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...

(The entire section is 2071 words.)