"I am well mottled with bruises elsewhere. Still I have made good progress, and since you left they have taught me three new throws that are perfect corkers!"
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On October 27, 1858, Martha Stewart Bulloch gave birth to Theodore Roosevelt Jr. at the Roosevelt family home in Manhattan, New York. For young Roosevelt, it was rough goings from the start, as he continually suffered from poor health and debilitating asthma. At night, he would have sudden asthma attacks so severe, his parents feared for his life. Doctors at the time had no cure and presumed the worst, that Roosevelt's life would be short and unpromising. These challenges shaped Roosevelt's formative years.
Theodore Roosevelt Sr., however, had other notions for his son. Roosevelt Jr. said of his father:
In spite of young Roosevelt's frailty, the Roosevelt clan traveled often, from Europe, the Middle East, to hiking in the Alps. Roosevelt Sr. encouraged young Roosevelt to keep up and to set no limitations on his abilities. From this foundation, young Roosevelt discovered the benefits of physical exercise, finding a love for the outdoors, and an appreciation for exertion and effort. Roosevelt's newfound reverence for the strenuous life not only energized his spirits but diminished his asthma. Vigorous exercise became ritual.
Unfortunately, exercise was not enough. After an incident where he was roughed up by two older boys, Roosevelt found need for a teacher other than his father. Under the tutelage of boxing coach John Long, Roosevelt learned not only how to fight, but to defy his own weaknesses, and to become a man. This was a lifelong pattern, as Roosevelt sought to continuously model himself after courageous figures he encountered:
In his autobiography, Roosevelt said of his boxing:
On his first master, Roosevelt recounted:
On September 27, 1876, Roosevelt entered Harvard College. Roosevelt Sr. gave his son this advice:
For months, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. suffered from a gastrointestinal tumor but kept it a secret from his son, as not to disrupt him while he was away at college. When 19-year-old Theodore Jr. was eventually notified, he immediately took a train back home. On February 9, 1878, at the age of 46, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. passed away, missing his son by a few hours. From then on, Roosevelt Jr. increased his efforts in studies and extracurricular activities, participating in boxing, wrestling, and rowing.
However, Roosevelt's seriousness and level of intensity made him unpopular amongst his peers. That all changed after a Harvard boxing tournament where Roosevelt persevered against better boxers. In the finals of the tournament, Roosevelt took a damaging blow from his opponent after the bell. The audience was outraged, and rather than winning the contest and tournament by crying foul, Roosevelt calmed the audience down, knowing that his opponent didn't do it on purpose. Even against personal and literal attack, Roosevelt's sense of justice was unshaken. Roosevelt continued the fight in a losing effort, and though he was only the runner-up, Roosevelt won the hearts of his fellow students. Roosevelt graduated Harvard with honors.
While still a student, Roosevelt wrote a book on the War of 1812. Published in 1882, The Naval War of 1812 is still the standard study of the war.
On February 14, 1884, six years and five days after the death of his father, both Theodore Roosevelt's mother and wife died within hours of each other at the Roosevelt family home.
Disenchanted with New York life and his first foray into politics, Roosevelt moved to North Dakota. He built a ranch and lived the life of a cattle herdsman.
There are those who pretend and then there are the genuine articles. Though Roosevelt was not a strong rider, he stayed the course and rode with the other herders day in and day out without a single complaint. Much as he did with his boxing and wrestling, Roosevelt won the respect of his peers not through natural ability, but with endurance and perseverance. This is how he became a real cowboy. During this time, Roosevelt wrote several books on frontier life.
As a deputy sheriff, Roosevelt captured three outlaws who had stolen his riverboat. While waiting for support, Roosevelt held guard over these men for forty hours without sleep. He read Leo Tolstoy and other books to keep himself awake. When he was out of his own books, he read dime novels belonging to the thieves. Roosevelt never stopped learning.
