Teddy the ‘cyclone’
Biography | The youthful energy of a Biblically informed Theodore Roosevelt, Part 1
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 6/01/19, 08:38 am
Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky continues his monthly biographical series on key individuals from late 19th and early 20th century American history. In February and March, we looked at the life of John D. Rockefeller. In April and May, we studied Grover Cleveland. This month we present the first of two parts on the life of Theodore Roosevelt.
Theodore Roosevelt, born in 1858 to a mother who had been a Georgia plantation belle, was particularly close to his father, who came from a New York Dutch Reformed (Calvinistic) background and was a partner in an importing firm. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. was also a teacher and mentor of poor children at mission Sunday schools, a distributor of evangelical tracts, and a founder of the New York Children’s Aid Society, which sent orphaned and abandoned children to adoptive homes on upstate and Midwestern farms.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. began to memorize psalms and hymns at the age of 3, and later in his childhood spent an hour every Sunday evening with his father discussing the sermon they had heard earlier that day. “Teedie,” as he was called, was required to listen diligently to the sermon and study its Biblical citations so he could outline the major points of the minister’s argument later on and evaluate its validity. (Those who knew Roosevelt as an adult said he had an extraordinary Biblical knowledge and could “repeat at will long portions of Scripture.”)
Roosevelt as an adult was always proud of his father, “The best man I ever knew.” He spoke of how Theodore Sr. regularly volunteered for person-to-person charitable work, devoting himself to “getting the children off the streets and out on farms.” Like his father, Roosevelt for seven years taught a Sunday school class for poor children. The paternal relationship was particularly strong because of doctor’s orders: Teedie, with asthma so severe that it seemed he would become a lifelong invalid, was homeschooled all the way to college. Some elite schools during the 1870s were already starting to relativize ethics, but physical necessity gave Theodore Sr. the opportunity to instill in his son a strong sense of objective right and wrong.
Teedie Roosevelt built himself up physically through calisthenics and boxing. He entered Harvard in 1876 and did well in his studies, but during his sophomore year came “sharp, bitter agony” as Theodore Sr. developed a malignant tumor and died at age 46. Theodore Jr. wrote immediately after the burial, “If it were not for the certainty, that as he himself has so often said, ‘he is not dead but gone before,’ I should almost perish.” In his diary shortly afterward, Roosevelt asked God’s help in fulfilling a pledge to his father to abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage.
The vow was very important to Roosevelt on three levels: obeying God, honoring his father, and developing self-control. The next diary page after the pledge features a large blot of ink, but Roosevelt later wrote that he remained “perfectly pure” during his college years. He did get drunk when he was initiated into the Porcellian, a prestigious club. He found the action so embarrassing and the hangover so bad that he resolved never to overindulge again.
Roosevelt’s one constant yearning, from soon after he first saw her in 1878, was to marry Alice Hathaway Lee, then a perky 17-year-old with honey-colored hair, pink cheeks, and a golden smile. Roosevelt wrote of their first meeting, “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked, and how prettily she greeted me.”
The next two years for Roosevelt were a rush of wooing, winning, and producing an honorable record that would make him worthy of such a bride. Roosevelt woke up early, studied hard before breakfast, and worked hard in the morning so in the afternoon he could head to Alice’s house a few miles away. He took long walks with her, played whist with her, and told her ghost stories. Sometimes he despaired and wrote in his diary, “I did not think I could win her, and I went nearly crazy at the mere thought of losing her.” She turned down his marriage proposal and he, unable to sleep, wandered night after night through the wintry woods near Harvard.
In January 1880, however, Roosevelt was able to write in his diary, “After much pleading my own sweet, pretty darling consented to be my wife. … Oh, how I shall cherish my sweet queen! How she, so pure and sweet and beautiful can think of marrying me I can not understand, but I praise and thank God it is so.” They were married on Roosevelt’s 22nd birthday. She was 19. He was on top of his world following graduation, and even the boredom of a short stint in law school could not subdue the pleasure of marriage to Alice.
But there was more. Roosevelt decided to do what gentlemen in Thomas Jefferson’s day had felt obliged to do but a century later rarely contemplated: At age 23 he ran for election to the New York State Assembly and won. In Albany, Roosevelt’s constant motion and high-pitched reformist rhetoric made such an impression that at age 24 he became minority leader. To the amusement of some and the satisfaction of others, he brought to bear the Bible on all kinds of issues that had previously been seen as readily compromisable. “Mr. Roosevelt keeps a pulpit concealed on his person,” critics proclaimed—and he had great fun.
Satisfied in marriage, able to concentrate his energies on work, Roosevelt seemed to do everything—walk, talk, think—at a pace much faster than others. Reporters called him the “Cyclone Assemblyman.” They enjoyed writing about his huge energy that was apparent even on off days, which could be used for climbing a mountain or playing 91 games of tennis.
