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Profile - Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Rough Rider in the White House

Teddy Roosevelt probably had more energy than anyone who has ever served as president.  In his lifetime he was a politician, explorer, outdoorsman, rancher, soldier, historian, sportsman, conservationist, lawman, diplomat, journalist, and much more, as well as being the youngest man ever to serve as president and the only man ever to have been awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Honor.

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1858-1919), known as “T.R.” to his friends and fans and “Teedie” to his family, was a descendant of Claes Martenszen Van Rosenvelt, who had been born 1623 in Rosenvelt, Zeeland, the Netherlands.  Claes migrated to Nieuw Amsterdam with his wife Jannetje Samuels Thomas in 1649, and died there about 1659, leaving a large brood, which prospered.  The president’s great-great-great grandfather, Jacobus Roosevelt, served with the New York colonial militia during King George’s War (1740-1748) and in the French and Indian War (1756-1763).  Jacobus’s son, also Jacobus, served as Chief Commissary of New York troops during the Revolutionary War, in which several other kinsmen served in various capacities as officers in the militia or the Continental Army.  Although of military age during the Civil War, the president’s father, Theodore, Sr., did not serve.  This was because the president’s mother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, was from North Carolina and sympathized strongly with the Confederacy.  To preserve peace in the family, the elder Theodore provided a substitute, a volunteer willing to serve in his place.  Nevertheless, the elder Theodore did important war work as a founder of the Union League, which helped promote the war effort.  He also helped draft the legislation that created the Allotment Commission, which enabled soldiers to send part of their pay to their families.  Appointed as the New York delegate to the commission, he visited virtually every New York regiment during the war.  At his own expense, he traveled all over the country to visit the troops, and once came down with typhoid fever.  The elder Roosevelt also helped organize the Protective War Claims Association, which assisted crippled veterans and the families of men killed to get appropriate pensions, and he helped organize the Soldiers' Employment Bureau, which arranged jobs for discharged veterans.  The elder Theodore’s uncle, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, served as an officer in the Union Army during the war. 

On the Bulloch side, the future-president’s great-great-great grandfather Archibald was for a time commander-in-chief of Georgia state military forces during the Revolutionary War.  Archibald’s son James served in the Revolution, as did the president’s maternal grandmother’s father, Daniel Stewart, who also served in the War of 1812.  Two of young Theodore’s maternal half-uncles served the Confederacy.  Irvine Bulloch was navigator of the famous Confederate cruiser Alabama, while James Bulloch was the Confederate naval agent in Britain, and helped procure the raiders Alabama, Florida, and Shenandoah

T.R. himself was also something of an eyewitness to the Civil War.  He several times attended the ceremonies at which regiments were accepted for service in the war, among them the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry, New York City’s first black regiment, in Union Square.  

Presentation of the colors to the
20th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment,
March 5, 1864, Union Square, New York.

At Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession through the city on April 24, 1865, an unknown photographer caught Teddy, his younger brother Elliot, and another child peering out of a second floor window as the cortege passed their grandfather’s home on Union Square.

As a young boy, T.R. was rather frail.  Nevertheless, throughout his life, the future president demonstrated unusual precociousness and energy.  He overcame his health problems through vigorous exercise, while proving an avid reader, often going through several books in a day.  Early on he developed an interest in military matters.  While a student at Harvard he wrote The Naval War of 1812 , which was first published in 1882 and is still considered a useful book on the subject.  Meanwhile he embarked upon a political career, entering the state legislature.  In 1884, not long after his first wife and his mother died within hours of each other, in the same house, Roosevelt went west to manage a ranch he owned in the Dakotas.  Two years later he returned to New York, married again, and reentered political life.  He also joined the New York National Guard and shortly rose to captain in the 8th New York.  After about three years, however, he abruptly resigned in circumstances that are unknown. Whatever it was appears to have been serious, as published histories of the regiment rarely mention him, and in later years he never mentioned his service, in 1898 even saying he was "entirely inexperienced in military work" when he volunteered for the war with Spain. 

Meanwhile, Roosevelt had served on the U.S. Civil Service Commission (1888-1895) and was then police commissioner of New York City (1895-1897).  Early in 1897 he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President McKinley.  As Assistant Secretary, he played an important part in promoting the expansion of the fleet and in preparing for the Spanish-American War.  It is, however, not true that Roosevelt took it upon himself to order Commodore George Dewey to attack the Philippines in the event of war with Spain; that operation was authorized by an existing contingency plan.  On the outbreak of the war, in April of 1898, Roosevelt was offered command of a volunteer cavalry regiment.  He pleaded lack of experience, and proposed that the assignment go to Leonard Wood, a veteran army officer.  Roosevelt did, however, accept a commission as lieutenant colonel in the new regiment, the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the “Rough Riders.”

