Chronicles of America 

The Young Fighter

There is a line of Browning's that should stand as epitaph for Theodore Roosevelt: "I WAS EVER A FIGHTER." That was the essence of the man, that the keynote of his career. He met everything in life with a challenge. If it was righteous, he fought for it; if it was evil, he hurled the full weight of his finality against it. He never capitulated, never sidestepped, never fought foul. He carried the fight to the enemy.

His first fight was for health and bodily vigor. It began, at the age of nine. Physically he was a weakling, his thin and ill-developed body racked with asthma. But it was only the physical power that was wanting, never the intellectual or the spiritual. He owed to his father, the first Theodore, the wise counsel that launched him on his determined contest against ill health. On the third floor of the house on East Twentieth Street in New York where he was born, October 27, 1858, his father had constructed an outdoor gymnasium, fitted with all the usual paraphernalia. It was an impressive moment, Roosevelt used to say in later years, when his father first led him into that gymnasium and said to him, "Theodore, you have the brains, but brains are of comparatively little use without the body; you have got to make your body, and it lies with you to make it. It's dull, hard work, but you can do it." The boy knew that his father was right; and he set those white, powerful teeth of his and took up the drudgery of daily, monotonous exercise with bars and rings and weights. "I can see him now," says his sister, "faithfully going through various exercises, at different times of the day, to broaden the chest narrowed by this terrible shortness of breath, to make the limbs and back strong, and able to bear the weight of what was coming to him later in life."

All through his boyhood the young Theodore Roosevelt kept up his fight for strength. He was too delicate to attend school, and was taught by private tutors. He spent many of his summers, and sometimes some of the winter months, in the woods of Maine. These outings he thoroughly enjoyed, but it is certain that the main motive which sent him into the rough life of the woods to hunt and tramp, to paddle and row and swing an axe, was the obstinate determination to make himself physically fit.

His fight for bodily power went on through his college course at Harvard and during the years that he spent in ranch life in the West. He was always intensely interested in boxing, although he was never of anything like championship caliber in the ring. His first impulse to learn to defend himself with his hands had a characteristic birth.

During one of his periodical attacks of asthma he was sent alone to Moosehead Lake in Maine. On the stagecoach that took him the last stage of the journey he met two boys of about his own age. They quickly found, he says, in his "Autobiography", that he was "a foreordained and predestined victim" for their rough teasing, and they "industriously proceeded to make life miserable" for their fellow traveler. At last young Roosevelt could endure their persecutions no loner, and tried to fight. Great was his discomfiture when he discovered that either of them alone could handle him "with easy contempt." They hurt him little, but, what was doubtless far more humiliating, they prevented him from doing any damage whatever in return.

The experience taught the boy, better than any good advice could have done, that he must learn to defend himself. Since he had little natural prowess, he realized that he must supply its place by training. He secured his father's approval for a course of boxing lessons, upon which he entered at once. He has described himself as a "painfully slow and awkward pupil," who worked for two or three years before he made any perceptible progress.

In college Roosevelt kept at boxing practice. Even in those days no antagonist, no matter how much his superior, ever made him "quit." In his ranching days, that training with his fists stood him in good stead. Those were still primitive days out in the Dakotas, though now, as Roosevelt has said, that land of the West has "'gone, gone with the lost Atlantis,' gone to the isle of ghosts and of strange dead memories." A man needed to be able to take care of himself in that Wild West then. Roosevelt had many stirring experiences but only one that he called "serious trouble."

He was out after lost horses and came to a primitive little hotel, consisting of a bar-room, a dining-room, a lean-to kitchen, and above a loft with fifteen or twenty beds in it. When he entered the bar-room late in the evening--it was a cold night and there was nowhere else to go--a would-be "bad man," with a cocked revolver in each hand, was striding up and down the floor, talking with crude profanity. There were several bullet holes in the clock face, at which he had evidently been shooting. This bully greeted the newcomer as "Four Eyes," in reference to his spectacles, and announced, "Four Eyes is going to treat." Roosevelt joined in the laugh that followed and sat down behind the stove, thinking to escape notice. But the "bad man" followed him, and in spite of Roosevelt's attempt to pass the matter over as a joke, stood over him, with a gun in each hand and using the foulest language. "He was foolish," said Roosevelt, in describing the incident, "to stand so near, and moreover, his heels were closer together, so that his position was unstable." When he repeated his demand that Four Eyes should treat, Roosevelt rose as if to comply. As he rose he struck quick and hard with his right fist just to the left side of the point of the jaw, and, as he straightened up hit with his left, and again with his right. The bully's guns went off, whether intentionally or involuntarily no one ever knew. His head struck the corner of the bar as he fell, and he lay senseless. "When my assailant came to," said Roosevelt, "he went down to the station and left on a freight." It was eminently characteristic of Roosevelt that he tried his best to avoid trouble, but that, when he could not avoid it honorably, he took care to make it "serious trouble" for the other fellow.

