TR and Muscular Christianity

By Jake N.

The Muscular Christianity of Teddy’s Great White Fleet

In late 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt sent the newly modernized American Navy to circumnavigate the globe, stopping at many ports and visiting various influential nations along the voyage.  The idea to send the American Navy out into the world in such a grand fashion would most likely not have manifested itself in the minds of any other American President up to the time of Teddy Roosevelt.  Even if the idea were to manifest itself in the mind of another president, it is impossible to think that another president would be willing to spend twenty million dollars to bring the Great White Fleet into fruition.  The reason for Roosevelt to act in such a fashion with regard to the Commander in Chief portion of the Presidency stems from his idea of Muscular Christianity which he held so dear.

Muscular Christianity is the idea that one of the ways that Christians are to serve God is to be physically fit, never be still and, for men, display masculine traits of aggression and have a lack of weakness, never giving into any enemy.  On April 10th, 1899 Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in front of the Hamilton Club in Chicago detailing his views on how American’s should live their lives.  In the speech Roosevelt says that even though something is “hard and dangerous” we must rise to the occasion and “shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”  These views of living fit directly into his action of launching the Great White Fleet.  There was speculation among many people that, on the Japanese leg of the voyage, the Japanese would put mine fields in the water that would destroy this new and expensive American Navy.  The tides of possible war were brewing in the Pacific at this time as the Japanese were attempting to widen their sphere of influence.  The sending out of the navy in the face of dangerous odds fit directly into Roosevelt’s Muscular Christianity ideas in never backing down from any enemy, no matter the possible danger.

Roosevelt was also able to dismiss the idea of possibly losing men on this dangerous voyage.  Teddy Roosevelt loved sports, particularly football, and at this point in time football was considered to be an extremely dangerous sport.  Teddy’s close friend Henry Cabot Lodge defended the sport by saying that injuries incurred “on the playing field are part of the price which the English speaking race has paid for being world conquerors.”  These views as expressed by Lodge can be extended to what Roosevelt would have thought at the time.  In the aforementioned quote it is also easy to make the inference that the idea of having a price to pay for being world conquerors is not just seen on the athletic field, but that losses in battle can be compared to the injuries sustained on the field.  The price of being world conquerors is payable in the blood of soldiers as well as the broken bones of athletes.  The physical fitness aspect of Muscular Christianity and the injury toll that athletes must pay to participate in their sports coincides with the price soldiers must pay for their nations to exist as the conquerers of the world.  The ideas of the obvious sacrifices of the athlete in Muscular Christianity coincided with the expectations that soldiers will be lost in battle, therefore justifying the possible loss of men in sending the Great White Fleet out on their voyage.

Roosevelt’s 1907 launch of the Great White Fleet had its roots in his belief in the Muscular Christian ideals.  Roosevelt had been doing a massive build up of the American Military, the Navy in particular, and this was a great way for him to show off the new ability he had to wage war against any aggressors.  The American Navy essentially became a large way for him to show his manliness to the world upon the premise that the military is the most manly portion of the presidential powers.  Roosevelt was able to justify the dangers that came with the voyage of the Navy through his Muscular Christian values and was therefore able to justify the launch of his Great White Fleet around the world.

Collins, Tony. Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Dalton, Kathleen. Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
“The Strenuous Life Speech.” 2015. Accessed April 16, 2015.

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