By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Beecher City History teacher Bill Hammer gets a chuckle out of some students when he asks them to identify Theodore Roosevelt.
“They’ll say, ‘He’s that guy on the mountain.’ They’re referring to his face being on Mount Rushmore,” Hammer noted during his lecture last Thursday on Teddy Roosevelt as part of the Effingham County History Museum lecture series.
There is an irony that some energetic young people only think of Roosevelt’s image frozen in rock. That’s because Roosevelt was always on the move and exuding energy in everything he did.
He was a Harvard University athlete and amateur boxer, naturalist, cowboy and rancher, loving husband and father of several children, a reformer in New York City when it was controlled by Tammany Hall, a leader of a regiment in the Spanish American War, hunter of about everything that crawled or flew, boisterous lecturer and author of many books.
Oh, and he also found time to serve almost two terms as President of the United States and tried for a third term as leader of the Bull Moose Party.
Hammer quoted Roosevelt to illustrate the man’s lifetime dedication of doing things: “There has never yet been a man in our history who led a life of ease whose name is worth remembering.”
“What Roosevelt meant,” Hammer said, “was don’t stand on the sidelines.”
That is why Hammer believes Roosevelt would be disgusted at low voter turnout in America today. “And he would be appalled at the Internet, too,” Hammer said.
Roosevelt was a firm believer in the philosophy of “Muscular Christianity” during his lifetime, Hammer said. This ideal called for true Christians to be active physically, not just reading their Bibles in straight-backed chairs. Sports were viewed as a way to evangelize and also reduce the fear of the softening influence of women on Christianity, Hammer said.
“The YMCA movement is a result of this. The Boy Scouts of America also came into existence through it,” Hammer said.
Through his readings and research on Roosevelt, Hammer showed that Roosevelt was not expected to live a full life when he was younger. He was a sickly boy and suffered from asthma after his birth during the Civil War. His father established a regimen of horseback riding, exercise in a home gym and reading to build up the young “Teedie,” the young Theodore’s nickname bestowed on him by his family. Later, he would be called “Teddy,” but Hammer said that was not Roosevelt’s choice.
“People called him Teddy, but he preferred Theodore,” Hammer said.
Three deaths would have a profound influence on Roosevelt early in his life. The first was the death of his beloved father when he was in college. Then in 1885, Roosevelt’s young wife and his mother died on the same day on February 14. He sunk into terrible depression from that tragic day.
“The light has gone out of my life,’ Roosevelt wrote after that day,’ Hammer said.
Work and an active life brought Roosevelt out of that personal darkness. He went out West to be involved with ranching and then returned to New York to take on bureaucracy and corruption in government. He was a police commissioner who refused to look the other way.
Convinced that America must free Cuba from Spanish colonial rule, he “picked a fight with Spain,” Hammer said.
As assistant Navy secretary, he sent out dispatches to Navy ships that sparked the first shots of the Spanish American War. Then he left government to form a volunteer cavalry regiment called the Rough Riders for fighting in Cuba. Roosevelt led from the front and became a national hero. More than a century later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics in Cuba.
Though Hammer admires Roosevelt, he admits he is a flawed hero. Roosevelt wrote and spoke on the supremacy of the Anglo Saxon race and feared allowing immigrants outside of Western Europe would hurt America. He belittled women’s rights. He also favored eugenics as a form of selective breeding.
Comparing some of the issues relevant on the political landscape today, Hammer pointed out some issues take different twists but do not go away.
“His ideas on immigration are similar to what we hear today. That’s why I tell my students to remember how history repeats itself,” Hammer said. “I want them to learn what Teddy did right and what he did wrong.”
He also wants everyone to know how Roosevelt was full of contradictions. He could show his jovial and carefree side when he skinny-dipped in the Potomac River. This was eons before anyone could post videos, thank goodness.
“Could you imagine if that happened today?” Hammer said, eliciting laughter from the audience.
But the fear of a sudden, horrible death – he had witnessed some during his lifetime – caused Roosevelt to always carry a cyanide capsule with him. This man of many accomplishments and full of life was ready to end his existence if a painful death was stalking him.
Roosevelt died peacefully at his home in 1919. Hammer offered a list of many Roosevelt sayings from his writings and speeches. One sticks out: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”