Theodore Roosevelt Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: As twenty-sixth president of the United States, Roosevelt energetically led America into the twentieth century. Popular and effective, he promoted major domestic reforms and a larger role for the United States in world affairs. In so doing, he added power to the presidential office.

Early Life

Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth president of the United States, was born October 27, 1858, to a moderately wealthy mercantile family in New York City. His father, Theodore, Sr., was of mostly Dutch ancestry; his mother, Martha Bulloch of Georgia, came from a slaveholding family of Scots and Huguenot French. (During his political career, Roosevelt would claim an ethnic relationship with practically every white voter he met; among his nicknames—besides TR and Teddy—was Old Fifty-seven Varieties.) He was educated at home by tutors and traveled with his parents to the Middle East and Europe.

As a child, Roosevelt was puny, asthmatic, and unable to see much of the world until he was fitted with thick eyeglasses at the age of thirteen. He grew determined to “make” a powerful body, and by strenuous exercise and force of will, young Roosevelt gradually overcame most of his physical shortcomings. Shyness and fear were other weaknesses he conquered. “There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first,” he later admitted in his Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (1913). ”But by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.” Insecurity, however, was one demon which he never exorcised.

While becoming athletic and assertive, young Roosevelt retained his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. At Harvard, from which he was graduated in 1880, his absorption with both sports and books made him something of an oddity. Yet career plans remained uncertain. Dull science classes at Harvard dimmed his earlier interest in becoming a naturalist. A year at Columbia University Law School (1880-1881) did not stimulate him toward a legal career. While attending Columbia, he married Alice Lee, completed his first book, The Naval War of 1812 (1882), and entered politics in the autumn of 1881 by election to the New York legislature as a Republican representative from Manhattan. For the remainder of his life, except for brief military glory in the Spanish-American War, writing and politics would absorb most of his overflowing energy.

Life’s Work

At the age of twenty-three, Roosevelt, the youngest member of New York’s legislature, attracted attention because of his anticorruption stance and his flair for the dramatic. He instinctively knew how to make his doings interesting to the press and the public. Personality flaws were obvious from the beginning of his political career (egotism, impulsiveness, a tendency to see everything in black or white, and occasional ruthlessness), yet Roosevelt’s virtues were equally apparent and won for him far more admirers than enemies: extraordinary vitality and intelligence, courage, sincerity, conviviality, and, usually, a willingness to make reasonable compromises.

Family tragedy, the death of his young wife, prompted Roosevelt to retire from politics temporarily in 1884. During the next two years, he operated cattle ranches he owned in the badlands of the Dakota Territory, where he found time to write Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), the first of a trilogy of books on his Western activities and observations. Ranching proved financially unprofitable, but outdoor life made Roosevelt physically more robust and helped ease the pain of Alice’s death. In 1886, he returned to New York and married Edith Kermit Carow, who would bear him four sons and a daughter and rear the daughter, Alice, born to his first wife. That same year, Roosevelt was the unsuccessful Republican nominee for mayor of New York City; he also commenced work on a six-volume history of America’s Western expansion, The Winning of the West (1889-1896).

Roosevelt did not seek another elective office until he won the governorship of New York in 1898, but in the meantime, he served in three appointive positions: member of the United States Civil Service Commission (1889-1895), president of New York City’s Board of Police Commissioners (1895-1897), and assistant secretary of the navy (1897-1898). He resigned the latter post when war with Spain broke out in 1898. Eager for combat, he organized a volunteer cavalry regiment known as the Rough Riders. Most of the land fighting between the United States and Spain occurred in Cuba; the image of Colonel Roosevelt leading a charge up San Juan Hill (in actuality, Kettle Hill) became a public symbol of this brief, victorious war. “Teddy” was a national hero. In November of 1898, he was elected governor of New York and quickly published a new book, The Rough Riders (1899), which a humorous critic said should have been titled “Alone in Cuba.”

As governor of New York (1899-1900), Roosevelt pursued a vigorous program of...

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Theodore Roosevelt Biography

(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)
0111200694-roosevelt_t.jpg Theodore Roosevelt. (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Military significance: On July 1, 1898, Roosevelt led his volunteer regiment against Spanish positions on Kettle Hill outside Santiago de Cuba. The successful charge secured fortifications on the heights overlooking the city.

Because Theodore Roosevelt’s father did not serve in the American Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt was determined to prove himself in combat. He was serving as assistant secretary of the navy in the administration of William McKinley in early 1898 when war with Spain was declared. Roosevelt resigned his post and became an officer in the volunteer cavalry regiment commanded by Colonel Leonard Wood. The press, which followed Roosevelt’s military career closely, dubbed the unit Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Sent to Cuba in June, 1898, the unit fought a skirmish at Las Guásimas. The climactic battle on July 1 at Kettle Hill saw Roosevelt lead his men on foot against fortified Spanish regulars. The dramatic charge carried the day, and Roosevelt killed at least one Spaniard himself. The victory helped the Americans gain control of the approaches to Santiago de Cuba and brought negotiations with the Spanish for surrender. That came several weeks later.

