluded. Its waters had lapped the foundations of other governments long before; and even in America discerning intellects saw the drift of the current as early as the war between the states. That war elevated a school of political thinkers who placed government above men and who were bewitched with those policies of special privilege which centralized the government and prepared it for the final step. Mr. McKinley nevertheless may be said to have ended the line of the familiar school of American presidents. His physical appearance was of that character for which the people are accustomed to look in the selection of their presidents. His manner and his speech were modeled after the presidential type. And yet he bore some resemblance to Augustus Caesar. Like the latter, Mr. McKinley was a dissembler; he was plausible; he was crafty. He kept the people convinced that no change was being made in their government even in the face of apparent facts. But with the rise of Mr. Roosevelt the transformation was no longer concealed which had been obscured by the platitudes and the pious fallacies of his predecessor. Mr. Roosevelt obtrudes his imperial plans and preferences instead of hiding them. His demagoguery consists in appeals to the brutal tendencies in man, through slouch hat and clanking spur and through crude familiarities with soldiers and policemen. Yet in this apparel he is as far from the presidential figure as possible. The cropped-hair, the nose-glasses with the flying thread attached, the facial mannerisms and eccentricities place him apart from the dignified and courtly school of Buchanan, Garfield, Cleveland, Harrison or McKinley. If Mr. Roosevelt's successor shall wear a monocle and lead a pug dog, we ought not to marvel.
When Mr. Roosevelt became president both what he was himself and what the times were, made it entirely appropriate that he should take his place beside Mr. Kipling and Emperor William. These three men are the product of the same mood of nature. They are moved by the same ideals, if those convictions can be called such which lead men into the ways of vulgarity and violence. Mr. Kipling was reared in the most extensive, as well as the most despotic dependency of Great Britain. He had drunk to the full at the fountain of blood and gold. The history of Great Britain's dominion over India is one of chicane and murder, hypocrisy and plunder. Mr. Kipling's mind became filled with the images of military bluster and the principles of military honor. Scenes that would have convulsed the soul of Milton or Byron afforded him the material for casuistical doggerel. And by the strength of his imagination and because of a peculiar genius for popular appeal he filled the world with the echoes of the music hall, the barracks and the brothel. His songs brought poetry down to the level of the prize ring, the cock-pit and the racing stable. He became the de facto laureate of England. So that butchery, oppression, and what hypocrites call destiny, acquired a glamour that thrilled the hearts of those who would have been horrified at these things in their visible forms. At last, at an opportune time, he sealed his hold upon the religious world by an anthropomorphic poem entitled "Recessional," in which the Deity is made to do duty as a military overseer for the armies of Great Britain, wherever they are engaged in planting the banner of empire. In brief, Mr. Kipling is the laureate of strenuosity, and has done as much to corrupt the tastes and the manners of the world as any man who has lived in an hundred years. Emperor William approaches Mr. Roosevelt on many more sides than does Mr. Kipling. Emperor William is also strenuous; but he pretends to be what Mr. Roosevelt desires to have believed of himself, namely, that he is many-minded and triumphant in several fields of endeavor. The emperor aspires to be a writer, an orator, an artist, a poet, an architect, a savant, a hunter, a military genius; and he is some of these things to a degree as well as an emperor. All of these things may be said of Mr. Roosevelt, besides some others along the same line. For Mr. Roosevelt can wrestle, box, fence, ride and shoot as well as write histories and biographies; make speeches and win battles. He is a mixture of Caesar and Commodus; and the vaunted resolution with which he took up the Philippine problem in 1901, and the stringency with which it was carried out, shows that he is not averse to the effusion of blood when it is drawn in a patriotic cause. Neither was Tiberius, whose causes were always patriotic or justifiable. These three spirits, then, may be said either together or successively to have controlled the surface of the world's movement for a time; for now their power seems to be on the wane. But Mr. Roosevelt is different from his compeers in the point that he had a period of idealism in the early part of his career which neither Emperor William nor Mr. Kipling, so far as known, ever had.
