Theodore Roosevelt: An Exemplification of the Golden Mean of Virtue

George Street, Sydney, decorated for the visit of the US "Great White Fleet", 1908. State Archives and Records  NSW [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia.

The Autobiography of Theodore RooseveltThe Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt by Theodore Roosevelt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This autobiography is a mini-tome. Reading it from the perspective of a foreigner means I comment disinterestedly on the work of one of the US Presidents who was immortalised in Mount Rushmore. I have read Theodore Roosevelt's The Strenuous Life, and while I enjoyed reading it, I was surprised by the rather cumbersome writing style of a man who allegedly read tens of thousands of books. Maybe speed-reading (for which Roosevelt was apparently famous) doesn't help with writing? 

There was so much of the man, speaking plainly and as one might expect a politician to write one's memoirs, but I felt the endless ebb and flow of agreement and disagreement, while the numerous letters included as annexes to the chapters read something like following President Trump's Twitter feed. Justifications and defences and sharing text of his earlier and others' letters - all the things one might expect a president to do. 

While reading this book, I completed a humanitarian training course that enabled me to use some of my long underutilised military skills. During the course, I found myself using these skills but with the opposite purpose. Indeed, if I did the exact opposite of my military training, it would invariably be the right decision in the humanitarian sphere. This had me thinking about Aristotle's "golden mean" of virtue, at the precise time I was reading about Theodore Roosevelt's idea of courage. 

Roosevelt, for example, stayed away from bars and other trouble spots, preferring to respond decisively to unexpected challenges to one's safety or dignity only as a last resort, rather than go looking for trouble. He wore glasses, and as a "cowboy", he had to work doubly hard to earn the respect of the men he worked with. All of this follows closely the idea of the golden mean. Brave, but not cowardly or reckless. (Roosevelt was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts in leading "Roosevelt's Rough Riders" during the Spanish American War; dealing with the police corruption, corporate and political corruption, not to mention the Philippines, the Panama Canal, Russia and Japan and so on.) 

Roosevelt appears to have ever been in the right place at the right time, especially in being awarded the Medal of Honor (he was only four months away at war); to become President (he became President in the first instance after William McKinley was assassinated); and to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

His achievements were remarkable. I did not know the extent he had played in bringing about modern corporations and competition laws. The Sherman Antitrust Act came into being in 1890 but by Roosevelt's time it was hardly having the desired impact. All sorts of modern checks and balances we now take for granted in liberal democracies were simply not happening. It would seem that Roosevelt's leadership in creating a governance culture made liberal democracy, in the American sense, to function at least somewhat fairly. 

The United States had been a wealthy, functioning democracy for at least four decades (from the time of the Civil War until Roosevelt's presidency). Yet we assume much poorer, less well governed, less educated countries can become functioning democracies in the space of a few years when the oldest liberal democracy in the early 1900s suffered from all of the corruption we see in poorer nations today. 

Roosevelt had the idealism of the times; a form of neo-conservatism tempered by a strong sense of moral purpose. He was tough with the corporations and the unions, but equally interested in prosperous businesses looking after workers - a form of "fair trade" that was unique for the times. I also found the references to Australia interesting, around the time of the "Great White Fleet" and its circumnavigation of the globe, visiting numerous ports throughout the world (including Sydney - pictured above) over a sixteen month period. 

I didn't have the "Team America" theme song playing in my head while I read this, but rather the thoughts and actions of a sober, intelligent man influencing my own thoughts and actions as I discovered, in the practical sense, the idea of the golden mean of virtue. 

My trepidation with reading Roosevelt is that many modern fans of his work talk up his manliness and courage. But having read the man's memoirs, I discovered a sensitive man (which appears obvious in his letters - I think Woodrow Wilson cut him a little too deeply) who was far from fake and far from superhuman, yet strong and of moral righteousness all the same. 

The book ends along with the end of his presidency, almost as if he was hoping to write more after he was re-elected. (Roosevelt was encouraged to stay on after his second term, as he had not been elected to the first term, nor had served two full terms, but he refused on principle.) And so the book ends with a few letters. No uplifting moral lesson, no standing ovation. And that was how he lived. 

If I am to take the Stoic's view, he lived a good life. Not the Disney-fied life we have come to expect from the popular media, but a real man doing real things for good. How times have changed.

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