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Theodore Roosevelt; An Intimate Biography
Origins and Youth
by Thayer, William Roscoe


Nothing better illustrates the elasticity of American democratic life than the fact that within a span of forty years Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were Presidents of the United States. Two men more unlike in origin, in training, and in opportunity, could hardly be found.

Lincoln came from an incompetent Kentuckian father, a pioneer without the pioneer's spirit of enterprise and push; he lacked schooling; he had barely the necessaries of life measured even by the standards of the Border; his companions were rough frontier wastrels, many of whom had either been, or might easily become, ruffians. The books on which he fed his young mind were very few, not more than five or six, but they were the best. And yet in spite of these handicaps, Abraham Lincoln rose to be the leader and example of the American Nation during its most perilous crisis, and the ideal Democrat of the nineteenth century.

Theodore Roosevelt, on the contrary, was born in New York City, enjoyed every advantage in education and training; his family had been for many generations respected in the city; his father was cultivated and had distinction as a citizen, who devoted his wealth and his energies to serving his fellow men. But, just as incredible adversity could not crush Abraham Lincoln, so lavish prosperity could not keep down or spoil Theodore Roosevelt.

In his "Autobiography" he tells us that "about 1644 his ancestor, Claes Martensen van Roosevelt, came to New Amsterdam as a 'settler'--the euphemistic name for an immigrant who came over in the steerage of a sailing ship in the seventeenth century. From that time for the next seven generations from father to son every one of us was born on Manhattan Island." For over a hundred years the Roosevelts continued to be typical Dutch burghers in a hard-working, God-fearing, stolid Dutch way, each leaving to his son a little more than he had inherited. During the Revolution, some of the family were in the Continental Army, but they won no high honors, and some of them sat in the Congresses of that generation--sat, and were honest, but did not shine. Theodore's great-grandfather seems to have amassed what was regarded in those days as a large fortune.

His grandfather, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, a glass importer and banker, added to his inheritance, but was more than a mere money-maker.

His son Theodore, born in 1831, was the father of the President. Inheriting sufficient means to live in great comfort, not to say in luxury, he nevertheless engaged in business; but he had a high sense of the obligation which wealth lays on its possessors. And so, instead of wasting his life in merely heaping up dollars, he dedicated it to spending wisely and generously those which he had. There was nothing puritanical, however, in his way of living. He enjoyed the normal, healthy pleasures of his station. He drove his coach and four and was counted one of the best whips in New York. Taking his paternal responsibilities seriously, he implanted in his children lively respect for discipline and duty; but he kept very near to their affection, so that he remained throughout their childhood, and after they grew up, their most intimate friend.

What finer tribute could a son pay than this which follows?
'My father, Theodore Roosevelt, was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness. As we grew older he made us understand that the same standard of clean living was demanded for the boys as for the girls; that what was wrong in a woman could not be right in a man. With great love and patience and the most understanding sympathy and consideration he combined insistence on discipline. He never physically punished me but once, but he was the only man of whom I was ever really afraid.' *

[Autobiography, 16.]
Thus the President, writing nearly forty years after his father's death. His mother was Martha Bulloch, a member of an old Southern family, one of her ancestors having been the first Governor of Georgia. During the Civil War, while Mr. Roosevelt was busy raising regiments, supporting the Sanitary Commission, and doing whatever a non-combatant patriot could do to uphold the Union, Mrs. Roosevelt's heart allegiance went with the South, and to the end of her life she was never "reconstructed." But this conflict of loyalties caused no discord in the Roosevelt family circle. Her two brothers served in the Confederate Navy. One of them, James Bulloch, "a veritable Colonel Newcome," was an admiral and directed the construction of the privateer Alabama. The other, Irvine, a midshipman on that vessel, fired the last gun in its fight with the Kearsarge before the Alabama sank. After the war both of them lived in Liverpool and "Uncle Jimmy" became a rabid Tory. He "was one of the best men I have ever known," writes his nephew Theodore; "and when I have sometimes been tempted to wonder how good people can believe of me the unjust and impossible things they do believe, I have consoled myself by thinking of Uncle Jimmy Bulloch's perfectly sincere conviction that Gladstone was a man of quite exceptional and nameless infamy in both public and private life."

