Theodore Roosevelt: A Force of Nature



Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt


I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  One of the few presidents worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Washington and Lincoln is Theodore Roosevelt, and today we will look at his truly remarkable life.

I love Roosevelt as a man. He was always optimistic and led life at the charge. Whatever he did, he did with explosive energy. He was never half-hearted about anything. He was a good family man and a good husband. He loved God, his country and his family, and genuinely seemed to like most people who came into contact with him. As one of his enemies said, “Someone would have to hate him a lot, not to like him a little.”

In this look at his life we will list some of TR’s accomplishments, but I do not think that gets to the heart of the matter. Most presidents are smaller than their great office. A precious few, Washington and Lincoln for example, loom larger than the office. TR was in this class. The phrase bully-pulpit came about to describe how TR used the presidency as a giant mega-phone to get his views across to the American people and persuade them. He had a deep patriotism and a belief in the greatness of this country that resonated with the country. Some presidents debase us and some ennoble us, and none were better at ennobling us than TR. He understood that life is a grand adventure. Sometimes it is a hard adventure and sometimes a joyous adventure, but always an adventure. TR imparted this sense of wonder and grandeur to many of his contemporaries.

The complexity of TR makes writing even  a brief biography of him a challenge: scholar, historian, writer, naturalist, legislator, rancher, cowboy, hunter,  civil service commissioner, police commissioner, soldier, governor, vice-president, president, daredevil, adventurer, explorer, etc. He combined about a dozen lives into sixty brief years.

He was born on October 27, 1858 into a rich New York family of Dutch extraction.  During the Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt’s home was literally a house divided.  His father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. was whole heartedly for the Union, while his mother, the very epitome of a Southern Belle, backed the Confederacy with the same passion.  Our of respect for his wife, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr, put aside his strong desire to enlist in the Union army and served in a civilian non-combatant capacity.  Many of his mother’s relations fought for the Confederacy .  Young Roosevelt always regarded his father as his hero, and it is hard not to think that his father’s failure to serve in the Union army was viewed by his son as the only mark against his father, which might partially explain why TR was so desperate to serve in combat at the age of 40 during the Spanish-American War.

His father probably helped save the life of Roosevelt.  Plagued by numerous ailments as a youth, including life threatening asthma, Roosevelt senior encouraged his son to embark on a body building regime that ultimately enabled him to overcome his frail physique.  It was a masterful example of a strong spirit triumphing over weak flesh.  TR literally willed himself into becoming a physically strong young man.  As he wrote later, “I was nervous and timid. Yet from reading of the people I admired – ranging from the soldiers of Valley Forge and Morgan’s riflemen, to the heroes of my favorite stories – and from hearing of the feats of my southern forefathers and kinsfolk and from knowing my father, I felt a great admiration for men who were fearless and who could hold their own in the world, and I had a great desire to be like them.”

His father’s wealth and his own keen mind allowed Roosevelt to become one of the best educated presidents.  This included studying in Germany where he imbibed cutting-edge scholarship and became fluent in German.  On a trip to Rome his family had an audience with the Pope, and Roosevelt kissed the ring of Pio Nono.

As a teenager Roosevelt developed two abiding intellectual passions:  the study of Nature and the study of History.  When he went off to Harvard in 1876, his father gave him sound advice to look after his morals first, then his health and then his studies.  It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Roosevelt senior on his son.  In many ways TR’s father was a secular saint, noted for his charitable work in which he was personally involved as well as through large monetary donations.  Roosevelt summed up his love for his father in these words:

