Teddy Roosevelt and Race Suicide
In June of 1901, then Vice President Teddy Roosevelt wrote to a friend: “All the other problems before us in this country, important though they may be, are as nothing compared with the problem of the diminishing birth rate and all that it implies.”
Roosevelt’s statement, read from today’s perspective when we worry about over-populating the world, seems surprising. Moreover, when we think of men and women being urged to have children to ensure the continued vitality and prosperity of their country, we probably think of political leaders in Europe in the 1930s and not of an American president at the turn of the century. But Roosevelt was obsessed for nearly 30 years with the prospect of what he, and others, called “race suicide.”
The Threat: Race Suicide
The term “race suicide” was not original with Roosevelt. It was, in fact, coined by Edward Alsworth Ross, a sociologist who taught at the University of Wisconsin. In the sociological terminology of the time, a race committed suicide when it no longer adequately reproduced, when its death rate approached its birth rate. The race, Roosevelt thundered, which allows itself to become effete or extinct deserved its fate: “that race is not only fated to extinction but it deserves extinction. When the capacity and desire for fatherhood and motherhood is lost the race goes down, and should; and we need to have the plainest kind of plain speaking addressed to those individuals who fear to bring children into the world.” Roosevelt’s fear was that America—or rather that a certain segment of the American population—was committing “race suicide.”
Views of the Races
It is important to acknowledge from the start that Roosevelt’s views—like the views of many sociologists of his time— are, today, blatantly and offensively racist. If you have ever wondered why so many postcards dating from the early part of this century were so cruelly racist, or why various ethnic groups were so ridiculed on postcards, the answer lies in large part in the views of race that were held by many people, including the period’s most distinguished sociologists and historians. Their view was of a world composed of “higher” and “lower” races—races whose characteristics and whose potential completely justified, to their minds, the use of the words “higher” and “lower.”
Roosevelt’s initial concern was with the fertility of what he considered the white American “race” or the “old-stock American” as embodied by the early American settler. The threat of race suicide first became apparent to Roosevelt in 1892 when he saw the newly released census of 1890. Concentrating on New England, Roosevelt saw the declining birth rate of this “old stock” New Englander as contrasted to that of the newly arrived immigrant populations, particularly the French Canadians who were moving into sections of New England in large numbers. In a letter to Francis Parkman dated May 22,1892, Roosevelt worried that the French Canadians might, “in many places supplant the real American stock.”
Roosevelt’s views on the subject were influenced by racial theorist Charles Pearson. Pearson had argued that races, like nations, moved through cycles from birth to death. He had argued as well that “the higher orders of every society tend to die out; that there is a tendency on the whole, for both lower classes and lower civilizations to increase faster than the higher.” Put in slightly different terms what this meant was that the upper classes, the “higher races,” the leaders of society, did not have as many children as did members of the lower classes and the “lower races.”
When Men Were Men
In Roosevelt’s mind, fertility was connected with vitality. In a world in which men were virile, in which women were “keepers of the family,” in which people worked and played hard, “breeding” or procreation inevitably followed. It was the loss of these virtues, the hungering after an easy, comfortable lifestyle, the loss of the frontier spirit, that imperiled the “old stock” American. America must, as Teddy put it, “Work— fight—breed.” A race is “unfit to cumber the earth, if its men do not work hard and its women breed,” he observed in 1899.
The danger that Roosevelt saw from this threat of suicide in the “higher” race was two-fold. First, if the “best” failed to reproduce adequately, their qualities (or genes) would be lost to the nation. Second, in time, the “best” would be overrun by the fertility of the “lower” races— specifically for Roosevelt (and other theoreticians) with Latin Americans, blacks, and East Europeans.
The Role of Women
Not surprisingly, Roosevelt’s views on “breeding” had a substantial influence on his views on the proper role of women. He remarked in an essay, for example, “that for women (as indeed for men) the home in its widest and fullest sense should be the prime end of life.” “The first requirement in a healthy race is that a woman should be willing and able to bear children just as the men must be willing and able to work and fight,” he wrote.
