The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
By Edmund Morris
Edmund Morris’ first volume of his three volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt covers the time from his birth in 1858 to his ascendency to the presidency in 1901 upon the assassination of President William McKinley. Morris’ thorough research and adept writing make for an enjoyable and informative read.
Theodore Roosevelt – or “Teedy” was his older sisters would call him was born to wealthy family in New York City in 1858. When Roosevelt was a toddler the Roosevelt house would become a house divided with the onset of the Civil War. Roosevelt’s father lent his aide to the union cause whilst his southern born mother had family fighting for the Confederacy.
Roosevelt was a sickly child, prone to bouts of asthma, bronchitis, and dysentery. This did not deter him from a love for the outdoors and when the family summered upstate, he spent his time in the woods, studying the wildlife and fauna. He would soon take up the habit of taxidermy, much to the distress of his family for young Teedy was prone to leaving entrails in the most inopportune places.
Roosevelt was home schooled and was a gifted student. He excelled at history and science and authored and illustrated books on nature at a young age. He would eventually enroll in Harvard where he excelled academically.
As an adolescent summering in upstate New York, he’d meet a young woman named Edith Carrow in whom he took a strong interest. Later, however, he would meet another woman who would steal his heart. Alice Lee would become the object of his ardor for the next couple years and he courted her through his time in college.
Alice played coy. Sometimes she would entertain Roosevelt’s gestures of affection. At other times, she would brush him off, much to his distress. While attending Harvard, Roosevelt was very much a young man in love.
It was at Harvard that Roosevelt got his first taste of politics, campaigning for Republican presidential nominee Rutherford Hayes. Teddy was raised in a Republican household and adopted pro-business Republican sensibilities.
Immediately after graduating from Harvard, Teddy Roosevelt did three things that would forever shape the course of his life. He published his first book – a textbook on the naval war of 1812, ran for and was elected to his first political office, and got married.
The Naval War of 1812 was universally regarded as the best book ever written on the subject and became a staple textbook at Annapolis. It would establish Roosevelt as a serious author. He would go on to write accounts of the taming of the west (in which he would later participate), biographies of founding father Gouverneur Morris, legendary U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and a comprehensive history of the city of New York along with several lesser works.
Roosevelt became a force within the New York state legislature almost immediately upon his rival. His forceful, magnetic personality drew people to his causes – chief of which was civil service reform. From the beginning of his career until its untimely end, Roosevelt was a force for good government. He would become minority leader in the New York House in just his second term in office.
Roosevelt established a strong working relationship with New York’s Democratic governor, Grover Cleveland and the pair were able to make some major reforms that would challenge the political machines of both parties. However, when Roosevelt authored and passed a comprehensive reform bill, Cleveland vetoed it.
Teddy Roosevelt was a man of big ideas and big pictures. Cleveland was a man of detail. Roosevelt’s bill contained sweeping ideas, but was not well written and contained many contradictions. The detail oriented Cleveland – given to reading the minutia of legislation – noted these conflicts and declared he could not in good faith sign a bill that contradicted itself. Morris does not cast aspersions on Cleveland’s motive and Cleveland biographer, H. Paul Jeffers, also substantiates Cleveland’s true views on the bill.
The dispute put asunder a strong, bipartisan partnership that served the people of New York well. Although Cleveland and Roosevelt would be together again politically, the friendship would never be reestablished. Roosevelt took the rebuke personally.
Roosevelt was selected as a Republican delegate to the 1884 Republican presidential convention. It was there that Roosevelt would capture the attention of Republicans on a national level and cement a political friendship that would benefit him for the rest of his life.
Roosevelt and Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts led the effort to place reform candidate, George Edmunds at the head of the Republican ticket. They had behind them many young, but inexperienced Republican Mugwump delegates. They feared that the nomination of party stalwart, James Blaine – who was known to be politically corrupt and held a poor national reputation – would spell doom for the party in 1884 and perhaps beyond.
The effort failed badly and Blaine was nominated. He would go on to be defeated that November by Grover Cleveland. But Roosevelt’s friendship with Lodge was cemented and the influential and wealthy patrician politician would be Roosevelt’s political sponsor and backer through the rest of his career.
Roosevelt’s home life during his years in the New York Assembly were joyous. He was deeply, passionately, and madly in love with Alice Roosevelt. Shortly after they were married, Alice became pregnant. The storybook romance was to be doomed by this pregnancy.
Roosevelt was in Albany with the New York Assembly when Alice went into labor. Teddy had planned to catch a train to be back at his home in New York in time for the baby’s expected birth on February 14. A telegram arrived from Teddy’s sister telling him that the baby had been born, but that Alice was in poor health. Teddy raced home.
What he found was a tragic scene beyond the scope of comprehension for most mortal men. By the time Roosevelt arrived, Alice was delirious with fever and headed toward her end. Meanwhile, his beloved mother was also ill and near death in a bedroom on the lower floor. Teddy stayed at Alice’s bedside in her final hours until she died. He was then informed that his mother had also passed.