Theodore Roosevelt grew up to be not only a stanch but an uncompromising believer in the Union Cause; but the fact that his parents came from the North and from the South, and that, from his earliest memory, the Southern kindred were held in affection in his home, must have helped him towards that non-sectional, all-American point of view which was the cornerstone of his patriotic creed.

The Roosevelt house was situated at No. 28 East Twentieth Street, New York City, and there Theodore was born on October 27, 1858. He passed his boyhood amid the most wholesome family life. Besides his brother Elliott and two sisters, as his Uncle Robert lived next door, there were cousins to play with and a numerous kindred to form the background of his young life. He was, fortunately, not precocious, for the infant prodigies of seven, who become the amazing omniscients of twenty-three, are seldom heard of at thirty. He learned very early to read, and his sisters remember that when he was still in starched white petticoats, with a curl carefully poised on top of his head, he went about the house lugging a thick, heavy volume of Livingstone's "Travels" and asking some one to tell him about the "foraging ants" described by the explorer. At last his older sister found the passage in which the little boy had mistaken "foregoing" for "foraging." No wonder that in his mature years he became an advocate of reformed spelling. His sense of humor, which flashed like a mountain brook through all his later intercourse and made it delightful, seems to have begun with his infancy. He used to say his prayers at his mother's knee, and one evening when he was out of sorts with her, he prayed the Lord to bless the Union Cause; knowing her Southern preferences he took this humorous sort of vengeance on her. She, too, had humor and was much amused, but she warned him that if he repeated such impropriety at that solemn moment, she should tell his father.

Theodore and the other children had a great fondness for pets, and their aunt, Mrs. Robert, possessed several of unusual kinds--pheasants and peacocks which strutted about the back yard and a monkey which lived on the back piazza. They were afraid of him, although they doubtless watched his antics with a fearful joy. From the accounts which survive, life in the nursery of the young Roosevelts must have been a perpetual play-time, but through it all ran the invisible formative influence of their parents, who had the art of shaping the minds and characters of the little people without seeming to teach.

Almost from infancy Theodore suffered from asthma, which made him physically puny, and often prevented him from lying down when he went to bed. But his spirit did not droop. His mental activity never wearied and he poured out endless stories to the delight of his brother and sisters. "My earliest impressions of my brother Theodore," writes his sister, Mrs. Robinson, "are of a rather small, patient, suffering little child, who, in spite of his suffering, was the acknowledged head of the nursery .... These stories," she adds, "almost always related to strange and marvelous animal adventures, in which the animals were personalities quite as vivid as Kipling gave to the world a generation later in his 'Jungle Books.'"

Owing to his delicate health Theodore did not attend school, except for a little while, when he went to Professor MacMullen's Academy on Twentieth Street. He was taught at home and he probably got more from his reading than from his teachers. By the time he was ten, the passion for omnivorous reading which frequently distinguishes boys who are physically handicapped, began in him. He devoured Our Young Folks, that excellent periodical on which many of the boys and girls who were his contemporaries fed. He loved tales of travel and adventure; he loved Cooper's stories, and especially books on natural history.

In summer the children spent the long days out of doors at some country place, and there, in addition to the pleasure of being continuously with nature, they had the sports and games adapted to their age. Theodore was already making collections of stones and other specimens after the haphazard fashion of boys. The young naturalist sometimes met with unexpected difficulties. Once, for instance, he found a litter of young white mice, which he put in the ice-chest for safety. His mother came upon them, and, in the interest Of good housekeeping, she threw them away. When Theodore discovered it he flew into a tantrum and protested that what hurt him most was "the loss to Science! the loss to Science!" On another occasion Science suffered a loss of unknown extent owing to his obligation to manners. He and his cousin had filled their pockets and whatever bags they had with specimens. Then they came upon two toads, of a strange and new variety. Having no more room left, each boy put one of them on top of his head and clapped down his hat. All went well till they met Mrs. Hamilton Fish, a great lady to whom they had to take off their hats. Down jumped the toads and hopped away, and Science was never able to add the Bufo Rooseveltianus to its list of Hudson Valley reptiles.