I was fortunate enough in having a father whom I have always been able to regard as an ideal man. It sounds a little like cant to say what I am going to say, but he really did combine the strength and courage and will and energy of the strongest man with the tenderness, cleanness and purity of a woman. I was a sickly and timid boy. He not only took great and untiring care of me—some of my earliest remembrances are of nights when he would walk up and down with me for an hour at a time in his arms when I was a wretched mite suffering acutely with asthma— but he also most wisely refused to coddle me, and made me feel that I must force myself to hold my own with other boys and prepare to do the rough work of the world. I cannot say that he ever put it into words, but he certainly gave me the feeling that I was always to be both decent and manly, and that if I were manly nobody would laugh at my being decent. In all my childhood he never laid hand on me but once, but I always knew perfectly well that in case it became necessary he would not have the slightest hesitancy in doing so again, and alike from my love and respect, and in a certain sense, my fear of him, I would have hated and dreaded beyond measure to have him know that I had been guilty of a lie, or of cruelty, or of bullying, or of uncleanness or of cowardice. Gradually I grew to have the feeling on my own account, and not merely on his.

His father was a Republican but tended not to take an active part in politics.  The one exception was in 1877 when he was nominated to be Collector of Revenues of the port of New York by President Hayes.  Hayes hoped that Roosevelt, a man noted for his honesty, would clean up that cesspool of corruption.  Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, a man who personified corruption, opposed the nomination.  The fight in the Senate over the nomination was long and bitter, and front page news in New York.  Ultimately the nomination was defeated.  Small wonder that Roosevelt Sr.’s son would be ever dedicated to the cause of reform in politics.

The first great tragedy that TR knew was when his father died of stomach cancer at the age of 46 in 1878.  The death was an agonizing one which Roosevelt Sr. endured with stoicism and courage.

TR graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude from Harvard in 1877.  He committed a potentially tragic error by commencing the study of law at Columbia.  However, he had the good sense to drop out, and while attending the school he spent most of his time writing his naval history of the War of 1812, which was the definitive work on the subject for over two decades and still is very much worth the reading.  It is astounding that such a mature work of scholarship came from a man of 23.  He poured his heart and soul into his later multi-volumed The Winning of the West. His numerous published works on History and Nature would have caused TR to be remembered even without his other claims to fame.

However, his life’s avocation, politics, was calling, and he became associated with the 21rst Republican district Association.  He also got married to Alice Hathaway Lee, with whom he enjoyed a storybook romance.  He served in the New York State legislature in 1882-1884, incredibly becoming minority leader in 1883.  Then the second great tragedy of his life struck.  On February 15, 1884 his wife died of kidney failure, three days after giving birth to his daughter Alice.  To complete his misery his beloved mother died in the same house of typhoid fever.  In his diary Roosevelt wrote a large X and the words, “The light has gone out of my life.”

TR never really recovered completely from the death of his beloved Alice.  After her burial he attempted never to say or write her name again.  In the face of such an overwhelming loss he could only retain his sanity by looking away.  He left his daughter in the care of his sister.  After a brief return to the New York Assembly, Roosevelt went West to the Dakota territory and purchased a ranch, intent on starting a new life.  Called “four eyes” by cowboys who looked upon his spectacles as almost a moral failing, Roosevelt quickly earned their respect through his toughness and his skill as a horseman and hunter.  As a deputy sheriff he captured three outlaws who stole his riverboat, and stayed awake forty hours guarding them, passing the time reading Tolstoy.

Roosevelt wrote about another incident:

“It was late in the evening when I reached the place. I heard one or two shots in the bar-room as I came up, and I disliked going in. But there was nowhere else to go, and it was a cold night. Inside the room were several men, who, including the bartender, were wearing the kind of smile worn by men who are making believe to like what they don’t like. A shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. He had evidently been shooting at the clock, which had two or three holes in its face.

…As soon as he saw me he hailed me as ‘Four Eyes,’ in reference to my spectacles, and said, ‘Four Eyes is going to treat.’ I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice. He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language… In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I said, ‘Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,’ and rose, looking past him.

As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely a convulsive action of his hands, or whether he was trying to shoot at me. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head… if he had moved I was about to drop on my knees; but he was senseless. I took away his guns, and the other people in the room, who were now loud in their denunciation of him, hustled him out and put him in the shed.”

