Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Own Bodyguard
Her Own Bodyguard
Gun-packing First Lady.
By Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant & Joanne Eisen, Independence Institute
January 24, 2002 9:10 a.m.
he was the most famous spokesperson for civil rights, at a time when the idea of equal rights for people of color was very politically incorrect. “We can’t afford to have two kinds of citizens,” she insisted. “We must have equal citizenship for anybody in our country.”
And though she was a well-known talker, she also walked the walk. In 1958, at age 74, she made plans to go down to Tennessee to speak at a civil-rights workshop at the Highlander Folk School.
The Ku Klux Klan learned about her plans. The day before her trip, the elderly, gray-haired woman was contacted by the FBI. “We can’t guarantee your safety,” they told her. “The Klan’s put a bounty on your head, a $25,000 bounty on your head. We can’t protect you. You can’t go.” But the little old lady answered, “I didn’t ask for your protection… I have a commitment. I’m going.”
And she did. She flew down to the Nashville airport, where she was joined by a friend, an elderly white woman aged 71. The pair got into the car, lay a loaded pistol on the front seat between them, and drove into the night. No Secret Service or police escort. Just the two little old ladies with a gun to keep them safe. They set out for their destination, a ” tiny labor school[,] to conduct a workshop on how to break the law, how to conduct non-violent civil disobedience.” They drove through the heart of Klan territory to teach people how to fight for freedom.
If she were alive, and if Rosie O’Donnell’s dreams were to come true, that gray-haired grandmother today would be thrown in jail. “I don’t care if you think it’s your right… You are not allowed to own a gun, and if you do own a gun I think you should go to prison,” O’Donnell has proclaimed. Hillary Clinton would lecture the old woman about how people shouldn’t own guns for protection. But the old lady probably wouldn’t listen to Hillary or Rosie, any more than she listened to all the other people who told her what she wasn’t supposed to do.
That determined grandmother, of course, was Eleanor Roosevelt. And it was Eleanor’s handgun, not some hired bodyguard, that helped her stay alive in the face of real danger.
What a perfect example of how the Second Amendment is really the cornerstone of our Bill of Rights, the guarantor of all others. It was the exercise of her Second Amendment rights that empowered Eleanor Roosevelt to use her First Amendment rights to crusade for the Fourteenth Amendment rights of blacks.
Many of the people she empowered also used Second Amendment rights to secure their freedoms. Professor John Salter, who later became director of the Indian Studies program at the University of North Dakota, recounts his earlier experiences: “I worked for years in the Deep South as a full-time civil rights organizer… I, too, was on many Klan death lists and I, too, traveled armed: a .38 special Smith and Wesson revolver and a 44/40 Winchester carbine. The knowledge that I had these weapons and was willing to use them kept enemies at bay. Years later… this was confirmed by a former prominent leader of the White Knights of the KKK…”
Mrs. Roosevelt broke many traditions. She was the first First Lady to give a press conference, the first to testify before Congress, the first to write a newspaper column, the first to become a political figure in her own right. But where it came to firearms, Eleanor Roosevelt was following a family tradition.
In The Roosevelts of Hyde Park: An Untold Story, Eleanor and Franklin’s son Elliott describes the early days of his parents’ marriage: “The young bridegroom [FDR]… retained a boyish delight, consistently encouraged by Granny, in collecting stamps, ship prints and wild bird specimens. The birds were shot in the woods and fields around Hyde Park with the gun [of] his father, James Roosevelt…”
In Before the Trumpet, Geoffrey Ward details how the young Franklin’s interest in natural science turned him into a hunter: “Soon eggs and nests no longer satisfied; he wanted to collect the birds themselves, and at ten he began asking for a shotgun” ? a shotgun which was presented on his eleventh birthday. “With it came a set of rules: There was to be no shooting during the mating season; nesting birds were off-limits; only one member of each species was to be collected.” By the age of 14, Franklin Roosevelt had shot and identified more than 300 species of birds native to Dutchess County, New York.
Eleanor’s father, Elliott Roosevelt, also liked to shoot. Her autobiography explains: “As a boy of about fifteen he left St. Paul’s School after one year, because of illness, and went out to Texas. He made friends with the officers at Fort McKavit, a frontier fort, and stayed with them, hunting game and scouting in search of hostile Indians. He loved the life and was a natural sportsman, a good shot and a good rider.”