In 1869 Mr. Roosevelt took his family to Europe for a year. The children did not care to go, and from the start Theodore was homesick and little interested. Of course, picture galleries meant nothing to a boy of ten, with a naturalist's appetite, and he could not know enough about history to be impressed by historic places and monuments. He kept a diary from which Mr. Hagedorn* prints many amusing entries, some of which I quote:

[ H. Hagedorn: The Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt. Harper & Bros. 1918.]
Munich, October. "In the night I had a nightmare dreaming that the devil was carrying me away and had collorer morbos (a sickness that is not very dangerous) but Mama patted me with her delicate fingers."
Little Conie also kept a diary: the next entry is from it:
Paris. "I am so glad Mama has let me stay in the butiful hotel parlor while the poor boys have been dragged off to the orful picture galary."
Now Theodore again:
Paris, November 26. "I stayed in the house all day, varying the day with brushing my hair, washing my hands and thinking in fact haveing a verry dull time."

"Nov. 27. I Did the same thing as yesterday."

Chamounix. "I found several specimens to keep and we went on the great glacier called 'Mother of ice!'"

"We went to our cousins school at Waterloo. We had a nice time but met Jeff Davises son and some sharp words ensued."

Venice. "We saw a palace of the doges. It looks like a palace you could be comfortable and snug in (which is not usual)--We went to another church in which Conie jumped over tombstones spanked me banged Ellies head &c."
"Conie" was his nickname for his younger sister Corinne.
November 22. "In the evening Mama showed me the portrait of Eidieth Carow and her face stirred up in me homesickness and longings for the past which will come again never aback never."
The little girl, the sight of whose portrait stirred such longings for the past in the heart of the young Theodore, was Edith Carow, the special playmate of his sister Conie and one of the intimate group whom he had always known. Years later she became his wife.

The Roosevelt family returned to New York in May, 1870, and resumed its ordinary life. Theodore, whom one of his fellow travelers on the steamer remembers as "a tall thin lad with bright eyes and legs like pipestems," developed rapidly in mind, but the asthma still tormented him and threatened to make a permanent invalid of him. His father fitted up in the house in Twentieth Street a small gymnasium and said to the boy in substance, "You have brains, but you have a sickly body. In order to make your brains bring you what they ought, you must build up your body; it depends upon you." The boy felt both the obligation and the desire; he willed to be strong, and he went through his gymnastic exercises with religious precision. What he read in his books about knights and paladins and heroes had always greatly moved his imagination. He wanted to be like them. He understood that the one indispensable attribute common to all of them was bodily strength. Therefore he would be strong. Through all his suffering he was patient and determined. But I recall no other boy, enfeebled by a chronic and often distressing disease, who resolved as he did to conquer his enemy by a wisely planned and unceasing course of exercises.

Improvement came slowly. Many were the nights in which he spent hours gasping for breath. Sometimes on summer nights his father would wrap him up and take him on a long drive through the darkness in search of fresh air. But no matter how hard the pinch, the boy never complained, and when ever there was a respite his vivacity burst forth as fresh as ever. He could not attend school with other boys and, indeed, his realization that he could not meet them on equal physical terms made him timid when he was thrown with them. So he pursued his own tastes with all the more zeal. He read many books, some of which seemed beyond a boy's ken, but he got something from each of them. His power of concentration already surprised his family. If he was absorbed in a chapter, nothing which went on outside of him, either noise or interruption, could distract his attention. His passion for natural his tory increased. At the age of ten, he opened in one of the rooms of his home "The Roosevelt Museum of Natural History." Later, he devoted himself more particularly to birds, and learned from a taxidermist how to skin and stuff his specimens.

