On October 27, 1858, as the chasm between North and South grew ever wider, a bright and shining star in the nation's future drew his first breath. On East Twentieth Street, New York Martha Bulloch Roosevelt gave birth to Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.'s second child and first son Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., often called "Thee" or "Teedie" by his family to distinguish him from his father, was a seventh generation Roosevelt of Dutch blood. Klaes Martenszen van Rosenvelt, a farmer, was one of the early settlers of New Amsterdam and arrived sometime in 1649. In little time the family would climb the social stratum of New York. One of its own would even be elected to the New York State Senate and help Alexander Hamilton to get the United States Constitution ratified in New York on July 26, 1788. It was Theodore's grandfather, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, who accumulated much of the family's wealth. During the Panic of 1837 when land prices fell off, he purchased large tracks of land in Manhattan. After the recovery when Manhattan began to boom, so did the Roosevelt fortune. A magazine once listed Cornelius Roosevelt as one of Manhattan's ten genuine millionaires. Theodore's paternal grandmother, a Pennsylvanian, could also trace her roots back to colonial times having forefathers who arrived in the New World with William Penn.
Not all of the wealth and fame in his ancestry rested on the Roosevelt family. His mother Martha Bulloch Roosevelt ("Mittie"), a true southern belle from a Georgia plantation, was mostly of Scotch descent. Her exquisite beauty may have only been exceeded by her taste in art and fine furniture, which could even strain the Roosevelt purse. Many of Roosevelt's forefathers on both sides of the family fought in the American Revolution and served in the Continental Congress or in local legislatures. These descendants included his great-great-grandfather, Archibald Bulloch, who was the first Revolutionary "President" of Georgia.
Even in his tender years, Theodore would feel the effects of the great Civil War for his very family was divided in their loyalties North and South. Although a strong Lincoln Republican, Theodore, Sr. vowed to his wife at the outset of hostilities he would not raise a hand against her family who valiantly fought for the South. Instead, he did what many well-to-do men of the North did and hired a substitute to take his place in the ranks. He did not, however, abandon the cause but instead he lobbied for legislation which would enable part of a soldier's pay to be sent home to the family to ease their hardships. Once this legislation was passed, Theodore Sr. volunteered as one of New York's commissioners to get the soldiers to enlist in the program. In the long run he probably did more for the Union cause in this respect than he could have done as a soldier. Theodore, Sr., according to accounts from his oldest daughter Bamie, "always afterward felt that he had done a very wrong thing" in not ignoring every other sentiment and joining the fighting forces. It may have been his father's feelings of failure in this area that drove Theodore, Jr. to so strongly desire to prove himself in battle. Despite his father's failure to fight, Theodore was not denied family stories of gallantry and adventure during the war. Two of his uncles, Admiral James Bulloch and Irvine Bulloch, fought valiantly on the Confederate ship Alabama until it was sunk by the Kearsage. As the story is told, Irvine Bulloch fired the last two shots from the Alabama before it went down. Both men were rescued by a yacht watching the battle and were taken safely to England.
