The Essayist: Theodore Roosevelt’s Guide to (the Political) Life

For a lot of Americans this time of year, politics and daily living go hand-in-hand. With Facebook and Twitter aflame with politically-focused posts, with our televisions and airwaves inundated in “Paid For” ads it can all be a little much. What can we learn from the constant chatter and buzz of millions of Americans waiting for November 6? What life lessons can we take from all of this? Well, former President Theodore Roosevelt may have some answers.

1.       Believe in something, but for a good reason.

Theodore Roosevelt was a man who believed in many things: monopolies should be destroyed; America’s resources should be conserved; a working man deserved a fair days pay. He also believed that war was good for a nation, that free trade was vital to a healthy economy, and that no good came from graft and political corruption.

Throughout his four-decades on the national and world political stages, one of Roosevelt’s political trademarks was his deep conviction. While as a freshman assemblyman in the New York legislature, Roosevelt’s conviction ran almost too-deep. It was so deep in fact that for a long time he had the nasty habit of scaring off potential allies by being pugnacious and nauseatingly self-righteous.

Pugilism and righteousness aside, T.R. almost always had a good reason for his beliefs. Before supporting or submitting a bill, Roosevelt would research the bills focus and potential impacts with an exhaustive thoroughness. In 1882, Roosevelt championed a bill that would outlaw the making of cigars inside tenement buildings. At the time, poorly paid immigrant families would work and live in the same cramped apartment; putting in sixteen to eighteen hour days making cigars before passing out from exhaustion on piles of tobacco.

Before he became the bills legislative champion, he was an outspoken skeptic. He was a strong supporter of laissez-faire economics and came out (publicly) against the bill. However, as a member of the City Affairs Subcommittee, his fellow committee members asked Roosevelt to investigate its claims. They, like he, intended to oppose the bill. However, what Roosevelt discovered horrified him:

There were several children, three men, and two women in this room. The tobacco was stowed about everywhere, alongside the foul bedding, and in a corner where there were scraps of food. The men, women, and children in this room worked by day and far on into the evening, and they slept and ate there.

Roosevelt supported the bill within his subcommittee, argued for its passage on the house floor, and even took it directly to then-governor (and later president) Grover Cleveland. He did his homework and felt that increased wages, a limited workweek, and more sanitary conditions should be established.

Like Roosevelt, it’s important to believe in something and for reasons that are well thought-out. Do your homework before stating that you agree or disagree with something, especially before doing so publically. Being ready and able to say why you believe something is necessary to avoid looking foolish or ignorant.

Such due diligence was important in Roosevelt’s day and, it could be said, is even more important now. In today’s world of near-instant feedback (think Facebook, Twitter and Google+), the ability to respond thoughtfully and succinctly is important to defending your position. While it’s true you cannot convince everybody of the justness or truth of your cause, most rational people will still respect you for your ability to defend yourself.

2.       Don’t just have a belief, be the belief.

Roosevelt didn’t just have ideas, he became them.

When he championed the cigar-making bill in 1882, Roosevelt made the plight of the immigrant workers not just an economic one (better wages) but a moral one. He became a self-appointed spokesman for the downtrodden and spoke to journalists, fellow-sympathizers, legislators and the governor about the necessity of passing the bill. Roosevelt, in a very real way, became the human embodiment of the bill. When the assembly passed the bill and Cleveland signed it, he was jubilant. When the state court struck it down, he was angry and cynical. For him, any cause he supported became a personal one.

For much of Roosevelt’s life, he was an avid supporter (and even something of a fan boy) when it came to the U.S. Navy. His first major published work –and indeed one of his most lasting – was his “The Naval War of 1812.” He was also a strong supporter of the naval reform championed by Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, a navy officer who penned “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History”, a work Roosevelt publically praised.

As the assistant secretary of the navy under President William McKinley, Roosevelt was responsible for the navy being as prepared for the Spanish-American War as it was. He also gave a widely covered talk on the necessity of a bigger, stronger, and faster US Navy.

As president, Roosevelt ordered the construction of dozens of new warships. During his two terms he had enough warships built to increase the size of the navy from the fifth largest in the world (in 1904) to the third largest (in 1909). After beefing up America’s new armada, he sent it on an international cruise which to show that America had finally arrived on the world’s stage.

