Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) – American President, Conservationist
The life story of Theodore Roosevelt is one that demonstrates the grit, strength, and courage captured in the American Dream. From battling a persistent sickness in his childhood to becoming president, and even leading the nation’s army to the battleground, Roosevelt’s life is an inspiring one. It’s a great lesson in self-determination and the power of sheer grit.
Teddy, as he was fondly called, was born on October 27, 1858. He was the second of four children of his parents: Theodore and Martha Bullock Roosevelt. When Teddy was 3, he encountered what would become a huge challenge that would shape much of his childhood: He was diagnosed with asthma. That too in the mid-19th century, when healthcare was not as advanced as it is nowadays. As a result, Theodore had to stay home for most of his childhood. He couldn’t go to school like the rest of his siblings. His parents, therefore, brought tutors to teach him at home.
Soon as Teddy started reading, he fell in love with books. He became an avid devourer of almost anything printed; and unsurprisingly, this hobby was one factor that propelled him to success later in life. He encountered the works of British explorer David Livingston, and they opened his mind to possibilities in different parts of the world; places he had never been to.
Teddy was dedicated to building his intellectual capacity through books, but his physical stature was quite the opposite. He was rather thin, and couldn’t do much to defend himself when he was being bullied during his early teenage years. Because of this, his father enrolled him in physical training classes, which included boxing. Teddy’s penchant for excellence showed up here again as the scrawny little boy soon became a fitness jock, taking up calisthenics and other athletics in the process.
Teddy’s curiosity about the world became even bigger during his teen years. By now his focus had shifted to insects, fish, seals and other forms of animal life. He had his natural history museum set up in his bedroom.
He was shortsighted, but this was only discovered after he turned 13. His father observed that he was a lousy shot, but also quickly noticed that it was because of bad eyesight. After Teddy got a pair of glasses, he discovered what he had been missing; the world became so much more beautiful to him. You can imagine what this would have meant to a person with such a keen interest in the natural world!
Roosevelt would shoot birds, stuff them and add them to his natural history museum. The natural world was Theodore’s major curiosity until he got into Havard. Getting in was no easy task, mostly because Teddy was not very skilled in math. His father hired a private tutor to put him through, and with months of rigorous studying, he passed the exams and got into Havard in 1876 to study law.
As a member of the Columbia Law School, Teddy soon gained some recognition for himself as he took part in a wide range of activities, from boxing and rowing competitions to political debates. He was a well-rounded student who excelled in all aspects. This was demonstrated by his Phi Beta Kappa designation when he graduated in 1880, as the 22nd best student out of the 177 members.
However, something significant happened in his second year at Havard. Teddy’s father Theodore Roosevelt Sr. fell very ill and died. While other family members expressed their grief in different ways, Teddy refused to let his grief be obvious to all. He found the perfect place to channel his grief; outdoors. He went on adventures, riding on horseback alongside adventurer Bill Siegel. Bill made the same observations about Teddy as everyone else who met him. He described Teddy as “someone who took pains to learn everything”, and “there was nothing beneath his notice”.
Teddy got married to the love of his life, Alice Hathaway Lee, shortly after graduating from Harvard. Just two years into his law practice, he decided to venture into politics. This was a daring move on Theodore’s part. This is because his family was considered part of the elite, and politics was generally considered beneath them. Of course, today, it’s the other way around. This is why his foray into the political arena was met with much skepticism. American political landscape was one in which the players played dirty and often resulted in low blows and several underhand tactics to win.
Teddy didn’t care what they thought. As usual, his self-determination became the driving force once again, as he joined the Republican Party in New York. It wasn’t long before his doubters began to change their minds about this young man. Roosevelt won his party’s nomination seat in the New York assembly less than a year after he joined!
In the year 1884, Roosevelt’s wife, Alice was heavily pregnant. She had the baby on the 11th of February and then fell ill immediately after. Coincidentally, his mother was ill at this time. Sadly, they both died on the 14th of February 1884. These deaths were like daggers to Teddy’s heart. He captured his feelings at that moment thus: “The light has gone from my life”. A man of steel that he was, Teddy did not carry this dejection on his demeanor, neither did he allow it to affect his duties in the general assembly. The baby was left under the care of his sister.
After he left the general assembly, Teddy moved to the west and worked on his ranch. He stood guard on long, cold nights just like the rest of the hired hands. Everyone who came in contact with him in the West spoke of his courage. Looking at Teddy’s life, it seems that he had a peculiar way of dealing with grief. After his father’s death, he went on wild adventures. Again, after his wife and mother died, he went West to live on the wild side for a bit. Not long after, he met another woman whom he fell in love with. She was Edith Carow. They married in 1886.
