History Vs. Episode 4: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Nature

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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.

It’s early on a spring day in 1866, and Theodore Roosevelt, age 7, is heading down Broadway in New York City to pick up strawberries from the market when he sees something that rocks. his. world.

It’s a dead seal laid out on a slab of wood, and as soon as he lays eyes on it, Little Teedie is never the same.

He needs to know everything about the seal. He asks where it was killed and is told, “the harbor.” He returns to the market, and the seal, day after day, lurking, getting a closer look whenever he can.

He wants to measure the girth of the animal but he doesn’t have a tape measure, so he must make do with a “pocket foot-rule,” which he later recalls is “a difficult undertaking” that yields “utterly useless measurements.” Nevertheless, Teedie scribbles his findings in a notebook and begins what he calls a “wholly unpremeditated and unscientific” natural history of the seal. He dreams of taking the seal home and preserving it; it fills him, he says, “with every possible feeling of romance and adventure.” He is obsessed.

It's not hyperbole to say that the seal changes everything: The day he saw it, TR will later write, is the day he started his career as a zoologist. And while he doesn’t succeed in procuring the whole seal carcass, Teedie is able to get his hands on the skull. It’s the first specimen in his “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History,” and from that point on, he can’t resist bringing home every living, or formerly living, thing he can get his hands on.

Bugs and lichen fill his bedroom; young squirrels he raises by hand scurry across the floors. He befriends mice and tries to tame a woodchuck. Once, when he’s riding a streetcar, he sees an adult he knows and absentmindedly lifts his hat in greeting—letting loose several frogs he’d been hiding underneath.

TR’s reverence for the natural world drove many of his policy decisions in the White House. But he was also an avid big game hunter who relished hanging a taxidermied kill on his wall. So how did his desire to save species square with his desire to shoot stuff? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this episode is TR vs. Nature.

Theodore Roosevelt, who went by the nickname Teedie as a boy, was born in Manhattan in 1858. New York City might not be the first place you’d think to find a budding naturalist—even in the 1860s, it was a bustling metropolis with factories, busy streets, and densely-packed tenement buildings.

But Teedie still found opportunities to foster an obsession with the outdoors from an early age, starting with the books he read. He suffered from severe asthma as a child, and while bedridden, he passed the time by devouring books. He was especially drawn to tomes that dealt with nature. Illustrated Natural History and Homes Without Hands by John George Wood, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa by David Livingstone—which was so big that Teedie could barely carry it—and Mayne Reid’s adventure novels, which had a scientific flair, were some of his favorites.

Charles Darwin also had a huge influence on TR: In his book Wilderness Warrior, historian Douglas Brinkley writes that, “By the time Theodore was 10 or 11 [Darwin] was his touchstone, a Noah-like hero.” On the Origin of Species came out the year after Theodore was born, and the book shaped not just his view of the natural world, but his view of everything. Brinkey writes that, "Roosevelt swallowed natural selection hook, line, and sinker. For the rest of his life, in fact, he used evolutionary theory as his guiding light; it illuminated his views on everything from politics to geography to fatherhood."

Darwin’s accounts of collecting specimens in exotic locations compelled TR to have adventures of his own, and later, Theodore would carry On the Origin of Species with him on those adventures.

When he was well enough to go outdoors, Teedie found the nature he read about in books all around him. Bugs were some of his first research subjects. At age 7 or 8, he wrote an essay titled “The Foregoing Ant.”

As his sister Corinne later recalled of the essay’s creation, he was reading about ants, and, “Turning the page of his huge volume, at the head of the following page, the narrative continued, ‘The foregoing ant also has such unusual characteristics.’ The young naturalist not realizing that the word ‘foregoing’ referred to the ants of whose habits he had already read, decided that the adjective in question was applied to a new species, and after ardent investigation of the habits of this supposedly new species of ant, he decided to write an article … entitled, ‘The Foregoing Ant,’ and having accomplished this feat in a large, painstaking, babyish hand, he then called the members of the household together to listen to this essay on this hitherto unknown representative of the ant family.”

For a paper he penned at age 9 called “Natural History on Insects,” he expanded his scope to cover more species like ladybugs and fireflies. Teedie explained his research process, writing: “All the insects that I write about in this book inhabbit North America. Now and then a friend has told me something about them but mostly I have gained thier habbits from ofserv-a-tion.”

His powers of observation—or, should we say, “ofserv-a-tion”—were remarkable for a 9-year-old. When writing about a bark spider, he described its nest in detail, noting: “It looks exactly like some cotton on top but if you take that off you will see several small little webs … each having several little occupants.”

These observations are made even more impressive by the fact that Teedie grew up severely near-sighted.

David Hurst Thomas: The remarkable thing was he just finished reading a 332-page book on the subject.

That’s David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History.

Thomas: That to me is the remarkable part. This kid was so precocious that he was just reading and he was then trying to sort of put it into practice. As he went on, he just used all of his experiences and started collecting things. And so he learned how to do this and he was looking out for specimens. So he created his own Museum.

When he wasn’t taking notes in the field, TR brought his work home with him. The “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” that started with his beloved seal skull soon grew too big for his bedroom—it contained several hundred specimens. According to historian Edmund Morris, when Teedie asked the cook to boil a woodchuck for 24 hours—which makes the meat fall off the bone, and is one way scientific specimens are prepared—it caused a great stink in both senses of the phrase, so she laid out an ultimatum: “Either I leave or the woodchuck does.” The housekeeper reportedly complained as well, saying: “How can I do the laundry with a snapping turtle tied to the legs of the sink?”

His parents may have been the only adults in the house who didn’t mind his hobby—in fact, they supported it. Theodore later wrote:

“My father and mother encouraged me warmly in this, as they always did in anything that could give me wholesome pleasure or help to develop me.”

His father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., even went so far as to set him up with his own taxidermy tutor when TR was 14. John Graham Bell was a colleague of John James Audubon, and in his musty Manhattan shop, he taught Theodore how to stuff and mount exotic birds and how to clean skeletons with dermestid beetles, which eat muscle and flesh to leave behind bone—a method still used by museums today. It was an unconventional education for a teenager, to say the least. Per Morris, TR “very likely had no peer as a teenage ornithologist.”

It helped that his dad shared his passion for nature. A businessman and philanthropist, Theodore Sr. helped found the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1869.

TR also owed part of his naturalist streak to his Uncle Rob, who lived next door to Teedie and his family on East 20th Street. Robert Barnwell Roosevelt was a well-known conservationist who rallied to save New York’s fish, founded clubs devoted to wildlife, and wrote an important work on ornithology. He also kept a pony in the house and let his German Shepherd eat at the table. He taught his nephew the value of the field of science known as ecology today. According to Brinkley, RBR turned his nephew into a conservationist as a teenager and notes that TR was "a hybrid—half his father, the other half Uncle Rob."

In 1872, TR received two things that changed his relationship with nature in very different ways: eyeglasses and a gun.

When shooting his gun with friends, he realized they were able to see targets that weren’t visible to him at all. He knew something was wrong when the other boys read a billboard ad that he didn’t even notice had letters. Theodore told his dad about the problem, and it became clear that he needed glasses.

Through his first pair of spectacles, he reacquainted himself with the world. The blurry green shapes above him sharpened into clusters of thousands of distinct leaves. The static ground was now animated with scuttling insects and blades of grass ruffling in the wind. But the biggest revelation came when he saw birds. He had a hypersenstive sense of hearing, which according to Morris, “is surely the legacy of the myopic years that came before.” Long enthralled by their songs, he was now able to see a cardinal sitting on a branch or a goldfinch flying through the air in detail for the first time.