Roosevelt proved an excellent soldier, with a talent for improvisation.  Following the landings in Cuba on June 24, 1898, he fought in the skirmish at Las Guasimas (June 24), commanded the regiment at the Heights of San Juan (July 1) outside Santiago, and then assumed acting command of a dismounted cavalry brigade during the siege of Santiago that followed until its surrender on July 17th.  Thereafter Roosevelt played an important role in prodding Washington to pull the diseased troops out of Cuba before the army collapsed.  After the war, he embodied his wartime experiences in Rough Riders, which is by no means as self-glorifying as many critics have maintained. More than a century later Roosevelt would be awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions on July 1, 1898, the only president to hold the nation’s highest honor.

Largely on the strength of his war record, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York within weeks of returning to the United States, serving a two-year term, January 1, 1899 to December 31, 1900, by which time he had been elected vice-president on William McKinley’s ticket.  On September 5, 1901, McKinley was mortally wounded by an assassin, and died nine days later.  Roosevelt assumed the presidency, and was reelected in his own right in 1904.

Militarily, Roosevelt’s presidency was a busy one.  The Philippine-American War had broken out in early 1899, and while the main insurgent forces had been quickly defeated, a guerrilla war ensued, which lasted into 1902, while were problems with the Moro Tribesmen of the southern Philippines dragged on for several years more.  Roosevelt also had to cope with the Venezuela Crisis of 1902-1903, when Britain, Germany and Italy imposed a blockade on that country in an effort to force it to pay its debts, leading to the enunciation of the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. He played a role in the Panamanian Revolution (1903), triggered the completion of the Panama Canal, and promoted the further expansion of the Navy, sending the “Great White Fleet” on a world cruise (1907-1909) to demonstrate American sea power.

Despite his reputation for being a war monger, Roosevelt won a Nobel Prize for Peace by negotiating a settlement of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and strongly supported the Hague Convention of 1907, which further codified the law of war and peace. He even developed a plan for the balanced limitation of navies, which would see fruition during the 1920s.

 Choosing not to run again in 1908, Roosevelt backed William Howard Taft in his successful bid for the presidency.

Roosevelt’s retirement was an active one.  He traveled extensively, and undertook a safari in Africa.  Meanwhile he found time to write several more books and kept involved in politics, even making an unsuccessful bid for a third term in 1913. Although he garnered more votes that William Howard Taft (with whom he had had a falling out), he lost to Woodrow Wilson. Following the election, Roosevelt undertook an expedition to explore the “River of Doubt” in the Amazon, nearly dying in the process, with serious consequences for his health.

On the outbreak of the Great War in Europe in 1914, Roosevelt took a strong stand in favor of American neutrality, once again belying his reputation as a war monger.  After a number of Americans were killed when a Germany submarine torpedoed the British liner Lusitania in 1915, however, he became an interventionist.  An advocate of “preparedness,” Roosevelt supported the National Defense Act of 1916, and promoted the “Plattsburgh Plan,” by which educated young men – including his eldest son – voluntarily undertook military training.

When the United States entered World War I, in April of 1917, Roosevelt offered to raise a volunteer division for foreign service, to be commanded by Leonard Wood and himself.  President Woodrow Wilson, a staunch political opponent, needed little encouragement from the War Department to turn him down.  This ended Roosevelt’s efforts to become an active combatant in the war, though he continued to support it in speeches and newspaper articles.  During the later part of World War I, Roosevelt began sounding out support for another bid for the presidency.  But his health had been failing for years, and he died less than two months after the war ended, on January 6, 1919.

The president’s sister Anna married William S. Cowles, a naval officer who later became a rear admiral.  The president’s brother Elliot – the father of the notable Eleanor (who married her distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt) – served as an officer in New York’s famous 7th Regiment for several years during the 1880s. 

T.R. was married twice, and had one child by his first wife and five by his second.  Of his six children, five served in some fashion in wartime, a tradition continued by many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well.

BookNotes:  The best look at Roosevelt’s life and work is Edmund Morris’ three volume set, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt , on his early life, Theodore Rex , on his presidency, and Colonel Roosevelt on his final years.  For a shorter treatment see Nathan Miller’s Theodore Roosevelt: A Life .


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