Today, Oct. 27, 2008, is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States who served from 1901-1909.
He is remembered as the leader who transformed our government at the beginning of the last century and who laid the foundation for America’s great economic, military, political, and social ascent in the 100 years that followed his departure from the White House in 1909.
Instead of rehashing Roosevelt’s many achievements, I thought a better way to remember our “Rough Rider” president would be to travel back in time and watch him while he was at home with his family during a summer’s weekend on Long Island in 1908.
Almost exactly a century ago, Roosevelt’s aide Archie Butt spent a few days at Sagamore Hill with the president and his family. During his visit, he recorded, for posterity, what he experienced in a letter to his mother back in Georgia.
The letter (which I have partially edited) is excerpted below. Sadly, Archie Butt died only a few years later on April 4, 1912, when he went down with the Titanic in the North Atlantic after it was struck by an iceberg. However, Butt’s memories of President Roosevelt and his family live on.
Archie Butt’s letter offers us a snapshot of Theodore Roosevelt, and a window into his personality. In it, we see Roosevelt from multiple angles.
We see his uptight Victorian sensibilities when he wears a bathing suit that “looks like a suit of overalls.” We see his Southern mother’s influence in his appetite for fried chicken soaked in white gravy. We see his misplaced belief that his successor in the presidency, William Howard Taft, would carry on his progressive policies to an acceptable level. We see the playful fun he enjoyed with his wife and children. We see him basking in his popularity. We see his faith in the American people, who “are too educated to be fooled.”
Butt’s letter provides only a glimpse into Theodore Roosevelt’s complex personality — but it is a revealing one. Here we cast aside the litany of dull facts that are stamped on the pages of American history and see him as he really was — a faithful public servant and a devoted father spending time with his family during the last year of his presidency. Enjoy!
Oyster Bay, Long Island
July 24, 1908
My Dear Mother:
We have just come in from a good swim and I have about an hour or so to myself, which I will devote to you as I promised. I have not been here a day yet but every moment of my visit has been thoroughly enjoyed, surprises meeting me at every turn. The greatest surprise to me so far has been the utmost simplicity of the home life at Sagamore Hill.
I am constantly asking myself if this can really be the home of the President of the United States and how it is possible for him to enforce such simplicity in this environment. It might be the home of a well-to-do farmer with literary tastes or the house of some college professor. Over all and permeating every nook and crevice there is an atmosphere of genuineness and reality, and while I will be on the look out for skeletons I am sure there is not one in the house, although I am glad to say there are closets in plenty and big large roomy ones, too.
I left New York on the 4:20 train and much to my delight found Beekman Winthrop and his wife going to the bay also. The run is rather an uninteresting one, but Winthrop and I talked old Philippine days. When we got to Oyster Bay we found Joseph waiting for us with the buckboard and at once drove to Sagamore Hill several miles out on a beautiful road winding along the sound and then making a detour over some beautiful hills.
There was no one at the house when we got there. Mrs. Roosevelt had been out to see some sick neighbor and the President was playing tennis. They both came in together, however, he in tennis garb and she in a simple white muslin with a large white hat of some cloth material with flowers in it, a wobbly kind of hat which seems to go with trees and water.
The President was so keen for us to take a swim that he did not give us time to see our rooms before we were on the way to the beach. Mrs. Winthrop did not go in swimming. I think she had some idea of protecting her hair for dinner. So the President and Mrs. Roosevelt and Beekman and I went alone.
The water was almost chilly and most refreshing after the fever heated streets of Washington. I do not know when I enjoyed anything as much. I could not help from remarking how pretty and young Mrs. Roosevelt looked in her bathing suit. I did not admire his however for it was one of the one piece garments and looked more like a suit of overalls than a bathing suit.
Dinner was at eight and we hurried home to put on evening clothes. I had asked Mrs. Roosevelt if the President dressed for dinner and she said that he always wore his dinner jacket, but to wear anything I wanted as the only rule they had at Oyster Bay was that they had no rules or regulations.
The President put Mrs. Winthrop on his right and I sat on his left. There was no special formality, the only difference which was paid to the President was the fact that all dishes were handed to him first, then to Mrs. Roosevelt, and after that to the guest of honor and so on. Miss Ethel [the president’s daughter] was late in coming to dinner and every one including the President rose.
From the conversation which followed I learned that it had always been a rule in the household for the boys to rise when either their mother, their father or their sister came to the table. In fact, Kermit [the president’s son] said that since such was the custom that girls ought to make it a rule to be on time for their meals and this remark started the Roosevelt’s ball rolling.
I was very hungry and enjoyed my dinner being helped twice to nearly every thing. We had soup, fish, fried chicken and corn on the cob and jelly. There was nothing to drink but water. The President asked me if I would have something but as it was not the custom I declined. “We often have something,” said the President, “so do not hesitate to take what you want. We are not the tipplers that our friends on Wall Street would make us out, but don’t mistake us for prohibitionists.”
