Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, was a colossal personality and influence figure. He was known for his vigorous lifestyle and progressive policies; Roosevelt’s tenure was marked by significant achievements such as regulating big business and establishing the national park system. However, a more disquieting aspect of his legacy pertains to his beliefs in racial hierarchy and Eugenics, ideologies that notably influenced his policies and actions while in office.
The Teddy Roosevelt Eugenics letter reveals the former President’s interest in the social hierarchy. We will further discuss his beliefs and whether there were other prominent figures who shared his views in the 20th century.
Who was Teddy Roosevelt?
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States (1901–1909), was a dynamic statesman renowned for his progressive policies and robust personality. Born 1858 in New York City, Roosevelt overcame childhood ill health to lead a vigorous life, epitomised by his Rough Rider persona. Before his presidency, he held roles as New York City Police Commissioner. Then, he worked as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, followed by the Governor of New York and Vice President under William McKinley. Ascending to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt became a driving force for the Progressive Era.
He championed antitrust regulations, consumer protection, and labour rights and is hailed for his pioneering contributions to conservation, establishing numerous national parks, forests, and monuments. Internationally, he propounded American imperialism and scored the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese War. Despite these achievements, his legacy is complex, including controversial beliefs in racial hierarchy and Eugenics. A consummate public servant, author, and soldier, Roosevelt had a famous motto, “Speak softly but carry a big stick,” encapsulating his diplomacy philosophy. His life and presidency significantly shaped American politics and society, embodying the vigour and optimism of early 20th-century America.
What Is Eugenics?
Eugenics is the set of beliefs brought into existence by the practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population, often by promoting higher reproduction of people with desirable traits (positive Eugenics) and reducing the reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative Eugenics). The concept is derived from selective breeding principles and the science of heredity. It has been used to justify a wide array of policies throughout history, including those that promote public health, prenatal care, and healthy lifestyles.
However, Eugenics has a dark history, often associated with pseudoscientific claims about racial and class superiority. In the early 20th century, it gained popularity in various countries, leading to the implementation of programs like forced sterilisations and marriage restrictions for certain groups deemed “unfit” to reproduce.
The scientific community has primarily discredited the principles of Eugenics that advocate for the forced manipulation of human breeding, recognising the moral, ethical, and social implications of such practices. The field of genetics has evolved to focus on the complexity of traits and the understanding that no clear “superior” genetic stock exists, rendering the simplistic classifications of Eugenics both scientifically flawed and ethically indefensible.
Did Teddy Roosevelt Believe in Eugenics?
Yes, Teddy Roosevelt did believe in Eugenics. His beliefs in racial hierarchy and the importance of heredity in societal development were consistent with the eugenic principles of the time, which advocated for improving human genetic traits through selective breeding. Such beliefs are evident from his correspondence with Charles Davenport, a leading biologist and eugenicist, indicating Roosevelt’s engagement with eugenic ideas.
Roosevelt’s beliefs in a racial hierarchy were rooted in the evolutionary theories of the time, influenced by the works of theorists such as Lamarck and Darwin. He considered white men of European descent to be at the apex of this hierarchy. Though he believed in the potential for “inferior” races to improve their status, he held firm to the idea of white supremacy. These beliefs were paradoxically juxtaposed with his actions that sometimes broke racial barriers, such as inviting African-American leader Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House and defending African-American rights in specific instances.
What Is the Teddy Roosevelt Eugenics Letter?
Despite these seemingly progressive actions, Roosevelt’s views on race were complex and often contradictory. He expressed clear racist sentiments in private correspondences, questioning the capabilities of African Americans and Native Americans and their role in American society. His policies towards Native Americans, in particular, were detrimental, leading to the displacement of indigenous populations and the appropriation of their lands for national parks and conservation efforts.
The Teddy Roosevelt Eugenics letter represents a series of correspondences between the President and several prominent people of the same era. These valuable letters are proven documents of the dominance of white supremacy in the 20th century in America.