Roosevelt’s bravery under fire made him a national hero. The Republicans nominated him as governor of New York, which led in turn to the vice presidency in 1900 and the White House after McKinley was killed in 1901. In office, Roosevelt advocated a strong army and navy, and he sent “The Great White Fleet” around the world in 1907-1909. Roosevelt tried to raise a volunteer division during World War I, but his proposal failed to gain the approval of President Woodrow Wilson and the army. In later years, partisans of Roosevelt pushed legislation to award him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in Cuba.

Further Reading:

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

Gould, Lewis. The Spanish-American War and President McKinley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1982.

Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.

Theodore Roosevelt Biography

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This general reader’s life of a dynamic American president strikes a fine balance between Theodore Roosevelt’s familial and public lives and deftly sets both into their Gilded Age context. Roosevelt lavished on his biographers such legendary feats as his physical maturation from a scrawny, asthmatic, weak-eyed lad to a robust “bull moose” of a man; his charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba in the Spanish-American War; his presidential trust busting; his leadership in the construction of the Panama Canal; and his exploits as an African game hunter. A just perspective on the man, however, must also include his stupendous reading, writing, and championship of literary endeavors; his considerable labors in furthering world peace; and his pessimism and melancholy. From a plethora of varied and often contradictory facts, Miller has shaped a life that (one suspects) easily could have been twice as long without being any better. Few readers would want it any shorter.

Roosevelt enjoyed the advantages of a prominent family and of a strong and caring father who devoted much of his time to various philanthropic causes. His Georgia- born mother seems to have been distinguished more by beauty than by vitality, and young Theodore’s sister Anna (called “Bamie”) proved to be more of a mother, both for him and, later, for his daughter Alice. Young Teddy was instructed by tutors in the United States and Europe and entered Harvard in 1876. There he combined reasonably diligent study with an active social life and pursuit of natural science, a long-standing avocation. He published two ornithological pamphlets while still a student and undoubtedly could have pursued a successful scientific career had the political bug not bitten him early.

At Harvard he also met Alice Lee, whom he married a few months after his graduation in 1880. She died shortly after giving birth to their daughter Alice early in 1884, and in December of 1886 Roosevelt married Edith Kermit Carow, whom he had known as a young child. Readers of Charles Dickens are likely to notice uncanny resemblances between Roosevelt’s love life and that of David Copperfield. Alice is David’s Dora: sweet, delicate, fragile, almost absurdly idealized by her husband; Edith is the Agnes of the novel: shrewd, capable, patient enough to await her turn in the shadows while Roosevelt devoted himself to Alice, his “Sunshine.” Edith thought, no doubt correctly, that Alice would have bored him to death had she outlasted the romantic aura with which he invested her.

Edith manipulated her husband skillfully to his and her advantage, but Theodore Roosevelt was driven by powerful ambitions that she could not control entirely. His plunge into New York Republican politics while something of a young dandy violated the code of his patrician relatives and puzzled political professionals, who saw him as a kind of Oscar Wilde let loose upon the New York Assembly, to which he was elected in 1881 at the age of twenty-three. Within months he was investigating insurance irregularities and refused to back off when the trail led to a state supreme court justice. He also found time to publish a book, The Naval War of 1812 (1882), praised for its scholarship and subsequently recognized as a farsighted analysis of the importance of the modern navy to any nation aspiring to international stature.

By early 1883, Roosevelt was challenging the man who quite possibly was the most powerful in the nation, financier Jay Gould, whom he labeled in a legislative speech as the leader of “the wealthy criminal class,” the class the young legislator regarded as the most dangerous of all. Roosevelt’s impetuosity, however, frightened even avid reformers. After the presidential campaign of 1884, during which Roosevelt further alienated potential political allies by supporting the candidacy of James G. Blaine (a champion of moneyed interests whom he had unsuccessfully opposed for the Republican nomination) instead of bolting to the support of Grover Cleveland, he abruptly quit politics and took up the life of a rancher in the Badlands of South Dakota. From this point, Miller’s book details an almost rhythmic alternation between intense politicking and strenuous physical challenges that persisted until the end of Roosevelt’s life.

Miller also does justice to the tension between Roosevelt’s fondness for his family and the imperatives of his career. The South Dakota episode followed Alice Lee Roosevelt’s death and a series of political disappointments, but the restless Roosevelt returned to the West again shortly after his marriage to Edith and then again for several weeks following the birth of his first son, thus establishing a pattern of periodic retreats from home. His daughter Alice lived the first three years of her life with Bamie,...

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