Thursday, December 31, 2015

Theodore Roosevelt: American Badass

In this article, I am instead going to share several anecdotes that I hope will illustrate one thing: Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President, was an American badass.
Theodore Roosevelt as a young man.
I have chosen this format for my article because I think that Teddy Roosevelt's life is relatively well-known. There have been a huge number of books, movies, television programs etc. about him. You don't need me to tell you just how incredible his life was: that he came from a family that produced an unnatural number of politicians; that he was a sick child that by force of will reshaped his body to be strong; that he was one of our most important conservationists, putting in place nearly all of the National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries we have today, and inspiring the "teddy bear" in the process; that he was an avid hunter whose specimens make up a large percentage of the Smithsonian Museum's collection; that he was a reformer who made it his goal to eliminate corruption and abuse in government and big business; that he was a strong advocate for war and expansion, helping to force us into the Spanish-American War and acquiring the Philippines, and advocating the entry of the United States into World War I much earlier than we actually did. That he did all of these things is relatively well known, and it is fascinating, but you do not need me to tell you. The four stories I will share, however, I think point out one of the most incredible things about TR: he was incredibly tough, and he was very proud of being so tough, and worked very hard to cultivate that tough, cowboy image around himself.

Rough Riders

Newspaper headlines after the USS Maine was blown up in the Havana harbor in Cuba. The famous headline is "Remember the Maine."
Theodore Roosevelt was a huge advocate of war, arguing that war was good for America, to keep us from getting too soft and comfortable. He went so far as to claim he would "rather welcome a foreign war," because he feared America had lost it's "soldierly virtues." (Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, 222) In 1898, Roosevelt was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for President William McKinley. Teddy advocated that the US should oppose the Spanish government's colonial policies in Cuba, although this was in part because Roosevelt and men like him, whom today we call "jingos," wanted to take over Cuba, which was very close to the American mainland. Roosevelt used his position in the Navy department and his confidence in an imminent war with Spain to prepare the Navy. Part of his policy was convincing President McKinley to place a battleship, the USS Maine, in Havana Harbor in Cuba as "a friendly courtesy" to the Cuban people (Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, 223). But on February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded, killing 262 Americans. Although the cause of the explosion has never officially been determined, Roosevelt and other war-hungry Americans called the sinking of the Maine a treacherous act by the Spanish that was deserving of war. President McKinley, who did not want to go to war, was accused by Roosevelt of having "the backbone of a chocolate eclair."
President William McKinley. He would later be assassinated and replaced by Roosevelt. His refusal to declare war on Spain led Roosevelt to declare had a spine like a chocolate eclair.

Theodore Roosevelt may have been a warhawk, but he was a brave warhawk, and not one who would call for others to fight his war for him. Within weeks, Roosevelt had given up his important position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy for a position of lieutenant colonel in a volunteer regiment of troops that quickly became known as "Roosevelt's Rough Riders." This group of volunteers became a national sensation: the men recruited included cowboys, miners, hunters, Ivy League graduates, and elite college athletes, including the amateur U.S. tennis champion (Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, 227). 
A poster commemorating the Rough Riders.

Theodore Roosevelt was anxious to get to Cuba before the fighting ended. When his men were told that they would have to wait for a second wave of transport ships, Teddy refused the order, commandeered a ship, and had his men transported to Cuba. Soon, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders found themselves in Cuba engaging in battles. Not everything was smooth, however. In the chaos of landing, one of Teddy's horses drowned. The overall commander of forces weighed more than 300 pounds, could barely ride a horse, and was so crippled by gout he could not walk. The commander of cavalry, who was overseeing the Rough Riders, was a former Confederate soldier who was so old he sometimes forgot he was fighting the Spanish and not the Union. Recall that Roosevelt was not a soldier of any kind, and yet he quickly gained much renown as a soldier. In the Rough Rider's first battle, at Las Guasimas, the Rough Riders were ambushed by hidden Spanish soldiers. Despite never having faced enemy fire before, Roosevelt was transformed into "the most magnificent soldier I have ever seen." (Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, 229). Six men were killed and thirty-six were wounded, but Roosevelt was not among them, and his men were victorious. The week after, Roosevelt and his men would take part in the most famous battle of the war in Cuba: the Battle of San Juan Hill.
The Battle for San Juan Hill.

