“my Dear Selous…”


On October 14, 1912, he had just come out of a Milwaukee hotel on his way to address a Progressive meeting during his campaign in opposition to the Democratic presidential nominee, Woodrow Wilson, when he was shot in the chest by a man who felt an inordinately fervent distaste for third terms for U.S. Presidents. Refusing medical aid, Roosevelt went to the meeting as planned, and gave his speech as planned. It was a magnificent example of boneheaded courage; there was nothing particularly crucial about the speech, and there was every reason to suppose him dying of his wound, but Roosevelt was living up to his ideals, behaving like the hero he wanted to be. Indeed, at that moment he became that hero. As it happened, the wound was not fatal; it was not even particularly dangerous, but the wounded man had no way of knowing that. Hearing the news in due course, Selous naturally telegraphed or wrote with all speed and received the following reply: My dear Selous, I could not help being a little amused by your statement that my “magnificent behaviour, splendid pluck and great constitutional strength have made a great impression.” Come, come, old elephant hunter and lion hunter! Down at the bottom of your heart you must have a better perspective of my behavior after being shot. Modern civilisation, indeed I suppose all civilisation, is rather soft; and I suppose the average political orator, or indeed the average sedentary broker or banker or business man or professional man, especially if elderly, is much overcome by being shot or meeting with some other similar accident, and feels very sorry for himself and thinks he has met with an unparalleled misfortune; but the average soldier or sailor in a campaign or battle, even the average miner or deep-sea fisherman or fireman or policeman, and of course the average hunter of dangerous game, would treat both my accident and my behavior after the accident as entirely matter of course. It was nothing like as nerve-shattering as your experience with the elephant that nearly got you or as your experience with more than one lion and more than one buffalo. The injury itself was not as serious as your injury the time that the old four bore gun was loaded twice over by mistake; and as other injuries you received in the hunting field.

After that emotional interlude the watchword, clearly, was “As you were.”

Less than a week before the election—which he lost to Woodrow Wilson—Roosevelt found time to write about matters totally unrelated to politics.

Oyster Bay, November 1st, 1912

My dear Selous:

I have just received your letter of October aoth and value it. I do earnestly hope that you will be able to get a good bull giant eland for the Kensington Museum…I very much wish that you could arrange to stop off between steamers and devote two or three weeks to an investigation of the white-withered lechwee. I think there is something curious about the adult pellage of the male…

December 3rd 1912

By George! that was rather a squeak with the buffalo…

The next fall Roosevelt went on a trip to Brazil and Argentina, but if he wrote to Selous from South America the letters are not in the Archives. Travelling down an unexplored jungle stream ominously named the River of Doubt, he hurt his leg and fell so ill that at one point he tried to persuade Kermit and the rest of the party to carry on and leave him to die. They naturally refused and brought him out by the river.

Shaken in health, Roosevelt returned to the United States in May, 1914, a little less than three months before the start of World War I. With his admiration of military efficiency and the superman concept generally, Roosevelt at first entertained pro-German sympathies. But Roosevelt’s friendship with Selous did not suffer, and soon he changed his mind about Germany. He opposed Wilson’s policies with mounting rancor, and longed to see the United States join the scrimmage. Selous was making valiant efforts in England to organize a troop of tough old-time hunters like himself, on the order of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the past: his distinguished friend approved of and supported the project in his letters, but it came to nothing. The British War Office, inundated with applications from elderly fire-eaters, rejected Selous along with the rest.

“I sincerely regret that your body of frontiersmen could not be mounted and sent to the front,” wrote Roosevelt on November 14, 1914. “I thoroughly approve of not sending ordinary volunteers to the front, until they have been carefully drilled. But I also feel very strongly that the ordinary General, even though a good General, does not realize the possibilities of men, such as your frontiersmen, or men such as those I commanded in Cuba, or of men such as were the Boers.…I should give a good deal to try the experimentl”

There was more of the same on December 4:

My dear Selous: