Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen > I. Boyhood Ideals
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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.
 
I. Boyhood Ideals
 
ALL summer I have been fighting for leeway to sit down and write about Theodore Roosevelt, and glad am I that I have come to it at last. For there is nothing I know of that I would rather. But let us have a clear understanding about it. I am not going to write a “life” of him. I have seen it said in print that that was my intention. Well, it was. That was the shape it took in my mind at the start; but not for long. Perhaps one of the kindest things the years do for us as they pass is to show us what things we can not do. In that way they have been very kind to me. When I was twenty, there was nothing I could not do. Now I am glad that there are stronger and fitter hands than mine to do many things I had set my heart on. They must do this, then. And, besides, it is both too early and too late for a life of Theodore Roosevelt. Too late for the mere formal details of his career; everybody knows them. Much too early to tell the whole story of what that strong, brave life will mean to the American people, his people of whom he is so proud, when the story is all told. No one can know him and believe in the people without feeling sure of that.   1
  There remains to me to speak of him as the friend, the man. And this is what I shall do, the more gladly because so may it be my privilege to introduce him to some who know him only as the public man, the President, the partisan perhaps–and a very energetic partisan he is–and so really do not know him at all, in the sense which I have in mind. The public man I will follow because he is square, and will do the square thing always, not merely want to do it. With the partisan I will sometimes disagree, at least I ought to, for I was before a Democrat and would be one now if the party would get some sense and bar Tammany out in the cold for its monstrous wickedness. 1 Of the President I am proud with reason, but the friend I love. And if I can make you see him so, as a friend and a man, I have given you the master-key to him as statesman as well. You will never need to ask any questions.   2
  For still another reason I am glad that it is to be so: I shall be speaking largely to the young whose splendid knight he is, himself yet a young man filled with the high courage and brave ideals that make youth the golden age of the great deeds forever. And I want to show them the man Roosevelt, who through many a fight in which hard blows were dealt never once proved unfaithful to them; who, going forth with a young man’s resolve to try to “make things better in this world, even a little better, because he had lived in it,” 2 through fair days and foul, through good report and evil (and of this last there was never a lack), sounded his battle-cry, “Better faithful than famous,” and won. A hundred times the mercenaries and the spoilsmen whom he fought had him down and “ruined” in the fight. At this moment, as I write, they are rubbing their hands with glee because at last he has undone himself, by bidding organized labor halt where it was wrong. Last winter, when it was right, he “killed himself” when he made capital stop and think. They were false prophets then as they are now. Nothing can ruin Theodore Roosevelt except his proving unfaithful to his own life, and that he will never do. If I know anything of him, I know this, that he would rather be right than be President any day, and that he will never hesitate in his choice.   3
  That is the man I would show to our young people just coming into their birthright, and I can think of no better service I could render them. For the lying sneers are thick all about in a world that too often rates success as “what you can make.” And yet is its heart sound; for when the appeal is made to it in simple faith for the homely virtues, for the sturdy manhood, it is never made in vain. This is Theodore Roosevelt’s message to his day, that honor goes before profit, that the moral is greater than the material, that men are to be trusted if you believe in the good in them; and though it is an old story, there is none greater. At least there is none we have more need of learning, since the world is ours, such as it is, to fit for the kingdom that is to come, and nowhere is there another plan provided for doing it.   4
  So, then, it is understood that I am absolved from routine, from chronology, and from statistics in writing this story. I am to have full leave to “put things in as I think of them,” as the critics of my books say I do anyhow. A more absurd charge was never made against any one, it has always seemed to me; for how can a man put things in when he does n’t think of them? I am just to write about Theodore Roosevelt as I know him, of my own knowledge or through those nearest and dearest to him. And the responsibility will be mine altogether. I am not going to consult him, even if he is the President of the United States. For one thing, because, the only time I ever did, awed by his office, he sent the copy back unread with the message that he would read it in print. So, if anything goes wrong, blame me and me only.   5
