Word and Act: Theodore Roosevelt, Barack Obama, and John Brown
Now, with this second period of our history the name of John Brown will forever be associated; and Kansas was the theatre upon which the first act of the second of our great national life dramas was played.
Theodore Roosevelt, August 31, 1910, Osawatomie, Kansas
|Pres. Obama waves at Osawatomiens |
from the presidential limo
Pete Souza-White House
This past week (Dec. 4) I noted that President Obama was scheduled to speak at Osawatomie, Kansas, at the site of John Brown’s heroic conflict with pro-slavery terrorists, and the site where Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was invited to speak at the dedication of the Osawatomie historic site on August 31, 1910. Although the occasion became a kind of starting point for his bid for the 1912 Presidency under the banner of his own new third party, his original intention for speaking in Kansas was to promote the most progressive or liberal form of Republican politics at a time when the party was split between conservatives and “insurgent” progressive Republicans. Roosevelt wanted to be the guiding spirit of the Republicans and promote his liberal Republican ideas; but the plan backfired when his speech drew criticism for identifying his campaign with Brown. In fact, according to historian Robert LaForte, Roosevelt’s speech “evoked a wide variety of responses. It was labeled ‘Communistic,’ ‘Socialistic,’ and ‘Anarchistic’ in various quarters; while others hailed it ‘the greatest oration ever given on American soil.’"1
|Theodore Roosevelt in Osawatomie, 1910|
Dike Dickerson photo-Kansas Historical Society
Roosevelt had originally come into office as a result of the death of President William McKinley, who was mortally wounded by an assassin in September 1901. Roosevelt served out the McKinley term, was reelected in 1904, but failed to gain the nomination for the 1912 election due to a split in the Republican Party that left William Howard Taft the party’s victor. In 1911, Roosevelt founded his own third party, the Progressive Party, and finally came in second place to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the Presidential election, leaving Taft, his Republican rival and former friend, in third place.
Part I: Theodore Roosevelt Makes a Speech
The 1910 Osawatomie speech is known as “The New Nationalism” speech and is considered one of the great orations in the history of the politics of the United States. Roosevelt began the oration by citing that the history of the nation was marked by two great crises, the first at its founding and the second in the Civil War. Roosevelt’s references to Brown, Lincoln, and the Civil War made it a compelling treatment of the nation’s recent history; it had only been fifty years since John Brown was hanged in Virginia, and barely a half-century since the end of the war. Yet it was not a history lecture, but a savvy politician’s address reflecting Roosevelt’s political agenda. “I do not speak of this struggle of the past merely from the historic standpoint,” Roosevelt declared. “Our interest is primarily in the application to-day of the lessons taught by the contest a half a century ago.” The hopeful candidate declared that it was almost useless to “pay lip-loyalty to the mighty men of the past unless we sincerely endeavor to apply to the problems of the present precisely the qualities which in other crises enabled the men of that day to meet those crises.” He considered it “half melancholy and half amusing” to consider how the nation “in company with John Brown, and under the lead of Abraham Lincoln,” fixed the problems of their own era, while the people of his own era were denouncing “those”—meaning himself—“who are trying to meet the problems of the twentieth century in the spirit which was accountable for the successful solution of the problems of Lincoln’s time.”2
Roosevelt: Lincoln over Brown
It is no surprise that Roosevelt’s references to John Brown invoked strong criticism. Many people hated Brown in 1910 as they do today. By 1910, the age of the so-called “Black Republicans” was long gone and the nation had repented of its 19th century passion for black liberation and equality. The Great White Nation had already resumed business-as-usual, Reconstruction lay in ruins, and the former slave and his children were now under the heel of segregation laws and violent racism. It was the era of flagrant, non-stop lynching, and John Brown’s reputation was suffering the disparaging revisions of a society that increasingly had grown hostile toward black people and their claim for justice. Furthermore, by this time, the memory of Lincoln had been canonized, and the martyred sixteenth President had become the messianic figure of the nation, while John Brown was increasingly being written off as an extremist fanatic.
