#156 Theodore Roosevelt

Summary Notes


In "Mornings on Horseback," David McCullough chronicles the formative years of Theodore Roosevelt, revealing how his childhood struggles with asthma and the influence of his father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., shaped his tenacious character. Roosevelt's early loss of his wife and mother on the same day drove him to the Badlands, where he sought solace in nature and hard physical labor, embodying his life's motto "get action." Despite personal tragedies and health challenges, Roosevelt's zest for life and insatiable curiosity propelled him into politics, where he was known for his reformist zeal and fight against corruption. His love of adventure and the outdoors, meanwhile, led to significant conservation efforts during his presidency. McCullough's narrative captures Roosevelt's complex persona—a blend of vivacity and introspection—as he emerged from adversity to become one of America's most dynamic and influential figures.

Summary Notes

Early Life of Theodore Roosevelt

  • Theodore Roosevelt's last big adventure in the West is recounted by Victor Stickney.
  • Roosevelt pursued thieves who stole a boat, embodying his principle of not tolerating theft.
  • The adventure included harsh conditions, reading "Anna Karenina," and capturing the thieves without violence.
  • Roosevelt's determination and energy were evident throughout the ordeal.

"The story, one Theodore was to tell many times, and one that was to be told about him for years after he'd left the Badlands, was of his last and biggest adventure in the west, and may be summarized briefly as follows."

The quote provides a summary of Roosevelt's adventure, indicating its significance in his life and legacy.

Roosevelt's Principles and Personality

  • Roosevelt was against passivity in the face of wrongdoing.
  • His preparedness with books and a camera suggests he was a man of intellect and foresight.
  • Roosevelt's handling of the thieves showcased his respect for law and moral principles.

"To submit tamely and meekly to theft or to any other injury is to invite almost certain repetition of the offense."

This quote reflects Roosevelt's philosophy that not standing up to wrongdoing encourages its recurrence, highlighting his stance on justice and personal responsibility.

Roosevelt's Endurance and Resolve

  • Roosevelt's journey included extreme physical challenges and sleep deprivation.
  • His decision not to execute the thieves on the spot reveals his adherence to justice over vigilantism.
  • Stickney's impression of Roosevelt was one of peculiarity and admiration.

"So by the time Dr. Stickney saw him, he had walked 45 miles in something less than two days with no sleep, and had at last deposited his prisoners in jail."

The quote emphasizes Roosevelt's physical endurance and commitment to justice, as he chose to bring the thieves to legal authorities rather than taking swift, possibly violent, action.

The Book "Mornings on Horseback"

  • The book discusses Theodore Roosevelt's extraordinary family and his unique upbringing.
  • Authored by David McCullough, the book aims to explore the influences that shaped Roosevelt's character.

"About Today, which is mornings on horseback, the story of an extraordinary family, a vanished way of life, and the unique child who became Theodore Roosevelt and is written by David McCullough."

The quote introduces the book "Mornings on Horseback" as a study of Theodore Roosevelt's early life and the factors that contributed to his development into a prominent historical figure.

Reasons for Reading Roosevelt's Biography

  • The host's interest in Roosevelt was piqued by his appearances in other biographies.
  • Roosevelt's intriguing personality and life experiences stood out, even in brief mentions.

"And so that piqued my interest, and I knew I had to read a biography of him. I wanted to know more about this just crazy, eccentric character who lived one of the craziest lives in human history."

The quote explains the host's motivation for delving into Roosevelt's biography, driven by Roosevelt's fascinating and multifaceted life story.

Selection of David McCullough's Book

  • David McCullough's reputation as an author influenced the host's choice.
  • The book focuses on Roosevelt's formative years, offering insights into his later achievements.

"Because David McCullough wrote one of my favorite books that I ever read, and I covered it back, all the way back on founders number 28, and it's the Wright brothers."

The quote reveals the host's admiration for McCullough's writing and the impact it had on the decision to read his biography of Roosevelt.

Early Influences on Roosevelt

  • Roosevelt's father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., had a significant impact on his life.
  • The Roosevelt family was wealthy yet paradoxically grounded, valuing education and action.

