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Excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt; An Intimate Biography
Since the close of the Civil War the Negro Question had brooded over the South. The war emancipated the Southern negroes and then politics came to embitter the question. Partly to gain a political advantage, partly as some visionaries believed, to do justice, and partly to punish the Southerners, the Northern Republicans gave the Southern negroes equal political rights with the whites. They even handed over the government of some of the States to wholly incompetent blacks. In self-defense the whites terrorized the blacks through such secret organizations as the Ku-Klux Klan, and recovered their ascendancy in governing. Later, by such specious devices as the Grandfathers' Law, they prevented most of the blacks from voting, and relieved themselves of the trouble of maintaining a system of intimidation. The real difficulty being social and racial, to mix politics with it was to envenom it.

Roosevelt took a man for what he was without regard to race, creed, or color. He held that a negro of good manners and education ought to be treated as a white man would be treated. He felt keenly the sting of ostracism and he believed that if the Southern whites would think as he did on this matter; they might the quicker solve the Negro Question and establish human if not friendly relations with the blacks.

The negro race at that time had a fine spokesman in Booker T. Washington, a man who had been born a slave, was educated at the Hampton Institute, served as teacher there, and then founded the Tuskegee Institute for teaching negroes. He wisely saw that the first thing to be done was to teach them trades and farming, by which they could earn a living and make themselves useful if not indispensable to the communities in which they settled. He did not propose to start off to lift his race by letting them imagine that they could blossom into black Shakespeares and dusky Raphaels in a single generation. He himself was a man of tact, prudence, and sagacity with trained intelligence and a natural gift of speaking.

To him President Roosevelt turned for some suggestions as to appointing colored persons to offices in the South. It happened that on the day appointed for a meeting Washington reached the White House shortly before luncheon time, and that, as they had not finished their conference, Roosevelt asked him to stay to luncheon. Washington hesitated politely. Roosevelt insisted. They lunched, finished their business, and Washington went away. When this perfectly insignificant fact was published in the papers the next morning, the South burst into a storm of indignation and abuse. Some of the Southern journals saw, in what was a mere routine incident, a terrible portent, foreboding that Roosevelt planned to put the negroes back to control the Southern whites. Others alleged the milder motive that he was fishing for negro votes. The common type of fire-eaters saw in it one of Roosevelt's unpleasant ways of having fun by insulting the South. And Southern cartoonists took an ignoble, feeble retaliation by caricaturing even Mrs. Roosevelt.

The President did not reply publicly. As his invitation to Booker Washington was wholly unpremeditated, he was surprised by the rage which it caused among Southerners. But he was clear-sighted enough to understand that, without intending it, he had made a mistake, and this he never repeated. Nothing is more elusive than racial antipathy, and we need not wonder that a man like Roosevelt who, although he was most solicitous not to hurt persons' feelings and usually acted, unless he had proof to the contrary, on the assumption that everybody was blessed with a modicum of good-will and common sense, should not always be able to foresee the strange inconsistencies into which the antipathy of the white Southerners for the blacks might lead. A little while later there was a religious gathering in Washington of Protestant-Episcopal ministers. They had a reception at the White House. Their own managers made out a list of ministers to be invited, and among the guests were a negro archdeacon and his wife, and the negro rector of a Maryland parish. Although these persons attended the reception, the Southern whites burst into no frenzy of indignation against the President. Who could steer safely amid such shoals? * The truth is that no President since Lincoln had a kindlier feeling towards the South than Roosevelt had. He often referred proudly to the fact that his mother came from Georgia, and that his two Bulloch uncles fought in the Confederate Navy. He wished to bring back complete friendship between the sections. But he understood the difficulties, as his explanation to Mr. James Ford Rhodes, the historian, in 1905, amply proved. He agreed fully as to the folly of the Congressional scheme of reconstruction based on universal negro suffrage, but he begged Mr. Rhodes not to forget that the initial folly lay with the Southerners themselves. The latter said, quite properly, that he did not wonder that much bitterness still remained in the breasts of the Southern people about the carpet-bag negro regime. So it was not to be wondered at that in the late sixties much bitterness should have remained in the hearts of the Northerners over the remembrance of the senseless folly and wickedness of the Southerners in the early sixties. Roosevelt felt that those persons who most heartily agreed that as it was the presence of the negro which made the problem, and that slavery was merely the worst possible method of solving it, we must therefore hold up to reprobation, as guilty of doing one of the worst deeds which history records, those men who tried to break up this Union because they were not allowed to bring slavery and the negro into our new territory. Every step which followed, from freeing the slave to enfranchising him, was due only to the North being slowly and reluctantly forced to act by the South's persistence in its folly and wickedness.

[ Leupp, 231.]

The President could not say these things in public because they tended, when coming from a man in public place, to embitter people. But Rhodes was writing what Roosevelt hoped would prove the great permanent history of the period, and he said that it would be a misfortune for the country, and especially a misfortune for the South, if they were allowed to confuse right and wrong in perspective. He added that his difficulties with the Southern people had come not from the North, but from the South. He had never done anything that was not for their interest. At present, he added, they were, as a whole, speaking well of him. When they would begin again to speak ill, he did not know, but in either case his duty was equally clear. *

[ February 20, 1905.]

Contributed by Thayer, William Roscoe


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