A dark cloud of grief had descended suddenly and unexpectedly on the nation. The same nation had just recently celebrated the end of a long and bloody war, but with a single gun shot, the victory celebration had ended in a horrible national tragedy. On June 25, 1865, a six-year-old boy watched silently from the second floor of his grandfather’s house in New York as 75,000 people marched by in procession behind a funeral cart drawn by sixteen horses. Through the glass panels on the cart, the boy saw the coffin that carried the remains of Abraham Lincoln. It was a moment that would leave a lasting impression on him.
The boy was pale and sickly, and suffered frequent asthma attacks. Often, he had to sleep sitting up because of the difficulty he had breathing. His mother and father were both very concerned about the young boy’s future. His father frequently took him on carriage rides around the streets of New York, and the family often went on outdoor trips to help force air into his lungs. The boy was also treated with black coffee and nicotine from a cigar, which were common treatments at the time. However, nothing worked for very long.
What the boy lacked in health, he made up for in intelligence. He was fascinated with nature. Even before he could read, he would ask his mother and sister to read to him from Dr. David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa. Beginning with the skull of a seal that was given to him, he began collecting and preserving specimens of every animal he could find. He would record detailed notes about his specimens in his notebooks. Much to his mother’s displeasure, many of these specimens wound up stored in her icebox.
But his health continued to be a major concern. By the time he was twelve, his asthma showed no signs of improvement. Despite a long trip to Europe and daily twenty-mile walks with his father, he was often unable to blow out a candle.
Afraid for him, his father took him aside and said, “You have the mind but not the body, and without the help of the body, the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body but I know you will do it.”
The young boy looked up to his father, smiled enthusiastically, and replied “I’ll make my body.”
And he did, with unrestrained enthusiasm. Almost immediately, he began strength training at a local gym. Later, he would have his own gym at home. His health improved dramatically. Within a year, he was well enough to go on a camping trip with his family. He had a great time canoeing the river, climbing mountains, and sleeping outside on the ground—activities he would have been incapable of only a few short months earlier. Around this time, he went an entire month without a single asthma attack. He continued to work out with weights, swing on bars, and use a punching bag. His energy increased and his health improved until he became a model of healthy youthful exuberance.
At the same time, his interest in nature expanded to include hunting and taxidermy. In the beginning, he was not a very good shot with a rifle, and managing to hit very little. Later, it was discovered that he was extremely nearsighted. Once he was fitted with eyeglasses, his aim became markedly better—and the size of his specimen collection began to increase. The thick round glasses and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy would later become his trademark. One can almost see this man charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba at the head of his volunteer regiment of Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War—Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth President of the United States.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was born on October 27, 1858, into a wealthy family, the second of four children of Thee and Mittie Roosevelt. He was nicknamed Teedy by his family. Three years after his birth, the nation was plunged into the Civil War. Theodore’s father was a Unionist who supported the policies of Abraham Lincoln. His mother, originally from Savannah, Georgia, quietly supported the Confederacy. Thee wanted to join the Union army, but afraid that joining would cause a riff with his wife, he hired a solider to fight in his place, as many men of wealth and privilege did in those days, and spent the war years helping to get financial aid to the families of Union soldiers. As a result of his efforts during the war, Thee became close friends with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.
Once Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. overcame his health problems, he was off and running. Often compared to a steam locomotive or a tornado, he became a man of tremendous energy and enthusiasm with a wide variety of interests and an insatiable appetite for success.
While at Harvard University, Roosevelt was active in many clubs, such as rowing and boxing. He was the editor of a student magazine and a member of both the Alpha Delta Phi and Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternities. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Harvard in 1880.
He married Alice Hathaway Lee, on October 27, 1880. He was advised by a doctor after a physical that due to a serious heart condition, he should find a desk job and avoid strenuous exercise—advice he completely ignored. He entered Columbia Law School, but when an opportunity to run for New York assemblyman came up in 1881, he dropped out to pursue a new goal of entering public life. He won a seat on the assembly and served until 1884. Four days after the birth of his daughter, also named Alice, his wife Alice passed away. Roosevelt was deeply affected by her death. He refused to speak her name again, even omitting her name from his autobiography. Though he would later remarry and have more children, his daughter Alice would never be called Alice. Instead, she was always called Sister by her half-brothers and sisters.
Roosevelt built a ranch he named Elk Horn, where he lived as a rancher, hunter, and deputy sheriff. He learned to ride, rope, and hunt. Once as a deputy sheriff, Roosevelt tracked down three outlaws who had stolen his river boat. After capturing them, he decided that instead of hanging them, he would take them back to Dickson for trial. After sending his foreman back up the river with the boat, Roosevelt set out with the three outlaws over land. Reading first Tolstoy and then a dimestore western one of the outlaws was carrying, he guarded them for forty straight hours without sleep as they traveled to Dickson.
After a bad winter wiped out his cattle herd and his investments in 1886, he returned to Sagamore Hill, a home he had bought in 1885 in Oyster Bay, New York. This would remain his home for the rest of his life. In 1886, he married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow, with whom he would have five more children.
