A Strenuous Life

At the turn of the century, the country was polarized by muckraking political parties, corporate corruption dominated the public funds and private industries, a foreign invader threatened stability, and the specter of environmental destruction hung over everything like a sooty cloud.

This was not the year 2000, but the decades leading up to 1900, a hundred years previous and many of the same problems we still face today.

All of American History contains valuable lessons – but probably no time is more relevant to our current crop of problems than the Gilded Age. In the years following the Civil War, industrialists from the northern states stretched their iron fists across the mountains and forests of the west to transform raw materials into hard currency. Waves of immigrants and newly freed slaves provided the man-power, and the growing corruption in all levels of politics allowed these robber barons to grow fat and wealthy.

Into this world of privilege – in fact, the capital of it all: Manhattan – was born a sickly boy named Theodore. His father was an influential businessman / politician, and the boy’s youth was filled with homeschooling, trips to Europe and the lands of antiquity, summers on the shores of Long Island. But Teddy was an inquisitive guy, fascinated with the workings of the natural world – especially birds, which he would first shoot and then stuff to practice his amateur taxidermy.

But he was plagued with debilitating asthma and other ailments and struggled to keep up with his athletic siblings and cousins. Instead of sinking into feeble nerdy despair, he took to heart his father’s stern prodding, and willed himself to physical health, climbing local mountains, lifting weights, boxing and swimming and playing tennis. His mission was not happiness, or leisure (which were his by birthright, and did in his brother), but to live the Strenuous Life.

By the time he enrolled in Harvard, he was fit and trim, and moved like a man of action, despite occasional setbacks and fits of ill health.

If anything can stand as a metaphor for his life – it’s that image of a sick boy denying reality and pushing through to build himself up.

He excelled in Harvard, socially and academically, becoming president of prestigious clubs, and he even wrote history books in his free time. He pursued and married his college crush, a beautiful and radiant girl named Alice Lee, and soon after graduation was elected as a state representative.

After two years of honorable (if raucous) service, his wife and mother died on the same day, throwing him into a black despair. It was from there he went west to seek his fortune in the cattle business and heal his soul.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the account and exploration of TR’s life from birth to his ascension to the Presidency, following McKinley’s assassination. The book is written as narrative, utilizing private journals and primary accounts to paint a picture not only of Roosevelt’s actions, and the focal points of history, but his mind set, his strategic political thinking, the growth and evolution of his ideologies.

Roosevelt is fascinating because he is a study in contrasts. He was a son of the rich New England Upper Crust, yet he found himself at home among leathery cowboys of the Wild West – the Rough Riders. He was a sickly boy yet rose to great physical heights, climbing the Matterhorn in his early 20s. He was a thinker and writer, but also a man of action and physical drive – riding horseback for days through North Dakota snowstorms. He was a great lover of the beauty of the wild – yet he was a bloody and violent hunter, cataloguing his slaughter by the dozens, complete with gory descriptions of the carnage. He was an idealist and a promoter of moral values and absolutes, yet he was a shrewd player of the political game, accumulating favors and playing rivals off one another, even reaching outside his ‘legal authority’ when his superiors were off on Summer vacation.

At the turn of the century, American industry was churning – railroads and factories were producing the goods of the civilized world, and making fledgling corporations wealthy. But America as a country was still weak – with an aging fleet and an undisciplined army. Spain still controlled islands in the Caribbean – Cuba, Puerto Rico.

Roosevelt had the vision to see America as more than a collection of States united by a common constitution, but more so, a common dollar. He saw America as a first-world power, the hegemony of the western hemisphere, and Europe locked up on their side of the Atlantic. He even went so far as to provide racial reasoning for his imperialism, in his sprawling four-tome series The Winning of the West. He saw the Anglo-Saxon peoples as destined to conquer both the rugged land of the west and the natives that inhabited it, and that journey forged them into a unique and bold race called Americans.

Roosevelt adhered to the philosophy of “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” He applied his philosophy to civilizations as well as individuals. These ideas, which veer close to Social Darwinism, are certainly out of vogue today, but an interesting thought experiment is to follow these ideals to their logical conclusions.

Every other major world power was also engaged in nationalism and imperialism, and if America hadn’t started when it did (with the building of the Great White Fleet and the victory over the Spanish in Cuba) the United States potentially could have been overrun in the decade leading up to World War I.

Of course, this is all speculation, but if anything, Roosevelt kicked off the modern era of American history, the American Century. No longer the underdog, we became the masters of our geography, global-political events, culture, etc. One could say Roosevelt foresaw all that even as a young boy traveling by boat along the Nile, observing the colossal decay of the old empires, stuffing Ibises with formaldehyde.

Rise is a brilliant biography not because it accounts for the facts and accuracy. The footnotes can vouch for that. Morris’s gift is presenting Roosevelt as one of the most fascinating characters in American history, with tics and flaws, but also possessing greatness.

Roosevelt was a die-hard republican, and even in the 1890s the GOP was a party of big business. Yet he spearheaded the progressive movement, slicing through corruption, creating better accountability and transparency in government, and siding with the people (in most cases the generic idealized populace, or the natural health of the land, rather than a specific populist lobby). In his view, the role of the GOP was to set guidelines and principles not only to referee commerce, but also benefit the United States.

The modern GOP forgets the nationalist side of the equation (outside of the hollow warhawk rah-rahing), allowing big biz offshore tax havens and freewheeling outsourcing, even allowing foreign firms to own domestic infrastructure and manufacturing. Roosevelt would never have stood for that. He knew that unmoderated corporations were an amorphous, evil thing, and he hit them hard with intelligent and effective measures.

Perhaps the American century is over, globalization’s hold is too strong we’ll never again see a politician as dynamic and effective as TR. But both his life, words and deeds are part of our heritage, and maybe our hour has not yet come. Teddy would have reveled in the challenge.

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