Updated: Aug 27
Theodore Roosevelt Island, Washington D.C. ©Photograph by the NPS
It is very difficult to describe the entire character of any man, let alone a U.S. President. It would be easy to write a sparkling portrait of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. as “our first Conservationist President” or a “true American” like many conservation organizations do this time of year, but I cannot. This would be the easy article to write, and honestly, not the one that I believe Roosevelt would’ve written himself. Roosevelt was not some larger than life Twain-esque caricature, but just a man. A man with an intense passion for the natural world, a truly American spirit of adventure, but also a seering blind spot for civil rights and an unfettered love for American Imperialism.
Firstly, Roosevelt was an intensely stubborn man. As President, it was said that often during meetings at the White House he would invite his guests on supposedly leisurely walks through the grounds and parks. His guests, under this impression, would dress in business attire but to their surprise were told they had to walk in an absolute straight line through the park regardless of obstacles. Whether this story is true or merely one of the many legends built around him, Roosevelt was persistent. Roosevelt’s personal motto echoes this, “Over, Under or Through—But Never Around”
Historical Reenactment of Roosevelt by Derek Evans
In addition to his stubborn attitude, Roosevelt was a fierce outdoorsman. Under his guidance, the number of National parks doubled. In 1903, Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon, camped with John Muir under the stars in Yosemite for 3 days, and spent 2 weeks in Yellowstone National Park. He described his trip in Yosemite, “like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.
Roosevelt’s love of the natural world was essential to his understanding of the world. In 1884 after the death of his wife and mother, Roosevelt headed west intending to leave the world of politics and man behind. He spent several years there, writing and exploring the lifestyle of the American West until the decimation of herd by a brutal winter in 1886. After this, he left the West behind and returned to New York with a renewed interest in politics. Like many of us, Roosevelt understood the allure of wilderness and fought fiercely to protect that feeling he had found at Elkhorn Ranch for the rest of his life.
Roosevelt was far from perfect. When he campaigned for the Progressive Party, he ran a campaign which can at best be described as appeasing to the Southern faction of Southern white Republicans. His record with Civil Rights as President is far from sparkling, he once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Roosevelt even once had a meeting with Geronimo, who appealed directly to him to be able to return to his homelands in Arizona but Roosevelt ignored his pleas, claiming that if he allowed him to return to Arizona territory there would likely be a rope and vigilantes waiting for him.
It wasn’t just Native American relations which took a backseat in Roosevelt’s White House, but also African Americans. When campaigning in the South, Roosevelt would often water down his speechs and even explicitly campaign against African American civil liberties in the South to appease the Southern white Republican faction.
Even in retrospect, it is difficult to describe Roosevelt’s complex nature. Although it would be easy to criticize him as a racist or applaud him as hero, he could’ve been both or maybe even neither. In the most true meaning of the word, Theodore Roosevelt was a real American. I don’t mean this because of his “macho man” aesthetic or thirst for conquest. I believe he was a real American because of the deeply divisive complexities of his character. His willingness to listen, change, and be profoundly impacted by his environment is what made him truly remarkable.
A Short Biography of Roosevelt
A Few of my Favorite Teddy Quotes . . .
“Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.”
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”
“Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly, I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it!”
“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of lonely its freedom.”
Some Fun Facts!
During his presidency, Roosevelt protected over 230 million acres of public lands including . .
5 National Parks
18 National Monuments
150 National Forests
Roosevelt established the following National Parks
Crater Lake National Park – Oregon
Wind Cave National Park – South Dakota
Sully’s Hill – North Dakota
Platt National Park (Now Chickasaw National Recreation Area)
Mesa Verde National Park – Colorado
Roosevelt was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War.
He was essentially blind in one eye after inviting a sparring partner to hit him first in the White House and the man hit him so hard his blood vessels popped.
Roosevelt’s son, Quentin, was killed in WWI which Roosevelt had attempted to convince President Wilson to allow him to lead a brigade in.
There was an assassination attempt on Roosevelt’s life while he was campaigning where he was shot. Instead of going to the hospital like a normal person, he finished his hour and a half speech and ensured his attempted assassin was given due process.
“You see, it takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose”
Roosevelt led an infamous charge of Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers up San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War.