“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…”
Theodore Roosevelt was very much like our nation’s 35th President John F. Kennedy in many ways.
They both were born into affluence with powerful political families that would ultimately become dynasties unrivaled in American history.
But, they also share a lesser known connection…they both had sickly childhoods.
Theodore Roosevelt is often portrayed as strong, robust, athletic and full of energy.
Black and white pictures show a healthy and young Roosevelt hunting big game, horseback riding and fishing.
Yet the young Roosevelt’s childhood was anything but a model of health.
In “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris, young Roosevelt’s severe asthma as a child is documented.
Roosevelt’s asthma growing up was so severe at times he thought he was going to die.
Between bouts of asthma attacks, the sickly young Roosevelt dreamed of being stronger, but intense physical activity would often make him relapse.
Despite this, Roosevelt would grow up pushing himself to overcome his asthma. He weight- lifted in his adolescence eventually adopting a doctrine known as the “strenuous life.” He believed that constant physical exercise and toil would make him outgrow his health problems.
By the time Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901 he was 42 years old and the youngest President up until that time…in addition to being one of the most athletic.
Roosevelt would go on to take up boxing, tennis, hiking, rowing, polo and horseback riding.
It was Roosevelt’s stubbornness and determination to overcome his circumstances that would be his defining characteristic.
But it wasn’t only health that plagued young Theodore Roosevelt, there were personal tragedies as well.
On February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt would write in his diary “the light has gone out of my life” as just hours before he received the news that his mother and wife Alice died within hours of one another in New York City.
But Roosevelt would go on to become a cowboy and rancher in the Dakota Territory, New York Police Commissioner and Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley in 1897.
On February 15, 1898 the U.S.S. Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba killing hundreds onboard.
In April of that year, McKinley declared war on Spain beginning the Spanish-American War of 1898.
War helped fuel Theodore Roosevelt and turned him into a household name.
The U.S. Army during the time of the Spanish-American War was small, disorganized and not well funded. It soon became apparent that volunteer regiments would be needed to fight the war on the ground.
Roosevelt immediately quit his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to form the First U.S. Volunteer Calvary Regiment or the “Rough Riders” as they were dubbed by the press.
These “Rough Riders” were a mixture of Ivy Leaguers, frontiersman, former soldiers and even singers and dancers. Anyone willing to fight and be trained was generally accepted.
On July 1, 1898 the Rough Riders would become infamous during the Battle of San Juan Hill.
Roosevelt on horseback, led his men through barbed wire and a hail of bullets, to repel a Spanish counterattack and ultimately claim the hill which would end in a decisive victory.
But the victory didn’t come without a cost as 144 Americans were killed and over 1,000 wounded.
Roosevelt would later write about that day as his “most crowded hour” and the “greatest day of my life.”
Returning triumphantly to New York as a war hero, Roosevelt became governor and later would assume the vice presidency under William McKinley in 1901 and presidency upon McKinley’s assassination in September of that year.
Roosevelt’s story is uniquely American.
A sickly child who pushed himself to gain physical strength, a loving husband and son who overcame great loss, a commanding officer who dared his rag-tag regiment to take on the mighty Spanish forces.
It is for his indomitable spirit that Roosevelt remains a giant of American life.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”