But first as to his strenuosity it seems to be a reaction from physical feebleness. He has accentuated the attributes of courage, endurance and physical power for the reason that they were not natural to him, but have been acquired. The man who is born strong is not more self-conscious of his strength than the man who is born with sound limbs and faculties is self-conscious of these. But the man who is born weak and who has acquired strength is proud of his achievement and is self-conscious of it. Sedulous self-development has caused Mr. Roosevelt to emphasize the physical life. Nothing with him counts for so much as power of endurance, the audacity to encounter danger, physical contest, the animal in man and their capacity to greatly propagate themselves. Ordinarily these feelings pass away with the period of adolescence, when the first rush of blood has subsided from the head. But Mr. Roosevelt has carried them over into his mature years and exploits them as peculiar wonders characteristic of himself. This is the meaning of the strenuous life. Amidst such tumultuous passions the writing of books is a pastime. The warfare against civic wrong and for civic righteousness must be waged with grim determination, with set teeth and scowling countenance. But at all events the courage and the strenuosity with which the attack is made must be emphasized more than the merit of the onslaught or the righteousness of the cause. Mr. Roosevelt's advice to speak softly but carry a big stick, his admonitions to avoid ignoble ease, to stand for civic righteousness, to back our words with deeds and to couple Christian principles with resolute courage sound hollow and puerile. There is too much of cruelty and tyranny in his self-vaunted courage. His pompous poses, his spectacular manner, and his exhibitions of power on all occasions suggest the strong little boy of the school yard, who, by a fair measure of strength and a large measure of fortune, is able greatly to his own delight to cow the feelings of his associates.
But if a man possess courage how shall he use it? If he possess great energy of mind in what channels shall he direct it? What are courage and ability of themselves? Of what consequence is the strenuous life for its own sake? The world has seen its share of men who had courage on the wrong side and who were strenuous in behalf of the strong and wicked. Mr. Roosevelt's civic righteousness consists in straining at gnats. He is very much concerned about the vices of people and about crimes as well, if they happen to be committed by those with whom he is socially out of sympathy. But with the rarest opportunities for giving his country a new birth of righteousness and liberty, that has ever come to any man, he has done nothing. He has not justified the people of America in conferring their highest honor upon him. But as Aeschines said, when he debated the question whether Demosthenes should be crowned, he has left his country to be judged by its youth because of the man who has received its greatest honor. "When a man votes against what is noble and just," said Aeschines, "and then comes home to teach his son, the boy will very properly say, 'Your lesson is impertinent and a bore.'" Hence, what is courage without a cause; what is strenuosity without an ideal?
The temptation considered symbolically alone is the most searching analysis of every man's experience in the realm of literature. The Son of Man was an hungered and the tempter said "If thou be the son of God command that these stones be made bread." Again, the Son of Man was tempted to use his power for a vain and foolish purpose, and by such use to place himself upon the level of mountebanks and magicians. Finally, empire over the world was offered him, if he would worship the principle of evil. In the resistance of these temptations is symbolized honorable poverty, dignified purpose and renunciation of political power rather than to sacrifice those principles without which political power is a curse.
One of Mr. Roosevelt's apologists has said that he compromised with his ideals in order to get power to carry some of them into effect. But this never has and never can be done. The man who thus sophisticates with his own mind has surrendered his power. He has fallen at the feet of evil in order to possess a kingdom; and he leaves behind him when he enters into possession, the only power by which he could serve the kingdom or glorify himself. If Mr. Roosevelt's pretensions to ideals in his earlier years may be considered seriously it only remains to say that in various books he stood against the flagrant evil of a protective tariff; that he denounced imperialism, that is, the acquisition of distant and heterogeneous territory by force; and that he never lost an opportunity to inveigh against the spoils system in the government service. When he capitulated upon these principles to get office, he had nothing left with which to seriously employ his courage or his strenuosity. It was a long step from the advocacy of expansion by the addition of sovereign and contiguous states to the advocacy of subjugating a whole nation at the farther side of the globe. Yet when Mr. Roosevelt parted with his principles he did not abandon his intemperate hatreds. "Cowardly shrinking from duty," as applied to the policy expressed in the democratic platform of 1900 contains a good deal of sound and fury, but it signified nothing unless it drowned out the small voice in himself that appealed to his own utterances in favor of liberty in his biography of Thomas H. Benton. Hence did he compromise with his principles in order to get into power to do good? When his country hesitated before taking the plunge into national animalism he was present to denounce those as cowards who tried to restrain it. He became the loudest exponent of swaggering militarism. He has given repeated expression to that vulgarity which arrayed in garish colors sets up to despise the day of high thinking and noble simplicity. The strenuous life consists in hearty feeding, mighty hunting, desperate climbing, and daily exercise upon the mat or with the gloves. Yet he is the cynosure of vast numbers of the wealth and fashion of the country, who find in him a proud and distinguished interpreter of the cult of exuberant animalism. The slaughter of the ostrich, the rhinoceros and the elephant in the Roman amphitheater with the bow and arrow held by the skillful hand of the imperial hunter is out-done by the pursuit of bears and mountain lions with modern weapons before an audience of millions. The daily press with its pictorial facilities has increased the spectators and multiplied the marvels. Scattered through the various strata of society Mr. Roosevelt has found sincere admirers. A military spirit, which slumbers in the breast of the man below who loves to fight and the man above who loves to see a fight, has leaped forward to claim Mr. Roosevelt as something typically American. Thus he is not without friends in any of the classes drawn according to the common standards. His election to the vice-presidency elated an exponent of the culture of the land, so that even beneath the shades of classicism he is not wholly proscribed. Churchmen, who, with a vague unrest, are ever reaching out for new realms of activity, and keener realizations of power, take him as the possible precursor of some destiny toward which they have hitherto drifted unconsciously. With his friends it is useless to point out that he has discarded the institutions of his country and broken its ideals. For principles of peace and good will toward all nations he has substituted military rivalry. He has transported hither the spirit of doubt which obtains among European nations whose proximity to each other and whose traditional jealousies have kept up a wearisome watchfulness.
