Today is the birthday of one of America’s greatest presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. However Theodore Roosevelt was more than just a great politician. He was a lawman, soldier, historian, environmentalist and a leader of great vision and courage. He defined manliness for the modern age and his enlightened vision of masculinity shaped our view of (successful) manhood up until recent times.
Until a few years ago I knew Theodore Roosevelt as the great “Trust-Buster” the president who broke the power of the monopolistic cartels that dominated American business in the late 1800s. I knew of the Rough Riders, that mad collection of cowboys and Harvard polo players that Roosevelt turned into a cavalry regiment and how they fought the battle of San Juan Hill (on foot). I knew that he was the driving force behind the building of the Panama Canal.
For a long time my abiding image of Theodore Roosevelt was from the movies. It was Brian Keith’s magnificent performance as Roosevelt in John Milius’ wonderful movie “The Wind and the Lion”. But Theodore Roosevelt’s real life is more interesting and more compelling by far than even his movie self.
And to be honest, I am writing about him because he had bags of style and really, really dressed well. Here is a short article about his life and some thoughts on the model of manliness that he left us.
A difficult childhood
Ironically for a man who is famous for action, Theodore was a weak, sickly child who contracted asthma before he was four and his own family doubted that he would live to adulthood. However even though fragile and often ill, TR had a lively nature, a fast mind and an inclination to mischievousness. It was such an unlikely combination to evolve into one of the defining heroes of American history
He was born the son of Theodore Roosevelt Senior. Roosevelt Senior was old money, the head of the long-established Roosevelt Importing Company and one of the most influential men in New York. In many ways Roosevelt Senior was even more deserving of admiration than his son. A true American patriot who believed passionately in democracy, it was said that he was comfortable in the presence of any man be they billionaires or beggars. A photo shows him to be a big strong powerful man, with an air of innate authority.
As i mentioed Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly child, frequently very ill. Yet as early as nine years old, TR’s will to succeed led him to take up weight-lifting, running and swimming, to improve his body. At 12, on a trip to Moosehead Lake, he encountered two boys of his own age. Though he was now stronger, they easily beat him in a fight. Spurred by this defeat, he took up boxing. It was an inspired act of courage and the foundation stone in making him the man he was to become.
Sent to Harvard Roosevelt, after a rathervarialbe education, whicch included trips to Europe, he quite simply excelled. Already scholarly, partly because of his sickly enclosed childhood, he took to real study like a duck to water and graduated Magna Cum Laude. Mind and body were now one and he possessed the iron self-discipline which was to serve him for the rest of his life. Willpower and constant physical exercise had turned him into a strong, slim handsome young man. He had started the hunting trips that he later became famous for, at this time to Arostook County, Maine, which was still very rough country. It was here that his new strength and his warmth and character stood him in good stead, as he charmed the roughneck lumbermen and the taciturn hunters. It was becoming apparent that he had his father’s gift for talking to any man, regardless of his station.
However, in the midst of this journey into manhood, life dealt him a terrible blow. In 1878 his beloved father, developed an illness, strange intestinal cramps. Unbeknownst to the Roosevelt family, Roosevelt Senior had developed a fibrous tumour in his gut. This swelled to gigantic size and he suffered terrible agonies, dying suddenly. He was only 46. Theodore Roosevelt Junior was 19. Shattered by his father’s untimely death, he somehow found the will to return to Harvard.
At 22 he was married, to Alice Lee, a beautiful but very young woman of good family. He had taken the decision to go into politics, for which it was obvious he had many suitable skills and talents. Roosevelt had come to respect his own genius and reviewed his two possible routes into politics. He could use his connections to powerful New York families and become a gentleman politician or he could lower himself into the grimy, corrupt political machine and really learn how to work the gears. He choose the later option and in a letter to a friend, wrote “I have become a political hack”.
Political Hack and Dandy.
In January 1882, Theodore Roosevelt became a Republican Assemblyman in Albany, upstate New York. It was a very strange fit. Albany was legendary for its corrupt cynical politics and TR was one of the least cynical men to enter the chamber, with a huge ego, a passion for justice and a courageous, if occasionally naïve manner. Also, TR was now a great dandy. He acknowledged this himself. When the concept of men dressing with style was in its infancy, TR revelled in good clothes and was a peacock and then some, with Savile Row suits and hand-cut boots. He was one of the most well-dressed men of his age. So his entrance into the Assembly chamber produced no little comment.