What Did Teddy Roosevelt Say in His Eugenics Letters?
Teddy Roosevelt wrote several letters revolving around Eugenics to numerous renowned people, such as Charles Davenport and Mrs J. H. Sine.
Who was Charles B. Davenport?
Charles Benedict Davenport was an American zoologist and a prominent figure in the early 20th-century eugenics movement. Davenport was instrumental in establishing the Eugenics Record Office and was a pioneer in applying statistical methods to biological research, particularly in the study of heredity and Eugenics. He recognised the significance of Mendelian genetics and its implications for human heredity, advocating for applying genetic principles to improve the human race. However, some of his works, particularly those involving race, were later discredited and deemed scientifically invalid.
In 1913, in his letter to Davenport, Roosevelt expressed his astonishment over some of the scientific resources Davenport had sent him earlier. These sources allegedly expressed that society is responsible for the power of its individuals. To further elaborate, Roosevelt compared the basics of Eugenics with how farmers choose their best cattle to breed together to enhance their kind. On the other hand, he referenced how the same farmers controlled breeding their worst cattle so they wouldn’t overwhelm the best cattle with their undesirable traits. He revealed that what he believed was the duty of a good citizen would be to leave their blood behind.
Who Was Mrs J. H. Sine?
She was one of the highly interested people in the matters of her time who shared some correspondence with Teddy Roosevelt. In his letter to her, Roosevelt believed each family shouldn’t just have one child, which he stated was equivalent to having none. Three children were the minimum average the families with the best qualities should have. This number would allow those with the highest and best traits to outnumber those deemed with less desirable characteristics. In his eyes, a family that chose to have less than three children is a soldier exerting a third of his effort on the battlefield.
How Did Teddy Roosevelt’s Thoughts on Race Shape his Policies?
Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and policies were partly shaped by his belief in the racial hierarchies and Eugenics prevalent in the early 20th century. He subscribed to the notion of white superiority and saw the white race, mainly of European descent, as the driving force behind American greatness. This belief influenced his domestic and foreign policies, including his approach to immigration, American expansion, and imperialism.
Roosevelt’s interest in Eugenics, the science of improving human populations through controlled breeding, was evident in his support for public health and fitness initiatives. However, it also aligned with problematic views on racial purity. He corresponded with prominent eugenicists like Charles Davenport, reflecting the era’s scientific and social attitudes. Despite these views, Roosevelt was complex in his actions, sometimes supporting African-American rights and breaking racial barriers, demonstrating the contradictions within his beliefs and policies. His administration’s legacy is thus a tapestry of progressive reform overshadowed by the impact of his racial views on American society.
Who Else Advocated for Eugenics in the 20th?
One of the century’s most prominent inventors, Alexander Graham Bell, best known for inventing the first functional telephone, was also an advocate for Eugenics, a widely accepted movement during his lifetime. His interest in heredity and genetics was personal, as both his wife and mother were deaf. Bell feared the hereditary loss of hearing and believed that deaf individuals marrying one another would increase the prevalence of deafness in society.
Bell advocated against this, suggesting that those with hereditary deafness should not intermarry. Bell’s advocacy was part of the broader eugenics movement that worked to improve the human race by advocating for the reproduction of people with “desirable” traits and discouraging those with “undesirable” ones.
While Bell did not support the more extreme measures like sterilisation, which some eugenicists endorsed, his promotion of selective breeding reflects the problematic aspects of the eugenics movement. It shows how scientific and technological leaders of the era could also be swept up in the social theories of their time, theories that often had discriminatory underpinnings. Bell’s legacy in the context of Eugenics is a testament to the complexity of historical figures whose contributions to society are marred by the darker aspects of their beliefs and the times in which they lived.
Teddy Roosevelt’s storied career as a national leader is thus a tapestry of commendable progressivism and unsettling beliefs in racial superiority and Eugenics. While marked by numerous positive contributions, his legacy must also contend with the implications of his more controversial views and actions.