All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
13 January, 2012
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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,
He told his friend, Mr. Thayer, what he was going to do after
"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."