Theodore Roosevelt: A Man for a Continent

Theodore Roosevelt was a remarkable man in many ways, not the least of which, was his broad appeal to all sectors of the country.

Theodore Roosevelt:  Northerner

college-age TR

Theodore Roosevelt sported fashionable side whiskers when he was in college. They would disappear, but the moustache would remain.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was born and raised in New York City.  He was a small child during the Civil War, but as he grew to maturity and developed his own sense of political philosophies, he was unquestionably a Northerner.  He was pro-Union, and anti-slavery.  Those attitudes would never change.

His upbringing was exceptional for his times, and despite his poor health (childhood asthma), he enjoyed a broad range of activities, thanks in great part to his prominent and wealthy family.  His appetite for knowledge of all kinds was almost legendary.  Natural science, one of his earliest interests, became his lifelong passion, and his “amateur” expertise as a naturalist was Olympian, and could easily rival academic professionals.

Like many Northerners of wealth, Theodore also had the Northern conscience which dominated his fathers life.  The elder Roosevelt served on countless charitable boards, sponsored countless progressive civic projects, and gave freely of his time and wealth to improve social conditions of the less fortunate.  It was this conscience that propelled his son into politics, where he might be useful.

Theodore Roosevelt:  Southerner

Theodore was also half-Southern.  His mother, the former Martha (Mittie) Bulloch, was a Georgia belle, with a pedigree equal to the New York Knickerbocker Roosevelts.  Mittie’s sister Anna would live with her northern in-laws throughout Theodore’s childhood, and was partially responsible for his early education.

Mittie was a somewhat dreamy person; some historians now believe she may have had a predisposition toward depression.  While her “influence” upon her extraordinary son was never as dominant as the boy’s father, she was the one who introduced him to his lifelong love of poetry, good literature and perhaps his love of adventure.  He may also have inherited his love of “heroics” from his Southern family.

Mittie Roosevelt also had two brothers who made their own legendary names as blockade runners in the Confederate Navy.  Theodore was always proud of his Southern uncles James and Irvine Bulloch and the tales of their derring-do.  As an adult, Theodore would speak with pride of his Georgia forebears, and the fact that he was a part of them.

Theodore Roosevelt:  Easterner

No question about where Theodore belonged.  Child-to-man, he was of the Eastern Establishment.  His Roosevelt Dutch ancestors were already in America for two centuries before he was born.  His family was a welcomed New York Knickerbocker asset to Mrs. Astor’s “400” guest list.   And while the Roosevelts were never financially on a par with the Astors or Vanderbilts, they were well-propertied, and consorted with the upper classes comfortably.

Sargeant Teddy

The official Presidential portrait of Theodore Roosevelt was painted by John Singer Sargent. It captures the entire man.

Theodore Roosevelt was also a Harvard graduate, cordially welcomed into the best of clubs, and into the homes of the Beacon Hill society counterparts of his New York family.  Saltonstalls, Lodges, Cabots and Lees were dee-lighted by his company, and he was just as dee-lighted to be in theirs.

His first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, came from a Boston family that was connected to everyone in Bostons highest social standing.  They adored their son-in-law, and even after their daughter died in childbirth at only twenty-three, would maintain a very cordial relationship with Theodore – even after he remarried.

Theodore’s speech would always have that Eastern-Harvard affectation; his attitudes would reflect their sense of “the best people,” his favorite companions would be those of his class, and the people he would come to meet through his Eastern peers would be welcomed openly and heartily.  He was at home with them.  They were the ones he called by their first names.  They were the ones he permitted to call him Theodore.

Theodore Roosevelt:  Westerner

Then of course, there was a whole new world about to open up to young TR shortly after his first wife died.  As a self-diagnosed treatment for his understandable grief, Theodore Roosevelt went West to the Dakota territory, bought a ranch and a herd of cattle, and opened the door to a new outlook on life.  The experiences he had in the Dakotas would truly change his life.  The friendships he made there were “earned” and he was the one who had to earn them.  The cowboys grew to respect the four-eyed dude who would and could adapt to their harsh lifestyle, man for man, and without a complaint.

The city slicker would become as comfortable in buckskin and a cowboy hat (albeit custom made from Abercrombie and Fitch)  as he was in dress clothes and silk hat.  He was as natural drinking from a tin cup as he was in holding a crystal goblet.  And he loved sleeping under the stars.

cowboy ted

Theodore purchased a “western outfit” from NY’s Abercrombie & Fitch, and had his picture taken for posterity.

As time passed, Theodore Roosevelt’s love of natural sciences and his equal love of the strenuous life would lead him even farther west.

Theodore Roosevelt:  All-American

rough rider

At forty, TR became Lt. Colonel of the volunteer “Rough Riders”, an assortment of NY policemen, Harvard athletes and cowboys. They all got on famously!

This unique ability to relate easily to a nation of so many styles would win him devoted friends and legions of followers. When Theodore Roosevelt became “TR,” and his prominence began to rise, he had the unusual fortune to count on support from all parts of the continent.

When he assembled his volunteer corps of Rough Riders, New York policemen mixed with Harvard graduates, and they both rode side-by-side with cowboys and ranchers.  And, under TR’s leadership, they were equals.

In his political campaigns, the monied Wall Street Easterners provided the funds, the Westerners the enthusiastic manpower, and both North and South, all claimed him as “their own.”

It is only fitting that he has a permanent home atop Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.  He is the only one of its august residents who had ever been anywhere near the place.

Sources:

Brands, H.W. –  TR: The Last Romantic  – Basic Books, 1997

McCullough, David –  Mornings on Horseback  – Simon & Schuster, 1981

Miller, Nathan – Theodore Roosevelt: A Life –  Wm. Morrow,  1992

Morris, Edmund – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt – Coward McCann, 1979

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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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2 Responses to Theodore Roosevelt: A Man for a Continent

  1. awax1217 says:

    My favorite president. A man I could relate to. He had asthma and walked continually to overcome it. He used to walk with reporters trying to catch up and take notes on his points of view. Those who could do so got more of an exclusive than those who fell behind. He also brought America into the Park System. He is responsible for many of the National Parks today.

  2. He’s the one I want to sit next to at a dinner party!

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