Colonel Roosevelt — Edmund Morris

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In 1884, Roosevelt lost his mother and his wife within hours of each other on February 14th. His response was to run away to North Dakota for a few years, abandoning his infant daughter (he would resume his parental responsibilities when she was three) for the call of a rougher life. Similar responses would come to define the popular image of his post-presidential year.

In 1909, Roosevelt stepped down from the presidency, handing the reins to his close friend, William Howard Taft. He trusted Taft to continue the progressive policies of his administration and, desiring to create a little distance from the presidency, Roosevelt left for Africa. This time, he was accompanied by family, as his son Kermit came along for the trip. Roosevelt was rekindling his former passion for collecting natural specimens and was funded by Andrew Carnegie to bring back specimens for the Smithsonian from his safari from Kenya, through the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Sudan. For a year, Roosevelt walked, rode, and shot his way through the countries, collecting thousands of specimens including a white rhino. It’s odd to think now of someone passionate about hunting and preservation, but Roosevelt appears generally to have felt that the former led to the latter, as an interest in hunting the creatures demanded that they be available.

Roosevelt returned home to learn that Taft had a mind of his own and had not simply stuck to the script Roosevelt had anticipated. This led to a break-down in their relationship and Roosevelt ran against Taft for the Republican nomination of 1912. By now, Roosevelt’s views were too radical for his old party and he split with the Republicans when they nominated Taft. Immediately creating a new party, Roosevelt fought the 1912 presidential election for the Progressive Party, notably speaking for 90 minutes after being shot in the chest (the bullet would remain in him for the rest of his life). Although Roosevelt beat Taft, both men lost to Wilson and, once again, Roosevelt retired to lick his wounds.

This time, Roosevelt headed south, again with Kermit, to the Brazilian rainforest on the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition, initially conceived as a chance to collect specimens but ultimately to map the entirety of the Rio da Duvida, the River of Doubt, whose existence was known but about which any other details were lacking. Roosevelt’s trip is told in engaging detail by Candice Millard, who provides a quick and interesting read about the expedition. Briefly though, the trip was successful in mapping the river but nearly killed Roosevelt who, at 54 and with recurring health problems from malaria contracted in Cuba and a near-fatal crash which injured his leg, was simply not capable of withstanding the punishing physical demands of the trip. He was to return a much weaker man.

When war broke out in 1914, Roosevelt advocated for US involvement. When the US declared war, Roosevelt asked to form a volunteer regiment similar to his Rough Riders. This was initially granted but the Woodrow administration refused to send him and the unit disbanded. This was a sensible choice: Roosevelt’s understanding of war belonged to a different era and a man convinced that a strong cavalry charge backed up by machine guns could win the day was a liability. Roosevelt was proud of his sons though, who all volunteered for duty. On 14th July, 1918, Roosevelt’s younger son, Quentin, was killed. The loss devastated Roosevelt. His own fearlessness towards death, and that instilled in his sons, did not protect him from the magnitude of his grief. Roosevelt died 6 months later.

This third and final volume of Morris’ trilogy is the least engaging of the three and the hardest to read. Neither issue is really Morris’ fault. Roosevelt had such an interesting and busy youth that the first is filled with events and revelations of character that it is hard to put down and the second volume had to get to grips with Roosevelt’s presidency. This volume, however, witnesses the decline of a man used to gripping people’s attentions. It sees him marginalised and increasingly convinced of his own rightness while becoming ever more radical in his views. Where Morris comes into his own is in his explanation of the build-up to war. I have seen few accounts that so clearly and so succinctly explain the state of affairs in Europe during the first decade and a half of the 20th century and that alone was enough to impress me with this book. I also finished with a resolve to read two of David McCulloch’s works after this project is done: Mornings on Horseback and The Path Between the Seas. It says something of a three-volume work that it left me wanting more.

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