I picked up The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt a while ago when it was on sale. I knew it had one a Pulitzer Prize and that it was listed as one of the top 100 non-fiction books ever written by Modern Library.
Starting with his early life and continuing until McKinley’s death, which is what moved Roosevelt from Vice President to President, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is indeed a very good biography. It wasn’t until I was nearly finished that I went back and realized that this was originally published in 1979.
The treatment of the first couple years of Teddy’s life felt a bit too light and almost hagiography. But that fell away as he became an adult. I saw in one of the reviews on Goodreads that someone said, ‘It would be hard to make Theodore Roosevelt into an uninteresting character.’ And that is very true. His life was fascinating.
He was a real reformer, albeit one that was still highly influenced by his culture. He supported women’s right to vote very early. He worked to see African Americans included in the Republican Party convention and supported other instances of what we could anachronistically call civil rights in the late 19th century. He worked strongly for government reform and against machine politics and patronage.
But he also was extremely jingoistic and casually racist against Native Americans and many others as was common of the day. But even at the time, many did not want him to be the Assistant Secretary of War because he was too fascinated by war and Manifest Destiny even at the time.
Part of what is fascinating to me is the role his insistence of proper behavior played in his life. He was very moral and proper and expected other to be as well. Not just about not cheating on his wife (or sleeping around before he was married) or drinking too much or selling votes or similar, but also about the proper ways to address your class or cultural betters. He hated to be referred to as Teddy and even just Roosevelt was not allowed by someone that worked for him or under him.
Another fascinating part of the book is how much class and family wealth allowed him to be a reformer. Without his family wealth and position, he would not have been elected at 24. And while he wrote a very good book on the Naval War of 1812 at just 21, he would not have been able to do that if he didn’t have his education and background and wealth that allowed him the freedom and time for writing.
His force of personality was clearly an important trait and allowed him to accomplish much. But his force of personality also was extreme and unhealthy in many ways. He expected everyone to be right. He was known for working extremely hard, both physically and mentally. (It is always interesting to me how hard so many great people work to be great.) But he also expected that hard work to give him great rewards.
One weakness of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a lack of exploration of his religious and moral values. He was married in a Unitarian church, but that was the only church that was really mentioned. He is described as moral, at least having a strong personal moral code. But there is no sense of what the moral code was rooted in, was it cultural based on his WASPish background? Was there any deep faith, presumably Christian given his time and location in history? And while we all have blind spots, there is not really an exploration of how his strong sense of personal morality and his somewhat radical fight against public corruption seemed to have little relationship to how he understood war, the dominance of Native Americans and Cuba or even the closer class system.
I look forward to reading the next two volumes, although the reviews temper my excitement a bit because both are not reviewed as well as this one.