By the outset of the war on April 12, 1861, the Roosevelt family was well on its way to having it's fourth and final addition. Mittie was expecting her last child Corinne ("Connie") to join in ascending order Elliot, Theodore, Jr., and Anna ("Bamie"). By this time Theodore had noticed that there was disunity in the family when it came to loyalties in the war. As Theodore himself once commented, "My mother, Martha Bulloch, was a sweet, gracious, beautiful Southern woman, a delightful companion and beloved by everybody. She was entirely 'unreconstructed' to the day of her death." Along with her mother and sister Annie who were living in the Roosevelt home, Mittie would often send relief packages, unbeknownst to her husband, to their relatives by way of the Bahamas and then by blockade-runners to Georgia. Theodore, sensing the rift in the family's positions on the war, would at times use it to play on the heartstrings of a family member. He said, "Once when I felt I had been wronged by maternal discipline during the day, I attempted a partial vengeance by praying with loud fervor for the success of Union arms, when we all came to say our prayers before my mother in the evening." 1 This same ploy was later used against his aunt and she commented she would never forget "the fury in the childish voice when he would plead with Divine Providence to 'grind the Southern troops to powder.'" 2
As a child Roosevelt suffered from many ailments including headaches, fevers, stomach pains, and intestinal groaning. But by far his worst malady was asthma. At times these attacks were so bad as to nearly suffocate him. Some of these attacks lasted for weeks. The illness at that time was not very well understood, and there was no medicine to aid in opening the air passages. In an attempt to relieve the child his parents tried many commonly used remedies of the day. The stimulants nicotine and caffeine were believed to help open the air passages so his parents would have Theodore puff on a cigar, or drink the blackest strongest coffee one could get down. The coffee often had the effect of making Theodore vomit. Usually Theodore, Sr. would carry his young son around just trying to comfort the child and to force air into his lungs. Young Theodore adored his father and cherished the extra attention he received from him when he was ill.
Health problems in the Roosevelt children were not limited to Teedie. His sister Bamie was dropped as a child and suffered from a spinal defect. Elliot often suffered from rushes of blood to the head and often succumbed to colds. Corinne, like her brother Theodore, suffered from asthma but to a much lesser degree. Theodore, Sr., a picture of health, often wondered how two people of such good health could have such a sickly brood of children. Summers were spent in the country, and the children thrived on running bare-foot and watching the gathering of hay, and the picking of apples as well as all the other mischief that children in the country could get into. Theodore, Sr. hoped that these summer excursions would help to improve the children's health. Edith Carrow, born less than two months apart from Corrine and a very close friend, often accompanied the family at their summer stays at Oyster Bay. The Carrows were longtime friends of Theodore, Sr., and Corrine and Edith had been playmates before they could even talk. Edith, although three years younger than Theodore was often in his company. She was intelligent and more willing than most to tolerate Theodore's quirks. She would often accompany him on outings on his rowboat. The children loved their time in the country and were always forlorn with the arrival of fall and the return to the city.
Theodore Roosevelt only rarely attended school, and never attended public school. Aunt Annie, who lived with the family, educated the children. Because of his sickly nature, much of Theodore's time was spent sitting in a chair in the family library reading. He read adventure stories and books on Natural History, and it was here that he developed a voracious appetite for literature and learning.
At the age of ten Theodore traveled with the rest of his family to Europe. During the ocean voyage he became somewhat homesick and extremely seasick. When the ship reached Liverpool, Theodore was introduced to his two famous uncles and Confederate heroes of the Civil War. The boy thrived on the great adventures told by his Uncles and much of his future fascination with sea power originated here. He spent his eleventh birthday in the city of Cologne. According to Teddy he hated the trip, as did his younger brother and sister. The only enjoyment they found on this particular trip was in exploring any ruins or mountains when they could get away from the adults. They spent most of their time looking forward to getting back to America. Four years later the family would again travel to Europe and this time Theodore would gain far more from the experience and in his words 'enjoy it thoroughly.'
One thing of note that happened on this first trip to Europe was the discovery of the effect of exercise on young Theodore's health. His asthma attacks returned and he struggled to breathe for much of the beginning of the trip. Fortunately when the family reached the Swiss and Austrian Alps, Theodore was feeling better. On long outings in the country he found that of all the family members, only he could keep up with his father. Theodore, Sr. also noticed the change in his son that the strenuous exercise of the mountain walks had brought on. It was shortly after this that one of the most enduring pieces of Roosevelt legend came to be. Theodore, Sr. is said to have said, "Theodore, you have the mind but you have 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." Theodore rose to the challenge of his father and from that point on began a regiment of strenuous exercise, a pattern he would follow for the rest of his life. A room in the family home was renovated to make a room where he could work out. His exercise consisted of weight lifting, gymnastics on the equipment in the special room in the house, wrestling, horseback riding, hiking, climbing, swimming, rowing and any other form of physical exertion each and every day and sometimes into the night.