Even after he became President, Roosevelt liked to box, until an accident, of which for many years only his intimate friends were aware, convinced him of the unwisdom of the game for a man of his age and optical disabilities. A young artillery captain, with whom he was boxing in the White House, cross-countered him on the left eye, and the blow broke the little blood-vessels. Ever afterward, the sight of that eye was dim; and, as he said, "if it had been the right eye I should have been entirely unable to shoot." To "a mighty hunter before the Lord" like Theodore Roosevelt, such a result would have been a cardinal calamity.

By the time his experiences in the West were over, Roosevelt's fight for health had achieved its purpose. Bill Sewall, the woodsman who had introduced the young Roosevelt to the life of the out-of-doors in Maine, and who afterward went out West with him to take up the cattle business, offers this testimony: "He went to Dakota a frail young man, suffering from asthma and stomach trouble. When he got back into the world again, he was as husky as almost any man I have ever seen who wasn't dependent on his arms for his livelihood. He weighed one hundred and fifty pounds, and was clear bone, muscle, and grit."

This battle won by the force of sheer determination, the young Roosevelt never ceased fighting. He knew that the man who neglects exercise and training, no matter how perfect his physical trim, is certain to "go back." One day many years afterward on Twenty-third Street, on the way back from an Outlook editorial luncheon, I ran against his shoulder, as one often will with a companion on crowded city streets, and felt as if it were a massive oak tree into which I had bumped. Roosevelt the grown man of hardened physique was certainly a transformation from that "reed shaken with the wind" of his boyhood days.

When Theodore Roosevelt left Harvard in 1880, he plunged promptly into a new fight--in the political arena. He had no need to earn his living; his father had left him enough money to take care of that. But he had no intention or desire to live a life of leisure. He always believed that the first duty of a man was to "pull his own weight in the boat"; and his irrepressible energy demanded an outlet in hard, constructive work. So he took to politics, and as a good Republican ("at that day" he said, "a young man of my bringing up and convictions, could only join the Republican party") he knocked at the door of the Twenty-first District Republican Association in the city of New York. His friends among the New Yorkers of cultivated taste and comfortable life disapproved of his desire to enter this new environment. They told him that politics were "low"; that the political organizations were not run by "gentlemen," and that he would find there saloonkeepers, horse-car conductors, and similar persons, whose methods he would find rough and coarse and unpleasant. Roosevelt merely replied that, if this were the case, it was those men and not his "silk-stocking" friends who constituted the governing class--and that he intended to be one of the governing class himself. If he could not hold his own with those who were really in practical politics, he supposed he would have to quit; but he did not intend to quit without making the experiment.

At every step in his career Theodore Roosevelt made friends. He made them not "unadvisedly or lightly" but with the directness, the warmth, and the permanence that were inseparable from the Roosevelt character. One such friend he acquired at this stage of his progress. In that District Association, from which his friends had warned him away, he found a young Irishman who had been a gang leader in the rough-and-tumble politics of the East Side. Driven by the winter wind of man's ingratitude from Tammany Hall into the ranks of the opposite party, Joe Murray was at this time one of the lesser captains in "the Twenty-first" Roosevelt soon came to like him. He was "by nature as straight a man, as fearless, and as stanchly loyal," said Roosevelt, "as any one whom I have ever met, a man to be trusted in any position demanding courage, integrity, and good faith." The liking was returned by the eager and belligerent young Irishman, though he has confessed that he was first led to consider Roosevelt as a political ally from the point of view of his advantages as a vote-getter.

The year after Roosevelt joined "the governing class" in Morton Hall, "a large barn-like room over a saloon," with furniture "of the canonical kind; dingy benches, spittoons, a dais at one end with a table and chair, and a stout pitcher for iced water, and on the walls pictures of General Grant, and of Levi P. Morton," Joe Murray was engaged in a conflict with "the boss" and wanted a candidate of his own for the Assembly. He picked out Roosevelt, because he thought that with him he would be most likely to win. Win they did; the nomination was snatched away from the boss's man, and election followed. The defeated boss good-humoredly turned in to help elect the young silk-stocking who had been the instrument of his discomfiture.