I was much interested in meeting the family in this way and never saw less restraint than at the President’s table. Every child had something to say and when one makes a remark it is certain to bring forth a volley of denials or contemptuous rebuttals from the others. In fact, there was nothing studied or formal and every member came in for a little fun before dinner was over. Even the guests did not escape.
After dinner we all went on the broad veranda which runs around part of the house and which affords a beautiful view of the [Long Island] Sound. The house sits on top of the hill and there are only one or two trees in the immediate vicinity. The ground sloops in all directions from the porch and near the foot of the hill the trees grow in thick profusion and in many varieties.
What charms me especially about the location is that there is not another house visible from it and nothing to mar the landscape. As the President says: “We have no one looking into our pantry and there is no need to close the shutter.”
We smoked and chatted on a hundred different subjects and made plans for the following day. Mrs. Roosevelt finally took her knitting inside and was soon followed by Mrs. Winthrop. Miss Ethel evidently found us dull and went walking with her dog Ace and the boys went to the Mayflower [the President’s yacht] to spend the night.
The President, Winthrop and I sat and talked on every subject that three men knowing something of the affairs of the day (I having only a smattering perhaps) can talk. The talk naturally drifted to Taft’s nomination and the chances for his election. The President seems to think that he will be elected though there are certain elements of danger.
“If the people knew Taft there would be no doubt of his election,” he said. “They know what he has done but they don’t know the man. If they knew him they would know that he can be relied on to carry out the policies which I stand for. He is committed to them just the same as I am and has been made the mouthpiece for them as frequent as I.”
He did not think Mr. Taft would break the South. “You know,” he said, “my chief regret in not making the race this year is that I am not able to demonstrate the fact that I can carry Georgia. I am convinced that I would carry Georgia, Virginia and Louisiana. I doubt if I could carry Tennessee and Kentucky, but I am certain about the others. I would make my opening speech in Savannah or Macon, and would fight my way out from there.”
“I would carry those states for the reason that I am not sectional. I have not got a sectional bone in my body. I imbibed the traditions and folklore of the South from my mother. My earliest training and principles were Southern. I sought the West of my own accord and my manhood has largely been fought out in the North.” He spoke of his popularity as I would speak of riding ability.
I said that to me the great danger to Mr. Taft came from the residuary legatee idea, but that I thought this would be contracted by the fact that Mr. Taft would also be the legatee of the President’s popularity. “Yes,” he said, “I think so. I do not think Taft would be as aggressive as I have been but, there will be no backward step under Taft.”
He then referred to the recent decision in the Standard Oil case and added, “Like Andrew Jackson, when the enemy gains some advantage I advance a foot nearer. I have never betrayed the people yet, and I don’t propose to do so now by default. If a technicality protects the criminal we must overcome the technicality.”
“I am popular because I am trusted and I believe my policies to be best for all classes. If ever the unidentified class in this country feel that the legislative class is not to be relied upon than may the wealth and culture really expect trouble. In this country we have got to play the game squarely for if we don’t we will not be allowed to play it at all. The people are too well educated to be fooled.”
We talked of this man and that and he had something of interest to say about each name as it was mentioned. Winthrop asked him if he did not think [President] Garfield a very ordinary man. “Not at all,” said the President. “His great fault lay in the fact that he had no horror of corruption. He cared nothing about it, while a perfectly honest man himself. Just as [President] McKinley thought it wicked to expose corruption so Garfield thought it necessary to condone it as a matter of policy. But next to Jefferson, Garfield was the most brilliant President we have ever had.”
He then talked of Monroe and I fear he has a very poor idea of him. He took us into the library and read us a number of speeches of President Monroe made on a trip through New England. It was an old volume he had dug out of some obscure library. One speech he almost knew by heart. It was made in answer to an address of ministers and preachers in Portland, Maine. One sentence he recalled with great glee. It was to the effect that all religion in general would have his hearty approval and support.
Well, I have rambled on incoherently at times, but possibly with some interest to you. The fact that you tell me you have kept all my letters and that they will be a sort of diary some day inspires me to write more fully that I otherwise would. The only interest I have in writing is the hope that you will be entertained by what I say.
I should like to convince you too that the President is all that I think him but when I read what I have written it seems to me that I have brought out facts which might put him in an unenviable light rather than in a favorable one, for I remember one of the things you stored up against him was his criticism of the Presidents.
One thing he does most successfully. He makes you forget that you are in the house of the President and [makes you believe] that you are merely the guest of a very charming, witty and hospitable gentleman. I will remain over Sunday, at least I think that is as long as my invitation lasts.
The life is going to be strenuous and healthy. I see endless tennis and swimming and boating and riding ahead of me and I am keen for it. Why was I not born a countryman instead of a horrid city type from which I cannot escape? Goodbye with much love
Note: This letter is one of many that can be found in the book "The Letters of Archie Butt, Personal Aide to President Roosevelt," edited by Lawrence F. Abbott, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1924.
Daniel Ruddy is a researcher who is completing a book on Theodore Roosevelt.
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