The Bold Life of the Hero of San Juan Hill

The Bold Life of the Hero of San Juan Hill

By Larry Holzwarth
The Bold Life of the Hero of San Juan Hill

Like his famous distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt served as both Governor of New York and President of the United States. They also shared the distinction of serving as Assistant Secretaries of the Navy. Both were born of privilege, both believed in government’s role ensuring the common welfare. Theodore, known as Teddy (a moniker he detested) was a vigorous and active man for most of his adult life; an avid hunter and outdoorsman, who worked as a cowboy in the west, served in the Spanish American War, boxed and wrestled as president, and later in life explored the Brazilian wilderness, nearly losing his life in the process.

Forner president Theodore Roosevelt circa 1912. Wikimedia

In 1882, at the age of just 24, Roosevelt produced a book he researched and wrote while studying law at Columbia University, The Naval War of 1812. It remains a standard reference for the war. He later dropped his study of law, not because it was too difficult but because he found it too often confounded common sense. During his lifetime he produced at least 18 books, some of which remain unpublished, and served as an editor of Outlook Magazine. Along with writing he read extensively, sometimes several books in a single day, which he retained through an almost photographic memory. But it was adventure which lured him the most, and his life was filled with them. Here are just a few.

Roosevelt and a sister watch from a second story window as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession passes his family home in New York, 1865. New York Historical Society

1. He was a sickly and weak youth, plagued with asthma

Theodore was the second of four children born to Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and his wife Martha, a New York socialite known as Mittie. As a young child he exhibited an insatiable curiosity, teaching himself the art of taxidermy, guided by the books of his father’s extensive library. He also displayed severe asthma, which limited his physical activities and growth. At the age of six Theodore witnessed the funeral procession for the murdered Abraham Lincoln from a window of his father’s house. He preferred indoor activities to playing with other boys, and was largely home schooled, which further isolated him from others of his age. Small, bookish, and spindly, he was a target for bullies.

Following a family trip to Europe, in which he found the clean air of the Alps beneficial to his asthma and that hiking strengthened both his legs and lungs, he began the practice of daily physical exercise he would follow for the rest of his life. In New York he asked his father to find a boxing coach to teach him how to defend himself, a request his father was pleased to grant. The home schooling, through hired tutors and his own reading, prepared him for admission to Harvard, which he entered in 1876. While there he continued to box competitively, and added rowing to his physical exertions.