Theodore Roosevelt at Harvard

The CRIMSON wishes to thank Robert H. Haynes, assistant librarian of the college library, for his help in gathering the materials for this feature. Tomorrow there will be an article on FDR at Harvard.

So many legends have grown up around Theodore Roosevelt that it is hard to sift fact from fiction. A host of friends, classmates, and distant admirers have felt obliged to produce anecdotes about this "locomotive in human pants," thus swelling the collection of stories over the years.

"Every shred of testimony relating to Roosevelt will increase in value with time," Richard Welling wrote in 1920, "and blame will surely attach to his classmates if their only excuse for silence is modesty, provided only the incidents described are characteristic."

The trouble is, the anecdotes are only too characteristic, but of doubtful veracity. Distant acquaintances tend to recall incidents which may not have happened at all, or may have happened to someone other than Roosevelt. And two or more memories, clouded with the passing years, often reconstruct the same events in differing form.

If the historian can make any safe generalization about Roosevelt's years at Harvard, it is probably this: T. R. was very different from his fellow students. He was, as Henry F. Pringle noted in his Pulitzer-prize-winning biography, a "fish in a strange pond"--his tastes, his energy, and his enthusiasm set him off from his fellows.

In Scribner's Monthly for July, 1876, Horace E. Scudder wrote this description of the University: "That repression or even disdain of enthusiasm, that emulation of high-bred cynicism and arrogant coolness, which in a young man do not be-token the healthiest, strongest character, is prevalent. The divine fervor of enthusiasm is openly, or by implication, voted a vulgar thing."

Three months later Theodore Roosevelt entered Harvard as a freshman, and proceeded to spend four years violating the Scudder stereotype. On a supposedly cynical and disdainful campus, he quickly became known for his energy and enthusiasm.

Some of his classmates found this energy offensive. Though his exuberance made Roosevelt a formidable opponent in argument, many friends thought it embarrassing. When Bradley Gilman saw Roosevelt arguing with two freshmen in the corridor of Memorial Hall, he remarked in amazement: "I was struck by the earnestness with which he was setting forth some point to the other two. He emphasized his points by vigorous movements of the head, and by striking his right first into his left palm."

Those who avoided arguing with him found other cause for offense. His over-effusive greetings from half-way across the Yard were generally considered in poor taste. And the Rev. Sherrard Billings, another classmate, observed: "When it was not considered good form to move at more than a walk, Roosevelt was always running."

In athletics, however, T.R.'s energy served him well, for it brought him somewhat closer to his fellows. Though not a great, or even a good college athlete, Roosevelt had taken to exercise to build up his asthma-weakened body. Endurance became a fetich with him, and he took great pride in outdoing his friends.

Endurance Contest

Richard Welling, a strength-and-health-minded classmate, recalls that the two often had endurance contests. One occurred when they were skating on a bitterly cold afternoon at Fresh Pond. Their hands, ears, and toes were painfully cold, the ice was rough, and they were both poor skaters. There was no chance for a good talk, but Roosevelt kept saying, "Isn't this perfectly bully?" Not to be outdone, Welling had to agree. "I gritted my teeth," Welling said later, "resolved not to be the first to quit. It took every ounce of grit in me. One hour we skated or scuffled about, then a second hour, and not until well on into the third, with obvious regret, did he suggest home."

Roosevelt did not participate on any college teams, but he gained local fame for his boxing exploits. He entered several college boxing tournaments, and though only moderately successful, his obvious courage and determination won him a small following.

Sometimes Roosevelt's fighting was impromptu. Frederic Almy, his class secretary, recalls that during a torchlight procession in the Hayes-Tilden presidential campaign a bystander on the sidewalk said something derogatory. The impulsive Teddy threupon, recording to Almy, "reached out and laid the mucker flat."

But the best remembered of the Roosevelt boxing stories center around two matches he had in a lightweight tournament at the Harvard gym in March, 1879. He won his first match, and also won the crowd with one of those chivalrous acts which sporting fans love. When the referee called "Time," Roosevelt immediately dropped his hands, but the other man dealt him a savage blow in the face. The spectators shouted "Foul, foul!" and hissed, but Roosevelt is supposed to have cried out "Hush! He didn't hear."

In his second match, he met Charley Hanks. They both weighed about 135 pounds, but Hanks was two or three inches taller and had a much longer reach. Roosevelt was also nearsighted, which made it hard for him to see and parry Hanks' blows. "When time was called after the last round," one spectator recalls, "his face was dashed with blood and he was much winded; but his spirit did not flag, and if there had been another round, he would have gone into it with undiminished determination."

