9 Myths About Theodore Roosevelt
Our 26th president was a man larger than life—and is forever much larger than life, thanks to the fact that he's on the side of a mountain. But as with any such figure, myths and legends arise. So we’re here to explain the truth behind some popular stories about Theodore Roosevelt.
Myth: Theodore Roosevelt pronounced his name differently than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
There has long been disagreement about how to pronounce "Roosevelt." A 1902 New York Times article listed 14 different possibilities, from “ROSA-FELT” to “ROOZE-VELT,” “RUZY-VELL” to “RUZA-FELT.” The next year, Richard Mayne of the Department on Reading and Speech Culture, New York State Teachers’ Association, wrote to the Sun that the name was subject to 200 different pronunciations, but that most people pronounced the first syllable like "room." And legend has it that the two Roosevelt presidents pronounced their names differently. According to a 1984 article in the Washington Post, “Theodore Roosevelt's name rhymed with ‘goose.’ It was, to switch spellings a bit, ‘Ruse-a-velt.’ Franklin Roosevelt, a distant cousin, pronounced his name to rhyme with ‘rose’—‘Rose-a-velt.’ Since FDR served later and longer, his version has been generally adopted.”
Not so fast: We know that's not true, from TR's own pen. “As for my name, it is pronounced as if it was spelled ‘Rosavelt.’ That is in three syllables. The first syllable as if it was ‘Rose,’” he wrote in 1898. (He was used to the confusion, though; he wrote to his parents during his freshman year at Harvard that one of his teachers called him Rusee-felt, and that "hardly any one can get my name correctly, except as Rosy.") Later, FDR would confirm the same: In 1932, the Chicago Tribune verified with FDR's office—he was governor of New York at the time—that it was pronounced “Rose-a-velt.”
They weren't the only Roosevelts to weigh in: When Mayne wrote that most people pronounced the first syllable like "room," Theodore's uncle, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, submitted a rebuttal. “It is rather a dangerous proceeding to assume that a man does not know how to pronounce his own name,” he wrote to the Sun, explaining that the family pronounced it “Rose-(uh)-velt.”
The two presidents may have agreed on the first part of their name, but maybe not the -velt part. Traditionally, Roosevelt is pronounced -velt, but in recordings of his many inaugurations, FDR pronounces his last name more like "rose-a-vult." So if a pronunciation difference does exist, it might be nearer the end of the name.
Myth: Theodore Roosevelt rode a moose.
It’s a dramatic picture to be sure—Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose through a lake. It’s so ridiculously manly that it’s sometimes featured on lists of photographs you won’t believe aren’t photoshopped. But while this image wasn’t created using the popular image editing software, it’s still just as fake. It was part of a collage created for the 1912 presidential election, featuring Taft riding an elephant, Roosevelt riding a moose, and Wilson riding a donkey. In 2013, Houghton Library published a blog post detailing the story, with author Heather Cole explaining that it appears to have been an image of Roosevelt riding a horse where Roosevelt was cut out and pasted onto a separate picture of a moose. This also explains why focus, shadows, and most other features don’t match up between man and steed.
Myth: Theodore Roosevelt created the modern image of piranhas.
It’s a story that has featured in countless adventure novels—a member of an expedition goes to the shore of the Amazon with just his mule. The mule returns to camp alone, causing a frantic search for the missing person. They come to the water’s edge and see a devoured skeleton. The culprit? Piranhas. Except that’s not from any dime novel, it’s a story related to Roosevelt by his companions that appears in Through the Brazilian Wilderness, published in 1914 and written by Roosevelt, which details his adventures in South America.
The book features several stories about piranhas: that they’ll “snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water” and can devour a cow alive. "The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity," he wrote.
Roosevelt's book is also commonly cited as being the origin of the reputation of piranhas as ferocious carnivores. But he wasn't the first to make that claim.