Thomas: Those glasses … just opens a whole new world to him, but the birds really took the show, the colors and the details. And the idea that there were so many of them he hadn't seen before must have just been a real turnaround.

His glasses also allowed him to use his gun properly. When he vacationed in Egypt with his family later that year, he shot 1 gray heron, 2 partridges, 2 squirrels, 3 quail, 8 hoopoos, 8 cow heron, 18 large plover, 36 little shore birds, and 81 pigeons in two months. He recorded his haul in his “Zoological Record,” but his motives weren’t strictly scientific—he also liked shooting things.

Biographers have different theories on where this desire came from. Kathleen Dalton wrote that TR "turned to nature as an outlet for his most aggressive impulses and liked wilderness stories best when man's aggression and wildlife's destruction went unchecked.” According to Brinkley, Roosevelt shot, stuffed, and studied animals as a way to honor them, writing, "Most other men would simply shoot birds. Roosevelt, by contrast, shot and collected them for scientific scrutiny. Only by learning everything about a species could you eventually save it from the maw of industrial man."

But eventually, Roosevelt himself acknowledged that with birds, anyway, he’d been too quick with a gun. In 1901, he wrote to a friend,

“When I was young I fell into the usual fashion of those days and collected 'specimens' industriously, thereby committing an entirely needless butchery of our ordinary birds. I am happy to say that there has been a great change for the better since then in our ways of looking at these things."

Regardless of his motives at the time, hunting became part of Roosevelt’s new persona. Theodore had transformed from the clumsy, nearsighted boy of his youth into a budding outdoorsman.

Thomas: The robust guy that TR, the one we all know and love, was a creation of himself. He literally built himself into that person, who became president. … And that really colored the way he viewed the world. If I can do this, anybody can take themselves and be whatever you want, you just need to work hard enough and have enough passion.

But TR held onto some of his boyhood habits, including collecting animals. He enrolled in Harvard when he was nearly 18 to study natural history, and he kept his specimens—both the living and the dead ones—in his room at the boarding house. Preserved animal remains, formaldehyde bottles, and arsenic jars were strewn around his workspace. A tortoise of his even escaped its cage one day and wandered into the hallway. He wasn’t able to catch it before it surprised the landlady, who, according to Morris, “was frightened into hysterics.” She didn’t kick him out, though—TR lived there for the rest of his time at Harvard.

A career in science seemed like the perfect fit for Theodore; he may have even dreamt of being a curator at the museum his father helped found. In 1877, TR came back from Harvard to attend the grand opening of the American Museum of Natural History’s new building, and he donated some of his personal items to the collection, including 12 mice, four bird’s eggs, and a red squirrel skull.

But ultimately, a career in science wasn’t meant to be. After a few years at Harvard, Roosevelt learned the work wasn’t quite what he had envisioned.

He had spent most of his life studying nature up close, and being cooped up indoors in a lab left him dissatisfied. Class bored him, and he interrupted his teacher, Nathaniel Shaler, so often the professor once had to say, "Now look here, Roosevelt, let me talk. I'm running this course."

On Harvard, Theodore wrote in his autobiography:

"There was a total failure to understand the great variety of kinds of work that could be done by naturalists, including what could be done by outdoor naturalists [...] In the entirely proper desire to be thorough and to avoid slipshod methods, the tendency was to treat as not serious, as unscientific, any kind of work that was not carried on with laborious minuteness in the laboratory. My taste was specialized in a totally different direction, and I had no more desire or ability to be a microscopist and section-cutter than to be a mathematician.”

Alternate career paths were starting to look more appealing.

Thomas: He finally had to make a decision, “Am I going to be a natural historian or am I going to be a politician?” And that was a tough decision for him to make at Harvard and it didn't happen until his senior year when he finally decided that the kind of biology and natural history that he was learning, Louis Agassiz and the tradition at Harvard, that was a lab-based tradition. And he was a field-based kid and his dad warned him about that.

He was ultimately inspired to get into politics by the death of his father in 1878. The greatest way to honor his father, Theodore felt, was to dedicate his life to public service. He switched majors to history and government, but he didn’t abandon his interest in the outdoors. Nature sustained him throughout his life.

When his first wife, Alice, and his mother Mittie died within hours of one another, he retreated to the Dakota Badlands in search of solace. When his political career in New York got too hectic, he took breaks to live out his cowboy fantasies on a ranch out West. But after entering the White House, Theodore Roosevelt realized that nature could no longer be just an escape for him. Instead, it became part of his life’s work.

We’ll be right back after this quick break.

 

Since the early days of his presidency, the American people have associated Theodore Roosevelt with the outdoors. Just months after President William McKinley was assassinated and he was sworn into the White House, Roosevelt went on a hunting trip that would saddle him with a nickname he could never shake.

It was 1902, and TR was looking for a way to smooth relations with the South. He had recently invited African American leader Booker T. Washington to the White House, angering segregationist voters. The invitation alone wasn’t what caused a stir—Washington and Roosevelt often shared late-night conservations about politics whenever the activist came to town. But on this occasion, TR was double-booked: He had planned to spend the night with his children to celebrate his two youngest sons finally moving into the White House, but he also had an after-hours meeting with Washington.

He found a way around the scheduling conflict by inviting Washington to join his family for dinner. It was the first time in history a black guest had been invited to dine at the White House. According to Deborah Davis in her book Guest of Honor, "When Booker T. talked about the dinner in years to come, it was the fact that TR's family was alongside him at the table, not his new role as political adviser, that seemed to mean the most to him."

But not everyone applauded TR for the progressive move.

Thomas: TR got hammered for that. He accepted an invitation to go hunt bears in the South, knowing that there were some political liabilities and also, hoping that not only could he have some fun, but there were some political things to be said there as well there.

The invitation came from Mississippi Governor Andrew Longino. Holt Collier, a formerly enslaved Confederate cavalryman, would be their hunting guide. He was familiar with the land, and, according to legend, had killed more than 3000 bears. With the plan in place, TR headed South.

Thomas: He puts on his fringe jacket, and heads down to the South to go on this sort of ceremonial bear hunt. Even at the time, he says, you know, “Once you start adding more than two people to a bear hunt that's too many people.” But he went on this thing and it ended up being staged and went badly and a couple of his dogs were killed. So he's got his Winchester 94, his 3030. He's supposed to kill this bear that they've got tied up to a tree, who's already wounded and killed the dogs. And he just says he's not going to do it. It's just not his idea of being a hunter. And so he refused. He called it a most unsatisfactory experience. He was embarrassed by it and comes back and of course, there’re cartoons, poor little bear tied to a tree and TR holding his Winchester, not shooting it. That's where the teddy bear deal comes from.

After the incident, the nickname Teddy caught on—much to the president’s chagrin. As a strict rule-follower who appreciated formality, he felt the name was too personal to be used by the public. It’s also what his late wife Alice called him, and it was likely a painful reminder of her.

The public ate up the image of gruff, manly Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear (though he did order it put “out of its misery,” and a member of the party “dispatched it with a knife,” in Morris’s words). But his environmentalist principles were less popular when he tried putting them into law. At the start of the 20th century, natural resources were seen as something to be tamed and exploited—not to be conserved for future generations.

Still, there were some policies in place to protect the environment at this time. The Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 made it illegal to dump waste into bodies of water without a permit, and the Forest Reserve Act allowed U.S. presidents to preserve forests on public land. By the time TR took office, presidents Harrison, Cleveland, and McKinley had set aside roughly 50,000,000 acres of public forest under the law. Benjamin Harrison also used his power to protect wildlife, and even entered an international dispute in an effort to save the fur seal.

