“My father got me breath, he got me lungs, strength, life. I could breathe, I could sleep when he had me in his arms.” – Theodore Roosevelt on his father
I write this article on the eve of Father’s Day, so I thought it appropriate to take a closer look at whom Theodore Roosevelt called, “The greatest man I ever knew.” Indeed, Theodore (Thee) Roosevelt Sr. set the bar very high. And, while it may be his son that is best known, Thee may be more akin to the type of man we should desire to be. Just as with his father, Teddy had a seemingly inexhaustible well of energy and enthusiasm. Both personalities were electric and both were men of action. However, Thee placed more of an emphasis on charity and serving the less fortunate, considering a man’s family to be his first priority, whereas Teddy’s ambition drew him towards greater power, authority, and emphasized a life of self-reliance.
- #TRThursday articles give us some manly insight and wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt every Thursday. Sometimes a quote, sometimes a snippet of his life...always manly! Read other TRThursday articles here. -
Thee’s story is impressive from the outset. His father gained a good deal of wealth as a New York merchant, which Thee inherited after his father’s death. What stands out to me is how Thee did not consider himself above others despite a more secure fiscal footing. I believe that may have something to do with him working alongside his father and developing an appreciation for good and honest work.
“I was a sickly and timid boy. He not only took great and untiring care of me — some of my earliest remembrances are of nights when he would walk up and down with me for an hour at a time in his arms when I was a wretched mite suffering acutely with asthma .” – Theodore Roosevelt on his father
It is well-known that the now inspiring figure of manliness, Teddy Roosevelt, was afflicted with asthma and frequent bouts of cholera morbus as a young child. In reading the accounts from Teddy Roosevelt, we see a father who is active and optimistic in the recovery of his son. Take a moment to imagine you are a child, about 3 years old, and in the middle of the night you wake with a choking sensation. You bolt upright in your bed, using all of your might to open your lungs and draw in a breath. Now imagine you are that little boy’s father, awoken by the sound of wheezing and footsteps outside your bedroom door. It was his father that would calm Teedie; walking him around the house until he caught his breath.
As reported by one of Roosevelt’s cousins:
“His father would pick up him out of bed and get the carriage harnessed up and drive through the streets of New York, hoping that, as the boy gulped in air, the breathing would clear and he would survive.”
As David McCullough writes:
“[Theodore Senior] was very maternal in his way, because the father realized this little boy was dying in his own arms.”
As Teedie grew older his asthma became less life-threatening, but his health was still very poor and the boy would be kept indoors for a week or more. Thee’s famous encouragement to his son to “make his body” spurred him towards physical exercise. As Teedie built his body, his asthma and other symptoms improved and eventually left him.
Setting the Example
“I never knew any one who got greater joy out of living than did my father, or any one who more whole-heartedly performed every duty; and no one whom I have ever met approached his combination of enjoyment of life and performance of duty.” – Theodore Roosevelt on his father
The virtuous character we see displayed by Teddy Roosevelt was first exhibited to him by his father. It may be that Thee is the only man to ever live up to Teddy’s estimations of what a man should be. One of his first great accomplishments was the founding of the New York Orthopedic Hospital. His daughter, Anna (Bamie), was born with a curvature of the spine. Thee sought out a doctor who was on the cutting edge of such cases and with his help founded the hospital. The manner in which he raised money to fund the project was done in typical Rooseveltean fashion.
Roosevelt’s great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt IV, recounts the following story:
“One time when Theodore Roosevelt Senior was trying to raise money [for the hospital], he brought some of his wealthiest friends in to have dinner. And he opens up the doors to the dining room and around this splendid rosewood table were a whole number of children who were crippled from diseases or unfortunate accidents. And people took a collective gasp of horror, and then he said, ‘I now want money from you so that these children can benefit from the money you have,’ and out of that began some of his philanthropic work.”
Thee’s charitable drive came from what some called, “a troubled conscience.” Over the years his service included regular visits to poorhouses, teaching in missions and Sunday School, founding of the Children’s Aid Society, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Art.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, rather than serve in the Union Army, Thee paid to have another man take his place. While this was legal, it may appear contrary to the life for which Thee preached. It certainly served as one of the few, and possibly only time Teddy was disappointed in his father. However, Thee had married a southern belle, and to take up arms against the South would mean to take up arms against her brothers and other family members. This is not to say that Thee was inactive during the time of war. As men were being rushed off to war, the wives and children were being left behind. Sending money back home to support ones family was not an easy thing to do while on the move and certainly became less of a priority when in the throes of battle. The result was an increased burden on an already fraught society, to care for the fatherless families. Thee used his political influence to establish a payroll deduction system to allocate a portion of a soldiers money to go directly to their family back home.
“Christian: But if He parts with His righteousness to us, what will He have for Himself?
Mr. Great-Heart: He has more righteousness than you have need of, or than He needeth Himself.” – Pilgrim’s Progress
In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Great Heart is the protector-warrior that guides Christian and others on their quest. It is likely that Thee’s nickname is an allusion to the allegorical Mr. Great-Heart. It is quite an impressive title to live up to, but demonstrates how the family viewed their leader. Not as a tyrannical, control freak, but as a loving, guiding, serving, and protecting father-warrior.
Roosevelt Sr. had an untimely death; age 46 from stomach cancer. Though his life was short, he accomplished more than most. I’ll close this article with a few quotes from Teddy Roosevelt about his father (gathered from Wikipedia):
“My father, Theodore Roosevelt, was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness. As we grew older he made us understand that the same standard of clean living was demanded for the boys as for the girls; that what was wrong in a woman could not be right in a man. With great love and patience, and the most understanding sympathy and consideration, he combined insistence on discipline. He never physically punished me but once, but he was the only man of whom I was ever really afraid. I do not mean that it was a wrong fear, for he was entirely just, and we children adored him. …
I never knew any one who got greater joy out of living than did my father, or any one who more whole-heartedly performed every duty; and no one whom I have ever met approached his combination of enjoyment of life and performance of duty. He and my mother were given to a hospitality that at that time was associated more commonly with southern than northern households. …
My father worked hard at his business, for he died when he was forty-six, too early to have retired. He was interested in every social reform movement, and he did an immense amount of practical charitable work himself. He was a big, powerful man, with a leonine face, and his heart filled with gentleness for those who needed help or protection, and with the possibility of much wrath against a bully or an oppressor. … [He] was greatly interested in the societies to prevent cruelty to children and cruelty to animals.”
In a letter from 1900 he wrote:
“I was fortunate enough in having a father whom I have always been able to regard as an ideal man. It sounds a little like cant to say what I am going to say, but he really did combine the strength and courage and will and energy of the strongest man with the tenderness, cleanness and purity of a woman. I was a sickly and timid boy. He not only took great and untiring care of me—some of my earliest remembrances are of nights when he would walk up and down with me for an hour at a time in his arms when I was a wretched mite suffering acutely with asthma—but he also most wisely refused to coddle me, and made me feel that I must force myself to hold my own with other boys and prepare to do the rough work of the world. I cannot say that he ever put it into words, but he certainly gave me the feeling that I was always to be both decent and manly, and that if I were manly nobody would laugh at my being decent. In all my childhood he never laid hand on me but once, but I always knew perfectly well that in case it became necessary he would not have the slightest hesitancy in doing so again, and alike from my love and respect, and in a certain sense, my fear of him, I would have hated and dreaded beyond measure to have him know that I had been guilty of a lie, or of cruelty, or of bullying, or of uncleanness or of cowardice. Gradually I grew to have the feeling on my own account, and not merely on his.”