Tag Archives: Theodore Roosevelt

Book Review: A Bully Father: Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children

If you are at all familiar with me or this blog, you have figured out that I am a pretty big Theodore Roosevelt fan. Last year, our county library had their annual book sale, and I bought every biography on TR that I could find. I planned to start them in January as there were already some other books I was reading that needed to be finished. My original plan was to read a biography once a month, but unfortunately my Masters of Divinity quickly got in the way of my personal reading, and so, I just finished my first Roosevelt bio for the year.

I was so excited about reading A Bully Father: Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. It was my first pick of the year, which I began on January 1. It was not quite what I expected. Let me point out what I enjoyed, then what I was not quite thrilled about, and then I will end on a high note.

First, if you aren’t familiar with the term “Bully,” it was something that Roosevelt used like we would use “awesome” or “fantastic,” so it doesn’t mean one who pushes others around or beats someone up. That being said. . . The actual biography in this book was not at all bad. Joan Paterson Kerr, who wrote the biographical essay (80 pages), did an excellent job writing the highlights of TR’s life. For anyone who isn’t too familiar with the 26th President, but doesn’t want to wade into the waters of a more well-known bio, like Edmund Morris’s trilogy, this would be the one I would recommend. My favorite story she told of the president was when Roosevelt went up into the attic to play with his children and their friends. One young boy turned out the lights and TR banged his head on a board. He chided the children and went down to clean the blood off his forehead. When he returned, he found the boy (Looker) who turned off the lights, stuffed into a trunk with the others sitting on it. Roosevelt could hear the fear from within the trunk and ordered the children off it. “‘Suddenly the lid opened,’ Looker recalled, “and TR looked down into my face. He was quick with his handkerchief, too, wiping my face, and almost as quick to say, “He’s broken out in a sweat! The moth-balls have got into his eyes, and may them water!” This he said, to explain his wiping away the tears which I thought was fine of him,'” (pp 79-80). I think that was fine of him as well.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the book is Roosevelt’s letters to his children. In all transparency, I have not read any of Roosevelt’s letters outside this book, however, I have read much that he has written. I was hoping for some sage, fatherly advice about life or decision-making. If that is what you are seeking then you won’t find it in these letters. However, if you are looking for something to humanize the “old lion” legend that is Teddy Roosevelt, this is the book you want.  He talks about various sports, finding or receiving new pets, the death of other pets, horse-back riding, and many, many other subjects. Since I was hoping for something different, I was quite disappointed in what I received. So reader beware; know what it is you want.

However, as I stated, I want to end on a high note, as Kerr did. At the end of the book, in the Epilogue, Ms. Kerr gave a one page bio sketch of each of TR’s children, mainly dealing with their adult life, and what they accomplished or how they died. While one could easily Google this information, I enjoyed Kerr’s quick summary. It closed out the book nicely.

All in all, the book was well-written, and quite interesting. I gave it three stars on good-reads. The book itself is 255 pages, not including the acknowledgements. Published by Random House in 1995, with the Foreward by the David McCullough, the biographical sketch would be recommended to a TR newbie, but the letters themselves may be too mundane for one who is not at least moderately interested in reading his own words. Again, I could find no sage advice; nothing to live by, thus nothing like what one may come to expect from Roosevelt. Thus, I would recommend checking out the book from a library or Overdrive, but reading only the bio sketch of both the President at the beginning and the children at the end.

A Tale of Two Roosevelts

Three famous Roosevelts entered into American history in the early 20th century: Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. The Roosevelts were a wealthy and religious family, but were not keen on politics. They believed in serving the public and helping one’s neighbor, but until Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (Teddy’s father), they had tried to stay out of the political scene. However, it was TR, Sr. who served President Lincoln, and though he never encouraged Teddy to go into politics, he was inspirational to him.

That being said. . .Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. and Martha (Mittie) Bullock Roosevelt, had not one but two sons: Theodore, Jr. and Elliot (Eleanor Roosevelt’s father). Both Roosevelts had the same education. Both went on the same vacations through the Middle East and Europe. Both had the same opportunities. Both had their ailments; Theodore had horrible asthma while Elliot had seizures from time to time. Teddy however took to defeating his ailments through rigorous exercise and determination while Elliot, as Edmund Morris wrote, “when still adolescent discovered that alcohol was an effective depressant,” (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, New York: Balantine Books, 1979; pp 429-430.).

Theodore Roosevelt grew up to become an author, a New York Assemblyman, a New York city Police Commissioner, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a colonel in the army and a war hero with the Rough Riders, the Governor of New York, Vice-President of the United States, and President as well, along with seemingly endless accomplishments. Elliot literally drank himself to death, leaving behind a wife and a lonely daughter, a mistress, and a black mark upon his name. Now, if we were honest, no mere human would ever be able to live up to Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments. He is definitely one of a kind. But here is the point: two men reared by the same parents with the same opportunities went in completely different directions in life.

This is most difficult upon parents who see their children straying from what they were reared to be. It is painful to watch children abandon their upbringing for that which will be destructive. Parents hang on to Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it,” (ESV). They beat themselves up wondering if they failed to train them somewhere. Was there a moment in time that they missed an opportunity to say something or do something. Yet, in reality, no one can say for certain one way or the other. No one has an omniscient mind but God Himself.

I love what Bruce Waltke wrote about this verse.

The saying must be nuanced by others. It indicates that early, moral training has an effect on a person for good and conveys the truth that those directed or steered down the path of wisdom will be influenced by it through their life. But it does not assure that the child will embrace wisdom, because children make their own choices; they are not programmed robots. If it were otherwise, the parents’ and Lady Wisdom’s exhortation to accept wisdom would be pointless, (The NIV Zondervan Study Bible).

Over and over again, the one who reads the Proverbs will see a call for the authors’ children to heed warnings, advice, and encouragement. There are two options, personified as women: wisdom (Lady Wisdom) and foolishness (Lady Folly). Both of these women beckon for the life of every human being. Every human being has to decide which lady he shall follow. In the case of the Roosevelts, Theodore followed Wisdom while Elliot followed Folly.

Does this make watching a child wander from the truth any easier. No. That isn’t my objective. My objective is only to say that parents must consider that they may have done everything right, but the sin nature within a child led them to Folly’s door. You must consider that there was nothing more you could do. Yes, mistakes were made and perhaps opportunities missed, but we cannot change the past and we cannot control their thoughts, desires, or future. What we can do is pray, pray to the one who makes no mistakes and misses no opportunities. Pray to the one who is in control, and can change a stony heart to flesh, changing one’s desires for this wicked kingdom for the glorious kingdom of His Son. We can never presume upon God to know His thoughts or His doings.

Prayer seems like so little a thing, but it was through prayer that Israelites were saved from Pharaoh’s army. It was through prayer that the Israelites did not perish in the desert. It was through prayer that barren Hannah had a son. It was through prayer that the Apostles turned the world upside down with the gospel. Prayer does not guarantee the answer we want, but for the believer in Christ, it does guarantee that God will hear our sorrows and fears, our worries and our desperate cries. As Paul would say, “Pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, ESV).