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This Day in History: Teddy Roosevelt, childhood invalid turned Rough Rider

On this day in 1919, Theodore Roosevelt passes away. The fiery President was nothing if not tenacious. “[W]e mustn’t forget that in his day he could speak of standing at Armageddon to do battle for the Lord without being laughed off the platform,” one of his biographers jokes.

Roosevelt had come a long way from his early years.

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider!

Did you know that Roosevelt spent much of his childhood as an invalid? He had asthma and was considered quite sickly. But sometime in his early teens, Roosevelt decided that he was all done with that life. He simply refused to be an invalid anymore. His dad told him: “[Y]ou have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”

Roosevelt began exercising regularly. He worked hard and become a healthy, active outdoorsman and athlete. He boxed and he lifted weights. He hunted and he went on treks. He was a believer in the “strenuous life.” And he was accomplishing feats that had once been deemed impossible for him.

The man had determination and perseverance.

Roosevelt soon married Alice Hathaway Lee. But tragedy struck three years later when both Alice and Roosevelt’s mother died on the same day. Roosevelt’s daughter (also Alice) was then only two days old. Poor Roosevelt seemed to flounder for a bit. The heartbroken new father left baby Alice in the care of his sister. He moved to the Dakota Territory, where he spent two years as a rancher.

Teddy was always one to get back on his feet, though. He remarried. He became president of the New York City Police Board; he was known for fighting corruption. He was assistant Secretary of the Navy. He famously led his Rough Riders during the Spanish American War. He was Vice President, then President. During all this time, he never abandoned the “strenuous life” that had earned him his health.

A French ambassador once worked out with President Roosevelt. After tennis, jogging and a workout with a medicine ball, Roosevelt asked the Frenchman what they should do next. Reportedly, the ambassador responded: “If it’s just the same with you, Mr. President, I’d like to lie down and die.”

Roosevelt retired from the presidency, but soon became dissatisfied with his successor, William Taft. He ended up running for President as a third-party candidate. Who else but Teddy Roosevelt could lead the Bull Moose Party? What other third party candidate would gain more electoral votes than a major party incumbent? During the course of that campaign, someone tried to assassinate him. Undeterred, Roosevelt continued to his speech and talked for over an hour with a bullet in his chest.

He lost the campaign, but he did it in Bull Moose style.

Roosevelt was approaching 60 years old when America entered World War I, but (naturally) he wanted to serve anyway. He was turned down, but all four of his sons enlisted. His youngest son, Quentin, was shot down flying a mission in Germany. Roosevelt took the news hard. He died in his sleep less than 6 months later.

It may have been the only time in his life that he couldn’t quite get back on his feet.

Primary Sources:

  • Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey (2009)

  • H. W. Brands, T.R.: The Last Romantic (1998)

  • Lewis L. Gould, Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics (2008)

  • Louis Auchincloss, Theodore Roosevelt (The American Presidents Series; 2013)


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