“Roosevelt the First,” as Mencken referred to Theodore, accidentally became president upon the assassination of William McKinley. Though his mother was Georgia-born and he proclaimed a Confederate pedigree, this “New York politico proved himself fairly inept a navigating the rocks and shoals of Southern politics.”
Roosevelt was an early believer in eugenics and praised the famous eugenicist, Charles Davenport, a Connecticut-born descendant of abolitionist Puritans. Davenport was a Harvard-trained biologist, and established what would become the Eugenics Record Office at Long Island’s Spring Harbor in 1904.
Further, Davenport was an influential member of the eugenics section of the American Breeders Association, and his second in command, Harry Laughlin of Iowa, advanced forced human sterilization and shaped the 1924 Immigration Act. Davenport “described the best female breeders as women with wide hips, using the same thinking that animal breeders had employed for centuries to describe cows.”
TR’s American Exceptionalism and Eugenics
“Roosevelt, a patrician, had little choice but to joist with his redneck foes. In 1905, during his Southern tour . . . One newspaper joked that the president’s entourage was wise to travel through Mississippi at night, so that [Mississippi Governor James K.] Vardaman wouldn’t have to shoot him.
Roosevelt also ruffled the feathers of the proud white women of the South when he had dared to class Jefferson Davis with Benedict Arnold. When he did that, one incensed Georgia woman declared that the president had dishonored his mother’s blood.
Blood was thicker than water for Roosevelt, but not in the way the testy Georgia woman would have viewed the matter. His understanding of race and class remained rooted in evolutionary thinking, and he believed that blacks were naturally subordinate to the Anglo-Saxon . . . and never abandoned the premise that racial traits were carried in the blood, conditioned by the experiences of one’s ancestors.
As an ardent exponent of “American Exceptionalism,” Roosevelt argued that the nineteenth-century frontier experience had transformed white Americans into superior stock. Roosevelt’s motto can be summed up in three words: “work-fight-breed.” There is clear evidence that he was influenced by the mountaineers’ myth, by which good Saxon stock was separated from the debased Southern poor white. History was written in blood, sweat and “germ protoplasm” – the turn-of-the-century term for what we now refer to as genes.
The ills attending modernity could be corrected . . . A man could return to the wilderness – as Roosevelt did when he hunted big game in Africa . . ; War – the raw fight for survival – was a second means of bringing forth ancestral Saxon traits. Washington, Lincoln and Grant were his heroes, men who lived active, virtuous lives, rejecting comfort and complacency. In the final analysis, the president opined, the Confederate generation and their heirs had contributed “very, very little toward anything of which Americans are now proud.”
He could be confident in the future because Roosevelt was an unabashed eugenicist. He used the bully pulpit of his office to insist that women had a critical civic duty to breed a generation of healthy and disciplined children. He first endorsed eugenics in 1903, and two years later he laid out his beliefs in a speech before the Congress of Mothers. Worried about “race suicide,” as he put it, he recommended that women of Anglo-American stock have four to six children.
In 1913, Roosevelt wrote supportively to the leading eugenicist Charles Davenport that it was the patriotic duty of every good citizen of superior stock to leave his or her “blood behind.” Degenerates, he warned, must not be permitted to reproduce their kind.”
(White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg, Viking Press, 2016, excerpts pp. 190-193)