One of Roosevelt’s longest-lasting impacts on world history was his construction of the Panama Canal. Roosevelt was such a strong supporter of its usefulness in allowing the American navy to sail quickly from the Atlantic to the Pacific that he was even willing to support a rebellion in Panama, which at the time was part of Columbia. For Roosevelt, America could only be strong if it could defend itself; it could only defend itself if it has the best navy in the world.

Like Roosevelt, if you believe in something actually believe in it. Belief, like love, is best used as a verb, not a noun. Movement is inherent to the meaning of both. Without movement, we are lifeless.

3.       Be stubborn, but be practical.

During Roosevelt’s first year in politics, he was stubborn and unyielding. His inability to compromise or contemplate a differing side’s point of view left him with very little clout or support his first year in the assembly.

It was during his second year in the New York assembly that he began practicing what he would call “practical politics.” Practical politics is just what it sounds like: politics based on practical considerations – that is to say common sense – as opposed to strictly moral or ideological considerations. Roosevelt began to move more freely across the aisles, working with fellow Republicans as well as Democrats.

If you are cast on a desert island with only a screwdriver, a hatchet, and a chisel to make a boat with, why, go make the best one you can. It would be better if you had, but you haven’t. So [it is] with men.

Another instance of Roosevelt’s practicality outweighing his sense of propriety came during the Spanish-American War. When the Rough Riders were given the order to set sail for Cuba, Roosevelt encountered a logistical nightmare; the transport they were ordered to board had also been set aside for two other regiments. There was no conceivable way a ship made for a few hundred soldiers would hold the three thousand now being told to ship-out. In fact, it couldn’t even hold all of the Rough Riders. On top of that, the railroad transports that had been sent to move the Rough Riders to the harbor had failed to arrive. Roosevelt faced a problem: if he continued to wait for the transport to arrive, he and his soldiers would most likely lose their chance to sail for Cuba. What’s a lieutenant colonel to do?

Roosevelt opted for the practical solution: he simply commandeered a passing coal car. Such an act got Roosevelt’s troops to the harbor first and allowed them to stake their claim on the docks and eventually in the history books.

One of Roosevelt’s personal mottos was “Do what you can, with what you have, when you have it.” A more refined echo of what he’d written at during his Assembly years. If we are dedicated and focused, but also open-minded we can ensure that the ship of life doesn’t sail without us.

4.       Keep moving.

If Roosevelt had adopted an unofficial slogan for his political (as well as daily) life, “Don’t stop” would have been an good one. A quote from former president Ulysses Grant bears a striking resemblance to Roosevelt’s own ideological modus operandi:   “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”

While Grant was referring to his overall military strategy during the American Civil War, his words echo much of what Roosevelt thought. Roosevelt wrote – after the death of both his wife and mother on the same day – that “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”

The idea of the active life was to become a permanent fixture in Roosevelt’s life. The words he chose for his own lifestyle was “the strenuous life.” Such a life was not simply a state of mind, but also a physical one. An average day for Roosevelt included hiking, boxing, tennis, writing, reading, public speaking, more writing and reading, and formal dinners. That was an average day for Roosevelt while he was president. In fact, a recent study of the physical fitness of U.S. presidents placed Roosevelt in the top five.

Another example of Roosevelt’s “strenuous life” is during his tenure as a Police Commissioner of New York City during the 1890’s. In the two years as a commissioner, he worked a full day in the office (8-12 hour days) and then hit the streets at night to ensure police officers weren’t visiting brothels/asleep at their posts while on duty. In Roosevelt’s mind, he was always on the job.

Roosevelt was, in the words of friend and cantankerous writer Henry Adams, “pure act.” Not just in his mind, but in his physical actions as well. What Theodore Roosevelt’s lifestyle can teach us that that with a little thought and a lot of heart, we can not only be a better-informed voter, but (more importantly) a better human being.


Recommended Reading on Roosevelt’s lifestyle:

-“The Strenuous Life” by Theodore Roosevelt

-“The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris

-“Theodore Rex” by Edmund Morris

-“Lion in the White House” by Ada Donald

-“I Rose Like a Rocket” by Paul Grondahl

-“The War Lovers” by Evan Thomas

What do you think?

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