The American Presidents Series
About the book
The Roosevelts were an old Dutch family who immigrated to Manhattan in the seventeenth century and prospered there. In a photograph of Lincoln's New York funeral procession there can be seen the mansion of Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, one of the city's ten millionaires with a fortune based in real estate and merchandising plate glass. Watching from one of the windows are two little boys, believed to be Cornelius's grandsons, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and Elliott. Their father, Theodore Sr., lived more modestly in a brownstone on East Twentieth Street, where Theodore Jr., the future president, was born in 1858. He had been preceded by a sister, Anna, nicknamed Bamie, who in middle age married a naval officer, W Sheffield Cowles, and was followed by another sister, Corinne, who wed the wealthy Douglas Robinson, and a younger brother, Elliott. The sisters, brilliant and admirable women, were lifelong devotees of their brother Theodore, but Elliott, despite good looks, charm, and intellectual ability, took early to drink and died a miserable failure, somewhat redeeming himself to history by fathering Eleanor.
Theodore Roosevelt Sr. had little inclination for business and devoted the time that his means afforded to substantial work in city charities and hospitals, attaining a wide reputation for good works. Theodore Jr. adored and worshiped him, but he also admitted that though his father had never once physically punished him, "he was the only man of whom I was ever really afraid." After the latter's premature death at forty-six he said: "I often feel badly that such a wonderful man as Father should have had a son of so little worth as I am."
Theodore Sr. had married a southern belle, Martha ("Mittie") Bulloch, from Georgia, who was lovely, gentle, self-indulgent, and something, one surmises, of a hypochondriac, who lay back on sofas and was waited on, hand and foot, by devoted family and servants. Her son Elliott called her "a sweet little Dresden monument." She had a brother, James Bulloch, of more vigorous character, the Confederate agent in Britain who masterminded the construction there, contrary to international law, of the commerce raider Alabama, which sank or captured fifty-seven Union merchant ships until at last it was sunk by the USS Kearsage off Cherbourg. Another brother of Mittie's, younger, a midshipman, Irvine, was rescued from the raider's wreck and was supposed to have fired its last shot.
I emphasize this because I think it had a strong effect on the whole life of young Theodore, or "Teedie," as he was known as a boy. Teedie's mother made no secret of her
Confederate sympathies and was even (probably unreliably) credited with having draped the front of her house with the stars and bars after a Southern victory. But Teedie was fiercely Yankee and did not hesitate to pray aloud for the crushing of the Southern foe even in the presence of his beloved mother. How must he have felt when his hero father made the painful decision not to take up arms against his wife's compatriots and bought a substitute to fight for him? Oh, it was all very high-minded, and Theodore Sr. took up the complicated and unrewarded volunteer job of organizing a mailing system whereby servicemen could assign some of their pay to their often indigent families, but what was that to a boy who saw his
maternal kin fighting for glory? Theodore Sr. came to regret his decision; according to Bamie he felt he should have put every other feeling aside to join the fighting forces. And Corinne believed that her brother's determination to make a military reputation was "in part compensation for an unspoken disappointment in his father's course in 1861.
I should put it even more strongly. The "unspoken" tells a tale. Theodore Jr. made a point of not mentioning the things that were most sacred to him. It is well known that he would never refer to his deceased first wife, even to their daughter, Alice. That he should not ever have discussed his father's course of action in a conflict as continually talked over in his day as the Civil War shows how deeply it must have penetrated. I have no doubt that he exonerated his father completely; saints could not be besmirched. But the saints' issue could be left with an ineluctable obligation to make up in the annals of military glory for the gap that the Roosevelts had suffered. Theodore Jr.'s throwing up of his assistant secretary-ship of the navy in 1898 to become a Rough Rider when duty would have seemed to point to his staying at his post, his violent efforts as an ill and elderly man to get to the trenches in World War I, and his posting of his sons to battle all seem to stem from a barely rational compulsion. It is one thing for a father to salute his sons as they march off to fight for the right; it seems to me quite another to appeal, as he did, using all of his immense influence and prestige, to military authorities to speed them to the front. When his son Kermit thought he might get into action sooner by joining the British forces, his father did his best to pull strings to accomplish this, excusing himself to his friend Cecil Spring-Rice by saying that it was asking for a favor, "but the favor is that the boy shall have the chance to serve, and if necessary be killed in serving." And what is one to think of his attitude toward his son Archie, later to be severely wounded, when the latter asked for a few days' leave to be married before shipping to France and was accused of being a "slacker"? Or when he reproved his nephew-in-law, Franklin, assistant secretary of the navy and the father of five, for not chucking his job and enlisting? Had he, TR, not been in just that position in 1898? And was Franklin not by birth and marriage doubly a Roosevelt?
Teedie was an asthmatic child. His attacks could last for hours or days. He couldn't get enough air, gasping and choking and wheezing. When the attack was over, he would lie, sweat-soaked and trembling, dreading the next one. He was not sent to school except briefly to a local one; most of the time he was educated by tutors. German, French, and some Italian were learned on two very extended European sojourns that the Roosevelts took in the decade that followed the Civil War. Teedie was absorbed in natural history, particularly at first in birds, and he became adept at taxonomy at an early age. He also, sometimes to the distress of the household, collected a private zoo of snakes, turtles, and mice.
When he was twelve his father called him in for a very serious talk that probably changed his life. "You have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body!" The boy at once gave himself up to a strenuous course in calisthenics, the spirit of which he never again relaxed.
He developed his physique and with it a passion for the active outdoor life, which took him on expeditions to the wilderness where he cultivated the joy of hunting. By the time he entered Harvard he was sufficiently robust and full of a zest for life, with an income greater than the salary of Harvard's president, Charles W Eliot. However, college presidents were not then well compensated, and many of the gilded youth of Boston and New York enjoyed greater allowances than young Theodore. But he did well enough for himself; he had his own rooms off campus and a horse and buggy with which to visit the beautiful Alice Lee, a Brahmin from Chesnut Hill, whom he had met early in his college career and whom he was already frantically determined to marry. He was also enthusiastic about his studies, asking so many questions in one class that the professor had to reprove him with a "I'm running this course, Mr. Roosevelt." And he eagerly cultivated the students of his own social background; it would take him a couple of years to shed his inherited snobbishness, and we find him writing home that he stood nineteenth in his class, with only "one gentleman" ahead of him. But he was well enough liked, if considered a bit eccentric -- his friend Robert Bacon would not visit his rooms because of the smell of his zoological specimens -- and he was duly elected to the exclusive Porcellian Club. It is interesting to note that he chose for the topic of his senior essay "the practicability of equalizing men and women before the law," and that he didn't believe that in marriage a woman should assume her husband's name.
Copyright © 2003 Louis Auchincloss