• Peter Templeton

Teddy Roosevelt's Reading Material and the South

I can remember once reading an article that argued President Teddy Roosevelt had an intriguing relationship with the South – that though he claimed Southern heritage and had a strange admiration for the Confederate army, that he never really understood the people of the South. Though this article was written in 1933 (by Henry Pringle and published in Virginia Quarterly Review) and that might distance might change our reading of events, it suggested that Dr Booker T. Washington’s invite to dinner at the White House, as well as other instances of his handling of racial issues, suggest that he was really out of step with white racial anxieties in the South at this period. And indeed, Roosevelt represented the Republican Party whose election had been an excuse for secession, and he didn’t carry a single former-Confederate state in the 1904 Presidential election.

This does not tell the full story, as his admiration for the Confederate army might in part attest. Roosevelt was perfectly willing to go along with Southern racial prejudices, as can be seen in his decision to seat all-white delegations from the South during the Progressive Party’s 1912 convention.

I wonder, though, if there is evidence of more engagement with a Southern perspective than simple political pragmatism, and one potential route into this question could be through his reading material. Before he died, there was correspondence between the writer Joel Chandler Harris and President Roosevelt, and there seems to have been a mutual admiration between the two. In many ways, the lifelong Democrat Harris stating his admiration for Roosevelt is potentially more intriguing and makes one wonder about how far Roosevelt’s force of personality might have won over people would otherwise have been enemies.

Nevertheless, the fact that this went both ways and that Roosevelt had particular praise for Harris’s Uncle Remus stories gives us a window into what might be a more affective connection between Roosevelt and the South. Harris is far less widely read now than he was until the middle of the 20th century, in large part because of the racial content of these stories – a memorable quote comes from Mark Schone, who describes Harris as a ‘dead white Confederate spouting Ebonics’. The problematic material should be clear to a contemporary sensibility.

Roosevelt, however, singled out Harris for public praise on his trips to the South, sought him out and invited him to dinner at the White House. He praised him for a spirit of reconciliation – and therefore of nationalism – unrivalled in other writers. But to accept this, one must implicitly endorse so much of the New South ideology implicit in Harris’s work, including the romanticism of the region and its disenfranchisement of African Americans.

This is not to over-stress the point – there are clear examples where Roosevelt breaks with Southern orthodoxy on race and we can find many Southern writers who stress that he is not ‘of them’, no matter his own claims to Southern heritage. The fact that Roosevelt never really broke through in the South and Republicans would continue to lose in the region for another fifty years cannot be easily discounted. But if this goes to show nothing else, it is evidence that such relations are necessarily complex, and that questions of taste are never entirely neutral but are tied to wider visions of the people, the country, or of the world.

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