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26 June, 2013
Theodore Roosevelt
Chapter II: In College
by Pearson, Edmund Lester


Roosevelt entered the Freshman class of Harvard University in 1876. It is worth while to remember that this man who became as much of a Westerner as an Easterner, who was understood and trusted by the people of the Western States, was born on the Atlantic coast and educated at a New England college.

The real American, if he was born in the East, does not talk with contempt about the West; if he is a Westerner he does not pretend that all the good in the world is on his side of the Mississippi. Nor, wherever he came from, does he try to keep up old quarrels between North and South. Theodore Roosevelt was an American, and admired by Americans everywhere. Foolish folk who talk about the "effete East," meaning that the East is worn out and corrupt, had best remember that Abraham Lincoln did not believe that when he sent his son to the same college which Theodore Roosevelt's father chose for him.

At Harvard he kept up his studies and interest in natural history. In the house where he lived he sometimes had a large, live turtle and two or three kinds of snakes. He went in to Boston and came back with a basket full of live lobsters, to the consternation of the other people in the horse-car. He held a high office in the Natural History Society, and took honors, when he graduated, in the subject. His father had encouraged his desire to be a professor of natural history, reminding him, however, that he must have no hopes of being a rich man. In the end he gave up this plan, not because it did not lead to money, for never in his life did he work to become wealthy, but because he disliked science as it was then taught. One of the bad things the German universities had done to the American colleges was to make them worship fussy detail, and so science had become a matter of microscopes and laboratories. The field-work of the naturalist was unknown or despised.

He took part in four or five kinds of athletics. He seems never to have played baseball, perhaps because of poor eyesight which made him wear glasses. But he practiced with a rifle, rowed and boxed, ran and wrestled. In his vacations he went hunting in Maine. Boxing was one of his favorite forms of sport,--for two reasons. He thought a boy or a man ought to be able to defend himself and others, and he enjoyed hard exercise.

It is important to know what he thought and did about self-defense and fighting. Many people dodge this, and other difficult subjects, when they are talking to boys. It was not Roosevelt's way to hide his thoughts in silence because of timidity, and then call his lack of action by some such fine name as "tact" or "discretion." When there was good reason for speaking out he always did so. Since a boy who is forever fighting is not only a nuisance, but usually a bully, some older folk go to the extreme and tell boys that all fighting is wrong.

Theodore Roosevelt did not believe it. When he was about fourteen, and riding in a stage-coach on the way to Moosehead Lake, two other boys in the coach began tormenting him. When he tried to fight them off, he found himself helpless. Either of them could handle him, could hit him and prevent him from hitting back. He decided that it was a matter of self-respect for a boy to know how to protect himself and he learned to box.

Speaking to boys he said later:

"One prime reason for abhorring cowards is because every good boy should have it in him to thrash the objectionable boy as the need arises."

And again:

"The very fact that the boy should be manly and able to hold his own, that he should be ashamed to submit to bullying, without instant retaliation, should in return, make him abhor any form of bullying, cruelty, or brutality."

[Footnote: These two quotations from essay called "The American Boy" in "The Strenuous Life," pp. 162, 164]

When he was teaching a Sunday School class in Cambridge, during his time at college, one of his pupils came in with a black eye. It turned out that another boy had teased and pinched the first boy's sister during church. Afterwards there had been a fight, and the one who tormented the little girl had been beaten, but he had given the brother a black eye.

"You did quite right," said Roosevelt to the brother and gave him a dollar.

But the deacons of the church did not approve, and Roosevelt soon went to another church.

Meanwhile he was learning to box. In his own story of his life he makes fun of himself as a boxer, and says that in a boxing match he once won "a pewter mug" worth about fifty cents. He is honest enough to say that he was proud of it at the time, "kept it, and alluded to it, and I fear bragged about it, for a number of years, and I only wish I knew where it was now."

His college friends tell a different story of him. He was never one of the best boxers, they say, and he was at a disadvantage because of his eyesight. But he was plucky enough for two, and he fought fair. He entered in the lightweight class in the Harvard Gymnasium, March 22, 1879. He won the first match. When time was called he dropped his hands, and his opponent gave him a hard blow on the face. The fellows around the ring all shouted "Foul! Foul!" and hissed. But Roosevelt turned toward them, calling "Hush! He didn't hear!"

In the second match he met a man named Charlie Hanks, who was a little taller, and had a longer reach, and so for all Roosevelt's pluck and willingness to take punishment, Hanks won the match.

He was a member of three or four clubs,--the Institute, the Hasty Pudding and the Porcellian. He was one of the editors of the Harvard Advocate, took part in three or four college activities, and was fond of target shooting and dancing. It is told that he never spoke in public, until about his third year in college, that he was shy and had great difficulty in speaking. It was by effort that he became one of the best orators of his day.

Roosevelt did not like the way college debates were conducted. He said that to make one side defend or attack a certain subject, without regard to whether they thought it right or wrong, had a bad effect.

"What we need," he wrote, "is to turn out of colleges young men with ardent convictions on the side of right; not young men who can make a good argument for either right or wrong, as their interest bids them."

He did one thing in college which is not a matter of course with students under twenty-two years old. He began to write a history, named "The Naval War of 1812." It was finished and published two years after he graduated, and in it he showed that his idea of patriotism included telling the truth. Most American boys used to be brought up on the story of the American frigate Constitution whipping all the British ships she met, and with the notion that the War of 1812 was nothing but a series of brilliant victories for us.

Theodore Roosevelt thought that Americans were not so soft that they were afraid to hear the truth, and that it was a poor sort of American who dared not point out to his fellow-countrymen the mistakes they had made and the disasters which followed. It did not seem patriotic to him to dodge the fact that lack of wisdom at Washington had let our Army run down before the war, so that our attempts to invade Canada were failures, and that we suffered the disgrace of having Washington itself captured and burned by the enemy.

There was a great deal to be proud of in what our Navy did, and in the Army's victory in the Battle of New Orleans, and these things Roosevelt described with the pride of every good American. But he had no use for the old-fashioned kind of history, which pretends that all the bravery is on one side. He did his best to get at the truth, and he knew that the English and Canadians had fought bravely and well, and so he said just that. Where our troops or our ships failed it was not through lack of courage, but because they were badly led, and what was worse, since it was so unnecessary, because the Government at Washington had lost the battle in advance by neglecting to prepare.

Before he was twenty-four, Roosevelt was so well-informed in the history of this period that he was later asked to write the chapter dealing with the War of 1812 in a history of the British Navy.

At his graduation from Harvard he stood twenty-second in a class of one hundred and seventy. This caused him to be elected to the Phi Beta Kappa, the society of scholars. Before he graduated he became engaged to be married to Miss Alice Lee of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

He told his friend, Mr. Thayer, what he was going to do after graduation.

"I am going to try to help the cause of better government in New York City," he said. And he added:

"I don't know exactly how."

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