His reading of adventure stories sparked his love for natural history, but Theodore Roosevelt reveals in his autobiography that he distinctly remembers the day on which he started on his career as a zoologist. He was walking up Broadway, when at a market he discovered the carcass of a seal lying on a slab of wood. This seal brought all of the adventures he had read about to life and sparked an amazing interest in natural history. As a young boy, he had no fancy instruments, but nonetheless began to take all sorts of measurements of the seal. Day after day, as long as the seal remained, he would visit the market and take and record its measurements in what began to be his own natural history. With nothing else to use, he measured the girth of the seal with a folding pocket foot-rule. The skull of the seal was obtained and became the first exhibit in what he and his cousins referred to as the 'Roosevelt Museum of Natural History'. For a time this 'Museum' was maintained in his bedroom until complaints from the chambermaid forced him to move it to a bookcase in the back hall upstairs. With his interest sparked, he read book after book on natural history in an attempt to satisfy his hunger for knowledge of the subject.
At the age of thirteen he took lessons in taxidermy from a white-haired old man who had been a friend of Audubon's. It was also at this time that Theodore was given his first gun. As T.R. recorded in his own autobiography, "It was this summer that I got my first gun, and it puzzled me to find that my companions seemed to see things to shoot at which I could not see at all. One day they read aloud an advertisement in huge letters on a distant billboard, and I then realized that something was the matter, for not only was I unable to read the sign but I could not even see the letters. I spoke of this to my father, and soon afterwards got my first pair of spectacles, which literally opened an entirely new world to me. I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles. I had been a clumsy and awkward little boy, and while much of my clumsiness and awkwardness was doubtless due to general characteristics, a good deal of it was due to the fact that I could not see and yet was wholly ignorant that I was not seeing." 3 Shortly after this incident, Theodore was faced with another life changing moment. At age fourteen, due to a serious asthma attack, he was sent off by himself to Moosehead Lake. On the stagecoach in which he traveled were a couple of more mischievous boys who began to pick on him. When he was finally irritated to the point of fighting his two adversaries, he discovered that try as he might, he could not inflict any serious damage on either of them and each of them could easily hold him at bay without inflicting any damage to him. He realized that despite all of his exercise and weight lifting he was still a weakling. It was at this point that he decided he would join what he called "the fellowship of the doers." Although he had worked out hard in the past, he would now redouble his efforts and he would also learn to box. It was not long after this that the family took its second trip to Europe in the winter of 1872 and 1873. It was during this trip that he began collecting his first specimens of natural history while in Egypt. Years later, many of the birds collected on this trip were given to the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
On the return trip from Europe Teedie celebrated his fifteenth birthday. He had aspirations of attending Harvard in the fall of 1876. From his reading, studies, and natural interests he had a strong background in science, history, and geography. He was fluent in French and German due to time spent in a boarding school in Europe. He was, however, weak in the ancient languages of Latin and Greek which were essential and his mathematics skills were not up to par. Driven as he was with every challenge that he took on, Teedie completed three years of college preparation studies in less than two years. In his preliminary entrance exams at Harvard in July of 1875, Teedie passed in each of the eight subjects in which he tried.
The summer of 1876 was once again spent at Oyster Bay. Edith Carrow had by now matured into an intelligent and moderately attractive young woman. Her relationship with Theodore was more than just that of good friends. He would often row her about in his boat while they would recite poetry to one another. Roosevelt family tradition would insist that by the time Teedie left for Harvard that the two of them had some sort of understanding, but there was no formal record of this.
|1.||Roosevelt, "Theodore Roosevelt An Autobiography; 17"|
|2.||Brands, "T.R. The Last Romantic", p. 18|
|3.||Roosevelt, "Theodore Roosevelt An Autobiography; 19"|