Speed and newfound stamina set Roosevelt apart, but so did a willingness to talk about right and wrong even when he realized he was in the wrong. His faith was most evident after Gov. Grover Cleveland’s veto of legislation Roosevelt had supported, the “five-cent bill,” which lowered the price of railroad rides at the cost of violating pledges made to railroad investors. Roosevelt announced, “I have to say with shame that when I voted for this bill I did not act as I think I ought to have acted. … We have heard a great deal about the people demanding the passage of this bill … but we should never yield to what they demand if it is wrong.” For Roosevelt, as for Cleveland, a deal was a deal; to negotiate for a square deal was fine, but to demand a new one was wrong.
Early in 1884, Roosevelt, at age 25, was on fire, working a dozen hours a day on legislative business, enjoying “my own sweetest little wife,” and looking forward to the birth of their first child. Suddenly, on Valentine’s Day, everything changed. Alice died immediately after giving birth; Bright’s disease was the official cause. On the same day, Roosevelt’s mother died of acute typhoid fever. His faith that he was getting a square deal out of life faltered. When Alice “had just become a mother,” Roosevelt wrote, “when her life seemed to be but just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.”
Roosevelt told a friend that his pain was “beyond all healing” and that “time will never change me in that respect.” Yet, there was healing. Roosevelt was left with an infant daughter, also named Alice, that he felt incapable of taking care of. His sister Anna took the baby in temporarily. Then he rode into the wilderness, often spending 14 hours a day in the saddle on a Dakota Territory cattle ranch in which he had invested. Roosevelt learned to drown his sorrow in forthright action, observing after a buffalo hunt, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” He stopped second-guessing himself or God.
When Roosevelt, age 27 in years and older than that in self-awareness, came back late in 1885 from one of his Badlands trips, he encountered Edith Carow. Edith, 24, was a childhood playmate and teenage friend who had long felt that she and Theodore were made for each other. He had always liked her character and her wisdom but had dropped her as soon as Alice took his breath away. Edith was not unattractive, but her steely blue eyes and firm jaw (mitigated by a sweet smile) promised a different type of relationship than he had had with the charming and sometimes childlike Alice.
Roosevelt, pondering his future, realized that his faith in God and God’s precepts remained, but that he himself had changed in many regards from romantic to realist. He and Edith were married in 1886, and toddler Alice came with them to a new home, Sagamore Hill, at Oyster Bay on the Long Island Sound. Five more children came: Theodore III (known as Theodore Jr. or “Ted”), Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin. Roosevelt called them his “blessed bunnies” and romped with them inside and out. He taught his children what he tried to teach the country: “Nothing is worth having or doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” But he was joyful in the chase and had a way of turning seriousness into sport.
His new family convinced Roosevelt to settle down in the familial East rather than the Wild West. With home life once again in order, he moved to the task of ordering city, state, and nation. Roosevelt’s first return to politics was a near miss: He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York but impressed editors such as Joseph Bishop of the New York Evening Post with his “inflexible honesty, absolute fearlessness, and devotion to good government which amounts to religion.”
From 1889 to 1897, Roosevelt practiced his newly hardened religion first as a member of the Civil Service Commission in Washington, then as police commissioner in New York. He pleased his children by taking them to police headquarters, although they were disappointed to learn that their father did not wear a high helmet and a blue uniform with silver buttons. Much of Roosevelt’s education came by night, though. He often walked the streets with journalist friends Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens to learn about poverty and crime close-up. He came away from that observation more convinced than ever that success for both rich and poor involved putting off unethical immediate pleasures to follow God’s rules, which usually led to long-term enjoyment.
One of Roosevelt’s battles involved Sunday closings. German brewers organized a parade to protest Roosevelt’s orders that the police enforce the law and sarcastically invited the commissioner to sit on the reviewing stand. Roosevelt surprised the marchers by showing up and then giving his broad smile as the first banner came into view, with its large letters proclaiming, “DOWN WITH TEDDY!” “Wo ist Teddy?” shouted the banner carriers, and he responded in German, “Hier bin ich,” “Here I am.” Roosevelt leaned over the railing, beaming, and the marchers cheered his courage.
Roosevelt’s combination of Biblical understanding, experiential grounding, and guts helped to be an extraordinarily effective speaker in the 1896 presidential campaign that ended with the election of Republican William McKinley over Democrat William Jennings Bryan. He criticized “socialists who are always howling about the selfishness of the rich.” He emphasized that a poor person’s enemy is the “leader, whether philanthropist or politician, who tries to teach him that he is a victim of conspiracy and injustice, when in reality he is merely working out his fate with blood and sweat as the immense majority of men who are worthy of the name always have done and always will have to do.”
Called to Washington in 1897 to become assistant secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt learned how to move fast and minimize bureaucracy. While purchasing merchant ships on the eve of the Spanish-American War that could rapidly be converted into cruisers, Roosevelt paid $500,000 for a Brazilian ship but made it a condition that the vessel arrive under its own steam at a specific point by a specific date. As ship dealer Charles Flint admiringly wrote, “In one sentence he thus covered all that might have been set forth in pages and pages of specifications, for the vessel had to be in first-class condition to make the time scheduled in the contract! Mr. Roosevelt always had that faculty of looking through details to the result to be obtained.”