Roosevelt was devastated beyond comprehension. He made a single, poetic journal entry that day remembering his young wife that ended, “. . .and the light went out of my life forever.” He would not look upon his infant daughter, Alice He needed to get away. Right after the funeral, Teddy Roosevelt headed west.
Morris speculates that Teddy and Alice Roosevelt were a marital mismatch. Based on contemporary accounts, Alice, while beautiful and socially graceful, was no intellectual. She was not going to grow intellectually as Roosevelt would. She would not have been happy with her intellectually advanced husband and Teddy would have grown bored with her average intelligence and lack of intellectual curiosity.
The Badlands of the Dakotas were just the therapy Teddy Roosevelt needed. He wanted to graduate from grouse and pheasant hunting to killing some big game like buffalo and bear. He arrived in Medora, North Dakota in the summer 1884, shortly after the defeat of reform forces at the Republican convention. He was immediately recognized as a dude because of his spectacles.
He would soon make believers out of the rough settlers of the American Badlands who regarded him as a rich, weak easterner. He had the money to establish himself with a ranch and he had the gusto to make it work. He gloried in being in the saddle and in hunting big game. He killed buffalo, a couple grizzly bears, mountain lions, and sundry other creatures. He was slowly able to put the Alice’s death behind him.
For almost two years, Roosevelt inhabited the Badlands and at one point, served as sheriff of a small section of territory. But he felt the need to return home. He recognized his fatherly responsibility to young Alice – now almost two years old and in the care of his sister, Bamie. There was also the allure of politics.
When he returned home in 1886, he soon emerged as a candidate for mayor of New York City. He ran as a reformer and hoped to draw enough reform votes from Democrats and independents to defeat the nearly omnipotent Tammany Hall. Alas, it was not to be as Roosevelt finished third.
He also reestablished his acquaintance with Edith Carrow. The two fell in love and made plans to elope to Europe to be married. Teddy feared that it would be regarded as scandalous for him to remarry so soon after the death of his first wife.
Teddy seamlessly went from defeated municipal candidate to the national stage with Henry Cabot Lodge having secured for him an appointment in the administration of Benjamin Harrison. There, he would serve as the head of Civil Service reform – a major issue in that era following the death of President James Garfield at the hands of a deranged job seeker.
As he did with everything else in his life, he threw himself into the job with gusto and soon became a pain in the ass to his bosses. He brought postmasters up on charges of selling positions. He raged against partisan purges in various federal offices. Harrison and his cronies indulged the young, idealistic reformer, but did little to assist him.
Roosevelt was not enamored with Benjamin Harrison whom he thought was a cold, dull man. Most Americans agreed. Harrison was not the warmest of personalities. When it came time for Harrison to run for reelection in 1892, Roosevelt dutifully campaigned for him in New York, but his heart was not in it. Nor was the president’s whose wife would die during the campaign. With the notorious McKinley Tariff in effect and consumer prices high and getting higher, Harrison and many Republicans were swept from office.
Surprisingly, Grover Cleveland – now in his second term as president – kept Roosevelt on in the civil service department. Their friendship, nurtured over the issue of civil service reform, was over. But apparently the mutual respect still existed.
During his early days in Washington, Roosevelt became a strong proponent – bordering on fanatic – of U.S. expansion. He wanted the U.S. to drive Spain out of Cuba and America to support the rebels there. Harrison, who had known the horrors of war during the Civil War, had no interest in pursuing an unprovoked war of conquest. Cleveland, bedeviled by horrible economic depression, had his hands full with the nation’s sagging economy. It would be several years before expansionists would gain political traction.
During this time in Washington, Roosevelt was forced to deal with family problems as well. His younger brother Elliott, with whom he'd been close as a child, had lapsed into severe alcoholism. He carried on affairs with other women and fathered at least one child out of wedlock. He abused his family and his misbehavior was an embarrassment to the family and offended the puritanical Theodore.
Theodore tried to help his younger brother by getting him home from Europe and into a sanitarium for treatment of his alcoholism. He paid hush money to his mistresses. But it was all for naught. Elliott tried to commit suicide by jumping from a window. He survived the fall, but died of a seizure just days later.
Roosevelt grew bored and restless in his job in Washington and looked for an avenue of return to New York politics. He found it when he was appointed to the four member New York Police Commission. It was the perfect post for the reform-minded Roosevelt because New York had a notoriously corrupt police department.
In his early days on the commission, he was fantastically successful in reform. He forced the resignation of the department’s corrupt chief and his subordinates. He weeded out corrupt cops – often taking to the streets at night looking for cops sleeping on the job or spending their shifts drinking. He cultivated relationships with reporters and became exceptionally popular. But he went too far when he started enforcing the city’s law regarding Sunday beer and liquor sales. Roosevelt was not a prohibitionist, but the law was on the books and he was determined to have it enforced.
He won the battle. The saloons were shut down on Sunday in the city. But he lost the war when the public and other members of the police commission turned against him. Suddenly, the man who single handedly forced through sweeping reform, could not even manage to process police promotions. Two of his fellow commissioners – one of which was the son of President Grant – refused to attend meetings, denying him a quorum.
