The American Left has an abiding attachment to Theodore Roosevelt. Everyone from MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews to former Harvard University Press editor-in-chief Aida D. Donald keeps Roosevelt on hand as a stand-in example of a “good Republican” — invoked, perhaps, when the name of Abraham Lincoln has been outworn, and a new exemplar of “acceptable” Republicanism is needed. A “trans-partisan” figure and an original “progressive,” Roosevelt represents what the GOP could have been.
But on the social issues that loom so large in the liberal Democratic mind, just how much do Theodore Roosevelt and these modern progressives have in common? As it turns out, not all that much.
Throughout his life, President Roosevelt had a particular hatred for the crime of abortion, without distinction as to the stage of gestation. He fiercely declaimed against what he termed “pre-natal infanticide” and refused pardon to criminals guilty of being an accessory to abortion, as he explained in his own autobiography.
In his writings, Roosevelt connected abortion to “family planning” and birth control, arguing that it was the very mindset of artificial birth control itself that led to abortion in the first place. (That is an argument that mainstream American conservatives have, for several reasons, often been too timid to advance during the past several decades.) One does not require a doctorate in history to recognize that abortion was drastically less accepted among Americans when, before the Second World War, contraceptives were often illegal and viewed by many as an insult to public decency — a view that TR vociferously shared.
Given this history, is Roosevelt really a man with whom the pro-choice movement could make common cause? His antipathy to all that the socially liberal Left holds dear, his aggressive, forthright, supremely politically incorrect defense of Christian civilization and condemnation of moral relativism, so profusely drips from the pages of nearly all his written work and speeches that one is inclined to ask if Roosevelt’s liberal admirers have even glanced at his writings or statements.
In a widely known letter of January 24, 1906, to the Reverend Franklin C. Smith, a minister from Nebraska, Roosevelt laid bare his view on abortion in the clearest possible terms, connecting it to a mindset of population control, self-indulgent moral dereliction, and a weakening of character. He declared:
Men may differ about the tariff, or about currency, or about expansion; but the man who questions the attitude I take in this matter is, I firmly believe, either lacking in intelligence or else lacking in character. . . . To advocate artificially keeping families small, with its inevitable attendants of pre-natal infanticide, of abortion, with its pandering to self-indulgence, its shirking of duties, and its enervation of character, is quite as immoral as to advocate theft or prostitution, and is even more hurtful in its folly.
Roosevelt further accused the Reverend Smith, who supported the contemporary family-planning beliefs of “certain French thinkers,” of “adopting a position both vicious and foolish,” which made him “baleful to the state, and a deep discredit to the church.” Roosevelt even went so far as to declare that any country that adopted such an immoral code of social conduct ought to “make way for some other nation,” one that would possess “the elementary decencies and manly virtues.”
As Roosevelt saw it, abortion and the destruction of family life were ultimately the result of a spiritual and moral cancer that shied away from bearing the hardships of life and selfishly eschewed love for one’s country and fellow citizens — a malaise that increased access to contraceptives could only exacerbate, not solve. A rejection of the cross of duty — of one’s own part in the project of human history — that it is the task of every upstanding citizen and Christian to bear, and in the carrying of which one may find the ultimate meaning of life.
What, then, would Roosevelt say of America today, where much of the population has come to view the extermination of human infants as itself a method of “birth control”? Has the situation deteriorated to such an extent that it now would be time for America, in Roosevelt’s words, to “make way” for some other country? For those of an historical mindset, the infant skeletons that archaeologists have found piled up outside ancient Roman brothels might come to mind. It seems safe to assume that TR had a similar image of human despoliation and disgrace in mind when he penned those words to Smith.
In his autobiography, published in 1913, about four years after he left the White House, Roosevelt again addressed the issue of abortion. In chapter 8, “The New York Governorship,” he described his approach to criminal cases in which pardon was requested for “the action of some man in getting a girl whom he seduced to commit abortion.” He wrote that “requests for leniency merely made me angry,” and of a particular case, “in which a physician of wealth and high standing had seduced a girl and then induced her to commit abortion,” he said, “I rather lost my temper, and wrote to the individuals who had asked for the pardon, saying that I extremely regretted that it was not in my power to increase the sentence.”
Roosevelt so reviled abortion that he refused to commute the criminal sentences of men who were accessories to the act, even after requests from multiple petitioners. As he relates in the autobiography, he even went so far as to publicly expose the identities of the petitioners in the aforementioned case, because he thought that they “deserved public censure.” “Whether they received this public censure or not I did not know,” he said, “but that my action made them very angry I do know, and their anger gave me real satisfaction.”
Indeed, abortion was a crime in every state in America in 1900, with laws just as exacting as the abortion legislation recently passed in Alabama, and there is no record of Roosevelt arguing in any capacity for the relaxation of abortion law in the United States. For that matter, there is little evidence that any leading politician at the turn of the century, of any party, believed those laws to be somehow “unconstitutional.”
Those in the ranks of the pro-life movement today should take inspiration from Roosevelt’s staunch defense of the most vulnerable among us. That same fighting spirit that led him to walk three miles to church from his home at Sagamore Hill, even after a serious operation had made walking difficult for him, should guide our own protection of innocent life. As Roosevelt said in his address at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 1901, the “last important public utterance” he made before ascending to the presidency:
No prosperity and no glory can save a nation that is rotten at heart. We must ever keep the core of our national being sound, and see to it that not only our citizens in private life, but, above all, our statesmen in public life, practice the old commonplace virtues which from time immemorial have lain at the root of all true national wellbeing.
Roosevelt recognized that public and private good behavior alike were necessary, for both America’s “national wellbeing” and the wellbeing of its citizens. The grotesque spectacle of the recent Democratic debate — in particular, the segment that saw the various candidates jump over one other to defend the “right” to annihilate the next generation — placed on full display an ideology that puts personal lust over the well-being of innocent life and corrupts liberty into license and a shameful selfishness. “Life is a great adventure,” Roosevelt said in chapter 11 of his autobiography, “and the worst of all fears is the fear of living” — and what could be a greater testament to the fear of living than to crush the life from one’s own son or daughter when even the lowest of animals will die to protect their young?
“We shall not go down in ruin unless we deserve and earn our end,” the erstwhile president said in his speech at the University of Berlin on May 12, 1910. “There is no necessity for us to fall; we can hew out our destiny for ourselves, if only we have the wit and the courage and the honesty.”