In 1873, President Grant appointed Mr. Roosevelt a Commissioner to the Vienna Exposition and the Roosevelt family made another foreign tour. Hoping to benefit Theodore's asthma they went to Algiers, and up the Nile, where he was much more interested in the flocks of aquatic fowl than in the half-buried temples of Dendera or the obelisks and pylons of Karnak. He even makes no mention of the Pyramids, but records with enthusiasm that he found at Cairo a book by an English clergyman, whose name he forgot, on the ornithology of the Nile, which greatly helped him. Incidentally, he says that from the Latin names of the birds he made his first acquaintance with that language. While Mr. Roosevelt attended to his duties in Vienna the younger children were placed in the family of Herr Minckwitz, a Government official at Dresden. There, Theodore, "in spite of himself," learned a good deal of German, and he never forgot his pleasant life among the Saxons in the days before the virus of Prussian barbarism had poisoned all the non-Prussian Germans. Minckwitz had been a Liberal in the Revolution of 1848, a fact which added to Theodore's interest in him.

On getting home, Theodore, who was fifteen years old, set to work seriously to fit himself to enter Harvard College. Up to this time his education had been unmethodical, leaving him behind his fellows in some subjects and far ahead of them in others. He had the good fortune now to secure as a tutor Mr. Arthur H. Cutler, for many years head of the Cutler Preparatory School in New York City, thanks to whose excellent training he was able to enter college in 1876. During these years of preparation Theodore's health steadily improved. He had a gun and was an ardent sportsman, the incentive of adding specimens to his collection of birds and animals outweighing the mere sport of slaughter. At Oyster Bay, where his father first leased a house in 1874, he spent much of his time on the water, but he deemed sailing rather lazy and unexciting, compared with rowing. He enjoyed taking his row-boat out into the Sound, and, if a high headwind was blowing, or the sea ran in whitecaps, so much the better. He was now able to share in all of the athletic pastimes of his companions, although, so far as I know, he never indulged in baseball, the commonest game of all.

When he entered Harvard as a Freshman in 1876, that institution was passing through its transition from college to university, which had begun when Charles W. Eliot became its President seven years before. In spite of vehement assaults, the Great Educator pushed on his reform slowly but resistlessly. He needed to train not only the public but many members, perhaps a majority, of his faculty. Young Roosevelt found a body of eight hundred undergraduates, the largest number up to that time. While the Elective System had been introduced in the upper classes, Freshmen and Sophomores were still required to take the courses prescribed for them.

To one who looks back, after forty years, on the Harvard of that time there was much about it, the loss of which must be regretted. Limited in many directions it was, no doubt, but its very limitations made for friendship and for that sense of intimate mutual, relationship, out of which springs mutual affection. You belonged to Harvard, and she to you. That she was small, compared with her later magnitude, no more lessened your love for her, than your love for your own mother could be increased were she suddenly to become a giantess. The undergraduate community was not exactly a large family, but it was, nevertheless, restricted enough not only for a fellow to know at least by sight all of his classmates, but also to have some knowledge of what was going on in other classes as well as in the College as a whole. Academic fame, too, had a better chance then than it has now. There were eight or ten professors, whom most of the fellows knew by sight, and all by reputation; now, however, I meet intelligent students who have never heard even the name of the head of some department who is famous throughout the world among his colleagues, but whose courses that student has never taken.

In spite of the simplicity and the homelikeness of the Harvard with eight hundred undergraduates, however, it was large enough to afford the opportunity of meeting men of many different tastes and men from all parts of the country. So it gave free play to the development of individual talents, and its standard of scholarship was already sufficiently high to ensure the excellence of the best scholars it trained. One quality which we probably took little note of, although it must have affected us all, sprang from the fact that Harvard was still a crescent institution; she was in the full vigor of growth, of expansion, of increase, and we shared insensibly from being connected with that growth. In retrospect now, and giving due recognition to this crescent spirit, I recall that, in spite of it, Omar Khayyam was the favorite poet of many of us, that introspection, which sometimes deepened into pessimism, was in vogue, and that a spiritual or philosophic languorous disenchantment sicklied o'er the somewhat mottled cast of our thought.

