25 Things You Might Not Know About Thomas Jefferson

iStock
iStock

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third president of the United States, penned one of the greatest documents of the modern world in the Declaration of Independence. While that’s certainly a career highlight, it’s far from the only interesting thing about him. For more on Jefferson’s life, accomplishments, and controversies, take a look at this assembly of 25 facts.

1. He was addicted to learning.

Born April 13 (April 2 on the pre-Gregorian calendar), 1743 at his father’s Shadwell plantation in Virginia, Jefferson was one of 10 children (eight of whom survived to adulthood). While he attended the College of William and Mary (he graduated in 1762), he was said to have studied for 15 hours daily on top of violin practice. The hard work paid off: Jefferson moved into law studies before becoming a lawyer in 1767. Two years later, he became a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the Virginia legislature. His autodidact ways continued throughout his life: Jefferson could speak four languages (English, Italian, French, Latin) and read two more (Greek and Spanish).

2. His greatest work was a study in contradiction.

As a member of the Second Continental Congress and the “Committee of Five” (a group consisting of John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson brought together for this purpose), Jefferson was tasked with writing the Declaration of Independence, an argument against the 13 colonies being held under British rule. While the Declaration insisted that all men are created equal and that their right to liberty is inherent at birth, Jefferson’s plantation origins meant that he embraced the institution of slavery. In any given year, Jefferson supervised up to 200 slaves, with roughly half under the age of 16. He perpetuated acts of cruelty, sometimes selling slaves and having them relocated away from their families as punishment. Yet in a book titled Notes on the State of Virginia (which he began writing during his stint as governor and published in 1785), Jefferson wrote that he believed the practice was unjust and “tremble[d]” at the idea of God exacting vengeance on those who perpetuated it. Though Jefferson acknowledged slavery as morally repugnant—and also criticized the slave trade in a passage that was cut from the Declaration of Independence "in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia”—he offered no hesitation in benefiting personally from it, a hypocrisy that would haunt his legacy through the present day.

3. He didn't like being rewritten.

After drafting the Declaration, Jefferson waited as Congress poured over his document for two days. When they broke session, Jefferson was annoyed to find that they were calling for extensive changes and revisions. He disliked the fact the passage criticizing the slave trade was to be omitted, along with some of his harsh words against British rule. Benjamin Franklin soothed his irritation, and the finished Declaration was adopted July 4, 1776, spreading via horseback and ship throughout that summer.

4. He recorded everything.

After inheriting his family’s Shadwell estate, Jefferson began constructing a new brick mansion on the property he dubbed Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian. For operations at Monticello and the properties he would acquire later in life, Jefferson was preoccupied with recording the minutiae of his daily routine, jotting down journal entries about the weather, his expansive garden, and the behavior of animals on his property. He kept a running tally of the hogs killed in a given year, mused about crop rotations, and noted the diet of his slaves.

5. He doubled the size of the country.

Jefferson’s greatest feat as president, an office he held from 1801 to 1809, was the Louisiana Purchase, a treaty-slash-transaction with France that effectively doubled the size of the United States. The deal took careful diplomacy, as Jefferson knew that France controlling the Mississippi River would have huge ramifications on trade movements. Fortunately, Napoleon Bonaparte was in the mood to deal, hoping the sale of the 830,000 square miles would help finance his armed advances on Europe. Bonaparte wanted $22 million; he settled for $15 million. Jefferson was elated, though some critics alleged the Constitution didn’t strictly allow for a president to purchase foreign soil.

6. He fought pirates.

Another instance where Jefferson pushed the limits of his Constitutional power was his fierce response to Barbary pirates, a roving band of plunderers from North Africa who frequently targeted supply ships in the Mediterranean and held them for ransom. Under Jefferson’s orders, American warships were dispatched to confront the pirates directly rather than capitulate to their demands. The initial Navy push was successful, but the pirates were able to capture a massive American frigate—which an American raiding party subsequently set fire to so the ship couldn't be used against them. A treaty was declared in 1805, although tensions resumed in what was known as the Second Barbary War in 1815. Again, Naval ships forced Algerian ships to retreat.

7. He helped popularize ice cream in the U.S.

Jefferson spent time in France in the 1700s as a diplomat, and that’s where he was likely introduced to the dessert delicacy known as ice cream. While not the first to port over recipes to the United States, his frequent serving of it during his time as president contributed to increased awareness. Jefferson was so fond of ice cream that he had special molds and tools imported from France to help his staff prepare it; because there was no refrigeration at the time, the confections were typically kept in ice houses and brought out to the amusement of guests, who were surprised by a frozen dish during summer parties. He also left behind what may be the first ice cream recipe in America: six egg yolks, a half-pound of sugar, two bottles of cream, and one vanilla bean.

8. He bribed a reporter.

Presidential scandals and dogged newspaper reporters are not strictly a 20th or 21st century dynamic. In the 1790s, a reporter named James Callender ran articles condemning several politicians—including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—for various indiscretions. In 1801, he turned his attention to Jefferson, whom he alleged was having an affair with one of his slaves, a woman named Sally Hemings. Callender went to Jefferson and demanded he receive $200 and a job as a postmaster in exchange for his silence. Disgusted, Jefferson gave him $50. Callender eventually broke the news that Hemings and Jefferson had been involved, a relationship that resulted in several children. Jefferson supporters ignored the story—which modern-day DNA testing later corroborated—but Callender was never in a position to gather more evidence: He drowned in the James River in 1803.

