Wednesday, March 20, 2013


A review of Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979, original) (2001, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Theodore Roosevelt grew up in a house divided with a father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., who favored the North and a mother Martha Roosevelt who favored the South while two sides were engaged in the Civil War.  The young Theodore was cheering for the same side his father was.  Edmund Morris produced what would one day be the first of a trilogy that would trace the life of the twenty-sixth president.  This book covers the first forty-two years of this President’s life, tracing—as the title suggests—his rise to the nation’s highest office.  This story is actually a collection of several stories.  You have Theodore Roosevelt the naturalist, Theodore Roosevelt the young politician, Theodore Roosevelt the reformer, Theodore Roosevelt the rancher, Theodore Roosevelt the author, and Theodore Roosevelt the solider.   

After the war his family traveled around the world and TR became an amateur naturalist, a fascination that would last all his life.  His own father was cheated by the corrupt politics of the early post-Civil War period that created in him a desire to get involved with politics and be a reformer.  

“He could, of course, have entered the government the respectable way—by cultivating the society of men in leather armchairs, qualifying as a lawyer himself, and, in ten years or so, running for a seat in the United States Senate.  But some instinct told him that if he desired raw political power—and from this winter on, for the rest of his life, he never ceased to desire it—he must start on the shop floor, learn to work the greasy leavers one by one.  Besides, he had private score to settle.  It had been the New York State Republican machine, still controlled by Boss Roscoe Conkling, that had destroyed Theodore Senior; might not Theodore Junior, by mastering its techniques, use that same machine to avenge him?” (p.124)
Young TR

 While in his twenties TR was elected as a member of New York State Assembly.  As an Assemblyman he championed reformed legislation.  He exposed the corruption of Jay Gould and would have an on again off again alliance with the Governor of New York, a Democrat named Grover Cleveland. 
Young legislator
After the death of his first wife and his mother, Roosevelt heads west and buys a ranch in Dakota.  This allowed him to explore the rough side of himself that he had been honing since his father told him to build his body, to overcome the handicaps he had been born with.   
Roosevelt family

When Benjamin Harrison became President, Roosevelt was appointed to the Civil Service Commission that was designed to be the beginning of the end of the Jacksonian spoils system.  Roosevelt became an embarrassment to the administration because he kept exposing corruption. 

“The new Commissioner was not interested in audiences of one. Experience had taught him that him that he had in abundance the power of was publicity, that it could by as effective, if not more so, than regular political clout.  He intended so to dramatize the good gray cause of Civil Service Reform that the electorate would be forced to take notice of it—and if of himself as well, why, so much the better.” (p.408)

After getting done with the Civil Service Commission he went home to New York to serve on the Police Commission.  There he rendered a great service to the city despite at times being undermined by jealous co-commissioners.  Roosevelt would be the driving force behind laying the foundation for the modern New York Police Department. 

“He had proved that it was possible to enforce an unpopular law, and, by enforcing it, had taught that doctrine of the respect for the law.  He had given New York City its first honest election in living memory.  In less than two years, Roosevelt had depoliticized and deethnicized the force, making it once more a neutral arm of government.  He had broken its connections with the underworld, toughened the police-trial system, and largely eliminated corruption within the ranks.  The attrition rate of venal officers had quadrupled—in spite of Roosevelt’s decisions to raise physical admissions standards above those of the U.S. Army, lower maximum-age requirement, and apply the rules of the Civil Service Reform to written examinations.  As a result, the average New York patrolman was now bigger, younger, and smarter.  He was also more honest, since badges were no longer for sale, and more soldierlike (the military ideal having been a particular feature of the departing commissioner’s philosophy).” (p.584-5)
Police reformer

After McKinley’s election in 1896 Roosevelt returned to Washington as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Roosevelt had cared about the Navy since he wrote The Naval War of 1812, now he was in position to affect the Navy.  After the disaster of the Maine, Roosevelt did all he could to prepare the Navy for possible war with Spain. 

