A Life Well-Lived Despite Serious Flaws
Over the Labor Day weekend, I had the pleasure of learning more about a person who was exceedingly blessed with both intellectual and athletic gifts, born into one of America’s wealthiest families, and yet used his talents and opportunities for the betterment of all Americans.
I traveled to Sagamore Hill in Long Island, New York and spent two days gathering more information about Theodore Roosevelt.
Granted he was in a unique and privileged position to never have to worry about struggling to make a living in order to survive, which is the predicament of the great majority of us. But he did not squander his life drinking and partying—he used his time on Earth to help improve people’s lives.
The following are just a few contributions he made that I learned about at Sagamore Hill:
- In his 1912 presidential bid, Theodore Roosevelt was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage.
- He negotiated the deal to end the Russian-Japanese War, winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He actually was the first American to win a Nobel Prize.
- He championed workers’ rights, reforming child labor laws and instituting the eight-hour workday.
- When he was governor, Roosevelt was instrumental in reforming the corruption that ran rampart in the New York City Police Department.
- He advocated food regulations and was instrumental in creating the Food and Drug Administration.
- He was one of the leaders of the Rough Riders, a group of men who fought in Cuba to protect Americans during the Spanish-American War.
- He was a scholar and wrote 35 books.
- Roosevelt was a hunter and taxidermist. He would study the insides of animals he would kill to learn more about them.
On top of that he was devoted to family. Roosevelt set aside 4PM everyday to play with his children. It didn’t matter who he was meeting with, whether a dignitary or a cabinet member. He kept the 4PM appointment faithfully for his family. (It would certainly be wonderful if we were all in a position to do that.)
Roosevelt stood every time a woman entered the room. (Men, take note.) In fact, he was critical of Winston Churchill because when they met at Sagamore Hill, Churchill failed to stand when a woman entered.
To demonstrate his concern for others, there appeared an article in The New York Times in 1908 in which one of his secret service men manhandled a local dry goods merchant. Someone incorrectly informed the secret service man that the merchant came to Sagamore Hill drunk and unruly so he threw him out. When Roosevelt found out about the mistake, he apologized to this man. How do I know this? This merchant was Charles Kursman, my husband’s great uncle.
Of course, Theodore Roosevelt did have his faults. I did not find out about them from visiting Sagamore Hill, but from reading William J. Mann’s The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family (Harper, 2016). In it Mann wrote: “For all his desire to be a force for good and for change in the world, the iconic dichotomy of Theodore Roosevelt would be his often brutal control of his family and his inability to countenance different worldviews.”
One of his serious transgressions was putting his younger brother Elliot (Eleanor Roosevelt’s father) in an asylum because he was an alcoholic and may have suffered from mental illness. Separating him from his family destroyed him and devastated Eleanor, who adored her father. Of course, in those days people did not understand these afflictions, but Theodore was more concerned Elliot would embarrass the family and derail his political ambitions than he was about his brother’s life.
The other was that Elliot fathered a son with his mistress named Katy Mann, who was a servant to his wife Anna. Of course, this was a potentially embarrassing situation, but Theodore (and Eleanor) never acknowledged the son’s existence or left him an inheritance. Katy Mann was desperately poor and sought out Theodore’s help but nothing was ever done.
Fortunately, the son Elliot Roosevelt Mann led an upstanding life despite his unfortunate beginnings . He grew up to be a bank clerk and auditor and was a family man who would have made the Roosevelt clan proud. (He tried to reach out to his half-sister Eleanor but she never responded.)
Why am I bringing up these two incidents? Even though Roosevelt accomplished much and used his talents and wealth to good use, I don’t want to portray him as a completely unselfish saint. I want to applaud his accomplishments and a life well-lived but by the same token, I want to give a balanced accounting of the man.
In other words, extoll the virtues but include the human being, warts in all.
Idelle Kursman is the author of the novel True Mercy. Please read and review her book on Amazon. Comments are always welcome.