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TR's Early Life

Theodore Roosevelt as assemblyman in 1884. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Newly-minted New York State Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt convened the Cities Committee at Albany one day in 1882, armed with his Harvard education, his moral indignation, his physical prowess, and a scavenged chair leg to defend against assault, should debate take a physical turn. Dogged, audacious, bombastic, and naive, he had begun his journey to American legend. Yet he was not the same Theodore Roosevelt who had been born to a comfortable Dutch American family in New York on October 27, 1858. In the years since, he had repeatedly reinvented himself.

Frail, nearsighted, and tormented by near-fatal asthma attacks, young Theodore, or Teedie, as he was known, devoted his early life to learning. He read voraciously, from children's magazines like Our Young Folks to the poetry of Longfellow and Western adventure books by the writer Mayne Reid. At age eight, Teedie founded the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History in the family home and stocked it with specimens he collected or begged -- the skins of mice, birds, and snakes, the skull of a seal, each carefully tagged and catalogued.

While in his mind he modeled himself on the rugged heroes of the West, the wispy Teedie scarcely seemed headed for a heroic life. But as a teenager, he overcame his frailty through exercise, spending hour after hour lifting weights, doing calisthenics, and boxing.

Roosevelt's burgeoning physical strength would not be enough to gain his admission to Harvard, a goal which caused him to rebuild himself once again. He commanded an impressive store of knowledge, but Harvard's entrance examination emphasized mathematics, Latin, and Greek -- areas in which he was weak. He worked assiduously under a tutor named Arthur Cutler, and after two years' study, passed the exam.

If Roosevelt had made himself into a model man, he would learn at Harvard that all men did not aspire to the same models. His boisterous, nature, his distaste for debauchery, his New York pedigree, and his intellect set him at odds with the other Harvard men, many of whom were wayward sons of New England's elite. Once more, Roosevelt transformed himself -- this time from an outsider to an insider. Rather than adapt his nature to Harvard, he adapted Harvard to his nature, challenging his teachers in the classroom, challenging his classmates with the idea that fun was not burlesque-hall grogfests but tramps in the idyllic Adirondacks, and challenging Harvard's elite clubs to deny membership to such an obviously remarkable young man. Accepted grudgingly, Roosevelt gained admission to a number of important Harvard clubs, including the vaunted Porcellians. He performed above average academically and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key. Yet in his Autobiography, he wrote: "...I am sure [Harvard] did me good, but only in the general effect, for there was very little in my actual studies which helped me in after-life."

It was at Harvard, however, that Roosevelt's life was remade by love, as personified by Alice Hathaway Lee, the sister of a Harvard friend. Spurned repeatedly, Roosevelt eventually won Lee's hand. The couple married and moved to New York, where Theodore briefly studied law. But he quickly remade himself again, this time entering one of the most disreputable fields imaginable - politics.

At the time, men of TR's ilk eschewed politics, a grubby profession peopled by "saloonkeepers, horse-car conductors, and the like." Roosevelt quickly proved he could thrive in this rough-and-tumble fellowship. He barged into New York City's Republican party in 1880 -- the following year, he won a seat in the New York Assembly. When TR arrived at Albany, his dandyish appearance and his penchant for moralistic diatribes quickly made him a political pariah -- and a media sensation. The press loved Roosevelt and provided an outlet for his attacks on the political machines, which served the wealthy few at the expense of the majority.

By his third one-year term in the legislature, the pedantic greenhorn had become a skilled diplomat capable of wielding political and moral force with equanimity. The rising star of Albany, Roosevelt seemed destined for greatness. Then tragedy struck. On February 14, 1884, Roosevelt's mother, Mittie, died of typhoid. The same day, his beloved wife, Alice, died of Bright's disease. Completely shattered, the man who had transformed himself from a weak, asthmatic boy into a powerful, talented politician finished his assembly term and retreated to the Badlands of North Dakota. There he would rebuild himself once again.

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