However he soon made his mark, literally. Politics in Albany was a violent and dirty game and the corrupt Tammany Hall Democrats were one of the most powerful political groups in Albany. Drawn mostly from Irish immigrants to New York the Tammany men had no qualms about using violence to achieve their end. They tried to put the frighteners on Roosevelt and he made it that plain that he would respond in kind. This all came to a head in an Albany saloon, when a tough Tammany member, confident that he could beat up a “rich boy”, started a fight. TR, dressed up to the nines, represented an easy target.
Now a lethal boxer, TR knocked the man flat in seconds. The Tammany man stood up, TR knocked him flat again. He got up and tried a third time, TR knocked him flat again. TR sent him off with the advice to go wash the blood off. It was a salutary lesson for his opponents.
Scholar and Rancher
At the same time as he was beginning to make a name for himself as a politician, his first book was published. It was a serious study of America’s Navy, The Naval War of 1812 and it was a critical and financial success and established Theodore Roosevelt as a historian of note. But perhaps more importantly for Roosevelt was his first trip to the Badlands of Dakota, in 1883, for a hunting trip. As a man of action he had always been close to nature but Dakota was going to bring out a closeness to nature that would change his life. He had a spiritual epiphany and saw the importance of nature to man, and nature as greater than man and infinitely precious. Soon after he became a rancher in Dakota, raising beef cattle. Thses early experiences shaped him to become America’s first environmentalist and as President he legislated to protect and conserve the American wilderness.
Theodore Roosevelt’s career as a rising politician contains too much to summarise here. His fight against graft and political corruption, his reform of the Civil Service. In his rise to power and prominence he held many roles and he was one of the most successful Commissioners of Police New York ever had. The fearless Roosevelt even managed to eradicate police corruption, even it was only for his time in office. But Roosevelt’s real destiny came calling in 1887, when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy,
Ready to fight
As Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt began to build up America’s Naval strength, much to the chagrin of his boss, John D. Long. Secretary Long was a man who believed in the quiet life, while his Assistant Secretary saw America’s enemies becoming more threatening. Theodore Roosevelt was right, he just did not know how prescient he was.
Cuba at that time was a Spanish possession. The Spaniards, with the disregard for humanity that had characterised Spanish rule for centuries, treated the native Cubans as slave labour on colonial estates. The cruelty and brutality of the Spanish ruling class was so great that the native Cubans rose up in revolt. Spain’s answer was to send an army to suppress the peasantry. Americans on Cuba were caught up in the violence. The US President William McKinley, implored the Spanish to respect the freedom and security of Americans on Cuba, who were effectively trapped between the Spanish Army and the revolt. The Spanish Foreign Minister’s response was to tell the US to go to hell. In fact the letter was so insulting that the US Government refused to publish it, fearing it would incite anti-Spanish feeling. The Cuban Insurrectos managed to get the letter to the US press and the outcry was enormous. It’s hard to understand today, but at that time the European powers treated the US as an unsophisticated no-account country, who had no power or presence in the larger world.
In February 1898, while Secretary Long was on leave, Theodore Roosevelt sent a naval vessel, the USS Maine, to Cuba to protect American citizens. The Maine anchored in Havana Harbour. On the 19th of February the Maine was destroyed in a huge explosion, most of the crew were killed or wounded. It was determined that it had been destroyed by a submarine mine.
There would be war.
All his life, Theodore Roosevelt had been a warrior at heart, and now he had the chance to be one for real. He resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, shocking the political establishment. He took a commission as the commander of the volunteer army to be sent to Cuba, liberate the island and institute a free government. And he did two things which marked him out as a man of genius. Firstly he knew that he could not learn to command an army in such a short space of time so he took the role of second-in-command. He took the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel under Colonel Leonard Wood, a seasoned military office who said little except to ask great things of his troops.
His second action was a mark of genius and has passed into history as a legendary story. Theodore Roosevelt knew that his volunteer army would be up against seasoned Spanish troops and the expectation was that cavalry battles would be decisive. So Roosevelt recruited the men he knew could ride and who could fight. From the West, he exhorted his fellow Cowboys to join him, and from his wealthy family connections he assembled a crew of noble brits, professional Polo players and sporty horsemen. This spectacularly unusual mixture of men became the talk of America and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were born.
And in Cuba, it all culminated in the battle of San Juan Hill where Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders decisively defeated the Spanish Army and Roosevelt became an American hero defeating a foreign enemy. The Spanish were driven out and a government of Cubans was instituted.
