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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


What He Got Out of College

RATHER a delicate-looking young fellow yet, not over a hundred and thirty pounds on the scales, slender of frame and slim of waist, was the Theodore Roosevelt who made his entry into Harvard while the country yet rang with the echoes of the Electoral Commission and of the destructive railroad riots of the summer that followed. They were troublous times to begin life in, and one would naturally think that they would leave their mark upon a spirit like Roosevelt’s. I know that they did, but the evidence of it does not lie on the surface. Neither in the memory of his classmates nor in his record as an editor of the “Advocate” is there anything to suggest it. I was in Pennsylvania during those riots, when militiamen were burned like rats in a railroad round-house. I saw what they meant, and I have no difficulty in making out their stamp upon his ardent spirit when I read such comments as this on the draft riots in his history of New York, though written more than a dozen years after:

“The troops and police were thoroughly armed, and attacked the rioters with the most wholesome desire to do them harm;… a lesson was inflicted on the lawless and disorderly which they never entirely forgot. Two millions of property had been destroyed and many valuable lives lost. But over twelve hundred rioters were slain—an admirable object-lesson to the remainder.”

Perhaps they had more to do with shaping his later career, those cruel riots, than even he has realized, for I should not be surprised if, unconsciously, he acted upon their motion in joining the militia in his own State, and so got the first grip upon the soldiering that stood him in such good stead in Cuba. “I wanted,” he said to me after he had become President, “to count for one in the fight for order and for the Republic, if the crisis were to come. I wanted to be in a position to take a man’s stand in such a case, that was why.” Counting for one in the place where he stood, when that was the thing to do, then and always, he has got to the place where he counts for all of us, should such days come back, as please God they will not; and nowhere, I think, in the land is there any one who doubts that “order and the Republic” are safe in his hands.

But in his youthful mind these things were working yet, unidentified. His was a healthy nature without morbid corners. The business of his boyhood had been to make himself strong that he might do the work of a man, by which he had in mind chiefly, no doubt, the horse and the gun—the bully, perhaps, whom he had not forgotten—but the hunt, the life in the open. Now, among his fellows, it was to get the most out of what their companionship offered. He became instantly a favorite with his class of a hundred and seventy-odd. They laughed at his oddities, at his unrepressed enthusiasm, at his liking for Elizabethan poetry, voted him “more or less crazy” with true Harvard conservatism, respected him highly for his scholarship on the same solid ground, and fell in even with his notions for his own sake, as afterward some of them fell in behind him in the rush up San Juan hill, leaving lives of elegance and ease to starve with him in the trenches and do the chores of a trooper in camp under a tropical sun. It is remembered that Theodore Roosevelt set Harvard to skipping the rope, a sport it had abandoned years before with knickerbockers; but it suited this student to keep up the exercise as a means of strengthening the leg muscles, and rope-skipping became a pastime of the class of 1880. In the gymnasium they wore red stockings with their practice suits. Roosevelt had happened upon a pair that were striped a patriotic red and white, and he wore them, at first to the amazement of the other students. He did not even know that they had attracted attention, but when some one told him he laughed and kept them on. It was what the legs could do in the stockings he was there to find out. Twenty years after I heard a policemen call him a dude when he walked up the steps of police head-quarters with a silk sash about his waist, something no man had been known to wear in Mulberry Street in the memory of the oldest there; and I saw the same officer looking after him down the street, as long as he was in sight, the day he went, and turn back with a sigh that made him my friend forever: “There won’t such another come through that door again in my time, that there won’t.” And there did not. The old man is retired long since.

