Monday, January 19, 2015

"A Steam Engine in Trousers:" Teaching about Theodore Roosevelt

I bet if you polled U.S. history teachers about their favorite presidents--not necessarily the ones they thought was the best, but their favorite--Theodore Roosevelt would top the list. He is not as great as Lincoln or as noble as Washington, or maybe even as successful as his cousin and biggest fan, FDR, but when it comes to the power of personality, he has to win the prize. The title of this post comes from a quotation I heard on Ken Burns's recent and marvelous documentary, The Roosevelts. I couldn't figure out who actually said it, but it is a brilliant metaphor for our most energetic and strong-willed presidents who had tremendous influence on the Progressive Era. A question worth pondering, would the Progressive Era have become what it did without the impact of such a powerful personality in the White House?

Roosevelt is one of the most colorful presidents we have had, and the examples of interesting facts and anecdotes is long.
  • He was the youngest president to assume office (but not the youngest elected; that was JFK)
  • He is the first to be known by his initials.
  • He is the first president to have ridden in an automobile and an airplane. 
  • The first president to have visited a foreign country while in office--the newly-independent Panama to inspect the Panama Canal. (The story about how the U.S. got control over the Panama Canal is fascinating--and controversial. I would include it in a unit about late 19th century imperialism. I will do some posts on that in the future, so more on TR and the Panama Canal later.) 
  • He was a prolific writer. Click here for the list of books he wrote
  • He was the first American and the first American president to receive the Nobel peace prize. Read his acceptance speech here
  • He was a big-time family man. Interesting info about his children in the White House available here and here. Middle-schoolers will find this especially interesting.
  • He was a witness to Abraham Lincoln's funeral
  • Prominent Republican Mark Hanna's quip on TR being chosen for McKinley's Vice-Presidential running mate: "There's only one life between that madman and the Presidency."
  • Many students know that TR and FDR are related, but they don't usually understand how, nor do they always know about Eleanor. This family tree will help explain that. And what they also don't know is that what seems like a rather distant relationship to us (how many of you know your 5th cousins?) was not so distant in the Roosevelt family. Long before FDR married TR's niece, Eleanor, he knew and greatly admired his 5th cousin. The Oyster Bay Roosevelts (TR) and the Hyde Park Roosevelts (FDR) traveled in the same social circles and were together on many occasions, which is how FDR met Eleanor in the first place. They had known each other since childhood.

There are also a number of interesting events/aspects of his young life that I think are worth sharing with students because of the influence they may have had on some of his future decisions as president and for becoming helping him become president in the first place. The items below also help humanize this out-sized historical figure. And making the past seem alive and full of real human beings is what helps students relate to history.

1. His family, like so many others, was split by the Civil War. His mother, "Mittie" (Martha) Bulloch, was from Roswell, Georgia. She grew up in a large plantation, Bulloch Hall, as a member of Georgia's planter class. The family owned slaves, and Mittie herself has a personal slave, Lavinia. The main reason Theodore Sr. (TR's father) hired a replacement rather than fight in the Civil War was to avoid having to fight a war against Mittie's family. But his failure to fight for his country was something that would always bother TR about his father, whom he otherwise worshipped. This partly explains his determination to fight in the Spanish-American War and his organization of the Rough Riders. Mittie herself was a colorful and lively woman, and it has been suggested that the character of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind may have been inspired by her.

2. It is well known that young Theodore suffered terribly from asthma. There are accounts of his beloved father walking with him in his arms throughout the night, or taking him outside for a ride in the night air. Theodore Sr. devoted enormous attention to helping his son with this terrible affliction. He told his son that he would have to "remake his body," which he did. And this slight, sickly little boy became the toughest, most macho president we've ever had.

3. Young Theodore loved the outdoors, nature and was profoundly curious. He collected all kinds of animals and other specimens, some of which were donated to the American Museum of Natural History (well-known to your students because of the hit movie, A Night at the Museum). Read about it here. He also made donations to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. See this article.

4. I also like to share with students the profoundly tragic experience of losing his beloved young wife, Alice, and his mother on the same day, February 14, 1884. His wife died two days following the birth of a daughter, also named Alice, which was hours before the death of Theodore's mother. For an excellent account which also shows a picture of Roosevelt's diary entry for that day, see this post from (could be very useful for lots of other topics--see the list of categories/topics on right). The post also has an excerpt from a tribute wrote about Alice and mentions that he never spoke of her again. I like to tell the story because its poignancy humanizes Roosevelt. It also adds to our picture of Roosevelt as someone who overcame personal tragedy and setbacks. And finally, it helps explain the significant role of wilderness in his life, which led him to become so engaged in the beginning of the conservation movement.

5. Roosevelt's experiences out west also brought him into contact with people and a life very much outside of his upper class New York world. This certainly would have influenced his ability as president to connect with a wide variety of people. You can read here about his experiences in North Dakota. The Ken Burns series (see below) also has a good, brief section in Episode One about this transformative experienc.