But these laws weren’t enough to match the rapid development taking place at the turn of the century. With hunting, mining, and deforestation left unchecked, the resources Americans took for granted were on track to disappear for good.

Thanks to his uncle, Roosevelt had long known that America’s wilderness was precious—and vulnerable. He had taken his own steps to preserve wilderness, co-founding the Boone and Crockett club after proposing the idea at a dinner in his New York City home in 1887. The B&C Club advocated for ethical hunting practices and established wildlife preserves for big game like bison, elk, and antelope.

As president, TR knew he had more power than ever to protect the wild lands he cherished, but with no precedent for the kind of comprehensive conservation laws he had in mind, he wasn’t sure how to move forward. So he turned to a friend from the Museum of Natural History for guidance.

Thomas: What he had done is pull in Frank Chapman again from the American Museum of Natural History. So he sits down with his lawyers and with Chapman. “What's the most important thing I can do today to make a difference?”

The American Ornithologists Union had made several attempts to purchase a small island off the coast of Florida from the government. The island was called Pelican Island, because it was the last rookery of brown pelicans on the east coast of the state. The AOU’s goal was to turn it into a bird preserve, but in order to buy the land, they needed to survey it … which would open the land up to homesteaders planning to use it for agriculture. The AOU’s status as a conservationist group would automatically send them to the bottom of the application pile.

But when they asked TR to use his executive power to make Pelican Island a nature preserve, he actually listened.

Thomas: TR looks around and talks to his lawyers and all. And he said, “Do I have the power to actually do that?” And the legal advice is “That's a big step for a president, but you don't explicitly not have the power to do it. So if you want to make that move to go one step further, all you have to do is say, ‘I so will it.’ And by saying ‘I so will it,’ you can turn that into law.”

The president was on board. By pushing the executive order through the USDA, it snuck by Congress without causing a fuss. In 1903, Pelican Island was established as the first-ever national wildlife refuge in the United States.

Thomas: It also sort of redefined a modern presidency: “If I'm not explicitly by law not able to do it that means I will do it.” I so will it then, I think that was the cornerstone moment in his presidency and his career.

On a camping trip he took that same year, TR realized there was even more he could be doing to save the environment. The president spent three days in California’s Yosemite with naturalist John Muir. They hiked in the shadow of the granite Sentinel Dome and camped under the towering sequoia trees of Mariposa Grove—TR with 40 wool blankets to keep him warm. But it wasn’t a pleasure trip for Muir—he was determined to convince his friend to use his power to protect the incredible place.

Muir made his case around the campfire … and succeeded. TR left California humbled by the natural beauty he saw, and he vowed to preserve it. When writing about Yosemite a few years later, he said: "There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of [the] giant sequoias [...] our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children … with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

When Theodore returned home from the camping trip, he was inspired to pass new laws preserving America’s wilderness—often using the “I so will it” approach that worked for him with Pelican Island. Congress didn’t share TR’s environmentalist goals, though, so he went over their heads on many occasions, using executive orders to craft the conservation policy he wanted for the nation.

Tyler Kuliberda: He has a speaker of the house, Joseph Cannon, during his presidency that famously says that he will not appropriate one cent for scenery.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Roosevelt’s Long Island home, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, where, on one floor, there hangs a painting of Roosevelt and Cannon arguing.

Kuliberda: That was the attitudes of a lot of people that these were natural resources to be used, this is how people make their livelihood, and why should we bar them from using them, whereas Roosevelt had a conservationist idea where they're the people's resources, and we can manage how many of them are used.

Some of TR’s most influential management came from the Antiquities Act of 1906.

With the act, Theodore Roosevelt had the power to establish National Monuments on federal land. If he felt there was an area in danger, he could grant it permanent protection without having to get permission from Congress first.

Here’s Will Shafroth, President and CEO of the National Park Foundation, whose great-grandfather was involved with the creation of the Antiquities Act:

Shafroth: It was a very different time in our country. You know, the population was dramatically less and the west was relatively undiscovered. The Homestead Act was still in place. And, you know, as people realized, wow, these places have got some value, let's use them for economic benefit. The Antiquities Act, which was formally passed in 1906 was a law that was created to provide the president of the United States with the flexibility and the authority to establish national monuments. Sometimes a president will need to have essentially kind of an emergency authority to set aside lands because Congress is not acting or it's taking too long to act so that the particular resources of concern can be protected in a short period of time and for the longterm.

The goal of the Antiquities Act wasn’t to shut people away from the nation’s natural wonders. With these protections put in place, TR ensured National Monuments would be preserved for more citizens to enjoy, whether by studying them in a scientific capacity, reflecting on their history, or just appreciating their beauty.

The first site designated a National Monument was Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. Anyone who’s seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind knows this rock formation: The 867-foot-tall butte juts out from the horizon, with cliffs lined with hundreds of parallel cracks leading to a flat-ish summit. The Antiquities Act was also used to preserve places of cultural significance. Immediately following Devils Tower, El Morro, an ancient pueblo in New Mexico, and Montezuma Castle, a pre-Columbian structure built into an Arizona cliff face, were added to the register of National Monuments.

The Antiquities Act was really put to the test on January 11, 1908. That’s when President Roosevelt upgraded the Grand Canyon from a game preserve to a National Monument.

Shafroth: When that happened, it was like, OK, this was the full scope of the Grand Canyon of something like 800,000 acres I think at the time. And that was a big deal for the government to do that and it established a precedent for other presidents to do something that bold in their own way.

The Grand Canyon—already a major tourist attraction—may have started to resemble a theme park without federal protection. Or maybe it would have fallen victim to copper and zinc mining interests.

Instead, Theodore Roosevelt paved the way for the Grand Canyon to become a full-fledged National Park in 1919, three years after the National Park Service was established. The National Park Service, alongside other government agencies, would be tasked with protecting these lands.

Before the environment was a top issue with voters, and before climate change was a regular part of the news cycle, Theodore Roosevelt saw the importance of conserving the country’s resources—not just for his constituents, but for future generations of Americans.

In 1908, TR gave a speech titled “Conservation as a National Duty.” In it, he said that:

“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight; we have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!”

TR did as much as he could to protect the environment—perhaps more than any other president before or since. By the end of his presidency, he had established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments. A total of 230 million acres of public land owe their protected status to him. As Brinkley puts it, that’s “almost the size of the Atlantic coast states from Maine to Florida” or “almost half the landmass Thomas Jefferson had acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803."

This feels like a good place to take a quick break. We’ll be right back.

 

It’s hard to find a surface of Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill estate that isn’t adorned with something that used to be alive. The walls display trophies of bighorn sheep and moose, while the tanned skins of big cats are draped over chairs and placed on floors, their faces frozen in permanent snarls.

In the north room, the saber and hat from TR’s days as a Rough Rider hang in the antlers of an elk—one of two in the room—which are situated across from two bison heads. There’s a dinner chime made of elephant tusks in the foyer, beneath the head of a water buffalo. In his upstairs library, there’s a bizarre-looking chair made with the horns of longhorn cattle, and a hippo foot that was transformed into a inkwell.

Though not all of the animals there were bagged by TR, the former president’s home is a testament to his love of big game hunting.

Kuliberda: A lot of the hunting trophies that you see, the rugs on the floor, most of them in the house, the vast majority of them are hunted by him, so he is an avid big game hunter.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda.

Kuliberda: He's trying to display animals from all over the country, and I would say it was his goal to try to get as many as he could of a certain animal. So it was important for him to be able to hunt every animal.

Many of the trophies at Sagamore Hill came from a hunting trip TR took after leaving office. Like many ex-presidents, he celebrated the end of his tenure with a much-needed vacation—but instead of relaxing on some beach, he set off on a safari in the east African wilderness.