He joined the exclusive “Pork” Club, and forthwith smashed all its hallowed traditions and made the Porcellian blood run cold, by taking his finacée to lunch where no woman ever trod before. He simply saw no reason why a lady should not lunch at a gentlemen’s club; and when the shocked bachelor minds of the “Pork” Club searched the horizon for one to confront him with, they discovered that there was none. Accordingly the world still stood, and so did the college. He played polo, did athletic stunts with the fellows, and drove a two-wheeled gig badly, having no end of good times in it. When he puts on the boxing-gloves, he hailed the first comer with the more delight if he happened to be the champion of the class, who was twice his size and heft. The pummeling that ensued he took with the most hearty good will; and though his nose bled and his glasses fell off, putting him at a disadvantage, he refused grimly to cry quarter, and pressed the fight home in a way that always reminds me of that redoubtable Danish seafighter, Peter Tordenskjold, who kept up the fight, firing pewter dinner-plates and mugs from his one gun, when on his little smack there was left but a single man of the crew, “and he wept.” Tordenskjold killed the captain of the Swedish frigate with one of his mugs and got away. Roosevelt was bested in his boxing-matches often enough, but, however superior, his opponents bore away always the impression that they had faced a fighter.

But the battle was not always to the strong in those days. I have heard a story of how Roosevelt beat a man with a reputation as a fighter, but not, it would appear, with the instincts of a gentleman. I shall not vouch for it, for I have not asked him about it; but it is typical enough to be true, except for the wonder how the fellow got in there. He took, so the story runs, a mean advantage and struck a blow that drew blood before Roosevelt had got his glove on right. The bystanders cried foul, but Roosevelt smiled one of his grim smiles.

“I guess you made a mistake. We do not do that way here,” he said, offering the other his gloved hand in formal salutation as a sign to begin hostilities. The next moment his right shot out and took the man upon the point of the jaw, and the left followed suit. In two minutes he was down and out. Roosevelt was “in form” that day. All the fighting blood in him had been roused by the unfairness of the blow. I have seen him when his blood was up for good cause once or twice, and I rather think the story must be true. If I were to fight him and wanted to win, I should shun a foul blow as I would the pestilence. I am sure I would not run half the risk from the latter.

Play was part of the college life, and he took a hand in it because it belonged. Work was the bigger part, and he did not shirk it, or any of it. I am not sure, but I have a notion that he did not like arithmetic. I feel it in my bones, somehow. Perhaps the wish is father to the thought. I know I hated. But I will warrant he went through with it all the same, which I did not. I think he was among the first twenty in his class, which graduated a hundred and forty. He early picked out as his specialties the history of men and things, animals included. The ambition to be a naturalist and a professor clung to him still, but more and more the doings of men and of their concerns began to attract him. It was so with all he did in college, whether at work or play—it was the life that moved in it he was after. Unconsciously yet, I think, his own life began to shape itself upon its real lines. He read the “Federalist” with the entire absorption that was and is his characteristic, and lived and thought with the makers of our government. There are few public men to-day who are more firmly grounded in those fundamentals than he, and the airy assumption of shallow politicians and critics who think they have in Roosevelt to do with a man of their own kind sometimes makes me smile. The faculty of forgetting all else but the topic in hand is one of the great secrets of his success in whatever he has under-taken as an official. It is the faculty of getting things done. They tell stories yet, that go around the board at class dinners, of how he would come into a fellow-student’s room for a visit, and, picking up a book, would become immediately and wholly absorbed in its contents, then wake up with a guilty start to confess that his whole hour was gone and hurry away while they shouted after him. It was the student in him which we in our day are so apt. to forget in the man of action, of deeds. But the two have always gone together in him; they belong together. In all the wild excitement of the closing hours of the convention that set him in the Vice-President’s chair he, alone in an inner room, was reading Thucydides, says Albert Shaw, who was with him. He was resting. I saw him pick up a book, in a lull in the talk, the other day, and instantly forget all things else. He was not reading the book as much as he was living it. So, men get all there is out of what is in hand, and they are few who can do it. However, of that I shall have more to say later, when I have him in Mulberry Street, where he was mine for two years.