One thing that is interesting about Roosevelt’s speech is that despite the criticism it drew, his references to Brown were fairly consistent with the article that he afterward published in self-defense. In that article, "The Progressives, Past and Present," published in The Outlook magazine (3 Sept. 1910), Roosevelt was extremely measured in praising John Brown in order to make it clear that he followed Lincoln, and held Lincoln as the real savior of the nation. Yet Roosevelt had said as much in his Osawatomie speech the month before by citing the leadership of Lincoln and making Brown only a complement to the slain President at best. To Roosevelt, John Brown’s Kansas was not an ideal, but useful: “It was the result of the struggle in Kansas which determined that our country should be in deed as well as in name devoted to both union and freedom; . . . In name we had the Declaration of Independence in 1776; but we gave the lie by our acts to the words of the Declaration of Independence until 1865; and words count for nothing except in so far as they represent acts.”3
The Long, Liberal Hand of Oswald Garrison Villard
If Roosevelt was consistent in elevating Lincoln far above Brown, he was also careful not to give Brown any praise. In fact, LaForte reveals that one of the speechwriters, William Allen White, was determined to “limit” Roosevelt’s comments about Brown. Why? In order to placate the most famous John Brown biographer of that time, Oswald Garrison Villard.
|Oswald Garrison Villard|
We should recall that in 1910, Oswald Garrison Villard was the newly reigning John Brown scholar, and his acclaimed book, John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After, was still a novelty on bookstore shelves. Villard had already used his considerable influence to bury W.E.B. DuBois’s eloquent biography of Brown in bad reviews in 1909—making sure that the black scholar did not steal his thunder before his book was released the following year. The grandson of pacifist William Lloyd Garrison, Villard was something of a limousine liberal (his Southern wife didn’t let black people enter through their front door) with a fanatical devotion to pacifism and a quiet contempt for John Brown. The Garrisons were noble, but the great abolitionist’s heirs were a proud lot. Oswald Garrison Villard inherited money, owned newspapers, and resented John Brown as the man who had inadvertently stolen his grandfather’s glory.
Villard promoted his own biography of Brown as the most advanced modern work of scholarship, and in many respects it was exactly that. Yet it was also heavily biased and carefully written to both praise and damn John Brown as a murderer. In fact, it was Villard who brought the “truth” of the Pottawatomie killings to the 20th century reader in graphic condemnation of Brown as a kind of oxymoron—a principled murderer. Having amassed an unprecedented body of research, nevertheless Villard manipulated the evidence to produce his work of “friendly fire” against Brown—and he did so with devastating effect. Brown’s reputation, although already under fire from lesser writers since the later 19th century, now came increasingly into disfavor in “mainstream” (read: white) society. His subjective abuse disguised as pristine scholarship provided ammunition for a whole array of anti-Brown writers well into the 20th century.4
In 1910, Villard was thus a notable activist and author, and certainly he flexed considerable muscle in all matters pertaining to John Brown. According to LaForte, Villard “was afraid that Roosevelt in characteristic half-knowledge would describe the ‘old fanatic’ in terms so favorable that Villard's interpretation would be set back about 30 years.” Just as he had stymied poor DuBois in 1909, the long, liberal hand of Villard now was manipulating Roosevelt, successfully persuading him to “confine his remarks about Brown.” As a result of this self-interested subterfuge, Roosevelt mentioned Brown only in two incidental references, which surprised the editor of the local newspaper, the Osawatomie Graphic, who expected “more than a mere cursory mention” of the Old Man of Osawatomie and Harper’s Ferry. One attendee spoke of the speech stating that Roosevelt had dedicated a monument to John Brown without mentioning his name.5
Part II: Barack Obama Makes a Speech
As many of you know, I have roots here. I'm sure you're all familiar with the Obamas of Osawatomie. Actually, I like to say that I got my name from my father, but I got my accent – and my values – from my mother. She was born in Wichita. Her mother grew up in Augusta. Her father was from El Dorado. So my Kansas roots run deep. President Barack Obama, December 6, 2011, Osawatomie, Kansas
|Pres. Obama in Osawatomie: Never Mentioned JB|
Interestingly, one blogger for the New York Times observed the President’s witticism, “I have roots here. I'm sure you're all familiar with the Obamas of Osawatomie,” by which he overstated the fact that he does have Kansas roots on his mother’s side of the family. “By emphasizing his family’s history on the United States mainland, which is less familiar to the public than his Kenyan ancestry and his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia,” the blogger concluded, “Mr. Obama tried to tie his background to that of the mainstream middle class.”7
Whether or not one agrees with President Obama, it is obvious, then, that his inspiration for the Osawatomie platform was the parallel drawn between Roosevelt’s political challenge of one hundred years ago, and his own forthcoming run for reelection against a hard Republican opposition. Taken at face value, it would seem the President has no interest in John Brown, and that his presence in Osawatomie was only due to the fact that Roosevelt had gone there in 1910.