TR embarked from New York on March 23, 1909, and arrived in Mombasa on April 21. He was accompanied by a team of explorers and his son, Kermit. This wasn’t a typical post-presidency vacation: The expedition was sponsored by the Smithsonian, and it was organized for the purpose of collecting specimens for the National Museum of Natural History.

The former president took this job seriously. He entered Africa with rifles, a shotgun, a barrel of salt for preserving hides, a trunk of pigskin-bound books, and a gold-mounted rabbit’s foot for good luck.

The party returned home with more specimens than the museum could have hoped for. Between them, Kermit and Theodore shot and killed 512 animals. That’s not including the hundreds of creatures the other party members collected or the many birds the Roosevelts didn’t tally. Most specimens were donated to the National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History, though the pair did keep a few trophies for themselves. It took the Smithsonian eight years to catalogue every item it received. Some of the smallest specimens the party pocketed ended up in the U.S. Tick Collection—a massive catalogue of ticks from around the world that scientists use to study tickborne illnesses.

Some criticized TR for the excessive amount of slaughter that took place on the trip. But even after shooting hundreds of animals in the span of 11 months, he insisted it was done in the name of science. He told the press: "I can be condemned only if the existence of the National Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and all similar zoological institutions are to be condemned."

Any self-described environmentalist president killing one lion, let alone nine as TR did, would be a massive scandal today. But a conservationist hunter wasn’t an oxymoron in the early 20th century.

Kuliberda: If you wanted access to an animal in Roosevelt's day, you had to have it, and a lot of times that meant killing it. If you wanted to study a bird, you wouldn't want to put it in a trap and put it in a cage, because you want to take it apart and learn something about it, so you'd shoot it. He and other conservationists at the time, and other people that are interested in natural history, they are killing all of their subjects.

That includes ornithologist John James Audubon, another outdoorsman naturalist that Roosevelt was obsessed with. When he set off to create a life-sized guide to all the avians in America—which would become the Birds of America, a book so large that it required its own furniture just to look at it—he didn’t capture the level of detail in his vibrant and lifelike paintings solely by studying live birds through a pair of binoculars. His work required him to hunt. He shot his specimens, articulated them with wires, and then painted them.

Here’s David Hurst Thomas:

Thomas: Somebody like Audubon, he carried a paintbrush, but he also carried a gun. He collected everything that he could in part, so that he’d paint them and understand them. And one of his taxidermists is the one who taught TR how to do that. There wasn't any distinction as TR was growing up.

In 1914, TR set off on another expedition—this time to the Amazon rainforest. Originally meant to be a lecture tour of South America, he turned the trip into a scientific mission by collecting specimens for the American Museum of Natural History. At age 55, he knew that his adventuring days were limited. He called the journey his “last chance to be a boy.”

These scenes have been recreated in pop culture countless times thanks to Theodore’s account of it. His description of the fish itself also helped cement its terrifying reputation in the public imagination. He wrote:

“The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks.”

Whether he was watching a flock of birds or spreading tales about the piranha, Theodore Roosevelt loved nature. As Kuliberda explains, he expressed his respect for wildlife by hunting it—something that’s difficult for people to wrap their heads around today.

Kuliberda: Hunting isn't just shooting an animal, hunting is spending time out in the wilderness, sometimes for a week, or many days, or even longer than that. Hunting is cooking out in the open. Hunting is testing yourself, testing your abilities, and these things all attract Roosevelt to hunting.

Harvesting animals for museum collections doesn’t happen in such large numbers today—it’s strictly regulated and there are ethical guidelines. But when it does happen, there’s often public outrage. One scientist who collected a rarely-seen bird received death threats afterwards.

I know what I’m about to say is not going to be popular, but hear me out. Scientific collections are essential—specimens collected in the past help scientists solve scientific mysteries and make new discoveries that can actually help save wildlife. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Peregrine falcon populations were mysteriously declining, scientists compared contemporary falcon eggs to decades-old specimens at several museums and private collections around the country. They noticed the fresh eggshells were much thinner than the old ones, and determined that the pesticide DDT was to blame. Another example: By comparing the old feathers of seabirds to new feathers, scientists could show that the amount of mercury in the world’s oceans was rising. Who’s to say what future scientists might learn from specimens being collected today?

Hunting can even be used as a conservation strategy. In Midwestern states, hunters bid in auctions or enter lotteries to obtain the tags needed to hunt bighorn sheep, with the proceeds going to conservation. These hunting tag programs, along with reintroduction efforts, have helped the once-endangered bighorn sheep make a dramatic comeback. Here’s David Hurst Thomas.

Thomas: I've taken museum crews out for years and years and years, working at 12,000 feet in areas where Native Americans were hunting bighorn sheep. We can see all the archaeological evidence for that. They're not there anymore. Except the last time we went back there, there are bighorn back. And the reason they're back is because of the hunters.

What they've done is gotten together and see themselves as a prime movement of conservation. By raising money and reintroducing antelope and elk and bighorn in former environments and having some kind of limiting hunting season on them, they're actually making a pretty positive difference, and I see that as a legacy of where TR was coming from.

Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy may have looked much different if it wasn’t for his time spent in the Badlands. In 1883, the 24-year-old headed West in search of bison to hunt and display. There was nothing like the Badlands’ Painted Canyon back East: The hilly vista would have rolled on for miles before him, the colors of the rock formations varying in intensity depending on how sunny it was outside and if it had rained that day. The Lakota people dubbed the terrain "mako sica" or "land bad" because it was barren and unforgiving, but to TR, it was paradise.

Bad luck followed him the whole trip: He and his hunting guide discovered that the great herds of bison that had once roamed the region were now hard to find. He was also plagued by bad weather—but nothing could dampen his mood.

Eileen Andes: They woke up one morning and it had been raining, and he was lying in a puddle. And he woke up and said, "By Godfrey, this is fun," when most other people would say, "Let's just go home. It's hot. It's wet and nasty out here."

That’s Eileen Andes, Chief of Interpretation and Public Affairs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Even after he’d bagged his bison, TR wasn’t quite ready to leave the Badlands behind completely. He had fallen in love with cowboy life and decided to invest in a cattle ranch in North Dakota called the Maltese Cross. Later, he’d buy another, which he dubbed the Elkhorn. There was nothing glamorous about being a rancher in that part of the country. Fuel, food, and water were all hard to come by. In the summer, temperatures exceeded 100 degrees, and in the winter, the snow piled up so high that cattle were found in trees. Though challenging, the hardships he faced out West were a refreshing change from what TR experienced in New York.

Andes: I think he had some freedom out here that he didn't have when he was back east. And when he came out here, he didn't have the same kinds of responsibilities. So, it was a romantic life for him.

He spent the next few years traveling back and forth between North Dakota and his New York home, but it was in the Badlands where he built his rugged persona. He took his iconic buckskin suit there. Picture a buttery, fawn-colored garment with long fringes trimming nearly every seam. To TR, it was a symbol of the Old West at its peak. He also found it practical—the neutral color camouflaged him in the woods and the soft material allowed him to sneak through the brush quietly. But most working cowboys at the time were not impressed. Here’s Kuliberda.

Kuliberda: It's interesting, Roosevelt went out to Dakota territory, and went to be a cowboy, but he was very wealthy, and cowboys aren't wealthy, so he gets these very nice kind of fine-ries, he gets a rifle with things engraved on it, he gets a knife from Tiffany that he sticks in his belt. He has a buckskin suit, because Davy Crockett had a buckskin suit, but no one’s wearing buckskin suits in the Dakotas. So he had this idea of what a cowboy was, and he decided he was just going to go for it, and he gets out there, he gets made fun of.

