The Senior Theodore Roosevelt

Did you know that Theodore Roosevelt, the icon of Mt. Rushmore, was a Junior?


TR’s father, a Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, was arguably the most important influence in the future president’s life.

Theodore Roosevelt (1831-76) was descended from a long line of Dutch New Yorkers who settled along the Hudson not long after the Pilgrims planted roots in Massachusetts.  Well into the fourth generation, TR Senior was a prominent and well-to-do member of the “Knickerbocker” class, whose glass importing business would insure a life of near-luxury for his family.

At twenty-two, he married Martha (Mittie) Bullock, a Georgia belle, and they would have four remarkable children:  Anna (called Bamie by the family), Theodore Junior, Elliott (Eleanor’s father) and Corinne.

TR Senior: Devoted Father

Little Theodore Junior unfortunately suffered from poor health nearly from birth, and by age three, was diagnosed with severe asthma.  A short life was expected.  Theodore Roosevelt Senior spent his nights walking the floor with the boy in his arms, trying to ease the spasms.  Some summer nights Father Theodore hitched the carriage at midnight, believing that fresh air and the gentle jog might lull his son into a restful sleep.  Then there were the big black cigars that the five-year-old child was forced to smoke, since the doctors believed they had curative powers.  (Our TR, by the way, would be a non-smoker all his life!)

Like his siblings, Theodore was an exceptionally bright child with unquenchable curiosity and a voracious appetite for knowledge.  Despite poor eyesight, he learned to read early, and by five or six, had developed a true and lifelong passion for natural history.  With his father’s encouragement, he collected and catalogued everything: flora, fauna, rocks, birds, fish and insects, and by twelve, he was a bona fide taxidermist.

TR Senior: Committed Father

Because of the family’s wealth, exotic travel was also on the agenda, and the young Roosevelts were exposed to languages, cultures, history, experiences and some exotic flora and fauna that few of their peers enjoyed.  Theodore-the-child would practically inhale the benefits from this broad expanse of knowledge, and was blessed with a prodigious memory to summon it nearly at will.

Teenaged TR

Theodore Roosevelt, Junior, with the encouragement of his father, managed to work a frail asthmatic body into a strong advocate for physical fitness.

The story goes that as young Theodore Roosevelt approached puberty, still frail, puny and nearsighted, his father (an apparently robust man) said to him, “Theodore, you have the mind but you do not have the body.  You must make your body.”  Accordingly, he transformed an upstairs room into a mid-19th-century gymnasium, complete with assorted weights and barbells, punching bags and boxing gloves – and a 19th-century personal trainer to instruct.  Thus equipped, TR (the one we know) embraced the strenuous life, and literally shaped up.

TR Senior: Exemplary Father

Physical training would be the second most important gift his father could give him – the first being the time, the care and the devotion the elder man gave to his family.   Perhaps the third most important gift from TR Sr. was his splendid example of a fine, upright citizen.  He was a firm believer in noblesse oblige, and that great privilege demanded great moral responsibility.  He was considered one of the most generous men in New York, supporting dozens of charitable organizations worthy causes.  As a founding member of the Newsboys Lodging House, he became a father of sorts to hundreds of young boys, usually orphaned, who hawked the city’s daily papers for pennies.  He not only helped financially, but spent hours counseling the boys and even arranging for some of them to find opportunities “out west.”

The only fly in this magnificent ointment of virtue, was his non-service in the Civil War.  TR Senior purchased a substitute.  Perhaps he believed that his wife and four children (all in frail health, by the way) needed him more.  Perhaps he did not wish to risk facing his wife’s ardent Confederate family on a battlefield.  Perhaps both.   But it was certainly not from cowardice or opposition to the Union cause.  He served on several civilian committees, and was personally acquainted with President Lincoln.  TR Junior was only a small boy during those years, but his father’s non-service would haunt him all his life.  Time and again he would place himself in harsh physical danger, challenging fate and testing himself to the limit, trying (as some psychologists claim) to rectify his father’s omission.

college-age TR

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. as he looked about the time his father died. After the Senior Roosevelt died, TR never used “Jr.” in his signature.

When Theodore was about to enter Harvard, his father asked him what he wanted to do with his life.  “Natural history” was the obvious choice.  TR Senior was encouraging, assuring his support and his belief that his son would achieve great prominence in that field.  But, he counseled, it would be a life spent mostly in academic seclusion, and perhaps might not appeal to his son’s tapeworm for adventure.  With that admonition, Theodore rethought his future, and placed natural history at the top of his list of best-loved hobbies.

TR Senior died when he was only forty-six.  He had cancer, a secret kept from the family.  Theodore Junior was still in college.

Theodore never used “Junior” in his signature after that time, but he devoted himself to measuring up to those large footsteps for the rest of his life.  He would meet, and indeed be one of the greatest men of his era, but he would always refer to his father as “the best man I ever knew.”



About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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6 Responses to The Senior Theodore Roosevelt

  1. energywriter says:

    Great story, as always. Love the new info. Didn’t they send TR Jr out west for the fresh air? Isn’t that how he became an advocate for national parks? sd

  2. nerdtrips says:

    We learned a lot about TR when we visited his birthplace in New York City. I think it’s a site that gets overlooked because of all the other attractions in NYC. Thanks for sharing these details about TR Senior.

  3. Roberta Sandler says:

    Very enlightening blog, Feather. I can see now how Teddy’s loving and playful relationship with his own children stemmed from the lovng relationship he shared with his own father. I visited T.R.’s home in Oyster Bay, L.I., where the docent talked about how Teddy would awaken his children early a.m. and announce the day’s ‘family fun’ activities.

  4. TR Senior would probably rank on an all-time super-dad list…. right below MY own father!

  5. TR Sr. married Martha “Mittie” Bulloch. She was not named Matilda. Also, his father’s Civil War “service” is documented in many letters and documents. He served directly for Abraham Lincoln, going from military camp to military camp to encourage soldiers to send money home to their wives and families. It is quite a story that so few know.

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