In 1880, Scientific American declared, “They make nothing of biting an ounce or so of flesh from a man’s leg. People are sometimes killed by them. Hence Brazilians are shy of going into these lakes and streams if they suspect the presence of these fish. The fishermen claim that piranhas will gather in schools against the larger fish and attack them.” And an account from around 30 years before Roosevelt was born notes that “The horses and cattle sip only from the [water’s] surface, and hardly dip their nose below it; notwithstanding which it is often bitten off. Even the cayman flies before this fierce enemy, and turns its belly, which is not provided with scales, to the surface of the water: only the otter, whose thick fur resists the effect of the bite, is secure against its attacks.”
But even if Roosevelt wasn't the origin of the myth, he likely did much to cement the idea in the minds of the public that piranhas are blood-thirsty creatures. In reality, the fish are typically pretty relaxed ... until they're spooked. And they more typically scavenge for their dinner. Some species are even vegetarians.
Myth: Theodore Roosevelt cured his asthma with exercise.
In 2015, two researchers examined Theodore Roosevelt’s asthma, including the story that he cured it through exercise when he was around 12 years old. They found multiple references to asthma attacks when Roosevelt was an adult, such as after his first wife died and during a pillow fight with his children in the White House. Once, when his second wife was in labor, he took a train to get there, and his daughter remarked, “Both the engine and my father arrived in Oyster Bay wheezing.”
The researchers ultimately concluded that “in hindsight, it seems more likely that the improvement was coincident with the quiescence of asthma often seen in adolescence,” so Roosevelt himself may not have been completely responsible for his improved condition.
As for how the myth was perpetuated? Well, Roosevelt biographer Kathleen Dalton has an answer for that. "He ... encouraged his friends and authorized biographers to tell an upbeat, socially acceptable, stiff-upper-lipped version of his life," she writes. "He began, and they perpetuated, the myth that by force of will he cured himself of asthma." As his sister Corinne would write to a biographer, "he never did recover in a definite way—and indeed suffered from it all his life, though in later years only separated at long intervals."
Myth: Theodore Roosevelt was inspired to be a conservationist thanks to a camping trip with John Muir.
In 1903, Roosevelt and John Muir—co-founder of the Sierra Club, and also its first president—went on a three-night camping trip that has been described as “the most significant camping trip in conservation history.” In the years that followed, Roosevelt would become known as an ardent conservationist—which is often implied as the legacy of this trip.
The only problem with that story is that, by 1903, Roosevelt had been fighting for conservation for years.
In the late 1880s, alongside George Bird Grinnell (editor-in-chief of Forest and Stream) and a few other sportsmen, Roosevelt co-founded and was the first president of the Boone and Crockett Club. According to historian John F. Reiger, “it, and not the Sierra Club, was the first private organization to deal effectively with conservation issues of national scope.”
As Roosevelt himself explained in March 1893, the club was a group of men “interested in big-game hunting, in big-game and forestry preservation, and generally in manly out-door sports, and in travel and exploration in little known regions.” One clause of its constitution was “To work for the preservation of the large game of this country, and, so far as possible, to further legislation for that purpose, and to assist in enforcing the existing laws.”
As president of the Boone and Crockett Club (a position he’d hold until 1894), Roosevelt worked to pass the Forest Reserve Act, which as President of the United States he’d use to preserve millions of acres of land. Historian Edmund Morris writes, “Thanks to the [Boone and Crockett Club’s] determined lobbying on Capitol Hill, in concert with other environmental groups, the Forest Reserve Act became law in March 1891 ... One wonders if [Roosevelt] ever paused, while signing millions of green acres into perpetuity, to acknowledge his debt to the youthful president of the Boone and Crockett Club.” The Boone and Crockett Club would also be instrumental in the protection of Yellowstone in 1894.
Then where does the story that the “the conservation president” began thanks to a hiking trip with Muir come from? Something definitely happened. In 1902, there were 26 establishments or modifications of national forest boundaries, according to the USDA [PDF]. In 1903, it was 17 (though this was still more than previous presidents—in 1900, there were three modifications). In 1905, it was 60.