By the time Theodore Roosevelt became President at age forty-two, he already had an impressive resume. He had become a published writer at age eighteen, a husband at twenty-two, a New York State assemblyman at twenty-three, a father and a widower at twenty-five, a rancher at twenty-six, a New York mayoral candidate at twenty-seven, a husband again at twenty-eight, a Commissioner of the United States at thirty, a police commissioner at thirty-six, an assistant secretary of the Navy at thirty-eight, a colonel of the U.S. Volunteer Cavalry regiment the Rough Riders at thirty-nine, and upon his return from Cuba, the governor of New York in 1898 still at thirty-nine. But Roosevelt had his eye on the Presidency even then. With his tremendous popularity as a war hero, the way to the White House seemed clear.
Roosevelt supported fellow Republican William McKinley’s campaign for a second term as President in 1900, touring the Midwest in 1899 as if he were a candidate for President himself. One political cartoon at the time depicted Roosevelt as a tornado racing across the prairie, blowing away the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Roosevelt had quietly begun working on his own plans for running for President in 1904. But even though he was a very popular war hero, he knew America’s attention span was short. He wondered if he would have that same popularity in another five years.
Henry Cabot Lodge was the first to suggest to Roosevelt that he run as McKinley’s vice president. Roosevelt was adamantly against that idea because he felt he could do more as the governor of New York than as vice president of the United States. He said, “I would simply be a presiding officer, and that I should find a bore.” Roosevelt even went to Washington, D.C., to tell McKinley he did not want the job. To Roosevelt’s embarrassment, he discovered that McKinley was not even considering him since McKinley thought Roosevelt was too brash and too unpredictable to be a running mate. However, the Republican National Convention, which felt differently, nominated Roosevelt as McKinley’s running mate in 1900. McKinley and Roosevelt won by the largest vote margin at that point in history. But Roosevelt would not remain vice president for very long.
On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot and mortally wounded in Buffalo, New York, after visiting the Pan American Exposition. When he died on September 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became the fourth vice president to become the President after the death of a President—the third within the previous forty years with the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and then McKinley.
Not everyone was happy. Republican boss, Mark Hanna, was one of Roosevelt’s most vocal detractors. He had been against Roosevelt’s nomination as vice president to begin with. While riding on McKinley’s funeral train, he said, “I told William McKinley it was a mistake to nominate that wild man . . . Now look, that damned cowboy is President of the United States.”
He was an energetic and popular President. In 1904, he was elected to a second term. As President, Roosevelt fought for the regulation of industry which included the Hepburn Act of 1906 that granted the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) the power to set maximum railroad rates. Roosevelt also pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both in 1906. These laws required the labeling of food and drugs, the inspection of livestock facilities, and the establishment and enforcement of sanitation requirements at meat packing plants.
But Roosevelt’s most famous foreign policy initiative was the construction of the Panama Canal, which would shorten the length of the ocean voyage between New York City and San Francisco by eight thousand miles. The canal took ten years to build at the cost of over two hundred workers’ lives due to yellow fever and malaria.
Roosevelt’s love of nature and the outdoors led him to perhaps one of his greatest legacies. In 1905, he urged Congress to create the United States Forest Service to manage government forest lands. As President, he set aside more acres for national parks and nature preserves than those set aside by all of his predecessors combined. By the end of his second term, Roosevelt had created 42 million acres of national forests, 53 million acres of national wildlife refuges, and 18 million acres surrounding areas of special interest including the Grand Canyon. In 1907, with Congress growing impatient with Roosevelt’s “land grabs,” Roosevelt managed to add another 16 million acres of new national forests to his total. Roosevelt believed in the more efficient use of natural resources by lumber companies and mining concerns. He encouraged more and better usage, less waste, and a long-term plan for conservation. Even during his Presidency, Roosevelt promoted his views of conservation in essays he wrote for Outdoor Life magazine.
Roosevelt remained active in politics after he left office in 1909, but by 1918, his health was beginning to fail. Even as he was considering another run for President in 1920, he was having trouble with his balance, had lost the hearing in one ear, and was blind in one eye. He was in and out of the hospital suffering from complications from injuries he had sustained on a tour of South America a few years earlier. He was finally confined to a wheelchair. He died on January 6, 1919, at the age of sixty. His last words to the public were read at a benefit he had planned to attend at the Hippodrome in New York: “I cannot be with you; and so all I can do is wish you Godspeed.”
He was laid to rest in a small cemetery overlooking Oyster Bay. Vice President Marshall said in his eulogy, “Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight.”
Brother Theodore Roosevelt was made a Mason on April 24, 1901, at Matinecock Lodge No. 806, Oyster Bay, New York. In 1902, Brother Roosevelt said of Freemasonry, “One of the things that attracted me so greatly to Masonry . . . was that it really did live up to what we, as a government, are pledged to—of treating each man on his merits as a Man.”
Todd E. Creason is an author and novelist whose work includes the award-winning non-fiction historical series Famous American Freemasons and the novels One Last Shot (2011) and A Shot After Midnight (2012). He's currently working on the third novel expected to be released in 2014. All of Todd E. Creason's books are sold at major online booksellers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble and are available for both Nook and Kindle.