Perhaps the First Public, Recorded Statement – and Almost Surely the Earliest Autograph on the Market – of Then 27 Year Old Theodore Roosevelt in Favor of Racial Justice and Against Disenfranchisement of Blacks

"I don’t care a snap of my finger whether a man fought on one side or the other, so long as he wishes to see justice done to all his fellow citizens now…”

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He opposes “the present disenfranchisement of a class…”

In the wake of the Civil War, Union troops occupied the old Confederacy in a period called Reconstruction. The goal was ostensibly to rebuild the South; but in fact the main policy was to enfranchise southern blacks, and with their votes, many Republicans (black...

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Perhaps the First Public, Recorded Statement – and Almost Surely the Earliest Autograph on the Market – of Then 27 Year Old Theodore Roosevelt in Favor of Racial Justice and Against Disenfranchisement of Blacks

"I don’t care a snap of my finger whether a man fought on one side or the other, so long as he wishes to see justice done to all his fellow citizens now…”

He opposes “the present disenfranchisement of a class…”

In the wake of the Civil War, Union troops occupied the old Confederacy in a period called Reconstruction. The goal was ostensibly to rebuild the South; but in fact the main policy was to enfranchise southern blacks, and with their votes, many Republicans (black and otherwise) were elected to office. This released a firestorm of discontent in the old Confederacy that grew with every year. Meanwhile, the North became increasingly weary of the burden of maintaining Reconstruction, and voices were raised that it was time to bring the last of the occupying troops home and let the South govern itself. Then in 1877, in order to gain the swing electoral votes to place a Republican – Rutherford B. Hayes – in the White House, a deal was struck to end Reconstruction.

The Democratic Party in the South had a systematic plan to win the governorships of the southern states and then attempt to restore some of the way of life before the war, most notably by trying to restrict the right of southern blacks to vote. The end of Reconstruction made that plan a viable one, and in time the South became solidly Democratic and a program of segregation was implemented. By 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court held that segregation was legal, the plan was complete.

In the Virginia gubernatorial race of 1885, the Republican candidate was John Sergeant Wise, who had fought for the Confederacy as a teenager, but by 1885 was a champion for Republican causes. His Democratic opponent was Robert E. Lee’s nephew (and Confederate general) Fitzhugh Lee. It was a particularly hotly contested election – marred by accusations of corruption against the Democratic Party – with major consequences for the fate of the country and the cause of freedom for black people. Lee’s statewide popularity was enhanced by high-profile speaking engagements as a paid employee of the Richmond-based Southern Historical Association. As for Wise, he was still looked upon with suspicion by some of the national leaders of the Republican Party. Specifically, John Sherman, William T. Sherman’s brother and one of the most significant members of the party, was someone who could not support Wise, perhaps affecting the election. Sherman served in both houses of Congress and was three times a candidate for president; in 1885, he became President Pro-Temp of the Senate, at the time the second in line for the presidency. Lee won the general election, though his margin of victory was quite narrow: 16,000 votes out of 290,000 cast.

By November 1885, Theodore Roosevelt – although only 27 years old – was a major figure in the New York Republican party. From 1882-1884 he served in the New York State Assembly, rising to the status of Republican leader. He already had national ambitions and in 1884 was a speaker at the GOP National Convention. It was no surprise, therefore, that he was keenly interested in the fate of the GOP in races throughout the country in 1885, and his voice and support was sought by party leaders.

Roosevelt believed strongly in equality. As governor of New York, he ended school segregation. Just one month after he was sworn in as President, he invited Booker T. Washington, a black civil rights activist, to dine at the White House. The resulting uproar against Roosevelt over the claimed impropriety was enormous, and only increased after TR, on Washington’s recommendation, appointed a black justice of the peace in the District of Columbia. The appointee, Robert Terrell, went on to become the first black federal judge. Roosevelt also appointed progressive judges and encouraged the prosecution of peonage cases in the South, which meant opposing southern laws allowing blacks to be forced into involuntary servitude in order to pay off debts to their employers. Roosevelt explained, “I meant literally what I said – that all I wanted was a square deal for the negro. If he is fit to vote by the test we apply to a white man, let him vote. If he is unfit, don’t. If he is unfit in an office turn him out; not because he is a negro, but because he is unfit. If, on the other hand, he is fit, appoint him; again not because he is a negro, but because he is fit.”

Booker T. Washington tells this story in his book “My Larger Education”. “Before Mr. Roosevelt became President, not a single colored man had ever been appointed, so far as I know, to a Federal office in any Northern state. Mr. Roosevelt determined to set the example by placing a colored man in a high office in his own home city, so that the country might see that he did not want other parts of the country to accept that which he himself was not willing to receive. Some months afterward, as a result of this policy, the Hon. Charles W Anderson [a black attorney] was made collector of internal revenues for the second district of New York. This is the district in which Wall Street is located and the district that receives, perhaps, more revenue than any other in the United States. Later on, Mr. Roosevelt appointed other colored men to high office in the North and West, but I think that anyone who examines into the individual qualifications of the colored men appointed to office by Mr. Roosevelt will find, in each case, that they were what he insisted that they should be men of superior ability and of superior character.”

In this letter to Wise, Roosevelt expresses outrage at his loss just a few days earlier. It appears from our research to be the first statement of TR in which he takes a public stance foursquare for racial justice and against disenfranchisement of black voters. It is thus of the highest importance. It is also an early example of the key part morality played throughout his political career.

Autograph letter signed, two pages (both sides of one sheet), on his black-bordered mourning stationery (in honor of both his wife and mother who died within hours of each other in 1884), New York, November 15 1885, to Wise. “Many thanks for your kind letter. Your defeat was an outrage – pure and simple. We were equally unfortunate here. I think [John] Sherman and [Joseph B.] Foraker took the wrong tack in speaking of “ex-rebels’ treason stained saddle” etc. I don’t care a snap of my finger whether a man fought on one side or the other, so long as he wishes to see justice done to all his fellow citizens now, that is the point to be made; the present disenfranchisement of a class; it is a mistake to take other grounds.”

We have found statements of TR on this subject while he was on the Civil Service Commission (1889-1895), but nothing earlier. This letter is an important piece of American history, and of the struggle for social justice.

Roosevelt did not forget Wise, and as President appointed him to office.

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