There have been few political dynasties in the history of the United States. In the early nineteenth century the Adams family attained the presidency twice, under John (1797-1801) and his son John Quincy (1825-1829), but that was in the era before the vestiges of political and social deference were replaced by the Age of the Common Man, ushered in by John Quincy Adams’ conqueror in 1828, Andrew Jackson. Later Adamses were forced to settle for fame as diplomats (Charles Francis) or intellectuals (Brooks and Henry). Seemingly there is something in America’s tradition of democratic individualism that inhibits the possibility of political power remaining within the same family.
The most obvious twentieth century exception is the Roosevelt family, whose story is brilliantly told by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. The pair have previously chronicled other important American families such as the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, and the Fords. None of those famous and powerful families, for all their prominence, bestrode the world of politics as did Theodore Roosevelt and his distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Kennedys, under John Fitzgerald Kennedy, occupied the White House for a thousand days. The two Roosevelt presidencies lasted for almost twenty years. Moreover, Theodore and Franklin did not merely serve their time; they are largely responsible for creating and defining the modern presidency.
Whether it should be the Roosevelt family or the Roosevelt families is a matter of definition. One branch of the family was associated with Long Island’s Oyster Bay, where Theodore Roosevelt built his home, Sagamore Hill. The other branch lived along the Hudson River, at Hyde Park. Both branches were descended from Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt, who emigrated from The Netherlands in the early seventeenth century, but the last common ancestor died in the mid-eighteenth century. Collier’s narrative begins at the period of the American Civil War (Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858); by that time the two branches were tied together primarily by the common surname and membership in the same social class, but not much else. It was Theodore Roosevelt’s political successes and national and international fame that inspired Franklin to pursue a political career, and for much of the twentieth century the two branches of the Roosevelt family, or the two Roosevelt families, found themselves more often bitter rivals than members of a common and supportive clan.
Other than common but distant ancestors, there was a more recent tie that connected the Oyster Bay Roosevelts with the Hyde Park Roosevelts, and that connection is the basis of Collier’s prologue. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt’s niece Eleanor, the daughter of his deceased younger brother Elliott, was married to Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the Hyde Park branch. At their wedding, Eleanor and Franklin, who were to become two of the most famous and recognizable figures of the twentieth century, were almost totally eclipsed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who gave the bride away in the absence of her father. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt always dominated his world. As his eldest daughter Alice remarked, her father wished to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.
The first part of The Roosevelts: An American Saga focuses on Theodore, from the influence of his father on his early life until his own death in January, 1919. Rarely has a figure so captured his times as did Roosevelt, from his days as rancher in the Dakota Badlands to his leading the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War to his years as President, his postpresidential trips to Africa and Brazil, his failed Bull Moose-Progressive campaign for the presidency in 1912, and his last hurrah when he vociferously urged American participation in World War I.
Another major theme running through Collier’s volume, however, is Roosevelt as husband and father. He was married twice. His first wife, Alice Lee, died giving birth to their daughter Alice. Several years later he married Edith Carow, a childhood friend. Five more children resulted—Theodore, Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin. In many ways, Theodore was the paradigm of the ideal husband and father. A complex man, a voracious reader with wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, Roosevelt always remained something of a child himself, and his children idealized him. During Roosevelt’s presidential years (1901-1909), the American public was captivated by his larger-than-life persona, a cartoonist’s dream with his thick glasses and his mouth full of teeth, but also with the rest of the family, from the beautiful and vivacious Alice to young Archie and Quentin and their childish pranks and pastimes, many of which involved the president....
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