It's A Gray Area: Consider the wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt

Today we conclude our short series about classic American patriots with a discussion about Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for his exuberant personality and large range of interests and achievements.

For example, he was awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize for having negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, and, posthumously, the Medal of Honor for his fighting during the Spanish–American War. Roosevelt also was one of our most accomplished presidents, which, as you know, earned him a place on Mt. Rushmore, along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

Roosevelt began life inauspiciously in New York City as a sickly child who was asthmatic (often fatal at that time) and nearsighted. But he overcame these ailments by implementing a body-building program of boxing, weightlifting, hiking and mountain climbing. This in turn made him a tireless champion of what he called "the strenuous life."

Nevertheless, his goal in life was to be a public servant, so he went into politics. During his early career, Roosevelt was a member of the New York state Legislature, the U.S. Civil Service Commission and the New York City Police Commission. He was also secretary of the Navy.

But when the Spanish-American War broke out, he resigned his position as secretary of the Navy and volunteered to put together and lead a combat group to fight the Spanish in Cuba. This group later famously became known as the Rough Riders.

After the war, when he was involved in a campaign for governor of New York, one of his Rough Riders got so emotional when he was introducing Roosevelt at a political rally, that he gushed that "Teddy Roosevelt led us up San Juan Hill like lambs to the slaughter — and, if elected, he will do the same for you!" Nevertheless, Roosevelt won.

In fact, Roosevelt was so successful and popular with the public that many powerful political bosses decided to get him out of the way by sponsoring him to run as vice president on the ticket with William McKinley. It worked, for a time. But when President McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became our nation's 26th president.

During his presidency, Roosevelt did his best to get rid of corruption and introduce consumer protections through his Square Deal. And he also believed in a strong military, which he exemplified by his slogan, "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Roosevelt also saw that governmental power is too often misused for the interests of the wealthy instead of the general public. He expressed this by saying, "Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people." Much of the chicanery probably fueled many of his anti-free market sentiments.

During his lifetime, Roosevelt's accomplishments were many. He was a naturalist, to the degree that he was the virtual founder of our national parks system. He was also an explorer, hunter and accomplished author.

And after witnessing many failed attempts to build the Panama Canal, he got it done. Of course, he wrongly caused the forceful separation of Panama from the rest of Colombia in order to get the authority to build the canal, but this was still a magnificent achievement.

Roosevelt's public life was guided by this thought: "Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care." We libertarians could learn from that thought. But Roosevelt did care, and he showed it. When a man named Morris Michtom developed a small stuffed bear and linked it to Roosevelt by calling it the Teddy Bear, Michtom made a fortune.

Two final thoughts. First, and above all, Roosevelt believed that because of the contributions of ordinary Americans and because of our unique history, the United States is special. Thus, he strongly believed in putting patriotism first, and always ahead of partisanship.

As he put it, "We can have no '50-50' allegiance in this country. Either a man is an American and nothing else, or he is not an American at all."

Second, here is what Roosevelt foresaw: "The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price, peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life."

All of us should think hard about where our country is going as we consider his wisdom.

Editor's note: This column originally appeared on Independent Political Report.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach. He can be contacted at

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