9. He had a pet mockingbird.

Even before the Revolution, Jefferson had taken a liking to mockingbirds, and he brought this affection to the White House, which they filled with melodious song. (And, presumably, bird poop.) But he was singularly affectionate toward one mockingbird he named Dick. The bird was allowed to roam Jefferson’s office or perch on the president’s shoulder. When Jefferson played his violin, Dick would accompany with vocals. Dick and his colleagues followed Jefferson back to Monticello when he was finished with his second term in 1809.

10. He invented a few things.

Not one to sit idle, Jefferson used his available free time to consider solutions to some of the problems that followed him at his Monticello farming endeavors. Anxious to till soil more efficiently, he and his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, conceived of a plow that could navigate hills. He also tinkered with a way of improving a dumbwaiter, the elevator typically used to deliver food and other goods from one floor to another.

11. His wife had a curious connection to his mistress.

Jefferson was married for just 10 years before his wife, Martha Wayles, died in 1782 at age 33 of unknown causes. Curiously, Jefferson’s involvement with his slave, Sally Hemings, was part of Martha's convoluted family tree. Martha’s father, John Wayles, had an affair with Sally’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings—meaning most historians think Sally and Martha were half-sisters.

12. He's credited with creating a catchphrase.

During his second term as president, Jefferson was said to have run into a man on horseback near his Monticello estate who proceeded to engage him in a lengthy complaint of everything wrong in Washington. Reportedly, the man had no idea he was speaking to the commander-in-chief until Jefferson introduced himself. The man, deeply embarrassed, quickly spouted “my name is Haines” and then galloped away. True or not, Jefferson is credited with originating the resulting catchphrase that was popular in the 1800s, with people saying “my name is Haines” whenever they wanted to feign embarrassment or were forced to leave abruptly.

13. He was served with a subpoena.

Long before Richard Nixon landed in hot water, Thomas Jefferson resisted attempts to compel him to testify in court. The matter unraveled in 1807, when James Wilkinson insisted he had sent Jefferson a letter informing him of Aaron Burr’s plot to invade Mexico. Government attorneys wanted Jefferson to appear with the letter, but the president—who said that the country would be left without leadership if he traveled to Richmond to answer the subpoena—refused to appear, an act of executive willpower that was never challenged in court.

14. He had a secret retreat.

Though Monticello remained Jefferson’s pride and joy, he had another residence for times when he wanted to be alone. Poplar Forest, located near Lynchburg, Virginia, was an octagonal home that he had built to exacting detail: The windows were measured so they would bring in only Jefferson’s preferred amount of sunlight. The home took years to construct and was nearly ready by the time he left office in 1809. It’s now open to the public.

15. He was a shabby dresser.

After taking office, Jefferson offended some in Washington who believed the president should be an impeccably-dressed and polished social host. While many of his stature would opt for a carriage, Jefferson rode a horse and dressed in plain and comfortable clothing. He acknowledged only two official White House celebrations annually: the 4th of July and New Year’s Day.

16. He was an early wine connoisseur.

Centuries before wine appreciation became a national pastime, Jefferson was busy accumulating an eclectic wine cellar. His love for the drink coincided with his trip to France, where he was introduced to the various tastes and textures. He kept a well-stocked collection at Monticello and also tried growing his own European grapes, but was never successful.

17. He shocked people by eating a tomato.

Jefferson’s multitudes of crops included what were, for their time, unique and sometimes puzzling additions. He grew tomatoes when their consumption in Virginia was uncommon, and, according to one account from 1900, Jefferson reportedly appalled some onlookers when he would consume one in front of witnesses.

18. He probably had a fear of public speaking.

Without today’s methods of addressing the public—radio, television, and Twitter—Jefferson was largely free to succumb to his reported phobia of speaking in public. While working as a lawyer, he found himself unable to deliver orated arguments as eloquently as he could write them. When he did speak, it was apparently with a meek disposition. One listener to his inaugural address in 1801 described Jefferson’s speech as being in “so low a tone that few heard it.”

19. He harvested opium.

At Monticello’s sprawling vegetable and plant gardens, Jefferson grew over 300 different kinds of crops, flowers, and other sprouts. Among them were Papaver somniferum, the poppy seed that can be used to create opioid drugs. Common in Jefferson’s time, the plant is now under much closer scrutiny and the estate was forced to pull up their remaining crop in 1991.

20. Abraham Lincoln was not a fan.

Though they weren’t contemporaries, Abraham Lincoln sometimes seethed with animosity toward Jefferson. William Henry Herndon, Lincoln’s onetime law partner, wrote that Lincoln “hated” Jefferson both for his moral shortcomings and his political views. But Lincoln also recognized the potency of the Declaration, citing its words as proof of equality among the population. “All honor to Jefferson,” he said, for making the document a “stumbling block” for anyone arguing in favor of tyranny. But he still never liked the guy.

21. He sold a lot of books to the Library of Congress.

Jefferson, a voracious reader, was dismayed when the War of 1812 resulted in British forces burning the Capitol in Washington and reducing its 3000-volume library of books to ashes. To repopulate the repository of knowledge, Jefferson sold Congress his entire personal library of 6707 titles for $23,950. The sale was finalized in 1815, and the books were sent via wagon from Virginia to Washington.

22. He helped found the University of Virginia.

A fierce advocate of education, Jefferson used his later years to propagate an institution of higher learning. Jefferson began planning the resources for a Virginia state university during his presidential term, writing to the Virginia House of Delegates that a college should not be solely a house but a “village.” In the proceeding years, Jefferson arranged funding, contributed design ideas, and helped shepherd the University of Virginia toward its formal opening in March 1825. Known as the “founding father” of the school, his influence has not always been welcomed. In April 2018, protesting students spray-painted the words rapist (in reference to his controversial relationship with slave Sally Hemings) and racist on a campus statue.

