Talking Teddy with Historian J.M. Carlisle: Things You Probably Won’t Learn from Ken Burns

There is little doubt that the much anticipated Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “The Roosevelts,” will be a cinematic masterpiece. Telling a compelling story, woven together by the narration of famous actors, musically brilliant, and masterfully assembled is Ken Burns forte. However, as far as an in-depth examination of the personality and character of Theodore Roosevelt the audience will learn nothing new. it is unlikely, given the historians he has chosen as consultants, the very real dark side of America’s most popular President will get more than cursory attention.

To his credit, writes Carlisle in her blog, Burns does reflect that TR summary dishonorable discharge of an entire African American cavalry unit stationed in Brownsville, Texas—Buffalo Soldier heroes of the Cuban theater in the Spanish American War where Teddy’s Rough Rider legend was created—were wrongly accused of murdering a white citizen represented a “low point” in his administration. However, Burns never delves into the myriad other occasions when TR’s early 20th century notions on race and ethnicity skewed his response to situations like in Brownsville. How he regarded the Colombians as “monkeys” as he was helping to orchestrate the Panama revolution is another such example of his intolerance at work. Several historians over time have attempted to bring these important issues of TR’s character into the national conversation, but they get very little traction in the public arena.  Instead, according to Carlisle, what is reinforced to the point of absurdity is the aspects of his persona that American’s identify as heroic.

Author of “The Cowboy and the Canal: How Theodore Roosevelt Cheated Colombia, Stole Panama, and Bamboozled America, J.M. Carlisle, knows how difficult it is to show the unflattering aspects of a man many American’s worship. “Most people people believe Roosevelt was a heroic, uncorruptable, larger-than-life, man of the people, “  says Carlisle, “but in fact, TR was human… terribly human. And his actions in the Panama Canal purchase are a painful demonstrate of that complex fact.”

The Cowboy and the Canal traces a trail of greed, corruption, fraud, and hubris that leads in all directions to Theodore Roosevelt. The story begins with Panama itself and the evils of Balboa in 1513; details the horrors of the U.S. Panama Railroad construction in 1849; explores the aborted French effort in 1881; and finally explores the dubious behavior of America’s favorite Cowboy-hero, Theodore Roosevelt, as he bullied his way into the purchase of the bankrupt French Panama Canal Company by the United States in 1904.Traveling full-circle, the tale winds back to Roosevelt’s attempt to revive his faltering Presidential fortunes as he begins his Progressive Party campaign tour the day of the official Opening of the Panama Canal, August 15, 1914.

There are many scoundrels and few heroes in this progressive era drama. Individuals who facilitated the behind-the-scenes takeover of the bankrupt French Panama Canal Company by an American syndicate and the hijacking of Panama from Colombia range all the way from TR’s brother-in-law, Douglas Robinson—husband of his youngest sister Corrine; the scheming would-be French aristocrat, Philippe Bunau-Varilla; a slick New York corporate lawyer, William Cromwell; the venerable John Hay, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State; and Theodore Roosevelt himself.

Some of the most prominent industrialists and capitalists of the day, including financier J.P. Morgan; former president of the New York Stock Exchange, J. Edward Simmons; railroad magnate C.P. Huntington; and Charles Taft, multimillionaire older brother of soon to become United States President William Howard Taft, played major roles in this political theater. All of these men abetted the scheme, but the three men without whom the Panama purchase would never have happened are Theodore Roosevelt, William Nelson Cromwell, and Philippe Bunau-Varilla.

Among the few heroes of this fascinating Progressive Era saga are Democratic Senator John Tyler Morgan—a scrappy former Confederate general determined to bring prosperity back to his beloved South, and the legendary newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer whose quest to uncover the truth behind the Panama Canal purchase ended in the United States Supreme Court in 1911.

Drawing directly from over 300 primary sources—newspaper accounts, political cartoons, Congressional records, books, photographs, and letters—the narrative ripens into a fully developed history of how Roosevelt’s intolerance for opposition, his insatiable political ambitions, and his hyper-masculine and racist imperialist perspective made him the perfect ally for the powerful industrialists and capitalist investors of the American syndicate who seemed to possess an unappeasable gluttony for riches. Using original material, Carlisle restores the voices to those many Roosevelt critics who—through time and social consensus—have been removed from what was a heated national conversation

Visit The Cowboy and Canal website.
Buy the book on Amazon or Barns and Noble
Read Dr. Carlisle’s Book blog
Follow the Cowboy on  Facebook

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