Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics

Written by Harry Lembeck
Review by Tom Vallar

Gunfire awakens a small south Texas town one August night in 1906, leaving a civilian dead and a policeman wounded. Fort Brown, adjacent to the town, houses three companies of the black 10th Infantry. When the town fathers appeal directly to the President of the United States for help against the army—which is “shooting us up”—Roosevelt rushes to judgment after no single perpetrator, either civilian or military, can be found. He dismisses without honor all 167 members of the Black Battalion, even those who charged up San Juan Hill with him.

Roosevelt doesn’t count on opposition from a fellow Republican, especially not the senior senator from Ohio. Joseph Foraker uses his legal oratory and sense of right to oppose the President in the Senate for the next 19 months, which in the end costs him both his seat and his chance at the presidency that goes to fellow Ohioan William Howard Taft.

The clash between senator and president over the rights of black Americans serves as fodder for historian Lembeck’s treatment of an incident he contends could have changed history. He falls short of demonstrating that Brownsville “shook American politics.” I found his hero, Foraker, less compelling than the other luminaries of the time who history treats more fondly—Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Nance Garner—but give Lembeck credit for extensive research and for weaving a cogent narrative.