Theodore Roosevelt corresponded regularly with Frances Theodora Parsons, a well-known botanist of the day and wife of James Russell Parsons, a New York politician and later diplomat. James Parsons died tragically early in the marriage, leaving Frances Parsons to raise their young son Russell on her own. From their letters, it sounds as though Mrs. Parsons often held up Roosevelt as an example to her son as the sort of man he should be. Responding to one such letter in 1912, Roosevelt modestly insisted the truest advice he could give to Russell is to develop his “ordinary qualities.” Learning to use those natural gifts to his best advantage was the key to success in life, Roosevelt noted.
Roosevelt’s response to Frances Parson is fascinating to read and rings true from a man who also took his “ordinary attributes” and changed history.
Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Frances Theodora Parsons, December 3, 1912. MS Am 1454.41 (43). Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.
Transcript of letter:
Sunday, December 3, 1912
Indeed I am quite ashamed that you should mislead Russell in such fashion! It seems rather egotistical to say even what I am about to say: – but if there is any lesson to teach a boy from my life (aside from the avoidance of my blunders and shortcomings) it is that a man of commonplace and ordinary attributes can achieve a measure of success if he will only use to the utmost, and develop to their limit, these ordinary qualities, so that they become reasonably good instruments for his purpose. Then he may do the work of the half-gods, and until the gods appear, or if they never appear, the work of the half-gods is useful.
I enjoyed to the full the delightful evening.
Ever your friend