"So Teddy Roosevelt had a life motto. He gets from his dad, Stan Lee. I don't know how to pronounce it, it's the name of the book I read. It's like excessler, but the translation is ever upward. So Teddy Roosevelt's motto in life is get action."

This quote highlights the life motto "get action," inherited from Roosevelt's father, which encapsulated the ethos of seizing opportunities and being proactive in life.

Roosevelt's Education and Reading Habits

  • Roosevelt was educated at home rather than in formal schools, which fostered a love for reading.
  • Despite health challenges, Roosevelt was a voracious reader and later became a prolific author.

"They were uninhibited by education. They were ardent readers, insatiable askers of questions, chronically troubled, cursed, it would often seem, by one illness or mysterious disorder after another."

The quote describes the Roosevelt family's approach to education, emphasizing self-directed learning and intellectual curiosity despite facing health issues.

Roosevelt's Health Challenges

  • Roosevelt's childhood was marked by severe asthma and other health problems.
  • His family's storytelling instilled a love for adventure and the outdoors, shaping his interests.

"So one thing, main part of Theodore Roosevelt's childhood and early life is that he suffered a lot of health problems. The biggest health issue was that he was asthmatic, and he'd have these debilitating asthma attacks."

The quote points to Roosevelt's struggles with asthma, which played a significant role in his early life and influenced his character development.

Teddy Roosevelt's Childhood and Influences

  • Teddy Roosevelt suffered from asthma, which was a profound influence on his life.
  • His mother's storytelling about guns, violence, and adventure deeply captured his imagination.
  • Roosevelt's father was a significant figure in his life, instilling values and shaping his character.
  • Teddy Roosevelt's autobiography details both the importance of his father and a regrettable decision his father made to avoid the Civil War by hiring a substitute.
  • Roosevelt's father's regret influenced Teddy to compensate for this perceived flaw through his own actions.
  • As a child, Teddy was full of mischief and had a strong yearning for adventure.
  • His nickname was "TD," but he is commonly referred to as Teddy.

"So it's just an attack of asthma. They could soothe and distract him as almost nothing else could." This quote highlights the severity of Teddy Roosevelt's asthma and how it impacted his childhood, requiring constant attention and care.

"He says guns, violence, savage death, episodes that seem more like the stuff of fable or fantasy were all part of the world that his mother spun." Teddy's mother influenced his imagination with stories of adventure and heroism, which stayed with him throughout his life.

"It talks about how important his dad was, and then also a mistake that his dad regrets that Teddy writes in his own life." The quote refers to the significance of Teddy's father in his life and a mistake his father made that Teddy later wrote about in his autobiography.

Teddy Roosevelt's Father's Influence and Regret

  • Teddy Roosevelt's father avoided the Civil War by hiring a substitute, a decision he regretted until his death.
  • This decision affected Teddy profoundly, as he saw it as a flaw in an otherwise idolized father.
  • The regret fueled Teddy's desire to prove himself and compensate for his father's perceived weakness.

"He, meaning his father, avoided the war, that's the Civil War, by hiring a substitute he paid to have some other man go in his place, which was both legal and costly." This quote explains the action Teddy Roosevelt's father took to avoid military service, which was legal but later regretted by both father and son.

"The decision had a profound effect on his older son and namesake, for whom it became the glaring single flaw in the life of an idolized father, and one he would feel forever compelled to compensate for." Teddy Roosevelt was deeply influenced by his father's decision to avoid the war, which he saw as a flaw he needed to make up for in his own life.

Teddy Roosevelt's Early Ambitions and Writings

  • Teddy Roosevelt, even as a child, was eager for adventure and had aspirations that were larger than life.
  • He began writing at a young age, with his first book focusing on the role of the Navy in the War of 1812.
  • His admiration for fearless men and the desire to emulate them came from the stories of his ancestors and his father's example.
  • Roosevelt's ambitions were shaped by the stories he was exposed to and his personal experiences.

"Teddy, whose hunger for adventure in any printed or spoken form was insatiable, and whose private musings on large matters of historic consequence were sometimes so out of proportion with his physical size and age as to be strangely amusing." This quote describes Teddy Roosevelt's insatiable appetite for adventure and his tendency to dream big, even as a young child.