Roosevelt talked over his work with his wife, Edith, and valued her advice: “Whenever I go against her judgment, I regret it.” When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, however, he turned down her request that he stay in Washington. Since Roosevelt had agitated for war, he said he could not stand being called an “armchair and parlor” warrior who would send others to fight in his stead. He enlisted, saying, “My power for good, whatever it may be, would be gone if I didn’t try to live up to the doctrines I have tried to preach.”
Few Washington officials a century ago approved of his logic, and few would now. “I really think he is going mad,” one bureaucrat said, and another merely asked, “Is he quite mad?” Secretary of the Navy John D. Long noted in his diary, “He thinks he is following his highest ideal, whereas, in fact, as without exception every one of his friends advises him, he is acting like a fool.” Long concluded, “He has lost his head” but noted concerning his criticism, “How absurd all this will sound if, by some turn of fortune, he should accomplish some great thing and strike a very high mark.”
Roosevelt aimed high and struck high. He led soldiers (many of whom he had convinced to enlist) up Kettle Hill east of Santiago, Cuba, on July 1. Mauser bullets killed men all around him, but he shamed the terrified into following by rasping at them, “Are you afraid to stand up when I am on horseback?” Kings in the Old Testament were to lead their armies themselves, and Roosevelt sent no surrogates. A bullet grazed his elbow, but he killed a Spaniard and listened to Mauser shots that sounded “like the ripping of a silk dress.”
Then it was on to San Juan Hill about 700 yards away. Roosevelt started briskly but forgot to order his soldiers to follow him, so only five did. Two were shot while Roosevelt rushed back to his regiments and yelled, “Are you cowards?” Then he gave the order, riding his horse ahead of the troops under heavy fire up the hill, until the Spaniards at the top gave up or ran. “I would rather have led that charge than serve three terms in the United States Senate,” Roosevelt wrote.
The nation’s newspapers gave the exploits of Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” front-page placement. The New York Sun reported, “Bullets were raining down on them, and shot and shell from the batteries. … Up they went in the face of death, men dropping from the ranks at every step. Roosevelt was a hundred feet in the lead … shouting for the men to follow him. … Finally his horse was shot from under him. He charged up the hill afoot. At last the top of the hill was reached … the position won.”
Roosevelt’s political elevation was instant. He returned home to New York just in time to be nominated for the governorship in 1898 by a corrupt Republican Party that needed him to avoid being swept out of office by the backlash from a canal contract scandal. Roosevelt was dynamic on the stump, but he also benefited from the introduction one of his sergeants, Buck Taylor, provided: “Ah want to talk to you about muh colonel. He kept ev’y promise he made to us and he will to you. When he took us to Cuba he told us … we might meet wounds and death and we done it, but he was thar in the midst of us. When it came to the great day he led us up San Juan Hill like sheep to the slaughter and so he will lead you.”
After Roosevelt was elected and Republican control saved, he had to fight state party leader Thomas Platt concerning legislation. Platt was known as the “Easy Boss,” but he was a hardnosed critic of Bryan. So was Gov. Roosevelt; only their methods of opposition differed. Roosevelt favored steps that would slow down the “rush toward industrial monopoly” by keeping big corporations from using their size, Rockefeller-style, to beat out their less efficient, smaller competitors. Not having seen how regulation can so easily harass businessmen, he had a much more optimistic view of its possibilities than most people of a philosophy similar to his have today. Roosevelt argued that government should not stop competition but should “make the chances of competition more even.”
Bunk, Platt said: Get the government involved, and bureaucracy will make the countryside unsafe for enterprise. Platt succeeded in getting Roosevelt out of the way by having him selected as President McKinley’s running mate in 1900 to run against Bryan again. Roosevelt had no yearning for the understudy office, believing that four years in a do-nothing position would hurt his chances for the presidential nomination in 1904. McKinley adviser Mark Hanna opposed the choice for the opposite reason: “Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the Presidency?”
Roosevelt spoke on both domestic and foreign policy during the campaign of 1900. He argued that government could play an antitrust role but should avoid extensive government regulation that would bring “years of social misery not markedly different from that of any South American republic.” Since competition made for economic progress, a wise government might act to increase competition but should never do the opposite.
Mostly, though, Roosevelt in 1900 campaigned on the Bible. He gave speeches and published articles with explicit titles such as “The Eighth and Ninth Commandments in Politics.” He described how any kind of economic preferment because of political ties “comes dangerously near the border-line of the commandment which, in forbidding theft, certainly by implication forbids the connivance at theft, or the failure to punish it.”
Roosevelt’s mind worked concretely. He gave neither the politician nor the journalist leave to dance around honesty: “Under the higher law, under the great law of morality and righteousness, he is precisely as guilty if, instead of lying in a court, he lies in a newspaper or on the stump.” Cynical observers like British writer John Morley found distasteful Roosevelt’s combination of whirligig speaking style and Scriptural quotations; he called Roosevelt a combination of “St. Paul and St. Vitus.” But Roosevelt’s Biblicism not only neutralized much of Bryan’s economic rhetoric but also displayed a social vision that undercut Bryan’s moral appeal.
Boss Platt had figured out how to get Roosevelt out of the way in New York, but he had not figured on an assassination.