As part of their time with us, we ask our digital cataloging interns to write a blog post to share some of their experiences and “finds” while working in the Roosevelt collections. As they start to wrap up their internship hours, we will start to share their blog entries with you. This one is from Adriana in Ann Arbor.
Theodore Roosevelt was nothing if not opinionated. In his later years, he consistently insulted President Woodrow Wilson to everyone, whether it was relevant to the subject at hand or not. For the most part, this makes me really like the guy, and it gives great insight into what he thought. He always said exactly what was on his mind. Working on this project has given me an incomparable insight into this man, through both his personal and professional lives. I have seen family letters, sympathy notes, government proclamations, and newspaper articles. I have learned more than I ever expected to know about the 1905 Chinese Boycott and the Russo-Japanese peace talks. These things are milestones of history, worth knowing, but the documents that will stick with me the most are those written by Theodore Roosevelt himself, off the record letters to his family and friends. This is where he really got to speak his mind and show his feelings, and give me serious food for thought.
One day, as I was reviewing documents as usual, I came across a sentence that took me by surprise. It felt almost like a personal attack while it ironically reflected on what this entire project is about. Theodore Roosevelt was lamenting the lack of respect Abraham Lincoln received for his words when compared to the ancient writers, citing Demosthenes and Cicero as examples. Roosevelt thought Lincoln far superior in every way, and criticized “the fetishism of the irrational adoration of things merely because they are old.” As a former history student and current archivist, that smarted. After getting over that initial shock, I began to ponder his words. Was he right? Do we, as a society, latch onto the past simply because it is the past?
There were further examples of his no-holds-barred approach to history as he frequently railed against President Wilson’s administration. Every letter Roosevelt wrote to his family members during the World War era ended with a brief line or two decrying Wilson’s cowardice and lack of character. Interestingly, Roosevelt compared Wilson to Thomas Jefferson, who is now largely seen as one of the presidential greats. “It is just as it was a century ago when Jefferson, another shifty phrasemaker who was ‘too proud to fight,’ was president. Jefferson dragged our honor in the dust, and was responsible for the ignoble conduct of the war that followed; but he pandered to the worst side of the people, and they supported him with enthusiasm.” Clearly, Roosevelt did not give in to popular opinion, or the golden glow of “great” historical figures. He looked at things plainly, and saw the merit of a person or object without historical bias.
Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kermit Roosevelt, October 15, 1915 discussing Roosevelt's views on Thomas Jefferson. MS Am 1541 (260). Houghton Library. Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.
I think, considering the subject, Roosevelt had a point about the treasures of history. We work diligently to preserve the documents and stories of the past, relating it to the present and trying to keep important figures and events from slipping away into the ether. We do idealize the past, thinking of the happier, simpler times gone by, and we are now far enough removed from Theodore Roosevelt’s life that we are doing the same thing to him. However, we do not remember everybody and everything fondly. Though they may not all deserve to be praised centuries after their deaths, people had to do something, achieve something, to be notable. Roosevelt certainly did plenty of things in his life to qualify, from his writing to his politics, even his hunting trips. He is now himself on par with Abraham Lincoln, and would probably have a jolly laugh over our modern fascination with him. This entire project shows that worthy people will be remembered. It just takes time.
Adriana is completing her MSI in Archives & Records Management and Preservation of Information at the University of Michigan School of Information. Long interested in historical archives, Adriana received a bachelor’s degree in history from Marshall University.