TR and the power of Character

Speaking Theodore Roosevelt 1907

“The division between the worthy and the unworthy citizen must be drawn on conduct and character and not on wealth or poverty.”

Roosevelt was raised by a father who stressed that wealth provided opportunity to help others but the quality of your character was the reason to do so.  In college, “Teddy” met many people of privilege who were living off of family trusts with no desire to do anything but relax once out of college – and he loathed them.  Later, he would meet poor but able people who chose not to subscribe to hard work and he felt the same about them.  What he determined is what his father had preached: that character drives the success of a person, and success was not money, but contribution to society.

TR believed in the Strenuous life, a life of toil and work worth doing.   To him,  character was the ultimate measure of a person and he considered his own demonstration of it to others as his hallmark.  There were many people who politically he disagreed, but considered close friends because of their commitment to others and society as a whole.  Many of his actions went against the Republican party of the time, because he believed strongly that decisions were not just to appease the country for that moment, but to build a country for “your children and your children’s children”.


Theodore Roosevelt on Lincoln

The White House

The White House

Theodore Roosevelt considered Abraham Lincoln to have been one of the greatest leaders of the United States and many of his insights into leadership were formed from his reading about the 16th President.

In  a letter from his office, Roosevelt wrote:

“I am mighty glad you like what I have been doing in the governmental field.  I do not have to tell you that my great hero is Abraham Lincoln, and I have wanted while President to be the representative of the “plain people” in the sense that he was – not, of course, with the genius and power that he was, but according to my lights, along the same lines.”  – White House, June 13, 1906

To understand his perspective it is helpful to understand the Roosevelt family connection to Lincoln.  “Teddy’s” father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. was a “Lincoln Republican” and during the war between the States, he and two friends, William Earl Dodge, Jr. and Theodore B. Bronson, drew up an Allotment System, which amounted to a soldier’s payroll deduction program to support families back home. He then went to Washington, lobbied for, and won acceptance of this system, with the help of Abraham Lincoln himself.  Theodore Sr. and Mr. Dodge were appointed Allotment Commissioners from NY State. At their own expense, the two men toured all NY divisions of the Army of the Potomac in the field to explain this program and sign interested men up, with a significant degree of success. Over $1 million dollars was sent home from soldiers because of this program.

There was a sort of “mini” civil war in the Roosevelt home during the same time.  “Teddy’s” mother Mittie was raised in Georgia at a plantation where her family owned slaves.  Mittie had a personal slave companion growing up who slept at the foot of her bed.  Her brothers fought for the confederates and because of this, she requested that her husband did not joint the Union army.  Roosevelt’s father was wealthy and as it was custom of the day, paid for someone else to fight in his place to appease his wife’s wishes.   Roosevelt, Sr.  was well known by the Lincoln’s and was a favorite escort of Mrs. Lincoln when he was in Washington.

There is no actual account of young Teddy meeting President Lincoln and I believe that if he had met him, he would have spoken about it at some point is his life, given his reverence for the man.    There is a photo that many claim is  young Theodore watching from a window as the funeral procession moves past his grandfather’s home, the claim being a photo of the two Presidents together: TR and Lincoln.

Roosevelt referenced Lincoln many times in his famous speeches and the hero’s of the battlefield for both sides of the war.  Roosevelt’s comment on leadership however gives us a good insight into his perception of how a leader is made and why we regard Lincoln in high esteem.

“If there is not the war, you don’t get the great general; if there is not a great occasion, you don’t get a great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in a time of peace, no one would have known his name.”