The Many Images of Teddy Roosevelt

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” These are the words most often associated with a bellicose, adventurous, and strong “alpha” man. He was the president who set the stage for hawkish foreign policy, and began the age of American imperialism. For most people, he was a larger-than-life character, almost cartoonish in that sense. This is, of course, President Theodore Roosevelt.

Teddy, as he vehemently disliked being called, was a sickly child with a myriad of physical health problems. From a young age, family and friends described him as effeminate and weak. This image would stick with him throughout his young adulthood into his time as a New York state assemblyman. Roosevelt’s father, who was his personal hero forced him to take up strenuous physical activities, such as boxing, in order to cure him of his diseases.

In a speech during his brief tenure as governor of New York, in 1899, Roosevelt would explain the concept of overcoming hardship that his father taught him: “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Roosevelt took the “strenuous life” concept to heart. He took up boxing, hunting, and ju-jitsu, and he played virtually every other rough sport. He was obsessed with nature, and the American West. He even moved to North Dakota to become a “cowboy.” When the United States went to war with Spain in 1898, he promptly quit his job in President McKinley’s cabinet and joined the war, becoming the leader of the famous Rough Riders. Even the name of his team was intentionally masculine. Roosevelt had always been obsessed with war, especially due to the Civil War, when his father, a man whom he otherwise deeply respected, had paid to get himself out of conscription. This left Roosevelt feeling humiliated for the rest of his life. He wanted to man up, unlike his father.

This is the Roosevelt every American knows. But to see him primarily in this way would make him a caricature. While it is true that Roosevelt was a tough man, he was also an intellectual. He would read a book a day, and if he had time he might read three. By one estimate, he wrote more than 150,000 letters in his lifetime, compared with the 13,000 that the prolific Thomas Jefferson wrote. He wrote several books, including histories that historians praise to this day. He held a French Enlightenment-like salon at the White House, to which he would invite the leading artists and intellectuals of the time[changed this because you’ve said “day” in the previous sentence] for conversations.

Although Roosevelt was obsessed with war, he avoided it during his two-term presidency, unlike McKinley immediately before him and President Wilson not long after. He added the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, making the U.S. the “international police power” of the Western Hemisphere, but he rarely used it. His administration’s foreign policy mostly used diplomacy and law to settle international disputes, often thanks to the help of his Secretary of State, Hamilton graduate Elihu Root. He may have liked the idea of war, but as president he promoted peace, which even won him the Nobel Peace Prize. Some historians like Richard Collin even argue that Roosevelt, in addition to being an intellectual, was not war-mongering at all but merely understood that this image would help him, and therefore promoted it.

Theodore Roosevelt was a Renaissance man in many ways. Everyone who knows anything about him, and every historian, has his or her own take on him. The most important thing to remember about Roosevelt is his complexity. Boiling him down to one quality or concept would be a caricature of a truly multi-faceted man, and that is unfair to him as a historical actor.