Vice-President and President
Theodore Roosevelt became Vice-President under President William McKinley. It was while he was Vice-President that he gave the quote for which he is most famous “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. However he was not vice-president for long. On 6th
September 1901 William McKinley was shot by an assassin. He died eight days later and Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as President. He served two terms.
His accomplishments were legendary. He brought outrage on his government for his support of the emancipation of African-Americans, especially his support for Booker T. Jones, the African-American politician. He earned the enmity of many of the plutocrat classes for his trust-busting activities. Though in truth, he felt no enmity in bending these powerful men to his vision of a fairer America. By force of political will he caused the Panama Canal to be built and suddenly the world powers of Europe saw that America was a technological colossus that they had underestimated. He made America a power to be reckoned with in the world and he did everything he could to make life better for the ordinary working American, to whom he always remained close. He was the first and most powerful environmentalist, passing laws and legislating to protect the American wilderness.
And throughout all of this he remained real. He was a father and a family man. He loved to sail, he continued to hunt, he remained a horseman and an adventurer to the end of his days.
If there has been another modern leader like him, who was so conscious of his destiny, yet so grounded in real life, I do not know who it is. Perhaps Winston Churchill, who had less of a common touch, but had that true sense of a leader’s destiny.
A model of Manliness
Theodore Roosevelt was the very model of the man of action. He saw assertive action as superior to intellectual rationalisations. Intellect was fine as a preparation but a poiunt had to be reached where action was taken. We now speak of “Analysis Paralysis” and we have that understanding because of the distinctions that Theodore Roosevelt drew. Roosevelt emphasised determination and willpower over analytic explorations of life.
There is a sense that man are automatically manly, by virtue of their biology. Yet this is not necessarily true, the values we in the West see as manly are not universally held. Roosevelt believed that it took effort to be manly, that we at first learn the ways of
our society, learn their value and then seek to extend them. That a man tries to achieve something in his life, to excel, to rise above other men in some way or form. He believed that all men harbour assertive competitiveness and that, properly harnessed, this is a huge force for social good.
Roosevelt believed that the value in a man was in his ability to strive, knowing that luck played a part for good or evil. In effect willpower makes manliness real, it harnesses courage to intent and sets a man on the path to challenging the world, regardless of how uncertain his victory might be.
So for Theodore Roosevelt, to be manly required risk. That each man, as far as he was capable, should risk. That a man is born into a society which shapes and defines what is expected of a man, and in doing so helps a man to define what willpower is. And because there are so many ways a free society can lead a man to willpower, there are many ways for a man to become whole, courageous and individual. And that there is a contradiction between what society demands of us as men and what we want to achieve, that a real man understands ans accepts this. In efeect, a man accepts his own power. Theodore Roosevelt thought that men should rise above their duty and that a true leader saw duty as the start point for bringing some better thing into the world.
Roosevelt makes a great case, if only because he brought so many good things into the world. Also, the America he lived in, for all its ills, was one of the freest societies humanity has ever experienced.
And we still refer to his model today. Ambition is not as well considered as it was, but men still operate out of a sense of striving to make life better, often in very individual ways. The Roosevelt model raises our spirits, it says life holds no promises but somewhere in the din, we can hear Theodore Roosevelt’s voice, saying have courage and the outcome will be glorious, regardless of success or failure.
A great man.
I am hugely indebted to Edmund Morris for his Pulitzer-winning, best selling biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Morris a talented, inspired writer, who makes the complexities ofTheodore Roosevelt’s life into a lucid and exciting story. Edmund Morris makes reading a sublime pleasure.
The biography is in two parts:
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Rex
Also, to Harvey Mansfield for his landmark book “Manliness”, to which I return time and time again. This controversial, rich, compassionate book about what constitutes manliness has been my constant companion, while I have been writing this web
Both of these movies are directed by John Milius, for whom Theodore Roosevelt is a true American hero. If you know Milius’ movies you will know how he has an eye for adventure while giving you characters who have real and complex motivations.
“The Wind and the Lion”.
As time goes on it becomes more and more apparent that this movie is a masterpiece. Excitement, danger, colour, but underneath the adventure of Sean Connery’s Berber chieftain, lies one of the finest portraits of an American President ever committed to celluloid.
Theodore (he hated “Teddy”) Roosevelt at the height of his powers, leading his Rough Riders into danger and victory in Cuba. This is almost a snapshot of its times, with some fine actors in an ensemble piece. Tom Berenger is pitch-perfect as Theodore Roosevelt.
For readers who are interested in how Willpower works and how to harness it, the definitive book on the subject is Baumeister and Tierney’s “Willpower” . Our review of the book is here.
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