Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris

This week I've decided to read part one of a three-part biography about my favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt chronicles the life of TR from birth to September 1901 when the death of William McKinley makes TR the most powerful man in America. The next book, Theodore Rex, focuses on TR's seven years in office as President, and the final book, Colonel Roosevelt, talks about TR's life after the presidency. I will definitely be reading the next two books at some future point, however even I need occasional breaks from historic research.

Overall I found this book very interesting and, for me at least, not too difficult to read. For whatever reason I have a great amount of difficulty reading biographies so finding one that I can enjoy is always a good thing. I will say that this book definitely skimps on TR's personal life after his marriage to his second wife, Edith. There is a lot of focus in his earlier years, and his courtship of Alice Lee gets quite a lot of attention. Of course, as TR has no professional life during this time period I suppose that the author has nothing else to talk about besides TR's personal life. However, once he enters the political sphere and once Alice tragically passes away in 1884, the focus becomes almost entirely on TR's professional life. Of course, don't get me wrong, I'm quite interested in TR's professional life and was happy for the focus, but TR's growing family and relationship with Edith are quietly in the background, seldo mentioned and added really only as an afterthought. I suppose that may have been a conscious choice of the author, who wanted to focus more on TR's rise to political power, but it feels like a major hole from an otherwise rather detailed biography.

I will admit that this biography has also been really helpful in expanding my knowledge and allowing me to evaluate TR more objectively. I was, of course, aware of TR's ardent support of American expansion and the growth of an American empire, but had accepted it as going hand in hand with all the other imperialist philosophies floating around the industrialized nations at the time. I was, however, rather concerned to discover he took pride in the fact that his regiment took the most casualties in battle during the Spanish-American War, seeing it as a symbol of the manliness of his men. I think almost anyone else would see it as a sign of poor leadership. I was also rather surprised, despite his public person of a reformer and numerous efforts to combat machine politics and blatant corruption and cronyism in politics, that TR was willing on several occasions to cooperate with machine politicians to get what he wanted. It seems rather hypocritical to me, but at the same time TR was a consummate politician with everything that entails.

What I'm really taken away with is the sheer boundless energy that carries TR through life. The first part certainly seems to drag, as if hampered by TR's own struggles with asthma and gastroenteritis. As he reaches adulthood and begins to overcome his childhood ailments he takes off running and never looks back, and the book seems to fly along with him. I was amazed to find out the longest TR held a job prior to becoming president was six years as a federal Civil Service Commissioner. Most of the other jobs he held, New York Assemblyman, Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, he held for only a couple of years before rushing off to the next stepping stone. Sometimes I find it a wonder TR got anything done at all.

Overall, I'd say this book is fairly strong in its praise of TR, although most biographies tend to be somewhat positive about their subject. However, there is enough information in there about TR's faults, such as his jingoism and racism so typical of the late nineteenth century, as well as his utter spendthrift habits, that you can make an almost objective view of TR. I am, of course, rather late to the party as this biography has been out for quite some time and has been highly regarded by many people, but it's definitely worth the read in my opinion.

- Kalpar

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