  And now, when I cast around for a starting-point, there rises up before me the picture of a little lad, in stiff white petticoats, with a curl right on top of his head, toiling laboriously along with a big fat volume under his arm, “David Livingstone’s Travels and Researches in South Africa,” and demanding of every member of the family to be told what were “the foraging ants” and what they did. It was his sister, now Mrs. Cowles, who at last sat down in exasperation to investigate, that the business of the household might have a chance to proceed, for baby Theodore held it up mercilessly until his thirst for information was slaked. Whereupon it developed that the supposedly grim warriors of the ant-hill were really a blameless tribe—“the foregoing ants” in fact. We are none of us infallible. The “foraging ants” are a comfort to me when their discoverer is disposed to laugh at my ee-wee lamb that but for my foreign speech should have been a plain ewe. But, then, I dwelt content in the bliss of ignorance. He, explorer in baby petticoats, could not be appeased till he found out.   6
  I suppose they called him Ted in those days. In my own time I have never found any one to do it who knew him, and the better they knew him the less liable were they to. You can tell for a certainty that a man does not know him when he speaks of him as “Teddy.” Not that he frowns upon it; I do not believe that he has often had the chance. But, somehow, there is no temptation to that kind of familiarity, which does not imply any less affection, but just the reverse. He may call me Jake and I like nothing better. But though I am ten years older than he, he was always Mr. Roosevelt with me. His rough-riders might sing of him as Teddy, but to his face they called him Colonel, with the mixture of affection and respect that makes troopers go to death as to a dance in the steps of a leader. The Western plainsmen quickly forgot the tenderfoot in the man who could shoot and ride though he came out of the East and wore eye-glasses, and who never bragged or bullied but knew his rights and dared maintain them. He was Mister Roosevelt there from the second day on the ranch. But in those old days at home he was Ted with the boys, no doubt. For he was a whole boy and got out of it all that was going, after he got it going. He has told me that it took some time, that as a little fellow he was timid, and that when bigger boys came along and bullied him he did not know what to do about it. I have a notion that he quickly found out and that they did not come back often.   7
  A woman who lived next door to the Roosevelts in East Twentieth Street told me of how, passing in the street, she saw young Theodore hanging out of a second-story window and ran in to tell his mother.   8
  “If the Lord,” said she, as she made off to catch him, “had not taken care of Theodore, he would have been killed long ago.”   9
  In after years the Governor of New York told me, with a reminiscent gleam in his eye, how his boy, the third Theodore in line, had “swarmed down” the leader of the Executive Mansion to go and hear the election returns, rather than go out through the door. There was no frightened neighbor to betray his exploit then, for it was dark, which made it all the more exciting. It was the Governor himself who caught him. The evidence is, I think, that the Theodores were cut out pretty much on the same pattern.   10
  Of that happy childhood’s home, with the beautiful mother of blessed memory and the father who rode and played with the children, and was that, alas! rarest of parents, their chum and companion as well as their just judge when occasion demanded, I have caught many a glimpse I wish I might reveal here, but that shall be theirs to keep. The family romps at home, the strolls on forest paths which their father taught them early to love; their gleeful dashes on horseback, he watchfully leading on, the children scampering after, a merry crew; of how at his stern summons to breakfast, “Childrén!” they one and all fell downstairs together in their haste to be there, they speak yet with a tenderness of love that discloses the rarely strong and beautiful soul that was his. It was only the other day that, speaking with an old employee of the Children’s Aid Society, of which the elder Roosevelt was a strong prop, I learned from him how deep was the impression made by his gentle courtesy toward his wife when he brought her to the lodging-house on his visits. “To see him put on her wraps and escort her from room to room was beautiful,” he said. “It seemed to me that I never knew till then what the word gentleman meant.” How little we, any of us, know what our example may mean for good or for ill! Here, after thirty years, the recollection of Mr. Roosevelt’s simple courtesy was a potent force in one man’s life.   11