Roosevelt took rooms at No. 16 Winthrop Street, a quiet little lane midway between the College Yard and Charles River, where he could pursue his hobbies without incessant interruption from casual droppers-in. Here he kept the specimens which he went on collecting, some live--a large turtle and two or three harmless snakes, for instance--and some dead and stuffed. He was no "grind"; the gods take care not to mix even a drop of pedantry in the make-up of the rare men whom they destine for great deeds or fine works. Theodore was already so much stronger in his health that he went on to get still more strength. He had regular lessons in boxing. He took long walks and studied the flora and fauna of the country round Cambridge in his amateurish but intense way. During his first Christmas vacation, he went down to the Maine Woods and camped out, and there he met Bill Sewall, a famous guide, who remained Theodore's friend through life, and Wilmot Dow, Sewall's nephew, another woodsman; and this trip, subsequently followed by others, did much good to his physique. He still had occasional attacks of asthma--he "guffled" as Bill Sewall called it--and they were sometimes acute, but his tendency to them slowly wore away.

All his days Roosevelt was proud of being a Harvard man. Even in the period when academic Harvard was most critical of his public acts, he never wavered in his devotion to Alma Mater herself, that dear and lovely Being, who, like the ideal of our country, lives on to inspire us in spite of unsympathetic administrations and unloved leaders.
"The One remains, the many change and pass."
Nevertheless, in his "Autobiography," Theodore makes very scant record of his college life. "I thoroughly enjoyed Harvard," he says, "and I am sure it did me good, but only in the general effect, for there was very little in my actual studies which helped me in after life." * Like nine out of ten men who look back on college he could make no definite estimate of the actual gains from those four years; but it is precisely the indefiniteness, the elusiveness of the college experience which marks its worth. This is not to be reckoned financially by an increase in dollars and cents, or intellectually, by so many added foot-pounds of knowledge. Harvard College was of inestimable benefit to Roosevelt, because it enabled him to find himself--to be a man with his fellow men.

[Autobiography, 27.]

During his youth his physical handicap had rather cut him off from companionship on equal terms with his fellows. Now, however, he could enter with zest in their sports and societies. At the very beginning of his Freshman year he showed his classmates his mettle. During the presidential torchlight parade when the jubilant Freshmen were marching for Hayes, some Tilden man shouted derisively at them from a second-story window and pelted them with potatoes. It was impossible for them to get at him, but Theodore, who was always stung at any display of meanness-- and it was certainly mean to attack the paraders when they could not retaliate--stood out from the line and shook his fist at the assailant. His fellow marchers asked who their champion was, and so the name of Roosevelt and his pugnacious little figure became generally known to them. He was little then, not above five feet six in height, and under one hundred and thirty pounds in weight. By degrees they all knew him. His unusual ways, his loyalty to his hobbies, which he treated not as mere whims but as being worthy of serious application, his versatility, his outspokenness, his almost unbroken good-nature, attracted most of the persons with whom he came in contact. He rose to be President of the Natural History Society, a distinction which implied some real merit in its possessor. His family antecedents, but still more his personal qualities, made easy for him the ascent of the social terraces at Harvard--the Dicky, the Hasty Pudding Club, and the Porcellian. He was editor of the Harvard Advocate, which opened the door of the O.K. Society, where he found congenial intellectual companionship with the editors from the classes above and below him; and when Dr. Edward Everett Hale wished to revive and perpetuate the Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity, Roosevelt was one of the half-dozen men from the Class of 1880 whom he selected.

My first definite recollection of him is at the annual dinner of the Harvard Crimson in January or February, 1879. He was invited as a guest to represent the Advocate. Since entering college I had met him casually many times and had heard of his oddities and exuberance; but throughout this dinner I came to feel that I knew him. On being called on to speak he seemed very shy and made, what I think he said, was his maiden speech. He still had difficulty in enunciating clearly or even in running off his words smoothly. At times he could hardly get them out at all, and then he would rush on for a few sentences, as skaters redouble their pace over thin ice. He told the story of two old gentlemen who stammered, the point of which was, that one of them,--after distressing contortions and stoppages, recommended the other to go to Dr. X, adding, "He cured me."

A trifling bit of thistledown for memory to have preserved after all these years; but still it is interesting to me to recall that this was the beginning of the public speaking of the man who later addressed more audiences than any other orator of his time and made a deeper impression by his spoken word.

