Howdy, and Happy New Year to you!
I’ve just finished reading “Theodore Roosevelt – A Life” by Nathan Miller. It’s simply an epic read, and offers so much food for thought. It’s hard not to be inspired to become the strongest version of yourself by reading about the strenuous life of the “Rough Rider”.
Mastermind behind the Panama Canal, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, first political conservationist, author of some 37 books, avid adventurer, cowboy, youngest American president, peacemaker, linguist, historian, soldier….
But the biggest takeaway from the book:
“Roosevelts greatness lies in the fact that he was essentially a moral man in a world that has increasingly regarded morality as superfluous.”
Interesting fellow? You bet.
This post will lay out the life of TR, in the hopes that his epic achievements may entice you to pick up his biography yourself.
Roosevelt was born into a wealthy New York family. Despite his prosperous upbringing, he was not without discomfort. Roosevelt suffered from asthma, and had numerous asthma attacks as a child.
His father took him to the physician, where the boy was prescribed a healthy dose of exercise. The Roosevelts, already an extremely active family, made their lives even more adventurous.
After one athma episode, Roosevelt Senior took his son aside for a man-to-man talk:
“Theodore, you have the mind, but not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body.”
With his trademark grin, Roosevelt eagerly accepted the challenge, and so began the famed “Strenuous Life”.
With the following outdoor adventures, young Roosevelt developed a passion for natural history. He’d collect bones, and shoot birds in order to stuff them. Slowly, he built of the Roosevelt museum in his home.
Pursuing his passion, he enrolled at Harvard to study Natural History. Despite a wealthy upbringing, he didn’t exactly fit in. Roosevelt’s New York drawl stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the Boston-born Harvard students. While his Harvard colleagues prided themselves on being indifferent to the outside world, Roosevelt, who was “overflowing with nervous energy, was constitutionally incapable of being indifferent about anything.” With deeply rooted interests in many subjects, he was eager to discuss and argue with other students. His colleagues described him as “eccentric”, “half-crazy” and “different”.
To build his body, he took up boxing. Regarded as puny by others, they were quickly surprised by Roosevelt’s toughness. The strongest athlete at Harvard, Richard Welling, was taken aback when the pair went skating together in winter. Howling winds and sub-zero temperatures made for awful skating conditions, and with the weather worsening, Welling prayed for Roosevelt to call it quits. But the worse the conditions became, the more often he heard excited shouts of “Isn’t this bully!” from his companion.
As well as his physical toughness, Roosevelt was inherently curious, and never afraid of speaking his mind. He had a reputation for interrupting professors in lectures to ask questions. In one lecture, the lecturer became so exasperated and cried out “Now look here, Roosevelt, let me talk! I’m running this course!”
Over time, his enthusiasm won his cohort over, and Roosevelt was soon invited into Harvard’s exclusive clubs.
Entering the Political Arena
After graduating, he moved back to New York, where he made an entrance into the Republican party. Just like at Harvard, Roosevelt was met with the same disdain as before. Sneered at, Roosevelt insisted in joining every discussion nonetheless, and slowly won his colleagues respect.
On his becoming a junior legislator, he quickly became one of the most prominent figures in New York politics, owing to his ability of speaking his mind, and courageous fighting of corruption.
His ballsiest move was calling for an investigation into the activities of a corrupt judge for bending laws to benefit corporations. He unearthed evidence of dealings between the judge and Jay Gould – a business tycoon and the most powerful man in America at the time. Despite being warned that bringing the evidence out into the open would be political suicide, Roosevelt exposed Gould anyway.
His dedication to morality won him the hearts of the New York public, allowing him to rise in the Republican party. At this time, in his twenties, his wife gave him his first child, Alice. The night afterwards, his mother and wife both died.
Facing such personal loss, Roosevelt returned to his work with fervour, campaigning against James Blaine becoming the Republican presidential nomination. Despite his best efforts, the corrupt Blaine won the nomination, so Roosevelt was left with an agonising decision. He could either side loyally with the Republican party, and campaign for the corrupt Blaine, or side with the Democrats against Blaine and be seen as a turncoat within his own party.
