Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1858 - 1919)

Teddy Roosevelt portrait Theodore Roosevelt, Jr

Theodore Roosevelt once said his father, a strong and healthy philanthropist, was the best man he ever knew. Young Theodore, on the other hand, suffered from asthma and poor eyesight. He remembered his father "walking up and down the room with me in his arms at night, when I was a very small person, and of sitting up in bed gasping" with his parents trying to help him.

Born October 27, 1858, Theodore had a bent for science. He collected bugs, mammals and birds, and soon began lifting weights to improve his strength and health. At thirteen he took taxidermy lessons from a man once an associate of Audobon's. His father gave him his first gun in 1872 and hunting soon became a passion, one of many to follow.

Roosevelt eventually graduated from Harvard, married Alice Hathaway Lee and studied law for two years at Columbia University in New York. In 1882, when he was elected assemblyman of New York's 21st District, he began writing and developed a deep interest in history.But tragedy struck in 1884. After receiving word his wife had just given birth to a baby girl, he returned home to find both Alice and his mother dying. Roosevelt drew a large cross in his diary for February 14, 1884 (Valentine's Day) and wrote beneath: "The light has gone out of my life."

Filled with anguish, he left his newborn daughter with his sister, "Bamie," and withdrew to the Dakota Badlands. There, on his ranch, Roosevelt began to heal emotionally, writing and living the vigorous life. He was a working cowboy, not a dude rancher, and roped steers, shot a charging grizzly in self defense, got appointed deputy sheriff and chased outlaws. He once three punched and turned the lights out on a bad man waving a gun who threatened him in a bar.

Two years later, he returned to the east and married his childhood playmate, Edith Carow. Theodore reentered politics, achieved prominence in the New York Legislature and became police commissioner of New York City. After two years he resigned to become President McKinley's assistant secretary of the Navy. As war with Spain neared, Roosevelt formed the Rough Riders, made up largely of cowboys. He led a famous charge in Cuba, was promoted to colonel, came home a hero and soon got elected governor of New York in 1898.

Meanwhile, the republican bosses, disturbed by what many New York politicians perceived as Roosevelt's unconventional approach to politics, managed to relegate him into a position where he could do little harm: the Vice Presidency of the United States. But when McKinley was assassinated, Theodore Roosevelt, to the horror of many, was President.

Enter Gifford Pinchot

Gifford and Teddy Roosevelt Gifford and Teddy Roosevelt, 1907

Pinchot and Roosevelt had become friends during Roosevelt's tenure as New York's Governor. Once, while on his way to the woods, Pinchot arrived at the governor's mansion to find the chief of state playing gleefully with his children. Roosevelt then asked his guest if he'd like to do a little boxing. Never one to turn down a challenge, Pinchot obliged and "had the honor of knocking the future President of the United States off his very solid pins."

The two had much in common. They both grew up in New York city, came from wealthy, influential families, had traveled extensively abroad, could speak French and German, were both amateur naturalists as children and shared a passionate love for the outdoors. By the time Roosevelt became President, their friendship had grown significantly. They rode, walked, thought, played and swam together. Pinchot's unique relationship with the President gave him access to the oval office that no division chief had ever had before or since. He became the President's most trusted advisor on matters of conservation, which Roosevelt considered one of the great accomplishments of his administration.

Later, in writing about his time at the White House, Roosevelt wrote :

"Among the many, many public officials who under my administration rendered literally invaluable service to the people of the United States, Gifford Pinchot on the whole, stood first."

The Bull Moose Party

Roosevelt chose not to run for a third term and spent a year on a safari in Africa. Disturbed by the shifting political climate back home and the fear his reforms were endangered, he returned to the United States, formed the Progressive Party and ran as its presidential candidate. The party was nicknamed Bull Moose, because Roosevelt once said he was "fit as a bull moose."

Disillusioned with President William Howard Taft and the Republican Party's shift to the right, Gifford Pinchot joined the progressives and campaigned vigorously for Roosevelt. He wrote a considerable portion of its platform which called for the direct election of U.S. senators, women's suffrage, public control of natural resources and many social reforms.

Teddy Roosevelt speaking Theodore Roosevelt speaking as President

In Milwaukee, at the height of the campaign, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin. He calmed the revengeful crowd by demanding, "Don't hurt him. Bring him here so I can see him." When his secretary suggested he go to the hospital, he retorted, "Get me to that speech. It may be the last I shall deliver, but I am going to deliver this one." With the bullet lodged in his chest, he told the audience it had passed through his spectacle case and his speech, which he waved at the crowd. "It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose." He did not go to the hospital until the meeting had ended.

Despite such high drama, the party wound up splitting the Republican vote, resulting in the election of Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt came in second, Taft third.

The River Of Doubt

After the election, Roosevelt accepted an offer to speak and travel on a scientific expedition to South America. The American Museum of Natural History sponsored the trip and plans were to explore the Paraguay River. But when a Brazilian official asked them if they would like to explore the unexplored River of Doubt, Roosevelt and his party agreed, much to the dismay of the museum back home.

The 900 mile journey nearly killed him. In partnership with Brazil's leading explorer, Colonel Rondon, the party encountered snakes, piranha, mosquitoes, waterfalls and rapids, malaria (which Roosevelt contracted), starvation and murder, for one man killed another over food. One of the naturalists on the trip said that had Roosevelt not been with them, none would have come out alive. Colonel Rondon renamed the river the Rio Roosevelt, which is how it appears on maps today.

Roosevelt later wrote:

"The Brazilian wilderness stole ten years of my life." But, he said, "I am always willing to pay the piper when I have a good dance, and every now and then I like to drink the wine of life with brandy in it."

Back Home

Theodore Roosevelt never fully recovered from his trip to Brazil. He returned to his home at Sagamore Hill, supported the war effort during World War I, but denounced President Wilson as inept.

He was well on his way to an impressive political comeback and probably reelection to the Presidency in 1920, but the energetic years now began to take their toll. He once said:

"Life is a great adventure and I want to say to you, accept it in such spirit. I want to see you face it ready to do the best that lies in you to win out. To go down without complaining and abiding by the result....the worst of all fears is the fear of living."

He died quietly in his sleep at his home on January 6, 1919, at age sixty, just five years after returning from the River of Doubt.