At first blush, it might seem that the President was indifferent, perhaps even unaware of the significance of Osawatomie and the John Brown epic. For instance, one knowledgeable writer in the Hartford [Conn.] Courant noted yesterday that he found it peculiar that President Obama made no mention of John Brown in his Osawatomie speech last week. “Being passionate about history and the American idea,” writes Bill Hosley, “I was astonished that the president, his staff and the mainstream media overlooked why Theodore Roosevelt, or anyone else, travels to visit Osawatomie.” Hosley goes on to write that the President “could have delivered his speech anywhere,” such as the Theodore Roosevelt national historic site in Oyster Bay, N.Y. But as clever as it was to link his message with Roosevelt’s 1910 address, “to go to Osawatomie and ignore the history that brought Roosevelt there in the first place is disrespectful. . . .”8
Strong words, but I confess that I found them somewhat persuasive at first.
|"Osawatomie" tribute in Osawatomie,|
the 1970s publication of the Weather Underground
Then I noted an interesting article on a right-wing website, Big Government, in which the author does the typical song-and-dance about President Obama’s ties to “terrorists” Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, including a downloadable copy of a 1975 version of Osawatomie, a publication whose title was inspired by that group’s heroic perception of John Brown. I have seen this kind of stuff before, including the supposed similarity between President Obama’s campaign logo and the old circular insignia of the Weather Underground, and references to the President’s early association with Ayers and Dohrn. Of course it’s nonsense, and even if it were true, I think it’s a matter of conservatives straining out gnats and swallowing camels. (By the way, I ate a slice of pizza while seated next to Bernadine Dohrn in Lake Placid, N.Y. in late 2009, during a John Brown sesquicentennial conference. She seemed quite a lovely person, and if she likes “Old Osawatomie,” I certainly won’t hasten to condemn her.)
The Audacity of Hope-ful Republicans
Yet the conservative writer provided some unintentional assistance to me, at least by giving me pause to reconsider President Obama at Osawatomie. Indeed, an excerpt from his article is worth quoting at length:
[T]he choice of Osawatomie may be more significant than the Roosevelt conceit or Obama’s maternal family roots. Osawatomie was the site of a historic battle between abolitionist John Brown and pro-slavery forces (who were backed by the Democrats of the age). Though Brown’s men were defeated, his audacious tactics earned him the nickname “Osawatomie.” Obama may have chosen deliberately to cast his struggle against “the rich” in the same emotive terms. Obama alluded to Osawatomie in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, in discussing his Kansas ancestors (p. 12): “. . . Kansas had entered the Union free only after a violent precursor to the Civil War, the battle in which John Brown’s sword tasted first blood.” Obama also cited John Brown as one of his historical inspirations in his second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope. In a passage that almost anticipates the radical themes of this week’s speech, he writes (p. 97):
The best I can do in the face of our history is remind myself that it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty… It was the wild-eyed prophecies of John Brown, his willingness to spill blood and not just words on behalf of his visions, that helped force the issue of a nation half slave and half free.
Obama conspicuously neglected to mention Osawatomie’s history in his speech on Tuesday, but the town is clearly important to Obama’s personal identity, as well as to the way he understands his political destiny. Given that Kansas is not a swing state, the choice of setting likely had more to do with the symbolism of Osawatomie Brown than electoral votes. In Obama’s revision of history, the Republicans are the slave-owners, the villains in “the defining issue of our time.”
. . . . It’s highly unlikely that Obama was channeling Bill Ayers on Tuesday or sending a “dog whistle” to the extreme left. He is not shy about siding publicly with the radicals of the Occupy movement and evoking their rhetoric, and did so in the speech itself. Yet the very choice of Osawatomie, a symbol beloved by the earlier generation of radicals that mentored Obama, is a reminder that his present radicalism has a deep–if largely ignored–history. It also seems to confirm that Obama sees himself as the leader and instigator of an internal struggle among Americans. No matter how much Democrats complain about Republican charges of “class warfare,” Obama’s apparent decision to evoke the symbolism of Osawatomie in launching an attack on the wealthy is a reminder that he, in fact, relishes the fight and believes he will win even if his views are presently those of a radical minority. Like John Brown, he is prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of his goals–even if, unlike Brown, Obama fights to restrict freedom instead of expanding it.9
Of course, the things that bother this conservative writer are of no concern to me, and I have no interest in getting my John Brown blog entangled in debates reflective of a political system that evokes neither charm nor conviction in my soul. (I should mention, however, that there is a palpable contempt in the unceasing manner in which conservatives refer to the President simply as “Obama.” Dead presidents may be so repeatedly referenced, but it seems to me that our sitting President of the United States deserves to be referred to as “President Obama” at least a few times in such an article. The author’s consistent reference to “Obama” sounds like just another way of saying, “this n----r,” and I find it viscerally offensive.)