23. He was always in debt.

Status, salary, and opportunities should collude to make sure presidents are in solid financial shape during and after their tenure in office. Jefferson was an exception. Despite inheriting his father’s estate, he was plagued by debt for most of his life. He often spent beyond his means, expanding his property and making additions and renovations with little regard for the cost involved. His father-in-law, John Wayles, carried debt, which Jefferson became responsible for when Wayles died in 1774. Jefferson himself died owing $107,000, or roughly $2 million today.

24. His onetime nemesis dies on the same day.

Before Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826, he had finally made amends with John Adams, the president who preceded him in office and for whom Jefferson had acted as vice-president. The two men, once on the same side, had grown to resent the other’s approach to diplomacy and politics, with Jefferson lamenting Adams’s preference for centralized and meddlesome government—though according to Jefferson, the major issue was the so-called “Midnight Judges,” appointments that Jefferson felt “were from among [his] most ardent political enemies.”

Strangely, Adams passed away the same day as Jefferson, just five hours later. The date, July 4, was also the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence being adopted.

25. He wrote his own epitaph.

Jefferson wasn’t willing to leave his final resting place in the hands of others. He was exacting in how he wanted his grave marker to look and how his epitaph should read. He also directed the marker be made of inexpensive materials to dissuade vandals from bothering it. Following his death in 1826, several people chipped away at his grave in Monticello as souvenirs. Congress funded a new monument in 1882, which is still toured by visitors to the estate today. The engraving reads:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

& Father of the University of Virginia

This time, no one had the temerity to rewrite him.

Scientists Just Created 3D Digital Replicas of John F. Kennedy’s Assassination Bullets

NIST
NIST

Part of the National Archives and Record Administration’s duty is to provide the public with access to its billions of pages of texts, maps, photos, film, and other artifacts of American history—but some of them aren’t so easy to view. The bullets from John F. Kennedy's assassination, for example, have long been considered too fragile for anything but sitting in a climate-controlled vault in Washington, D.C.

However, they recently took a field trip to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where the ballistics team there used advanced microscopic imaging techniques to create breathtakingly accurate 3D digital replicas.

jfk bullet 3D replica
NIST

According to a press release from NIST, the collection includes two fragments from the bullet that killed Kennedy, the so-called “stretcher bullet” that hit both Kennedy and then-governor of Texas, John Connally; two bullets from a test-fire of the assassin's rifle, and a bullet from an earlier unsuccessful assassination attempt on Army Major General Edwin Walker that might have come from the same rifle.

As you can probably imagine, the two fragments from Kennedy’s fatal bullet are the most affecting pieces of the collection. They also give you a pretty good understanding of how difficult it must have been to recreate them—the bits of metal are twisted into gnarled, asymmetrical shapes that look different from every angle.

jfk bullet 3D replicas
NIST

To replicate each miniscule mark, ridge, and divot, NIST physical scientists Thomas Brian Renegar and Mike Stocker spent hours rotating the artifacts beneath the microscope, capturing images from all perspectives, and then combining parts of the images to create full 3D versions of them.

“It was like solving a super-complicated 3D puzzle,” Renegar said in the release. “I’ve stared at them so much I can draw them from memory.”

Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, has generated no small number of conspiracy theories over the years, but NIST and the National Archives made it clear that the project to replicate the bullets was “strictly a matter of historic preservation,” and not in any way a reopening of the case. But once the complete 3D scans are made available in the National Archives’ online catalog in early 2020, members of the public are free to analyze them however they like.

“The virtual artifacts are as close as possible to the real things,” Martha Murphy, the National Archives’ deputy director of government information services, said in the release. “In some respects, they are better than the originals in that you can zoom in to see microscopic details.”

And while Kennedy’s case is closed, the cutting-edge technology used on his bullets will be used in the future.

“The techniques we developed to image those artifacts will be useful in criminal cases that involve similarly challenging evidence,” NIST forensic firearms expert Robert Thompson said in the release.

History Vs. Episode 7: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Alice

Mental Floss
Mental Floss

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

In 1905, a group of American politicians set off for the Far East. The diplomatic delegation included seven senators, more than 20 congressmen, and Secretary of War William Howard Taft, but there was one member in particular who captivated the press.

The 21-year-old woman had been acting up the whole trip, setting off firecrackers and shooting her revolver from the back of the train before they had even left the country. But her biggest scandal happened aboard the steamship Manchuria. The young woman plunged into the ship’s swimming tank fully clothed in a white silk skirt and blouse. She had reportedly jumped on a dare—one that she’d proposed herself.

It would have been scandalous behavior for any woman at that time, but this prankster wasn’t just any woman. This was Alice Roosevelt—the oldest child of President Theodore Roosevelt.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their great foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and for this round, we’re pitting TR against his daughter Alice—a constant source of stress for the 26th president. Roosevelt once said: “I can be president of the United States, or I can attend to Alice.” So how did TR juggle running the country with raising his oldest daughter? We’re about to find out.

The Roosevelt family had all the elements of a happy, conventional household. Theodore Roosevelt married his second wife—and childhood sweetheart—Edith Kermit Carow in 1886. Together they had five children: Theodore III (or Ted Jr.), Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin. Growing up, the boys enjoyed boxing with their father, while Ethel stuck to more ladylike activities like needlework.

