Theodore Roosevelt was president in a time when race relations were not simple to navigate politically. The American South was still gaining back ground lost during the Civil War; and the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, was not always an easy fit in the Southern States. Roosevelt came from a family that had weathered the Civil War in New York with divided loyalties. His father did not serve because of his mother’s Southern roots and unabashed Confederate sympathy. Two of her brothers served in the Confederate Army. While Roosevelt can sometimes be contradictory about his ideas of race, he was a true friend of the African American population.
Roosevelt famously invited Booker T. Washington to the White House shortly after becoming president; a dinner which ended up costing him a great deal with the South. He also appointed African Americans to many federal posts over his terms as president. Perhaps it was these actions that Roosevelt was thinking of when he referred to himself as the heir of the policies of Abraham Lincoln in a March 13, 1903, letter to General James Sullivan Clarkson. Roosevelt was defending himself against accusations that his stance with the African American population was simply a political one, adopted to gain favor with African American voters of the south, and not from his own personal beliefs.
Lincoln was an important role model to the young Roosevelt. A famous photograph of Lincoln’s funeral parade in New York City shows a glimpse of a very young Theodore and his brother Elliot watching from their uncle’s window. Upon the occasion of his second inauguration in 1905, Roosevelt wore a ring which contained a lock of Lincoln’s hair, given to him by Secretary of State John Hay, the former personal secretary to the slain president.
Roosevelt’s Lincoln connections were extremely important to him, both personally and in his political career. With this letter we gain insight into why that was so, as he saw himself as carrying on in the footsteps of that great man.