The Battle of San Juan Hill was the deciding battle of the war in Cuba. The Spanish were heavily entrenched on two neighboring hills, Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. The Rough Riders were assigned to take Kettle, while the regulars were assigned to capture San Juan. Roosevelt and his men were marching on Kettle Hill under heavy fire when Roosevelt suddenly charged toward the Spanish troops, a reckless charge his men thought he would not survive. He killed one Spanish soldier with his rifle, and narrowly avoided being shot. His men were encouraged and charged the hill, forcing the Spanish to retreat. When they reached the peak of Kettle Hill, Roosevelt looked over to San Juan Hill and saw that the American soldiers were struggling. He decided, without orders, to lead his men over to San Juan to turn the tide. The only thing he forgot to do was to tell his men, so he arrived at San Juan with only five other men, three of whom were quickly shot down. He rushed back to Kettle Hill, rallied his men, and returned to San Juan. When the Rough Riders reached San Juan Hill, they helped turn the tide and drive out the Spanish, taking the two hills and clearing the Army's path to the Cuban capital of Santiago.
Cuba. You can see how close it is to Florida. The battles the Rough Riders fought in happened on the Southwest end.

Roosevelt would describe the battle as "great fun," one of the better days of his life. He was incredibly proud that his men had suffered more casualties than any other battalion. Less than two weeks later, the Spanish were forced to surrender, and Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were allowed to return to the United States. One observer who watched the men disembarking the ship in New York noted that all of the men looked sick, wounded, exhausted, malarial... all except Roosevelt, who looked "the picture of health" and added, "I've had a bully time and a bully fight. I feel as big and strong as a bull moose. I wish you all could have been with us." (Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, 231) You can say what you will about Roosevelt being a jingo or a warhawk. He certainly was. But he was definitely a tough son-of-a-gun while he was doing it!
Teddy in his custom ordered Rough Rider outfit.


The second anecdote I have about the toughness of Theodore Roosevelt is one of his favorite hobbies when he was in the White House. While he was president, he was an enthusiast of several martial arts. He frequently boxed, until he was forced to stop when a punch caused him to lose vision in his eye.  He also became the first judo brown belt in the United States. He proudly showed anyone he could his skills, covering the White House basement in training mats, and wrestling anyone he could find. He once livened up a boring luncheon by throwing a Swiss ambassador to the ground and putting him in a judo hold, to the delight of those present. (Drapkin, MentalFloss)
Was this what Teddy looked like when he got his brown belt?
Teddy was famous around the country for his love of boxing for exercise.

But the most obscure martial art Theodore Roosevelt practiced was the British sport of singlestick. Originally practiced as a way of teaching young men how to use swords, singlestick evolved into a form of combat on it's own. Think of it like fighting with swords or lightsabers, only for fun, and without the fear of causing mortal injuries if you actually make contact with your opponent. Basically, this meant that Roosevelt and his friends would spend their free time beating each other with sticks. When they did it, they would wrap themselves in cushions to make the blows less painful. Roosevelt's favorite partner was General Leonard Wood, his close friend and former commander of the Rough Riders, who at that time was Major General of the Army. Wood apparently frequently beat Roosevelt, including one time where he left a large bruise on Roosevelt's forehead and arm, and a deep cut on his hand that forced him to shake hands left-handed for days after. When he was too badly bruised, Teddy would still ride his horse in the snow or split wood. The Minneapolis Journal once ran an illustration showing the locations of Teddy's many injuries, sarcastically labeling him "The Most Wounded President in the Nation's History (Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, 345)." Many people let the menial tasks of life keep them from getting even the most basic amounts of exercise; Teddy Roosevelt overcame the strict time crunch of the Presidency to practice a wide number of martial arts!
Men having a singlestick contest,

Roosevelt with his favorite sparring partner, friend, and commander of the Rough Riders, Major General Leonard Wood.
Soldiers practicing singlestick.

All Obstacles
Teddy on one of his many hikes.

Theodore Roosevelt had one other major source of exercise while he was President. When he could, Teddy would take a strenuous hike through Rock Creek Park, near the White House. As often as he could, he would bring guests along, to continue conversations and instill his love of nature and exercise in his friends. He had one rule for his guests on these hikes: you had to move through, not around, obstacles. Roosevelt said,
 If a creek got in the way, you forded it. If there was a river, you swam it. If there was a rock you scaled it, and if you came to a precipice you let yourself down over it.
No obstacle could get in the way of Roosevelt and his quickly exhausted and bedraggled guests, often ambassadors, emissaries and politicians who were not prepared for such tough endeavors. Many stories were published about the routes Teddy took, and the exhausted guests who had been forced to quit their pursuit of the cross-country president.
Roosevelt and family walking through Rock Creek Park.