"It was from the heroes of my favorite stories he would explain as a grown man, from hearing of the feats performed by my southern forefathers, that's his mother's side. And from knowing my father that I felt great admiration for men who were fearless." This quote shows how Teddy Roosevelt's admiration for bravery and heroism was influenced by his family's stories and his father's character.

Teddy Roosevelt's Health Struggles and Philosophy

  • Roosevelt's asthma had a significant impact on his personality, outlook, and life direction.
  • The writings of an English physician named Salter influenced Teddy's and his father's approach to dealing with asthma.
  • Salter's emphasis on the importance of exercise resonated with Teddy's philosophy of action and effort.
  • Roosevelt learned to view life as a battle and saw himself as tenacious, which shaped his response to challenges.

"Much of what Salter wrote on the importance of exercise reads as if it might have been the very text for all Theodore was to preach to his small son, and the son himself would choose as his own lifelong creed." This quote indicates that the writings of Salter on exercise profoundly influenced Teddy Roosevelt's approach to life and his personal creed.

"For a child as acutely sensitive and intelligence as he was, the impact of asthma could not have been anything but profound, affecting personality, outlook, self-regard, and the whole course of his young life." The quote highlights how asthma not only affected Teddy Roosevelt's health but also his personality and life trajectory.

Teddy Roosevelt's Determination and Work Ethic

  • Roosevelt's determination to overcome his physical limitations was instilled by his father.
  • His father's words encouraged him to make his body and build himself up through his own efforts.
  • This determination led to a lifelong habit of strenuous exercise and a love for the outdoors.
  • Roosevelt's approach to life was characterized by his relentless pursuit of his goals and his refusal to acknowledge fatigue.

"Theodore, you have the mind, but you do not have the body. And without the help of the body, the mind cannot go as far as it should." This quote reflects the advice Roosevelt's father gave him, emphasizing the importance of physical strength to support his intellectual ambitions.

"Suddenly, as he told his friend, he saw himself for what he was, an affront to human shape, boneless, all speed, no strength. A pretender." Roosevelt's realization of his physical weakness motivated him to strive for strength and emulate the heroes he admired.

The Impact of Grief and Loss on Teddy Roosevelt

  • The deaths of Roosevelt's father, mother, and wife were significant emotional challenges that shaped his character.
  • Roosevelt dealt with grief through physical exertion, a coping mechanism he used throughout his life.
  • He expressed his pain and loneliness in his private diary, revealing the depth of his anguish after his father's death.
  • Despite his self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, Roosevelt was determined to live up to his father's legacy.

"To young Theodore, it was all a hideous dream. In his private diary, he let go, pouring out pain and bewilderment and a torrent of longing and loneliness and angry self judgment." This quote captures the intense grief and emotional turmoil that Roosevelt experienced following his father's death.

"He was the most wise and loving father that ever lived. I owe everything to him." Here, Roosevelt expresses his deep admiration and gratitude for his father, highlighting the profound impact his father had on his life.

Roosevelt's Approach to Emotional Pain and Physical Activity

  • Roosevelt's response to emotional pain was to immerse himself in physical activity.
  • He was known for pushing himself to the limits, exemplified by his love for rowing and hiking.
  • His determination and grit were evident even when his physical health was in question.

"He loved to row in the hottest sun over the roughest water in the smallest boat." This quote illustrates Roosevelt's determination and his use of strenuous physical activity as a means to cope with emotional challenges.

"He's not strong, but he's all grit. He'll kill himself before he'll even say he's tired." The quote reflects the perception of Roosevelt's character by those around him, noting his exceptional determination and refusal to acknowledge his physical limitations.

The Importance of Belief and Confidence from Loved Ones

  • Roosevelt's father's belief in him played a crucial role in building his confidence.
  • The expression of belief from a parent or mentor can provide a significant boost to an individual's self-esteem and drive.
  • Roosevelt's father's explicit expression of trust and confidence in him was a source of strength and motivation.

"His father told him explicitly that I believe in you." This quote emphasizes the importance of verbalizing belief and support, as Roosevelt's father did, which had a lasting impact on Teddy's self-confidence.