After a severe winter (1886-1887) wiped out his cattle, Roosevelt returned east, reentering public life — forever altering his trajectory.
In 1895, Roosevelt became the Police Commissioner of New York City. Late at night and early in the mornings, Roosevelt would walk the city to observe the goings on, the lack of police presence, and the terrible conditions for poor immigrants. At the time, the New York Police Department was known as the most corrupt in America; Roosevelt made it his personal mission to clean up the department. His reforms in the city brought him national attention.
In 1897, Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President William McKinley.
In 1898, the United States and Spain went to war. Roosevelt left his leadership position and along with Army Colonel Leonard Wood formed the First US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. While serving in Cuba, they became known to the press as the "Rough Riders."
On July 1, 1898, without any orders from superiors, the Rough Riders, led by Roosevelt, charged up Kettle Hill. Roosevelt had the only horse but when his horse became entangled in barbed wire, Roosevelt walked up the hill. This battle brought fame and accolades to the Rough Riders. Roosevelt said of the moment:
During his time in Cuba, Roosevelt, like many of his men, contracted malaria. It would plague him for the rest of his life.
In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt became the Governor of New York. As Governor, Roosevelt picked up the art of catch-as-catch-can wrestling, where all holds were permitted. In his autobiography he wrote:
On April 10, 1899, he gave a speech on "The Strenuous Life."
In March of 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became Vice-President of the United States.
After the assassination of President McKinley, on September 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest President of the United States.
On September 3, 1902, a speeding trolley car rammed into the open horse-drawn carriage carrying President Theodore Roosevelt. The accident killed Roosevelt's Secret Service agent and ejected the president from the vehicle. Roosevelt suffered facial contusions and a permanently injury to his left leg. However, he continued his tour for the day and spoke to a crowd of thirty thousand. Roosevelt assured the crowd that he was unharmed, though once the tour was over, he was confined to a wheelchair for several weeks. An abscess developed in Roosevelt's leg and would flare up constantly throughout his life. Roosevelt said of William Craig, the Secret Service agent killed in the line of duty:
In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt was elected President by a landslide margin.
On the seriousness of vigor, Roosevelt said to high school graduates:
During his time as President, Roosevelt began to study judo and Japanese jiu jitsu, eventually earning a brown belt. In one of his letters to a friend, he said:
Roosevelt once threw the Swiss minister during a boring state luncheon, to demonstrate a judo technique for his guests. Roosevelt's cabinet sometimes had to be his training partners.
Roosevelt almost changed the course of martial arts history, as he was already mixing boxing and wrestling, with judo and jiu-jitsu. If he hadn't been so busy with world politics, rather than Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it might have been American jiu-jitsu. And perhaps the sport of mixed martial arts could have started almost a hundred years sooner. Opportunities like these happen as natural byproducts for those who who dare to live.
Just as much as his father and the frontier life were formative for Roosevelt, so, too, were the fighting arts and instructors he's had along the way. To his son Kermit, he wrote:
On the difficulty of the presidency while maintaining his regular martial training, Roosevelt wrote to his son Ted:
On December 10, 1906, Theodore Roosevelt became the first American to win a Nobel Prize. Roosevelt was awarded the Peace Prize for his work in ending the Russo-Japanese War.
Theodore Roosevelt served as President until 1909. But unlike other retired presidents, Roosevelt almost immediately left on a dangerous expedition to Africa with the Smithsonian.
On April 23, 1910, Roosevelt delivered the now famous "Citizenship in a Republic."
