Teddy Roosevelt: President, World Traveler, and Boxer

T.R. Roosevelt was an American politician. He advocated for a “strenuous life” of upstanding moral character, great physical effort, and an extensive education. 

In his case, this was achieved in no small part through his pursuit of boxing. 

Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. circa 1904

A Homeschooled New Yorker

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born and raised in Manhattan. 

He was the second child and eldest son of the philanthropist Theodore Roosevelt Sr. His father helped to found the New York City Children’s Aid Society, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Roosevelt adored his father. He praised him extensively in his autobiography: “My father, Theodore Roosevelt, was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness.”

From an early age, Roosevelt suffered from severe asthma. He was “a sickly and timid boy,” he wrote in one of his letters. His father:

“not only took great and untiring care of me — some of my earliest remembrances are of nights when he would walk up and down with me for an hour at a time in his arms when I was a wretched mite suffering acutely with asthma — but he also most wisely refused to coddle me, and made me feel that I must force myself to hold my own with other boys and prepare to do the rough work of the world.”

Roosevelt in his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography

To improve his poor health, Roosevelt’s father encouraged him to exercise. After being bullied by other boys, Roosevelt found a boxing coach to increase his strength and teach him how to fight. 

“Having been a sickly boy,” Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography, “with no natural bodily prowess and having lived much at home, I was at first quite unable to hold my own when thrown into contact with other boys of rougher antecedents.”

He began to take boxing lessons at age fourteen, sparking a passion that would endure for years to come. His first teacher was John Long, an ex-prize-fighter.

He had no aptitude for the sport, but he was nothing if not tenacious: “I was a painfully slow and awkward pupil, and certainly worked two or three years before I made any perceptible improvement whatever.” 

Roosevelt studied at home, taught by his parents and by various tutors. When he left home to attend Harvard University, his father advised: “Take care of your morals first, your health next, and finally your studies.”

After the rich experience of self-directed education and world travel with his family, Roosevelt found Harvard disappointing. He stayed physically active, both rowing and boxing. He participated in intramural boxing tournaments and achieved the position of runner-up.

Though his father had left him enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life, he continued his education at Columbia Law School. He then dropped out in favor of serving on the state assembly and finishing his book The Naval War of 1812.

The Political Life of T.R. Roosevelt

Roosevelt served as Mayor of New York and then as New York City Police Commissioner. He campaigned for President McKinley, who appointed him as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Not long after, he resigned from his post in order to fight in the Spanish-American war.

After the war, Roosevelt became Governor of New York. He then became Vice President for a time after the previous Vice President, Garret Hobart, died in office. Then McKinley died, and Roosevelt became President. He served for eight years. 

Teddy Roosevelt campaigning in October 1914 Saint Johnsville

Instead of running for a third term, Roosevelt bowed out and resumed his world travels. He and his team killed thousands of animals in Africa and sent the bodies back to the Smithsonian. 

Next, he toured Europe and met with several world leaders. Then he returned home to the States and flew in a Wright Brothers airplane.

When he returned to politics, he was shot just before giving a speech. Roosevelt shouted for the shooter to be turned over to the police rather than allowing him to be harmed by the crowd. 

And then, because the bullet had not pierced his lung and was therefore of little consequence to Roosevelt, he proceeded to deliver his ninety-minute speech while blood bloomed on his shirt. He carried that bullet for the rest of his life.

The Strenuous Life

Roosevelt strove to live as his father had taught him. 

In his speech “The Strenuous Life” that he gave during his time as the Governor of New York, he said:

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

From “The Strenuous Life” speech

Roosevelt lived with continued health problems. This included a serious heart condition that physicians tried to tell him precluded strenuous physical activity, he remained extremely active throughout his life.

During his years as the Governor of New York, Roosevelt boxed multiple times per week with several sparring partners. In addition to boxing, he was fond of rowing, tennis, hiking, horseback riding, polo, and swimming in ice-cold water.

“Terrible Teddy” waits for “the unknown” 1904. Library of Congress

The End of Boxing

Even as the President of the United States, Roosevelt continued to box… right up until one fierce blow from Col. Daniel T. Moore detached his left retina and rendered him blind in that eye. 

The damage to his vision was successfully concealed for many years – even from Moore, who was the President’s military aide and his cousin by marriage. But his boxing days were done. 

…mostly. A letter written four years later said that he was still doing “a little boxing”. 

Even blind in one eye, Roosevelt didn’t give up his fighting spirit. He switched to judo and then to jujutsu, training with Yoshitsugu Yamashita. Roosevelt was so impressed by the practice that he advocated for jujutsu to become a regular part of military training. 

Roosevelt died in his sleep at the age of sixty. 

“Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping,” remarked Thomas R. Marshall, the standing vice president, “for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

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