"With father gone, nothing seems to have any purpose. Father was a shining example of the life he must aspire to." The loss of his father left Roosevelt searching for purpose and direction, showing the depth of influence his father had on his life goals and aspirations.

Resourcefulness and Frugality

  • Emphasis on the importance of watching costs and being resourceful.
  • The necessity of being frugal and avoiding letting small expenses compound.
  • The idea is applicable to both personal and business economies.
  • Theodore Roosevelt's father imparted a lesson on economy to him.

"But this idea about, gentlemen, watch your costs, about making sure you're resourceful, being frugal, not letting small expenses compound to the detriment of your life, your business, everything else."

The quote highlights the overarching theme of frugality and resourcefulness, stressing the importance of managing costs carefully in all aspects of life.

"His father had given him a brief lesson in economy."

This quote points to the origin of Roosevelt's understanding of frugality, which was instilled by his father, shaping his approach to finances.

Theodore Roosevelt's Energetic Lifestyle

  • Roosevelt was described as a figure of incessant activity.
  • He engaged in various physical activities and joined numerous clubs at Harvard.
  • His array of interests was vast, including sports, arts, and even starting a finance club.
  • Roosevelt began working on a book about the naval side of the War of 1812 during his senior year at Harvard.

"He could hardly have been more energetic. He was a figure of incessant activity, of constant talk, constant hurry, a bee in a bottle."

The quote illustrates Roosevelt's boundless energy and constant engagement in various activities, painting a picture of his dynamic personality.

"There was no one who possessed such an amazing array of interests."

This quote underscores Roosevelt's diverse interests and his involvement in numerous clubs and activities, highlighting his multifaceted nature.

Theodore Roosevelt's Personal Characteristics

  • Roosevelt was known for his inability to be indifferent.
  • He was an active participant in class and had a distinct manner of speaking.
  • His competitive nature led him to constantly measure his performance against others.
  • Roosevelt faced criticism for being egotistical but was driven by a need to prove himself.

"He was constitutionally incapable of indifference."

The quote describes Roosevelt's intense engagement with life and his inability to remain passive or uninterested in the events around him.

"He was a rabid competitor in anything he attempted."

This quote captures Roosevelt's competitive spirit and his constant drive to excel and outperform others in every endeavor.

Theodore Roosevelt's Early Political Career

  • Roosevelt entered politics by joining the New York State Assembly at a young age.
  • His approach to politics was characterized by his directness and eagerness to call out corruption.
  • He was known for his detailed observation and analysis of his political peers.
  • Roosevelt's zest for life and his approach to politics as a battle are highlighted.

"He plunged ahead, deferring to no one, making his presence felt."

The quote reflects Roosevelt's assertive and proactive approach to his political career, demonstrating his confidence and determination.

"He relished the battle itself. He loved to fight."

This quote emphasizes Roosevelt's enjoyment of the confrontational and challenging aspects of politics, which aligned with his combative nature.

Overcoming Personal Tragedy

  • Roosevelt faced the simultaneous deaths of his mother and wife, which marked a period of immense personal tragedy.
  • He experienced a sense of the brevity of life and the urgency to seize the moment.
  • Roosevelt's response to personal loss was to seek solitude and physical exertion in the Badlands.

"The sole overwhelming lesson was the awful brevity of life, the sense that the precipice awaited not just somewhere off down the road, but at any moment."

The quote conveys Roosevelt's realization of life's fragility and the importance of living fully and urgently in the face of mortality.

"On the day Alice died, Theodore made a large x on the page in his diary. And beneath that he wrote, only the light has gone out of my life."

This poignant quote expresses the depth of Roosevelt's grief following the death of his wife, symbolizing the profound impact the loss had on him.

Theodore Roosevelt's Physical Transformation and Courage

  • Theodore Roosevelt was initially mocked for his physical appearance but gained muscle through physical activity.
  • He displayed remarkable courage by confronting a drunken cowboy who had guns.
  • Roosevelt's actions demonstrated his fearless character even in the face of danger.

