Most accounts of Theodore Roosevelt’s life gloss over his early years. His battle and victory over his health issues are generally included, particularly asthma and cholera morbus (a bacterial attack on the bowels resulting in what one would expect), then jump into his Harvard boxing days and see our hero transformed into a fit, cowboy-politician. You may, then, be surprised to find out how early his unique characteristics began to appear and furthermore, how incredibly fortunate he was to be afforded nearly every opportunity to gain health and grow in cultural experiences.
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Theodore Roosevelt Sr.
Much of the credit goes to his father, Theodore “Thee” Roosevelt Sr., who was a well-connected, multi-millionaire, but more importantly, a compassionate man with manly ideals and a great deal of energy to carry them out. Much like Teddy, his father had an inexhaustible store of energy and a drive to live up to the high-calling of manliness. Thee’s love for family and experiencing the world, carried the family to Europe for months at a time.
For overseas education, a governess would be hired to teach the children. Through her they would learn the typical R’s but also be doused in a foreign language and customs. On one occasion, when Teedie (his boyhood name) came down with a bout of asthma, he was sent to a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps for a number of weeks.
It seemed as though Roosevelt Sr. made purposeful decisions to scatter the family across Europe, while he would go and conduct business elsewhere and finally unite for a period of weeks. He, being a man of high-energy and purpose, did not want his children to grow accustomed to domesticity.
Teedie at Age 15
It would be easy to imagine a young, pasty-white, frail boy, lounging about the house and consuming books. Yet, even at an early age, Teddy Roosevelt did not like to sit around. If the family went for a hike (meaning a several mile, steep trek) and he felt well enough, he would go. He was constantly outside, studying birds, writing in his journal, and collecting and preserving dead animals. In short, he was constantly going and experiencing until his body set him back, usually for a few days, though sometimes for weeks, and then he was back at it again.
Edmund Morris sums up the incredible experiences Teddy Roosevelt had by age 15. In many ways, he had experiences far beyond what most men would see in a lifetime.
“Recrossing the Atlantic in late October, Teedie turned fifteen. He was now, if not yet a man, then at least a youth of more than ordinary experience of the world. He had traveled exhaustively in Britain, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, visiting their great cities time and again and actually living in some for long periods. He had plumbed the Catacombs and climbed the Great Pyramid, slept in a monastery and toured a harem. He had hunted jackals on horseback, kissed the Pope’s hand, stared into a volcano, traced an ancient civilization to its source, and followed the wanderings of Jesus. He had been exposed to much of the world’s greatest art and architecture, become conversant in two foreign languages, and felt as much at home in Arab bazaars as at a German kaffeeklatsch, or on the shaven lawns of an English estate.” – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris
Reading the account of Roosevelt’s childhood can often make me feel like I have really missed out. However, while he was extremely privileged and took advantage of those privileges, history is full of men who got a much later start in life and still made an impact. History, though perhaps not written, is also filled with men who were far more simple in their pursuits, and their families fared much better than most and their legacy is just as wonderful.
I am also keenly aware of the incredible impact Roosevelt’s early life had on the rest of history and that his father was a driving force behind his son’s future success. Where many men, especially well-to-do, would have been ashamed of their son’s weakness and strange interest, Roosevelt Sr. simply loved his boy, challenged him, and ultimately helped create the man we know and admire. I have to ask myself, how am I doing in this area?