Monday, February 20, 2006

Theodore Roosevelt's Father: Patriotic Citizen or "Draft Dodger"?

President Theodore Roosevelt's father, Theodore Roosevelt, Senior (1831-1878), was described by his son as being "the best man I ever knew." Unfortunately, present-day historians tend to best remember the elder Theodore Roosevelt as a man who bought a substitute to fight for him in the Union Army during the Civil War. Yet his son, who posthumously won a Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery during the Spanish-American War, idolized his father. Other than having a son who was one of the best-loved American Presidents, what was Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.'s actual legacy?

He was married to a staunch Confederate supporter, Martha Bulloch, who smuggled supplies to the Confederate Army from their home in Manhattan. Two of her brothers were Confederate Naval heroes. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. reluctantly avoided fighting his wife's family, partly due to tensions produced at home. He regretted not fighting for the North until his dying day, but he participated actively in the Union Cause in other ways. He set up and actively participated in an Allotment Commission, whereby Union soldiers sent portions of their paychecks home to their families before squandering it on alcohol and other things. He was a founding member of the Union League Club of New York, serving on the Executive Committee, and was one of a handful of Club members who organized the distribution of Thanksgiving dinners to the entire Union Army in 1864.

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. was also known as one of nineteenth century New York City's most charitable and upright citizens. He helped found the NY Orthopaedic Dispensary (today the Orthopaedic Department of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center), the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Children's Aid Society. He was known personally to three contemporary US Presidents, namely, Lincoln, Grant, and Hayes. He was also active in a several mid-nineteenth century civic reform movements. Yet, he is only mentioned in indices of biographies of well-known statesmen and citizens. If you have any particular information on Theodore Roosevelt, Sr, or any questions or salient points to discuss, please E-mail me, as I am compiling as much information on him as possible in our information era.

For more information on President Theodore Roosevelt, please visit

Photo: "Theodore Roosevelt Senior. A Tribute. " Union League Club publication, 1902, depicting Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. at about age 45.
Information: Various sources, especially recommend McCullough, David, "Mornings on Horseback." NY: Simon & Schuster, 1981.


Kitlat said...

Thanks for providing this.

David McCulough's "mornings on Horseback" seems to hint at the fact that Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. was than just the father of the future president.

Mr. McCullough also commented on the Theodore Roosevelt Sr's almost appointment to the House of Customs, which according to him, he found mentioned nowhere in TR's personal writings about his father. He found out about it through the neewspaper articles of the time.

Dr. Linda Shookster said...

Thanks for your comment!

McCullough, I believe, did more than hint at TR, Sr's involvement in city and national affairs, however. He quite meticulously traced out the elder TR's quite prominent career as soft-hearted philanthropist and reformer. His evolving, potentially high-profile political career was truncated by his premature death.

I have no idea why President TR never alluded to his father's possible position as Collector for the Port of NY, if this omission is indeed true. Can anyone out there answer any of this? said...

Let's look at TR's father, affectionately known to his family as "Great Heart" and "Thee." In age of robber barons, naked greed and avarice by the emerging class of the owners of capital, many of that leadership class simply thought that society was predicated on the survival of the strong over the weak. In the mid 19th Century, the term "idle rich" was no mere monaker. Contrast this with the life of TR's father. Yes, he He demanded that his children assist him in taking foodstuffs to the needy, in visiting poorhouses, and hospitals. Thee worked tirelessly to get prostitutes off the streets and into meaningful lives. One biographer describes him as a man of find tingw He helped found the New York City Children's Aide Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History and the New York Orthpedic Hospital. A participant in the dazzling New York society life, one historian described him as a man of both "good works and good times." Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.'s wife was Martha Bulloch of Roswell, Georgia, who was born in 1834 and died in 1884. They were married on December 22, 1853.

Of Theodore Sr., or "Thee," as he was affectionately known, his son, in his auto-biography described him in the following words:

"My father, Theodore Roosevelt, was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness. As we grew older he made us understand that the same standard of clean living was demanded for the boys as for the girls; that what was wrong in a woman could not be right in a man. With great love and patience, and the most understanding sympathy and consideration, he combined insistence on discipline. He never physically punished me but once, but he was the only man of whom I was ever really afraid. I do not mean that it was a wrong fear, for he was entirely just, and we children adored him.....