Eleanor’s uncle Theodore, who walked her down the aisle at her wedding, was perhaps the best-known gun enthusiast in American history. An avid hunter (and, therefore, a strong conservationist), Theodore Roosevelt owned and used a dizzying array of firearms, eventually coming to like semi-automatic rifles best. While living in the Badlands of North Dakota, Roosevelt and his companions used their rifles for a daring capture of some men who had stolen a boat; the event was immortalized in a Frederic Remington painting. When President McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency. The new president was justifiably concerned about his personal security, so he began carrying a concealed handgun.
When Theodore Roosevelt visited Harvard University, then-president Charles W. Eliot was chagrined to discover Roosevelt strapping on a holster in his room, ignoring the Massachusetts law restricting concealed handguns.
President Roosevelt concluded his Sixth Annual Message to Congress, on Dec. 6, 1906, with a call for the government to help citizens develop firearms proficiency:
We should establish shooting galleries in all the large public and military schools, should maintain national target ranges in different parts of the country, and should in every way encourage the formation of rifle clubs throughout all parts of the land. The little Republic of Switzerland offers us an excellent example in all matters connected with building up an efficient citizen soldiery.
Roosevelt would repeat this call with greater urgency in his Seventh Annual Message, on Dec. 3, 1907, demanding that the government do its utmost to encourage children to use guns:
While teams representing the United States won the rifle and revolver championships of the world against all comers in England this year, it is unfortunately true that the great body of our citizens shoot less and less as time goes on. To meet this we should encourage rifle practice among schoolboys, and indeed among all classes, as well as in the military services, by every means in our power. Thus, and not otherwise, may we be able to assist in preserving the peace of the world. Fit to hold our own against the strong nations of the earth, our voice for peace will carry to the ends of the earth. Unprepared, and therefore unfit, we must sit dumb and helpless to defend ourselves, protect others, or preserve peace. The first step ? in the direction of preparation to avert war if possible, and to be fit for war if it should come ? is to teach our men to shoot.
Thus, it should hardly be surprising that TR’s niece ? the woman who later would accurately be described as the personification of 20th-century liberalism ? wasn’t afraid to use a gun, or to teach disobedience of unjust and potentially lethal laws.
That 1958 trip to Tennessee was hardly the first occasion when a revolver was Eleanor Roosevelt’s chosen companion. For some 25 years, packing heat had been habitual. As she recalled in her autobiography, she first carried a handgun shortly after she moved into the White House, in 1933:
Driving my own car was one of the issues the Secret Service people and I had a battle about at the very start. The Secret Service prefers to have an agent go with the President’s wife, but I did not want either a chauffeur or a Secret Service agent always with me; I never did consent to having a Secret Service agent. After the head of the Secret Service found I was not going to allow an agent to accompany me everywhere, he went one day to Louis Howe [FDR's secretary], plunked a revolver down on the table and said ‘Well, all right, if Mrs. Roosevelt is going to drive around the country alone, at least ask her to carry this in the car.’ I carried it religiously and during the summer I asked a friend, a man who had been one of Franklin’s bodyguards in New York State, to give me some practice in target shooting so that if the need arose I would know how to use the gun.
After leaving the White House upon the death of her husband, Mrs. Roosevelt moved to New York City, where she obtained a permit to carry a handgun. She was the subject of a constant stream of death threats from nuts who were offended by her newspaper column and her humanitarian political activities.
From nearly the first day that Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady, she refused to be a victim, and she exercised her choice to carry a handgun for protection. She could have shut up and avoided controversy ? or she could have spoken out while hiding herself, in the White House or in her family’s estates in rural New York. But she refused to let hatemongers and criminals dictate how she would live.
In her 1960 book, You Learn by Living, Mrs. Roosevelt urged her readers not to cower before the world’s dangers, but to stare them down: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face… You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” (Emphasis in original.)
That was the spirit of the young girl who took responsibility for her little brother Hall, after the divorce and death of their parents. That was the spirit of the young wife who stood up to her domineering mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, and refused to let Sara push Franklin into seclusion after he was stricken with polio in 1921. Eleanor then had to overcome her terror of public speaking, and to begin giving political speeches on behalf of her crippled husband. When Louis Howe would listen to a speech and tell her what she had done wrong, Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t quit; she resolved to do better the next time. She could have enjoyed a comfortable retirement in New York, but instead looked fear in the face ? and drove straight into the dark heart of Klan country, ready to chase away the nightriders with her handgun.
Although some of Eleanor Roosevelt’s views ? such as her hopes for the United Nations ? were mistaken, her courage and perseverance deserve the respect of people of all political backgrounds. May she continue to inspire people of all ages for many generations to come.