Roots and Radicalism
On the other hand, although the writer makes these observations in contempt, they are helpful in demonstrating that President Obama very likely cared much more about speaking in Osawatomie than we realized. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, President Obama may actually be a quiet admirer of John Brown, as two references in his books suggest, as well as his cultural ties to Kansas. Particularly, I think the writer’s observation that “the very choice of Osawatomie, a symbol beloved by the earlier generation of radicals that mentored Obama” is probably true. I also suspect that beneath the shining “American” armor of political necessity, President Obama may have a “radicalism” rooted in history—particularly a history of admiring leaders who instigated “an internal struggle among Americans.”
Of course, I do not read this as a negative or diminishing evaluation. It suggests that while President Obama probably avoided any mention of John Brown in order to save himself the headache of being attacked by right-wingers all over again, he may actually have had a greater enthusiasm for speaking in Osawatomie, Kansas, than even President Theodore Roosevelt had in 1910. President Obama might have cited John Brown in his speech, after which he would have been obligated to placate angry white people across the nation, possibly even back-peddle to do damage control. Instead, my sense is that he simply overlooked Brown. Perhaps that’s cowardice, or just common sense.
To be sure, it is doubtful that he made the decision to omit mention of Brown on his own. For a President or a presidential candidate, word and act are often matters of political expedience, not clarity. President Obama was probably advised to do so—although I doubt it was the current reigning biographer of Brown who warned the President not to mention John Brown. Yes, it’s possible that the White House is aware of Tony Horwitz’s new book and decided that it was best for the President not to get entangled with the controversial Subject of Midnight Rising—especially since Tony tends to extend the Villardian image of Brown as a well-intended murderer into the 21st century. Still, it’s interesting that on the day that President Obama was speaking in Osawatomie, Tony Horwitz was giving an author’s John Brown speech in Kansas City.10 Too bad they couldn’t have gotten together for a post-speech book chat.
© 2011 by L. DeCaro Jr.
1 Robert S. La Forte, “Theodore Roosevelt's Osawatomie Speech,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 32:2 (Summer 1966): 187-200. Retrieved from the Kansas Historical Society website (Topeka, Kan.) on 11 December 2011 from:
2 Theodore Roosevelt, “New Nationalism Speech” ([31 August] 1910). Retrieved from Teaching American History.org (Ashland University: Ashland, Oh.) on 11 December 2011 from:
4 See my essay, “Black People’s Ally, White People’s Bogeyman: A John Brown Story,” in The Afterlife of John Brown, edited by Andrew Taylor and Eldrid Herrington (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 11-26.
5 LaForte, “Theodore Roosevelt’s Osawatomie Speech.”
6 “Full text of Barack Obama's Speech in Osawatomie, Kansas,” The Guardian [U.K.] (6 Dec. 2011). Retrieved on 11 December 2011 from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/07/full-text-barack-obama-speech.
7 Ashley Southall, “In Kansas, Obama Relishes His ‘Deep’ Roots,” New York Times (6 Dec. 2011). Retrieved on 11 December 2011 from: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/06/in-kansas-obama-relishes-his-deep-roots/
8 William Hosley, “Obama Fails To Note John Brown's Battleground,” Hartford Courant (10 Dec. 2011). Retrieved on 11 December 2011 from: http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/hc-op-hosley-obama-ignores-john-brown-1210-20111210,0,1775988.story.
9 Joel B. Pollak, “Obama’s Osawatomie Speech Echoes Symbols of Occupy Wall Street, Abolitionism–and the Weather Underground,” Andrew Breitbart Presents Big Government (8 Dec. 2011). Retrieved on 11 December 2011 from: http://biggovernment.com/jpollak/2011/12/08/obamas-osawatomie-speech-echoes-symbols-of-occupy-wall-street-abolitionism-and-the-weather-underground/
10 Hosley, “Obama Fails To Note John Brown's Battleground.”