wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Harvey Mansfield


Let us not overlook the politics of Roosevelt's manliness. He was a great one for the assertiveness of executive power. His notion of the president's duty was not bound to actions authorized in the actual words of the Constitution. In a notable exchange with his Republican rival William Howard Taft, who held that belief, Roosevelt declared that the president is 'the steward of the people, bound actively and affirmatively to do all he could for the people, and not to content himself with the negative merit of keeping his talents undamaged in a napkin.' The American founders made an executive power strong enough to stand up to popular opinion and to withstand the temptation to seek popularity, but progressives like Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made the president into a 'leader'—that is, on occasion a follower—of public opinion. Roosevelt, for all his promotion of positive merit (in which he borrows words of the Bible), is still a steward—and how manly is that? Who is more manly: George Washington, a man of dignity not to be trifled with, or Teddy Roosevelt, steward of the people, who sees humiliating constraint in the Constitution but not in popular favor? Here we detect a soft core to TR's blustering, outer toughness.

The same can be said of Roosevelt's imperialism. TR was no 'chicken hawk,' no armchair, theoretical imperialist whose main concern is with the ist or ism at the end of the word, and whose only action is egging others on. Quite the contrary! Having got himself named assistant secretary of the navy by President William McKinley in 1897, he was in office when the U.S. battleship Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana in February 1898. But of course he was not the secretary of the navy. So he waited ten days until his boss took the afternoon off for a massage; then, having been routinely designated acting secretary, TR sprang into action—summoning experts, sending instructions around the world for the navy to be ready for war, ordering supplies and ammunition, and requesting authorization from Congress for unlimited recruitment of seamen. In four hours he created momentum toward war that neither the president nor his hapless superior could stem. After war was declared on April 19, Roosevelt, his alacrity now red-hot zeal, was offered command of a cavalry troop to be formed of frontiersmen, dubbed by him 'Rough Riders.' He declined the command for lack of experience but took second-in-command as being an office he knew how to work from. In short order, Roosevelt formed the troop consisting of cowboys leavened with polo players, having them ready by the end of May. Thus he gained the double glory with the double virtue that Machiavelli says is due to the captain who trains his army before he conquers the enemy. Not content with this, he rushed into action contrary to the example of Machiavelli, himself always a behind-the-lines commander. At considerable personal risk, TR led his troops in the famous charge up San Juan Hill, and when he reached the top, shot and killed one of the enemy. After the action he was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest decoration for bravery in battle. When he did not receive the medal, he was not too proud to lobby for it, anxious as he was to prevent the War Department from doing an injustice.

In all this Roosevelt grasped his opportunities, or as we would say in his spirit, faced his responsibilities. Responsibilities as we use the word often attach to an office, and they might seem to be particular to it—whether president, assistant secretary, or a nonpolitical office, such as parent. But TR's willpower manliness looks at the office as an excuse for action rather than the source of a duty imposed on the officeholder. It was manly of TR to seek the office, which he did eagerly rather than dutifully. Yet we cannot overlook the fact that taking on a responsibility is—nonetheless for its enthusiasm—accepting a duty. And it is a duty to those less competent and willful than oneself, hence a compromise of one's own freedom and independence.