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How Teddy Roosevelt's Belief in a Racial Hierarchy Shaped His Policies

August 11, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

His conviction that white men of European descent were innately superior informed his actions on matters from national parks to foreign policy.

. But Roosevelt didn’t come to those ideas himself. According to Cullinane, his racial ideology drew on his readings of leading evolutionary theorists such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.

Roosevelt “admired individual achievement above all things,” wrote biographer Edmund Morris—which is why he became the first president to invite an African American to dine at the White House when he broke bread with Tuskegee Institution founder Booker T. Washington just weeks after his inauguration. “The only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each Black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less than he shows himself worthy to have,” Roosevelt wrote of his meeting.

Roosevelt also defended Minnie Cox, the country’s first African American female postmaster, after she was driven out of Indianola, Mississippi, because of the color of her skin. He appointed Black Americans to prominent positions, such as his nomination of Dr. William Crum as customs collector in Charleston, South Carolina, which drew considerable political opposition and this presidential response: “I cannot consent to take the position that the door of hope—the door of opportunity—is to be shut upon any man, no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race or color.”

READ MORE: How Woodrow Wilson Tried to Reverse Black American Progress

He Took a Dimmer View of Racial Groups as a Whole

A painting depicting Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders storming San Juan Heights in a key battle of the Spanish-American War on July 1, 1898 near Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

In spite of those words, though, Roosevelt hardly saw all Black Americans as equals. “As a race and in the mass they are altogether inferior to the whites,” he confided to a friend in a 1906 letter. Ten years later, he told Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that “the great majority of Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for the suffrage” and that giving them voting rights could “reduce parts of the South to the level of Haiti.”

Roosevelt also believed that Black men made poor soldiers. He denigrated the efforts of the buffalo soldiers who fought alongside his men at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American …read more


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