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by William H. Benson

April 10, 2003

     Teddy Roosevelt had six kids–Alice by his first wife, and then five more–Teddy Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archie, and Quentin, by his second wife, Edith.  Four boys and two girls.  A year after the birth of Quentin, Teddy resigned his position as assistant Secretary of the Navy, and joined the army, earger to join in the war against Spain and anxious for action.

     His regiment soon was called Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.  The first battle of the war was in Tampa Bay, Florida, but not with the Spanish, but with each other over which regiment would first board the ship bound for Cuba.  Teddy and his Rough Riders won that confrontation.

     On July 1, 1898, Teddy Roosevelt lived what he later called “the greatest day of my life.”  Exposing himself recklessly on a horse he led his troops up Kettle Hill in the San Juan Highlands overlooking Santiago, Cuba.  A journalist Richard Harding Davis wrote of  that day, “No man who saw Roosevelt take that ride expected he would finish it alive.”  And yet he did.  He bent low only once–to collect spent cartridges to give later to his four sons.

     The events that day made TR a celebrity and set him off on a political career that put him in the White House when he was only forty-two years old.  For eight years, from 1901 until 1909, his six kids enjoyed the privileged life, children of the President of the United States living in the White House in the first years of the twentieth-century.

     Each of his four sons were infused with their father’s passion for righteous battle, and they understood that he had made a political fortune in his dashing charge up Kettle Hill.

     And then the boys grew up, and the Great War in Europe came.  Every one of Teddy Roosevelt’s requests to serve in the military Woodrow Wilson turned down, but each of the four boys joined, knowing that it was their duty and that their father expected them to do so.  This great European war wrecked Teddy Roosevelt’s family.

     By the time of the armistice on November 18, 1918 Theodore Jr. and Archie were both gravely wounded.  Archie soon thereafter began to exhibit signs of the mental depression that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.  Kermit saw action in France and in Mesopotamia and survived intact, but Quentin, the youngest son, at age twenty perished in an aerial combat over Chateau-Thiery in July of 1918, exactly twenty years after Teddy’s charge up Kettle Hill. 

     Theodore Jr. wrote his sister Ethel, “Quentin’s death is always going to be the greatest thing in any of our lives.”  And Ethel wrote, “I sometimes just cannot believe that all this has come to us and that never again will we be happy and young as we were, and that always there will be the pain beneath the laughter.”  Alice, the oldest, wrote, “All our lives before and after have just been bookends for the heroic, tragic volume of the Great War.”

     And yet none of them felt any tinge of regret, except TR himself, who said, “To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death, has a pretty serious side for a father.”

     He and his wife received a letter from Great Britain’s King George V and his wife Mary commisserating on their loss of Quentin, and Teddy wrote them back,  “From the moment the war began we understood that this was our war.  My son Archie volunteered to serve with the British forces in Mesopotamia.  I expected, as I found in Quentin, that my sons would go to war, and we expected something, that this might happen to us.”

     His heart breaking, Theodore Roosevelt passed away on January 5, 1919 at age sixty.

     “Speak softly, but carry a big stick” is a motto about power and its display, about male domination and aggressiveness, and about daring and adventure, of taking huge risks and watching them pay off.  But it has an ugly underside–a scene where parents bury their sons.

     In the March 17th issue of Time magazine the President is compared to TR.  “George W. Bush seems destined to be a spectacular President of some sort.  He combines the idealism of Woodrow Wilson with the bravado of Theodore Roosevelt, but these were not always their best qualities.  And he lacks the rigor, the love of learning, of either man.  There is no ballast to this administration, and we are going to war.” 


     And fathers will bury their children.