And then there was Alice.

Holly Frey: Her brothers would tease her that they didn't have the same mom as her, and that … which she found very cruel and it was something she was really sensitive about.

That’s Holly Frey, from Stuff You Missed in History Class, and as she explains, Alice’s relationship with Edith wasn’t any smoother.

Frey: They fall into in some ways the classic stepmother/stepdaughter roles that we have come to expect from Disney films. And a lot of that was sort of this forever cloud that hung over the household of his first wife, Alice.

Before starting his life with Edith, Teddy Roosevelt had married Alice Hathaway Lee in 1880. The daughter of a banker, Alice Sr. was known in Massachusetts social circles for her charm and beauty. On meeting her, TR wrote, “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked and how prettily she greeted me.”

Alice became pregnant in 1883 and gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Alice Lee Roosevelt on February 12, 1884. With a lovely Boston socialite for a mother and an ambitious New York politician for a father, baby Alice should have had it all.

And then the unthinkable happened.

Shortly after the delivery, Alice Sr. fell ill. Teddy, who had been in Albany working on a law the day of his daughter’s birth, rushed home to New York City after receiving news of her condition. He held her in his arms as she passed in and out of consciousness. She had what was then known as Bright’s disease. Alice Hathaway Roosevelt died on February 14 at the age of 22.

It was the second loss TR had sustained that day. Just hours earlier, his mother Mittie Roosevelt had succumbed to typhoid fever. Barely two days old, Alice’s life was already embroiled in tragedy.

Frey: If you put yourself in that position of losing a parent that you're very close to and your spouse in the same day, it's pretty easy to understand that it completely changed his relationship with the world, not just his new child. They were setting up this beautiful life that they had planned out, and now everywhere he went was a memory of his wife that had passed, and that was a big part of why he kind of decided that he was going to leave and go out West.

Just a few months after his daughter was born, TR left her with his sister Anna, who went by the nicknames “Bamie” and “Bye,” and retreated to the Dakota Badlands. He rarely inquired about Alice in the letters he mailed home. He returned briefly to New York for business when she was about 5 months old, and even in person, he had trouble acknowledging her. He called her “Baby Lee,” because he couldn’t bear to say her mother’s name.

But though it wasn’t always apparent, Alice was loved. One of the first hints of fatherly affection from TR comes from a letter dated September 1884. He wrote: “I hope Mousiekins will be very cunning; I shall dearly love her.”

But the most stable source of love in baby Alice’s life was Aunt Bamie.

Frey: That was one of those relationships that ended up really, really setting the tone of Alice's life forever because Bamie became what she referred to as her biggest influence as a child.

McCarthy: You know, It's crazy to hear about how much influence Bamie had on Alice, but also on TR and how often she would just drop everything to help him make political connections or do whatever it was that he needed done.

Frey: She was really his most trusted confidant for pretty much the rest of his life. He would go to her with personal decisions, with political decisions, with any kind of thing that he was ruminating, and get his sister's opinion, which is kind of interesting. I feel like there are not that many instances in history of men with as much power as him who the first order of business when they're faced with a decision is, "Let me call my sister."

Bamie’s influence on Teddy lasted throughout his career. As president, he often referred to his sister’s home as the “other White House,” and according to their niece Eleanor Roosevelt, he made few serious political decisions without talking with her first. Alice later remarked, "If Auntie Bye had been a man, she would have been president."

But she wasn’t the only woman who mattered to TR. Almost two years after Alice Sr. died, Edith Kermit Carow entered his life—or re-entered it, rather. The couple likely had a teenage romance, and Edith ran in the same social circles as Theodore.

Frey: Edith was insistent that, "that child will become my child. She will come and live with us and we will be one big family together," which sounds really lovely but it was fraught with tension.

According to historian Edmund Morris, TR, Edith, and Bamie came up with a plan to live together for a time at Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelts’ famous Long Island estate, to ease Alice’s transition to a new family. That family got even bigger with the birth of Theodore, Jr. in 1887.

Edith wanted to be a good parent to her stepdaughter, but raising a headstrong child like Alice wasn’t always easy. When Alice was a teenager, Edith, along with Teddy, proposed sending her to a conservative boarding school in New York City. According to historians Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Alice protested, saying: “If you send me I will humiliate you. I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will.”

When she was older, Alice often spent time with Bamie, and as Kathleen Dalton writes in her book Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, she and Edith had very different ways of managing Alice. Bamie was generous, rarely hesitating to give her niece whatever she wanted, while Edith believed children needed discipline.

As Alice grew into a young woman, her resemblance to her mother became unmistakable, which made parenting her even harder for Edith.

Frey: It breaks my heart when I read that Edith badmouthed Alice to her daughter, Alice. It was kind of like, "Yeah, she really was very pretty, but she was also really stupid." Like, who would say that to a child? There was also this problem where, of course, you know, Theodore Roosevelt was out traveling a lot of the time. Which, the one person who really loved both of these women could not serve as any kind of buffer or mediator. They were just kind of left to fight it out on their own.

TR also saw his late wife in his daughter. The distance that existed between them when Alice was a baby, along with his refusal to talk about her mother, lingered throughout her childhood. She would later say: "I think it is true to say that my father didn’t want me to be a guilty burden. He obviously felt guilty about it, otherwise he would have said at least once that I had another parent. The curious thing is that he never seemed to realize that I was perfectly aware of it and developing a resentment.”