In a letter to his son Kermit, Roosevelt wrote:
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt ran again for the presidency. On October 14, 1912, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Roosevelt delivered a speech:
An unemployed and deranged saloonkeeper, John Flammang Schrank, shot Roosevelt outside of a Milwaukee hotel. The bullet traveled through Roosevelt's eyeglass case and copy of his speech, lodging in his chest. Roosevelt, having knowledge of anatomy and biology, concluded the injury was a flesh wound, since he was not coughing blood and bleeding only from his chest. He ignored the suggestions to go to the hospital and delivered his scheduled 90-minute speech:
Since it was only lodged in the muscle and did not penetrate into his organs, the doctors decided it was safer to leave the bullet in his chest, rather than to remove it. The bullet remained with Roosevelt for the rest of his life, being a source of persistent health issues. It worsened his rheumatoid arthritis, preventing him from exercising. Roosevelt soon became obese.
Though Roosevelt eventually lost the election, it was the closest a third-party candidate came to winning the White House, losing to Woodrow Wilson but beating the incumbent, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt came close to shattering the two-party system, which would have forever altered how American politics was done. It's also important to note that up to this point in history, progressive could have meant any party. Roosevelt only ran as a third-party candidate because he lost the Republican primaries, not because of lack of votes, but due to backdoor deals by Taft. Roosevelt even named his party the Progressive Party. It's hard to imagine, but every candidate and every party wanted to be seen by the American public as the progressives, the one to make progress — there was no such thing as a conservative until the mid-1930s (though the roots of the ideology date back to earlier). But prior to the 30s, not only could every political ideology be progressive, they believed theirs was the most progressive. (Roosevelt, as a president, was a Republican, a progressive, and a conservationist, and there used to be no irony to this statement.) One could argue then, that with the end of Roosevelt's final presidential run, was also the end of progressivism independent of any political association.
In 1913, Roosevelt along with his son Kermit went on an expedition to the South American Amazon. Roosevelt suffered a minor leg injury while preventing two of the canoes from smashing into rocks. This soon gave way to tropical fever. The culmination of all of Roosevelt's previous health issues, along with the bullet in his chest, worsened the infection. The expedition was six weeks in and low on supplies. One of Roosevelt's legs was unusable due to infection and the other leg was weak from the previous trolley accident. With fevers over 103 °F, Roosevelt appealed to his son and the other crew to leave him behind. Roosevelt even considered killing himself as not to risk the safety of his son and the other men. In the end, however, he decided against it, since his son would insist on carrying his body out of the Amazon, and if alive, he could still help to carry himself, no matter how weak. As a testament to his will, Roosevelt survived the expedition but lost over fifty pounds. His health never sufficiently returned.
In 1914, World War I began. Even in poor health, Roosevelt pleaded with President Woodrow Wilson to allow him to go to Europe and lead a volunteer army (which included a brigade of African-American troops). Wilson denied Roosevelt's request, just in case Roosevelt were to come back a hero and run against him.
On July 14, 1918, Roosevelt's youngest son, Quentin, was killed while piloting for the American forces.
On January 5, 1919, Roosevelt went to bed after seeing his doctor for breathing problems. He said to his attendant, James Amos:
His last words are fitting when we consider what Roosevelt said after his wife and mother died:
When Roosevelt returned from his South American expedition, he prophetically told a friend that it took ten years off of his life. Though his childhood doctors never thought the young Roosevelt would live as long as he did and have the vigorous life that he had. But few did. Few do.
On January 6, 1919, Theodore Roosevelt died. When his son Archibald Roosevelt heard the news, he telegraphed his siblings:
Thirteen days after his death, acclaimed writer and poet H.P. Lovecraft wrote this poem:
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Edmund Morris
- Theodore Rex is the second installment of the trilogy by Edmund Morris
- Colonel Roosevelt is the final installment of the Roosevelt trilogy by Edmund Morris
- Though Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb isn't about Theodore Roosevelt, it explains the science of how Roosevelt continually gained from adversity. It's a must-read for those interested in the strenuous life.
- An Autobiography - Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches is a collection of letters and includes four of Roosevelt's best known speeches, including "Citizenship in a Republic" and "The Strenuous Life"
- The Naval War of 1812 - Theodore Roosevelt
- The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft - S.T. Joshi (Editor)