I never knew any one who got greater joy out of living than did my father, or any one who more whole-heartedly performed every duty; and no one whom I have ever met approached his combination of enjoyment of life and performance of duty. He and my mother were given to a hospitality that at that time was associated more commonly with southern than northern households...

My father worked hard at his business, for he died when he was forty-six, too early to have retired. He was interested in every social reform movement, and he did an immense amount of practical charitable work himself. He was a big, powerful man, with a leonine face, and his heart filled with gentleness for those who needed help or protection, and with the possibility of much wrath against a bully or an oppressor....(He) was greatly interested in the societies to prevent cruelty to children and cruelty to animals. On Sundays he had a mission class." [1]

Theodore Sr. was quite active supporting the northern cause duing the Civil War. He went to Washington and lobbied for and won acceptance for what amounted to a soldier's payroll deduction program to support families back home. Not stopping there, at his own expense, he toured the northern armies in the field to explain this program and sign people up. One thanksgiving he bought thousands of turkeys for soldiers.

Dr. Linda Shookster said...

Thanks for your further biographical info! I see that your post can be viewed on-line at I'll be adding to the TR, Sr info there in time.

In view of TR, Sr's great interest in the well-being of his fellow New Yorkers, one of his best friends' brothers sums this up very well. In "The Alonzo Potter Family," privately published in 1923, Frank Hunter Potter says, "I have been told that from 1865 to 1885, roughly, there were three men in New York who were concerned in the establishment of pretty much every important charity or institution for public improvement, like the Metropolitan Museum, which was organized during that period, namely, my brother Howard (Potter), Mr. William E. Dodge (Jr) and Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr."

With regards to the Thanksgiving Dinner for the Army of the Potomac; it was in 1864. The Union League Club recruited food and money to provide dinner for the entire Union Army, except those of Sherman's troops who were at the time cut-off in Georgia. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr, was treasurer for the event, and his very detailed record of charitable donations, both food and money, can be found in a separate report of the Club, dated December, 1864.

Kitlat said...

I got the sense (again referring to "Mornings On Horseback") that TR Sr's actions stemmed from his upbringing. I understood his father CVS Roosevelt to be frugal and dismissive of opulence even when he could afford it. I also thought that he valued work and self reliance.

I think that "Greatheart" took it a step further in his giving by not just throwing money at a problem but by being engaged in fundraising, and by interacting with the people that he worked to help.

I often thought that it was interesting to see the different life philosophies of the two Roosevelt branches collide within the marriage of Eleanor and Franklin. Franklin is congratulated as the great friend to the poor and to for lack of a better word, minorities but Eleanor is the one who made Franklin aware of them and it was she that was very hands on in her dealings with them (of course after FDR contracted polio it was clear that any hands on contact would be limited anyway).

A reason why TR did not mention his father's political career could have been his own attitude towads failure. He could have regarded his father's failed attempt to be appointed to the Customs House as a failure along with his father's not serving in the Civil War.

Dr. Linda Shookster said...

Thanks for expressing your thoughts. I can only say that TR very highly regarded TR, Sr for his wisdom and compassion. said...

Thee, a true dutchman of the "old school" was not the type to up and run off and join the fight to put down the rebellion. For him, this would have been far to rash an act to be characteristic of him. He had to take many things into consideration. He had a southern-born wife, Martha "Mittie" Bulloch Roosevelt, whose family from the north Atlanta town of Roswell owned more than a dozen slaves. To call Mittie a southern sympathizer would definitely seriously understate her loyalties. She had a quite fragile emotional temperment. Thee had to know that service in the Federal Army putting down a rebellion to which her entire family including her two Confederate naval officer brothers were totally committed, would have led to her emotional and physical disentegration. Though he was a staunch Unionist and abolitionist, loving her as much as he did, how could he take actions that would endanger his wife? To call TR, Sr. a draft dodger is to seriously mistake the man's character. While in service to the Federal soldiers' needs, Thee exposed himself to hostile fire on more than one occasion. Its fair to say that he was much closer to death or injury than the vast majority of men behind the lines.