The White House, Washington, D.C. 1909. Letter. This is a typed, hand-emended, and signed 16 February 1909 letter on White House stationery from President Theodore Roosevelt to his friend, Lawrence F. Abbott, editor of the weekly newspaper The Outlook. The letter, dated just 16 days from the end of Roosevelt’s presidency, draws upon multiple threads, including the murky political machinations that gave birth to the Panama Canal, a colorful personality integral to that drama, and Roosevelt’s imminent post-presidential future as a contributing writer to The Outlook.
The letter is printed on the first and final leaves of a folded, four-panel sheet of “THE WHITE HOUSE | WASHINGTON” stationery. Acknowledging Abbott’s letter “of the 15th” the letter states “There is no reason at all that you should not publish Bunau-Varilla’s article.” Intriguingly, a hand-emended caveat added by Roosevelt reads “as long as you have said you would.” Roosevelt spends the rest of the paragraph – four more sentences in fact – continuing to express what can only be considered a dutifully professed but obviously reluctant and qualified accommodation. Interleaved with “Let me repeat, there is no reason that you should not publish the article” and “I do not think it would be worth while [sic]… for you now to alter your intention” are the obvious reservations “…I ought not to be in a controversy with him… It would be like Balfour having a joint debate with Poultney Bigelow… If I had known of it in time I should have advised against it…” It is both timely and telling that political and legacy considerations yield to forthcoming, post-presidential business. In the letter’s second and final paragraph, Roosevelt bends his attention to his imminent, post-presidency “Contributing Editor” role. Roosevelt refers to forthcoming publication of “three lectures in The Outlook, as well as forthcoming pieces on Tolstoy and a piece “dealing with the Japanese question”. After the typed valediction “Faithfully yours,” Roosevelt signed “Theodore Roosevelt” in the same ink as the emendation. Abbott’s name and New York address are typed thereafter.
The letter is in excellent condition, with no appreciable wear and only light toning, mild soiling on the recto along the single horizontal fold, and what appears to be a paperclip stain at the upper left edge, as well as an indecipherable notation at the upper left that may be a filing notation. The letter is housed in a removable, archival mylar sleeve within a rigid, crimson cloth folder.
The letter’s recipient, Roosevelt’s close friend Lawrence Fraser Abbott (1859-1933), was to become Roosevelt’s editor and nominal boss weeks after this letter was written, and would write about Roosevelt following his death in 1919 (Impressions of Theodore Roosevelt). In 1908, as he contemplated the end of his presidency, Roosevelt had no shortage of lucrative, prestigious, and high-profile employment prospects, including a number of offers from publishers. “Roosevelt let his conscience, rather than greed, guide him. He had long ago been approached by the father-and-son team of Lyman and Lawrence Abbott to join their magazine, Outlook, as a contributing editor writing on current affairs… Although Outlook was not a wealthy periodical, its middle-class, mildly progressive profile appealed to Roosevelt” and “He gratefully remembered its support during the crises and controversies of his presidency…” So it was that the Abbotts proudly announced, on 7 November 1908, that “on or after the 5th of March, 1909, Theodore Roosevelt will be associated with Outlook’s editorial staff as a special Contributing Editor.” (Morris, Theodore Rex, pp.540-41) Roosevelt would continue in that role until his death.
Roosevelt’s manifest concern about an article by Bunau-Varilla (and Lawrence's attendant sensitivity to Roosevelt) is both intriguing and unsurprising. Philip Bunau-Varilla (1859-1940) greatly influenced the selection of the construction site for the Panama Canal and surreptitiously collaborated with Roosevelt in the orchestration of the Panamanian Revolution.
A Frenchman, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla was integral to the diligent lobbying and dubious political machinations that resulted in the Panama Canal. A decade and a half before Roosevelt’s presidency, Bunau-Varilla had risen to become chief engineer of a preceding canal attempt. Like Roosevelt, he was enamored not only of the feasibility and practicalities, but of the great Idea of the canal. While “it is difficult to apportion the credit for the choice of Panama… Certainly Bunau-Varilla… performed miracles.” (Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt, p.216)
When Columbia balked at a Canal treaty, Bunau-Varilla was integral to the solution. He met with Roosevelt at the White House in October 1903 and circumspectly discussed Columbia, a notional Panama, and Canal prospects. By mid-November, Bunau-Varilla had conspired, with U.S. support, to foment the “revolution” that resulted in the secession of Panama and the immediately subsequent Canal treaty with Panama. This was executed by Bunau-Varilla as the expeditiously and very briefly vested “Minister Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Panama”, who managed to conclude the treaty hours before the Panamanian diplomatic delegation reached Washington and learned of the fait accompli. Courtesy of Bunau-Varilla, Roosevelt had plausible deniability, a favorable treaty, a lynchpin of his legacy, and the means for an interoceanic express route for the American Navy. No surprise, then, that Roosevelt might feel conflicted about a notional article by Bunau-Varilla.
Bunau-Varilla would incur the lasting resentment of Panamanians, but would nonetheless live “to lose a leg at Verdun and to stump the boulevards of Paris with the rosette of the Legion of Honor in his buttonhole.” (Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt, p.212)
Statesman, reformer, explorer, naturalist, soldier, rancher, and author, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was the 26th and youngest ever U.S. president, both herald and agent of America’s assumption of global power. Before the Spanish-American War, as Under-Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt pushed the boundaries of his authority to prepare the American Navy, enabling decisive victory over the Spanish at Manila Bay. But no sooner had Congress declared war on Spain, on April 25th 1898, than Roosevelt declared he would resign to volunteer for the army, contrary to wishes of his friends, colleagues, and President. Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill with his “Rough Riders” became emblematic of his boldness, courage, and unapologetic assertion of both moral and military American hegemony. However, more substantively, it was the Panama Canal – the great linking of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, bisecting, empowering, and asserting the western hemisphere, that would indelibly embody Roosevelt’s unfettered ambitions for America. Item #006311