My favorite part of this story, however, is the recollection from French ambassador Jules Jusserand, who had the misfortune of being dragged on a particularly tough hike his first time with the president. Jusserand arrived at the White House wearing a suit and silk hat, which he did not have time to change out of before their journey began. After a while, the two men reached a broad stream, which Jusserand assumed meant they were finished. Then he saw Roosevelt unbuttoning his clothes, and saying Jusserand had better strip off to avoid ruining his clothes! Jusserand says, in one of the funnier quotes I have ever read:
Then I too, for the honor of France, removed my apparel, except for my lavender kid (sheepskin) gloves... [To be without gloves] would be embarrassing if we should meet ladies.
First of all, imagine this poor man, butt-naked, swimming across a river following the president, wearing nothing but pink gloves. Secondly, how do gloves save him from being embarrassed in that situation? If I ran into a bunch of women after I got done swimming, I would rather be stark naked than wearing nothing but pink gloves. Maybe that's just me. But I think the main takeaway from this story, like the others, is how tough and adventurous Teddy Roosevelt was. (Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, 286)
Glove enthusiast Jules Jusserand.

The Assassination Speech

The final story I have about how amazing Theodore Roosevelt was comes from 1912, four years after Roosevelt left the White House and reentered private life. Soon after he had left the presidency, he became disenchanted with his successor and former friend, William Howard Taft. By the time the 1912 election cycle came around, Roosevelt had decided to run again for the presidency, despite the fact that it would have been for an unprecedented third term, and the fact that Taft was running for a second term, which meant that Roosevelt's Republican Party already had a candidate for President. This did not stop Roosevelt from founding a new party, known as the Bull Moose Party, because Roosevelt had said he felt as strong as a bull moose.
Campaign poster for the Bull Moose Party.
Roosevelt's successor and former friend, William Howard Taft.

Much like today, part of running for President is touring the country, giving speeches, shaking hands, kissing babies and grandmas, and showing the people that you are suited to be President. Roosevelt, always a man of exceptional energy and devotion, embarked on the greatest campaign tour in American history, visiting forty states by train, stopping to make speeches in hundreds of towns and cities. One of the cities he stopped in was Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 14, 1912. Despite having a hoarse voice because of an earlier speech, Roosevelt insisted in taking part in a parade in his honor.
Roosevelt giving a speech during the 1912 campaign.

At the beginning of the parade, Roosevelt entered an open car that would convey him down the street. When he got in the car, the crowd started chanting his name, and so he stood up and tipped his hat to them. As he stood, a man stepped forward, raised a pistol, and fired from point-blank range at Roosevelt. The bullet hit Teddy in the chest and he collapsed; his stenographer, a former football player who was in the car with him, leapt from the car and put the assassin in a headlock, and started to strangle him. The crowd began chanting for the stenographer to kill the assassin, but Roosevelt miraculously stood up and told the stenographer to bring the man over to him. Roosevelt turned the man's face towards him and asked him why he did it, but when the man did not respond, said, "Oh, what's the use. Turn him over to the police."
Newspaper headline about the assassination attempt.
The assassin turned out to be John Schrank, a deranged German bartender who told police that the ghost of Roosevelt's predecessor, William McKinley, had begged Schrank to avenge his death, which "McKinley" claimed was caused by Roosevelt. Schrank also stated that he believed any man trying to run for a third term as President deserved to be shot. It also became clear that Schrank had been trailing Roosevelt for weeks, but had never gotten a good opportunity, until Milwaukee. The man was obviously delusional, and was committed to an insane asylum. He later claimed he had nothing against Roosevelt the man, only Roosevelt the "third-termer."
The deranged John Schrank.
You may be asking, how did Roosevelt stand up? Wasn't he just shot point blank in the chest? Well, my friends, this is where good fortune crosses with a healthy dose of Roosevelt badass-itude. Roosevelt had three things going for him that day: 
  • It was a cold October day, so he was wearing a thick overcoat.
  • Roosevelt wore glasses, and when he was not wearing his glasses he kept them in a steel-reinforced glasses case, which he kept in his right breast pocket.
    Roosevelt's glasses case, with bullet hole.
  • Roosevelt was planning on giving a speech at the end of the parade. Roosevelt was not shy about using his words, and frequently gave long speeches. On that day, the script for his speech was fifty pages long! Not only that, it was typed on thick, heavy paper, and the speech had also been folded in half. And as luck would have it, Teddy had the speech stuffed into the same breast pocket as his glasses case.
    The fifty page speech, folded in half, that saved Teddy's life.
When Teddy opened his coat to allow doctors to check the wound, they found it just under his right nipple, shockingly close to his heart. Roosevelt took out his speech and glasses case, and it became very clear just how close to death he had been. The bullet had ricocheted off of the steel glasses case, penetrated the entire fifty page speech folded in two, and then entered the former President's chest, breaking his rib and lodging in his chest.