His college chums, sometimes, seeing the surface drift and judging from it, thought him “quite unrestrained,” as one of them put it to me, meaning that he lacked a strong grip on himself. It was a natural mistake. They saw the enthusiasm that gave seemingly full vent to itself and tested men by the contact, not the cautious, almost wary, deliberation which in the end guided action, though he himself but half knew it. They laughed a little at his jump at the proposition to go to Greenland with a classmate and study the fauna there—he was planning the trip before it had been fairly suggested—and at the preparations he made for a tiger-hunting expedition to India with his brother Elliott. The fact that in both cases he acted upon the coolest judgment and stayed home occurred to them only long afterward. To me at this end, with his later life to interpret its beginning, it seems clear enough that already the perfect balance that has distinguished his mental processes since was beginning to assert itself. However he might seem to be speeding toward extremes, he never got there. He buried himself in his books, but he woke up at the proper seasons, and what he had got he kept. He went in for the play, all there was of it, but he never mistook the means for the end and let the play run away with him. Long years after, when the thing that was then taking shape in him had ripened, he wrote it down in the record of his Western hunts: “In a certain kind of fox-hunting lore there is much reference to a Warwickshire squire who, when the Parliamentary and Royalist armies were forming for the battle at Edgehill, was discovered between the hostile lines, unmovedly drawing the covers for a fox. Now, this placid sportsman should by rights have been slain offhand by the first trooper who reached him, whether Cavalier or Roundhead. He had mistaken means for ends, he had con-founded the healthful play which should fit a man for needful work with the work itself, and mistakes of this kind are sometimes criminal. Hardy sports of the field offer the best possible training for war; but they become contemptible when indulged in while the nation is at death-grips with her enemies.”

One factor in this mental balance, his unhesitating moral courage which shirked no disagreeable task and was halted by no false pride of opinion, had long been apparent. He was known as a good hand for a disagreeable task that had to be done, a reproof to be administered in justice and fairness—I am thinking of how the man kept that promise of the youth, before Santiago, when for the twentieth time he “wrecked a promising career” with his famous round-robin—and also for the generous speed with which he would hasten to undo a wrong done by word or act. There were no half-way measures with him then. He owned right up. “He was fair always,” said one of his classmates who was close to him. “He never tried to humbug others, or himself either, but spoke right out in meeting, telling it all.” No wonder some within reach thought him erratic. There has never been a time in the history of the world when such a course would commend itself to all men as sane. It commended itself to him as right, and that was enough.

A distinguishing trait in his father had been—he died while Theodore was at college—devotion to duty, and the memory of it and of him was potent with the son. He tried to walk in his steps. “I tried faithfully to do what father had done,” he told me once when we talked about him, “but I did it poorly. I became Secretary of the Prison Reform Association (I think that was the society he spoke of), and joined this and that committee. Father had done good work on so many; but in the end I found out that we have each to work in his own way to do our best; and when I struck mine, though it differed from his, yet I was able to follow the same lines and do what he would have had me do.”

It was thus natural that Theodore Roosevelt should have sought out a Sunday-school and a chance to teach as soon as he was settled at Harvard, and that his choice should have fallen upon a mission school. He went there in pursuit of no scheme of philanthropy. Providence had given him opportunities and a training that were denied these, and it was simple fairness that he should help his neighbor who was less fortunate through no fault of his own. The Roosevelts were Dutch Reformed. He found no Dutch Reformed church at Cambridge, but there were enough of other denominations. The handiest was Episcopal. It happened that it was of high church bent. Theodore Roosevelt asked no questions, but went to work. With characteristic directness he was laying down the way of life to the boys and girls in his class when an untoward event happened. One of his boys came to school with a black eye. He owned up that he had got it in a fight, and on Sunday. His teacher made stern inquiry. “Jim” somebody, it appeared, who sat beside his sister, had been pinching her all through the hour, and when they came out they had a stand-up fight and he punched him good, bearing away the black eye as his share. The verdict was prompt.