One of his most iconic portraits shows him wearing the get-up in what appears to be a forest with a rifle resting in his lap. Labeled “Theo. Roosevelt as hunter,” the photograph was actually shot in Manhattan.

As Andes explains, TR’s time in North Dakota also helped shape his stance on conservation.

Andes: Well, the first time when he came out and it was so hard to find a bison, that was an indication that the great herds of bison were pretty much gone. He could see that for himself. When he came out here and was a rancher, he saw the effects of over-grazing. He saw diminishing wildlife populations. So it wasn't just hearing about it, he saw it for himself. And he started to think, probably, more clearly about conservation and what needed to be done. And his ideas started to crystallize. And he was able to do that out at the Elkhorn kind of like Thoreau did at Walden Pond. It gave him space to think, but he also saw things. And he also saw the need for habitat, which, we all know now that without a habitat, you can't save species unless they have a place to live. It seems logical, but that's not always been a known thing.

Twenty years after trekking to the Badlands to kill his first bison, Theodore Roosevelt used his power as president to help them. He became the honorary president of the American Bison Society at the Bronx Zoo in 1905. With TR’s support, the organization transported bison out West in an effort to repopulate the Great Plains. There were less than a thousand wild bison living in the U.S. in the late 1800s and there are roughly 350,000 of them today.

Theodore Roosevelt’s time in the Dakotas is what inspired him to live a life of significance and adventure with little room for compromise when it came to changing the world for the better. On his time there, he proclaimed, “I have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota. It was here that the romance of my life began.”

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Michele Debczak and researched by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer and Tyler Klang. Joe Weigand voiced TR 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 David Hurst Thomas, Tyler Kuliberda, Will Shafroth, Eileen Andes, and North Dakota Tourism.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

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.

History Vs. Episode 7: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Other Presidents

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

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.

“Shifty, adroit logothete. Cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician. No more backbone than a chocolate éclair. A flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him. Puzzlewit! Fathead! Brains less than a guinea pig!”

Yes, those are the words of Theodore Roosevelt. President of the United States, author, philanthropist, avid reader, and inspiration for the teddy bear. He was, from most accounts, a kind and sociable man. But if Roosevelt found flaws, he was quick to articulate them—a fast and furious torrent of putdowns designed to bombard the target of his attack with insults that might require a dictionary to fully process.

Roosevelt didn’t unleash these particular tirades at just anyone. He reserved them for individuals he held to the highest standard because they held the highest office in the land. For Roosevelt, anything less than the naked, harsh truth directed at the commander-in-chief would be a disservice to his country. When it came to other presidents, Theodore Roosevelt pulled no punches. How rough did it get? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. This week’s episode is TR vs. Other Presidents.

Roosevelt’s famously tempestuous attitude toward politicians may have started with his impossible standards. His role model for all things presidential was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th commander-in-chief of the United States, and one of the few presidents Roosevelt had no quarrel with. He grew up in a household where Lincoln was revered—at least by his Republican father, Theodore Senior, or Thee. (His mother Mittie, a southerner and Confederate sympathizer, likely had other feelings.) Thee had worked with Lincoln’s administration during the Civil War and had even joined Abraham and his wife Mary at church.

After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his funeral procession ran through New York City. From his grandfather’s mansion in Union Square, 6-year-old Roosevelt and his brother, Elliott, watched as the president’s coffin was carried through the streets.

A photographer even captured the moment, a young Theodore peering out of the window in what would be the first of his many eyewitness experiences in history. Here’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Jenkinson: Lincoln, in Roosevelt's view, was the savior of the country. He was also a friend of his father and TR worshipped his father and his father's associations, and he regarded Lincoln as somebody who had the moxie and the moral strength to do the right thing against almost impossible odds and he knew that Lincoln had paid the ultimate price for that—that he had been assassinated in part because he grew in office, whereas most presidents, as you know, don't grow in office, they decline. But Lincoln was one of the few who actually grew in a big way during the course of his presidency.

Roosevelt’s admiration for Lincoln endured throughout his life. As president, Roosevelt referred to him as “my great hero,” a degree of affection he reserved for very few people aside from his father.

With Lincoln’s portrait hanging both in the White House and in his home office at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt was constantly reminded of Lincoln’s legacy. “I look up to that picture,” he said, “and I do as I believe Lincoln would have done.”

He even kept a lock of Lincoln’s hair in a ring, which Roosevelt wore for his inauguration in 1905. It was given to him by John Hay, who had served in Lincoln’s administration—and went on to serve in Roosevelt’s.

Tyler Kuliberda: It was kind of like a Victorian thing, and they would make jewelry into them, so that's what Hay does, and he keeps these, and I think he has two of them made, and he has them for quite a while, and gives them to TR to wear at his inauguration in 1905.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, the education technician at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s onetime home and now a National Historic Site.

Kuliberda: I think Roosevelt saw Lincoln as kind of this incredible president, and I think in his own presidency would have liked to been president during a time like Lincoln when the nation was in crisis, and he had to solve these kind of major problems as president.

Roosevelt enjoyed having a memento of Lincoln so close to him. But he was not so fond of one of the other presidents who would end up on Mount Rushmore alongside him.

Roosevelt was famously cool toward Thomas Jefferson, blaming the long-deceased president for his ineffectual efforts in building a military force during the War of 1812 and for Jefferson’s subversive opposition to George Washington’s policies while serving as his secretary of state.

But it was Roosevelt’s contemporaries that received most of his scorn. That rant about a “cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician”? That was directed at Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president from 1889 to 1893 and the same man who appointed Roosevelt as a civil service reform commissioner around the start of his term.

Roosevelt had campaigned for him when he was on the Republican ticket. So where did things go so wrong?

For one thing, Harrison didn’t really want reform for federal employees. The position was more of a figurehead role. That didn’t suit Roosevelt and his high standards at all. In his mind, if someone was granted a federal job, it should be because they deserved it and not because they were owed a favor.

For the six years he held the post, Roosevelt was defiant, putting lackadaisical civil service workers and departments in his crosshairs. He advised Harrison to fire George H. Paul, postmaster of Milwaukee, for granting jobs to his friends. His investigation into the Baltimore Postal Service—where Roosevelt found workers soliciting money for political purposes on government property, which, according to historian Edmund Morris, was against the Civil Service Code—put him against Postmaster General John Wanamaker even more directly.

Wanamaker tried to run his own investigation into the matter and reported that it found that no wrongdoing had occurred. But a House Investigative Committee, acting on Roosevelt’s insistence, found that Roosevelt was right. Here’s Jenkinson:

Jenkinson: It was just a natural instinct of his to read the job as boldly as possible and to make sure that he got himself in the newspapers and to make sure that he was on the right side of these questions and he wasn't afraid to take on his own political party. He'd take it right up to the edge, and … where they're just like so annoyed and disgusted with him because he won't … he won’t play the game. You know, he just couldn't play the game and they wanted him to be a figurehead at least and to be … they knew that he was the best stump speaker they had and that he could galvanize an audience, but they wanted him to be less hectic and to be less certain of things and to go along more than he did.

This wasn’t how government was supposed to work—government wasn’t supposed to be fair. Cynicism and cronyism mandated that politicians did favors and the winning team showed support. But Roosevelt didn’t care what party anyone belonged to. He was on a mission, and if Harrison’s allies were in the way, he had no problem taking them down.

That commitment had consequences for their relationship. When Harrison and Roosevelt met, Harrison took to tapping his fingers, a nervous tic that developed as a result of the aggravation Roosevelt caused him.

There was, of course, the situation with the money-soliciting Baltimore postal workers.

