Theodore Roosevelt was in his early 20s when he wrote The Naval War of 1812, a massively documented and detailed book that still stands as a leading source on the war.
In Roosevelt’s estimation, the war that Canada is commemorating with 200th-anniversary celebrations was a useless one that “left matters in almost precisely the state in which the war had found them.” On land and water, he wrote, “the contest took the form of a succession of petty actions in which the glory acquired by the victor seldom eclipsed the disgrace incurred by the vanquished.”
The book, which gives scant mention of the role played by Canadians even in the battles on land, was published in 1882. It was his third book, the first being Summer Birds of the Adirondacks, which he penned at 19.
In all, he wrote three dozen books, but so staggering was the Rooseveltian scale of activity that, by comparison with other exploits, the books were but a sideshow. Once, after a hard period of political work, he told his cousin Corinne that he was planning a break. “I don’t mean to do one single thing that month,” he said, “except write a life of Oliver Cromwell.”
We need be reminded of Teddy Roosevelt today. With all the lamenting of the narrowing of the Republican mind, with all the talk of the need for a rekindling of American exceptionalism, Roosevelt’s radiant chivalry comes calling. No greater example of American exceptionalism can be found.
Roosevelt was an ornithologist, a historian, a police commissioner of New York City and, decades ahead of his time, an environmentalist. He was a war hero who led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. He was an explorer of faraway continents, a rancher, a hunter who stocked the Smithsonian with the skins of his prey. He was governor of New York, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, a vice-president, a president at 42, the head of two parties.
As a conservative, he was a trust buster, daring to take on financial and industrial monopolies, outraging them. His work as an eco-warrior, a conservationist, was such that author Douglas Brinkley devotes 900 pages to it in his 2009 book, The Wilderness Warrior. As president, Mr. Brinkley reports, Roosevelt once charged breathlessly into a cabinet meeting. As members of his executive leaned across the table in anticipation, T.R. declared: “Gentlemen, do you know what happened this morning? Just now I saw a Chestnut-sided Warbler – and this is only February!”
He looked on songbirds as “liberators of the soul.” An interesting surmise, that one. Even more so, his thoughts on the buffalo. He considered herds of bison “incalculably valuable to the collective psyche of the nation.”
With his granite determination, he was America’s tribune of manifest destiny. At times, it was ill-tempered bellicosity and expansionism. But he also mediated the Russo-Japanese conflict, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and achieved such respect and renown in international capitals that, were he still president at the time, many think the First World War would have been avoided.
But Roosevelt foolishly split his Republican Party by becoming leader of the Progressives and handed the presidency to Woodrow Wilson in 1912. With time, his conservative colours paled. Like another great Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, his moderation collides with the tenor of the modern-day GOP.
In his autobiography, in a chapter called The Vigor of Life, Roosevelt writes that there are two kinds of success. One comes by way of abnormal natural talent, the other to those of more common capacities by sheer effort. Through application, dedication and perseverance, the ordinary is turned extraordinary.
Roosevelt maintained, surprisingly enough given his seeming precocity, that he was of that second type, that he trained “painfully and laboriously” his body, his soul, his spirit to the valour that was reached.
He became, one might say, a herd of buffalo unto himself. It was this psyche he brought to the United States, charting the exceptionalism that Americans wish could be found today.