  With such ties of love binding the home together, the whirlwind of anger and passion that swept over the country in the years of the war had no power to break or to embitter, even though the mother was of the South, with roots that held, while his life and work were given to the Union cause as few men’s were. Rather, it laid the foundations broad and deep of that abiding Americanism that is today Theodore Roosevelt’s most distinguishing trait. It is no empty speech of his that caresses the thought of the men who wore the blue and those who wore the gray standing at last shoulder to shoulder. It was an uncle of Theodore Roosevelt who built the privateer Alabama, and another uncle, Irwin S. Bulloch, who fired the last gun aboard her when she went down before the fire of the Kearsarge, shifting it from one side of the ship to the other as she sank, to let it have the last word. The while at home his father raised and equipped regiments and sent them to the war, saw to it that they were fed and cared for and that those they left behind did not suffer. I have never been able to make up my mind which was most like the Theodore of to-day. I guess they both were. I know that as he grew, the devotion of the one, the daring of the other, took hold of his soul and together were welded into the man, the patriot, to whom love of country is as a living fire, as the very heart’s blood of his being.   12
  For play there was room in plenty in the home in which Theodore grew up; for idleness none. His father, though not rich in the sense of to-day, had money enough to enable them all to live without working if they so chose. That they should not so choose was the constant aim and care of his existence. In his scheme of life the one man for whom there was no room was the useless drone. Whether he needed it or not, every man must do some honest, decent work, and do it with his might: the community had a right to it. We catch echoes of this inheritance in his son’s writings from the very beginning, and as the Years pass they ring out more clearly. I remember his interview with Julian Ralph, when as a Police Commissioner he was stirring New York up as it had not been stirred in many a long day. I can see him now striding up and down the bare gray office.   13
  “What would you say to the young men of our city, if you could speak to them with command this day?” asked Mr. Ralph.   14
  “I would order them to work,” said Mr. Roosevelt, stopping short and striking his hands together with quick emphasis. “I would teach the young men that he who has not wealth owes his first duty to his family, but he who has means owes his to the State. It is ignoble to go on heaping money on money. I would preach the doctrine of work to all, and to the men of wealth the doctrine of unremunerative work.”   15
  It was hardly unremunerative work that first enlisted young Theodore’s energies. Looking at him now, I should think that nothing ever paid a better interest on the investment. He was not a strong child—from earliest infancy liable to asthmatic attacks that sapped his vitality and kept back his growth. Probably that accounts for the temporary indecision in the matter of bullies which he remembers. But in the frail body there lived an indomitable spirit before which had risen already visions of a man with a horse and a gun, of travel and adventure. Mayne Reid’s books had found their way to East Twentieth Street, and they went with the lad wherever the family tent was pitched to ease the little sufferer. One winter they spent in Egypt, floating down the Nile amid the ruins of empires dead and gone. But the past and its dead got no grip on the young American. He longed to go back to his own country of the mighty forests and the swelling plains where men worked out their own destiny. He would be a pathfinder, a hunter. But a hunter has need of strong thews; of a sound body. And to become strong became presently the business of his life.   16
  It was one of the things that early attracted me to Theodore Roosevelt, long before he had become famous, that he was a believer in the gospel of will. Nothing is more certain, humanly speaking, than this, that what a man wills himself to be, that he will be. Is he willing to put in all on getting rich, rich he will get, to find his riches turning to ashes in his dead hand; will he have power, knowledge, strength—they are all within his grasp. The question for him to decide is whether they are worth giving up a life to, and, having decided, to give it to his ambition. The boy Theodore saw that to do anything he must first be strong, and chose that. There were many things he might have chosen which would have been easier, but if you are concerned about that, you will not have your way. He was not. He set about resolutely removing the reproach of his puny body, as it seemed to him. He ran, he rode, he swam, he roamed through the hills of his Long Island home, the same to which he yet comes back to romp with his children on his summer holiday. He rowed his skiff intrepidly over the white-capped waters of the Bay—that once, when I had long been a man, carried mine, despite all my struggles, across to Center Island and threw me, skiff and all, upon the beach, a shipwrecked mariner doomed to be ignominiously ferried across on the yacht club’s launch. I thought of it the other day when I came ashore from the Sylph, and half a mile from shore met young Kermit battling alone with the waves, hatless and with the salt spray in his eyes and hair, tossed here and there as in a nutshell, but laughing and undaunted. I do not know where he was going. I doubt if he did. His father and mother were ashore and on their way home. He was just having it out and having a good time. It was his father over again, and we cheered him on and let him go. I don’t suppose we could have stopped him had we tried.   17
