The Three Lives of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was only 60 years old when he died. The country was stunned. How could TR allow himself to be blindsided by the Grim Reaper?

TR’s Death

The real truth was that TR, the poster-boy for the strenuous life, had been in poor health for several years, stemming from his South American adventure-cum-tropical-diseases, an assassin’s bullet still lodged in his chest, and an assortment of other ills. That he survived as long as he did is a testimony to his aforesaid strenuous life and indomitable will.

The metaphorical truth is that Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) died of extreme old age, having lived (at least) three lives at a time, and all to the fullest. That would make him nearly two hundred years old, a big number, by any calculation.

TR: The Life of a Politician

Sargeant Teddy

The formal Presidential portrait of Theodore Roosevelt depicts every inch the professional statesman and politician that he was.

Interestingly enough, our Founding Fathers and their contemporaries believed wholeheartedly in the concept of noblesse oblige. Those who were privileged were expected to take a place on their governing council, whatever and wherever it was. Our originators wanted the best and the brightest to assume the heaviest responsibilities.

A century later, or post-Civil War, things had changed. Most people of privilege looked upon a political life for their sons as they would look at a career on the stage for their daughters. A presidential “advisor” perhaps. A member of a “blue ribbon panel” perhaps. But a candidate for office? Abhorrent!

Theodore Roosevelt was then, an anomaly. He was a member in good standing, not only of the upper crust, but of New York’s Knickerbocker upper crust. His family came over on one of the next ships post-Mayflower. They made a fortune and thrived. But they were never a) snobbish, and b) were always inclined toward the noblesse oblige. Philanthropic, generous and morally upright.

How a Harvard educated, foppish, intellectually inclined Theodore chose to mix it up with the hard-drinking, back-scratching recent immigrants who filled every spittoon in every City Hall in the country has always presented a puzzle for historians.

But mix it up he did – and they loved him for it! Toothy, bespectacled and non-stop fist-thumping talker notwithstanding. He was real. He was decent. He obviously relished the company, and (much overlooked) he was very, very smart.

He spent the better part of forty years in Republican politics, and made the profession respectable-for-gentry again. His political interests were far reaching: from New York tenement sweatshops to building navies, and from war and peace in the abstract to War and Peace in the specifics. This in itself is a wonderment: the most bellicose of Presidents was the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize!

And, as a professional politician (in the true sense of the word), he was one of the best.

TR’s First Love

cowboy ted

Hunter, sportsman, natural scientist – all were a part of TR’s great love for the great outdoors.

Politics, however, was not Theodore’s first love or first choice. Long before he even knew what politics was, a sickly, frail and asthmatic child fell in love with natural science. His far reaching political interests were dwarfed in comparison to the wide and varied interests he found in nature, whether it was plants or rocks, insects, birds, critters of all kinds, or merely a good view. He learned everything he could about them. By age seven, his collections were already impressive. By twelve, he was a bona fide taxidermist.

That TR would choose “natural science” as a profession is a no-brainer. But he did not.

Today, natural science offers literally hundreds of opportunities for a professional to make his mark. In the 1870s, the field was limited to the university or the laboratory. Perhaps Theodore realized that such a “small” professional universe would never fulfill his oversized personality, or give him the chance to make His Name.

TR and muir

. As President, TR was in a position to use his love of natural science for the good of all Americans.

Nevertheless, natural science would be his truest love, and would last a lifetime. As President, he set aside millions of acres out west as national parks, wildlife preserves, and national monuments for the benefit of generations of future Americans (and visitors).   It was not “in name only.”  He spent weeks and months personally enjoying his camp-outings.

Theodore Roosevelt might have made a substantive-but-limited professional career in natural history in the nineteenth century. He could easily do the same today, and be at the top of his game (no pun intended.)

TR: The Author’s Life

By the time twenty-one-year-old Theodore was about to graduate Harvard, he had already drafted a book about (of all things) The U.S. Naval War of 1812. Naval history, and indeed, history of all kinds, was another of his passions. His book, when published shortly thereafter, became the gold standard on that subject for many years. Writing may or may not have been secondary to reading for him, but he managed to write forty books in forty years. How many books he read in fifty-five years is unknown. And that doesn’t count the dozens and dozens of articles he wrote for newspapers and magazines. And the thousands of personal letters he wrote.

the great room

The Great Room at Sagamore Hill, TR’s home on Long Island Sound, is a treasure trove of his favorite things: presidential, scienc-y, and, of course, loaded with books!

All writers are readers, by sheer necessity as well as inclination. Theodore Roosevelt, partly due to his childhood frailties and partly due to his enormous intelligence, but mostly due to the breadth and scope of his interests, was a prodigious reader. It is said that he read a book-a-day just about all his life.

So how does he rate as a writer?

Theodore Roosevelt-the-author would not be a serious challenge to Shakespeare, Poe or even Stephen King. He wrote off the top of his talents; meaning that he did not put the same serious effort into the craft as he did with science or politics. But he did possess a dandy way with a phrase, a superb vocabulary, a gift of on-the-mark clarity, and if nothing else, a huge volume of words.

TR: RIP

Theodore Roosevelt packed more life into sixty years than Methuselah did in nine-hundred and sixty.

We are lucky to have had him, for goodly and for badly, in our lives and memory.

Sources:

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

Dalton,, Kathlen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – 2004, Vintage

McCullough, David – Mornings on Horseback – 1982, Simon & Schuster

Morris, Edmund – Theodore Rex – 2002, Random House

 

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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 The Three Lives of Theodore Roosevelt

  1. Great post. It’s hard to believe that TR’s brother Elliot was viewed as the most likely of the two to succeed when they were growing up. TR succeeded at most things he tried, except for a third term as president.

  2. jay c says:

    Great article, Feather! Thank you.

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