Main Content

Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Life and Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt

The White House Christmas Ornament 2011 Historical Essay

While McKinley had been popular and had brought major changes to presidential prestige as well as the nation's world status, Theodore Roosevelt during his seven years and six months in office dramatized the presidency and its image. Both admirers and critics, in praise or scorn, would call his actions "imperial." Roosevelt's 1902 White House restoration created the idea of the residence as a stage for a world power. The White House began to impose a presidential style on the first families; and during the next century they would at times be measured according to how well they fit this modern image. Roosevelt epitomized a new breed of politician and from what he famously called the "bully pulpit," he championed a federal government strong enough to restrain the power of great personal and corporate wealth and preached a "Square Deal" that would ensure every American's right to a living wage.

Born on October 27, 1858, to a wealthy New York City family, Roosevelt was tutored at home and entered Harvard at age 17. As a boy he was frail, nearsighted, and impaired by asthma. TR was a voracious reader and interested in history and politics. By the time he became president he had established a national reputation as a scholar, publishing biographies (Thomas Hart Benton, 1887 and Gouverneur Morris, 1888) and histories (The Naval War of 1812, 1882 and the four-volume The Winning of the West, 1889–1896). Roosevelt overcame his frailty by adopting a "strenuous life" filled with a regimen of weight lifting, boxing, horseback riding, hunting, and wrestling. For the remainder of his life, he poured his boundless energy into sports, politics, scientific and historical scholarship, and building a body and mind capable of the strenuous life he craved.

On February 14, 1884, tragedy struck when both his young wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, and his mother died. Distraught and depressed, Roosevelt left his two-day-old daughter with his sister and spent the next two years on his ranch in the Badlands of Dakota Territory mastering his sorrow as he drove cattle and hunted big game. Roosevelt returned to New York and lost a bid in the 1886 mayoral election, coming in third. In December the same year, he married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow, in London. He served on the U.S. Civil Service Commission (1889–1895), the New York City Board of Police Commissioners (1895–1896), and then became assistant secretary of the Navy (1897–1898).

With the declaration of war against Spain on April 25, 1898, and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt resigned his office and formed a volunteer cavalry unit that became known as the Rough Riders. Roosevelt commanded the regiment through a brutal campaign in the hills above Santiago, Cuba, and made himself one of the most conspicuous heroes of the war leading the charge at the battle of San Juan.

After the Spanish-American War ended, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York. Two years later New York Republicans, weary of Roosevelt's energy and independent streak, arranged for his nomination as William McKinley's running mate. They thought the vice-presidency would end his political career in harmless obscurity. The twist of fate came when McKinley's assassination elevated Roosevelt to the presidency. As president, Roosevelt believed that government should be the arbiter between capital and labor, guaranteeing order and social justice to each and dispensing favors to none. He regulated large corporations, gaining the nickname "Trust Buster." In foreign policy, Roosevelt steered the United States actively away from isolationism into world politics. He likened his foreign policy to a favorite saying: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

TR's accomplishments are many. He realized the dream of constructing a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, shortening the route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. He reached a gentleman's agreement on immigration with Japan. And he sent U.S. Navy battleships—the Great White Fleet—on a goodwill tour around the world. Roosevelt left a lasting legacy in the field of conservation. He added national parks, national monuments, bird reservations, and national forests. The lands he reserved totaled 230 million acres. "The life of strenuous endeavor" was a must for those around him, as he romped with his children and led ambassadors on horseback rides and hikes through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.

Leaving the presidency in 1909, Roosevelt went on an African safari. In 1912 he lost a bid for re-election to the presidency on a progressive Bull Moose ticket. While campaigning in Milwaukee, he was shot in the chest by a fanatic. Roosevelt recovered, but his words at that time would have been applicable at his death in 1919: "No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way."


Although the Roosevelt children were famous for antics such as roller skating in the East Room and taking pony Algonquin up the elevator to Archie's bedroom to cheer him while sick, their parents were not lax. Their strict rules were to be followed by the children whether at home or at school. Christmas at the White House was a family time for rest and leisure and perhaps even the relaxation of some rules. President and Mrs. Roosevelt dearly loved their children and devoted the entire day on Christmas to their entertainment. All public business was set aside. Christmas day usually included a ride on horseback or carriage drive through Rock Creek Park, a visit to the home of local relatives, and then an intimate Christmas dinner in the State Dining Room about 7:30 p.m. One memorable Christmas season in 1903, the Roosevelts hosted a large party for more than 400 boys and girls between six and sixteen. The event featured music by the Marine Band, a pantomime and dancing, cakes and sweets of all kinds, and ice cream in the shape of Santa Claus.

President Roosevelt's description of a Christmas Day in 1905 at the White House in his Letters To His Children reflects an unpretentious celebration that began at about 7:00 a.m. with all of the children opening "big, bulgy stockings on our bed… Th en, after breakfast, we all formed up and went into the library, where bigger toys were on separate tables for the children." Th at morning President Roosevelt also arranged for the distribution of turkeys to all the married staff including clerks, policemen, gardeners, ushers, butlers, cooks, and maids.

Noticeably absent from the Roosevelt holiday traditions was a decorated family Christmas tree. The president's conservation ethic and upbringing led him to view the Christmas tree as unnecessary. However, the Roosevelt children did enjoy a decorated tree at their Aunt Anna's (Mrs. William S. Cowles) home in Washington, D.C. In 1903, Archie famously took possession of a sewing room closet and hid a tree there. In 1905, the president allowed Archie and Quentin, with the assistance of White House electricians, to have a small tree lighted by electric bulbs in their bedroom. However, simplicity marked the observance of Christmas in the Roosevelt home and there was no official family tree and decorations were modest.

After acquiring Pine Knot in Keene, Virginia, the Roosevelts would travel there after Christmas where they could relax and enjoy the privacy of the rustic surroundings before returning to the city for the New Year's Day reception that ushered in another busy winter social season.


Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1979.

Roosevelt, Theodore, Joseph Bucklin Bishop, ed., Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to His Children. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919.

Seale, William, The President's House: A History, Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2008.

Seale, William, The White House: The History of an American Idea, Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2001.


Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Highway 244, Building 31, Suite 1, Keystone, SD 57751.

Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, 12 Sagamore Hill Road, Oyster Bay, NY 11771.

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, 28 East 20th Street, New York, NY.

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, 641 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14202.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, P.O. Box 7, Medora, ND 58645.