The Barbarian Virtues

One of my favorite presidents in history has to be Theodore Roosevelt.

As a person and as a president he was larger than life. He was famous for many personal traits, as well as for many famous quips. He was the youngest person to ever become president, served two terms, but was elected only once.

He became president after the assassination of President William McKinley. McKinley was killed by an anarchist as he was walking through Union Station in Washington D.C. Roosevelt served all four years of McKinley’s second term, and was elected president in 1904, serving until 1908, before retiring to hunt rhinos and lions in Africa.

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Roosevelt in Africa

Roosevelt was an outdoorsman, who believed that it was important to not only be vigorous and tough physically but also thoughtful and intelligent. His writing reveals a man of poetry and literature, and his adventures hunting, riding and making war are exemplary of a wild west star.

This combination of opposing characteristics seems to have been intentional. Roosevelt was famous for wanting to remain tough in order to remain powerful. To him power meant not only physical power but also power through example. AS a leader he redesigned the presidency to reflect our modern concept of an activist executive, far different from the earlier inhabitants of the White house.

Roosevelt famously said to psychologist G. Stanley Hall, 1899:

“Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”

download (2)This reveals much of how he thought of the importance for barbarism, especially as a tool for advancing civilization. What barbarism means, however, may be surprising.

In his conception, Native Americans were noble savages. Barbarians on the Western Frontier, in his mind, helped to steel the ambitions of Americans through violence and focus of cause. Without these barbarians to conquer, the “washiness and mushiness” of civilization would take over, unbalanced by riding, shooting and yes, killing.

The use of violence to make boys into men is a disturbing concept. Believing that it is necessary to be violent in order to be a man is unsupported by any evidence, resting entirely on opinion. Indeed, modern understanding of the costs of violence to the psyche has led to the identification of many mental illnesses that violence fosters.

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More ominously, however, would be how this view of violence is reflected in later political ideologies.

In the Doctrine of Fascism, Benito Mussolini seems to reflect the same ideal of violence for the benefit of civiling men and states.

He wrote,

Fascism wants man to be active and to engage in
action with all his energies; it wants him to be
manfully aware of the difficulties besetting him
and ready to face them.

It conceives of life as a struggle in which
it behooves a man to win for himself a
really worthy place,
first of all by fitting himself
(physically, morally, intellectually) to become the
implement required for winning it.

Hence the high value of culture in all its forms
(artistic, religious, scientific) and the
outstanding importance of education.

Hence also the essential value of work,
by which man subjugates nature
and creates the human world (economic,
political, ethical, and intellectual). 

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Mt. Rushmore

There is little difference between the views of Roosevelt and Mussolini. The connection, however, is offensive to most Americans.

Mussolini is bad.

Teddy Roosevelt, is a hero.

After all we carved his face onto the side of Mt. Rushmore. That honor, by the way, perfectly illustrates both Roosevelts point about barbarism and civilization, because Mt. Rushmore is in actuality a sacred Native American burial ground.

Yes, that’s right. The faces of four dead white American presidents were carved into the side of a sacred burial ground for Native Americans, and then seized by the government as a tourist destination.

Nothing could demonstrate the irony of the barbarian virtues being used to advance “civilization.”download

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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