Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to invite an African American—Booker T. Washington—to dine at the White House. Yet he also expressed doubts about whether blacks were capable “of assuming the role of citizen.” Author Leroy Dorsey, an African American, argues that Roosevelt’s role in helping shape American identity was rife with such contradictions. “For each mark of distinction Roosevelt achieved, he compiled more than a few moments of disgrace,” Dorsey writes.
Dorsey portrays Roosevelt as a moderate for his era whose social perspective was shaped by the unprecedented number of immigrants who poured into the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In rhetorically sophisticated public pronouncements, Roosevellt maintained that a person’s ancestry meant nothing so long as he understood “the lesson of Americanism.” The lesson, grounded on the Frontier Thesis of early 20th-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner, held that Americans were created when Anglo-Saxons steeled themselves in the experience of nation building in the West. For Roosevellt, an individual who worked hard and absorbed the American ideal earned the right to become an American. If this meant discarding his heritage, so be it. For better or worse, Anglo-Saxons remained the gatekeepers in Roosevelt’s vision of America.