1. Childhood

[He] was the heart and soul of all games worth playing, of all mischief worth venturing on, of all talks that had fun and sparkle in them...ordinary-looking...but with a small, eager face, a thin little figure...and a manner of joyous camaraderie that precluded any possibility of “bossiness” from the start. -
Louise Pond Jewell, The Great Adventure

On the day Theodore Roosevelt was born, his mother, Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt went out for a ride in the carriage. When she came back she complained that she was not feeling well. Unfortunately her doctor was unavailable. After much urgent searching, her mother, Mrs. Bullock, brought in a neighbor who was also a doctor. Mrs. Bullock “never felt more relieved” in her life when the doctor came. After several hours Mittie had a boy “as sweet and pretty a young baby as I have ever seen,” said the new grandmother, and added, “weighed eight pounds and a half before it was dressed.1
Theodore was, according to his autobiography, an ordinary child. He was described by his aunt as “full of mischief and [had] to be watched all the time.” At ten he kept a diary of his activities when the family was on vacation in Europe. His diary makes it clear that he and his two younger siblings, Corinne “Conie” and Elliott “Ellie” played all sorts of loud ([we] “ran all about with noise”)2 and active games which Theodore probably invented himself. He wrote:

In the romp the strings of my jacket and a butten of my pants were torn and Ellie’s butten also besides geting his sore toe hurt badly and a little skin was taken of Corines hand and her head thumped severly. After this we played at keeping a hotel and travelers coming to him. Conie and I were the travelers and went up staircases for mountains with boxes and bags in hand and on back.3

Around the same time he wrote:

We then began to chase with gun and sword dogs. We saw 2. We charged rat a tat, rat a tat went our feet, bang, bang went the two guns, crash, crash went the swords, bow wow went the dogs and ran we also. 4

When all the noise and children overwhelmed him, he would go off by himself and meditate. He didn’t know he was meditating of course. But he felt a sense of peace while alone and writing in his journal. At age eleven he wrote:

I strayed from the rest and now in the wood around the villa Colata, which is on lake Como with no sound save the waterfall and the Italian breeze on my cheek. I all alone am writing my Journal.5

The children sometimes quarreled but were sympathetic when Theodore was sick. He had frequent asthma attacks. His mother was very worried about him and gave him coffee and ipecac to stop the attacks. She’d tell him stories of his ancestors and his uncles who were Confederate war heroes. Conie and Ellie were “the kindest kind of brother and sister”6 when he was ill. Anna “Bamie” his older sister was also “such a kind sister” “and,” he added “I have such kind parents.”

Make Your Body
When they returned from Europe Theodore continued to have his asthma attacks which he referred to in his diaries as “the asmer”. His father, Theodore, Sr., would take him to Philadelphia, Saratoga and Oyster Bay for a change of air. Once he wrote, “He had another attack...It used me up entirely to have another attack come so soon after the last...at the moment it seems hard to bear.”7
He called Theodore to him and said:

Theodore, you 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.

With a determined grin, Theodore said, “I’ll make my body!”8

This was a turning point in Theodore’s life. He stopped putting himself in the role of the victim and started taking control of his health. He worked out with weights to expand his chest and started on a program of fresh air and exercise. From that moment on, he missed no opportunity to push his body.

He became stronger, but not strong enough to fend off two boys his own age (thirteen) who were taunting him during a stagecoach ride. He knew that together they could beat him and not only that, just one of them could have beaten him. Luckily for him they just teased him. But he made up his mind right then that he would learn to defend himself.

He started taking boxing lessons and practiced boxing for the rest of his life. He said of this decision:

I made up my mind that I must try to learn so that I would not be put in such a helpless position; and having become quickly and bitterly conscious that I did not have the natural prowess to hold my own, I decided that I would try to supply its place by training. 9

His parents encouraged him to read. They suggested books that he “ought to” read but if he didn’t like those, he was encouraged to read whatever interested him. He liked to read about courageous people and was influenced by stories of the West. He developed an interest in natural history and developed a phenomenal memory by memorizing the little differences between different kinds of birds. His diaries are filled with well-drawn sketches of mice and birds and detailed descriptions of beetles, ants, spiders and dragon flies. His father encouraged him to learn about any subject he was interested in.