As much as he loved the West, Roosevelt eventually realized that he could not run away from his responsibilities.  In 1886 he ran for mayor of New York, the only election he ever lost.  In December he married his childhood friend, Edith Carow.  It was a love match.  Edith would become a mother for TR’s daughter Alice and have five children with her husband.  Roosevelt referred to his progeny, who he doted on, as the Lion’s Brood.  Roosevelt always loved kids, and he would act as Santa at the school that his kids attended long after they were grown.  (Some of his critics said that TR’s love for children was only natural in that he never grew up himself!  There was some truth in that observation.  In his joy and wonder at the world, and in his enthusiasm for it, Roosevelt did retain the best part of childhood all his life.)  Roosevelt believed strongly in God and attended church regularly.  In 1917 in an interview he decried those who make excuses for not going to church:

Yes, I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the Creator and dedicate oneself to good living in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in one’s own house, just as well as in church. But I also know as a matter of cold fact the average man does not thus worship or thus dedicate himself. If he strays away from church, he does not spend his time in good works or lofty meditation. He looks over the colored supplement of the newspaper.

From 1888-1895 he served on the Civil Rights Commission and made a name for himself as an unremitting foe of political corruption, whether the culprits were Democrats or Republicans.  From 1895-1897 he served as President of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners and embarked upon a wave of reform which ranged from selecting new recruits on the basis of merit instead of political connections to employing cutting-edge technology by having telephones installed in station houses.  In 1897 he stepped onto the national stage when his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge convinced an initially reluctant President McKinley to appoint Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Roosevelt had never lost his fascination with naval warfare and he seized the office with both hands, taking advantage of any days on which the easy going Secretary of the Navy was not present to issue commands to reform the Navy and to prepare it for war.

An enthusiast for War with Spain to drive the Spaniards from Cuba, the forty year old Roosevelt was not content to view the War from Washington.  He raised the Rough Riders regiment and was awarded the Medal of Honor, a century later, for his extreme heroism in leading the charges of the Rough Riders up Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.  He was the only man mounted in that fight and it is a miracle he survived.  All accounts testify to his complete contempt for death that day.   Here is his Medal of Honor citation:


Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt distinguished himself by acts of bravery on 1 July 1898, near Santiago de Cuba, Republic of Cuba, while leading a daring charge up San Juan Hill. Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt, in total disregard for his personal safety, and accompanied by only four or five men, led a desperate and gallant charge up San Juan Hill, encouraging his troops to continue the assault through withering enemy fire over open countryside. Facing the enemy’s heavy fire, he displayed extraordinary bravery throughout the charge, and was the first to reach the enemy trenches, where he quickly killed one of the enemy with his pistol, allowing his men to continue the assault. His leadership and valor turned the tide in the Battle for San Juan Hill. Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.

The Rough Riders were a fantastic assemblage of cowboys, Indians, scions of great eastern fortunes, hunters, trappers, soldiers of fortune and ordinary Americans representing every occupation under the Sun.  It is a tribute to the men of the unit and their officers, especially Theodore Roosevelt and his hand picked regular officer commander Colonel Leonard Wood, that they were able to weld these disparate elements into an elite fighting force in a month.  The press gave heavy coverage to the Rough Riders and Americans of all sections of the country took pride in a fighting force that was viewed as representing the nation.

Roosevelt summed up what the Rough Riders, in tandem with the 3rd US Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th US Cavalry and the other US troops, accomplished that July 1:   On the day of the big fight I had to ask my men to do a deed that European military writers consider utterly impossible of performance, that is, to attack over open ground an unshaken infantry armed with the best modern repeating rifles behind a formidable system of entrenchments. The only way to get them to do it in the way it had to be done was to lead them myself.