From this contest sprang the legend that Roosevelt boxed with his eyeglasses lashed to his head, but some thirty years later T.R. said, "People who believe that must think me utterly crazy; for one of Charley Hanks' blows would have smashed my eyeglasses and probably blinded me for life."

In many men, energy and enthusiasm are defects, for they overflow in all directions at once, and succeed in accomplishing nothing. But one of Roosevelt's greatest assets was his remarkable power of concentration. President Eliot recalls that "the intellectual power which most attracted the attention of his companions and teachers was an extraordinary capacity for concentrating every faculty on the work at hand, whether it were reading, writing, listening, or boxing. Thus he would read by himself in a room half-filled with noisy students without having his attention distracted even for an instant; indeed, he would make no answer to questions addressed directly to him, and did not seem to hear them."

Like many energetic young men, T.R. was a bit of a rebel, and refused to knuckle under completely to the academic grind at Harvard. He read voraciously, but for information, not for exams. He became absorbed in certain areas of the curriculum, and tended to ignore the rest. As he noted in his autobiography, "I worked drearily at the Gracchi because I had to; my conscientious and much-to-be-pitied professor dragging me through the theme by main strength, with my feet firmly planted in dull and totally idea-proof resistance."

T.R.'s school record shows that he was not an even scholar, but did well in those courses which interested him, and not so well in others. He refused to bow down to the college fetich of classical studies. Even on his entrance examinations, he appears to have chosen that course of requirements which contained the minimum of classics and the maximum of mathematics, for on the freshman rank list he is among the very few members of the class who were in the advanced section in the latter subject. He took one third of his courses in the modern languages, and a large number of courses in natural history.

Phi Beta Kappa

Though not an outstanding scholar, Roosevelt did well enough to make Phi Beta Kappa, and probably could have done even better had he tried harder in subjects he considered boring. His best marks came in natural history, where he consistently scored in the high eighties or nineties. His only flunks came in Greek (58) and French 4 (51). His averages for each of his four years here were competent, but not spectacular--75, 87, 82, and 78. He did not write a thesis for honors, but he gained the final ranking of 21st in a graduating class of 161. This was quite an achievement for the boy who had barely squeaked by the entrance barrier four years before, and had been "conditioned" in three subjects--Greek poetry, plane trigonometry, and botany.

In eagerly pursuing his academic interests, Roosevelt shocked many of his apathetic classmates. At a Pudding show in 1880, George Pellew, class poet, strummed the spirit of Harvard on his lyre:

We deem it narrow-minded to excel.

We call the man fanatic who applies

His life to one grand purpose till he dies.

Enthusiasm sees one side, one fact;

We try to see all sides, but do not act.

...We long to sit with newspapers unfurled,

Indifferent spectators of the world.

Yet spectate the exuberant Roosevelt could not. He continually participated in class discussions, and insisted on arguing with his professors. He was not content to let words of wisdom wash lightly over him from the lectern. His persistent questions and protests once so exasperated his science professor, Nathaniel Shaler, that the latter exploded, "See here, Roosevelt, let me talk. I'm running this course."

Eventually Roosevelt felt so frus- trated with the academics that he concentrated most of his energy on studying independently. Though he did not study history formally, and did almost no writing for course credit, he started work his senior year on a History of the American Navy in the War of 1812, which was published within three years after he graduated. He might have written a good thesis on the subject, but he seems to have preferred to work on it alone.

His main studious interests at Harvard lay in the field of natural history. The most conspicuous things in his room were his rifle, his hunting kit, and his trophies of the chase. He always had live turtles and insects in his study, and Mark Sullivan recalls "the excitement caused by a particularly large turtle, sent by a friend from the southern seas, which got out of its box one night and started toward the bathroom in search of water."

His naturalistic urges generally found expression outside the curriculum. He made numerous trips to the Maine woods with Bill Sewall, a famous guide who was to remain his friend long after he entered the White House. But he disagreed so violently with Harvard's laboratory methods of pursuing the natural sciences, that he did not write a thesis or take honors in the field.

"I fully intended to make science my life-work," he said in his autobiography. "I did not, for the simple reason that at that time Harvard, and I suppose our other colleges, utterly ignored the possibilities of the faunal naturalist, the outdoor naturalist and observer of nature. They treated biology as purely a science of the laboratory and the microscope, a science whose adherents were to spend their time in the study of minute forms of marine life or else in section-cutting and the study of the tissues of the higher organisms under the microscope."

