Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden




Childhood

Down the stairs and into the kitchen burst the small boy, pell-mell. He was in dire need of haste, as his actions and backward glances betrayed, even if the cook, pausing in her work in surprise, had not heard the footsteps closely following after.

Not pausing to waste words with the cook, the boy, whose head came only about to the level of the table, grabbed a piece of dough from out her astonished hands, thrust her skirts to one side, and dived under the table. A moment later the door opened again, and a man entered. He looked around the kitchen inquiringly.

"Have you seen anything of that boy in here?" he asked.

There was no dodging his searching glance. The cook, who was Irish and had a warm spot in her heart for the urchin, let her eyes fall helplessly, and suspiciously, toward the hiding place. Down on all fours went the man and reached for the fugitive from justice. The boy heaved the dough at him, striking him full in the face, then wriggled out from the other side of the table and darted for the door. Midway there he was caught and—a future President of the United States got a spanking!

The home where this domestic tragedy occurred was one of the better-class residences of New York City. For, unlike other famous Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt was not born in the country or amid humble surroundings. His father's house was one of the best in the city, and young Theodore was surrounded by comfort and luxury. And, as if that were not handicap enough to attaining future greatness, the lad himself was sickly.

The Roosevelts were a Dutch stock. The First of that name to come to America established a home in New York, then called New Amsterdam, about 1650, or more than two hundred years before Theodore was born. The little town at the mouth of the Hudson was then like a bit of old Holland, with its sturdy burghers clumping around in wooden shoes and big breeches, its housefraus, with their kirtles and bonnets, and its whirling windmills and general air of contentment.

Thereafter, as the town slowly grew to a city, and the city to a great metropolis, the Roosevelts had their modest share in affairs. We find the naive frequently mentioned in the records, and a street bearing their name.

For many years the family remained strictly Dutch. Its members married into other Dutch families, and their children's names were Jacobus, Nicholas and Johannas, just like their forebears. But America was then, and always has been, the melting pot of the races. The young Dutch gallants, looking about them, found maidens of English, French or other stock who were more to their liking.

And so we come down to the middle of the last century, in the days just preceding the dread Civil War. A young man of the house of Roosevelt, whose father was a prosperous importer and banker of New York, was invited to go South on a visit. A Philadelphia friend was to marry a Georgia girl, and young Roosevelt was asked to be best man. He went, and again the melting pot got in its work. He met and fell in love with a Southern girl, who had come from a family no less distinguished than his own. The young couple heeded not the war clouds which were even then hovering over hearts. They listened only to their own.

And this, in brief, is how Theodore Roosevelt, father of the future President, brought to his Northern home the Southern girl, Martha Bulloch; and that is how the boy who later came into their home had both Northern and Southern blood in his veins.

The boy Theodore was born in his father's brownstone house on Twentieth Street a few steps east of Broadway on October 27, 1858. When the opening gun at Sumter was fired, he was still a baby, and the poignant four years which followed mercifully passed him by with few if any memories. But not so his father and his mother—for one was of the North and the other of the South. His father threw himself energetically into the Northern cause. He was appointed the head of a relief commission from New York, and went from camp to camp in the interests of the starving wives and children left at home. The mother, on her part, wept and prayed for the South, and secretly sent boxes of supplies to her loved ones there. The children—there were four of them in all; a sister older than Theodore, and a later sister and brother—were permitted to help in the packing of these boxes, and were cautioned not to tell their father, so it was all quite exciting and mysterious. The father, however, doubtless knew of much of this in an "unofficial" way, and there is no hint that the dissensions which rent the North and South asunder ever disturbed the relations of the Roosevelt household.

Such boxes were, of course, contraband—that is, they were sent by blockade runners, and were subject to seizure by anybody. And so the Roosevelt children invented a game which they called "Blockade." With their friends they would go to some vacant lot across which there were paths, and some of the children would be blockade runners, while others would be guards. Theodore, now six years old, was ardently "Union" even then, and always tried to guard paths and bridges.

He relates amusing incidents of this period. One day he had suffered punishment at his mother's hands for some minor offense, but when he came to say his prayers at his mother's knee at bedtime, the sense of injury still rankled.

Kneeling down, he said his prayers as usual, and then added in a loud voice:

"And God bless the Union army and I hope it will lick the Rebels!"

Fortunately his mother had a sense of humor, and only smiled at his outburst. But she warned him not to repeat his offense.

Of both his mother and his father the boy retained the tenderest memories. "My mother," he says, "was a sweet, gracious, beautiful Southern woman, a delightful companion and beloved by everybody. She was entirely 'unreconstructed' to the day of her death." By the last remark, he means that her sympathies always remained with the South.

Of his father, he is no less enthusiastic. "He was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness." One day Mr. Roosevelt had an important business meeting downtown. When he arrived there he took out of his overcoat pocket a kitten which he had found straying on the street. One of the most delightful games which the children played with him was to "hold him up" on his return home and laughingly go through his pockets; and many a treasure did they find there.

The boy's early recollections of the home itself show us one of the severely respectable New England houses so common fifty years ago. The black haircloth furniture in the dining-room scratched the bare legs of the children. The middle room was a library, with tables, chairs, and bookcases in formal array. The parlor seemed to the children a place of awe and splendor, but was open to use only on rare occasions. An odor of musty sanctity pervaded it. Its chief ornament was a huge glass chandelier decorated with a great quantity of cut-glass prisms or pendants.

"These prisms," he confesses, "struck me as possessing peculiar magnificence. One of them fell off, one day, and I hastily grabbed it and stowed it away, passing several days of furtive delight in the treasure, a delight always alloyed with fear that I would be found out and convicted of larceny."

This house adjoined an uncle's, and at the rear broad porches communicated with each other, and looking out on a double backyard—a constant joy to the children. Back and forth across the verandas young Theodore would scramble, at imminent danger of tumbling off. At first his mother was constantly uneasy. Then she sat back with the stoic philosophy that countless other mothers have found necessary.

"I am convinced that a special Providence watches over Theodore," she said resignedly. "Otherwise he would have killed himself long ago."