History Crush: Theodore Roosevelt

I recently stumbled upon the National Archives’ “History Crush” series, wherein archivists confess their undying love for certain historical figures like Susan B. Anthony, Charles Sumner, and Alexander Hamilton. This got me thinking about who mine would be. As a certified history nerd, I have many. But with a gun to my head, I’d probably have to say Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt with preservationist John Muir at Yosemite in 1906.

Edmund Morris’ three-volume trilogy (comprising The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt) about the 26th president of the United States is teeming with surreal stories and facts about TR, like how he wrote a best-selling book The Naval War of 1812 during college and became a New York assemblyman at 23; or how in Dakota he single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy book; or how as NYC police commissioner he patrolled the city at night to shape up the city’s cops and along the way met poor people who would later partly inspire his progressivism; or how he bonded with John Muir at Yosemite and later single-handedly created the national parks system; or how he was shot in the chest while giving a campaign speech in Milwaukee but finished the speech anyway; or how he blazed down the Amazon River, acquiring a deadly amount of abscesses, dysentery, and malaria along the way and lived to write about it.

Of course, so much of the pomp surrounding TR’s legacy was partially created by TR himself – he had an insanely swollen ego that would have gotten him in a lot more in trouble had he not been beloved for most of his life. But I would argue that he earned the acclaim he craved for many reasons, not the least of which being he was brilliant, a voracious reader (a book a day (!) on average—sometimes I can barely muster the energy to read a chapter a night), and renowned historian who wrote constantly and could talk to any dignitary, scholar, or layman about literally any subject.

But the most interesting thing about TR, to me, is he was a walking contradiction. He was a sickly boy with chronic health problems, but basically said Screw it and let his unbounded energy drive himself to a full live but an untimely death. He was a wealthy Harvard aristocrat yet happily fraternized with the poor people whom his buddy Jacob Riis called “the other half” of society. He was an ardent environmentalist before there was such a thing, but had an insatiable lust for battle and killing—yet even when he went on a safari and slaughtered hundreds of wild animals, he donated a lot of them to museums for scientific study. Or he just dissected them himself, having acquired biology and ornithology as hobbies at a very young age. He distrusted and helped break up the big-business monopolies that had close ties to his very own Republican Party. He remade a paltry navy into a world-class fleet, but avoided war during his presidency and even won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Both Democrats and Republicans try to claim TR as their own, but he defies a label. In spite of his weaknesses and failures, he was his own man who made an indelible mark on the presidency and the country. For that, Theodore Roosevelt is one of my history crushes.

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