Historian Anthony Godfrey has a theory—that it was because of Roosevelt’s role as an “accidental president” filling out McKinley’s term. Over his partial first term, he attracted to the Republican Party like-minded progressives, so, when he won in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt was in a position to change the nation’s forestry policy. No matter what the reason for the change in conservation tactics, though, Roosevelt had been drawn to the cause for years before the camping trip with Muir.
Myth: Theodore Roosevelt invented the term Lunatic Fringe.
Roosevelt may lay claim to beginning its modern meaning—he wrote in 1913, “we have to face the fact that there is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement”—but he was seemingly adapting an existing phrase: a literal lunatic fringe, which an 1875 newspaper described as “the fashion which our girls have got up of cropping the hair and letting the ends hang over the forehead. They used to call it ‘banging,’ but ‘lunatic fringe’ is the most appropriate.”
Indeed, Roosevelt's 1913 quote itself isn’t from a great political treatise; it’s in an article entitled “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition.” In the same article he also said, “In this recent art exhibition the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists.” (He went on, “There is no reason why people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, or Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine, if they so desire; as expressing anything serious and permanent, one term is as fatuous as another.”)
Roosevelt would eventually use the phrase more explicitly in a political context—after receiving a painting of one of his heroes, he proclaimed in a letter to a friend that “I am always having to fight the silly reactionaries and the inert, fatuous creatures who will not think seriously; and on the other hand to try to exercise some control over the lunatic fringe among the reformers.” But according to Safire’s Political Dictionary, the term was revived and given new life by FDR in the 1940s, who used it explicitly to refer to the “fear propaganda” that has “been used before in this country and others on the lunatic fringe.”
Myth: Theodore Roosevelt was the first president not sworn in on a Bible.
The world of Bible usage during presidential inaugurations is a dicey one, as often (especially for early presidents) the evidence is inconclusive [PDF]. John Quincy Adams wrote, “I pronounced from a volume of the laws held up to me by John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, the oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States,” and LBJ used a Catholic missal after Kennedy was assassinated. Others are more obscure. For instance, Calvin Coolidge is often listed as being sworn in on the family Bible after Harding’s death, but in his autobiography, Coolidge explicitly noted that “The Bible which had belonged to my mother lay on the table at my hand. It was not officially used, as it is not the practice in Vermont or Massachusetts to use a Bible in connection with the administration of an oath.”
The assertion that Roosevelt didn’t use a Bible when he was inaugurated in 1901 after McKinley's assassination comes from Ansley Wilcox, the Buffalo resident who owned the home in which Roosevelt took the presidential oath. According to 1905’s Historic Bibles in America, Wilcox recalled, “no Bible was used, but President Roosevelt was sworn in with uplifted hand. As I recollect it, there was design in this. There were Bibles, and some quite interesting ones, in the room and readily accessible, but no one had thought of it in advance, there being little opportunity to prepare for this ceremony, and when Judge Hazel advanced to administer the oath to the new President he simply asked him to hold up his right hand, as is customary in this State. We seldom use Bibles in this State in administering oaths except in court rooms, and they are not required even in court rooms.”
Myth: Theodore Roosevelt was the presidential savior of football.
In 1905, college football was becoming increasingly controversial due to multiple deaths and injuries, so Roosevelt summoned representatives from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to “clean up” the sport. A committee met and drew up new rules (a more thorough discussion can be found here), and then Roosevelt largely stepped away from football reform.
Just a few years later, in 1909, Harper’s Weekly asked “Dr. Hadley, Dr. Lowell, Dr. Wilson”—a reference to the presidents of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, respectively—“don’t you think football, as it was played this year, is a little rough? There had been twenty-seven deaths up to November 21st ... You could stop this kind of football if you chose, you three men. The mothers can’t, poor souls.” Wilson responded by writing Lowell and Hadley to have “an informal conference ... to save a very noble game.” The three schools met, and by May 1910 came up with a suite of new rules. According to a 1988 article by John S. Watterson, the rules that emerged were “seven men on the line of scrimmage, no pushing or pulling, no interlocking interference (arms linked or hands on belts and uniforms), and four fifteen-minute quarters,” as well as readopting the forward pass in a limited role.
