Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “Juvenilia”
Date of publication: 3 October 1901
Volume number: 73
Issue number: 1892
|“Juvenilia.” Nation 3 Oct. 1901 v73n1892: p. 258.|
|Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore Roosevelt (personal character); Theodore Roosevelt (fitness for office).|
|Daniel Boone; Natty Bumpo [identified as Leatherstocking below]; Grover Cleveland; Ulysses S. Grant; Harriet Martineau; William McKinley; Franklin Pierce; Theodore Roosevelt.|
“The atrocious crime of being a young man” is
one which must be imputed to President McKinley’s successor. Mr. Roosevelt is
both the latest and the youngest incumbent of his high office, being one of
four inaugurated under fifty. At his present age, not one of the other three—Pierce,
Grant, and Cleveland—we may be sure, was anything like so youthful in temperament,
so full of animal spirits, so openly affected with the love of boyish as well
as manly sports. In a marked degree he represents the Young America of to-day,
for at the date of his birth all that passion for athletics which he typifies
was nearly invisible in college circles, yet grew with his growth, overcame
him, and made him one of the extreme defenders of games discredited for roughness
and peril. How far the new gospel of brawn was responsible for his participating
in the Spanish war, we will not now inquire; but hundreds of the rising generation,
bred to the rush lines of the “Soldiers’ Field” and other college playgrounds,
passed naturally to the larger “sport” of killing Spaniards in Cuba. The recruiting
of the Rough Riders had less a Wild Western than a juvenile aspect, as had all
that was spectacular in Colonel Roosevelt’s military career.
The same happy period of life protracted into manhood has been manifest in his volubility, his impulsiveness (which as Governor led him into more than one amusing situation), his restlessness and excitableness. Especially in the Expansionist we discern the boy whose patriotism is indistinguishable from a sense of national bigness in every dimension. True, the boy’s mind, fired by the contemplation of the Greatest, Freest, and Best, is content with the boundaries shown on the map and familiar in spread-eagle oratory—“from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf.” Nor does the child feel the stirring of a missionary political propaganda, in which the Declaration of Independence is to be made to cross the seas—never to return. But there is no natural dividing line between the megalomania of self-satisfaction and that of dissatisfaction with the area in which so much bigness has swelled up. The boy is father to the man.
The spirit of adventure taking us to lands remote in the pursuit of wealth, power, and glory is again associated with the sap and buoyancy of early years. The author of “Hunting Trips of a Ranchman,” “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail,” and “The Winning of the West” reverts by sympathy to the infancy of the republic, and, in default of Boone and Leatherstocking, fraternizes with the cowboy of to-day. In an unguarded moment he even contrasts the plodding farmer unfavorably with the cowboy, as if nomadic “roughing it” were a more valuable element in our civilization than settled industry. This is exactly the way it would strike a boy’s imagination if he could see the two side by side; it would be like comparing the circus with a horse-car stable. In short, one cannot but feel that Mr. Roosevelt, but for his breeding and culture, might readily have fallen a victim to the dime novel.
We share the poet’s aversion to “irreverence for the dreams of youth,” and we indulge in these reminiscences solely because they serve to explain why there were such general misgivings as to the results of Mr. Roosevelt’s succeeding President McKinley. It was not his relative youthfulness, as being fifteen years younger than his late chief, or more than ten years below the average of all the Presidents in their first terms. The fear lay in those impetuous traits which betokened a retarded maturity alike of judgment and of ideals, and which might—particularly in our dealings with foreign nations—expose the country, if not to actual dangers, at least to mortifying collisions. Mr. Roosevelt had shown that boyish lack of humor which consisted in taking his own strenuousness seriously; and how large a part humor plays in statesmanship need not be insisted upon. He had, also, both in the versatility of his public experience and in his disappointing Governorship, shown a certain inconstancy which of all things is out of place at the head of the Federal Administration. Civil-Service Commissioner, Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, “captain, or colonel, or knight in arms,” Governor—valuable discipline this, in the sum, for perpetual adolescence, yet suggestive of fickleness and a roving habit.
A man’s nature was never wholly changed even by such a fortune of sudden responsibility as has befallen Mr. Roosevelt; and calm, steadiness, reticence, the just vision, are to be attained by him, if at all, only by severe internal conflict. We can await the issue hopefully and generously, but at the same time we cannot avoid asking ourselves whether he may not be the mirror of his time; whether this people has not declined from the manhood which reached its full height in the Civil War, to a childhood perilously near to decay. We shall answer this doubt as optimistically as we can by quoting here a remarkable view of the American tendency as it appeared to a friendly foreign observer in 1855, at the beginning of the armed struggle over slavery in Kansas. We quote from the Autobiography of Harriet Martineau, written at a time when she supposed her own end to be imminent:
“Negro slavery in the United States, as regards the existing Union, is near its end, I have no doubt. I regard with a deeper concern the manifest retrogression of the American people in their political and social character. They seem to be lapsing from national manliness into childhood—retrograding from the aims and interests of the nineteenth century into those of the fifteenth and sixteenth. Their passion for territorial aggrandizement, for gold, for buccaneering adventure, and for vulgar praise, is seen miserably united with the pious pretensions and fraudulent ingenuity which were, in Europe, old-fashioned three centuries ago, and which are now kept alive only in a few petty or despised states where dynasty is on its last legs.
“I know that there are better men, and plenty of them, in America than those who represent the nation in the view of Europe; but these better men are silent and inactive; and the national retrogression is not visibly retarded by them. I fear it cannot be. I fear that when the bulk of a nation is below its institutions—whether by merely wanting the requisite knowledge or by being in an immature moral condition—it is not the intelligence and virtue of a small, despairing, and inactive minority that can save it from lapses into barbarism. I fear that the American nation is composed almost entirely of the vast majority who coarsely boast, and the small minority who timidly despair, of the Republic. It appears but too probable that the law of Progression may hold good with regard to the world at large without preventing the retrogression of particular portions of the race.
“But the American case is not exactly of this kind. I rather take it to be that a few wise men, under solemn and inspiring influences, laid down a loftier political programme than their successors were able to fulfil. If so, there is, whatever disappointment, no retrogression, properly speaking. We supposed the American character and policy to be represented by the chiefs of the Revolution, and their Declaration of Independence and republican Constitution; and now we find ourselves mistaken in our supposition. It is a disappointment; but we had rather admit a disappointment than have to witness an actual retrogression.”