“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt
There’s a reason Teddy Roosevelt’s face is on Mt. Rushmore. He wasn’t just a man with a big reputation. He was a man who lived life to the fullest with a joy and intensity the American presidency had never seen before. One British writer said after visiting the White House that “Roosevelt is not an American, you know. He is America.” He had the reputation for having a huge personality and being a ball of energy.
Though soft, cuddly teddy bears were named after him, one historian described him as being more similar to the Tasmanian Devil because he just could not sit still. There was too much life to live and he wanted too see and do it all. One could argue that he nearly accomplished just that.
Teddy Roosevelt, or TR as he liked to be called, was iconic. In our lineup of presidents of the week, TR accomplished more than several presidents combined. It seems hardly possible to capture his life in anything less than a full novel, so here are some of the highlights that you may not already know.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Early Life
Teddy Roosevelt was born October 27, 1858 in the heart of Manhattan. He was born into one of the most prominent families in New York. The Roosevelt family reminds me of the 19th Century version of the Kennedy family. They were super wealthy, successful and well known. However, little Teddy Roosevelt, or “Teedy” as he was called back then, wasn’t always the big boisterous man that we think of today. He was for most of his childhood a small, frail boy with asthma so severe, he was almost an invalid. His father was his hero and told him, “You have the mind but you have not the body. You must make your body.” A family gym was built and TR started his journey to making the body he knew he needed for the life he knew he wanted. He started boxing and lifting weights to develop strength and stamina.
His family had the motto that whatever challenges lie ahead, you plow through it–not around (they often took this literally on family hikes–his children had to go over a rock or through a river rather than around it). This motto changed his life. He literally did whatever it took to change his body, to make it stronger, less vulnerable. Those who knew Teddy in his later life couldn’t imagine that he was never the strong, vivacious man he was as an adult. Teddy Roosevelt was proof that when you put your mind to something and don’t give up, real change is possible.
His first love in life wasn’t politics, but nature. If you weren’t outdoorsy or adventurous, you probably wouldn’t be hanging out with Teddy Roosevelt. As a child, he lived outdoors and studied every plant and animal species there was for him to study. He spent hours painting pictures of wildlife (somewhat similar to Audubon) and planned on a career in natural history.
“Black care never sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough“
Heartache and Pushing Through
His full life wasn’t without heartache. After his graduation from Harvard and Columbia Law School, he married the love of his life, Alice Lee. After giving birth to their first child, however, Alice passed away. He was serving in the NY state legislature when he got the news via Telegram that he was needed at home ASAP. His beloved mother (only in her 40s) and new wife both passed away on the same day, Valentine’s Day 1884. Alice apparently had Bright’s disease, unbeknownst to anyone at the time. TR wrote in his diary that day a giant “X” and the words “The Light has gone out of my life.” He never spoke about Alice again.
Thus began a life of dealing with his trials in a unique way.
After Alice died, he left their baby with his sister and he headed to the Badlands of the Dakota Territory (what is now North Dakota). He thought that the answers to his sorrows were to keep as fast paced a life as possible and that if you were constantly on the go, you wouldn’t have time to be sad and mourn. He stayed in the Badlands for two years ranching and living the rugged life as a cowboy and even being elected as a deputy sheriff. All in an effort to forget his sorrows.
He applied the same philosophy to his life when his term at the White House was over, TR medicated his sorrows with an extreme hunting safari in Africa. One of the most intense of these types of trips came after he lost his 3rd term presidential election. Roosevelt was devastated. The only way he knew how to deal with it was to dive into something physically strenuous. An expedition to an unexplored part of the Amazon was his answer. He nearly died on the trip.
TR and War
Just three-years-old when the Civil War began, little Teddy understood the nation was at war– constantly playing soldiers and mentioning them in his prayers. His father never fought in the war though. Teddy worshiped his father. One thing he could never forgive him for though was for paying another man to fight for him in the Civil War. It was unthinkable to do such a thing, in TR’s opinion, and he vowed to always face war head on. He lived up to his promise.
In 1897, President McKinley appointed him as assistant secretary to the Navy. As the Spanish American War started, Roosevelt formed a group of now famous cowboys and former college athletes called the “Rough Riders.” He led them to many victories in the war and became a hero.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Political Career
TR was only 23 when he was elected to his first political position: the state assembly of New York. He served in President Benjamin Harrison’s administration as civil service commissioner. He then moved back to New York City to serve as police commissioner (anyone else watch Blue Bloods? A big portrait of him hangs in Frank Reagan’s office and he’s always looking up at him to wonder what “TR would have done.”). On his first day as commissioner of the NYPD, he actually ran to the office. His exuberance was unmatched. TR was a master at press relations. He worked with the reporters and knew how to work publicity. He went undercover with them as the PC to make sure cops were on their beat and often patrolled the streets himself.
In 1898 he became the 36th governor of New York. His agenda for the state of New York basically set precedent for what he later accomplished in the White House.
After TR led the Rough Riders, he was elected as governor of New York. In the hopes that he wouldn’t seek out the office of president himself, conservative Republicans nominated him to be McKinley’s vice president. Obviously that strategy backfired when McKinley was shot not long into his second term.
It was then that Americans saw, at age 42, the youngest man ever to hold the office of presidency sworn in.
A lesson politicians can take away from TR is that he didn’t care about party politics– that wasn’t his priority. He just wanted to do what was best for the most people possible. Why is that such a hard philosophy for politicians to apply?
“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.”