TR’s aloofness wasn’t the only reason Alice didn’t see more of her father. He was also hard at work pursuing a political career. He served as both governor of New York and vice president of the United States while Alice was a teenager. Then in 1901, following William McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president.

The Roosevelts were going to the White House.

We’ll be right back.

 

At the start of his presidency, TR was a father to six kids ranging in age from 3 to 17. The nation hadn't seen a presidential family quite like the Roosevelt clan before. The children treated their new home as their personal playground, roller-skating down the hardwood floors, venturing into crawl spaces, and throwing spitballs at a painting of Andrew Jackson—a crime TR put them on trial for. (He found them guilty.)

Roosevelt’s sons, Quentin and Archie, were members of what was called the “White House Gang,” which met in the building’s attic. TR was an honorary member.

In case the kids weren't enough of a handful on their own, Teddy and Edith also had a menagerie of pets to worry about. The family animals included, at one point or another, a lizard, a bear, a badger, a hyena, a one-legged rooster, a pony, and guinea pigs.

Here’s a funny story about the pony, whose name was Algonquin: One day, when Archie was feeling ill, someone—some sources say it was Quentin and TR’s other son, Kermit, while others say it was footman Charles Reeder—decided to bring the animal up to his room to cheer him up. Reportedly, the horse was so fascinated by his reflection in the elevator mirror that they had trouble getting him out.

Frey: His oldest son Ted almost had a nervous breakdown when he was a kid because he felt so much pressure, and his, you know, son Kermit was kind of a wild child but in his own way. He was the one that wanted to go to Africa with his dad and shoot things. And I think her stepsister Ethel was probably the most chill of them all. She didn't want to be in the spotlight, wanted to be super helpful. And then the two youngest boys, Archie and Quentin, sound a little bit like very fun hell on wheels. They sound like very fun children to read about but maybe not live with.

Even though she was the oldest, Alice got into the most trouble of them all.

Frey: And so Alice in the meantime, she had already, before the election even, started showing up in the press. You know, gossip magazines loved her ‘cause she was a handful. She was a smoker, which of course was frowned upon. And at one point, TR forbid her to smoke under his roof so she would just go out on the roof of the White House. She's like, "I'm not under your roof.”

McCarthy: "I'm not breaking your rule."

Frey: Yeah. "I'm technically abiding to the letter of the law." She would play poker and she would bet on horses and she would drink a lot, and she was photographed doing all these things. She would ride in cars with adult men with no chaperone, which of course was terribly scandalous. She would also get in street races in her car in Washington, like, in the nation's capital, she’d be drag racing down the street. At one point, she announced that she was turning pagan just to kind of rile up the family. Her stepmother was very religious and she … Alice would tell Edith that she thought Christianity was a form of voodoo.

McCarthy: Sounds like a teenager.

Frey: The Roosevelts in general had some crazy issues when it came to pets. But she would occasionally carry around this snake in her pocket that she named Emily Spinach ...

McCarthy: That's a great snake name.

Frey: It is. It's good. I feel like that's also a good punk band name, so if any historically minded punk bands are looking for a name, that's a good one to snag, Emily Spinach.

The snake was named after Alice’s aunt Emily because it was as thin as she was. It was also, in Alice’s words, “green as spinach.”

McCarthy: So how did the public react?

Frey: In a weird way, they kind of loved her. She was called Princess Alice in the press. And … I mean, I think some of Teddy Roosevelt's appeal at the time was that sure, he was a politician, but he was also this rugged, kind of old school, to use this phrase man's man. Like, he did go out and hunt and he had no hesitation to go out into the wilderness by himself, and so she in some ways seemed liked the city extension of him. She had her father's wildness, and so there was definitely some appeal in that. Like, she started a trend in popular colors at the time because she loved this particular shade of like a grayish blue, and it started to become Alice blue and suddenly you saw Alice blue dresses, hats, accessories, everything.

Alice Roosevelt was the original White House Wild Child. Newspapers never missed an opportunity to print her name, whether in relation to a real event, like the hundreds of parties she attended, or a piece of unsubstantiated gossip. Even the men who claimed to have proposed to her were considered newsworthy. The press couldn’t get enough of Princess Alice, and they weren’t the only ones: Musicians wrote waltzes inspired by her; her likeness was put on postcards. (Right now we’re listening to the 1919 song “Alice Blue Gown.”)

Her father, on the other hand, was less enamored of her behavior.

TR often wrote “posterity letters” for historians to study, and his daughter, who frequently did things that threatened his reputation, was often on the receiving end.

In one letter, he said: "Do you know how much talk there has been recently in the newspapers about your betting and courting notoriety with that unfortunate snake [...] Do try to remember that to court notoriety by bizarre actions is underbred and unladylike."

She spent lots of money—so much that, according to Dalton, Edith once asked her, “How would you like to have Archie give up college to pay your debts?” The New York Times declared when she visited a horse race, “she is as much an attraction as the thoroughbreds.”

Before the 1904 election, Alice said she got “a terrible lecture from Father & Mother on the family and my extravagance, [and] lack of morals.”

But Alice did make some attempts to please her family. She became engaged in politics, reading books about child labor and going with her father to meet important officials. At home she tried getting along with Edith and helped her with chores. But these streaks of good behavior never lasted long. No matter how she acted, Alice felt like an outcast among the Roosevelts, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Father doesn’t care for me. That is to say, one-eighth as much as he does the other children,” she wrote in her diary in 1903. “We are not in the least congenial … Why should he pay any attention to me or the things that I live for, except to look upon them with disapproval?”