Soon after the rules were widely adopted, Watterson explained that “In the years that followed the reforms on the gridiron, football evolved rapidly into the ‘attractive’ game that Wilson had advocated and a far less brutal game than the unruly spectacle that Roosevelt had tried to control.”
Myth: The 1912 election was Theodore Roosevelt’s last attempt at the Presidency.
After Roosevelt lost the 1912 election, it might seem that the Progressive Party faded into nothingness—but that’s not quite true. Roosevelt’s running mate in 1912 was governor of California Hiram Johnson, who ran for reelection as governor in 1914 as a Progressive and got more votes than the Democratic and Republican candidates combined. In April 1916, John Parker ran as a Progressive candidate for governor of Louisiana, which was, according to a contemporary article in the Shreveport Times, a bid to boost Roosevelt’s power for the Republican convention coming up. Parker failed, but still got 37 percent of the vote (in 1912, the Republican gubernatorial candidate only got 8.78 percent). Such was his success that at the 1916 Progressive Convention, Parker was a natural pick for Vice Presidential candidate.
But what to do for president?
A mile away, at the same time the Progressives were having their convention, the Republicans were also having their convention—and the tone couldn’t have been more different. According to a contemporary account, the Progressive convention and Republican convention were “as different ... as champagne from ditch water boiled and sparkled and effervesced,” because the Republicans were torn between Charles Hughes, who “they would give their eye teeth not to take” and Roosevelt, who “they would not have.” The Progressives, however, were firm in a desire for Roosevelt.
To avoid a repeat of 1912, the Republicans and Progressives held a series of meetings to try and come up with a compromise candidate. According to historian Edmund Morris the Progressives were willing to give away virtually their entire plank in exchange for Roosevelt’s nomination, while the Republicans made it clear Roosevelt was not an option. At the end of the first ballot, Hughes was far ahead of Roosevelt but without a majority. Quickly Roosevelt realized he wouldn’t win, so suggested Henry Cabot Lodge as a compromise candidate. It came to naught and the Republicans chose Hughes. At almost the exact same time the Progressives chose Roosevelt to run for president again.
The only problem was that Roosevelt didn’t seem to want the nomination. “I am very grateful to the honor you confer upon me by nominating me as president," he wrote to the Progressive convention. "I cannot accept it at this time. I do not know the attitude of the candidate of the Republican party toward the vital questions of the day.” Roosevelt did suggest an out, that the Progressive National Committee could wait to see where the Republican candidate stood on the issues and if they were satisfied with what they heard they could accept Roosevelt’s refusal. If they weren’t satisfied, they could talk it over with Roosevelt and decide the next step.
A little over two weeks later, the Progressive National Committee in a vote of 32-6, with nine declining to vote, endorsed the Republican candidate. The New York Times declared, “The Progressive Party as a separate political organization died tonight.”
Except not really. There was still the issue of VP candidate John Parker. And Parker did campaign—largely against Hughes, and by inference for Wilson, although he explained that he’d “speak against Mr. Hughes’ candidacy. Of course, that would be in favor of Mr. Wilson, but I will speak as a Progressive and not as an affirmative supporter of the Democratic nominee.”
In the days before the election, when it became clear Wilson was going to win, one of Roosevelt’s friends commented, “We can ... look forward to 1920. There will be nothing to it then but Roosevelt. No one can stop it.” To which Roosevelt replied “You are wrong there ... This was my year—1916 was my high twelve. In four years I will be out of it.”
Roosevelt died suddenly in 1919, but the Roosevelts weren’t out of the game yet. In 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding crushed James M. Cox as well as his vice-presidential nominee—Franklin Delano Roosevelt.