And the fact that Roosevelt went after William Wallace, the postmaster of Indianapolis and a man who also happened to be Harrison’s best friend, for hiring incompetent—and corrupt—workers because they were Republicans.

Later, Harrison would say of Roosevelt, “The only trouble I ever had with him … was that he wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset.”

Harrison’s overt displays of favoritism needled Roosevelt, perpetuating some of his most articulate insults. He called Harrison “the little gray man in the White House” and “a genial little runt” behind his back.

Roosevelt managed to last through Harrison’s term, and would end up being re-appointed civil service reform commissioner once Grover Cleveland entered office in 1893. He left his post in 1895 and became president of the board of police commissioners in New York City. His next brush with the presidency would come when William McKinley ran for the office in 1896.

McKinley’s campaign had given Roosevelt pause. Before McKinley’s first term, Roosevelt wrote to his friend and Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that “it will be a great misfortune to have McKinley nominated … If I could tell you all I have learned since his campaign has progressed, you would be as completely alarmed over the prospect of his presidential nomination as I am.”

When it seemed like McKinley would soon be named the Republican nominee, Roosevelt dashed off a letter to his sister, Bamie: “McKinley, whose firmness I utterly distrust, will be nominated; and this … I much regret.”

Roosevelt didn’t dislike McKinley. He noted he was an “honorable man, of very considerable ability and good record as a soldier and in Congress.” But where Roosevelt felt Harrison was politically savvy, he got the impression that McKinley was without a spine. “He is not a strong man,” Roosevelt said. “Unless he is well-backed I should feel rather uneasy about him in a serious crisis, whether it took the form of a soft-money craze, a gigantic labor riot, or danger of foreign conflict.”

Roosevelt’s tune changed slightly when McKinley was elected.

Jenkinson: TR was an ardent Republican and he could never stray from the Republican camp. And so that dictated a lot of what he did.

McKinley appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy in 1897. But the peace didn’t last long.

Jenkinson: He thought that McKinley was unimaginative and unnecessarily cautious and that McKinley was timid about going to war against Spain in 1898. And TR really went on a somewhat questionable campaign to sort of force McKinley's hand to declare war against Spain when McKinley said, you know, "We've had one big war during my lifetime. I hesitate to begin another one." But TR read every possible story coming out of Cuba in the way that made the Spanish look worst, made it sort of a righteous issue of whether we stand for anything and especially after the sinking of the Maine. That's why he called McKinley names and said that he had the backbone of a chocolate éclair.

He would later campaign extensively for McKinley’s second term. By this point, Roosevelt was more than just a supporter. After a two-year term as governor of New York, he was the vice-presidential candidate on the McKinley ticket.

Jenkinson: Roosevelt campaigned for McKinley in a really big way in 1900 against William Jennings Bryan; McKinley didn't leave his home in Canton, Ohio. He ran that front porch campaign and sent out this voluble, hectic, crazy, energetic vice presidential candidate to do all the work on the stump. Roosevelt of course threw himself into just head and shoulders and had the time of his life. And took on Bryan and probably McKinley would have won anyway, but it's Roosevelt who did the heavy lifting in the campaign and really found his voice in the American West while doing that. He said horrible things about Bryan. He said he was a human trombone, which is virtually my favorite thing, my favorite Roosevelt insult of all. So he believed that McKinley was sound economically and he realized especially after 1898, that McKinley could be manipulated or managed, let's put it, to pursue a more vigorous American role in the world than he might instinctively have intended.

One would think that Roosevelt would exert a little more patience with the guy on his campaign ticket, but … it’s Theodore Roosevelt we’re talking about here.

For one thing, Roosevelt didn’t really want to be vice president. He thought the office was ineffectual and constricting. “I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president,” he said.

Here’s Kuliberda:

Kuliberda: This is a man who cannot sit still, and you put him in the vice presidency, which he just regarded as an idle office.

But Roosevelt’s friends knew it was a step closer to the presidency. Senator Lodge urged him to take it on and stick by McKinley’s side, declaring it “invaluable” for his future in politics.

So why would McKinley select him as a running mate? It was more indifference than anything. Supporters buzzed in McKinley’s ear that Roosevelt, then the governor of New York and a war hero, would bring some much-needed fire into the campaign. Plus, the New York Republican party machine desperately wanted him out of the state.

And so McKinley and Roosevelt became the Republican hopefuls of 1900. Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, who viewed Roosevelt as a loose cannon, was not a fan. “Don’t you realize,” he said, “that there is only one life between this madman and the White House?”

Roosevelt’s concerns about the role proved accurate. McKinley never consulted him on policies and refused to let him interact with the Senate as a liaison, as he had done with his previous vice president, Garret Hobart. Roosevelt, meanwhile, found McKinley’s glacial decision-making process infuriating. But he wouldn’t have to endure it for long.

On September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot in the stomach by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

He died of gangrene only a little over a week later. According to an eyewitness, when Roosevelt heard the news of McKinley’s shooting, “a look of unmistakable anguish came to his face, and tears immediately filled his eyes.”

Jenkinson: Well, TR was in upstate New York. He had presided over the Senate for I think five days before they adjourned and now he was sort of just wandering and giving speeches and going hiking and camping and, you know, writing and doing all the things the Theodore Roosevelt does. He got the word that McKinley had been shot. And he made an emergency trip to Buffalo to be at McKinley's bedside and then he realized McKinley was probably going to recover. He went back. He thought it was unseemly for him to hang around the sick man's bed. And so he went to upstate New York. He was on Marcy, the highest point in the state, when a messenger came running up the path and informed him that the president was going to die that night.

Roosevelt raced to Buffalo to be by McKinley’s side, although he would be too late to see the president before he passed. Though they had their differences, the tragedy overshadowed any political divide.

Following McKinley’s assassination, it was time for Roosevelt to step into the role held by men he had often criticized.

The so-called madman was now in the Executive Mansion. Would that experience afford him a new perspective on the challenges of the job? Of course. Would it prompt him to bite his tongue when it came to his successor? Probably not.

We’ll be right back.

 

Imagine what it would be like to disappoint someone with the standards of Theodore Roosevelt. Just … think about that for a moment.

William Howard Taft didn’t have to think about it. He experienced it first-hand.

Taft was Roosevelt’s secretary of war. When Roosevelt left office, he selected Taft as his choice for the presidential nomination. Taft was named the nominee in 1908, and Roosevelt believed he would welcome advice with an open ear.

Hmm. Not quite.

Roosevelt felt Taft was a little too careless with his image. Seeing Taft fishing and golfing instead of shaking hands and kissing babies, he urged Taft to “put yourself prominently and emphatically into this campaign.”

Of his recreational activities, he said: “I am convinced that the prominence that has been given to your golf playing has not been wise, and from now on I hope that your people will do everything they can to prevent one word being sent out about either your fishing or your playing golf.”

Roosevelt had very particular ideas about how a president should behave, and what kind of image they should project. Presidential candidates weren’t supposed to be seen enjoying themselves. “I never let friends advertise my tennis, and never let a photograph of me in tennis costume appear,” he said. And Roosevelt believed that Taft should allow his constituents to see him smiling: “Always. Because I feel that your nature shines out so transparently when you do smile—you big, generous, high-minded fellow.”

According to Kuliberda, TR had tight control over his public image—very much a thing with politicians today but a new concept in TR’s time. It’s one of the things that made him the first modern president.

Kuliberda: He was very aware that you are going to be written about in newspapers. Your image is going to be broadcast through newspapers, people are going to see you, even the ones you don't interact with, so if you're playing golf, like William Howard Taft did, that has its sort of own connotation, if you're playing tennis that has its own connotations. Roosevelt thought it was feminine. He didn't want to be seen as feminine, so he doesn't allow anyone to photograph him playing tennis.

