Friday, August 1, 2008

The Winning of the West

Theodore Roosevelt. The Winning of the West. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904
[1889] 4 vols.

[v. 1. From the Alleghanies to the Mississippi, 1769-1776 -- v. 2. From the Alleghanies to the Mississippi, 1777-1783 -- v. 3. The founding of the Trans-Alleghany Commonwealths, 1784-1790 -- v. 4. Louisiana and the Northwest, 1791-1807.]

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Aside from the renown that the twenty-sixth president receives for expropriating the Progressive agenda and his charmingly contrived cowboy persona he also had a career as an historian. The Winning of the West is the story of American expansion beyond the Allegheny mountains. The intrepid frontiersman armed with little more than his rifle and axe, heroically weathering ubiquitous Indian attacks of untold ferocity, settled the “sparsely peopled temperate zone” that is today the central part of the United States. Teddy Roosevelt is then to U.S. historiography what Leon Uris is to the history of Zionism. As Ronald Reagan opined after the invasion of Grenada, “it was lucky we got there when we did.”

Spreading out over the North American continent in Roosevelt's view was only right and natural for the English speaking peoples as it was inevitable anyway. Notions of progress, the march of civilization, and Anglo-Saxon supremacy were self-evident to the right thinking Americans of T.R.'s day (and beyond). To have avoided this clash would have meant caving into “sentimental humanitarians” who though they meant well were nevertheless “the large class of amiable but maudlin fanatics.” Consistent with the Rooseveltian zeitgeist sentimentalism was to deny the settler and pioneer the basic justice of their cause and sentencing the better part of the North American continent to being “kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages.” It was bleeding-heart humanitarianism to grant the barbarians title to the land for which they held no valid deed. Clearly natural right was on the side of the frontier Irish Calvinists- those backwoods “Roundheads” - who understood that “the man who puts the soil to use must of right dispossess the man who does not, or the world will come to a stand still.”

Speaking of barbarians and savages.... If one were a member of an Indian tribe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries here in America social mobility was limited to a promotion from mere barbarian to the more exalted rank of savage. For Roosevelt it was largely a distinction without a difference. To aspire to the social station of savagery meant little more than growing crops and not torturing your captives in a way that offended Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. Either way your days were numbered and the inexorable march of progress demanded that you wither away.

Professor Chomsky has aptly described Theodore Roosevelt as a “lunatic racist.” Not that there is any honor amongst racists – lunatic or otherwise – but contrasted to the misplaced paternalism of a Lord Lugard there is something pathologically grimy about Roosevelt's brand of racism. Lugard as a representative of the British Empire in Northern Africa divided humanity into “advanced” and “backward” races. It was the duty of advanced races to provide the “three C's” of Christianity, civilization, and commerce so that one day they might be self-sufficient and provide the world market with goods and raw materials (see Lord Lugard, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa). Not so with T.R. There was not any place in Roosevelt's world for the “backward” races. The future for the American Indian resembled the prospects facing the Picts in England centuries ago.

An excellent companion piece to The Winning of the West is Gore Vidal's Empire. Vidal portrays T.R. as a shallow manic who revels in the banality of phrases such as “dee lighted.” Perhaps there is some justice to Roosevelt's visage on the side of that crime against nature, taste, and historical accuracy that we call Mount Rushmore.

Burling 2nd floor F351 .R79

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