Any man would be justly proud to claim even a portion of what Teddy Roosevelt accomplished in just one of his fields, whether politics, hunting, writing, military, or family. He was an extraordinarily accomplished man with an enormous appetite for life. But he is more than that. For us today, he remains a hero, a patriot, an authentic, masculine role model of success, self-improvement, perseverance and courage.
In my opinion, he was the greatest man ever to become President of the United States ? and I write that knowing full well that men such as Washington, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Lincoln cannot be easily cast aside into second tier status. I doubt if any President of the United States in the future will ever be able to threaten TR's status in that regard. I don't think there will ever be another man like him.
One of the things that makes Roosevelt so remarkable is that he pushed himself incredibly hard to overcome obstacles. And lest we think somehow that he had it easy, we should not forget that he encountered more obstacles than most people. Yes, he was born into a family with enough money to do things like take yearlong European trips. And he had an incredible father who was a great role model for his son.
But Roosevelt's father died when he was only a sophomore at Harvard ? that is, just about the time when Roosevelt was becoming an adult, a man in his own right. The magnitude of that loss can hardly be appreciated from our point of view. Roosevelt's near silence about the loss is the best indicator, seeing as he was otherwise never at a loss for words.
Furthermore, shortly after entering the legislature, Roosevelt started his family only to lose his beloved young wife Alice after the birth of their daughter. This tragedy was followed by the death of his mother within a few hours. Later in life, one of Roosevelt's sons would tragically die in World War I. Throughout his life, Roosevelt had more than his fair share of tragedy. Yet, he pressed on, every time.
In addition, Roosevelt's famously poor health as a young boy can hardly be overlooked. Anyone who has ever struggled with a serious childhood illness can attest to the difficulty and suffering it brings, not just physically but also mentally. Can we really appreciate the fortitude and determination it took for him to defy doctors and to basically exercise his asthma out of his system? Extraordinary, indeed. The perseverance and iron-willed determination which Roosevelt would show in building his physical strength would be replicated throughout his life, in his voluminous writing, in his rigorous hunting trips, in his all-night sessions with police on the streets of New York, in his maniacal campaigning, in his play with his children, in giving a campaign speech after he had been shot in the chest, in his charge up San Juan Hill.
As a friend once remarked to me, American boys (and men for that matter) do not need to read about pretend superheroes with imaginary powers. All they need to do is read about the true life of Theodore Roosevelt.
Batman? Superman? Give me a break. These guys would lose a fight every time to TR, a real ? life hero.
Many schoolchildren in America no doubt learn today that Roosevelt was a great conservationist and that as President he set aside countless acres for national parks and forests. That is absolutely true.
But an important element of TR's conservationist philosophy is largely ignored in contemporary education. Specifically, his reasons for his advocacy of conservation were profoundly different from many in the environmentalist cause today. Many greens today seem to put "nature" into a moral category superior to human civilization. For them, conservation is a moral cause which is premised on the idea that man should simply keep his grubby hands off of pristine nature. The more extreme environmentalist even speak in terms which suggest that the earth has "rights."
Roosevelt would have nothing to do with this bizarre philosophy. For TR, men are clearly called to conserve the environment, but not because it has "rights". Rather, we conserve nature because that is where men go to test themselves, to do battle as it were against the elements. And above all, men must go outdoors into nature to hunt and to kill. The importance of hunting as both a means of conservation and one of the chief ends of conservation can hardly be overstated. Though this legacy is ignored in textbooks today, it is alive and well among those who do much of the heavy lifting of conservation. Today, the true environmental legacy of TR is carried on by the Boone and Crockett Club (which TR founded and which today is the definitive arbiter of uncompromising ethics in hunting), the International Safari Club and the National Rifle Association.
For Theodore Roosevelt, conservation, battle, patriotism, masculinity and the strenuous life are inextricably bound. Nature is where boys become men. They learn to survive. They learn to conquer and exercise dominion. In short, TR's conservation philosophy would drive many a squeamish environmentalist today to abandon the cause.
One of the greatest tributes to Roosevelt is to let him speak for himself on the virtue of perseverance:
Perhaps there is no more important component of character than steadfast resolution. The boy who is going to make a great man, or is going to count in any way in after life, must make up his mind not merely to overcome a thousand obstacles, but to win in spite of a thousand repulses or defeats. He may be able to wrest success along the lines on which he originally started. He may have to try something entirely new. On the one hand, he must not be volatile and irresolute, and, on the other hand, he must not fear to try a new line because he has failed in another. Grant did well as a boy and well as a young man; then came a period of trouble and failure, and then the Civil War and his opportunity; and he grasped it, and rose until his name is among the greatest in our history. Young Lincoln, struggling against incalculable odds, worked his way up, trying one thing and another until he, too, struck out boldly into the turbulent torrent of our national life, at a time when only the boldest and wisest could so carry themselves as to win success and honor; and from the struggle he won both death and honor, and stands forevermore among the greatest of mankind.