The x-ray of Roosevelt's chest after his assassination attempt.
For the average human, having such a close call would be a good excuse to drop out of the election race and retire. Theodore Roosevelt would have none of that. Instead, he insisted that he was still going to give his speech, obviously against the wishes of the doctors that were helping him. Roosevelt coughed several times to prove his lungs had not been punctured, and demanded that he be taken to the auditorium for his speech. His first words as he stepped to the podium were, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible." The crowd quieted down for his shocking revelation: "I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!” The crowd gasped in awe as he pulled open his coat and revealed his bloodstained shirt, and he pulled out his speech, perforated by the bullet. He then gave what ended up being an hour long speech, though some remembered it as being more like ninety minutes. Several times his aides, seeing that he was pale and having difficulty breathing and speaking, and worried he was going to collapse, begged him to stop the speech and go to a hospital, but he refused. "No sir," he replied, "I will not stop until I have finished!" (Drapkin, Mojo in the Dojo)
Political rival and future President Woodrow Wilson.

Finally, he ended his speech and agreed to be taken to the hospital. He would spend the next eight days there recovering. The doctors determined that the bullet would be safer left in Teddy's body. Doctors refused to allow him to continue to campaign, despite his strong desire to do so. Roosevelt's rivals in the campaign, William Taft and Woodrow Wilson, both offered to suspend their campaigns while he recovered, but Roosevelt refused the offer. Around the country, there was an empathy for the wounded Roosevelt, and some believed that it would propel him to victory. Three weeks after the shooting, Election Day came. The splitting of the Republican Party proved to be too much for either Taft or Roosevelt to overcome, and Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, would be elected by a landslide, 435 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 88 and Taft's meager eight. While it was a disheartening defeat for Roosevelt and his Progressives, it says a lot about his popularity that despite being a third-party candidate, Roosevelt finished second, ahead of an incumbent President from an established party. But that accomplishment pales in comparison to the fact that he gave a ninety minute speech with a fresh bullet wound inches from his heart! 
1912 election results.


After reading this, I hope you agree with me that Theodore Roosevelt was one of the toughest men in American history. He gave up a cushy office job to fight a war; he practiced martial arts when that was not really a thing to do; he treated all of life as a personal obstacle course; and he gave a speech and ran for President after being shot in the chest! Very few people can realistically compare their toughness to this man. That does not mean that Roosevelt was without controversy- he was way too fond of war and expansion; his policies towards blacks and Filipinos were racist at best; he may have overreached his boundaries  as President when making policies. But this article was not meant to be an analysis of Roosevelt the President- dozens of books have beaten that topic into the ground. This article was about Roosevelt the man, the human- one of the toughest we have ever seen. For that, he should be celebrated.

No explanation necessary.

  1. Burns, Ken. The Roosevelts. DVD. Directed by Ken Burns. Los Angeles: 2014, Florentine Films.
  2. Crezo, Adrienne. "The Time Teddy Roosevelt Got Shot in the Chest, Gave Speech Anyway." MentalFloss, (accessed December 31, 2015).
  3. Drapkin, Jenny. "Theodore Roosevelt: Mojo in the Dojo." MentalFloss, (accessed December 31, 2015).
  4. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Bully Pulpit (2013:Simon & Schuster, New York).
  5. Klein, Christopher. "Shot in the Chest 100 Years Ago, Teddy Roosevelt Kept on Talking. History, (accessed December 31, 2015).
  6. Wikipedia contributors, "Battle of San Juan Hill," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,:// (accessed December 31, 2015).
  7. Wikipedia contributors, "Rough Riders," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, :// (accessed December 31, 2015).
  8. Wikipedia contributors, "Singlestick," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, :// (accessed December 31, 2015).
  9. Wikipedia contributors, "Theodore Roosevelt," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, :// (accessed December 31, 2015).

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