I consider Theodore Roosevelt one of the most fascinating figures in American history, and certainly one of our Nation’s greatest presidents. I suppose my affinity for Teddy Roosevelt (TR) stems in part from the fact that he and I share a few things in common. No, I didn’t graduate with honors from Harvard; I didn’t hold elective office by the time I was 23 years old, and I doubt I’ll ever become President of the United States…
Like TR, I suffered from asthma as a child and spent my first few years under constant medical care. Also like TR, I never let my physical frailty hold me back. I compensated for my debility by becoming stronger in mind and spirit, and never, ever letting anything conquer my indomitable will to succeed.
I have a growing library of books about Theodore Roosevelt. In addition to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris’ brilliant two-volume Roosevelt biography, I own a third and lesser well-known book about TR: Theodore Roosevelt: A Life by Nathan Miller, which is is an altogether excellent one-volume account of the life of the 26th President of the United States.
In his preface to Theodore Roosevelt: A Life,, Nathan Miller proclaims that his book is the “first full-scale, one-volume biography [of Theodore Roosevelt] in three decades… intended for those readers who wish to know the full story of his life.”
It’s certainly a tall order, crowding into a book of 567 pages a detailed, comprehensive biography of a man with as many accomplishments and complexities as TR had. Yet that’s exactly what Nathan Miller has done! Theodore Roosevelt: A Life is a very good biography that acquits itself quite well alongside other, more renowned, award-winning biographies of this great man. Readers will find a highly competent, fast-paced narrative that gives readers a well-rounded picture of Theodore Roosevelt a man and as President.
Miller admirably captures the essence of Theodore Roosevelt’s fascinating life. The descriptions of Roosevelt’s life to 1901 are informative, entertaining, and historically accurate. I found the second half of Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, which is dedicated to telling TR’s story from his succession to the Presidency in 1901 until his death in 1919, especially interesting.
It is November 1900, and William McKinley has easily won re-election to the Presidency. Theodore Roosevelt, his running mate, is about to become Vice President after his political enemies in New York state strike a deal with McKinley to get TR out of their way.
Ten months later, on September 6, 1901, President McKinley is gunned down by a young anarchist. Eight days later, he dies and Theodore Roosevelt becomes the youngest President in United States history.
Despite early pledges to “continue, absolutely unbroken, the policy of President McKinley for the peace, the prosperity, and the honor of our beloved country,” TR soon embarks upon his own typically activist course of governance. During his 7½ years in the White House, Roosevelt completely transforms both the office he holds and public perceptions of what the future role of the President should be. In both domestic and foreign affairs, Roosevelt is always on the move, bullying, cajoling, persuading, using every tool at his means to complete his progressive political agenda.
TR attacks illegal trusts with gusto. He aims the full regulatory power of the Federal government’s executive branch at the private sector, successfully curtailing the worst corporate abuses and cleaning up many unsafe and unsanitary industries. Federal troops are brought in to quell labor disturbances. During Roosevelt’s presidency, the Departments of Labor and Commerce are established as cabinet level agencies.
In foreign affairs, TR is no less an activist President. An early proponent of a Central American canal, Roosevelt first tries to persuade Colombia to grant leases to the United States for the right to dig a canal through Panama. When the Colombian government balks, TR simply works with Panamanian officials to foment a revolution in Panama. By 1904, Panama is an independent nation, and the canal is well under way. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt begins mediating a settlement between Russia and Japan, antagonists in the Russo-Japanese War. TR’s success in bringing these two nations to the peace table will win for him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Roosevelt wins the undying enmity of many people of wealth and privilege, who consider him a “traitor to his class.” His popularity soars among the American electorate, however. In 1904, he wins election to the Presidency by a landslide.
In 1908, despite being a popular as ever, TR decides not to seek a second elected term as President. He helps ensure that his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, gets the Republican nomination. After his subsequent election, Taft proves a bitter disappointment to Roosevelt. He’s much more conservative than his predecessor, and much less inclined to executive activism. In 1912, Roosevelt decides to oppose Taft’s re-nomination for the Presidency. Taft wins anyway; TR then “throws his hat in the ring” as a candidate of the “Bull Moose” party. It’s a three-way race between TR, Taft, and the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, who wins the election.
TR’s last years find him on the political sidelines. He watches helplessly as President Wilson either dismantles many of his progressive reforms or claims them as Democratic initiatives. An embittered Roosevelt makes Wilson his most hated political enemy.
Nevertheless, when the United States enters World War I, TR asks Wilson to give him an army commission and send him to Europe. Wilson coldly refuses. Frustrated and angry, Roosevelt sits out the war at his home in Oyster Bay, New York. In 1918, his son Quentin is killed in the war. Quentin’s death takes a terrible emotional and physical toll on Roosevelt. On January 6, 1919, a weary, haggard Theodore Roosevelt dies in his sleep.
When I first read Theodore Roosevelt: A Life a few years ago, I hadn’t read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,Theodore Rex, or any other books about TR. When I finished Miller’s book, I felt I had gained a very good appreciation of the man for whom I hold so much admiration.
Now, many years later, I’ve read other books about TR. My opinion of Nathan Miller’s book remains largely unchanged. I still hold Theodore Roosevelt: A Life in high regard, although I don’t think it’s the best TR biography available to readers today.
Theodore Roosevelt: A Life has one minor flaw that I find a bit disconcerting: an apparent dearth of historical analysis. As with most narrative histories, Miller concentrates primarily on what happened, rather than on why things occurred in the way they did. I suppose the flaw can be traced to a desire to keep the book of reasonable length, a daunting task considering the complexity and extraordinary accomplishments of TR’s life. The book’s paucity of historical analysis serves as a bit of an injustice to readers like me with a penchant for examining history in depth. Of course, with so many good Rooseveltean biographies currently in print (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex chief among them), readers like me have ready access to weightier, more analytical tomes about TR.
Having said all that, I still think Theodore Roosevelt: A Life is a very good book, especially for general readers who want to read a comprehensive one-volume introduction to TR’s life without getting bogged down in scholarly interpretations. Those readers will find Theodore Roosevelt: A Life very much to their liking.