Sunday, October 27, 2013

Theodore Roosevelt born this day in 1858

N.B. All phrases in GREEN contain a Hyperlink

Today is the birthday of the 26th president of the United States: Theodore Roosevelt Jr, born in New York City on this date in 1858. He was born into privilege, but he was a sickly child and suffered from asthma, so he spent much of his time indoors. When his doctors discovered he had a weak heart, they advised him to live a quiet life and take some kind of a desk job that wouldn't prove too strenuous or stressful. But he dreamed of becoming a naturalist and an adventurer, and by the time he was a teenager, he had developed a program of rigorous exercise, including boxing and lifting weights.

He worked hard at Harvard and went on to study law at Columbia, but he grew impatient and left his studies in favor of politics, where he enjoyed many early successes. But on Valentine's Day, 1884, both his mother and his wife, Alice, died. Devastated, Roosevelt left behind the world of politics — and his baby daughter — to become a cattle rancher in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory. It would be two years before he returned to the New York political scene.

His political bent was progressive: he fought monopolies, reformed the workplace, regulated industry, and championed immigrants and the middle class. He supported desegregation and women's suffrage. He was serving as vice president under William McKinley when McKinley was assassinated in 1901. At age 42, Roosevelt was the youngest man ever to become president of the United States. And the sickly child had grown up into a man who championed "a life of strenuous endeavor," demanding that everyone around him adopt his now robust and active outdoor lifestyle. He served two terms — from 1901 to 1909 — and then after a few years away, returned to politics, feeling "fit as a bull moose," as he said. His quote gave rise to his Progressive Party's nickname, the "Bull Moose Party." He felt so fit that when he was shot in the chest during an assassination attempt, he continued campaigning for over an hour before seeking help, and he recovered quickly. Although he received the largest number of votes for a third-party candidate in U.S. history, he lost the election.

One of Roosevelt's lasting legacies is the conservation movement. As a young man, he had witnessed the near-eradication of the buffalo in the Dakota Territory, and he realized that action was necessary to preserve the country's natural resources and open spaces. During his presidency, he provided protection for almost 230 million acres of land, creating 150 national forests and five national parks. In 1908, he gave a speech at the Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, saying: "We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams [...] It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and wisely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children."

Roosevelt's literary inclinations aren't as widely known as his national parks or his reputation as a hale and hearty outdoorsman, but they're unmatched by any other American president. He read voraciously, and quickly; it's said he read an entire book every day before breakfast. He loved poetry; Robert Frost once said, "He was our kind. He quoted poetry to me. He knew poetry." 

Roosevelt wrote some three dozen books himself; his first, History of the Naval War of 1812 (1882) was published not long after he graduated from Harvard. In it, he boldly took on — and refuted — many of the accepted interpretations of the war, and he earned respect as a historian at the age of 23. Within two years, the book had sold three editions and was being used as a textbook in some college classrooms. Within five years, it was required reading in the U.S. Navy.

His work spanned a wide array of genres: history, political essay, biography, autobiography, natural science, foreign policy, and philosophy. He began writing when he was nine years old: a paper titled "The Natural History of Insects," which was based on hours of field research conducted by Roosevelt and his young cousins. And his last book, published just after his death in 1919, was a bound collection of warm and witty fatherly advice in the form of 20 years' worth of letters to his children.

He wrote, of his time in the Badlands: "My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand — though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset."

That weak heart that the doctors discovered in his childhood caught up with him in the end. He died in his sleep, of a coronary embolism, at the age of 60. His son Archie cabled the news: "The old lion is dead."

Considering that one of the things Roosevelt is remembered for is his Roughrider Army in Cuba it seems to me to be strange that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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