Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden

The Last Trail

The ship bearing Roosevelt back to New York reached there the middle of May, 1914. A few short weeks later found Europe in the throes of World War, while a menacing cloud hung over this country.

Although far from a well man, Roosevelt saw the perils which confronted America. In a series of speeches and magazine articles he pleaded preparedness, military and naval. It was the old doctrine he had so often expounded, but still it fell upon deaf ears. The administration at Washington sedulously avoided even the appearance of warlike measures; and President Wilson was re-elected, in 1916, with the rallying cry, "He kept us out of war!"

Even with the sinking of the Lusitania  no move was outwardly made to rebuke Germany, beyond an exchange of diplomatic notes. Roosevelt protested with all his power. He insisted upon our making ready without delay for the contest that would be forced upon us.

"There must not be merely preparedness in things material," he cried, "there must be preparedness in soul and mind. To prepare a great army and navy without preparing a national spirit would avail nothing."

It seems strange now, as we look at the Great War in retrospect, that Roosevelt should have become unpopular with many classes of people for such sentiments; but he was. The German-American newspapers bitterly attacked him as a fomenter of strife, and many American papers and people followed their lead. They did not know until afterwards that it was propaganda of the most insidious kind. In those first months of war the one man in America whom Germany feared most was Theodore Roosevelt. They would have assassinated him, if they had dared.

When the national election for President came around in 1916, the Progressive party again nominated him; but realizing the need of a united front for preparedness, he declined to run on an opposition ticket, and announced his intention of supporting Charles E. Hughes, the Republican candidate, which he did.

Wilson was re-elected on a peace program, but the maelstrom of war was too strong for America. We were sucked in, in the early days of 1917. Then—and not till then—did the country awake and set itself the feverish task of preparing for war.

Roosevelt did not stop to say, "I told you so!" This was no time for fault-finding or recriminations; it was the time for action. The day on which the German ambassador was handed his passports, Roosevelt asked permission to raise a division of volunteers. Already, two hundred thousand men had asked to serve under his command. The War Department, however, declined his offer. They preferred to organize all troops under regular army officers. The days of the old Rough Riders were passed.

"I am the only man in the United States who is denied the privilege of going to war," said he. But he derived some consolation from the fact that all four of his sons saw active service. Two were wounded, and a third, Quentin, laid down his life.

During the months of active preparation before we sent any troops overseas, Roosevelt's zeal for action led him to attack the administration more than once. Here again he alienated himself from many friends, who felt that now of all times the country must bear a united front. That some mistakes were bound to be made was only natural; and Roosevelt laid himself open to being called "a public scold" through his continual criticism of the War and the Navy Departments. Some even accused him of ulterior motives—of using the war to "play politics"—but none who knew his patriotic sincerity believed this.

Roosevelt cared little what people thought or said about him personally. He believed that he spoke for the public conscience, and he went ahead, writing, speaking, traveling—not sparing his own strength any more than if he were fighting on the other side in the trenches. That he did speed up action on this side is undoubted. None knew, however, at what a cost to his own health.

The Brazilian fever had not entirely left him. Then a sudden breakdown early in 1918 warned him of his physical condition. He was taken to the Roosevelt Hospital in New York suffering from a complication of diseases. The middle compartments of his ears were affected, and an immediate operation was necessary. The chances of recovery were slight, he was frankly told.

"There are certain things I should like to live for," Roosevelt said, shutting his teeth. "I should like to see my boys come back from France. I should like to see my country win this war. But if I can't all right, Doctor—go ahead!"

The surgeon went ahead, and the sick man recovered. It seems incredible, but a few weeks later he was completing a speaking tour in the West! Those who had called him a superman were not far wrong!

He spent that year of 1918 in harness—still working, talking, writing on pressing public questions—except for the days when fever or inflammatory rheumatism proved too much for him. Although still a man not old in years, the threescore summers and winters that he had lived had been crammed with enough action to make a century for most men. And now Time the inexorable was swinging his scythe.

The boys came home from war—all save that youngest son whose grave was near the frontier of France. Again the family fore-gathered and there was a fine, old-time Christmas at Sagamore Hill. The Armistice had been declared; the world was at peace; and now as the Colonel looked around at his reunited family circle, he felt that there was yet much to live for. He may have recalled the words of the poet, Browning,

"I was ever a fighter so—one fight more,

The best and the last!"

This new fight, he resolved, should be for Americanism. He foresaw already the danger of Bolshevism and other foreign influences as an aftermath of war. The "hyphenated" Americans had proved a menace in war; and they were still a menace.

On the evening of January 5, 1919, a great meeting of the American Defense Society was held in the Hippodrome, New York, and he as its honorary president, though unable to attend, sent this message:

"There must be no sagging back in the fight for Americanism merely because the war is over. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile. We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language . . . and we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people."

That was Theodore Roosevelt's last public message; it was the reaffirmation of his own lifetime creed.

Not feeling entirely well, he spent the evening quietly at home with his family. As he looked around the big, cheery library ornamented with trophies of the chase; then at his books waiting like old friends to welcome him; and as he listened to the laughter and conversation of his family circle, he sighed contentedly. World-traveler though he was, it was good to be home.

About eleven o'clock he laid aside his book and bade the others goodnight.

"Please put out the light, James," he said to his old body servant, when ready to retire.

These were his last words. The next morning at dawn they found that he had passed away peacefully while asleep.

A memorable cartoon published in a New York paper, a few days later, represented Fame as a woman sculptor chiseling the record of his life upon a granite tablet. Under the name ROOSEVELT she had inscribed: Biographer, Historian, Ranchman, Lawmaker, Sportsman, Naturalist, Explorer, Statesman. Underneath these words, in bold letters which dwarfed the rest, she was cutting the most important word of all, AMERICAN.

These who words come nearer to summing up his career than volumes of biography. If he had chosen his own epitaph we believe he would have chosen these words with which he is associated in the minds and hearts of his countrymen to-day; they sound the keynote of his birthplace in New York preserved as a lesson in patriotism to future generations; the re-echo at his grave at Oyster Bay, a shrine to thousands who come in silent tribute.