"Theodore stood up and in quiet, business like fashion, flattened an unknown drunken cowboy who had a gun in each hand, who, with a gun in each hand, had decided to make a laughing stock of him because of his glasses."

This quote highlights Roosevelt's response to being mocked, emphasizing his readiness to confront a potentially dangerous situation calmly and effectively.

Roosevelt's Struggle with Depression

  • Roosevelt experienced deep depression, feeling that he had nothing to live for after personal tragedy.
  • Despite having a child, he felt that she would be better off without him.
  • His expression of hopelessness is a stark contrast to his later achievements and reputation as a great father.

"Theodore could become very melancholy, very much down in spirits. It made no difference what became of him. He told Seawall he had nothing to live for."

This quote reflects the depth of Roosevelt's despair during a particularly low point in his life, as recounted by a close associate.

The Badlands Experience

  • Roosevelt retreated to the Badlands for solace and reflection.
  • The harsh and dangerous environment of the Badlands was a place of personal challenge and transformation for Roosevelt.
  • He believed that acting courageously could help him develop genuine courage.

"Anybody who preferred such a place to the east, Seawall wrote, must have a depraved idea of life or hate himself, or both."

This quote captures the view of Roosevelt's companion on his preference for the rugged Badlands over the comfort of his previous life, suggesting a possible self-destructive or penitential motive.

Roosevelt's Ranching Venture and Financial Loss

  • Roosevelt engaged in ranching and tried to raise cattle in the Badlands.
  • Despite losing a significant amount of money, he found value in the experience, which differed greatly from his political life back east.

"He winds up losing almost like a million dollars on this business venture he's doing right now."

The quote indicates the financial scale of Roosevelt's ranching failure, highlighting the risks he took and the lessons he learned from this venture.

Roosevelt's Admiration for Cowboys

  • Roosevelt admired the traits of cowboys, including their courage, endurance, and ethical code.
  • He valued honesty, hard work, and the ability to confront death, which was a regular part of cowboy life.

"Meanness, cowardice, and dishonesty are not tolerated. There's a high regard for truthfulness and keeping one's word, intense contempt for any kind of hypocrisy and a hearty dislike for a man who shirks his work."

This quote summarizes the qualities that Roosevelt respected in cowboys, reflecting the values he would carry into his own life and political career.

Roosevelt's Political Resurgence and Self-Belief

  • Roosevelt's time in the Badlands was a period of self-discovery that helped him regain his political ambitions.
  • Despite self-doubt, he maintained a belief in his potential to become president.

"On the train back, Theodore sat with his friend Arthur Packard, and remarked to Packard that he thought now he could do his best work in a public and political way."

This quote captures a pivotal moment where Roosevelt expresses renewed confidence in his political future, foreshadowing his eventual presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt's Presidency and Achievements

  • Roosevelt became the youngest president in history at 42 and had a diverse and extensive political background.
  • His presidency was marked by significant achievements, including antitrust actions, the construction of the Panama Canal, and the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • He was a champion of conservation, establishing numerous national parks and monuments.

"With the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, Theodore became, at 42 years old, the youngest president in history and possibly the best prepared."

This quote outlines the circumstances that led to Roosevelt's presidency and underscores his readiness for the role due to his varied political experience.

Roosevelt's Personal Life and Legacy

  • Roosevelt's second marriage was successful, and he was devoted to his children.
  • He was a prolific writer, producing a vast number of letters, speeches, and books.
  • Despite health challenges, he remained active and engaged in intellectual pursuits until his death.

"The boy who adored hero stories built a new navy and sent a fleet of battleships around the world on goodwill missions."

This quote illustrates Roosevelt's lifelong fascination with heroism and his efforts to embody those qualities as president, reflecting his dynamic and multifaceted nature.

Final Reflections on Roosevelt's Life

  • Roosevelt's life was characterized by intense engagement with the world and a capacity to fully live in the moment.
  • His life story is a testament to overcoming adversity and embracing life's challenges.

"He was so alive at all points, and so gifted with the rare faculty of living intensely and entirely in every moment as it passed."

This quote encapsulates the essence of Roosevelt's approach to life, highlighting his vigor and the inspiration he continues to provide through his legacy.

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