Book Review: "The Rise of Teddy Roosevelt"


On October 14th, 1912, former president Teddy Roosevelt, on the campaign trail again as nominee of his own Progressive Party, was shot in the chest by an unemployed saloonkeeper. Staggering for a moment, Roosevelt said: “it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” before removing the bullet ridden, 50 page manuscript of prepared remarks from his blood-stained shirt, and proceeding to deliver his campaign speech to a shocked crowd. It wasn’t until he finished his speech, 90 minutes later, that he agreed to check into a hospital. 

Stories such as these propel Teddy Roosevelt to a near mythic status in American culture. How much of these stories is true, and how much is dramatized? What other dimensions did the man have beneath the one dimensional badassness? What sort of life did he lead, and how did he develop into “the most interesting man ever to become president?”

I recently finished reading “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris, which went a long way towards answering these questions, and more. This Pulitzer-Prize winning biography was a recommendation and gift from my dear friend Dustin, and it lived up to his high words of praise. It begins with the birth of Teddy in 1858 and closes with his assumption of the responsibilities of the presidency as the youngest ever president at age 42, with the assassination of President William McKinley. In between, it charts his sickly childhood in the Brownstones of Manhattan, his meteoric rise in the New York State Assembly, his ranching and hunting in the Badlands of the American West, his leadership of the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War in Cuba, his building of a home at Sagamore Hill, his political career alternating between appointed positions in New York and Washington, D.C., and everything in between.

Here are just a few of the lessons I took away from the book:

Teddy Roosevelt the man

Teddy Roosevelt had so many magnanimous qualities. Here are a few that thoroughly impressed and inspired me:

  • Energy and vitality: Teddy possessed an inhuman energy and vitality. On hunting trips out West, he would ride dozens of miles a day on his horse without resting, in his hunt for big game. He scaled the snowy mountains of Maine as quickly as his backwoods companions. He gained the respect of the cowboys of the West with his relentless work ethic wrangling cattle. This indomitable energy extended from physical activities as much as it did mental ones. As president, he was known for reading a book a day, even after his presidential duties. He was a prolific author, writing 15 books by the time he was 30. He wrote with torrid pace, finishing thousand-page, meticulously researched historical works in three month sprints of pen to paper. Morris describes his bursts of work in mechanical metaphors, as a “great steam engine” or machine. The fount of his energy and vitality came from his grit and his work ethic, developed from extraordinary adversity in his youth. When he was young, he built up his body to overcome his physical battles with asthma; it becomes clear that his mental stamina develops in part to help him cope with the great emotional tragedies in his life. For example, he completed an incredible body of work as Civil Service Commissioner in Washington, D.C. after the death of his wife Alice and his mother Mittie when he is 25.
  • Courage: While there are countless examples of Teddy’s valor as a cowboy in the west and facing rearing grizzly bears in the Badlands, the courage that I especially admire in Teddy is the courage of his convictions—the fact that the’s a man of his word, who follows up talk with action. The ultimate example of Teddy’s courage is the Spanish American War. At the time, Teddy was the hawkish Assistant Secretary of the Navy, as much criticized for his bellicoseness as praised for his effectiveness as an administrator. As soon as the U.S.S. Maine was sank in the Cuban Harbor in 1898, Teddy immediately enlisted in the war in the Army. His closest friends and family criticized him for this reckless move, and his political allies believed he would be a more effectiveness public servant in the leadership of the Department of the Navy than on the front lines as a Colonel. Nevertheless, Teddy had no interest in being an armchair reformer, and it had been a lifelong dream of his to fight in a war. He ended up leading an epic charge on horseback with his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in the decisive battle of the Spanish American War, mauser bullets whizzing past him.
  • Intellectual curiosity: despite many descriptions from his contemporaries that Teddy is “pure action,” there’s an intellectual side of Teddy as well. He is constantly reading and learning more and more, never satisfying his thirst for knowledge. This stems from his early age discovering books as unlocking imaginary worlds that he couldn’t reach in youth because of his sickliness. There are interesting parallels here between Teddy’s childhood development and that of the second-youngest President and famous speed reader John F. Kennedy.
  • Sense of timing: on both personal and historical fronts, Teddy has an impeccable sense of timing. One of his charismatic tactics that he developed in his early 20s in his stint in the New York State Assembly is always entering a room after other key figures arrive, and once he enters a room, pausing for a dramatic second, all eyes in the room gravitating to him, before proceeding towards his chair. Historically, Roosevelt’s rise as a politician corresponded with the overall trends in popularity of Progressive ideals after a few decades of opulence and excess during the Gilded Era—Teddy was the most important politician in office to ride these populist waves. To what extent Teddy’s timing is sheer luck and to what extent it is strategic and deliberately cultivated is unclear.
  • Family man: throughout his life, Teddy is fiercely familial. He is the father of one baby girl by his first wife, the deceased Alice Lee, and five by his second, Edith Wharton. In addition, he remains the de facto head of the Roosevelt family estate after his father’s untimely death. In his diary, he writes that he is has never experienced bliss like the bliss of being with family. 

