Of the four presidents honored on Mount Rushmore in the world’s largest sculpture, Theodore Roosevelt must be ranked as the most vigorous and multi-faceted.
Like George Washington, Roosevelt was a war hero. Like Thomas Jefferson, he was a notable scholar, as a voracious reader and the author of some 40 books. Like Abraham Lincoln, he had a devout commitment to the advancement of the human condition.
But the Colonel Roosevelt who led the famous Rough Riders cavalry charge during the Spanish-American War in 1898 would, as President Roosevelt, broker the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. The war hero became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Although a scion of wealth and privilege, Roosevelt battled John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, breaking their business monopolies. He passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and backed organized labor in a major coal strike. His presidential commitment to conservation and the preservation of natural beauty remains unsurpassed.
Roosevelt built the Panama Canal, a Herculean task even by today’s standards, broadly equivalent in relative terms to the Apollo program of the 1960s. This was after a French company with similar ambitions had folded its tent, given up and gone home.
But Roosevelt is also remembered for his human qualities, which were as exceptional as his tangible achievements. There is much here to be learned.
On Oct. 14, 1912, while campaigning in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot in the chest by a wandering crackpot, John Schrank. As he was not coughing up blood, Roosevelt correctly assumed that his lungs had not been pierced and that the wound probably would not be fatal. He insisted on completing his 90-minute speech before seeking medical aid.
The boisterous, partisan crowd instantly aimed its rage at Schrank. Only the urgent appeal of Roosevelt, his shirt soaked with the blood of a bullet that could never be removed, spared his assailant from being lynched.
As Roosevelt would neither be silenced nor swayed from the rule of law, so, too, would he not silence others. As he said on a later occasion: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President or that we are to stand by the President right or wrong is not only unpatriotic and servile, but it is morally treasonable to the American people.”
Roosevelt embraced the ideal of the “strenuous life,” what the ancient Greeks defined as “the full use of one’s powers along lines of excellence.” All civilization and progress, he knew, depend on the unhindered exchange of ideas and visions, on the principle of freedom of speech and expression.
Roosevelt had no fear of dissent. Any suggestion that he imprison or execute his critics would have been met with the contempt it deserved.
Unlike some of our politicians, Theodore Roosevelt was not a coward.