  No more could you have stopped Theodore in his day. What he did with the will to win, yet never as a task. He got no end of fun out of it, or it would have been of little use, and one secret of that was that he made what he did serve an end useful in itself. On his tramps through the woods he studied and classified the neighborhood birds. He knew their song, their plumage, and their nests. So he learned something he wanted to know, and cultivated the habits of study, of concentration, at the time when all boys are impatient of these things and most of them shirk them when they can, leaving every task unfinished. And all, as I said, along of a healthy, outdoor, romping life. The reward of that was not long in coming. Presently strong muscles knit themselves about his bones, the frail frame broadened and grew tough. The boy held his own with his fellows. He passed them, and now he led in their games. The horse was his; the gun loomed in the prospect. College was at hand, and then—life. The buffaloes yet roamed the plains. One might unite the calling of a naturalist, a professor, with the interest of a hunter. So ran his dreams. It is the story of one American boy who won against odds, and though he did not become professor he became President; and it is a good story for all American boys to read. For they can do the same, if they choose to. And if they do not all become Presidents, they can all be right, and so be like him in that which is better still.   18
  I said he had his dreams. Every boy has, and if he does not stop at that, it is good for him. Into young Theodore’s there had come a new element that spoke loudly for the plains, for the great West. The Leatherstocking stories had been added to his reading. It was with something of fear almost that I asked him once if he liked them. For I loved them. I had lived them all in my Danish home. They first set my eyes toward the west, and in later years, when I have heard it said, and read in reviews that Cooper is out of date; that he never was a first-class writer, I have felt it as a personal injury and as if something had come between me and the day that cannot love Natty Bumppo and Uncas and Mabel Dunham. And so I say it was with a real pang that I asked him if he did not also like them.   19
  He whirled round with kindling eyes.   20
  “Like them,” he cried, “like them! Why, man, there is nothing like them. I could pass examination in the whole of them to-day. Deerslayer with his long rifle, Jasper and Hurry Harry, Ishmael Bush with his seven stalwart sons—do I not know them? I have bunked with them and eaten with them, and I know their strength and their weakness. They were narrow and hard, but they were mighty men and they did the work of their day and opened the way for ours. Do I like them? Cooper is unique in American literature, and he will grow upon us as we get farther away from his day, let the critics say what they will.” And I was made happy.   21
  Afterward I remembered with sudden apprehension that he had spoken only of the white men in the books, for it came to me that he had lived in the West, where the only good Indian is esteemed to be the dead Indian. But it was needless treachery of my thought. The red man has no better friend than the Great White Father of to-day, none who burns with hotter indignation at the shame our dealings with him have brought upon the American name. Uncas and Chingachgook, beloved friends of my boyhood, were safe with him.   22
  I have told you of Theodore Roosevelt’s boyhood as from time to time I have gathered glimpses of it from himself and from his sister, and as I like to think of it. I did not meet him till long after both horse and gun had become living realities. When he was drifting and dreaming on the Nile I was sailing across the Atlantic to have my first tussle with the slum which in after years we fought together. And now you know one reason why I love him: it was when that same strong will, that honest endeavor, that resolute purpose to see right and justice done to his poorer brothers—it was when they joined in the battle with the slum that all my dreams came true, all my ideals became real. Why should I not love him?   23
  The boy had grown into a man. Since I have here spoken to the boys of his country and, thank God, of mine, let him speak now, and judge yourself how performance has squared with promise, practice with preaching:   24
  “Of course what we have a right to expect of the American boy is that he shall turn out to be a good American man. Now, the chances are strong that he won’t be much of a man unless he is a good deal of a boy. He must not be a coward or a weakling, a bully, a shirk, or a prig. He must work hard and play hard. He must be clean-minded and clean-lived, and able to hold his own under all circumstances and against all comers. It is only on these conditions that he will grow into the kind of a man of whom America can really be proud.   25
  “In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard.”   26

Note 1. I am bound to say that I see no signs of it, and also that I am rather relieved, with Roosevelt to run in another year. [ back ]

Note 2. His speech to the Long Island Bible Society, June 11, 1901. [ back ]

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