Theodore Roosevelt… Harvard graduate, historian, New York state assemblyman; rancher, United States Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy; Colonel-in-Charge of the “Rough Riders;” war hero; Governor of New York; Vice President of the United States; President of the United States. All of these accomplished by the time this extraordinary man turned 42 years old. Theodore Roosevelt’s historical achievements are indeed most impressive!
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, biographer Edmund Morris masterfully chronicles the life of this mercurial, complex, and paradoxical man who strode over the American political landscape like a colossus, becoming the 26th President of the United States (and perhaps of one of the greatest men ever to hold that office) after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901.
Morris’s brilliant narrative depicts Theodore Roosevelt as a man who towered over his world. Yet who would have guessed at future greatness for this, the oldest son of one of New York’s wealthiest and most respected families? A sickly child, afflicted with constant bouts of asthma and chronic diarrhea, he is seen by his parents as a child “with the mind, but not the body…” for high achievement. But the young Roosevelt senses his own potential for greatness and resolves to strive mightily to achieve it…
Throughout his life, TR is a man of many paradoxes. Taught at home by his aunt, he eventually attends Harvard University. He graduates magna cum laude in 1880, a Phi Beta Kappa key in one hand and a membership in Porcellain, Harvard’s most prestigious social club, in the other. The son of a wealthy philanthropist, he eschews the traditional, genteel, upper-class lifestyle in favor of the rough-and-tumble of New York politics. A member of the Republican party – the party even then of capitalism and conservatism – he champions progressive reform throughout his mercurial political career. By age 26, he has served two terms in the New York state assembly; has earned the begrudging respect of his colleagues; and has authored several significant pieces of reform legislation.
This paradoxical son of wealth and privilege favors a simpler, more unadorned lifestyle. After the deaths of his first wife, Alice Lee Hathaway Roosevelt, and his mother, Mittie (both women tragically and ironically die on the same day, in the same house), TR flees New York, heading to the harsh, uncompromising Dakota Badlands to earn his living as a cattle rancher and author of books. Here, in this sun-bleached, barren country scarred by the searing heat of summer and icy winter’s blast, a startling transformation takes place in the young Theodore Roosevelt: the thin, sickly, youth of sallow skin and frail constitution becomes the muscular, tanned, robustly healthy man known to posterity.
In addition to examining Roosevelt’s personal qualities, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt vividly demonstrates how this intensely energetic politician used his forceful personality in the cause of badly needed reform at all levels of American government. Morris devotes the vast majority of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt to spinning a highly detailed, absorbing, and wonderfully written narrative of the events that take place prior to TR’s ascension to the Presidency.
As Morris points out, Roosevelt puts his personal stamp on nearly everything he undertakes. As Civil Service Commissioner during the Benjamin Harrison administration, he publicly – some say bumptiously – investigates claims of graft and corruption within the Civil Service. He alienates many colleagues, but achieves lasting results. During his tenure, the Civil Service expands dramatically, despite fierce political opposition. The same holds true for TR’s tenures as president of the New York City Police Commission (1895-97) and Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1897-98.)
In 1898 there begins a series of events that propels TR to national fame. When war breaks out between the United States and Spain, TR asks for and receives commission in the New York National Guard. Soon he has assembled a tough group of cavalrymen called the “Rough Riders” – friends from his days at Harvard and in the old west. On July 1, 1898, TR and his grizzled band of soldiers will enter the pantheon of American heroes at a place in Cuba called San Juan Hill…
After the Spanish-American War ends, TR returns to a tumultuous hero’s welcome. He’s soon persuaded to run for Governor of New York. After a tough, closely fought campaign that features former “rough Riders” endorsing their candidate, TR is elected by a razor-thin margin of 18,000 votes out of nearly 1.1. million votes cast.
TR will only spend a year in the governor’s mansion, though. That year will be marked by controversy as Roosevelt once again tries to force progressive reform legislation through a recalcitrant, conservative New York legislature. By 1900, New York’s “old pols” have had enough. Considering TR “too dangerous” to keep on as governor, they make an arrangement to get Roosevelt out of their way: if President McKinley chooses the 41-year old reformer as his vice presidential running mate in the 1900 election, then four years later – if all goes as planned – political oblivion will await TR. McKinley agrees, and an unsuspecting Roosevelt enthusiastically joins the ticket.
“If all goes as planned…”
In November 1900, McKinley easily wins re-election and Theodore Roosevelt becomes Vice President of the United States. Ten months later, on September 6, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President William McKinley is gunned down by a young anarchist…
Not since I read William Manchester’s two-volume The Last Lion biography of Winston Churchill have I read a book that’s as good as The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Make no mistake: this book is as good as biography gets. Here is powerfully eloquent story of one of the most gifted and controversial men of the twentieth century, and perhaps even of all time.
Edmund Morris is a noted American biographer whose first – and best – work is The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. (He’s also the author of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, a book that generated much controversy when it was published in 1999.) In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris proves himself a real master of the biographer’s art. With prose that’s always lively, eloquent, and entertaining, Morris paints a wonderfully detailed portrait of a man who truly was “larger than life.”
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt reads almost like a novel. I haven’t found a single part of this book that I would classify as “dry” or boring. In fact I found it pretty hard to put down once I started reading it. Part of the reason for that, I suppose, is because TR’s life was so darned fascinating to begin with; but give Edmund Morris his due. He has told the story of Theodore Roosevelt with tremendous style and panache.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a fair and balanced biography, although Edmund Morris displays an obvious affection for his subject. Morris combines an intellectually stimulating and literate historical narrative with brilliantly insightful historical analysis. Roosevelt’s less attractive qualities – his impulsiveness, his emotionalism, and his attempts at self glorification among others – all receive full coverage in this masterful book.
Edmund Morris has written an extremely readable, highly entertaining, and factually sound biography. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, he completely captures the essence of this towering early twentieth century figure, making him totally relevant to today’s readers. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a biography that’s indeed very well worth reading!
Other Book Reviews by Mike Powers: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 ; An Army at Dawn ; The Alienist ; Last Man Standing ; Is Paris Burning? ; The Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for History Books of All Time