If it sounds like Roosevelt was acting as an image consultant for Taft, well, he was. He was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, and his success—or failure—would in some way reflect back on Roosevelt’s legacy.

According to Jenkinson, Roosevelt was right to lecture Taft about golfing, because average people back then couldn’t afford to golf.

Jenkinson: That was a rich man sport. It takes time, it takes money, it takes privilege. Roosevelt said, "If you want to be the leader of a people, you have to narrow the distance between yourself and the common man, not accentuate it by being photographed in an aristocratic hobby." Roosevelt had incredible political instincts. He wanted to be photographed climbing a mountain or being lowered on a rope in front of a waterfall or killing something because then that would be something people could really respect. But if you're photographed doing something that only the privileged get to do, then you're sending the wrong signal to the country.

It’s not hard to imagine that Roosevelt’s nagging irritated Taft. The press’s spin on things may have also rubbed him the wrong way: They decided that his last name could be an acronym, short for Take Advice from Teddy.

Taft beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan, and TR was sure his successor would continue his legacy of reform. Roosevelt left on a hunting trip to Africa for a year, allowing Taft a chance to make his own mark in office.

Jenkinson: So TR was not as good a judge of character as his wife, Edith. He loved Taft and Taft was an incredibly able man, but Taft really wanted to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court. And that's what he was well suited to. It was his wife, Nellie, who forced him to accept the presidency. He didn't really want it but she was ambitious for him. And so TR thought that Taft would continue his policies. What he didn't realize is that Taft was not strong. He was big, but he wasn't strong. And so in the Republican Party at the time, there was a progressive wing of people who wanted reform and child labor and to lighten the burdens of the poor and clean up our food supply and so on, and then there was the stand-pat wing of rich capitalists who just wanted government to either be their handmaiden or to get out of the way. And Roosevelt was able to hold those two tribes, those two factions of the Republican Party, together, because he was a war hero and because he was our first cowboy president and because he was Roosevelt. But Taft wasn't able to do it. He didn't have enough firepower, enough charisma. And so Taft had to choose, and he chose to move back towards the old stand-pat J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller wing of the party.

Taft didn’t live up to Roosevelt’s lofty expectations. He found it easier to be complacent with existing laws than to become combative. A former lawyer, he wanted to remain within the boundaries of office, whereas Roosevelt was keen on exerting as much control as he could. Taft possessed none of Roosevelt’s firebrand policies, none of his aggressive attitude towards improving the country. At the end of the Africa trip, he wrote to Roosevelt to complain: “I do not know that I have had harder luck than most presidents, but I do know that thus far I have succeeded far less than … others. I have been conscientiously trying to carry out your policies but my method of doing so has not worked smoothly.” Poor Taft bemoaned that he couldn’t even lose weight.

In some ways, Taft was like a sibling, looking up to a bigger brother for approval. He invited Roosevelt to the White House, but Roosevelt refused. “I don’t think it well for an ex-president to go to the White House, or indeed to go to Washington, except when he cannot help it,” he sniffed. Time and again, Taft would make advances and Roosevelt would rebuff them. Taft would later say Roosevelt’s chilly demeanor “deeply wounded” him.

Jenkinson: He had felt that he had assurances from Taft that Taft would continue the progressive initiatives, particularly on conservation questions. And when Taft didn't, Roosevelt felt angry, betrayed, and somewhat righteous and vindictive. Plus, I mean, it’s just the case that Roosevelt couldn't stand not to be empowered. He just couldn't stand not to be the guy. He was the youngest former president because he was youngest president and he made a stupid mistake by renouncing a third term. He left at the height of his powers before he had finished all that he wanted to do.

The friction grew worse when Taft finally made a sweeping change, advising the government to sue the monopolistic U.S. Steel—an industrial behemoth Roosevelt had tacitly approved of in 1907 in order to avert financial panic. Not only was Taft slow to act, but when he did, it was to try and reverse one of Roosevelt’s decisions. An irate Roosevelt actually penned entire published essays devoted to separating his policies from those of his onetime friend.

The problem? Roosevelt’s decision on the U.S. Steel situation was probably a mistake. According to Jenkinson, the key players in the merger concealed their true motivations from the president. Economics was not TR’s strong suit, and he acted quickly to stave off the panic—but if he’d had more time to read up on his options, he might not have approved the merger. Still, nothing stopped him from defending the decision he had made.

Jenkinson: When it became abundantly clear that he had been manipulated and that it was probably an unnecessary thing and maybe an unethical thing for him to have done, he just got more and more and more righteous about it. The same was true about Panama when the Wilson administration gave the Colombian government $25 million. He threw just a gigantic hissy fit over that and broke with the Wilson administration.

A poison pen was not Roosevelt’s only comeback. He decided to challenge Taft in the ultimate arena of the presidential election. Roosevelt announced he was returning to run in 1912, vying for the Republican nomination against Taft. Those references to a “flubdub” and “someone with brains less than a guinea pig”? Roosevelt was referring to Taft. The incumbent was quick to retort, calling Roosevelt a “honeyfugler,” or someone who gains an advantage by cheating, as well an egotist, a demagogue, and a flatterer. And after Roosevelt said he was no longer going to attack Taft personally, Taft proclaimed, “having called me everything in the category of bad names that are mentioned in polite society, he now wishes to indulge in less emphatic expressions.”

Jenkinson: So now, their friendship has been damaged and frayed by all of this, but now it was really a tragic business because Taft loved Roosevelt. He actually wept and said, "He was my closest friend. I loved TR." And TR was much less emotional about it. He was really caught up in his own righteousness. So they began to call each other names. And, you know, Roosevelt was great at insults. He called him a fathead and all the other things that he said. A puzzlewit.

McCarthy: How did the public react to his insults, especially with Taft because it's not like you're insulting just anyone when you call them a guinea pig power brain, you're insulting the president.

Jenkinson: Well, most people didn't know about this. Most people were … So they knew that TR was this cowboy and that he was shot from the hip and that he was not afraid to punch somebody metaphorically or physically if necessary. Certainly, that was his public persona—that he was a Christian warrior and that he was not afraid to take on trusts or anything that got in his way, and he loved that, and he circulated those stories. He was glad that they circulated because he felt that they gave him a political advantage. But we know more about this than they did because some of this was in private letters.

The Republicans tried to curb the rivalry, offering to arrive at a compromise and find a third candidate. Roosevelt would have none of it. “I’ll name the compromise candidate,” he said. “He’ll be me. I’ll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform.”

After a controversial convention that saw the Republican National Committee award Taft the necessary delegates to guarantee his selection, Roosevelt could have been gracious in defeat. Instead, he remained in the race, breaking away from the Republicans and running as a Progressive in his Bull Moose party. The sniping continued.

Jenkinson: These were picked up in the newspapers and it was like the public was following this feud and Roosevelt wasn't sorry—he knew that his only path to victory was to bring down the sitting incumbent president of the United States. And so he wanted the public to share his view that Taft really wasn't up to it.

McCarthy: Did any of his remarks come back to sort of bite him or ...

Jenkinson: Well, you never really want to burn your bridges but TR—when I lecture about this, Erin, and I always say that TR, the post-president, was really a very unpleasant person. He just couldn't stand not being in power. And he didn't realize this when he left. He wrote all these letters to his children like, "I've had my time and the public moves on and, you know, nobody has enjoyed this more than I have and it's time for others. And there's a weariness about me in the country," but he didn't believe it. He actually thought that he was the indispensable man.

