It had been one of Roosevelt's early accomplishments that he had successfully challenged his social set's condescending aloofness by entering the festering New York political scene, against all counsel, without losing his standing in society. "I intended," he said, "to be one of the governing class"; and if the men who then dominated that class were indeed too vulgar and rough for him, then "I supposed I would have to quit, but I certainly would not quit until I had made the effort and found out whether I really was too weak to hold my own in the rough and tumble." Of course, Roosevelt held his own. But more than that, he helped make politics an attractive career once more for well-educated, talented men and women of goodwill. He, as much as anyone in the country, was responsible for making reform respectable, removing from it the stigmas of radicalism on the one hand and of effeteness on the other. He rehabilitated the idea of the patrician in politics.
It is easy—perhaps too easy—to link Theodore Roosevelt's political philosophy and his behavior in the White House to his childhood and his upbringing. There is a strong consistency in his attitude toward duty, character, and power that runs the extent of the sixty-one years he lived. He was born in Manhattan on 27 October 1858, the second child and the older of two sons in a family of four children. His southern-born mother, Martha Bulloch, could well have been a model for the stereotype of the ineffectual Victorian female. His father, Theodore, Sr., appeared (at least in his older son's revering eyes) a paragon of civic and family virtue, a tall, strong, athletically built man of stern moral commitments, active in philanthropy and on the periphery of politics. His devoted son bore the burden of physical frailty and illness, a burden made doubly heavy by the inevitable comparisons he made to his father. Small-boned, soprano-voiced, nearsighted to the point of virtual blindness in one eye, and severely asthmatic, he wrote later as well as in his childhood diaries of the anguish he felt over his infirmities and of how he had had to depend on his younger brother, Elliott, to help deal with youthful belligerencies. Thoughts on strength and power must have been constant companions for him. In his book The Strenuous Life (1901), he would remark, "One prime reason for abhorring cowards is because every good boy should have it in him to thrash the objectionable boy as the need arises." As president in 1906, he wrote, "The chance for the settlement of disputes peacefully . . . depends mainly upon the possession by the nations that mean to do right of sufficient armed strength to make their purpose effective."
When T. R. was about twelve, his father urged him to work on developing his physical strength. The boy put aside his nature books for the regimen of weights, chinning bar, horseback riding, boxing, wrestling, and hunting. It seems to have worked. Although his eyesight would continue to deteriorate, Roosevelt conquered his asthma and built a muscular body capable of the strenuosity he craved, perhaps as proof of his worthiness to be his father's son. ("O, Father, Father how bitterly I miss you, mourn you and long for you!" he wrote when he was nineteen, weeks after his father's death. "I realize more and more every day," he added six months later, "that I am as much inferior to Father morally and mentally as physically.") That was in 1877. Within the next quarter of a century, the energy he poured into sport, scholarship, politics, and actual physical combat must have left him with at least some measure of vindication.
By the time he became president, Roosevelt had in fact accomplishments enough to make him something of a national legend, a career and exploits that might have rivaled any small boy's grandest daydreams. He had engaged in the "rough and tumble" of city and state politics. He had bought a ranch in the untamed Dakota Territory, ridden with cowpunchers, led a posse to capture three armed thieves, and come out the victor in a brief brawl with a (rather drunk) tough in a tavern. Farther west, he had hunted grizzlies and cougars in the Rockies and matched shooting skills with a group of "wild Indians." In that same period, he had written eight or nine books, including two serviceable biographies ( Thomas Hart Benton , 1887, and Gouverneur Morris , 1888), a major four-volume history of the West ( The Winning of the West , 1889–1896), and The Naval War of 1812 (1882), which for a time served as a textbook on the subject at Annapolis. He had served on the United States Civil Service Commission (1889–1895) under two presidents, on the New York City Board of Police Commissioners (1894–1896), and as assistant secretary of the navy (1897–1898). On the two commissions, he had managed to attract national attention because of his bold battles for nonpartisan administration of the law (while keeping his fences carefully mended within his party). In the third position, he had found himself in control of the United States Navy on 25 February 1898, ten days after the destruction of the battleship Maine in Cuba (Secretary of the Navy John D. Long had taken the day off), and had used that control with a characteristic disregard for lawful authority when the latter stood in the way of the national interest, as he viewed it. Acting with the brashness of a boy suddenly aware of power and heedless of instructions to the contrary, he ordered Commodore George Dewey's Pacific fleet to Hong Kong to prepare (although the country was still at peace) for combat with the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, thereby setting the stage for the Battle of Manila Bay and American annexation of the large Asian archipelago.
With the declaration of war soon after, Roosevelt resigned his office, helped organize a voluntary cavalry unit made up of a few hundred Dakota and other cowboys, a good number of Ivy League football players, a few New York City policemen, and fifteen or so American Indians. Promptly dubbed "The Rough Riders" by the overexcited press, First Regiment of U.S. Volunteer Cavalry with Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt as battle commander saw brutal action in the hills overlooking Santiago, Cuba. In taking its assigned target, the regiment suffered extraordinary losses, possibly owing to brief training and its commander's brash amateur leadership; but by some miracle Roosevelt survived, returned quickly to New York in time for the political season, and was elected governor of the country's most populous state that same November, in no small measure on the strength of his wartime notoriety. Two years later, his nomination for the vice presidency was arranged by New York Republicans who had wearied of T. R.'s tempestuous independence and wished him up and away. Then, in September 1901, at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, Leon Czolgosz' gun, hidden in his bandaged fist as he approached President McKinley to shake hands, put the Rough Rider in the White House.