None of the above is to suggest that Roosevelt is without criticism. As many others as pointed out, he often took liberties with the Constitution. (See this lesson from the Bill of Rights Institute). Many conservatives and Republicans of his day saw him as a traitor to his social class and business interests. His involvement with the revolution that created an independent Panama is a prime example of U.S. imperialist. In fact, TR was an imperialist. I think it is critical, when presenting material on "heroic" and well-liked presidents, to point out these flaws to students. You don't have to do it on day one, but our students should be made cognizant of the flaws of our greatest men and women. The point is not to "take 'em down," or to present an overly critical view of history (as history teachers are so often accused of doing by conservative politicians). The point is to help students understand that real people and real events in history are messy and complicated. And today's lionized presidents--even Lincoln--may have been roundly disliked and criticized by people of their day and from our perspective today.

Another interesting negative point about TR: Roosevelt was the first American president to invite a black man--Booker T. Washington--to a formal dinner at the White House. He was strongly criticized. Though he would meet with Washington again, and invite other black officials to White House receptions, he never again invited a black man (or woman) to dinner again. Read about it here. I don't think this means that Roosevelt was racist, but it certainly reflects the racism of the time, and Roosevelt's recognition of the importance of this symbolic action. Raising these sorts of controversies and inconsistencies with students further helps their ability to recognize the complexity of historical analysis.

And another: our greatest "conservationist president" was a big-time hunter. Students often find this inconsistent. But there are even more interesting issues raised during Roosevelt's presidency about conservation during the debate about Hetch Hetchy. More on that in another post.

Ken Burns's epic recent series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is a wonderful resource to share with students, or for background material for yourself. There is a page with resources specific to teachers here. If you go to this page, you can filter the videos by person (TR, FDR and ER) and then click on the one, "Theodore Roosevelt's Personality." It's a 3 1/2 minute clip with amusing anecdotes that shed light on Roosevelt's immense personality. If you want more, you could precede this with another clip, "Theodore Roosevelt Early Years," is also about 3 1/2 minutes and describes TR's experience at Harvard and his marriage to Alice Lee (but doesn't go on to her death).

One idea you could try, instead of just showing some of the many cool video clips out there in order to tell them about interesting TR is, is to let students watch them individually (e.g. in your computer lab, if you have one, or at home if they have access) and ask them to comment on which aspect of TR's personality or time in his life do they think most shaped who he became as president. (I suppose you might have to do this after they learn about his presidency. But you could show the videos first, have them think about the question in advance, and then go back to the videos afterwards.) In addition to Ken Burns's film, there are lots more out there on youtube and elsewhere.
"The Talented Mr. Roosevelt" - 2 min. clip from about his athleticism
TR's family - 4 min. clip from that I don't recommend - boring, and too much about everything in too short of a time.

As you would expect, there are a number of resources on the internet for learning more about TR.
There are all the usual places: (see the links to all the brief essays on right)

and here are the more specialized ones: - digital library project to collect a variety of resources. Also has useful virtual exhibits, including detailed timelines of his life and experiences, famous quotations, an encyclopedia that is organized around major themes of his life and presidency, and links to other library collections such as Harvard's and the Library of Congress. - has a brief biography and links on the left to other aspects of his life, e.g. TR the hunter, the family man, the conservationist, etc. and an article about how the teddy bear came to be named for TR. - I cannot seem to find who/what organization sponsors this website, but it seems to have links to EVERYTHING Theodore Roosevelt ever did, said or wrote and every other website and author that has mentioned Roosevelt. If you can't find what you're looking for from the links I have provided, you will find it here. 

Things named for Theodore Roosevelt:
  • Two major parks (and probably countless minor ones, including a little known one in Chicago's South Loop where my kids used to play; are named in his honor because of it's location adjacent to Roosevelt Road and because Roosevelt praised Chicago's south neighborhood park system) -- Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Roosevelt Island in Washington, D.C.
  • A species of elk found in the Pacific Northwest--the Roosevelt Elk--is named after TR. 
  • And, for Chicago folk: Roosevelt Road (goes all the way from the lakefront to the town of Geneva, IL) was named for TR in 1919, after his death. (Roosevelt University was named for FDR). I'm sure that plenty of other towns, cities and states have things named for TR, but of course you have to check and see which Roosevelt.

About Mount Rushmore, a site not without some controversy:
You can read "official" info about why TR is included on it here, from the National Park Service. But I think this response from the Straight Dope is a little more enlightening.

The list of outstanding biographies of TR is also long. I have a mild obsession with all the Roosevelts. Just a few of my favorites are at right. Two off the beaten track ones: If you haven't read it, The River of Doubt: Theodore 
Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard is a great summer read. Tells the hard-to-believe-it's-even-true story of the poorly planned post-presidency trip down the River of Doubt in the Amazon with his son, Kermit. Also, The Roosevelt Women: A Portrait in Five Generations by Betty Boyd Caroli is a great resource for learning more not only about the usual suspects--TR's wife, Edith, and his niece, Eleanor--but also about his mother and influential sisters. Some have argued that, but for her gender, Roosevelt's sister, Bamie, would have been the obvious choice for the presidency. I was impressed by how much I learned about Theodore from reading about his fascinating family.

1 comment:

  1. I thought it was a description of Daniel Webster. Cannot recall who coined it.