Roosevelt’s Courage, Determination Made Him a Remarkable Man

A President Theodore Roosevelt “Equality” pin, produced after Booker T. Washington visited the White House in 1901, sold for $8,962 at a November 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

President Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born on Oct. 27, 1858. His mother, Martha Bulloch “Mittie” Roosevelt, was a Southern Belle socialite and family members were wealthy Southern planters and part of the Georgia elite. In 1850, they had over 30 slaves, most of whom worked in the cotton fields. Many believe that the character Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind was at least partially based on Mittie.

The Roosevelt family moved north to New York, however Mittie remained fiercely loyal to the South and when the Civil War finally started, it caused a schism in the family. Mittie and her sister Anna, unbeknownst to Theodore Sr. or the neighbors, spent many afternoons putting together relief packets for relatives and friends in the South. They were shipped to the Bahamas and then by blockade-runner to Georgia.

Exactly 22 years later in 1880, Teddy Roosevelt celebrated his birthday by marrying 19-year-old Alice Hathaway Lee, a cousin of a Harvard classmate. After spending a few weeks at the Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, they moved to New York City along with Theodore’s (now) widowed mother Mittie. When Alice discovered in July 1883 that she was pregnant, T.R. was predictably thrilled, as he fully endorsed the traditional American ideal of large families. His life seemed ideal since his political career was going so well as a member of the state legislature in Albany.

However, he soon became concerned when Alice fell sick as her due date grew near. The nature of her illness was hard to pinpoint, but the family doctor didn’t seem too concerned. Alice was well enough to worry more about Theodore’s mother than herself. Mittie had contracted something virulent and was not improving. Her high fever raised the possibility of typhoid, which, although not contagious, was also not treatable.

At 8:30 on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 12, Alice gave birth to a healthy 8-pound girl. The good news was telegraphed to T.R. in Albany, who passed out cigars and proceeded to clean up some details before heading home. Then a second telegraph arrived; Alice had taken a turn for the worse. T.R. dropped everything and rushed back to Manhattan on the next train. Arriving home, he was dismayed to find Mittie burning up with typhoid fever and Alice battling what was vaguely described as Bright’s disease (a potentially fatal kidney condition). A beleaguered Roosevelt spent the next 16 hours at one bedside and then the other.

Mittie went first in the darkest predawn hours of Thursday, Feb. 14, and Alice breathed her last 11 hours later in the early afternoon on the same day. Stunned and disoriented, Roosevelt managed to inscribe a thick black X in his diary for Feb. 14, followed by a single sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”

It is a testament to his courage and fierce determination that he was able to regroup after such tragedy, losing his wife and mother on the same day and in the same house. He was somehow able to resume his life, with his most important contributions yet to come.

Simply a truly remarkable man.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Teddy Roosevelt Brought Vim, Vigor and Vitality to the White House

Teddy Roosevelt political pins often illustrated the theme of “equality,” inspired by Booker T. Washington’s visit to the White House. This rare variant sold for nearly $9,000 at a November 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

During his first year as president, Teddy Roosevelt left the White House as he had found it. But when the Roosevelts and their six lively children moved in, it had become obvious that there was insufficient room for both governmental offices and a family home. This prompted a complete remodeling, the first in nearly 100 years. Leading architects designed a new West Wing of executive offices that was joined to the main building by a colonnade. The second floor of the main building had the offices replaced by private bedrooms, sitting rooms and playrooms for the presidential family.

Like John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Grover Cleveland, Roosevelt had not been sent by the voters to live in the White House, having moved in only after the death of an elected president. He knew he lacked the public and party power to support the new international presidency that President William McKinley developed, yet he was destined to dramatize it to the world.

Born in 1858, he is (surprisingly) the only president born in New York City. The first new president of the 20th century and the youngest man to ever hold the office, he brought a vim, vigor and vitality to the White House that swept away any lingering cobwebs of the 19th century. Later, elected in his own right, Roosevelt began to act with an even bolder style than before. In his annual message to Congress in December 1904, he announced an expansion of the concept of the Monroe Doctrine that became known as the Roosevelt Corollary.

The Russo-Japanese War had been going on for more than a year when TR began efforts in 1905 as a mediator. He succeeded in getting the two nations to sign a peace pact in Portsmouth, N.H. On Dec. 10, 1906, he became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

One of the first controversial issues had occurred during his first year in office on October 16 when he held a “family supper.” Among the invited guests was the great educator Booker T. Washington, whose biography, Up From Slavery, was being widely read. The press reaction was instantaneous; this dinner guest was the hottest news since the McKinley assassination.

“Probably The First Negro Ever Entertained at the White House” screamed the headlines of the Atlanta newspaper, and many others were also harsh in their criticism. No African-American received a special invitation to the WH for many years.

It seems exquisitely delicious and ironic that a black family has had their “family meals” in the same White House over the past 2,800-plus nights and, importantly, anyone of any race is only there by their special invitation!

Things do change.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].