You’d think by now I would have covered most of the story of TR’s father, “Thee,” among posts about the rest of the immediate family. But the elder Theodore’s influence was very, very, large. It is hard to imagine it occured in a lifetime of only forty-six years, before telephones and motorized vehicles. In his time he was mightily revered by the people of New York.
President Theodore Roosevelt kept a portrait of his father above his desk.
He was his parents’ youngest, born in 1831. A friend of the family remembered that people would say, “There is lovely Mrs. Roosevelt with those five horrid boys.” Coming from a Quaker background, she told her sons that along with greater wealth came greater responsibility to the less fortunate. Thee took this to heart.
He didn’t attend college, which his father thought would ruin him, but instead traveled in Europe and became a junior partner in the family glass importing business. He courted and won a southern girl for his wife. After he brought her north to New York City to live, they had four children, but each one suffered from a physical malady: a defect of the spine, or asthma, or seizures. In the meantime their father’s “troublesome conscience” was struck by the multitude of poor immigrants living in the city.
Brooklyn newsboys, late Nineteenth Century. New York Public Library photo.
The Children’s Aid Society had several divisions, one of which was the Newsboys’ Lodging House. Thee visited the boys there every week, eating supper with them and talking with them as if they were his own. He helped send many children to homes in the west, one of whom became the governor of Alaska. In other charity work, he was careful to make inquiries into the actual conditions of the poor and not “do harm by teaching those who were independent to rely on others for their support.”
During the Civil War he did not join the army because of his wife’s Confederate sympathies, and regretted the decision the rest of his life. He was away for weeks at a time in an organized effort to support families of soldiers. With philanthropist William Dodge, he started the Allotment Commission to urge troops to send some of their paychecks home instead of wasting money on sutlers. He stood out in cold, muddy fields enrolling men in the program with great success. When he returned home himself, he did his best to help injured veterans get back into the workforce, finding jobs they could do without the use of an arm or a leg.
Seventh Infantry of New York, 1861.
He taught a missions class, and when his sister-in-law saw him gathering his own little ones outside the church, it reminded her of the character “Greatheart,” protector of children, in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He helped start a new building for the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital by inviting wealthy friends to his own parlor. Children with spinal and bone defects were waiting there, along with braces and devices that might help them if funds were given. When he entered friends’ offices, the checkbooks automatically came out. “How much this time, Theodore?” they would ask.
Thee was neither solemn nor sad. The Sunday School teacher who also gave daily Bible lessons to his young children was a strong, handsome man who dressed well and enjoyed life in general. He danced at parties late into the night, never seeming to get tired, and drove fine horses. He took his family on a Grand Tour of Europe not once, but twice. In the cultural arena, he was in on the founding of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History.
It seemed he was the healthiest in the family, but he was the one who left first. After a brief foray into politics, he died in horrific pain of cancer, in 1878. Hundreds of men, women, and children waited outside his home at Six West Fifty-Seventh Street that February hoping for news of his recovery. When he passed away, he was mourned and remembered from pulpits all over the city. The son named for him tried his best to carry out his ideals as long as he lived: in the battlefield, in the state, the nation, and the world. It is odd no one would have written a biography of such a man. There is one, however, currently in the works by Keith Muchowski, an academic librarian and National Park Service volunteer. Thee’s older son said many times, “He was the best man I ever knew.” He was Greatheart, the first Theodore Roosevelt.