In political campaigns, we consultants are always seeking opportunities for our candidate to speak for himself without passing through the prism of editorial and journalistic opinion. We buy ads, we schedule debates, we set up town hall meetings, all to reach and communicate directly with the public without media intermediaries.
Imagine the frustration of a dead historical figure from the past, now able to communicate with modern generations only through the distorted lens of history. If you think journalists are bad, wait until you meet historians!
Now, Daniel Ruddy has freed former President Theodore Roosevelt from these shackles and given him a chance to address us directly, articulating his view of American history without the varnish of modern historical fashion. In his new book Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States, Ruddy has mined the words of the great man and organized them into a newly created history of the US up to the time of TR’s death in 1919.
Like the Hubble telescope, this history lifts us above the distortions of our own perceptions and lets us see older stars more clearly.
For example, we can read Roosevelt’s views on Thomas Jefferson without the distortion of his current idealization. To TR, Jefferson was the founder of the doctrine of nullification that led to the civil war. He does not get over Jefferson’s slave holding as easily as we are prone to and sees him as an aristocrat who stayed on top by holding his African slaves on the bottom and dragging down the white laboring class by their competition.
To TR, the Democratic Party is the group of seditious traitors who broke up the union. And he is in no forgiving mood. The wounds of the Civil War are still fresh in the mind of the 26th president.
And we learn more about Lincoln, too. Roosevelt idolizes his predecessor but points out that he did nothing to curb rampant corruption during the Civil War. Contractors made millions while selling defective and shoddy products to the Army that endangered the lives of our troops. He writes that this toleration of corruption led to the robber baron era of the late nineteenth century and to the failure of the Republicans to crack down on trusts and corrupt businessmen. It was this defect, of course, that led to the supremacy of the Democratic Party in the first half of the twentieth century.
But the most fascinating aspect of Ruddy’s history is what it tells us about our modern era. As we see history through the eyes of a president writing from 1890-1919, we realize how distorted is our view of our past. We come to see that to take for granted what we have been told about our ancestors is a bit like only learning about our modern era from the New York Times! We come to realize a need to step outside of ourselves and learn about the past as our ancestors saw it without the bias and prejudice with which a largely liberal group of historians has jaundiced it.