His Father
Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. was the son of a multimillionaire. He made it his vocation to help the poor. Appalled by the tenements where thousands of people lived in filth, and where smallpox, scarlet fever and typhus raged, Theodore, Sr., became the founder or supporter of every humanitarian effort in the city. “Good fortune... must be balanced with productive work and service,” he said. Founder of the New York Orthopedic Hospital, the Children’s Aid Society, the American Museum of Natural History and the State Charities Aid Association; the guiding force in the YMCA and the Newsboys’ Lodging House, “he literally went about doing good.” “My Father...was the best man I ever knew,” his son often declared.10

The Newsboys Lodging House which he supported offered a clean bed and a warm room for five cents. The Children’s Aid Society returned homeless children to their families, or, failing that, the children would be sent to farms in the Midwest. At least 100,000 children were sent West.11

At a dinner the Western governors gave for Theodore Roosevelt years later, Governor Brady of Alaska said to Governor Roosevelt of New York:

Your father picked me up from the streets in New York, a waif and an orphan, and sent me to a Western Family, paying for my transportation and early care. Years passed and I was able to repay the money which had given me my start in life, but I can never repay what he did for me. It was through that early care and by giving me such a foster mother and father that I gradually rose in the world, until one day I can greet his son as a fellow governor of a part of our great country. 12

Theodore, Sr., visited hospital wards, talked to prison inmates and lobbied for better care in insane asylums. He gave money and time, often working at his desk until two in the morning. He had great physical endurance and great powers of concentration. “He made everything look easy.” There was something glamorous about him. “I can see him now, in full evening dress, serving a most generous supper to his newsboys in the Lodging House and later dashing off to an evening party in Fifth Avenue,” a friend said.13

His son said his father got great joy out of life and performed every duty “wholeheartedly.”14

Corinne, his youngest daughter, later said he could dance all night and drive his “four-in-hand coach so fast that the old tradition was ‘that his grooms frequently fell out at the corners!’” 15

Theodore Sr. had a plan that would enable Civil War soldiers to voluntarily send home a percentage of their pay on a regular basis. This required that he lobby in Washington for his plan and that he be away from his family, off and on, for two years. He attended White House receptions and became friendly with the Lincolns, sharing their pew in church and going shopping for bonnets with Mrs. Lincoln. As a result of his efforts, millions of dollars were sent to soldiers’ dependents.16

He lived every moment to the fullest and was a sympathetic, understanding father.

His Mother
Theodore, Jr.’s mother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, was a beautiful Southern woman. She had fine black hair with a slight russet shade and “her skin was the purest and most delicate white, more moonlight-white than cream-white, and in the cheeks there was a coral, rather than a rose, tint.”17 Her two brothers were Confederate War heroes. She loved to tell Theodore of their adventures. Theodore said later, “It was from the heroes of my favorite stories, from hearing of the feats performed by my southern forefathers and kinsfolk, and from knowing my father [that] I felt great admiration for men who were fearless...and I had a great desire to be like them.”18

Arthur Cutler
Theodore, Sr., decided to send Theodore to Harvard. Theodore had never developed the idea that learning was separate from real life. To Theodore, learning was a very important part of being alive. He read constantly. However he was deficient in areas he did not like to read about, such as mathematics and the classical languages.19 Arthur Cutler, a young Harvard student, was hired to prepare Theodore for the entrance exams. When Theodore wasn’t studying he was classifying and mounting specimens, working out in the gymnasium, boxing, wrestling and ice skating.20 His tutor noted that his day was “arranged with system from the hour of rising until he retired” and that the “hours devoted to sport were as definite as those devoted to study.”21 Also he said, “Every leisure moment would find the last novel, some English classic, or some abstruse book on Natural History in his hand.”22

Family habits of reading and studying at all hours of the day or night, his native curiosity and the trips to Europe had been highly educational. Theodore was, according to Carleton Putnam, “a paragon of perennial self-education.”23

Asthma was less of a problem now and at seventeen Theodore was a wiry 5’8” 124 pounds.