“This momentous message, which Dewey later described as ‘the first step’ toward American conquest of the Philippines, was by no means the only order Roosevelt issued during his three or four hours as Acting Secretary.  He sent similar instructions to ‘Keep full of coal’ to squadron commanders all over the world, and to make sure they got it, authorized the Navy’s coal-buying agents to purchase maximum stocks.  He alerted European and South Atlantic stations to the possibility of war, and designated strategic points where they were to rendezvous in the event of a declaration.  He ordered huge supplies of reserve ammunition, requisitioned guns for a project auxiliary fleet, and summoned experts to testify on the firepower of the Vesuvius.  He even sent demands to both House of Congress for legislation authorizing the unlimited recruitment of seamen.” (p.629)
Hard working Assistant Secretary of the Navy

Unlike modern politicians who thorough out their life apply for deferments and then get into positions of power and send other people’s children to die,  Theodore Roosevelt after the war started found himself a uniform, a commission, and went to fight the war in person. 
Rough Riders

“The Rough Riders sailed out of Santiago Harbor on 8 August, leaving Leonard Wood behind as Military Governor of the city.  They were not sorry to see Cuba sink into the sea behind them.  In seven weeks of sweaty, sickly, acquaintance with it, they had seen it transformed from a tropical Garden of Eden to a hell of denuded trees, cindery fields, and staring shells of houses.  The island’s bugs were in their veins, the smell of its dead in their nostrils, the taste of horsemeat and fecal water in their mouths.  It would be days before the Atlantic breezes, cooling and freshening as they steamed north, swept away this sense of defilement.” (p.693)
Returning to America, Roosevelt was a hero.  The Republican Party was in jeopardy due to mass scandals and involving the leadership of its present governor.  Seeing the incumbent as un-winnable the Party decided to back Roosevelt despite some reservations of the party bosses who saw him as trouble.  To them, he was better than a Democrat.  Roosevelt would work with the organization when he could but he would not tolerate corruption.  In fact he continued to reform, telling the companies that ran public utilities that they would now have to pay taxes, especially since they benefit from state protection.  The machine would fight him but Roosevelt would win. 

“So short, indeed, was the distance between his pen and the document lying open before him that Platt’s leaders gave up the attempt to write a new bill more favorable to corporations.  All they could do was to insert various strengthening clauses into the original bill, exactly as Roosevelt had intended.  No amendment was made without his approval, and the revised measure cleared both Houses in three days.  The Governor proudly and accurately described it as ‘the most important law passed in recent times by any State Legislature.’ He signed it with a flourish on 27 May, and set back to enjoy the sweetness of victory.” (p.738)
Reform minded Governor

This irritated the bosses to no end so they decided to get rid of him.  And there was no better way to do that publicly than to promote him.  Vice Presidency of United States was the most useless office in the land without any real authority.  The first Vice President, John Adams stated “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”.  So in 1900 they nominated him to replace the late Garrett Hobart, this would get Roosevelt out of their hair.  However as Adams also mentioned, “As Vice President I am nothing, but I could be everything.”

            “Observers wondered again at the Chairman’s strange fear of Roosevelt.  Hanna had never liked the man, and dislike had deepened into something like hatred after the fist-shaking incident at the Gridiron Club in the spring of 1898.  But this terror, this premonition of a national disaster should Roosevelt be allowed to stand at McKinley’s side, was entirely new. At last Hanna, losing all self-control, blurted it out.

‘Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madmen and the Presidency?’” (p.762-3)
Elected Vice President

The book ends when Theodore Roosevelt, who already saw enough action for seven lives is being sent a message to return to Washington and become the President.  Roosevelt was about to begin his greatest adventure.

This book is very well done.  Morris is a great writer with very smooth prose.  On the books style I really like the fact that he capitalizes titles something that other historians are falling out of the habit.  I also like the way he includes pictures within the text and not in some special section.  I highly recommend this book to anyone.
{Video is a documentary produced by the History Channel called Theodore Roosevelt: An American Lion}

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