The Roosevelt Chronicles

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

When Nathan Miller, former foreign and domestic correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, maintains that the story of the United States is “the story of its families,” he is referring to those families achieving greatness in one form or another. To him, the Roosevelts, far more than most great American families, helped to create America; they did so not by accumulating the kingly riches of a Morgan or a Rockefeller (although many Roosevelts were well-off), but by serving their country in a host of capacities. They served, for example, as pioneers exploring the reaches of the Hudson Valley during the days of Dutch rule in New Amsterdam, as patriots during the War of Independence, as promoters of the steamboat, as military heroes, statesmen, scholars, and, of course, as presidents.

To any student of America’s elite, it comes as something of a surprise that the Roosevelt clan produced so many generations of able, energetic, and often highly gifted individuals, since what frequently happens in such families is that the first generation of achievers’ accomplishments are not quite matched by those of the best and brightest of the second generation, and so on until the latest generations compare unfavorably with those that went before.

As Miller points out, Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt, who died in 1659, began a New World family which was to so shape a nation that the first sixty years of the twentieth century would be referred to by some as the “Age of the Roosevelts.” The Roosevelt Chronicles, however, is not, as Miller stresses, “. . . intended as a series of individual biographies or a genealogical study . . . nor is it a sociological tract or a study of the effect of environment or genes.” Rather, he intends his book to give readers a “panorama of a family” set against the backdrop of three hundred years of American history.

For readers who appreciate social history, this volume offers much; those readers, on the other hand, who are chiefly interested in Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt will come away with a greater understanding of them which is, in part, derived from a knowledge of the ongoing conflict between the Oyster Bay Roosevelts and the Hyde Park Roosevelts. Among Miller’s strongest chapters are those delineating life as it must have been lived in Dutch New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. Although schoolchildren read brief, usually overgeneralized accounts of the Dutch era in American history, that history is too often badly neglected and underplayed by historians, so much so that few people realize the Dutch did anything more than buy Manhattan Island for a handful of trinkets, give names to New York City locales such as the Bowery (from bouwerie, meaning “farm”), and produce a colorful governor in the person of Peter Stuyvesant.

To counter most people’s ignorance of what really went on during the lifetimes of Claes van Rosenvelt and his son Nicholas, Miller artfully breathes life into the long-dead Dutch colony, vividly re-creating its sometimes bucolic, sometimes turbulent atmosphere and its “Tower of Babel” blend of nationalities. One thing which Miller points out is that few Dutch settlers came to the American colony, since the seventeenth century was a prosperous one for the common people of Holland. Those who did come, such as Claes, were to be subject to the will of wealthy landholders called patroons who controlled the colony’s affairs. Claes was not poor, but he was not rich enough to set himself up as a burgher, although eventually, with considerable hard work and some luck, he did acquire a modest forty-eight-acre farm just beyond New Amsterdam’s town boundaries.

With typical Roosevelt assiduity, Claes did well for himself and his growing family, and his heir, Nicholas, did even better in what was to become, in 1664, the British colony of New York. As was the case with other Roosevelts, Nicholas’ ascent to prominence and social acceptance was not without its problems. Not being rich or especially well-connected in New York, Nicholas was forced to face the hard choice of remaining in the city and thus being under the control of a handful of powerful Philipses, Bayards, and van Cortlandts, or striking out for the sparsely settled Hudson Valley to the northwest. He chose the latter course, and in so doing, established the Roosevelts as an influential land-holding family by trading with Indians and by trapping animals.

Although Miller does not attempt to make much of Nicholas van Roosevelt’s exemplary treatment of the Indians with whom he came in contact, it is noteworthy nevertheless. The Roosevelts showed a remarkable degree of tolerance, humanity, and restraint in their dealings with others less fortunate than they. This, of course, is not to say that all Roosevelts were saintly (although one of them, Elizabeth Ann Bayley, did become the first American saint, Mother Seton); but from the time they arrived in North America, they set out not only to better themselves, but also to do something constructive for society. Nicholas, for example, at great peril to his own budding fortunes, supported the firebrand social reformer, Jacob Leisler, who in turn supported newly crowned monarchs William and Mary over James II, pretender to the throne of England, a man highly revered by New York’s leaders. Despite Leisler’s eventual capture and grisly execution, the reforms of landowning practices which he and his followers wanted were put into practice at the expense of the colony’s landowning elite.

Like other Roosevelts to follow, Nicholas immersed himself in New York political life, running as a Leislerian candidate in 1701 against the ruling aristocratic party. Although defeated in these municipal elections, he was the first Roosevelt to enter the political arena. Ironically, Nicholas’ rise in social station came at the behest of one of the American colonies’ worst governors, Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, a grasping, unscrupulous man who publically donned female attire, much to the dismay of his associates. Having extorted funds earmarked for defense...

(The entire section is 2505 words.)