To those unable to have children, Roosevelt extended a “deep and respectful sympathy,” likening that sympathy to that which one “extends to the gallant fellow killed at the beginning of a campaign, or the man who toils hard and is brought to ruin by the fault of others.”
To those men and women who chose not to have children, Roosevelt had only scorn: “The man or woman who deliberately avoids marriage and has a heart so cold as to know no passion and a brain so shallow and selfish as to dislike having children, is in effect a criminal against the race and should be an object of contemptuous; abhorrence by all healthy people.”
Some Americans clearly responded to the President’s exhortation to breed. In 1903, he wrote to the Bower family who had sent him a picture of their 12 children: “Three cheers for Mr. and Mrs. Bower and their really satisfactory American family of twelve children. This is what I call being good citizens.”
Roosevelt even used his various political offices to try to encourage or even legislate breeding. He actually suggested in an address to Congress that that body consider a constitutional amendment on “the whole question of marriage and divorce.” He cautioned: “Willful sterility is, from the standpoint of the nation, from the standpoint of the human race, the one sin for which the penalty is national death, race death.”
It should be said, of course, that Roosevelt’s remarks were intended essentially for one class, the “higher” class who were not, to his mind, replenishing themselves. He wasn’t advocating that these families needed to have a dozen children; the survival of the race could be achieved by four or more. (Roosevelt had six children. This may explain why so many postcards picture Roosevelt and his children!).
By 1908, when he was turning over the presidency to William Howard Taft, Roosevelt cautioned his successor: “Among the various legacies of trouble which I leave you there is none as to which I more earnestly hope for your thought and care than this. There are very big problems which we have to face in the United States. I do not know whether you yourself realize how rapid the decline in the birth rate is or how rapid the drift has been away from the country to the cities. In spite of our enormous immigration, there is a good reason to fear that unless the present tendencies are checked your children and mine will see the day when our population is stationary, and so far as the native stock is concerned is dying out.”
As concerned as he was about the gene pool, it is also not surprising that Roosevelt felt that some people should not be allowed to reproduce. He remarked, for example, that “criminals should be sterilized” and that “feeble-minded persons should be forbidden to leave offspring behind them.” To justify his attitudes, Roosevelt drew an analogy: “Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum.”
The primary emphasis, however, should be placed on encouraging Americans to reproduce. “Let professors of eugenics (the movement devoted to improving the human species through the control of hereditary factors in mating) turn their attention to making it plain to the average college graduates that it is their prime duty to the race to leave their seed after them to inherit the earth.”
Roosevelt had a number of ideas on how to encourage, from a practical point a view, more breeding. He wanted to see a discrimination in favor of the man or woman who had more than three children. He wanted to see tax relief extended to those families with more than two children and tax penalties levied on those who were unmarried or childless or with two or fewer children.
As he grew older, Roosevelt’s position on race suicide hardened rather than softened. By 1911, he discovered that, in fact, race suicide was extending to even the new immigrant stock. He wrote: “This same racial crime is spreading almost as rapidly among the sons and daughters of immigrants as among the descendants of the native born.” As this remark suggests, Roosevelt had come to a redefinition of who constituted the “old stock” that he wanted to see replenished. With the assimilation of the immigrant groups—presumably even many of those whom he regarded as from the “lower” races—the “native” stock now included “all children of mothers and fathers born on this side of the water.”
Why did Roosevelt feel so strongly about the issue? In part his feeling was that the “old stock” represented the “best” that the nation had to offer. In order to have future leaders (in every sense of leadership), it was necessary to propagate from this gene pool. In part, his views were connected with a sense of an expanding world, a world that needed still to be colonized, that could continue to accept a larger and larger population. His view seemed to reflect his perception of the natural order. If men and women played out their proper roles, breeding would naturally follow. And finally, his views were connected as well with a military perception that a nation needed soldiers if it was to survive. In 1918, for example, Roosevelt was attributing France’s defeat at the hands of Germany as something occasioned by race suicide. If America allowed its birth rate to decline, it would be “impotent in the face of powers like Germany, Russia, or Japan,” countries in which the birth rates continued to increase.