After a week of blogging about feminist foibles, I’m more than happy to turn my attention to the manliness of Theodore Roosevelt, the subject of a terrific piece by Harvey Mansfield in the current issue of the New Criterion. A Harvard prof, Mansfield is quite a guy to attack this subject, his boss (Larry Summers) having recently found himself in a bubbling cauldron of gender-related trouble. 

Most of us tend today to regard the manliness of TR — a sickly child who grew up to be a super-masculine man — as, at best, incidental. At worst, TR’s masculinity is seen as silly and embarrassing. It was neither. It was the most essential thing about him. 

“The most obvious feature of Theodore Roosevelt’s life and thought is the one least celebrated today, his manliness,” writes Mansfield. “Somehow America in the twentieth century went from the explosion of assertive manliness that was TR to the sensitive males of our time who shall be and deserve to be nameless.”

The occasion for Mansfield’s reflections on TR is the publication by the Library of America Roosevelt’s Letters and Speeches and The Rough Riders, An Autobiography, which, according to the article, will provide “gristle to chew for liberals and conservatives, both of whom — except for the feminists — have abandoned manliness mostly out of policy rather than abhorrence.”

Mansfield argues that these new collections of Roosevelt’s letters and speeches will help us to “see how Roosevelt’s manliness was at the center of his politics.” But for Roosevelt manliness wasn’t something that just came easily. It required hard work and character.

For Roosevelt, manliness was “in the main a construction, an individual construction of one’s own will-power.” Roosevelt made himself manly through “the manly art of self-defense” against other men, and through the sorts of “encounters with nature” — hunting dangerous animals — that are now frowned upon by enlightened members of society. His manliness was behind his intense belief in the assertiveness of the executive branch of government.

Roosevelt was a staunch promoter of the idea that women can do whatever they want to do (as all gentlemen are) and he was also an environmentalist. But Roosevelt’s masculine environmentalism was quite different from today’s feminized environmentalism:

“Whereas environmentalists today do their best to exclude human intervention in nature — ’nature’ for them means what is non-human — and thus to confine human beings to the role of concerned and caring observers,” writes Mansfield, “Roosevelt wanted us to live with nature and react to it. He loved birds but he didn’t object to shooting them. We should, within limits, be hunters, for hunting adds ’no small value to the national character.’ Nature does need to be protected from depletion, and there must be game wardens, ’men of courage, resolution and hardihood’ — not lecturers full of moral urgency passing out lists of small prohibitions as one meets in the National Parks today.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the article is something Mansfield doesn’t actually mention, but it’s there all the same: the comparison with George W. Bush, whose manliness is anathema to feminists today. TR and GWB were both cowboys, not born cowboys, mind you, but easterners who made themselves into cowboys. As Mansfield notes of TR:

“A New Yorker by birth, he went to the Wild West, and became a Westerner by deliberate intent, or sheer will-power. He became a cowboy by impressing the other cowboys, a loner among loners certified with their stamp of approval. In this way the individual construction becomes social: after you have proved yourself. The theorists today who say masculinity is a social construction often give the impression that there’s nothing to it; society waves a wand and a nerd is made manly. No, it takes effort to become manly, as Teddy Roosevelt says. The more manliness is constructed, the more effort it takes. The more we admire effort like TR’s rather than the beautiful nature and noble ease of Homer’s Achilles, the more we admire will-power manliness and the more we depend on it.”

Mansfield notes that today conservatives “keep their admiration [for TR] under wraps because they fear the reaction of women should they celebrate his manliness.” Perhaps it’s time to celebrate the virtues of manliness as much as our society celebrates the strength of women.