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Biography of Theodore Roosevelt: Seven Disputed Facts About President's Life

By    |   Friday, 22 May 2015 01:39 PM

President Theodore Roosevelt looms in history as a larger-than-life figure with a list of accomplishments seemingly beyond the capacity of any one person. But some facts, or interpretations of them, in his biographies draw dispute:

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1. It’s true that Teddy Roosevelt would not shoot a bear that was caught and tied to a tree during a 1902 hunting trip put on for him by the governor of Mississippi because it wasn’t “sporting,” and it’s true that the term “teddy bear” grew from that (and from a Clifford Berryman editorial cartoon about the incident). What’s less known is that the bear was killed anyway. According to the Roosevelt Foundation website, the bear was old, injured, and in pain, and Roosevelt wanted the bear put out of its misery.


2. History sees Roosevelt as a hard-charging, populist reformer acting out of a sense of a rich man’s obligation to better the world in which he lives. However, Jackson Lears in The New Republic argued that the populist reform of the era had its roots in the rural south and was largely led by Democrats. “The effort to tame unbridled capitalism originated not in the mind of Theodore Roosevelt but in the rural Midwest and South—in the Populist movement of the 1890s,” he wrote.

3. Though Roosevelt gets the credit and William Howard Taft is seen as his ineffectual successor, Lears pointed out President Taft was, by the numbers, more successful than Roosevelt in busting trusts, controlling railroad rates, regulating telephone and telegraph companies, and reforming campaign contributions. “It was by any measure a record of solid progressive accomplishment,” Lears wrote. “Yet somehow (Taft) always came off looking like a conservative.”

4. As President, Roosevelt banned Christmas trees in the White House. Whether the ban stems from environmental concerns or whether Mrs. Roosevelt simply preferred a low-key Christmas celebration is a question far from settled, according to Jaime Lewis on the Forest History Society’s blog. Some versions of the story, Lewis wrote, have the Roosevelt children enlisting forestry chief Gifford Pinchot to convince their father a tree wouldn’t be all that bad.

5. “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!” was the proclamation issued after the capture of a (former) American citizen and his stepson by an outlaw chief in Morocco in 1904. The incident was an excuse for Roosevelt to wave his “Big Stick” and send the Navy steaming toward Morocco, and the proclamation (actually from a telegram sent by Secretary of State John Hay) helped ensure Roosevelt’s election, said Jon Blackwell on the Capital Century blog. Less known at the time: Ion Perdicaris had renounced his American citizenship years earlier, the ransom was paid anyway to bandit chief Raisuli, and Perdicaris and his captor actually got along rather well.

Also, when Hollywood got around to making a movie of the incident, the Berber bandit Raisuli was played by Sean Connery, and fat, balding Perdicaris was played by. . . Candice Bergen, according to IMDB.

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6. It was generally reported that Roosevelt died of a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lung. However, Edmund Morris, in the last volume of his three-book biography of Roosevelt, brought up the possibility (along with interviews with two doctors to support it) that Roosevelt actually had a fatal heart attack. 

7. The Internet-famous photo of TR riding a moose in the water is fun, but not factual. Decades before digital photos, the photography firm Underwood and Underwood cut and pasted a photo of a horse-riding Roosevelt onto a photo of a moose. As Harvard’s Houghton Library Blog tells it, the photo went along with doctored photos of William Howard Taft riding an elephant and Woodrow Wilson riding a donkey for the New York Tribune’s humorous look at the contenders for the 1912 presidential election. Of course, the donkey stood for Democrats, the elephant for Republicans, and the moose stood for Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” party.

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President Theodore Roosevelt looms in history as a larger-than-life figure with a list of accomplishments seemingly beyond the capacity of any one person.
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Friday, 22 May 2015 01:39 PM
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