Roosevelt was now a national celebrity and easily won election as Governor of New York.  In 1900 he very reluctantly accepted nomination as Vice-President, viewing it as a one way ticket to political oblivion.  After his election, he found the office so empty of any duties to perform, he gave thought to attending law school while being Vice-President.  All this changed in an instant when anarchist Leon Czolgosz  mortally wounded President McKinley on September 6, 1901.  Substandard medical care caused McKinley to die on September 14 from gangrene.  (It should be noted that McKinley, a Civil War combat veteran, demonstrated immense fortitude and good humor during his ordeal, even joking with the doctor who attended him, and who he had met just prior to his shooting, that he had not expected to need his professional services so quickly!)  As Mark Hanna, Senator from Ohio and McKinley’s campaign manager noted tersely, “Now that damn cowboy is president!”

It is as easy to describe a whirlwind as the ceaseless activity of the Colonel, as he liked to be called as President.  It is possible in a blog post only to note the major events.  In his first term he supported, well, more accurately engineered, a Panamanian revolt from Colombia and signed with the new government of Panama a treaty in 1903 to allow the construction of the Panama Canal.  When he asked his Attorney General for a legal opinion about his actions in regard to the Canal, he responded that there should be no taint of legality about this great enterprise.  He successfully defeated the insurrection in the Philippines and put the islands on the path to self-government with an elected legislature.  (The Filipinos describe their pre-independence history as four centuries in a convent and forty years in Hollywood.)

He began a policy of building up and modernizing the Navy, part of his belief that the days of isolation were over and that the United States was a world power whether it wanted to be or not.

A foreign policy crisis arose late in his first term when a Moroccan rebel, Raisuli, kidnapped a 64 year old man, Ion Perdicaris on May 18, 1904.  Raisuli sent to the Sultan a list of demands in exchange for the release of Perdicaris and his stepson who was also a captive.  The demands included $70,000 in gold, safe-conduct for his tribesmen, and being named governor of two districts near Tangier.

Theodore Roosevelt was outraged by this kidnapping of an American citizen, and had ships of the Navy stationed off Morocco.  His first instinct was to have the US Marines go in and rescue Perdicaris, but Secretary Hay convinced him that such a course was unwise.  Morocco was a state of first importance to many European powers, and American intervention might have set off a powderkeg similar to the events that ultimately led to World War I.  The administration faced an additional quandry when it learned that during the Civil War in 1862 Perdicaris had renounced his American citizenship in Greece, apparently to prevent the Confederate government from confiscating his holdings in the Confederacy.  The Roosevelt Administration made certain that no one outside of the administration became aware of this.

Working behind the scenes, Hay convinced the Sultan, through British and French diplomatic intermediaries, to pay the ransom.  For home consumption Hay released a telegram sent to the Sultan demanding Perdicaris alive, or Raisuli dead.  1904 was a Presidential election year, and the telegram caused a tumultuous scene when it was read to the Republican national convention.  A few days after the telegram was issued, the Sultan paid the ransom, and Peridcaris and his stepson were duly released.  As was usual in his career, Roosevelt enjoyed good fortune in this incident, and reached his goal of freeing Perdicaris at no cost to himself or the United States.

Domestically he began to push anti-trust lawsuits against the huge trust combines that dominated business and pushed through Congress greater regulation of business.  Throughout both terms he worked feverishly to double the number of national parks to preserve pristine wilderness for future generations of Americans.

On Civil Rights, although certainly not completely free from the virulent race prejudice common in his day, he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House, a move that was bitterly denounced by Southern Democrats, spoke out against lynching, and pronounced that education, tolerance and following the Golden Rule were the antidotes to race hatred.  He appointed many blacks to Federal positions, even in the South.  For his time, he was the most radical president when it came to Civil Rights since Grant.  In regard to religion he  went out of his way to emphasize his friendships with numerous members of the Catholic hierarchy and ordinary Catholics.  In the eyes of Roosevelt what unified Americans was more important that what divided them.