“You did perfectly right,” said his teacher, and he gave him a dollar. To the class it was ideal justice, but it got out among the officers of the school and scandalized them dreadfully. Roosevelt was not popular with them. Unfamiliar with the forms of the service, he had failed at times to observe them all as they thought he should. They wished to know if he had any objection to any of them. No, none in the world; he was ready to do anything required of him. He himself was Dutch Reformed—he got no farther. The idea of a “Dutch Reformed” teaching in their school, superimposed upon the incident of the black eye, was too much. They parted with some-what formal expressions of mutual regard. Roosevelt betook himself to a Congregational Sunday-school near by and taught there the rest of his four years’ course in college. How it fared with Jim’s conqueror I do not know.

Before he had finished the course, Roosevelt had started upon his literary career. It came in the day’s work, without conscious purpose on his part to write a book. They had at his Club James’ history, an English work, and he found that it made detailed misstatements about the war of 1812. Upon looking up American authorities, it turned out that they gave no detailed contradictions of these statements. The reason was not wholly free from meanness: in nearly all the sea-fights of that war the American forces had outnumbered the British, often very materially; but the home historians, wishing not to emphasize this fact, had contented themselves with the mere statement that the “difference was triffling,” thus by their foolish vaunts opening the door to exaggeration in the beaten enemy’s camp. The facts which Roosevelt brought out from the official files with absolute impartiality grew into his first book, “The Naval War of 1812,” which took rank at once as an authority. The British paid the young author, then barely out of college, the high compliment of asking him to write the chapter on this war for their monumental work on “The Royal Navy,” and there it stands to-day, unchallenged.

So with work and with play and with the class politics in which Theodore took a vigorous hand, the four years wore away as one. He was, by the way, not a good speaker in those days, I am told; but such speeches as he made—and he never farmed the duty out when it was his to do—were very much to the point. One is remembered yet with amusement by a distinguished lawyer in this city. He had been making an elaborate and as he thought lucid argument in class-meeting, and sat down, properly proud of the impression he must have made; when up rose Theodore Roosevelt.

“I have been listening, Mr. Chairman,” he spoke, “and, so far as I can see, not one word of what Mr. —— has said has any more to do with this matter than has the man in the moon. It is—” but the class was in a roar, and what “it was” the indignant previous speaker never learned.

But, as I said, the years passed, and, having graduated, Roosevelt went abroad to spend a year with alternate study in Germany and mountain-climbing in Switzerland by way of letting off steam. Probably the verdict men might have set down against his whole college career would have been that it was in no way remarkable. Here and there some one had taken notice of the young man, as having quite unusual powers of observation and of concentration, but nothing had happened of any extraordinary nature, though things enough happened where he was around. Later on, when the fact had long compelled public attention, I asked him how it was. His answer I recommend to the close attention and study of young men everywhere who want to get on.

“I put myself in the way of things happening,” he said, “and they happened.”

It may be that the longer they think of it, like myself, the more they will see in it. A plain and homely prescription, but so, when you look at it, has been the man’s whole life so far—a plain talk to plain people, on plain issues of right and wrong. The extraordinary thing is that some of us should have got up such a heat about it. Though, come to think of it, that is n’t so extraordinary either; the issues are so very plain. “Thou shalt not steal” is not exactly revolutionary preaching, but it is apt to stir up feelings when it means what it says. No extraordinary ambitions, no other thought than to do his share of what there was to do, and to do it well, stirred in this young student now sailing across the seas to begin life in his native land, to take up a man’s work in a man’s country. None of his college chums had been found to predict for him a brilliant public career. Even now they own it.

What, then, had he got out of his five years of study? They were having a reunion of his class when he was Police Commissioner, and he was there. One of the professors told of a student coming that day to bid him good-by. He asked him what was to be his work in the world.

“Oh!” said he, with a little yawn. “Really, do you know, professor, it does not seem to me that there is anything that is much worth while.”

Theodore Roosevelt, who had been sitting, listening, at the other end of the table, got up suddenly and worked his way round to the professor’s seat. He struck the table a blow that was not meant for it alone.

“That fellow,” said he, “ought to have been knocked in the head. I would rather take my chances with a blackmailing policeman than with such as he.”

That was what Theodore Roosevelt got out of his years at Harvard. And I think, upon the whole, that he could have got nothing better, for himself, for us, or for the college.