Still, when a congressman’s wife criticized Alice for her “bumptious, awkward manners,” TR, Dalton writes, “personally confronted his daughter’s critic.”

But Alice was more similar to her father than she may have felt at times. They both shared strong convictions, sharp intelligence, and a passion for learning. TR had a special fondness for his like-minded daughter, but with such big personalities sharing the White House and the headlines, they were bound to clash. It’s been said that TR always wanted to be “the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.”

Frey: One of the reasons that they did butt heads is because they both were kind of spotlight grabbers. And she also felt like she was competing with his wife and his five other children for his attention when she kind of wanted more than she was getting. And I'm sure that is part of why she would do ridiculous things like march into his office when he was meeting with heads of state. And it eventually reached the fever pitch where he came up with an idea that would get her out of his hair for a little while, which was making her a goodwill ambassador.

After unsuccessful attempts to reign Alice in, TR could see that she needed an outlet. Sending her as his representative to important events had the added bonus of granting him peace and quiet at home.

Her biggest job yet came in 1905 when she was 21. The U.S. was organizing a goodwill trip to Asia, and she was to serve as a goodwill ambassador. With stops planned for Hawaii, Japan, China, and the Philippines, it was to be the largest political delegation from the United States to ever visit the area. The trip turned out to be historic in another way: Never before had a first daughter been given a role of such importance. And Alice certainly made the most of it.

Frey: She was very good at dealing with the other people that were in power. She was very good at representing her father insofar as she completely supported him and was very eloquent. She was well spoken even though she always said she didn't really like public speaking. She really liked, you know, meeting with people and discussing what he was doing with them. But the flip side is that she was traveling with Taft, who was allegedly the person that was going to be in charge of keeping her in line, which I don't know why anyone thought that would work. But also a group of congressmen … there were a lot of people on this trip, and Alice kind of exploited every opportunity to party with all of them.

The partying culminated with Alice’s infamous plunge into the steamship’s pool.

Frey: She dared a congressman to do the same and he did, which was considered completely scandalous, although she always reacted to that by saying, "It would only have been really outrageous if I had taken off my clothes. We were both fully dressed. It was fine."

To make matters even more scandalous, outlets reported that it was Washington playboy Nicholas Longworth she had coerced to jump in the pool with her. Though Alice and Longworth did spend a lot of time together on that trip, she later admitted it had been a different congressman who accepted her dare.

Frey: She also didn't really seem to care what people thought of her, and so she was willing to do almost anything in the interest of having fun and continuing to kind of court that image that she had of being, you know, TR's wild child daughter.

McCarthy: Is there anything on record about how her father reacted to that little dip in the pool?

Frey: I mean, I think … I think about my father's reaction to all the stuff that I did when I was a kid and still do, and he always just goes, "Ugh, my stupid kid." And I imagine a very similar reaction from Theodore Roosevelt like, "Oh, my stupid kid."

McCarthy: You kind of have to wonder if he was just like, "That's Alice. Can't control her. Can't do it all."

Frey: Yeah. He’s like, "That's Taft's problem right now, I’m busy.”

At this point, future president William Howard Taft was the country’s secretary of war. Japan and Russia were in an expensive conflict, and part of Taft’s mission was to have a meeting with the Japanese prime minister. Babysitting should have been the least of his concerns.

Frey: It had to have aged him immeasurably during that trip. I mean, I can't even imagine how stressful that would have been. Like, "Here is my drunken wild child, you're in charge of keeping track of her and you have to do it while traveling with a bunch of men who she's going to flirt with."

McCarthy: "And also make important political deals while you're not worrying about my wild child daughter."

Frey: Yeah, exactly. If you were to think about something similar happening in the modern instance, right, like, it's hard to come up with an equivalent of a president handing their misbehaving child off to someone else and just being like, "Keep an eye on my kid, who's going to carry a gun the whole way, by the way."

McCarthy: That she's just going to pull out on a whim and shoot at things.

Frey: Shoot into the sky. I cannot imagine the stress that Taft must have felt at that time.

McCarthy: I feel like he must have given up at a certain point. Again, just like her parents, Taft was probably like, eh, I can only do so much here. ...

Frey: “My stupid kid." I think because she lost her mother so early, and because I'm sure the president realized that there was this gap in her life in that not only had she lost her mother, but he never spoke of her mother. So I think that probably fed into his willingness to just let her be the kid she was. He also valued the fact that she was smart as a whip and that she was independent. He liked that about her. It's why he liked his sister, Bamie, that she too was really smart, very independent. And so, I mean, he admired the very qualities that were becoming a pain in the neck for his life, so there's a juxtaposition there. And that was something that he applied to all his kids. He said similar things to his sons, you know, like, "Whatever you do, do not lose your smartness. That's the most important part of you. You're very smart and clever." So I think while he was probably publicly going, "Hey, that's my stupid kid," he was also in his private library going, "But I'm kind of proud of that.”

Even when she appeared to be having too much of a good time, Alice never wasted an opportunity to gain political acumen. Her wild world tour, along with her adventures in the White House, shaped her into a woman that didn’t just hobnob with political heavy hitters, but could hold her own against them.

Frey: I mean, she was barging in on meetings that should have had major security. And additionally, when she's traveling with all these congressmen and other people that are high ranking within the political structure and she's getting drunk with them, I can only imagine what she learned along the way. And she, to her credit, was very smart and she took in all that information and synthesized it into a pretty impressive knowledge of the workings of not just politics like how they appear on paper, but really how relationships among politicians worked.

