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."

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