Theodore Roosevelt must be one of the more recognisable presidents in US history: his image is one of few that most people could instantly identify, even if they might not know much about his presidency itself. Unlike other giant figures such as Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, Roosevelt’s reputation appears to have been won more through sheer force of personality than major accomplishments in office or a reputation for integrity and sincerity. As a consequence, only a third of Edmund Morris’ biography of TR actually deals with the presidency (the second volume runs from 1801 to 1809): the rest is given over to capturing all of Roosevelt’s other achievements and his remarkable personality.
From early childhood, TR was a walking ball of energy. He was precocious and interested in knowledge of all sorts. He could devour books (Morris puts his reading rate at something like a book a day) and remember almost everything he had read. Roosevelt wasn’t purely bookish though; he cultivated an impressive collection of wildlife and, to counteract his early physical frailty and asthma, he pushed himself physically in sports and adventurous pursuits. At the age of 23, Roosevelt had produced his first book, The Naval War of 1812, which within four years was on every US Navy ship and remains a respected work on the subject. Over his life, TR wrote something in the region of 45 books, although I’ve seen a variety of numbers given by different sources.
Roosevelt embraced hardship. After the death of his first wife (famously on the same day as that of his mother—Roosevelt was to write in his diary, “The light has gone out of my life”), Roosevelt left his just-born daughter with his sister Bamie to go to North Dakota and run a ranch. There’s an excellent story from this time of Roosevelt’s pursuit of boat thieves, but it’s worth noting the psychology behind this. Roosevelt had suffered a deep loss and his response was to seek solitude and risk, abandoning a daughter who was merely 36 hours old at the time of her mother’s death. Roosevelt also expunged all mention of his first wife from his diary, would not mention her in conversation, and did not include any reference to her in his autobiography. He struggled to maintain an emotional even-keel at times and this was one of the first indications of that.
In 1886 Roosevelt married his second wife, and this marriage was to last until his death. Edith Roosevelt was better suited to TR intellectually than Alice Roosevelt, saying at one point that, had Alice survived, she would have bored TR to death. Around this time, TR started pursuing a political career in New York, initially enforcing civil service laws for the Harrison administration and then acting as the Police Commissioner where he sought to weed out corruption in the police force and insisted on regular inspections to ensure the efficacy of the force, including walking night-time patrols to check on officers.
As Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, Roosevelt was given a troubling level of power. The Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, was not really up to the job, and TR was often able to insist on having his way. Some measures were sensible: TR wanted to build a more effective naval fleet as he anticipated war. Some were less sensible: Roosevelt seemed hell-bent on provoking war and had to be reined in from this instinct. This instinct for belligerence was worrying to a number of political observers at the time and may have its roots in Roosevelt’s upbringing: he was in awe of his father, but ashamed that his father had hired a replacement when he received the draft for the Union in the Civil War (this was done for the sake of his wife, who hailed from the South, and his family who needed the income he provided). When war broke out with Cuba, Roosevelt resigned his position, recruited a volunteer regiment, and went to war with his Rough Riders. TR enjoyed war and was immensely proud of his role in it, famously at San Juan: he comes across as lacking any fear of death.
On his return, Roosevelt became the Governor of New York until the presidential election of 1900. He was nominated for the Vice Presidency, partly because of his popularity and public recognition, and partly because Thomas C. Platt, the Republican “boss” of New York wanted rid of TR. In 1901, following McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States.
This first volume of Morris’ biography is exceptional: it is clearly well-researched and Morris tells stories vividly with a striking sense of the personalities of those involved. I came away in awe of TR’s accomplishments and phenomenal energy, but strongly aware that he was lacking in some social skills. He was an entertainer by nature and had the enthusiasm of a child, but it was rare that he actually had a conversation with people: instead Roosevelt would dominate the talking, holding forth for long periods of time on almost any topic. He was a force of nature, and while people clearly gravitated towards him, it seemed rare that he would allow them to get too close. Edith Roosevelt was unusual in that respect. I can’t speak highly enough of this volume and shall probably be re-reading it in the not-too-distant future as I know I have not retained nearly enough of that which it contains.