One of our most charismatic presidents, Teddy Roosevelt started life as a small, frail and thoughtful little boy. He struggled with asthma but loved to be outdoors. Summers in the country were filled with horseback riding, swimming, running and collecting nature specimens.
Theodore Roosevelt Sr., christened “Greatheart” by his children, built a family gymnasium so that young Teddy might improve his physical condition – which he did. Aware of his weaknesses, the boy was determined to get stronger. He exercised faithfully, took wrestling and boxing lessons and learned about nutrition. Eventually he grew sturdy enough to go on extended backpacking and hunting trips as a teenager, and continued to emphasize vigorous physical activity throughout his life.
The young future president seemed to approach every undertaking with gusto. He filled notebooks with drawings and written descriptions of ants, spiders, beetles, dragonflies, mice and birds. When the family traveled to Europe, he kept a detailed diary of all the museums, sites and natural wonders they visited.
Teddy’s wealthy aristocratic family lived close by the rest of the Roosevelt clan in New York. His only playmates were siblings, cousins and children of old family friends. But it was a happy childhood. In addition to an adoring Grandmother, Teddy had aunts and uncles to dote on him. Every morning, “Greatheart” would say morning prayers with the children on the sofa. He taught them to ride horses, climb trees and care about social issues. When their philanthropist father invited interesting people such as John Hay and Matthew Arnold over for dinner, the children were encouraged to pay attention to the conversation.
In his autobiography, Teddy Roosevelt described his father:
“My father, Theodore Roosevelt, was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness. As we grew older he made us understand that the same standard of clean living was demanded for the boys as for the girls; that what was wrong in a woman could not be right in a man. With great love and patience, and the most understanding sympathy and consideration, he combined insistence on discipline. He never physically punished me but once, but he was the only man of whom I was ever really afraid. I do not mean that it was a wrong fear, for he was entirely just, and we children adored him.”
Like other aristocratic families, the Roosevelts chose to teach their children at home to shelter them from the coarse manners, bad habits and potential diseases of school children. Teddy’s mother Mittie was a beautiful, vivacious Southern Belle; very good at telling stories, but nervous and flighty, so it was her sister Anna who tutored the children.
They had lessons all year and read great quantities of books. Not surprisingly, Teddy loved brave heroic adventure stories. He also enjoyed the works of Audubon and Spencer Fullerton Baird, the foremost American naturalist at the time. Their influence is evident in the detailed notes Teddy kept during a backpacking expedition in the Adirondacks:
“We wandered about and I picked up a salamander (Diemictylus irridescens). I saw a mouse here which from its looks I should judge to be a hamster mouse (Hesperomys myoides). We saw a bald-headed eagle (Halietus leucocephalus) sailing over the lake.”
Besides books, there was one magazine in particular that Roosevelt remembered in his autobiography:
“Take my beloved Our Young Folks, the magazine of which I have already spoken, and which taught me much more than any of my text-books. Everything in this magazine instilled the individual virtues, and the necessity of character as the chief factor in any man’s success—a teaching in which I now believe as sincerely as ever, for all the laws that the wit of man can devise will never make a man a worthy citizen unless he has within himself the right stuff, unless he has self-reliance, energy, courage, the power of insisting on his own rights and the sympathy that makes him regardful of the rights of others.”
In 1872, thirteen-year-old Teddy received a gun and started shooting specimens in earnest. Some of those specimens he presented to the American Museum of Natural History. He even began taking taxidermy lessons from John G. Bell, the same taxidermist who worked for Audubon. That same year the family took an extended trip on the Nile and Teddy was delighted to collect more skins and trophies.
Aside from nature studies, Aunt Anna taught the Roosevelt children English, history, geography, mathematics and some Latin. They had a French governess and everyone spoke French at the dinner table. The children also took dancing lessons once a week.
In 1874, after returning from a second tour of Europe, it was time for Teddy to begin preparations for entrance to Harvard. His father hired a young Harvard graduate named Arthur Cutler to tutor the children. Cutler devised a demanding curriculum custom tailored to each of the pupil’s needs. Teddy was behind in mathematics, Latin and Greek, but he soon caught up working six to eight hours per day. He was able to accomplish three years worth of work in only two years, and scored well on the Harvard entrance exams.
Teddy left for Harvard at the age of seventeen. He seemed to enjoy his time there, and did well enough academically (87 average), but his interests were evolving. He entered college with every intention of pursuing a career in science but gradually became more interested in military history, politics and current affairs. After graduating, he entered Columbia Law School and became involved with the New York City Affairs Committee.
Theodore’s adult life was a vigorous mix of public service, soldiering, ranching, writing and exploring. In 1901, he became the youngest U.S. President in history at age 42. An avid lifelong reader, Roosevelt also wrote more than 20 books spanning his interests in history, literature, politics and natural history.
Reflecting on his childhood, Roosevelt seemed well satisfied with his education. He gave a great deal of credit to his wise father and loving family, but it is clear that Roosevelt took ultimate responsibility for himself. He wrote, “I left college and entered the big world owing more than I can express to the training I had received, especially in my own home; but with much else also to learn if I were to become really fitted to do my part in the work that lay ahead for the generation of Americans to which I belonged.”
Autobiography Theodore Roosevelt – http://www.bartleby.com/55/
“Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, A Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child who Became Theodore Roosevelt.” By David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, New York 2003
Photo – http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/biopictures1.htm