In the end, he opted to stay loyal to his party, and support Blaine, but this lost Roosevelt his popularity with New York public.
Eventually, the Democrats won the election. With his party candidate losing, and his popularity diminished in New York, Roosevelt cast politics aside and decided to make a career out of cattle in the Dakota Bad Lands out west.
Investing his money in herds of cattle, Roosevelt lived the life of a cowboy. Galloping over prairies, rifle in hand, hunting, and taking his cattle from one pasture to the next. During this time, he forged friendships with local riders, apprehended criminals, braved hellish winters and published two biographies.
After his presidency, Roosevelt was convinced that he wouldn’t have become president had he not went out West – a period which strengthened his character and would set the stage for becoming the “Rough Rider”.
After 3 years in the Bad Lands, and with the price of cattle falling, he returned to New York, and married a girl he’d known since childhood. No sooner had he settled into the family home were Republicans at the door, begging him to run for New York governor.
Although the governor role was prestigious, the Republicans were looking for a scapegoat – someone to take the blame for the sure-fire loss to the Democrats. Roosevelt took up the role anyway.
Despite his relentless campaigning, he lost the governor elections. But much to his surprise, he was offered the role of civil service commissioner in Washington. Roosevelt accepted, and moved himself and his now growing family to DC.
The Fight for Righteousness Continues…
The civil service commission had a reputation for… well, doing nothing. Sitting idly by, and dozing off in comfortable offices. Buearocracy at its best.
With energy levels and enthusiasm bordering on Tasmanian-devil like, Roosevelt’s appointment put a very excited cat amongst the pigeons. In his 6 years in the post, the civil service commission was in a constant state of turmoil – purging of incompetent staff, investigations into misdoings, and embarking on ambitious new projects. President Harrison commented that “Mr Roosevelt wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset”.
The civil service commission was allowed a restbite when Roosevelt was given the job of New York Police commissioner to sort out the rampant corruption in the city. Again, he gave the trees a good shaking.
In his 2 years, “he established a sense of professionalism heretofore unknown to the department, and made a sweeping series of changes, reforms, and innovations that outlasted his tenure. He centralized executive control, which reduced political influence on police matters; broadened the use of special squads for more effective crime fighting; brought civil service and new professional standards to police recruitment, extended the employment opportunities for women; opened a police academy for trainees; improved discipline; brought in such new technology as the Bertillion system of identification; the telephone, and horse-drawn patrol wagons, and standardized police weapons.”
After 2 years of crime-fighting, Roosevelt then took the post of Assistant Naval Secretary, at a time in which tensions in Spanish-controlled Cuba were rising. Roosevelt was fascinated by all things naval, and absorbed everything he could. Days after causing Japanese outrage with a speech about the annexation of Hawaii, and with the Naval secretary on holiday, he gave the order for ships to arm in case of war with Spain, and to assume offensive action in the Philippines.
Enraged upon returning, the Naval Secretary gave Roosevelt a good wigging, but didn’t countermand his orders. War with Spain did break out in Cuba, and Roosevelt’s decision allowed the U.S to quickly react to the conflict.
The Rough Rider – Military Hero
During his time as Assistant Naval Secretary, Roosevelt was a passionate advocate for military intervention in Cuba against Spain. When the war began, Roosevelt decided to put his money where his mouth was, and enlist in the army to fight in Cuba.
“If I am to be any use in politics it is because I am supposed to be a man who does not preach what he fears to practice… For the last year I have preached war with Spain. I should feel distinctly ashamed… if I now failed to practice what I have preached.”
Roosevelt opted to become second in command of a volunteer regiment. Upon hearing this, thousands of applications flooded in to join “Roosevelt’s Riders”, or the “Rough Riders”.
The Rough Riders were sent in to capture a coastal Cuban city which harboured Spanish ships. Always protective of his men, Roosevelt won the hearts of his regiment, and indeed American public as he led the heroic charge up San Juan Hill, dodging swarms of Spanish bullets.