Once again bored, Roosevelt looked for a new position with the Republicans back in power in Washington upon the election of William McKinley in 1896. Henry Cabot Lodge secured for him the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Given his fascination with all things naval, Teddy was delighted.
He emerged as the de facto secretary of the navy when the real Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, frequently absented himself on long vacations. During one of these breaks, Roosevelt issued orders preparing the nation for war in Cuba following the explosion of the battleship, U.S.S. Maine, in Havana Harbor.
Roosevelt had lusted for war and also lusted to fight in a war. He dreamed of leading a group of his cowboy buddies from the Dakotas into battle. He formed a regiment nicknamed the Rough Riders. Morris points out that history has forgotten that almost half of the Rough Riders were Ivy Leaguers, but the name served its purpose.
Morris’ account of the Spanish American War is brief but adequate to demonstrate how poorly managed it was and how ill prepared the United States was for warfare. Poor logistics and poor quartermaster preparations left the men in precarious positions with nothing in the way of rations.
When the Rough Riders finally went ashore in Cuba, the Spanish were holding the high ground of San Juan Heights. There plan was to allow the Americans to lay siege, then let Malaria and attrition of war slowly wear down the Americans. Their plan almost worked. But superb planning and daring by Roosevelt and other commanders on the ground thwarted the Spanish.
I won’t go into the blow by blow account of the Rough Riders’ assault on Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. Suffice it to say that they endured Yellow Fever, food poisoning from rancid meat supplied by the government, and wickedly accurate Spanish snipers. They would assault and defeat the Spanish on both hills and the Spanish would be forced to vacate the heights and eventually surrender. For his valor, Roosevelt was nominated for a Congressional Medal of Honor which would be denied him until long after his death. He finally received the honor posthumously in 2001.
Roosevelt returned to New York a national hero and was a favorite to run for New York governor in 1898. He won easily. Republicans were interested to see how reformer Roosevelt would work with New York Republican boss, Thomas Collier Platt. The relationship was surprisingly smooth. Roosevelt, more mature now, learned how to work and manipulate the boss to get what he wanted. Platt, a veteran of the give and take of politics, knew when to let Teddy have what he wanted and knew where to stand his ground. When a spot opened on the national ticket as President McKinley’s running mate, Platt worked hard to secure the spot for Teddy.
Roosevelt was conflicted about taking it. His friends assured him that it was the quickest route to the presidency for him. Roosevelt knew it was a meaningless, pointless job. He would not commit to accepting the nomination publicly, but refused to kill the nomination at the convention. McKinley remained neutral, allowing the convention to pick his running mate. Despite feverish maneuvering by Republican Party Chairman and the master of McKinley’s political rise, Marcus Hanna, Roosevelt was nominated. He and McKinley would go on to defeat William Jennings Bryan in 1900.
Roosevelt served as vice president for six months, but according to Morris, only carried out his duties as President of the Senate for four days. Congress recessed for the summer and Roosevelt returned to New York. Word reached Roosevelt that President McKinley had been shot while he was at his summer home in Oyster Bay. Assured that the president was on the mend, Roosevelt went mountain climbing further upstate. However, as he and his guide descended the mountain, a park ranger delivered a telegram to Roosevelt. The president was near death. Roosevelt rushed to Buffalo where President McKinley lay dying.
Early on the morning of September 14, word reached Roosevelt on his train that the president had died. He arrived in Buffalo that afternoon and was sworn in as president there. That is where Morris’ first volume ends.
Morris’ book is one of the finest biographies ever written. Morris combines extensive and exhaustive research with brilliant writing to create a book that is well endowed with information, illustrative anecdotes, and a compelling story. This first volume of three won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.
In his research, Morris relied extensively on Roosevelt diaries. This obviously aided a great deal in the preparation of the biography and lends it much of its texture. It is easier for the biographer to bring to life a long dead historical figure by using his own words and we are fortunate that Roosevelt and his family preserved his journals and correspondence. So many presidents such as James Monroe and Millard Fillmore made a strong effort to destroy their personal papers, leaving them to be defined only by the impressions of contemporaries.
Morris also took the time to read most, if not all, of Roosevelt’s published works. Morris points out that all of Roosevelt’s writing was tinged with his own personal perception of the world and current events – even when writing about history.
Morris is a brilliant writer and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt reads very much like a novel with Teddy Roosevelt as its hero. The narrative is textured. His citations pertinent and not overly long. He fleshes out peripheral characters, giving them context within Roosevelt’s life. Morris has few rivals as a writer among his fellow historians.
Ronald Reagan read this book upon its publication in 1979 and was so moved by it that he decided that Edmund Morris would be his personal biographer were he to be elected to the presidency in 1980. Reagan won and Morris received that treasure denied to but just a few historians: direct access to a president, his White House, and the day to day workings of the administration.
The resulting book was a disappointment, but not the subject here. His work and the two volumes that followed, Theodore Rex and Colonel Roosevelt, stand as some of the finest non-fiction writing chronicling our nation’s history and the life of any man or woman.