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Theodore Roosevelt, Historian

Jan 03, 2019

Working for the Theodore Roosevelt Center to help build our comprehensive Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library (TRDL), I get to spend my days reading through the personal papers of Roosevelt and his associates, from Jacob Riis and John Burroughs to Emperor Meiji and Edith Wharton. As a historian of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, it’s a treat to dig into various versions of Roosevelt, whether politician, friend, police commissioner, father, or naturalist.  On occasion, though, I stumble upon a reminder that, throughout his life, he was also a historian. Gearing up for this year’s American Historical Association conference, which starts today, I thought I’d revisit what wisdom “my boss” (as I like to call Roosevelt) had about the field of history a century ago, and what ideas and challenges of historians past still resonate today.

Roosevelt majored in History and Government at Harvard. Throughout his career as a public servant, he authored many historical articles, book reviews, and several works of history, including The Naval War of 1812 (1882), Gouverneur Morris (1888), The Winning of the West (1889-1896), The Life of Oliver Cromwell (1890), and, with Henry Cabot Lodge, Hero Tales from American History (1895). Roosevelt first attended the AHA conference 130 years ago in 1889, where he presented a paper entitled “The Westward Movement During the Revolutionary War,” throughout which he called out his fellow historians for ignoring most of Western history. At the 1896 conference, he was a discussant on a panel led by Frederick Jackson Turner, whom he corresponded with regularly. 

While his AHA involvement waned during his two terms in presidential office, he resumed work with the organization in 1910 as vice president of AHA, despite some misgivings about the limited time he could devote to the organization and his concerns about the narrowly focused, academic nature of the group. The following year, in 1911, he stepped into the role of AHA president. Among the initiatives he advocated was the creation of an adequate building for the nation’s archives, then scattered among several federal agencies. He also called for a national historical commission that would work hand-in-hand with the (proposed) national archives staff to publish finding aids and other informational material.

At the 28th annual AHA meeting in snowy Boston on December 27, 1912, Roosevelt spoke to his audience of fellow historians about the struggle to create solid scholarly work that was still engaging to the public in his address, “History as Literature.” There were 2,500 people in attendance at Symphony Hall to hear him speak, even though there were only 450 AHA members at the event. Roosevelt concluded that good history should balance both history and science. Quality historical writing, Roosevelt decided, must include “profound research that is patient, laborious, [and] painstaking,” as well as “vivid” and colorful prose. Historians require “vision and imagination, the power to grasp what is essential and to reject the infinitely more numerous nonessentials, the power to embody ghosts, to put flesh and blood on dry bones, to make dead men living before our eyes. In short he must have the power to take the science of history and turn it into literature.”

                                                                                                                                                       Roosevelt went on to suggest that historians should investigate the broadest array of historical topics, employ the use of more than one viewpoint, and borrow from the methodologies of sister fields such as anthropology and archeology. He called for historians to study all corners of the earth, systems as well as individuals, the wealthy and “the plain people, the ordinary men and women.” Historians must analyze “the spectacular and the exceptional” eras, but “we can [not] forget that it is the ordinary every-day life which counts most.”  

While I can’t argue against the power of a well-written manuscript, or “History as Literature” to borrow from the title of Roosevelt’s AHA address, historians today have many other outlets with which to engage both students and the public, from digital humanities and social media to television shows and public history installations. Although Roosevelt felt at the time that “Collections of figures no more give us a picture of the past than the reading of a tariff report on hides or woolens gives us an idea of the actual lives of the men and women who live on ranches or work in factories,” the digital humanities in particular continue to offer new opportunities to quantify history with data in a way that is also engaging and enlightening. I just finished a chapter for an upcoming book wherein I wrote about using seemingly dry census data to paint a vivid picture of life in the Loray Cotton Mill in the 1920s. Data no longer needs to be dull. By visualizing history in new and dynamic ways we can engage with members of the public who are technically interested in history, just not how it has been presented to them in the past.

Yesterday I attended a pre-conference event called The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp), that brought together digital humanists from around the world to brainstorm about ways in which technology can be used to understand the humanities better. Using digital tools in the classroom with my own students has not only increased student interest and comprehension of the material, but it also forces me as an educator to acknowledge the possibility that traditional methods of transmitting historical information are not for all learners. At the Theodore Roosevelt Center, too, we work with groups like the Presidential Primary Sources Project to bring history alive for students through the introduction of (digital) primary documents related to TR’s life into classrooms around the country. Additionally, graduate interns complete digital humanities (DH) projects every summer using historical documents from the digital library. Their past projects, including mapping Roosevelt’s explorations, tracking busy weeks in his schedule, creating networks of his associates, or analyzing his reading habits or whistle stop campaign speeches, provide new insight into a life that was seemingly already well-studied. With hundreds of thousands of documents related to TR, many already digitized through the efforts of the Theodore Roosevelt Center and the Library of Congress (among others), combined with new visualization tools becoming available every year, the possibilities for future research on Roosevelt are endless.

As a public historian and digital humanist, I spend perhaps too much time thinking about how history is packaged and accessed by the “plain people” of whom Roosevelt wrote, and how we can be doing better as historians in getting our ideas across to those outside of academia. In the age of truthiness, fake news, and alternative facts, with even the sciences on delicate grounds with the public, it is more important than ever to figure out how, as a network of individuals, we find new ways to legitimize our profession, but do so in a way that also interests a variety of audiences. The annual AHA conference, in its 133rd year, brings together historians from a variety of disciplines and institutions, and gives us the opportunity to grow as professionals. Many of the initiatives Roosevelt spoke about in his address are still relevant today. How do we make our research more “readable” as he calls it? In what ways can we better tell the history of the ordinary? Are there ways in which taking a more interdisciplinary approach to our research might shed new light on our scholarship or our ability to reach new audiences?

In his address, Roosevelt extolled the teaching of history because it was imperative that citizens in a democracy understood the past and its lessons, even unpleasant ones. At a turning point for our country, the ability to turn the past, especially the unpleasant past, into something useable and engaging for the public is as crucial as ever. By continuing to push the boundaries of the field of history as it intersects with science, literature, and other fields, we get closer to generating research that has the potential to impact the community at large.  

To read Roosevelt’s AHA Presidential Address, click here.

Also, be sure to check out the conference program from 1912 here.

Posted by Karen Sieber on Jan 03, 2019 in Current Events  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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