Indispensable, or indestructible? Preparing for a speech at Milwaukee Auditorium on October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin named John Schrank. He survived. He even finished his speech. Schrank later said he shot him in part because William McKinley had come to him in a dream and ordered him to do the deed. It seemed that Theodore Roosevelt’s clashes with presidents both past and present were far from finished.

We’ll be right back.

 

In competing against each other, both Taft and Roosevelt lost. It was Democrat Woodrow Wilson who secured the 1912 election. And unfortunately, Roosevelt didn’t much care for him, either.

Wilson was bookish and self-aware. He knew Roosevelt appeared to be larger-than-life. “He is a real, vivid person, whom they have seen and shouted themselves hoarse over and voted for, millions strong,” Wilson said. “I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.”

In the face of such self-deprecating commentary, Roosevelt still let him have it with both barrels. Wilson, he said, was “a good man who has in no way shown that he possesses any special fitness for the presidency.” Here’s Jenkinson:

Jenkinson: He just belittled poor Wilson and treated him just so shabbily and undermined him. Most presidents when they leave are graceful to their successors but TR just couldn't be and it wasn't a partisan thing. He was equally awful to Wilson as he was to Taft.

As it often did, Roosevelt’s scorn stemmed in part from a president who deviated from Roosevelt’s well-worn path. In a treaty with Colombia a few months before the opening of the Panama Canal, the United States proclaimed “sincere regret” that anything came between the friendship of the United States and Colombia, like the Panamanian coup Roosevelt had sent a ship to support.

To Roosevelt, that was an admission—a sign of institutional weakness he would never have allowed. That it was in open defiance of his decision rankled him even more.

In a press release, Roosevelt called Wilson’s handling of foreign affairs “such as to make the United States a figure of fun in the international world.” He criticized the treaty and with the help of Senate allies blocked the treaty’s ratification. When the treaty was finally ratified a few years after Roosevelt’s death, the “sincere regret” clause had been removed.

But it was more than a difference of diplomacy. In his heart, Roosevelt was a soldier. He lived for combat, be it verbal, physical, or territorial. When Wilson was faced with the decision to bring America into World War I, Roosevelt criticized his cabinet’s pacifism.

Writing to his friend Arthur Lee, Roosevelt said that “It is not a good thing for a country to have a professional yodeler, a human trombone like [William Jennings Bryan] as secretary of state, nor a college president with an astute and shifty mind, a hypocritical ability to deceive plain people … and no real knowledge or wisdom concerning internal and international affairs as head of the nation.”

On another occasion, he bemoaned Wilson’s lack of action following the German sinking of the Lusitania and told his son Kermit that a “lily-livered skunk” was occupying the White House.

Speaking to the public at large about the sinking of the Lusitania, he said: “This represents not merely piracy, but piracy on a vaster scale of murder than any old-time pirate ever practiced.” Roosevelt said that the act “constituted warfare against innocent men, women, and children traveling on the ocean, and to our own fellow countrymen and countrywomen, who are among the sufferers. It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity, but to our own national self-respect.”

Jenkinson: He belittled Wilson's manhood over this, that he wasn't a real man because he said he was an Aunt Nancy, I think he called him, and made all these slurs about the virility of Woodrow Wilson because Wilson was trying so hard to keep the peace and when Wilson said that he was going to keep us out of war, Roosevelt's view—and Roosevelt turned out to be right, by the way—Roosevelt’s view was, "We will have to get involved in this war. There's no way the United States of America is going to avoid World War I. So we may as well get ready for it. If we're prepared when the war comes, we'll be able to fight it more successfully and the victory will be more complete. If you dilly-dally around, by the time you get into war, you're not going to be ready for it and then that's going to be a delay and that means you're not going to be able to control the postwar arrangement in Europe. You're going to lose some of your leverage over the postwar."

Writing to his son, Archie, Roosevelt was even more accusatory, placing the blame for the victims of the Lusitania directly on Wilson’s shoulders. “As a nation, we have thought very little about foreign affairs; we don’t realize that the murder of the thousand men, women, and children in the Lusitania is due, solely, to Wilson’s abject cowardice and weakness in failing to take energetic action when the Gulflight was sunk but a few days previously.”

(Just a quick fact check here: Though there were reports that the Gulflight had been sunk, it was actually just damaged and towed in. OK, back to the quote.)

“… [Wilson and Bryan] are both abject creatures and they won’t go to war unless they are kicked into it, and they will consider nothing but their own personal advantage in the matter.”

Wilson, however, did put up a fight—when Roosevelt goaded him into one. “The way to treat an adversary like Roosevelt is to gaze at the stars over his head,” Wilson said.

The men reconciled, if ever so briefly, when Wilson decided to join the war. Roosevelt came over to the White House and, over lemonade, pitched himself as going back to the Army to take up his post as a commander of the Rough Riders, which had barnstormed the Spanish-American War in 1898 and helped perpetuate Roosevelt’s reputation as a hands-on combatant. Wilson eventually refused, which once again drew Roosevelt’s ire.

Jenkinson: He said, "Theodore, war has kind of changed since San Juan Hill. It's not done that way anymore. There's no room for a voluntary cavalry unit in France. When Wilson wouldn't do it, it just threw Roosevelt, who was a naturally pugnacious figure and won a gloried war, it threw him in to a complete tailspin. He just wanted someone to punish and there was Wilson. And so he wrote increasingly awful op-ed pieces and then wondered why Wilson wouldn't send them over to France with the Rough Rider unit.

Wilson later said he believed Roosevelt’s cause was borne out of ego and self-aggrandizement. Secretly, he may have also feared Roosevelt becoming a war hero once more could lead to a White House run in 1920.

Roosevelt’s four sons wound up enlisting. One of them, Quentin, died in the skies over France. It was Wilson who confirmed the news via telegram.

Roosevelt wouldn’t live to see the remainder of Wilson’s second term. He died on January 6, 1919. Some of his remaining days were spent authoring editorials for the Kansas City Star about his repeated criticisms of the president. While it concerned Wilson, it summarizes Roosevelt’s feelings about the office he treated with such reverence:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or [his] bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”

Roosevelt was fiercely critical of the office of the presidency, a role he believed needed to be contextualized and challenged constantly, which could be one explanation for why he assessed other presidents so harshly. But there is another possible explanation. Were his insults, criticisms, complaints, and admonishments fed by ego? By a sense that he, Theodore Roosevelt, could and did do a better job? Perhaps.

McCarthy: I feel like a lot of his hostility, you know, was about sort of people failing to live up to his standards for what he thought the presidency should be, but do you think his standard was just like: it should be me?

Jenkinson: Just think of it this way: Who would you think could follow him? Who has his mighty potency and his power of language and his patriotism? There's nobody. I mean, we think that Franklin Roosevelt in many respects saved the country, maybe saved the world, but he was a mere shadow compared to TR and he always lived in envy of TR's vitality and TR's sheer political joy at being at a good slugging match with his opponents or perceived opponents. So I think, we sort of lock ourselves into a problem, because what follows TR? Wilson is a more kind of professorial figure and then the whole series of Harding and Coolidge and so on. These are just nonentities who released power back to the legislative branch. So TR was going to have trouble no matter what, but it was his own personality problem, his own righteousness and his own sense that he was the only one that really puts him in such an ugly light in the years from 19-9 to 1919.

But Roosevelt wasn’t fighting just for the sake of fighting or to have his own legacy polished. He fought because he felt it was the role of citizens to confront government, to force politicians to defend their positions and remain culpable to the individuals they represent. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t want to fight other presidents. He wanted other presidents to fight for him.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jake Rossen, with research by me and fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer. 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 Clay Jenkinson and Tyler Kuliberda.

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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