Aug. 7, 2009
I had to go, said former President Theodore Roosevelt of the expedition that nearly killed him, it was my last chance to be a boy. Roosevelt had charged up Brazils River of Doubt with the same verve and bullish enthusiasm he tackled everything else in his life. He was the one, after all, who preached to his fellow Americans from his bully pulpit. He preached to them of a strenuous life, rejecting the path of ignoble ease.
I certainly could not claim my friends and I would be facing anything like the headhunting tribesmen T.R. faced up the Amazon, or man-eating piranhas. But we would be facing another dangerous breedNew York drivers. Yes, I told my incredulous wife, were going to go to Sagamore Hill, Theodore Roosevelts family home. And were going to do 500 miles in one day.
Sagamore Hill was built by young Theodore Roosevelt for his lovely young wife, Alice Hathaway Lee. Tragedy struck, however, and T.R.s bride was taken from him shortly after delivering their child. The date was February 14, 1884. On that same day in that same New York City brownstone, T.R.s beloved mother died. Valentines Day was never celebrated again in the Roosevelt home. Construction would proceed slowly on the Oyster Bay home. It had to be renamed, of course. Leeholm became Sagamore Hill, in honor of the Indian chieftains who met in council there.
Stricken by grief, T.R. would soon light out for the territories. In the Badlands of the Dakota Territory, he built his body even as he restored his spirit. Nearly three years after that double tragedy, the young New York State Assemblyman re-married. Edith Kermit Carow had been T.R.s childhood friend. Now, she would be the mistress of his house and the steady sheet anchor of his life. It would be Edith who kept the family books. T.R. would go out each day with two dollars in his pocketand return each night empty-handed.
The national historical site at Oyster Bay, New York, is a monument to a man and a marriage. It is a family seat. Theodore Roosevelts home dates from 1886. Virtually every item in this late-Victorian mansion remains as it was when the old Lion died there January 6, 1919.
To step into that darkened hallway is to enter another world. You have to wait in the entry hall until your eyes adjust to the darkness. Like so many other period mansions. Sagamore Hill is surrounded by shade trees and awnings, and the home is darkened further by the rich oak paneling in the entry hall.
You can barely move without danger of being impaled. Your guides must carefully maneuver your group. It seems every tusk, every tooth, every horn, every antler, and every foot from every beast T.R. ever shot is assembled in that hall to welcome you. You quickly learn that carnivorestimber wolves, lions, tigers, cougars and bearsare stuffed and mounted with their mouths open, their fierce fangs exposed. Ruminantsbuffalo, moose, elk, deer, antelope, and even the most dangerous Cape Buffaloare grass-chewers and their less impressive teeth are usually hidden.
Edith Roosevelt drew a line with Theodore. She liked to say it was hard work managing her seven childrenthe six younger ones and her ever-boyish husband. She would not allow her dining room to be filled with mounted heads. There is one moose head in there, but Edith told quizzical friends to note its placementbehind her chair where she would not have to look at it.
Sagamore Hill was not just a lively family homefilled with trophies and booksbut the nations Summer White House. In fact, before 1902, the U.S. did not have a Summer White House. Because Roosevelts aides needed to be in touch with Washington and the world, and because anarchist assassination plots still threatened, the Secret Service insisted on installing a telephone. No longer would it suffice for Oyster Bays pharmacist to mount his bicycle and pedal out to the Roosevelt home with telephone messages for T.R. Grudgingly, T.R. agreed to the new-fangled contraption, but insisted that it would be yanked when his term ended in 1909. When it ended, however, T.R. had to manage something more dangerous than a herd of Cape Buffalofive teenagers.
Sagamore Hill was where the Roosevelt children could run and jump and yell to their hearts content. They included innumerable cousins and local children in their rough play.
When one of New Yorks elite, a dowager from the Four Hundred, asked one of the Roosevelt boys how he got along with the common boys of Oyster Bay, the younger child answered: Fathers says there are only four kinds of boys, good boys and bad boys, tall boys and short boys. Despite his own aristocratic Dutch patroon heritage, that lad was raised to believe in Americas fundamental creed.
Once, when the President was meeting on Cuban matters, a small boy opened the library door and announced it was past four oclock. Quickly, T.R. wrapped up his business and hurried out, explaining to his puzzled guest: I promised the boys Id go shooting with them at four oclock and I never keep the boys waiting.
President Theodore Roosevelt was the first national leader to express concern about marriage rates, divorce rates, and birth rates. He understood better than many of todays politicians that the nations health is measured by such numbers.
Always a teacher, Roosevelt wrote: The tasks connected with the home are the fundamental tasks of humanity. When home ties are loosened, when men and women cease to regard a worthy family life, with all its duties fully performed, and all its
responsibilities lived up to, as the best life worth living, then evil days for the [nation] are at hand.
Evil days are here. We can only imagine what T.R. would say of a forty-percent out-of-wedlock birthrate or 1,200,000 abortions a year. Of one thing we can be sure: He would not dismiss such things as a mere distraction.
At Sagamore Hill, you can see the evidences of Theodore Roosevelts passionate, engaged life. There, we find Japanese Samurai warriors in glass cases, his cavalry saber balanced along the antlers of an elk, an elephants tusks supporting the dinner gong, and the presidential flag bearing 45 stars. Youll see a library of 6,000 volumes and learn that the King of Norway thought T.R. knew more of his nations history than most Norwegians did.
Despite his strenuous lifeor perhaps because of itTheodore Roosevelt was a passionate family man and a powerful defender of family life.
There are many kinds of success worth having, he wrote, It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful business man, or railroad man, or farmer, or a successful lawyer or doctor. Then he turnedas he inevitably didpersonal: ...Or a writer, or a President, or a ranchman, or the colonel of a fighting regiment, or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of achievement lose their importance by comparison.
Has anyone ever said it better? Bully!
Robert Morrison, a Senior Fellow at Family Research Council, wishes to thank his friend Bill Mattox for the T.R. quotes used in this post.