Profiles in Greatness: From Weak to White House

UPDATED: April 25, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 25, 2011

Known for his vigor, physical strength and limitless energy, Theodore Roosevelt didn’t start out that way.

Born in 1858 to an affluent family, Roosevelt was an unhealthy child who suffered with severe bouts of asthma. “You have a sickly body,” his father told him. “In order to make your brains bring you what they ought, you must build up your body; it depends on you.”

Struggling with a chronic disease and getting bullied at school, Roosevelt was patient and determined to make his body stronger. “Teedie” as he was called by family, began lifting weights with gym equipment his father bought and he learned how to box. He studied gymnastics and wrestling.

His father encouraged him to “make himself” physically to overcome his limitations through his own efforts. Working out relentlessly, Roosevelt improved his body somewhat and his strength of mind and enthusiasm took shape.

Roosevelt’s attacks with asthma often occurred on Sundays and he would be taken into the country for fresh air. He began developing a love for the outdoors. Also nearsighted, he was fitted with spectacles, which, along with a new gun, “literally opened up an entire world to me,” he later wrote.

Although larger-than-life in the history books, Roosevelt struggled to maintain normal strength and vigor. “I am only an average man, but I work harder at it than the average man.”

His effort to overcome personal hardships built a philosophy that drove him. “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much,” Roosevelt wrote, “because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

In 1880, Roosevelt graduated from Harvard University and entered Columbia Law School. When offered a chance to run for New York assemblyman in 1881, he dropped out of law school to pursue public office. A critic of political corruption, he served three terms as a Republican assemblyman. He was a rising progressive star until the Republican nominee lost his bid for the presidency, leaving Roosevelt without political support.

From Tragedy to Mastery

Some children already know who they are going to be as adults. When he was a child, Roosevelt kept turtles in the bathtub and frogs under his hat. Later in life, he used his love for nature as a way to overcome loss.

In 1884, his first wife and mother died on the same day in the same house—his wife from kidney disease and his mother from typhoid fever. Roosevelt dealt with his sorrow by moving to the Badlands of Dakota Territory and ranching. “It was a grim and evil fate, but I never believed it did any good to flinch or yield for any blow, nor does it lighten the blow to cease from working,” he said.

Maintaining his thirst for knowledge, he wrote, “I do not believe there ever was any life more attractive to a vigorous young fellow than life on a cattle ranch in those days. It was a fine, healthy life, too; it taught a man self-reliance, hardihood, and the value of instant decision.”

When a severe freeze wiped out his herd of cattle and his investment, he returned to New York and once again became interested in politics. Appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, he later became president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners and was a reformer, sometimes walking officers’ beats at night to make sure they were awake and on duty.

In 1897, he was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy, and helped prepare for the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Once war broke out, he resigned his post to join the Army and form the First U.S. Cavalry Regiment, later called the Rough Riders. Roosevelt posthumously received the Medal of Honor for bravery during the battle of San Juan Hill. Returning after the war, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, and later vice president, succeeding President William McKinley when he was assassinated in 1901.

During his tenure in the White House, Roosevelt’s love for nature prompted a legacy of lasting change. In 1906, he created the Antiquities Act, enabling presidents to proclaim historic landmarks, structures and other objects of scientific interest as national monuments. He also designated 150 national forests and provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres, land equivalent to an area stretching from Maine to Florida.

Even in office Roosevelt pursued his passions for ranching, hunting big game and taxidermy. “The man should have youth and strength who seeks adventure in the wide, waste spaces of the earth, in the marshes, and among the vast mountain masses, in the northern forests, amid the steaming jungles of the tropics, or on the desert of sand or of snow,” Roosevelt wrote. “He must long greatly for the lonely winds that blow across the wilderness and for sunrise and sunset over the rim of the empty world.”

After leaving office, Roosevelt spent months leading two major scientific expeditions for prominent American museums, one in South America and one in Africa.

An icon who represented what America stands for at its best, Roosevelt was described as “power wielded by abnormal energy.”

Roosevelt’s life exemplifies how skills to achieve the brightest triumphs can come from the darkest hours. “No man has ever lived a happier life than I have led.”