Theodore Roosevelt: A Career Told Through Political Cartoons

Sep 07, 2017

This summer the TR Center has eight interns working across the U.S. and from Scotland. Each intern is producing a digital humanities project. Tracee Haupt worked this summer creating a timeline of Theodore Roosevelt's career through Puck cartoons.

This summer, the Theodore Roosevelt Center interns were asked to create digital humanities projects that would showcase the collection in a new way and serve as an educational resource for the site’s visitors. We were given the freedom to choose the topic and format of our projects, and because the goal was also to explore the types of digital humanities tools that are available, we were required to each chose a different tool and document our experience so that others might learn from it. This blog post is about my experience creating “Theodore Roosevelt: A Career Told Through Political Cartoons.”

For my project, I decided to feature the colorful political cartoons of Puck magazine. The cartoons are often entertaining and insightful, and I enjoyed using similar cartoons to enliven discussion sections when I taught a U.S. History survey course last semester. The cartoons of the early twentieth century are often dense with meaning, and a lot can be learned about popular perceptions of political leaders and events by studying the way they were depicted in cartoons.

The latest thing in nightmares 

Roosevelt’s outsized personality made him an easy subject for caricature. In Puck, he was often depicted as a towering, larger-than-life figure, placed in dynamic poses that suggested his athleticism and boundless energy. His pince-nez glasses and wide, toothy grin were so recognizable that they were sometimes used as a stand-in for his presence.

More rough riding

The most flattering Puck cartoons show Roosevelt as a strong and effective leader that fought against political corruption and stood with the “little people” against the unfair practices of large corporations. One cartoon from 1903, for example, shows Roosevelt dressed as a Rough Rider atop an elephant, chasing dishonest officials away from the Post Office. With the elephant being a symbol of his administration, the cartoon suggests that Roosevelt is firmly in command of his political position, and that he is determined and forceful when pursuing a just cause.


A tight r[ac]e ahead

Other positive depictions emphasized his popularity with the people or the way that he seemed to easily outshine and outmaneuver other politicians. In a cartoon published during his reelection campaign of 1904, for example, Roosevelt is pictured single-handedly winning a rowing competition against eight of the Democratic Party’s most prominent leaders.  As the Democrats struggle, Roosevelt glides by smiling, symbolizing the ease with which Roosevelt dominated the campaign.

The art critic

The less flattering Puck cartoons poked fun at Roosevelt’s perceived faults—namely, his vanity and fondness for power. A cartoon of 1907, for instance, shows Roosevelt making “corrections” to a portrait of George Washington, crossing out every mention of “First” in Washington’s epithet “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Heart of His Countrymen” and changing them to “Second.” The cartoon implies that Roosevelt arrogantly considered himself to be America’s greatest leader. The title of the book on the ground next to him referenced a review of Roosevelt’s The Rough Riders by humorist Peter Finley Dunne, who commented that Roosevelt so frequently placed himself at the center of attention when writing about the Spanish-American War that he should have titled the book Alone in Cuba. (Roosevelt, to his credit, was able to take a joke, and responded to Dunne by saying, “I regret to state that my family and intimate friends are delighted with your review of my book.”)

The vision of Joan of Arc

Roosevelt left the presidency after his second term ended in 1909, but Puck continued to show his influence in politics by depicting him as a looming presence in cartoons featuring his successor, William H. Taft. Puck was also skeptical of Roosevelt’s claim, made after the 1904 election, that he would not seek a third term. One cartoon, published in 1908, showed Roosevelt as Julius Caesar, rejecting a crown labeled 1908 while secretly pining for one labeled 1912. Another, published right before the Republican Convention of 1912, depicted Roosevelt as Joan of Arc having a vision of himself as a knight in shining armor, called to save the country with a third term. The image of Roosevelt seemed more than a little ridiculous, suggesting that Roosevelt might have an inflated sense of his own self-importance.

To create a way to showcase these and other Puck cartoons available on the Theodore Roosevelt Center website, I used Sutori, a tool for creating and sharing visual stories. By displaying the cartoons in chronological order and dividing them into sections that represented the positions Roosevelt held, I wanted to demonstrate how Roosevelt’s public image evolved throughout his career. I chose Sutori for my project after experimenting with timeline tools like Tiki-Toki and Timeline JS, because it was easy to use and the format seemed well-suited for presenting a large number of images in a browsable and user-friendly way. I liked that it was possible to scroll through Sutori in the same way one might scroll through a social media site, stopping to examine images in more detail when they capture one’s attention. On Sutori, it is also easy to enlarge images, read more about them, or to share them with others.

Although I kept my project simple because there were so many images I wanted to display, educators might be interested in exploring some of the other features available on Sutori, which allows you to add video and audio elements, forums, quizzes, and “Did you know?” facts. Sutori also encourages collaboration, which might make it a useful tool for classroom assignments. My only criticism of Sutori is that I wish it was easier to navigate between different sections on the same page, which is why I ultimately decided to divide my project into three separate parts.

You can view my project here: Theodore Roosevelt: A Career Told Through Political Cartoons


Posted by Tracee Haupt on Sep 07, 2017 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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