One way to think about the power of Turner's frontier thesis is to examine Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th president, who was in the White House from 1901-1909.
Here is a photo of Teddy Roosevelt, age 4, when he was sick from asthma. He wore glasses, but even at age 4, refused to wear them in portraits. His mother often dressed him in flowing pants or even skirt-like toddler clothes. He was a child of privilege, as this photo suggests, and a sickly child. Think about what image of masculinity is communicated in this portrait of TR and compare it to the next image.
This is TR when he was a student at Harvard, circa 1887, wearing his “sculling outfit.” Think about the choices he made: why is he topless and barefoot, why are his arms crossed and his mouth unsmiling, why has he grown himself this bushy mutton-chop beard? After his many feminized childhood portraits, TR chose, as a young adult, to emphasize a specific version of masculine toughness.
When TR started his political career as a New York state legislator, he was accused of being a “weakling,” “Jane-Dandy,” “exquisite” “Punkin-Lily,” and, in the most sexually explicit insult, “given to sucking the knob of an ivory cane.” He was accused of being what our current Governor might call a “girly-boy.” Photos like the one of TR at Harvard in his sculling outfit were part of his attempt to show that he was, in fact, a manly man.
In the mid-1880s, Teddy Roosevelt bought himself a ranch in South Dakota and wrote a book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), which exaggerated how long he actually spent on his ranch: it was only a few months at a time, but he made it seem like years. This is a photo of Theodore Roosevelt on his ranch. He wrote,
“It would electrify some of my friends who have accused me of representing the kid-glove element in politics if they could see me galloping over the plains, day in and day out, clad in a buckskin shirt and leather chaparajos, with a big sombrero on my head.”
Think about his choices in this photo as well as that quote: he used a Mexican hat and saddle along with Indian-fringed clothing in order to assert his white manliness. He asserted his closeness to “savagery” in order to proclaim his ultimately civilized masculinity. He chose to promote this version of himself, instead of, say, his legislative work in New York.
After Turner, Teddy Roosevelt wrote a historical essay, “The Winning of the West” (1896) that adapted Turner’s thesis by declaring that “the American race” was forged on the frontier. According to TR, virile frontiersmen descended into savagery in order to defeat Indians and then rise up again to civilization, evolving a higher American civilization because of their experiences on the manly, savage frontier.
In 1899 he gave a lecture on "The Strenuous Life":
“In a perfectly peaceful and commercial civilization such as ours there is always a danger of laying too little stress upon the more virile virtues – upon the virtues which go to make up a race of statesmen and soldiers, of pioneers and explorers… These are the very qualities which are fostered by vigorous, manly out-of-door sports, such as mountaineering, big-game hunting, riding, shooting, rowing, football and kindred games.”
Like Frederick Jackson Turner, Roosevelt was concerned that the apparent closing of the frontier in the 1890s might affect the American character. To compensate, he promoted sports that were new in the 1890s, like football – and he eventually promoted US invasion of Cuba and the Philipines and beyond, in order to forge a “virile” “race” of Americans on some new frontier.
In 1898, the American battleship “Maine” exploded in Havana harbor. It may have been due to improperly-stored gunpowder on board, but American newspapers, eager to sell copies, trumpeted the theory that evil Cuban Spaniards had attacked us. This media attention and Roosevelt’s own personal yearning for a new frontier helped launch the Spanish-American war, a 100-day-long war which John Hays called “a splendid little war.” It was a war that promised to heal the nation after the divisiveness of the Civil War, while it also promised to return health and vigor to the national body. Arguably, it was the war that launched US imperialism.
Here is a political cartoon from 1898, stirring up sentiment for the Spanish-American war. Think about this depiction of Spanish Cubans. What race are they shown as? What version of masculinity? What state of civilization? How does this racist caricature compare to TR’s own self-portrait of himself as a manly frontiersman?
To fight the “Spanish Brute,” Roosevelt rounded up a volunteer cavalry regiment of the manliest American men he could find. Where did he look for manly men? On the western frontier and at Harvard. This regiment was a combination of students and cowboys, educated Easterners from Harvard and “primitive” Westerners from ranches and mines, in a combination that Roosevelt hoped would express the heights of civilized vigor, what he called the most “peculiarly American” of Americans.
Roosevelt named his regiment “The Rough Riders,” after a fictional component of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Buffalo Bill dime novels that preceded the show. Here, life literally imitates art.
