Does Theodore Roosevelt seem angry as he stares out at us from atop Mount Rushmore? If so, it would not be surprising, stuck as he is in immovable granite next to Thomas Jefferson, a man he thoroughly despised.
Two Americans icons could never be more unlike than Roosevelt, the unapologetic jingo who charged up a hill in Cuba towards glory and fame during the Spanish-American War, and Jefferson, the peaceful idealist who charged down one escaping British troops, who were attempting to capture him at Monticello during the Revolutionary War.
Roosevelt never forgot Jefferson’s “cowardly infamy” as President in failing to build an adequate army and navy, and placed on his doorstep blame for the humiliating defeats inflicted by the British on the United States during the War of 1812. It was a just criticism. A nation of eight million people should have been able to defend its capital against a few thousand British invaders, who burned the White House and other public buildings to the ground.
Roosevelt had other reasons to despise Jefferson. He condemned Jefferson for creating the so-called “Nullification Doctrine,” which opened the door to a horrific Civil War that almost destroyed the United States. Jefferson was “the father of nullification and therefore secession,” said Roosevelt, and the historical evidence supports his assertion.
Roosevelt also accused Jefferson of “tortuous intrigues” against George Washington for secretly opposing his policies while serving as Washington’s Secretary of State. Washington came to distrust Jefferson, so Roosevelt is not the only President on Mount Rushmore who had issues with the author of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson is revered today as one of the greatest of our Founding Fathers for good reason, but there is some justice in Roosevelt’s denunciation of him as “slippery demagogue.” It is hard to find any important occasions when Jefferson took an unpopular stand in the larger interests of the United States. He believed in the American people (one of his greatest strengths), but he also seems to have slavishly followed them when they went wrong.