Political lessons weren’t the only things Alice gained on her trip to Asia. She would go on to marry the man who newspapers falsely reported her jumping into the pool with—Ohio state Senator Nicholas Longworth, who was responsible for the Longworth Act of 1902, which regulated municipal bonds in Ohio.

McCarthy: So 1906 she gets married to Nick Longworth. Who was he?

Frey: He was first a lawyer and then he was an Ohio senator. He was also a notorious womanizer. He was, like Alice, a party person. He was super fun. He dressed really cute, he was adorable and charming. For Alice, who was feeling pretty stifled in the White House, to have someone who was in politics and was in a position of power who was also like, "Yes, let's party," to her that was wildly appealing.

Though Longworth’s personality isn’t discussed as much as Alice’s, he wasn’t afraid to indulge in bawdy behavior. For example: According to one story, when a member of the House ran his hand over Longworth’s bald head and said “nice and smooth, feels just like my wife’s bottom,” Longworth touched his head and replied, “Yes, so it does.”

He was also pretty open about the fact that he was a ladies' man.

Frey: He and Alice were kindred spirits in many regards. I think the one really good thing in their match, which had its own problems, was that they got each other. You know what I mean? They understood the other person in ways that I think a lot of people who were more concerned with propriety would never have understood.

In 1906, Alice married Nicholas Longworth in a lavish ceremony worthy of America’s princess. She walked down the aisle on her father’s arm wearing lace from the dress her birth mother had worn to her wedding 26 years earlier. She chose to have no bridesmaids waiting for her at the altar: Instead, she commanded the undivided attention of the 1000 guests in attendance. She cut the cake with a military aide’s sword.

After the ceremony, Edith reportedly told her stepdaughter: “I want you to know that I’m glad to see you go. You’ve never been anything but trouble.” Lucky for her, Alice didn’t take the comment personally and blamed it on the stress of the wedding.

The first daughter was officially Mrs. Alice Longworth, the wife of an important politician. But if anyone thought married life would change Alice’s rambunctious ways, they didn’t know her well enough.

She continued getting into trouble well into adulthood. One day in 1908, when she was feeling bored in the Capitol's gallery at the House of Representatives, she slipped a tack on the chair of an unnamed gentleman. The New York Times reported that when he sat down, “like the burst of a bubble on the fountain, like the bolt from the blue, like the ball from the cannon, he sprang into the ambient atmosphere, painfully conscious he had come into close contact with something sharp. He seemed angry. He glared around. But the president’s daughter was looking the other way.” There’s also the story of how she welcomed her father’s successor by burying a voodoo doll on the White House grounds before moving out. She was supposedly banned from the Taft White House after that. Later in life, she was quoted as saying: “I’m amused and, I hope, amusing. I’ve always believed in the adage that the secret to eternal youth is arrested development.”

McCarthy: Back in that day, in theory, a woman would get married and kind of settle down, and it didn't seem like there was any settling down for Alice.

Frey: No. She stayed her same self. She was never the shy and retiring violet type. I think at that point, she had never lived a life like that. How would she even switch gears to that, because it wasn't anything she had ever known. You know, she had had really a lot more freedom than most young women of the time and just was not interested in giving that up, I don’t think.

Even if Alice was able to find ways to keep her inner child alive, she couldn’t escape adulthood completely. That meant dealing with the reality of her marriage.

Frey: When I talk about their marriage, it's not like the fairy tale romance marriage where like, he swept her off her feet and they lived happily ever after, devoted to one another. They understood each other and so they were very much the same people that they were before they ever said their vows. So they butted heads because they were both pretty strong willed and kind of outgoing, outrageous people, but there was also some infidelity on both sides, which they didn't really seem to mind. I'm sure there were some arguments over such things, but the bottom line was that they kind of were like, "Well, this is how it works for us."

Alice and Nicholas had the same problems that afflict many troubled marriages. Her husband’s playboy lifestyle didn’t end on his wedding day, and he carried out numerous affairs. But there was a bigger issue looming over their union: politics.

We’ll be right back.

 

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt vied to take the Republican presidential nomination away from incumbent president William Howard Taft, and tensions in the Longworth household reached their peak.

Frey: Nicholas supported Taft. Obviously Alice supported her father. And she actually went and appeared in her husband's home district of Cincinnati with Hiram Johnson, who was her father's vice presidential running mate, instead of appearing with her husband on his campaign, which was kind of a slap in the face.

Longworth lost that election, and as the political rift between her and Nicholas widened, Alice put less effort into maintaining their marriage. It wasn’t long before she started pursuing extramarital affairs of her own.

Frey: Alice started an affair in the 1920s with the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That was Senator William Borah of Idaho, and that relationship not only went on for a long time, but they got really pretty sloppy about concealing it, so it kind of became public knowledge. She got the nickname Aurora Borah Alice in gossip papers. I mean, they would be seen together out on the town and they kind of really seemed to be very deeply in love. If you read their letters, I mean, everybody would want someone to write about them the way they write about each other. And she actually had a daughter, Paulina, born in 1925, which is recorded as Alice and Nicholas's child. It is very, very highly likely that was in fact Borah's child, although Longworth did not seem to care because he was absolutely devoted to Paulina. In her very later life, in her nineties, a reporter asked her if she would get married again if she could do it all over and she said that she would not. She said, "I might live with people, but not for long. I really wouldn't want to do anything pondering or noble or taking a position about someone again. But I might rather just spend the night with them, or an afternoon or something."