Many things, which by reason of what Washington called our peculiar situation, are alien to us he has helped to cultivate among us. One hundred years have not sufficed to make these growths of old world conditions indigenous to this soil. We are yet what we were in Washington's day, a nation set apart from the quarrels of kings; and it is strange indeed if some dream of destiny which would have discredited Louis Napoleon, shall carry us far away from that simple code which is logically evolved from our natural situation.
Mr. Roosevelt well illustrates the principle that the decay of liberty corrupts one of the noblest arts. What can account for his speeches in which the American people are advised to carry a big stick, in which policemen are praised for their swift running, and in which mighty valor, mighty deeds, great daring and such subjects are the changes which are rung? Sober people listen in amazement to these singular strains, well understanding that they cannot help but vitiate popular sentiment at home and produce anxiety and hatred abroad. A man who carries a stick or a pistol will more likely be attacked than the man who does not go armed. For the arming of one's self is the result of a feeling of hate and the very fact that he is armed makes him dangerous to those who are not. The impulse of self-preservation prompts the removal of the danger. These things are as true of nations as of men. To keep the country upon the edge of war because of some fancied contingency, and to depart into a path of danger for the sole purpose of greatly daring and bravely facing whatever peril may come, involve the overthrow of all this country has hitherto stood for, and that through a spirit of boyish bravado. Nothing more absurd has ever occurred in the history of any nation. To speak of mere form, there is a marked rhetorical difference between Mr. McKinley's apostrophic question "who will haul down the flag" and Mr. Roosevelt's crude declaration that "the flag will stay put." As an orator Mr. Roosevelt has nothing to say and says it as poorly as possible.
Court etiquette at the White House is only a reflex of more fundamental changes. The transformation of that historic building into a palace; the ruthless removal and storage of cherished pictures and furniture; the galloping of cavalry through the streets of the capital attending upon officials or embassies; the designation of Mr. Roosevelt as "the presence" which is now done in the reports of the social functions of the White House; a rigid system of caste; a policy of militarism, inquisition and espionage in the executive department of the government are also significant things which cannot be overlooked.
It goes without saying that Mr. Roosevelt has never shown any regard for constitutional liberty; and that he seems to have little understanding of the real forces of civilization. Those who will attend to the lesson may learn that nothing can ever come of observing the little virtues while the weightier matters of the law are neglected. The lack of great principles and those firmly adhered to can never be compensated by intentions, however good or by private virtues however admirable. Sanguine spirits comfort themselves with the thought that if Mr. Roosevelt is given power on his own account that he will not carry out another's policy but will consider himself free to pursue one of his own. If he was looking for an immortality as glorious as any known to history he could achieve it by giving this country a new birth of freedom. The republic is groaning under the weight of sin. Its conscience is tormented with a sense of awful guilt, with a knowledge of duty forsaken and ideals discarded and shattered. Millions of men who love the republic and who took no part in its iniquities look forward with passionate hearts to a return of liberty. If Mr. Roosevelt should be able to withdraw our control from the Philippines and assist these people in establishing a republic he would justly stand for all times as the most colossal figure of the twentieth century. Here is a field for his courage and his strenuosity. Here is an opportunity which a truly wise man would not pass over. But it is not likely that he will fulfill any such expectations. He abandoned his ideals to get office. He will reassure the master forces of his party in order to be elected president. He will go into office with the chains which are the price of moral surrender. He is too vain, too infatuated with the sophistry of privilege and glory to do differently in the future from what he has done in the past. He has robed the office of president, and the government itself, so far as under his control, in the splendor and pomp of monarchy. This is apparel which speaks the man. As he called Jefferson a "shifty doctrinaire," and Polk a man of "monumental littleness" he cannot complain if history shall write him down as one whose inordinate egotism and prostituted principles endangered for a time the hopes of mankind.