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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Teddy Roosevelt Rocks My Socks

I know this topic is of a slightly different bent than what you usually read here, but I was doing a little research on the Spanish-American War for work today and Paul Johnson, as he usually does, gave me a few moments of great delight. Although Johnson's A History of the American People was introduced to me in college, many of his character sketches of great leaders and figures from America's past are so brilliant, lively and comical that my little seventh graders were often inspired to numerous fits of hilarity and artistic recreations by the personages described. Enter Teddy Roosevelt.

It was his object to overcome his physical debility by pushing himself to the limit of his resources: he wrote a letter home boasting, 'I have just come in from spending thirteen hours in the saddle.' There were still a few buffalo and Sioux Indians around and the frontier was not yet 'closed' in the Jackson Turner sense. There was, now and always, a touch of Hemingway literary-machismo about TR and a longing to play John Wayne roles. . . . He wrote home: 'I wear a sombrero, silk neckerchief, fringed buckskin shirt, sealskin chaparajos or riding trousers, alligator hide boots, and with my pearl-hilted revolvers and beautifully finished Winchester rifle, I shall be able to face anything.' His silver-mounted Bowie knife came from Tiffany's, as did his silver belt-buckle with a bear's head and his initialed silver spurs. He duly shot his grizzly -- 'The bullet hole in his skull was as exactly between his eyes as if I had measured the distance with a carpenter's rule.' He said to a local bully called Paddock, who threatened to hound him off his range: 'I understand you have threatened to kill me on sight. I have come over to see when you want to begin the killing and to let you know that if you have anything to say against me, now is the time to say it.' . . . He summed up his philosophy in a Fourth of July oration:
Like all Americans, I like big things: big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat fields, railroads -- and herds of cattle too -- big factories and steamboats and everything else. But we must keep steadily in mind that no people were ever yet benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue. It is more important that we should show ourselves honest, brave, truthful, and intelligent than that we should own all the railways and grain elevators in the world. We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received and each of us must do his part if we wish to show that this nation is worthy of its good fortune.
There can be no doubt that TR believed every word of these sentiments and did his best to live up to them. He was exactly the same kind of romantic-intellectual-man-of-action-writer-professional-politician as his younger contemporary, Winston Churchill. The two did not like each other, having so much in common, and being so competitive; and TR criticized Churchill severely because 'he does not stand up when ladies come into the room' (such things mattered in those days). A History of the American People, 616-617, emphasis added.



  1. I like TR's style, though not his politics so much. If you have the time and the interest, I'd be interested to hear what you think of these criticisms:

    I will also say that like it's cool that in the TV show "Blue Bloods," Tom Selleck has a picture of TR in his office. Both big guys with big mustaches

    1. I just saw this comment; thanks for the link, Anonymous!