- Historic Sites
Theodore Roosevelt, President
For TR, the nation s highest office was never a burden; he loved the job, and Americans loved him for loving it
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
The most fundamental characteristic of Theodore Roosevelt was his aggression—conquest being, to him, synonymous with growth. From the moment he first dragged breath into his asthmatic lungs, the sickly little boy fought for a larger share of the world. He could never get enough air; disease had to be destroyed; he had to fight his way through big, heavy books to gain a man’s knowledge. Just as the struggle for wind made him stretch his chest, so did the difficulty of relating to abnormally contrasting parents extend his imagination. Theodore Senior was the epitome of hard, thrusting Northern manhood; Mittie Roosevelt was the quintessence of soft, yielding Southern femininity. The Civil War—the first political phenomenon little Teedie was ever aware of—symbolically opposed one to the other. There was no question as to which side, and which parent, the child preferred. He naughtily prayed God, in Mittie’s presence, to “grind the Southern troops to powder,” and the victory of Union arms reinforced his belief in the superiority of Strength over Weakness, Right over Wrong, Realism over Romance.
Teedie’s youthful “ofserv-a-tions” in natural history gave him further proof of the laws of natural selection, long before he fully understood Darwin and Herbert Spencer. For weeks he watched in fascination while a tiny shrew successively devoured a mass of beetles, then a mouse twice her size, then a snake so large it whipped her from side to side of the cage as she was gnawing through its neck. From then on the rule of tooth and claw, aided by superior intelligence, was a persistent theme in Theodore Roosevelt’s writings.
Blood sports, which he took up as a result of his shooting for specimens, enabled him to feel the “strong eager pleasure” of the shrew in vanquishing ever larger foes; his exuberant dancing and whooping after killing a particularly dangerous animal struck more than one observer as macabre. From among his own kind, at college, he selected the fairest and most unobtainable mate—“See that girl? I’m going to marry her. She won’t have me, but I am going to have her! ”—and he ferociously hunted her down. That was Alice Lee Roosevelt, mother of the late Alice Longworth.
During his first years in politics, in the New York State Assembly, he won power through constant attack. The death of Alice Lee, coming as it did just after the birth of his first child—at the moment of fruition of his manhood—only intensified his will to fight. He hurried West, to where the battle for life was fiercest. The West did not welcome him; it had to be won, like everything else he lusted for. Win it he did, by dint of the greatest physical and mental stretchings-out he had yet made. In doing so he built up the magnificent body that became such an inspiration to the American people (one frail little boy who vowed to follow the President’s example was the future world heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney). And by living on equal terms with the likes of Hashknife Simpson, Bat Masterson, Modesty Carter, Bronco Charlie Miller, and Hell-Roaring Bill Jones, he added another mental frontier to those he already had inherited at birth. Theodore Roosevelt, Eastern son of a Northern father and a Southern mother, could now call himself a Westerner also.
TR’s second governing impulse was his personal righteousness. As one reviewer of his books remarked, “He seems to have been born with his mind made up.” No violent shocks disturbed his tranquil, prosperous childhood in New York City. Privately educated, he suffered none of the traumas of school. Thanks to the security of his home, the strong leadership of his father, and the adoration of his brother and sisters, Teedie entered adolescence with no sexual or psychological doubts whatsoever. Or if he had any, he simply reasoned them out, according to the Judéo-Christian principles Theodore Senior had taught him, reached the proper moral decision, and that was that. “Thank heaven!” he wrote in his diary after falling in love with Alice Lee, “I am perfectly pure.”
His three great bereavements (the death of his father in 1878, and the deaths of his mother and wife in the same house and on the same day in 1884) came too late in his development to do him any permanent emotional damage. They only served to convince him more that he must be strong, honest, clean-living, and industrious. “At least I can live,” he wrote, “so as not to dishonor the memory of the dead whom I so loved,” and never was a cliché more heartfelt. Experiment after experiment proved the correctness of his instincts—in graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, in marrying successfully, in defying the doctors who ordered him to live a sedentary life, in winning international acclaim as writer and politician long before he was thirty. (He received his first nomination for the Presidency, by the Baltimore American, when he was only twenty-eight; it had to be pointed out to the newspaper’s editors that he was constitutionally debarred from that honor for the next seven years.)
In wild Dakota Territory, he proceeded to knock down insolent cowboys, establish the foundations of federal government, pursue boat thieves in the name of the law, and preach the gospel of responsible citizenship. One of the first things he did after Benjamin Harrison appointed him Civil Service Commissioner was call for the. prosecution of Postmaster General William Wallace of Indianapolis—who just happened to be the President’s best friend. “That young man,” Harrison growled, “wants to put the whole world right between sunrise and sunset.”