Theodore Roosevelt Biography in Brief

TR photo by Edward Curtis 

Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States. He ascended to the Presidency on September 14, 1901, when William McKinley died of wounds he received at the hands of an assassin a week earlier. Though Roosevelt pledged to adhere scrupulously to McKinley’s policies, he almost immediately set his own course and became perhaps the most active and outspoken President in American history. He was elected in his own right in 1904.

Roosevelt believed it was his destiny to lead the people of the United States into the Twentieth Century, to expand the powers of the Constitution and especially the Presidency, to make government the guarantor of a “square deal” for all Americans, particularly recent immigrants, the poor, and the inhabitants of great cities. He also believed that the United States must take its place among the great powers of the world, that with the help of a greatly expanded navy it must fill the vacuum being left by the decline of the British Empire. He was an ardent nationalist.

Roosevelt was a successful author, big game hunter, and global adventurer. He was the readingest President of the United States, and also the writingest President. More than thirty books and 150,000 letters and countless articles and columns flowed from his indefatigable pen. Three of his books, The Naval War of 1812 (1882), the four-volume Winning of the West (1889-96) and the Autobiography (1913), are regarded as American classics.

He was twice married. His first wife Alice died of Bright’s Disease on February 14, 1884. The child of that marriage, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, became one of the most notorious First Daughters in American history. Roosevelt remarried in December 1886. Edith Carow, who had been his childhood sweetheart, did what she could to manage his Herculean energies and bore Roosevelt five additional children: Theodore (1887), Kermit (1889), Ethel (1891), Archibald (1894), and Quentin (1897). Roosevelt argued that great achievement is wonderful, but it pales in comparison with the joys of family life. “For unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison,” he wrote.

After he left the Presidency in 1909, Roosevelt embarked on a yearlong safari in east Africa with his son Kermit, in part to give his hapless successor William Howard Taft a chance to establish his own Presidential style. He brought more than 500 specimens back to the United States for deposit in national museums, particularly the Smithsonian.

In 1913, after the debacle of the Bull Moose campaign, in which Roosevelt received the largest third party vote in American history but only managed to get Woodrow Wilson elected to the Presidency, he undertook (with Kermit) the exploration of one of the last uncharted rivers in South America, today’s Rio Roosevelt (or Rio Teodoro). Though Roosevelt declared that it was his “last chance to be a boy,” the 1500-kilometer journey proved to be an ordeal. Roosevelt lost a quarter of his body mass and nearly died in the South American jungle. He lived six more years, but his health never fully recovered.

When he wasn’t seeking manly (and sometimes reckless) adventures, Roosevelt gave his life to public service. He served three terms in the New York State Assembly (1881-1884). He ran unsuccessfully for the office of mayor of New York City (1886). He served six years under two Presidents of different parties as U.S. Civil Service Commissioner (1889-95). He was the Police Commissioner of New York City (1895-97). He was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1897-98). That was the beginning!

Roosevelt said the great day of his life was July 1, 1898, when at the front of a “harum scarum” group of rough riders he led the charge up Kettle (and then San Juan) Hill in Cuba, one of the most colorful events of the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt’s courage in Cuba (and his capacity to write brilliantly about his exploits) made him a national hero and launched him first into the Governorship of New York (1899-1900), then into the Vice Presidency (1901), and finally—by an accident which forestalled his inevitable election in 1904 or 1908—into the Presidency.

Although Roosevelt is the poster child for the strenuous life, he was born a frail and asthmatic child. Inspired by his father to “make your body,” he transformed himself by hard discipline into an uncompromising man of action. The four years he ranched in the badlands of western North Dakota marked the turning point in his life. He came to Dakota a New York dude and he left ready to take on the world.

Roosevelt should be regarded as a conservative reformist. He began his public career as a champion of laissez faire capitalism, but he became steadily more radical as his life unfolded. Critics accused him of co-opting the Progressive Movement’s agenda, but Roosevelt believed that he was both purifying the reform movement of its socialist and sentimental extremism and at the same time saving corporate capitalism by insuring that it behaved according to minimal standards of decency and fair play. By 1910 he was an economic radical. The views he espoused between 1910 and his death in 1919 essentially anticipated his fifth cousin Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Roosevelt threw himself unhesitatingly into every arena of existence. His energies, his passions, his utterances, his opinions, and his appetites were all larger than life. His friend and critic Henry Adams said Roosevelt reminded him of the God of the scholastic philosophers: “pure act.”

When Roosevelt died in his sleep on January 6, 1919, his son Archie cabled the others with the message, “The old lion is dead.”