In many ways, Alice was ahead of her time. There was no blueprint for free-spirited women navigating public life in early 20th-century America. But there was another outspoken, strong-willed woman in politics born the same year as Alice who arguably succeeded where Alice struggled: her cousin Eleanor.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the daughter of Elliott Bulloch Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother. She lost both of her parents at a young age. Her mother died of diphtheria when [Eleanor] was just 8 years old. Two years later, her father, an alcoholic, jumped from a window while suffering from alcohol withdrawal-induced delirium, then had a seizure and died. She ended up spending a lot of time at Sagamore Hill with her Uncle TR, and it was there that she developed a lifelong rivalry with Alice. In 1905, Eleanor would wed her uncle’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of the Hyde Park Roosevelts.

Frey: Alice would always say that those weren't the real Roosevelts.

Theodore and Bamie’s regard for their niece likely fueled Alice’s jealousy. Dalton explains that, in Bamie’s eyes, personable, politically minded Eleanor was more “Rooseveltian” than unpolished Alice. TR would point to Eleanor’s respectable conduct as an example for his daughter to aspire to. But Alice had no interest in being more like her cousin, and when FDR entered the White House, she made those feelings especially clear.

Frey: She would also do really, really garbage, unkind impressions of Eleanor at parties. I can't imagine being on the receiving end of someone with such a sharp and unkind wit. Even late in her life, when she had already calmed down a lot and said a lot of nice things about people that she used to be pretty unkind about, she said, "I'm probably bad about people who have noble, fine, and marvelous thoughts. That's so depressing. I could never stand the little pious family things that my sanctimonious cousins used to do, but they're all dead now." She held her dad in such high esteem, and to some degree put him on a pedestal, which I think a lot of people have over the years. But her devotion was utterly unwavering to the point that basically there was Teddy Roosevelt and there was the rest of the world and no one else could measure up.

Alice lost her father in 1919 and her husband in 1931. In 1957, her daughter Paulina overdosed from sleeping pills at age 31, leaving behind a 10-year-old daughter named Joanna. Alice fought for custody of her grandchild and won.

Frey: In many ways she kind of fulfilled the similar role that Aunt Bye had done for her, making it a family tradition of really strong, independent, very outspoken women raising the next generation.

McCarthy: Yeah, and then you have to wonder if maybe she had some more respect for Edith after that situation.

Frey: I do think life experience and in particular her experience raising Paulina and then Joanna really did shift how she thought about her relationship with Edith and how both of them handled it.

Even without the men in her life connecting her to that world, Alice lived the rest of her life in Washington, D.C. and stayed involved in politics.

Frey: She and Nick had moved into a house at Dupont Circle. And that home was the site of a lot of gatherings and a lot of her true influence we probably won't ever know because it wasn't documented. It was largely exerted in this social setting, although she was certainly a very vocal supporter of various politicians over the years. She was a very vocal supporter of Nixon. She also came to be known as "the other Washington monument" because she was recognized as a significant figure in Washington, which automatically would come with some influence.

Alice’s later years were only slightly less exciting than her youth had been. She made friends with people across the political spectrum. Nixon would often call her up from the White House, and according to some friends, Alice and Robert Kennedy had a “thing” for each other, despite their 40-year age gap. But she didn’t extend her affections to just anyone. She notably refused to meet with Jimmy Carter, the last sitting president in her lifetime. In his eulogy for Alice, Carter wrote: "She had style, she had grace, and she had a sense of humor that kept generations of political newcomers to Washington wondering which was worse—to be skewered by her wit or to be ignored by her."

Alice Roosevelt Longworth died on February 20, 1980 at age 96. Decades after her death and more than a century since she last occupied the White House, her legacy as first daughter is more relevant than ever.

Frey: She was the first in a long line of presidential children that hit the spotlight. She was the first… the first "first daughter" who had this sort of ambassador goodwill situation. She was really one of the first ones that became a focus of the press and even courted that focus. It was like, "Yes, of course look at me and my ridiculous behavior." She kind of shifted the way we think about the leadership of our country and its family. I find that aspect of politics completely fascinating, period. Like the fact that once someone is in politics, we scrutinize their kids, their distant relatives, their ... That, to me, is a really interesting thing, and she was part of building that idea that it was press-worthy to cover the doings of a child of the president.

She also played a major part in shaping her father’s legacy. Even if he didn’t always show her the affection she craved, and didn’t always approve of the way she acted, TR could always count on having Alice in his corner.

Frey: Because of how deeply she loved her father and because she outlived him, of course, she really was able to kind of help continue to bolster and shape his image as time went on and ensure, in many ways, that the TR that we think about now is the TR we think about now. Like, she continued to always speak of him and write about him in only the most praising ways, even when she would say things like, "He always wanted to be the center of attention."

McCarthy: So I guess the ultimate question is, if we're looking at TR versus Alice, who's the winner? Is there a winner?

Frey: It kind of feels like a rare instance where they both sort of won.

McCarthy: Yeah.

Frey: He was able to continue his presidency and he came out of it in many ways, historically, looking pretty good. She was able to live a very lovely life. She was very smart and astute in terms of business as her husband had passed and she was almost immediately thinking about ways she could ensure that she had plenty of money to live on going forward, so she wrote her memoirs at that point and capitalized on that and she licensed her image to be on things like cold cream and cigarettes and other products. Yeah, they kind of both ended up succeeding in life in ways that in some part were due to each other's behavior even as much as they argued. So … I'm going to call it a win-win.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Michele Debczak with research by me and additional research by Michael Salgarolo. Fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Holly Frey.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. Is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.

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