Politics came calling for Roosevelt again, as his party leaders urged him to contest for the position of the Mayor of New York. He agreed and despite extensive campaigning, still lost the election. It was not all bad news for Roosevelt’s political career, as Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican stalwart, persuaded President Benjamin Harrison to appoint him to the Civil Service Commission.
Roosevelt always believed that some groups of people had an unfair advantage over others, and he was never in support of this inequality. He sought to fight this every time he had the chance. When he was appointed to the board of New York City Police Commissioners, he stood vehemently against corruption and took decisive steps against it. He also made the recruitment criteria much stricter than it used to be. This was in 1894.
About 3 years later, Roosevelt was appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, under the leadership of President William McKinley. This was another defining period of Roosevelt’s life. While he was Assistant Secretary, the Spanish-American war broke out. During the war, there was a call for volunteers because the U.S. Army was understaffed. Roosevelt led one of these volunteer troops, the first of its kind in the war. Under his leadership, the Rough Riders, as they were popularly called, won the battle of San Juan Hill. Unfortunately, Roosevelt was never awarded a medal of honor for his heroics during the war. However, he gained a lot of popularity, which helped him win the New York governorship election. During his time as governor, he continued his campaign in support of the downtrodden and against the unfair advantage that was being enjoyed by large corporations.
Shortly after, he was selected as President McKinley’s vice-presidential candidate in the elections. Roosevelt gave several speeches across the states of the Federation. In March 1901, Roosevelt was sworn in as vice President of the United States. As fate would have it, he would only hold this post for six months. President McKinley was assassinated in New York. As a result, Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States.
Theodore Roosevelt detested inequality and unfair advantage all his life, and when he became president, he was in the best position to fight it, and he did. Teddy was also passionate about nature and wildlife. He made concerted efforts towards wildlife conservation by creating five national parks. He also protected hundreds of millions of acres of land from encroachment by placing them under public protection. This was a very progressive move in the early 20th century.
While Roosevelt was president, there was a war between Russia and Japan between 1904 and 1905. This war led to a severe loss of men and resources on both sides. Initially, both countries’ leaders were reluctant to end the war, but when the losses became unbearable, the Japanese decided to enter a treaty to end it. They needed an intermediary, and this intermediary happened to be Theodore Roosevelt. The negotiations took place at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine, United States. On August 30th, 1905, they reached an agreement, which marked the end of the Russo-Japanese war. Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the negotiations.
Roosevelt left the oval office at the end of his term as president in 1909 and was succeeded by William Howard Taft. However, by 1912, Roosevelt was disappointed by Taft’s performance as president, and by the stance of the Republican Party on several issues. Roosevelt was so convinced of his ambition that even when he lost at the republican party primaries, he formed his group of progressives and still contested in the general elections.
On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was speaking at one of his campaign rallies in Milwaukee. While he was giving his speech, an assassin shot him. The shot was aimed at his heart, but as fate would have it, his glasses case, which was in his breast pocket, stopped the bullet. The bullet still penetrated his skin but had no serious damage.
If the attempt on his life was remarkable, then Theodore’s response was legendary. After he was hit, he proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, 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”. He then continued with the rest of his speech.
In 1913, Teddy went on another adventure. This would be his last. He went to South America. Teddy’s health deteriorated when he had a leg wound during the expedition. This wound, unfortunately, became infected and he came down with Tropical fever. He never recovered from the complications caused by this, despite the attention he received from highly skilled physicians. Roosevelt died in his sleep on January 6, 1919. He was 60 years of age.
- The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt Center
- Theodore Roosevelt: A Life by Nathan Miller, Quill/William Morrow, 1994
Images on this page
- theodore-roosevelt-potrait: Wikimedia Commons | public domain
- theodore-roosevelt-horse: Internet Archive Book Images | public domain
- theodore-roosevelt-hunter: wikimedia commons | public domain
- theodore-roosevelt-new-york-commissioner: wikimedia commons | public domain
- theodore-roosevelt-rough-riders: William Dinwiddie (1867-1934) | public domain
- theodore-roosevelt-yosemite: Underwood & Underwood | public domain
- theodore-roosevelt-campaign: NY Times photo archive | public domain
- theodore-roosevelt-speech: Doris A. and Lawrence H. Budner Theodore Roosevelt Collection | public domain