Silly me. I read the headline for Jason L. Riley’s newest Wall Street Journal article, “What Trump and Teddy Roosevelt Have in Common” and assumed he was talking about trade. That is, I thought Riley knew what he was writing about.
I’ll sure never make that mistake again! For Riley’s column was not about the economic nationalism that Roosevelt unmistakably championed – including tariffs – and that President Trump says he’s trying to put into effect. Instead, the subject was immigration – and “almost wholly incomplete” is a charitable description of Riley’s portrayal of TR’s outlook.
According to Riley, Roosevelt was a combination xenophobe and partisan hack who wouldn’t even distinguish immigrants from first generation Americans, and who sought to curb arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe in particular because, like all Republicans, he “was concerned that too many of these latest arrivals ultimately would vote Democratic.”
Consequently, Roosevelt allegedly was all too happy to endorse the common nativist stereotype of the latest wave of immigrants as (in Riley’s words), “vermin [having] human heads with swarthy complexions, and [wearing] hats or bandannas labeled ‘Mafia,’ ‘Anarchist’ and ‘Socialist’” – not to mention assassins like Leon Czolgosz, the son of Polish immigrants who had gunned down President William McKinley in 1901.
Sound familiar? As made clear by the column, that was Riley’s intent. But whatever you think of President Trump, or current or recent immigration policy, there can be no question that Riley’s portrayal of TR renders the former president practically unrecognizable.
The heart of the legitimate case that Roosevelt harbored many of the prejudices that would shape American immigration policy between 1924 and 1965 entails the former president’s own oft-stated worldview. Entirely consistent with the main currents of progressive reform thinking of his era, he believed that different peoples of the world occupied (as one scholar has put it) “different civilization levels,” and those occupied by Americans and Europeans were at the top. Just as consistent, therefore, was Roosevelt’s support for simply cutting off immigration from China and Japan.
At the same time, his concerns may not simply have been racial. According to one scholar, as Roosevelt saw it:
“the entire ‘coolie’ class from China threatened labor relations because Chinese laborers were lured to the American shores under false pretenses and were forced to work for low wages. The deal made with Chinese labor was bound to result in a lowering of the standard of living and cause future problems. Roosevelt’s response was to close the door for Asia.”
Indeed, he reached an agreement with the Japanese government, in 1907, to resume limited immigration from Japan to the United States proper, and more extensive flows into the American territory of Hawaii. This bilateral deal also specified that the San Francisco Board of Education’s post-earthquake re-segregation of Japanese and Korean schoolchildren (with Chinese!) be reversed.
Further complicating the picture: Roosevelt’s definition of political undesirables was not limited to southern and eastern Europeans. He was just just as worried about “German-Americans active on behalf of imperial Germany in World War I.” More broadly, he by no means assumed that those ostensibly more desirable northern and western Europeans would assimilate effortlessly into American society and culture. They would need to make active efforts to give up their Old World political and religious loyalties.
And although Roosevelt’s promptings led Congress to establish in 1907 the Dillingham Commission, whose voluminous reports laid the groundwork for the ethnically restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, with the exception of the Asians, the former president, according to another scholar, “advised against discriminating on the basis of national-origin or religious beliefs.” (Asians still excepted of course.) He also opposed requiring immigrants to pass literacy tests, which were proposed largely to discriminate against newcomers from the non-English speaking world.
In addition, to a great extent, Roosevelt’s championing of urban economic and social reform stemmed from his encounters in New York City with the impoverished lives and oppressive working conditions of recent immigrants – especially from southern and eastern Europe.
Obviously, too many of TR’s attitudes on the allegedly superior and inferior qualities of whites and non-whites, and even of Europeans from different regions on the continent, are completely unacceptable by today’s standards. But a fair-minded analysis would also recognize that he was more than simply a “man of his [prejudiced] time.” In particular, unlike many of even his progressive contemporaries, Roosevelt didn’t seem to view these differing racial qualities as fixed forever by biology. He apparently believed that nurture could augment nature, and however condescending, this view unmistakably – if too implicitly – accepted the inherent equality of all.
Similarly, Roosevelt’s support for various immigration restrictions was based not on a desire to bar permanently all undesirables, however they were defined. It was based on a belief that inflows that were too great and too rapid would undercut the wages of American workers and threaten the cohesion of a country already undergoing a series of tumultuous transitions, and especially one that he and other progressives viewed as supremely important to a successful national future – the creation of a nation whose hitherto fragmented institutions (both public and private) would centralize enough to cope with the challenges of an increasingly complex and rapidly emerging economic and technological modernity.
So if a pundit or any type of analyst wanted to create a truly accurate picture of Roosevelt’s views on immigration – and their implications for America today – he or she clearly would have tried to communicate at least some of this nuance and (genuinely instructive, not exculpatory) context. But if the purpose was to produce a hatchet job aimed at serving the interests of the nation’s Cheap Labor Lobby, Riley’s column will do just fine.