image of Theodore Roosevelt, (c) Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library
return to Ford
Presidential Library and Museum
The Sun Sets
Though he predicted the outcome, the election loss still came as a blow to an exhausted TR. He had “fought a great fight” for the Progressive movement and was proud of his showing at the polls. But he questioned whether the Progressive party could continue the fight.
Within a year, TR was again off on a journey, this one to South America to chart a major tributary of the Amazon River, the River of Doubt. Accompanied once again by naturalists, TR and son Kermit plunged headlong into the jungle, collecting flora and fauna. It was an arduous journey for a man no longer in his prime. A gashed leg left him with a severe infection that nearly killed him and he suffered from malaria. By the end of the seven months’ journey, TR had lost some fifty pounds and much of his vigor.
His return to America did not bring out the throngs of well-wishers that greeted him when coming back from Africa. Woodrow Wilson had become America’s darling progressive, scoring high marks in domestic affairs. TR settled down at his home, Sagamore Hill, to enjoy his children, a growing brood of grandchildren, and to write. No president before or since produced the Herculean amount of manuscripts, articles, books and letters that Roosevelt did. He published 26 books and contributed thousands of articles to magazines and newspapers. His personal correspondence was immense.
The summer of 1914 ended with the world in turmoil, as European powers clashed in what was then known as the Great War, later World War I. In its early years, President Wilson chose to keep America on the sidelines, seeking to serve as mediator rather than belligerent.
To Roosevelt, Wilson’s course demonstrated the weakness of a “prize jackass” and “peace prattler.” TR wanted the military strengthened and he found Wilson’s neutrality contemptible, “for to remain neutral between right and wrong is to serve wrong.” When the British liner Lusitania was torpedoed, killing over a thousand, many of whom were Americans, TR called for action; Wilson thinking America too proud to fight, asked Germany for an official apology.
TR let his name be brought forward as the Republican presidential candidate in 1916. In the end, he supported the party’s nominee, Charles Evans Hughes, who came close to ousting Wilson. Wilson had campaigned with the slogan, “He kept us out of the war,” but a month after his second inauguration, that boast was shattered.
As German submarines attacked American ships, Wilson requested and received from Congress a declaration of war in April 1917. TR’s martial spirit swelled, and he asked Wilson for permission to raise a division, with him at the head, to fight in Europe. Wilson denied Roosevelt another opportunity to gain glory on the battlefield, stating that the ex-president’s offer, while noble, would “seriously interfere” with recruitment for the regular army and would add “practically nothing” to the forces sent against Germany.
Despite this refusal, TR took pride that each of his four sons enlisted, while daughter Ethel volunteered as a nurse in France. Theodore Jr. and Archie were each wounded but Quentin, the youngest and most loved, perished when shot down over France. It was a terrible blow to both father and mother, but especially for TR. Not since the death of his wife Alice had Roosevelt felt such sorrow. His bodyguard said, “He was a changed man. He kept his peace, but he was eating his heart out.” The father lamented that it was “very bitter to see that good, gallant, tenderhearted boy leave life at its crest.”
The rigorous, energetic man who had evolved from a sickly child was now fading. He railed against Wilson’s conduct of the war and the plans for peace but it was the last fight left in him. On January 5, after working 11 hours in his study, Roosevelt felt ill. Retiring to bed, he asked his butler, “James, will you please put out the light?” He died in his sleep a few hours later. Son Archie cabled his brothers, “The old lion is dead.”
On January 8, 1919, the man who had
taken such joy in life was laid to rest. His words echoed his romantic
view of life. “Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die.
And none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty
of life. Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure.”