“For joy or for sorrow, my life has been lived out,” he wrote.
This glimpse into the early heartache of the man who would go on to remarry, have many children, and become the 26th president is part of a trove of Theodore Roosevelt’s papers that has just been made available online by the Library of Congress.
The 276,000 documents include his reaction to the deaths of his mother and wife, whom he worshiped, the antics of his children in the White House — they shot spitballs at a portrait of Andrew Jackson — and his fury at President Woodrow Wilson, who refused to let him raise a force for the U.S. Army in World War I.
“I am a man of action,” he wrote in 1917, “and the President has refused to let me take part.”
Roosevelt was then 58, out of office for almost a decade, and would be dead less than two years later of a blood clot.
But selections from his papers displayed by the library Wednesday show the arc of a vigorous life of privilege, loss and public service, along with mentions of pet snakes, roller skates and further high jinks in the White House, and the New York governors mansion, where for a time there was also a pet bear.
Roosevelt, known for his gigantic grin, bushy mustache, and pince-nez glasses, served as president from 1901 to 1909. He was vice president under William McKinley, governor of New York, assistant secretary of the Navy, head of the New York City police department, and a New York state legislator.
He led the Rough Riders cavalry outfit during the Spanish American War, was an explorer, historian, big game hunter, conservationist, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
He was also devoted to his family, which included six children.
“You definitely get a sense of how much he loves his children and his family,” Michelle A. Krowl, a Civil War and Reconstruction specialist in the library’s manuscript division, said of the papers. “That really comes through. Particularly when he’s writing to friends. He’ll often talk about the children and...[their] pets. They have a menagerie of pets in the White House.”
“They have horses. They have dogs. They have cats. They have guinea pigs,” she said at the library Wednesday. “In 1900 and I think even into 1901, they have a bear named Jonathan Edwards.”
The bear, who resided briefly in the governor’s mansion, was named by the Roosevelt children, in part, for the fiery 18th century New England preacher. “They thought they detected Calvinistic traits in the bear’s character,” Roosevelt wrote.
“The bear added zest to life in more ways than one,” he remembered. “When we took him to walk it was always with a chain and a club. And when at last he went to the zoo, the entire household breathed a sigh of relief, although I think the dogs missed him.”
On Oct. 27, 1880, his 22nd birthday, Roosevelt was married to Massachusetts socialite Alice Hathaway Lee, who was then 19.
He called her his “darling little sunshine,” and wrote in his diary, “I do not think ever a man loved a woman more than I love her. For a year and a quarter now I have never (even when hunting) gone to sleep or waked up without thinking of her.”
But she had a delicate constitution. She gave birth to a daughter on Feb. 12, 1884, and died two days later, hours after her mother-in-law, Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt. She was 22. Mittie was 48.
“We spent three years of happiness, greater and more unalloyed than I have ever known fall to the lot of others,” he wrote in his pocket diary two days after his wife’s death. “On Feb. 16th they were buried together . . . On Feb. 17th I christened the baby Alice Lee Roosevelt.” (Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth would live a long life, dying in Washington in 1980, aged 96.)
Two years after his first wife’s death, Theodore Roosevelt married a childhood friend and former flame, Edith Carow. They would go on to have five children and she would become first lady.
And it is during those years that the papers portray a Roosevelt who is fun loving, humorous, and interested in almost everything.
In 1907, he wrote his 13-year-old son Archibald a letter about an encounter in the White House between members of Congress and his 9-year-old son Quentin’s pet snakes.
Quentin had just returned to the White House on roller skates after acquiring three snakes at a local pet store. “I was discussing certain matters with the Attorney General . . . and the snakes were deposited in my lap,” the president wrote. “I suggested that [Quentin] go into the next room, where four Congressmen were drearily waiting.”
“I thought that he and his snakes would probably enliven their waiting time,” he wrote. “He at once fell in with the suggestion and rushed up to the Congressmen with the assurance that he would there find kindred spirits.”
A year later, Quentin was in trouble again. He and his friends had deposited spitballs on presidential portraits in the White House. Krowl said the exact method of application is not clear. But one of Quentin’s friends, in a memoir, recalled “some very fine shots” at a portrait of Jackson.
Roosevelt made Quentin clean the spitballs off the targeted portraits, and the next day arraigned the youngsters.
“I explained to them that they had acted like boors,” the President wrote to Archibald.
He told them that “it would have been a disgrace to have behaved so in any gentleman’s house, but it was a double disgrace in the house of the Nation,” he wrote. “They were four sheepish small boys when I got thru with them.”
By 1917, Roosevelt was eager for the United States to enter World War I on the side of France and Britain against Germany and Austria-Hungary. He was eager for his sons to be part of it and prayed they would experience battle. All three did.
Roosevelt, himself, ever the old Rough Rider, offered to help lead U.S. forces overseas. But Wilson rebuffed him.
“I very much regret that I cannot comply with [your] request,” Wilson wrote in a May 19, 1917 telegram a few weeks after the U.S. entered the war. “I need not assure you that my conclusions were based entirely upon imperative considerations of public policy and not upon personal or private choice.”
Roosevelt was incensed. “I am bitterly disappointed that the President would not let me raise a division and take it to the front,” he wrote a friend the next month.
Eleven months later, Quentin, now a young man serving as an allied aviator, was shot down and killed in a dogfight with German planes.
The library’s papers contain many of the condolence letters that poured in. One, from a Milwaukee businessman, went:
“I can only express my deep sympathy and say that if my son who is also in France should lose his life I would be heart broken, but proud he lost it in fighting for so just a cause."
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that President Theodore Roosevelt had a pet bear in the White House. Roosevelt had the bear when he was governor of New York and the bear briefly resided in the governor’s mansion.