Roosevelt's enormous energy found a new outlet in the fall of his junior year--Miss Alice Hathaway Lee of Chestnut Hill. He courted her as energetically as he did everything else which interested him. "See that girl?" he had said at a Pudding function. "I am going to marry her. She won't have me, but I am going to have her."

Alice Alarmed

Mutual friends recall that the gentle Alice, alarmed by the impetuous, eager young Theodore, sometimes attempted to discourage him. On these occasions, T. R. would be plunged into despair. Pringle reports that one night during the first winter of the courtship an alarmed classmate telegraphed to New York that Roosevelt was somewhere in the woods near Cambridge and refused to come home. A close cousin, who hurried up, managed somehow to soothe him; and soon his confidence returned.

T. R. subordinated all else to his courtship. He neglected his extracurricular activities, and his interest in the natural sciences waned. He wrote to his good friend Harry Minot, who had accompanied him on many a naturalist expedition, that he had done almost no collecting in the summer of 1879. In 1880, he added: "I write to you to announce my engagement to Miss Alice Lee; but do not speak of it till Monday. I have been in love with her for nearly two years now, and have made everything subordinate to winning her; so you can perhaps understand a change in my ideas as regards science, etc."

Even when engaged, however, T. R. found no peace of mind. Whenever a male so much as talked to his fiancee, he worried. "Roosevelt," one of Alice's family recalled, "seemed constantly afraid that someone would run off with her, and threatened duels and everything else. On one occasion he actually sent abroad for a pair of French dueling pistols, and after great difficulty got them through the Custom House."

He actually had little reason to worry, for Alice had long since collapsed under his devastating attack and idolized him completely. They were married the October after his graduation. She was to die in 1884 during childbirth.

If Roosevelt's incredible energy marked him off from the rest of his fellows, his aristocratic tendencies served to widen the gulf. He took private rooms at No. 16 Winthrop Street, a house which stood at the northeast corner of the present IAB. He did this for two reasons--his health was still not perfect, and only damp first-floor rooms were available in the Yard; and he liked seclusion for working on his natural history specimens and his historical writing. Even though friends sought to bring him into student society, he retained his private rooms throughout his college years.

Nor did he eat in Memorial Hall with the student body. He joined a dining club of about eight students, who got together for meals at Mrs. Wilson's on Brattle Street. His dining companions were chiefly from Boston society, with one or two from New York.

Numerous stories have been circulated concerning T. R.'s aristocratic leanings, but most of them may well be legend. Dispute still rages as to whether or not he owned the first dogcart in Cambridge.

'Hair in Curls'

Owen Wister recalls, however, that a song written for the 1879 Dickey show referred to Roosevelt as "awful smart, with waxed mustache and hair in curls." Indeed, the Roosevelt of his college days looked nothing like the portly president of the 1900's. He was thin-faced and anemic, and had not yet developed the much-caricatured prominent teeth and jaw of his later years. He also wore reddish whiskers, carefully nurtured, which caused amusement in the Yard.

There are some indications that Roosevelt was not only remote, but was actually considered a queer youth. William Roscoe Thayer, a class behind T. R., could see none of the "charm that he developed later ...he was a good deal of a joke... active and enthusiastic and that was all." A contemporary Boston debutante noted that he was "studious, ambitious, eccentric--not the sort to appeal at first."

With his social background, however, Roosevelt gained acceptance, at least in the clubbie set. He climbed the social terraces at Harvard--the Dickey, the Hasty Pudding, and that loftiest of social honors, the Porcellian. But he must have been a somewhat unorthodox club member. One day he took Alice Lee to lunch at the "Porc," never before polluted by the presence of a woman. "The luncheon with Alice," Pringle notes, "caused manly indignation in the breasts of fellow members, and the true Porcellian man will deny even now that it ever could have happened."

His Other Activities

Roosevelt also joined a slew of college activities on which he spent relatively little time. His wide range of interests is shown by his membership in the Advocate, the Natural History Society, of which he was vice-president, the Art Club, the Finance Club, the Glee Club (associate member), the Harvard Rifle Corps, the O. K. Society (a group of Advocate editors), and the Harvard Athletic Association, of which he was steward.

Strangely enough, Roosevelt did not stand out at Harvard in two areas of his later success--public speaking and writing. He got two of his worst grades in forensics, he never practiced debating, and he seldom wrote for publication.

In the light of Roosevelt's later