The month had started quietly enough for Theodore Roosevelt and his family.
A Family Vacation
Theodore Roosevelt, his wife Edith, and their six children were on a rare and well-needed family vacation in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. A year earlier, the 42-year-old Theodore had been elected Vice President of the USA, an ineffectual position he neither sought nor wanted. But it fell into his lap, and he was semi-willingly coerced into making a lap.
He duly presided over the Senate, his one constitutional duty, and made the usual social-Washington rounds and other obligatory appearances.
Now the family was enjoying the late summer at a cabin resort with all the outdoor amenities necessary to Rooseveltian fun.
On September 6, Roosevelt was attending a luncheon at a Lake Champlain resort when a messenger came bearing horrifying news. President William McKinley had been shot in Buffalo, while attending the Pan American Exposition. TR immediately left for Buffalo and was relieved to find the wounded President in stable condition, according to his doctors. They believed he would recover. Assured of no imminent danger, or anything the Vice President could do, TR rejoined his family.
The Inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt
The “resumed” vacation only lasted another few days. On September 14, when TR spotted someone huffing his way up a mountain trail where the family was hiking, he suspected the grim news immediately. President McKinley had died earlier that day. Theodore Roosevelt was now President of the United States.
He raced to Buffalo again, this time prepared to stay as long as needed: to take the oath of office, declare the formal procedures for McKinley’s funeral arrangements, issue the proper statements, receive the diplomatic condolences, offer every consideration to the McKinley family, and plan for the momentous changes in his own life.
September 14 was a Saturday. At 3 PM, a New York district Judge administered the oath to TR in a private ceremony at the home of Ansley Wilcox, an old friend of his. Members of McKinley’s cabinet were already there. The ceremony was brief and subdued. No photographs were allowed.
Once his immediate business in Buffalo was concluded, TR went to Washington to stay with his older sister, Anna (Bamie) Cowles , whose town house had been his second home in the Capital. The frail Ida McKinley was urged to take whatever time she and her family needed.
They did not require very much time. They vacated by September 21. Most belongings were shipped.
Mrs. TR: Moving On Up
Theodore Roosevelt may have had the momentous task of suddenly becoming President, but he had spent two years as Governor of New York and understood the responsibilities of executive leadership. He also had plenty of assistance.
Not so Edith Roosevelt, whose six children ranged in age from 17-year-old Alice to Quentin, who had just turned four. In between were Ted (14), Kermit (11), Ethel (9) and Archie (7).
Once back at Sagamore Hill, their home on Long Island, Edith needed to arrange a major move to the White House, where they were now First Residents. Not only clothing and personal possessions had to be sorted and packed, but personal items deemed essential to their lives. Favorite furniture, hunting trophies, nostalgic souvenirs, hundreds of books (all were prolific readers), and a menagerie of pets: dogs, horses, ponies and even Emily Spinach, Alice’s pet garter snake. Older children had to be readied for school. And, as the family treasurer, she had to make sure all the bills were paid and up to date.
Edith also arranged for Sagamore Hill to be properly “closed up;” for servants to be dismissed or brought along – or left behind for skeleton maintenance. While she had assistance in all the manual activities of the move, most decision making was left to her. She and TR certainly communicated during the interim period, but Edith was already an expert in packing and moving a large family. They had done it several times over their fifteen year marriage – between Sagamore Hill and Washington, and between Albany and Sagamore Hill.
This time was different and much more complex. The Roosevelt family did not physically move into the White House until later in September.
TR’s First White House Dinner
Theodore Roosevelt siblings were always a tight knit family unit. Anna, the eldest, had been a take-charge person from her early teens, despite physical health problems that might have daunted a lesser woman. TR’s younger sister Corinne Robinson was also a strong, intelligent woman. Both were fiercely devoted to their remarkable brother. A fourth sibling, Elliott, had died a decade earlier.
On September 21, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House as First Resident. While he was an extremely outgoing man with dozens, if not hundreds of friends, he chose to have a very quiet “first dinner.” With his sisters and their husbands. Family first. Edith arrived the following day. The only “outsider” at the table was George Cortelyou, President McKinley’s indispensable secretary, who would do the same for TR.
The family understandably reminisced about their childhood, and Theodore remembered that September 21 was his father’s birthday. Theodore Senior had died of cancer years earlier – when he was not that much older than his son was that day. TR always considered his father “the best man he ever knew.”
He believed it was a fortunate omen that his first dinner in the White House as President was on his father’s birthday.
Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – 1997 Basic Books
Dalton,, Kathlen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – 2004, Vintage