This photograph is by William Dunwiddie, titled “Colonel Roosevelt and His Rough Riders at the Top of San Juan Hill” (1898). Roosevelt brought reporters along with his Rough Riders for their adventure in Cuba. Today, we would call these “embedded reporters.” They publicized Roosevelt’s exploits in a way that helped promote his political career, launching him to become Governor of New York and then President of the U.S.
This lithograph by George Harris and Sons is titled, “Roosevelt and the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, July 1, 1898.” It is also a lie. Roosevelt wasn’t at the front of his regiment, waving his sword phallicly. In his own memoir of this battle, he describes being lost in the back of the pack, confused by the chaos of battle. His regiment’s flag was not waving gloriously in the background: the flag-waver was one of the first to fall in battle.
Think about what image of battle is communicated here, and how it contradicts with the murky reality that TR himself described. In his memoirs, TR wrote that it’s “astonishing what a limited area of vision and experience one has in the hurly-burly of a battle.” Roosevelt trumpeted his regiment’s triumphal advance up San Juan Hill, but they actually weren’t the first U.S. soldiers up that hill.
Here are the soldiers who actually won the battle of San Juan Hill. This is the U.S. 10th Cavalry, photographed in 1894 in Montana. They were a group of African-American soldiers who had been nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers” because they fought against Indians on America’s western frontier. Battle-hardened, they were the ones who picked up Teddy Roosevelt’s regiments' flag when it fell. They were the ones who first reached the top of San Juan Hill.
TR complained that, somehow, it was backwards for blacks to be better soldiers than the white manly men he had hand-picked from ranches and Harvard. There are no images of these black soldiers at San Juan Hill, despite the reporters who were there, repeatedly portraying Roosevelt. These African-American soldiers were not promoted in their own time the way Roosevelt promoted himself. These heroic soldiers were uncomfortable reminders to Roosevelt that the manliest of men might not be the white Harvard students or rich ranchers whom Roosevelt favored, that America might not be entirely unified around a single hero.
They remind me to be careful of sources, of the lithographs and news dispatches and even news photos of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders,” to continually ask, who’s left out, and why?
They remind me, ultimately, to think about who Turner’s frontier thesis – and Roosevelt’s popularization of that thesis – ultimately left out.
As president, Theodore Roosevelt led invasions of the Philipines, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, all to advance civilization and give a new generation of manly men a frontier experience, while triumphing over what TR considered effeminate “brown” races. This photo of Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 shows him resting his hand on the globe as if he owned it.
As president, TR was also concerned with immigration, especially limiting the number of Japanese allowed into America.
He worried about what he called “race suicide.” By that, TR meant that he feared that overcivilization would lead to over-restraint, which led to a declining birthrate among the wealthiest whites, while the “lesser” races of Italians, Irish, Russians, and others whom TR considered non-white kept having more children, threatening to overtake those whom TR considered white. We ourselves might say that urbanized middle-class people of any race tend to have fewer children than rural or working-class people, simply because it’s harder to raise middle-class children. It’s harder to pass on a higher class status to a next generation, so middle-class people in many times and places tend to have fewer kids. Roosevelt thought this was a terrible problem and urged wealthy white men to have a little less restraint and a lot more children. He called it “the warfare of the cradle.”
He wasn’t simply a blustering racist. He also helped found the American national park system and to promote Progressive policies of environmentalism. He is, ultimately, an example of what it looks like to take Turner’s frontier thesis as a guide to living life.
This final photo shows TR and son Kermit, on safari in Africa, in 1909 or 1910. After being US president, TR faced the problem of what to do next. What new frontier to conquer, to make himself a manly American character? He went to Africa to hunt big game. This photo shows him and his slightly-less-manly-appearing son, sitting atop a dead water buffalo. It does not show the 40 African porters they had hired to carry the equipment they required in order to be civilized hunters, including a porcelain bathtub, an assortment of literature, and enough ginger-snaps that TR could eat a cookie every night, during his bath.
I tell you these details not to mock a great president, but to realistically face America's past. I love it that TR ate a gingersnap before bedtime, even on safari. I regret it that TR himself couldn't see the manliness of the African porters who made his gingersnap-eating possible, or the African-American soldiers who actually conquered San Juan Hill. I wonder about TR's son, Kerwin, and what kinds of choices of masculinity poor Kerwin was limited to. I wonder what it smelled like, sitting on top of that water buffalo -- and who else, among Americans, are also overly driven by their own versions of Turner's frontier thesis myth.