One other reminiscence of Roosevelt at Harvard, almost as unsubstantial as this. Late in his Senior year we had a committee meeting of the Alpha Delta Phi in Charles Washburn's room at 15 Holworthy. Roosevelt and I sat in the window-seat overlooking the College Yard and chatted together in the intervals when business was slack. We discussed what we intended to do after graduation. "I am going to try to help the cause of better government in New York City; I don't know exactly how," said Theodore.

I recall, still, looking hard at him with an eager, inquisitive look and saying to myself, "I wonder whether he is the real thing, or only the bundle of eccentricities which he appears." There was in me then, as there has always been, a mingling of skepticism and of deep reverence for those who dealt with reality, and I had not had sufficient opportunity to determine whether Roosevelt was real or not. One at least of his classmates, however, saw portents of greatness in Theodore, from their Freshman year, and most of us, even when we were amused and puzzled by his " queerness," were very sure that the man from whom they sprang was not commonplace.

So far as I remember, Roosevelt was the first undergraduate to own and drive a dog-cart. This excited various comments; so did the reddish, powder-puff side whiskers which no chaffing could make him cut. There was never the slightest suggestion of the gilded youth about him; though dog-carts, especially when owned by young men, implied the habits and standards of the gilded rich. How explain the paradox? On the other hand, Theodore taught Sunday School at Christ Church, but he was so muscular a Christian that the decorous vestrymen thought him an unwise guide in piety. For one day a boy came to class with a black eye which he had got in fighting a larger boy for pinching his sister. Theodore told him that he did perfectly right--that every boy ought to defend any girl from insult--and he gave him a dollar as a reward. The vestrymen decided that this was too flagrant approval of fisticuffs; so the young teacher soon found a welcome in the Sunday School of a different denomination.

Of all the stories of Roosevelt's college career, that of his boxing match is most vividly remembered. He enrolled in the light-weight sparring at the meeting in the Harvard Gymnasium on March 22 1879, and defeated his first competitor. When the referee called "time," Roosevelt immediately dropped his hands, but the other man dealt him a savage blow on the face, at which we all shouted, "Foul, foul!" and hissed; but Roosevelt turned towards us and cried out "Hush! He didn't hear," a chivalrous act which made him immediately popular. In his second match he met Hanks. They both weighed about one hundred and thirty-five pounds, but Hanks was two or three inches taller and he had a much longer reach, so that Theodore could not get in his blows, and although he fought with unabated pluck, he lost the contest. More serious than his short reach, however, was his near-sightedness, which made it impossible for him to see and parry Hanks's lunges. When time was called after the last round, his face was dashed with blood and he was much winded; but his spirit did not flag, and if there had been another round, he would have gone into it with undiminished determination. From this contest there sprang up the legend that Roosevelt boxed with his eyeglasses lashed to his head, and the legend floated hither and thither for nearly thirty years. Not long ago I asked him the truth. "Persons who believe that," he said, "must think me utterly crazy; for one of Charlie Hanks's blows would have smashed my eyeglasses and probably blinded me for life."

In a class of one hundred and seventy he graduated twenty second, which entitled him to membership in the Phi Beta Kappa, the society of high scholars. To one who examines his academic record wisely, the best symptom is that he did fairly well in several unrelated subjects, and achieved preeminence in one, natural history. He had the all-round quality which shows more promise than does a propensity to light on a particular topic and suck it dry; but he had also power of concentration and thoroughness. As I have just said, he was a happy combination of the amateurish and intense. His habit of absorption became a by-word; for if he visited a, classmate's room and saw a book which interested him, instead of joining in the talk, he would devour the book, oblivious of, everything else, until the college bell rang for the next lecture, when he would jump up with a start, and dash off. The quiet but firm teaching of his parents bore fruit in him: he came to college with a body of rational moral principles which he made no parade of, but obeyed instinctively. And so, where many young fellows are thrown off their balance on first acquiring the freedom which college life gives, or are dazed and distracted on first hearing the babel of strange philosophies or novel doctrines, he walked straight, held himself erect, and was not fooled into mistaking novelty for truth, or libertinism for manliness.

Two outside events which deeply influenced him must be noted. During his Sophomore year his father died; and during his Senior year, Theodore became engaged to Miss Alice Hathaway Lee, daughter of George C. Lee, of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

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