Part of this policy of unifying Americans was to bury the still smoldering enmity between North and South.  Grover Cleveland had attempted to return captured Confederate battle flags to the South in his first term, and was probably defeated for re-election as a result.    After Roosevelt’s election in 1904, a bill he sponsored to return the Confederate battle flags passed both houses unanimously in February 1905.  By this time the passions of the War had truly cooled after four decades, and the Spanish-American War in which Roosevelt had become a national hero had witnessed troops from the North and the South shedding their blood in a common cause.  The long Civil War era in American history was now completely at an end, and Roosevelt was a major figure in ending it.

His election in 1904, with a thumping electoral vote mandate of 336-140 was historically significant in that he was the first Vice-President in American history to become President due to the death of his predecessor who went on to be elected in his own right.

The major foreign policy events in his second term were his spearheading the peace negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and for his sending the American fleet around the globe, giving visible manifestation to Roosevelt’s observation that in diplomacy one should speak softly and carry a big stick.  Domestically he passed through Congress the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

I see this blog post is reaching 4000 words so I will forego further examination of TR’s record as President.  I would make the following observation:   No matter one’s political views, Roosevelt held a diverse group of views certain to both offend and inspire virtually all portions of the American political spectrum today.  The issues of his days translate poorly into the political battles of ours.  Trying to pigeon hole him into the modern political categories of liberal or conservative is fruitless, since he could fit into both categories depending upon the issue up for discussion, although that is deceptive since the political issues have changed so dramatically in the past one hundred years.


His life post presidency is quickly told.  He quickly became disenchanted with Taft and challenged him for the Republican nomination in 1912.  Defeated, Roosevelt ran on the progressive Bull Moose Party slate, managing the only time in American history for a third party candidate to get more votes than a major party candidate, Taft, in a presidential contest.  The upshot of all this was the election of Wilson, who Roosevelt came to despise.

One event in this campaign epitomizes Roosevelt.

On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was giving a speech in Milwaukee.  A deranged saloonkeeper, John Schrank, shot him in the chest.  Roosevelt refused to cancel a scheduled speech.  His opening is perhaps one of the most memorable for any speech:

Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet – there is where the bullet went through – and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.

Only after he completed his speech, he spoke for 90 minutes with blood running down his shirt, did he consent to go to a hospital.  The bullet could not be removed from his chest and he carried it in him for the rest of his life.  He was off the campaign trail for a scant one week, a week in which his opponents, sportsmanlike, also left the campaign trail out of respect for him.  What a man!

In 1913-1914 he led an exploration of the River of Doubt in the Amazon, now known as the River Roosevelt.  It almost cost him his life and only the intrepid determination of his son Kermit, and his own indomitable will, got him out alive.

During Wilson’s term  he was vociferous in his denunciation of Wilson’s policy of staying out of World War I.  Roosevelt, despite his respect for German culture and learning, thought that it would be a catastrophe for the World if Germany won and that the US must prevent this.  After the US he supported the war effort in every way he could with speeches and writings, although Wilson vetoed his proposal that he raise and lead a division of volunteers in combat.  All of his sons fought in the War, with his son Kermit a pilot dying in combat, the last great tragedy that Roosevelt had to endure in this Vale of Tears.

After 1912 with his vociferous criticisms of Wilson he had become a hero to Republicans and if he had lived it is quite possible that he may have been elected President again, but such was not to be.  After the death of his son Kermit in 1918, his own health went into rapid decline.  He died in his sleep on January 6, 1919.  His son Archie told his siblings, “The old lion is dead.” He well deserves his place on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson.

Death had to take him in his sleep, for if he was awake there’d have been a fight.

Remark of Charles Marshall, Vice President of the United States, upon hearing of the death of Theodore Roosevelt

Published in: on February 16, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. “TR graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude from Harvard in 1877. He committed a potentially tragic error by commencing the study of law at Columbia.” Could you please explain why this was an error? Thank you.

    • Because your humble blogster is an attorney Doreen! A bit of humor. Additionally I think the law would have taken time away from what was already going to be an epically crowded life.

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