The Life of Teddy Roosevelt

Tracing the trajectory of Teddy Roosevelt’s life reinforced lessons I’ve heard before about life:

  • tragedy and adversity developing extraordinary traits: at age 20, the young Teddy loses his father Theodore Sr. Teddy is overcome with anguish, and stated “he is the greatest man I ever knew, and the only one I ever feared.” At age 25, Teddy suddenly and tragically loses his young wife Alice and his mother Mittie on the same day. Throughout his youth, the young Teddy battles severe asthma, which brings him to the brink of death many times. Both research and popular anecdotes tell us that tragedy develops character and leaders. These early tragedies steeled Teddy and forced him to get to the pith of what is important in life.
  • the most effective social reformers bridge establishment and reform circles: From the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 to breaking up the Standard Oil Monopoly, Teddy is a trailblazer of the Progressive movement to end municipal political corruption and the power of huge corporate trusts. His success as a reformer is in part because of his ability to identify both with the powerful establishment and the grassroots reformers. Born into the aristocratic Roosevelt Family, one of Manhattan’s social elite, Teddy early on benefits from his family connections and wealth to vault into the center of New York social circles. At Harvard, he is invited to join the Porcellian Club, the most exclusive of Harvard’s Final Clubs, bastion of the Boston Brahmin. He does so similarly in Washington, D.C., when he joins the elite social circle of John Hay, Henry Adams, and other prominent political elites. Teddy is yet another example of an influential reformer who is able to bridge the common experience and elite circles. Another prominent example of a reformer that empathized with both the top and bottom segments of society is Martin Luther King, Jr. King is the popular leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but he is by no means purely from humble beginnings. According to Marshall Ganz, community organizer and architect of President Obama’s 2008 campaign grassroots strategy, Reverend King’s assumption of leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is in part because of his unique background as a partial outsider and background as an intellectual from an elite reverend family in Atlanta.
  • the non-linearity of life: at age 24, Teddy is the precocious and charismatic Majority Leader of the New York State House Republican Coalition. His career seems to be on a fast track to the nation’s highest office. Yet, the ups and downs of politics and personal life afflict Teddy. At age 26, he is alone out West ranching and writing, after being publicly losing the support of his reformist coalition at the Republican National convention for ultimately acquiescing in his support of the corrupt Old Guard Republican nominee for president, Blaine. At this point, it’s uncertain when he’ll return to New York or to politics. At 28, he is nominated by, and routed in the New York Mayor’s election. For much of his thirties, Teddy considers writing and literature a more promising occupation than politics. And of course, there is perhaps no bigger surprise than the sudden telegram of William McKinley’s death in 1901, launching VP Teddy into the presidency.

How It’s Written

At 780 pages, “Teddy” is a hefty tome. But those pages fly because in addition to the scholarly rigor of a scientist, Morris excels at writing with the enchantment of a novelist. If for no other reason (and there are so many other reasons), this biography is worth reading because of how well it is written. Here are a couple of tactics that author Edmund Morris is particularly deft at:

  • an extended hook: any good story starts with a hook. Morris opens the Prologue with a detailed account of New Year’s Day, 1907. Teddy Roosevelt has already been president for 5 years, and he is in office in a time of domestic economic prosperity and international peace. Morris describes Teddy in all of his magnanimity—his physical presence (bespectacled face, huge gleaming teeth, rippling chest muscles), his policy successes, and his personal traits. By highlighting all of his traits, Morris raises intrigue in the reader as to how such a man came to be.
  • flow and transitions: Morris seamlessly and creatively alternates between narrative description and analysis of trends in Roosevelt’s development. The tempo of the work is never broken by an off note in writing. These ordinary transitions, hundreds of them in the entire book, bring pleasure to the reader in their conciseness. Yet, these transitions are also punctuated by a few, sublime passages where Morris uses the features of the physical scene he is describing as metaphors for his development of the character of Roosevelt. For example, this passage talking about Roosevelt’s active dating life in college: “sickly and reclusive as a child, preoccupied with travel and self-improvement in his teens, he had had little opportunity to knock on strange doors. Now, doors were opening of their own accord, disclosing scores of fresh faces and alluring young figures.” (pg. 63)