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TR and the American Family

Dec 08, 2016

Interns from around the country join us in our work on the TR Digital Library and we often ask them to share their experiences in a blog.

In a letter dated April 13, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt thanks and heartily congratulates Philomena “Minnie” Fasel and her husband Leonard, proclaiming that he “thinks highly of this kind of citizenship.” The “kind of citizenship” to which Roosevelt refers is the raising of many children by American families. According to a 1900 federal census, the Fasels had twelve children. Minnie must have proudly sent a photograph of her entire flock to the President, showing off her success in doing her duty to the country as a mother.

TR is well-known to have advocated strongly for families to have as many children as possible – he himself fathered six children. In a March 1905 speech to the National Congress of Mothers, Roosevelt outlines the duties and responsibilities of men and women in regards to family life. In his speech, TR explains that raising a strong family requires sacrifice and hard work on the part of both men and women. He says, however, that he respects and admires women who do their duty – that is, raising children of character, and a lot of them – perhaps more than he respects and admires men who do theirs as the family breadwinners. “The woman’s task is not easy,” he says. “No task worth doing is easy – but in doing it, and when she has done it, there shall come to her the highest and holiest joy known to mankind […] [F]or her husband and her children, yes, and all people who realize that her work lies at the foundation of all national happiness and greatness, shall rise up and call her blessed.”

Along those lines, TR vehemently dismissed anyone who advocated for small families or birth control. In the same 1905 speech, he verbally eviscerates a clergyman who was quoted in an article as saying that families should have no more than two children, to allow them to “taste a few of the good things of life.” Roosevelt found this remark both completely immoral – he placed great value on living a “strenuous life,” after all – and utterly unintelligent. “The most rudimentary mental process would have shown the speaker that if the average family in which there are contained but two children the nation as a whole would decrease in population so rapidly that in two or three generations it would very deservedly be on the point of extinction,” he argues. He also calls any woman who chooses not to have children a selfish, “unlovely creature.” Roosevelt truly believed the only way to protect the United States from “race suicide” was for families to work hard and continue to increase the population with lots of children, raised to be hard workers themselves.

While Americans might still value hard work, views on the number of children in a family have changed drastically since TR’s time. In 1900, the average number of children for a family in the United States was four, and it was illegal for doctors to provide information to patients about contraception. Today, the average family only has two children, and more and more people are choosing not to have any children for various reasons. This is partially due to the fact that teaching people about birth control is no longer illegal, a change Margaret Sanger, known as the “Woman Rebel,” fought for starting in 1912. Because she was a contemporary of TR and often responded directly to him in her own speeches and articles, the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library contains a small collection of Sanger’s papers. Roosevelt claimed to have great respect for dutiful mothers, but Sanger saw him as an “enslaver” of American women. Her collection helps put American values and society of the early 1900s into greater context by providing a view on family “responsibilities” which differs drastically from that of a contemporary former President.

I wonder what TR would say about the state of the American family – and by extension, the state of the country itself – in 2016?

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Philomena Fasel 

Address by President Roosevelt before the National Congress of Mothers

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Posted by Cali Neuberger on Dec 08, 2016 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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