From The Strenuous Life, Chapter VI, Character and Success
That quote from Roosevelt also reveals that his fundamental reference point for instruction and inspiration was history, and more particularly, biography. Roosevelt was a deep and consistent reader. Countless stories are told of TR reading history and biography in the burning sun as he waited for a perfect shot in Africa, or as he sought some shelter from rain in the Amazon jungle.
From the histories and biographies that he read, Roosevelt extracted vital wisdom and motivation. He learned from the great men who have gone before. Then, he wrote down his thoughts about them. In his astonishingly productive life, he wrote (in addition to scores of other books) biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Hart Benton, Gouverneur Morris. He also co-authored a collection of short biographies titled Hero Tales from American History, a volume dedicated to young men of his day with hopes that they would be inspired by the heroic men of American history.
Roosevelt recognized the power of biography to impart heroic characteristics from the great men of the past to aspiring great men of today. As he constructed his life ? his biography ? he was constantly measuring himself against the great men of the past. If reading biography was important for someone as great as Roosevelt, would we not do well to follow his example?
The defining value for the life of Theodore Roosevelt was really love for and service to his country. His perseverance and ambition were not merely masculine virties which he exercised for the sake of Theodore Roosevelt. Rather, his character and his mental and physical toughness were consciously developed for the service of his country. Roosevelt continually stressed that learning and physical exertion ? even the hunting he loved so much ? were really about preparing a man to contribute something to his country. For Roosevelt, that obviously meant service to America.
It was in the defense of his country that Roosevelt coined the famous phrase, "speak softly, and carry a big stick." And in the pursuit of American interests, in each of the offices that he held, Roosevelt was utterly uncompromising.
In a day when roughly half of America's political leaders are eager to let other countries through the mechanisms of international institutions control America's destiny, Roosevelt is an anomaly. Perhaps American political leaders would be wise to revisit Roosevelt's philosophy of American strength and yes, diplomacy, but diplomacy coupled with strength. Diplomacy without strength is cowardice looking for an excuse to display itself. Diplomacy with American strength will get results. Those results will be in the interest of the United States of America, to be sure. But Roosevelt was always unafraid to proclaim that when America is strong, the whole world is better off.
It may have been Ronald Reagan who in 1987 asked Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." But standing just behind Reagan was the memory of Theodore Roosevelt, with his big stick.
And that wall did come down ? much sooner than anyone anticipated.
In an age of uncertainty and moral relativism, returning to the spirit of Roosevelt is like a breathe of fresh air. He saw situations clearly and acted boldly, always in the interest of America. If he helped other people and other nations along the way, so be it. But that was not his intent. He always put America first.
It is thus appropriate and probably inevitable that such an amazing man would become not only President of the U.S. ? but also that he would eventually grace Mt. Rushmore alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
What, then, do men like us take from a giant and a real-life hero like Theodore Roosevelt? I think a few things.
First, struggling for self-improvement is a continual goal; but rest, comfort and ease are not worthwhile goals on their own. Yes, we must rest in order to recuperate. But we must recuperate only to come back stronger. We should find our weaknesses, root them out and pound them until they become our strengths. That is the way of the true man.
Second, the protection of those within our sphere of influence is one of our highest callings. For Roosevelt, his sphere of influence was (appropriately for a man of his energy level and capacity) the United States.
For us, our spheres of influence are smaller, but no less important. We are called to nurture, protect and promote our families, our businesses and vocations, and our churches and other voluntary associations. We should without reservation boldly promote these interests, protect them from harm and work hard to advance them. That doesn't mean that we should be brutal or unethical or take short cuts. History shows that those methods are the way of the coward and any short term, ill-gotten gains are not in fact in the interest of those we are called to protect. Our call is to be guided by ethics, morality and fair play and within those guidelines to defend, nurture, promote and cherish those in our sphere of influence. Nothing more, nothing less.
We need not save the world; indeed, if more of us would just take care of our spheres of influences with half the energy of Roosevelt, then the world would largely be taken care of. That is an agenda which TR would agree that every man should pursue, and pursue it with might, vigor and desire. Men like that will undoubtedly wear out, not rust out, but TR would have it no other way.
My hope is that the life of Theodore Roosevelt will do for you what he has done for me; that his life will inspire you and bless you as you fulfill your God-given potential. If you are inspired by Roosevelt and his life, then please visit my web site: http://www.ConversationsFromthePast.com.
Copyright 2005 Mark Cole
Mark Cole, an attorney, has degrees from Baylor, Yale, Notre Dame & University of Houston. To learn more about how the Great Men can inspire and motivate you, visit http://www.ConversationsFromthePast.com