TR and the White House
There was never a man more excited to enter the White House than Teddy Roosevelt. He packed more into his seven years as president than multiple presidents combined.
“Teddy introduced charisma into the presidential equation,” described one historian. He knew how to get support and enthusiasm for his agenda and so the job was enjoyable rather than a burden.
He is best known for his anti-monopoly and conservation policies. But he also modernized the Navy and built it into the largest in the world. He became the first president to win the Nobel-Peace Prize– given for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War.
Conservation was super important to him, obviously. He established over 150 national forests, over 50 federal bird reserves, five national parks, 18 national monuments, and 230 million acres of public land. Today, six national parks are dedicated to him. One is even named after him, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. And we all know that this work is what ultimately got his face carved into Mt. Rushmore.
And if you’ve ever wondered why there’s no hotels or businesses near the Grand Canyon, let TR tell you in his own words:
“I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.”
TR thought unless it was prohibited by law, that meant he could do anything as president. Roosevelt introduced to the presidency the idea of the governments role as policing and regulating the private sector and it was that belief that led him to establish what he referred to as his “Square Deal.” It was basically three things: conservation of natural resources, control of corporations, and consumer protection. It was these deals that basically led to railroad and corporate regulations and also essentially established consumer food/drug safety, which would later lead to the Food and Drug Administration.
Of course, he also oversaw the building of the Panama Canal, a huge long-term goal of our country. When they traveled to Panama, Roosevelt and his wife became the first president and First Lady to travel abroad while in office.
After his second term was over, Roosevelt said of the presidency, “I’ve had the best time of any man my age in all the world.”
He had such a good time that he couldn’t give it up and ran for president again in 1912. He refused to be nominated as a Republican, so he started a new party called the Progressive Party (or the Bull Moose, since it’s said he was as tough as a bull moose). Before one campaign speech that year, an assassin shot him in the chest. A folded 50-page speech and a spectacles case saved his life. In typical Teddy Roosevelt style, he refused to go to the hospital before giving the full speech, bloody chest and all.
Unfortunately, even after that charade, he lost the election. In despair, he headed off to the Amazon on a wild expedition where he came dangerously close to losing his life from tropical diseases, bacterial infections and starvation.
TR and His Children
You can’t talk about Teddy Roosevelt without talking about his children. Several years after Teddy’s first wife died, he remarried Edith Kermit Carow, a childhood friend. Together, they had five children (plus little Alice, who was his daughter with his first wife, that TR called Lee). He was the ultimate dad. He let them have any pets (horned toad, parrot, snakes, a badger, etc.) they wanted and was always rough housing and playing and doing anything with them he could.
He basically let them turn the White House into their own special playground. They had the run of the place. They played games in every room and even roller skated on the main floor. There’s a story about his youngest son, Quentin, who would barge into meetings with Cabinet members and TR wouldn’t miss a beat. One time he ran in carrying snakes and TR told him to take the snakes to the room full of Congressmen next door until he was done. The Congressmen were mortified but TR thought it was awesome.
Roosevelt was devastated when his children grew too old to play with him. Sadly, Quentin died in WWI at age 20. It shook TR’s spirit. He died six months later in his sleep–probably as an indirect result of one of the diseases he picked up in the Amazon.
The First Lady
Edith was literally the girl next door. She was best friends with TR’s sister Corrine and attended their home school with them as young children. It’s thought that she and TR may have had a teenage romance, but it fizzled out when he left for college. Edith even attended his wedding to Alice.
Edith was the first First Lady to employ a full-time White House Social Secretary (read about it–possibly the ultimate party planning job ever). She also set precedent for other First Ladies to follow by establishing an official staff of her own.
While in the White House, Edith oversaw yet another overdue renovation. She also organized the first gallery of First Lady portraits in the White House, which was a big hit with the public. She also was a bit of a precursor to First Lady Jackie Kennedy who made sure the White House was decorated with antiques from appropriate time periods. It was also during this time that the White House became known as the “White House”–before that it was simply called the Executive Mansion.
Why TR is So Cool
Teddy Roosevelt was larger than life. Books and books have been written on him that still don’t scratch the surface of all there is to say about him. He literally packed everything he could into his life. It’s almost unthinkable now that he wasn’t elected to a third term. But, sometimes history paints a different picture of the presidency and we often don’t realize how good something was until time has passed.
Also, TR was just plain fun! He added personality and character to an office that hadn’t known life like that before. The stories foreign dignitaries tell are hilarious. For example, if you thought you were going to a nice sit-down meeting at the White House, you’d be wrong. TR would whisk them off to Rock Creek Park for a hike and often even a nude swim. They never knew what they were going to get!
There’s even an island named after him. Theodore Roosevelt Island is an 88.5-acre island and national memorial located in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Next time you’re in D.C., check it out!
Teddy Roosevelt started a conservation movement. He literally set aside millions of acres of land to be protected. What can we do to continue his legacy? How do we take care of the land around us? Teach your children to pick up trash and to enjoy nature. Next time you visit a national park or a national forest, talk to your children about Teddy Roosevelt and how one man began it all.
There are so many good books out there about Teddy Roosevelt. The two that I read are Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt about his journey into the Amazon. It’s not as intriguing as the one she wrote on James Garfield, but it’s still so, so interesting. It paints a vivid picture on what it was like for Roosevelt and his party to journey down into an unknown part of the Amazon and how they almost all died.
The other book I love is David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback. It’s about Roosevelt’s early life–his background and basically how he became and was shaped into the man he became.
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.