“They had no glittering bayonets, they were not massed in regular array. There were a few men in advance bunched together and creeping up a steep, sunny hill, the top of which roared and flashed with flame. The men held their guns pressed against their breasts and steeped heavily as they climbed. Behind these first few, spreading out like a fan were single lines of men, slipping and scrambling in the smooth grass, moving forward with difficulty, as though they were wading waist high through water, moving slowly, carefully, with strenuous effort. It was much more wonderful than any swinging charge could have been. They walked to greet death at every step, many of them, as they advanced, sinking suddenly or pitching forward and disappearing in the high grass, but the others waded on, forming a thin blue line that kept creeping higher and higher up the hill. It was inevitable as the rising tide. It was a miracle of self-sacrifice, a triumph of bulldog courage, which one watched with breathless wonder…” ~ Dick Davis
The war with Cuba a success, and right in the heart of the action, Roosevelt became a national hero. Upon returning to New York, he leapt back into politics and was appointed governor of New York.
With his unflinching resolve for fighting corruption, he unsurprisingly made many enemies amongst the corporate elite. And not wanting to let Roosevelt run for a second term as governor, his enemies launched a campaign to elect Roosevelt as vice-president.
The vice-president is typically a political dead end, since only one vice-president has gone on to become president. With public sentiment in a Roosevelt-frenzy, the hint that Roosevelt could be vice-president saw Roosevelt immediately elected as vice-president, behind President McKinley.
Rise to Presidency
In an ironic turn of events for Roosevelt’s enemies, President McKinley was soon assassinated, and Roosevelt became the youngest ever President of the United States at 42 years old.
One of the nation’s most popular presidents, Roosevelt’s body of work was mind-blowing. Always a strategist, TR recognised the importance of being able to transfer naval power between the East and West coasts of the states, so masterminded the Panama Canal project – a canal running through Central America.
Almost singlehandedly, he secured peace between Russia and Japan, and consequently won the Nobel Peace Prize – making Roosevelt the first American to win a Nobel Prize. He continued his campaign against corporate corruption, and instigated measures for the regulation of large trusts.
He became the first president to take action in a labour strike – negotiating a settlement between coal strike unions and energy companies to prevent a national energy shortage. He also introduced laws to regulate meat and drugs – the first of their kind, and did pioneering work in conservation.
Roosevelt was elected as President for a second term by the public, after which he vowed never to run for a third consecutive term – a move which he would later regret.
After his tenure as President, Roosevelt continued to live the “Strenous Life”. After a one year hunting trip in Africa, he then took part on an expedition to map 1500 miles of the uncharted “River of Doubt” in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
The expedition lasted 48 days, in which one of the crew members died in rapids, and another murdered by a member who ran away. Attacked by mosquitos, fire ants and red wasps, overcome with fever, the team were forced to build new canoes along the journey as 5 of the initial 7 were destroyed in rapids. Trying to rescue a canoe, Roosevelt badly injured his leg, rendering him unable to walk. He pondered suicide, so that he wouldn’t be a burden to the team. Incredibly, the expedition emerged successfully, and Roosevelt returned to New York at the age of 58.
During this time, he campaigned passionately for a third term, as his successor William Taft, did a poor job in his stead. An anti-third term fanatic shot Roosevelt in the chest during a convention, but Roosevelt went on to give a 90 minute speech anyway. The bullet, lodged in his chest, proved to cause superficial damage only.
Roosevelt never got the third term, and died aged 60.
Theodore Roosevelt – A Life
TR is a truly inspiring man. Courageous, principled, moral, energetic, enthusiastic, curious… Miller’s biography is an utterly epic read, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone.
I can’t really put just how incredible Roosevelt’s biography is, so I’ll end this post with an equally incredibly quote, taken from Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Sources – Theodore Roosevelt – A life, by Nathan Miller
As always, Dream Big Start Small!
Lots of love,