Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Teddy Roosevelt and Booker Washington

R.J. Pestritto reminds us that TR was the first progressive, what that really means, and what a serious break from the Founder’s view of limited government that was (and is).

This reminds me of a consequential event: Teddy Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House in December (26th, I think) of 1901 (TR had been consulting him on dispensation of patronage in the south as soon as he became president, which, until then, Mark Hanna had controlled). Even though Washington had been to the White House, he knew that no black man had ever dined there (and he must have remembered the harsh criticism President Cleveland got when he hosted Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii at the White House in 1895). Although concerned about how this could be viewed, he did not think he had a right to refuse in part because this represented a "recognition of the race." He had dinner with the President and his wife Edith, three of his sons, and his seventeen-year-old daughter Alice. Within forty-eight hours a kind of hysteria overtook white southerners at such a display of "social equality." TR was condemned and it was said that he would lose all political support and authority in the south. Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina said that TR’s entertaining that man, "will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again."

This example of "social equality" marked both the peak and the beginning of the end of Booker Washington’s authority and power over race matters in the country.

A few years later Washington was on a trip to Gainsville, Florida, when the train stopped in a village where a local white farmer asked to meet Washington. As they shook hands the farmer said: "You are the greatest man in the country!" Washington replied that surely the greatest man in the country was the president, to which the white farmer answered: "Huh! Roosevelt! I used to think that Roosevelt was a great man until he ate dinner with you. That settled him for me."

Discussions - 5 Comments

It is an interesting question why or how Washington lost or ceded his leadership status to W.E.B. duBois.

Just as Washington, like Lincoln, makes such a strong impression as American (a Horatio Alger who practiced and advocated Ben Franklin's morals, who refrained from blaming the South, and who, in solidarity with most Americans -- especially in the post-bellum South -- labored in the useful arts for a living), so does duBois seem non-American -- from his aristocratic air to his effete dandyhood to his Germanic schooling (to his eventual abandonment of the U.S. for Ghana). The Souls of Black Folk is profound, to be sure, but duBois seems to write rather like the proto-sociologist that he was, looking at his subject from the outside, like a traveler, not a citizen. Especially in contrast to Washington, how little did duBois live the life of the people he wished to lead! Unlike Lincoln and Washington, how little did duBois value labor as a principle of the common good, and what little regard he had for majority rule (and the political art of forming majorities, which then can rule).

With TR, it's ironic not only that the local farmer esteemed him less than his guest, but also that Washington represented TR's older, personal, more down-to-earth view of progress (The strenuous life!) rather than his later belief (with duBois) in Progress.

Max Boot responded: here.

I think JQA has it essentially right on DuBois. His theoretical mind (and German at that) demanded a kind of alienation from not only his soil (as in grounded), but the universal principle of the US should have allowed him the necessary intellectual room to feel at home even theoretically, that is, if he could just think that there is a nature to things. Washington was an entirely American character, home grown, home spun, home educated, self-made, loved to get his fingers and hands in Americal soil.

Ken Thomas is right on the Roosevelt-Washington dinner. It was one of those Hegelian augenblicks (sorry, couldn't resist); everything changed after that. Washington has finally found a worthy biographer in Robert J. Norrell, and he thinks that the Roosevelt-Washington dinner was hugely consequential because it had to do with "social equality", the issue BTW addressed in Atlanta with such prudence, and now by this action contradicted (that is, revealed that he understood the consequences of the universal principles of right). This is when southern whites, and some northern blacks, went after him. It is easy to say, in retrospect, that Booker should have said, "No thank you, Mr. President I'm having dinner with William Baldwin or John D. Rockefeller, Jr."

In "Theodore Rex" Edmund Morris dwells on TR's dinner invitation to Booker T. Washington and the controversy it produced. This, with its backlash, is a crucial episode in the history of American race relations, which deserves further reflection.

I suggest you cast down your bucket then JQA. Don't attempt to go beyond your current geopolitical level unless those above you come and offer it. Both men were important. They had different views. I like Washington's ideas, but when you inject race in then I think that DuBois had a better understanding. Washington was the better pragmatist I will will give you that. However, Its one thing to teach hard work making oneself valuable to a society, but this sort of thing as an agenda for an entire group of people who had the misfortune of being born of African dissent is problematic. It seemed to accept second class status in the present with a hope of equality in the future when the white folks is good and ready. That seems to run counter to give me liberty or give me death, but I can understand how it makes more sense in how someone earns their way up...that part is American mythos all the way.

Calling Dubois a dandy is funny though. If we decided to have politicians and leaders who were from among us, today, we would have to first empty washington. I have seen bush on his ranch in the carhart jacket, but I have yet to see him mending fences and practicing animal husbandry. Mabye he has a tuskeege grad to do that for him. If you guys liked Washington so much then why do you not offer classes in practical occupational stuff? We kids are mostly middle class from families who are blue collar so why not show us how to make bricks along with the Plato? Its not like the colleges don't need new administartion buildings, ;)

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