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Theodore Roosevelt and Brownsville – Just What Did He Do Wrong?

Theodore Roosevelt and Brownsville – Just What Did He Do Wrong?
Wax figure of 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Washington, D.C. (Mira Agron/Dreamstime)

By    |   Thursday, 21 May 2015 02:43 PM

Without question, what Theodore Roosevelt did in the Brownsville Incident was the low point of his presidency.

Then and in the years since he has been reviled for disregarding Constitutional protections, acting against the grain of the American sense of decency and fair play, and committing an act of raw racism.

Booker T. Washington biographer Louis R. Harlan pulled no punches when he called Brownsville "the grossest single racial injustice of that so-called Progressive Era." Just what did Roosevelt do to merit such blistering condemnation? I answer that question and more in my recently released book, "Taking on Theodore Roosevelt."

Acting on his own as Commander-in-Chief of the army, Roosevelt discharged "without honor" one hundred sixty-seven infantry soldiers accused of either shooting up Brownsville, Texas and killing one civilian and wounding another or covering up for those who did.

Were the soldiers white, the Brownsville legacy might be a polite discussion in constitutional law books of the President’s powers. But because they were black, serving in a segregated black battalion, and almost all of them had clean records (some exemplary, including combat in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines Insurrection), it is portrayed as an impulsive act of racism and a touchstone showing how disgracefully America treated black Americans. History remembers the discharges as Roosevelt’s Brownsville sin.

Few question this interpretation enough to examine Roosevelt’s thinking. He had his reasons. He was sure from witness testimony that between twelve and twenty soldiers rampaged through Brownsville. Others, including most black leaders, were just as convinced. But they and others then and now did not think he could throw them out of the army, especially with a discharge less than honorable, without a trial at which the government had to prove their guilt and the soldiers could have lawyers and confront and cross-examine witnesses.

Roosevelt honestly believed testimony and evidence from army investigations was conclusive. But he feared that in court it might not be enough. Even in the Jim Crow society of segregation and discrimination that existed in Brownsville, a grand jury was unwilling to indict any soldier since none of the witnesses could identify which ones. Roosevelt expected a similar reluctance by army juries and foresaw one hundred sixty-seven trials resulting in one hundred sixty-seven acquittals.

Then where would he and the army be? They would have on their hands one hundred sixty-seven infantrymen possessing weapons and the training and skills to use them. Having killed once and gotten away with it, might they not kill again? What American town would accept a battalion in or near it with such men? Moreover, because the discharge each received was not "dishonorable," arguably Roosevelt could say none was punished. Not one soldier was fined or sent to jail; not one soldier lost any pay and other benefits right up to the day of discharge.

They even received travel pay to their homes of record. Wherever they went, they could begin new lives. No harm, no foul. True, senior non-commissioned officers lost pensions they were so close to because they left the army before they were entitled to them. To Roosevelt’s mind, part of a senior non-com’s job was to know what was talked about in barracks, control their soldiers and stop trouble before it started. If these sergeants closed their eyes and ears and sealed their lips, for Roosevelt they got what they deserved.

If history thought about this reasoning, it surely would scoff. But even W.E.B. Du Bois, the confrontational black leader, conceded Roosevelt believed it.

But when confronted by a man he already disliked, he lost all sense of perspective and made a separate mistake. Sen. Joseph B. Foraker, a Republican and a man with a passion for racial justice, took up the soldiers’ cause. And took on Roosevelt. He persuaded the Senate to investigate and spent almost every minute thereafter defending them. It took more than two years, 3,000 pages of testimony, scores of witnesses and hard evidence, and a trial lawyer’s skill (and fat wallet) for him to present their case. It was not enough. Foraker failed to convince enough senators to cross the President.

Roosevelt’s response to Foraker was disgraceful. Rather than re-thinking his action, he went after the soldiers and Foraker with both barrels. He saw Foraker making a personal attack of him, and to him this was a declaration of war. He set out to annihilate Foraker and drive him from public life. Brutally. Shamelessly. As for the soldiers, he called them butchers and closed his ears and heart to their appeals. He said he wished he could hang them, which sounded too much like the lynching that murdered hundreds of blacks. This is how he spoke of American soldiers who were not convicted of any crime.

A few years later, in a letter to Foraker inviting him to visit the Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, Roosevelt conceded — almost — he made a mistake. It was too little, too late. Much earlier Sen. Shelby Cullom noted, "it became perfectly clear to almost everyone in Congress that he was wrong …"

Theodore Roosevelt
belongs on Mount Rushmore and to be seen as a great President. However, because of Joseph Foraker, a "profile in courage," his Brownsville decisions will forever singe his legacy.

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Without question, what Theodore Roosevelt did in the Brownsville Incident was the low point of his Presidency.
Theordore Roosevelt, Brownsville, Texas
Thursday, 21 May 2015 02:43 PM
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