Theodore Roosevelt: Life Before the Presidency

Theodore Roosevelt: Life Before the Presidency

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, and grew up in New York City, the second of four children. His father, Theodore, Sr., was a well-to-do businessman and philanthropist. His mother, Martha "Mittie" Roosevelt, was a Southerner, raised on a plantation in Georgia. "Teedie" grew up surrounded by the love of his parents and siblings. But he was always a sickly child afflicted with asthma. As a teenager, he decided that he would "make his body," and he undertook a program of gymnastics and weight-lifting, which helped him develop a rugged physique. Thereafter, Roosevelt became a lifelong advocate of exercise and the "strenuous life." He always found time for physical exertions including hiking, riding horses, and swimming. As a young boy, Roosevelt was tutored at home by private teachers. He traveled widely through Europe and the Middle East with his family during the late 1860s and early 1870s, once living with a host family in Germany for five months. In 1876, he entered Harvard College, where he studied a variety of subjects, including German, natural history, zoology, forensics, and composition. He also continued his physical endeavors, taking on boxing and wrestling as new pursuits.

During college, Roosevelt fell in love with Alice Hathaway Lee, a young woman from a prominent New England banking family he met through a friend at Harvard. They were married in October 1880. Roosevelt then enrolled in Columbia Law School, but dropped out after one year to begin a career in public service. He was elected to the New York Assembly and served two terms from 1882 to 1884. A double tragedy struck Roosevelt in 1884. On February 12th, Alice gave birth to a daughter, Alice Lee. Two days later, Roosevelt's mother died of typhoid fever and his wife died of kidney disease within a few hours of each other—and in the same house. For the next few months, a devastated Roosevelt threw himself into political work to escape his grief. Finally, he left his daughter in the care of his sister and fled to the Dakota Badlands. Once out West, Roosevelt soaked in the frontier lifestyle. He bought two ranches and a thousand head of cattle. He flourished in the hardships of the western frontier, riding for days, hunting grizzly bears, herding cows as a rancher, and chasing outlaws as a frontier sheriff. Roosevelt headed back East in 1886; a devastating winter the following year wiped out most of his cattle. Although he would frequent the Dakota Badlands in subsequent years to hunt, he was ready leave the West and return to his former life. One of the reasons he did so was because of a rediscovered love with his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow. The two were married in England in 1886 and moved to Oyster Bay, New York, into a house known as Sagamore Hill. In addition to raising Roosevelt's first child, Alice, he and Edith had five children: Theodore, Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin.

Renewed Political Spirit

After returning to New York, Roosevelt continued his writing career, which began with the publication of his book, The Naval War of 1812, in 1882. He wrote a number of books during this period, including The Life of Thomas Hart Benton (1887), The Life of Gouverneur Morris (1888), and The Winning of the West (four volumes, 1889-1896). Roosevelt also resumed his political career by running unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1886. In 1888, he campaigned for Republican presidential nominee Benjamin Harrison. When Harrison won the election, he appointed Roosevelt to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Roosevelt was re-appointed to the Commission by Democratic President Grover Cleveland in 1893. As commissioner, he worked hard to enforce the civil service laws, although he regularly clashed with party regulars and politicians who wanted him to ignore the law in favor of patronage. Roosevelt served dutifully as a commissioner until he accepted the presidency of the New York City Police Board in 1895. He demonstrated honesty in office, much to the displeasure of party bosses. He also cleaned up the corrupt Police Board and strictly enforced laws banning the sale of liquor on the Sabbath.

In 1897, the newly elected Republican President, William McKinley, appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt had long believed in the importance of the Navy and the role it played in national defense. As acting secretary of the Navy, he responded to the explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 by putting the Navy on full alert. (See McKinley biography, Foreign Affairs section, for details.) Roosevelt instructed Commodore George Dewey to make ready for war with Spain by taking the necessary steps for bottling up the Spanish squadron in Asian waters. He also asked Dewey to prepare for the probable invasion of the Philippines.

The Rough Riders

When the Spanish-American War began, Roosevelt resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy and volunteered for service as commander the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, a unit known as the Rough Riders—an elite company comprised of Ivy League gentlemen, western cowboys, sheriffs, prospectors, police officers, and Native Americans. Once in Cuba, Roosevelt distinguished himself by leading them on a charge—on foot—up San Juan Hill (actually Kettle Hill) on the outskirts of Santiago. The contingent suffered heavy casualties. The Rough Riders returned to the United States as war heroes. Their varied backgrounds, colorful leader, and bravery on the battlefield brought them considerable attention. Roosevelt personally reveled in his time in the military. He later wrote about his military exploits: "I would rather have led that charge and earned my colonelcy than served three terms in the United States Senate. It makes me feel as though I could now leave something to my children which will serve as an apology for my having existed."


Roosevelt returned home a war hero and caught the eye of Republican leaders in New York who were looking for a gubernatorial candidate. He agreed to run for governor against a popular Democrat, Judge Augustus van Wyck, the candidate of Tammany Hall. Roosevelt carried the election by just a few thousand votes; his victory stemmed largely from the work of the state's Republican Party boss, Thomas C. Platt, who threw the full support of his political machine behind the hero of San Juan Hill. Although Platt and Roosevelt had agreed to consult each other on matters of policy and patronage, the new governor was his own man. TR steadfastly refused to appoint party regulars as State Insurance Commissioner or Public Works Commissioner—the two most important patronage jobs in the state. When Governor Roosevelt supported a bill for the taxation of the value and assets of public services (gas, water, electric, and streetcars), his actions led to an explosive break with Platt. Almost overnight the insurance companies, the construction contractors, and the privately owned public service corporations realized that all the money they were contributing to Platt's political machine brought them little if any influence with Governor Roosevelt.

Boss Platt knew that something had to be done with the governor before he completely destroyed the Republican state machine. Consulting with Mark Hanna, the top Republican political boss in the nation, Platt conspired to "kick [Roosevelt] upstairs" to the vice presidency in 1900. (Vice President Garret Hobart had just died in office.) This would keep Roosevelt from running for a second term in New York (the governorship was a two-year term in those days). Roosevelt reluctantly agreed, persuaded that the vice presidency might lead to a shot at the White House in 1904. He also knew that the party bosses had rigged the convention, making it nearly impossible for him to avoid being nominated.

1900 Vice Presidential Campaign

The Republican convention nominated TR by acclamation. Thereafter, Roosevelt campaigned furiously for the Republican presidential candidate, William McKinley, matching his Democratic opponents, William Jennings Bryan and Adlai E. Stevenson, move for move. Roosevelt traveled more than 21,000 miles on a special campaign train, making hundreds of speeches, and more than three million people saw him in person. He spoke in 567 cities in twenty-four states. "Tis Tiddy alone that's running," observed Mr. Dooley (a press columnist who used an exaggerated Irish accent to make political observations) "an' he ain't a runnin', he's gallopin'." The Republican ticket overwhelmed the Democrats, racking up an 861,757 vote plurality, the largest Republican victory in years. McKinley won the popular vote of 7.2 million (292 Electoral College votes) to Bryan's 6.3 million (155 Electoral College votes). McKinley won his bid for reelection over Bryan by an even larger margin than he had garnered in 1896.

In September 1901, however, an assassin's bullet killed President McKinley (see McKinley biography, Death of the President section). This tragedy put Theodore Roosevelt ("that damned cowboy"—according to Mark Hanna, the top Republican political boss in the nation) in the White House as the nation's twenty-sixth President. He was the youngest person ever to serve in that capacity. Neither the nation nor the presidency would ever be the same again.