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Theodore Roosevelt - and the Strenuous Life

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858 in New York City.  This week will mark one hundred and fifty years since his birth.

As a boy, Teddie, as he was called by his family, had severe asthma.   According to his biography on the National Park Service Web site, “Theodore, Sr. would take Teddie out for rides in the family carriage to try to force air into the boy's lungs” during the nights when the attacks were the worst.

When Teddie was about 13 years old, his father told him, "You have the mind but you have not the body. You must make your body."  His father had a gymnasium built in their home for the children to use.  While frail as a child, Roosevelt lifted weights and exercised to build strength and stamina.  He was successful enough that he served in the cavalry as a “roughrider” and became a hero after charging up San Juan and Kettle Hills in Cuba.

While in his 20s, Roosevelt traveled to the Dakota Territory.  There, he lived the rugged outdoor life, learning to rope, ride, and survive in the wilderness. Roosevelt came to believe that the strong individualism of Americans was due in part to the western frontier.  He also believed that, without this western wilderness experience, he would never have become president.

Theodore Roosevelt, who came to believe that a full life was one of tests, challenges, and growth, gave a speech at the Hamilton Club in Chicago Illinois in the spring of 1898 titled “The Strenuous Life.”

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

This speech provided many arguments for working hard and overcoming adversities.  He correlated a healthy individual to a healthy nation.  “In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up can lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them.”

Roosevelt challenged individuals “not for the life of ease but for the life of strenuous endeavor.”  He lived this idea out in his own life, often hunting and riding, spending a large portion of his time in the outdoors.

When President William McKinley died in 1901, Roosevelt became the nation’s youngest president at age 42.  He became known as known as a reformer, a trust buster and a conservationist.  While president, he added more than 125 million acres of national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries.

This quest for a strenuous life appears to be on the wane in America.  Rather than embracing the strenuous life, we appear to be on a quest for the easy life.  John Rosemond’s October 14, 2008 article reflects this quest for the easy life by parents for their children.   “There’s a thin line between being involved and being interested, supportive, and encouraging,” he writes.

“Once upon a not-so-long-ago time in America, responsible parents kept tabs on but were not involved with their children. They knew the where, what, and with whom of their children’s lives... letting their kids learn their various lessons by trial-and-error, traditionally known as the ‘hard way.’”

Rosemond argues that parental involvement inhibits children’s growth and development. Parents who are involved prevent their children from learning to recover and navigate their lives via trial and error.  This results in ever more dependent children and in increasingly frustrated adults who often, incorrectly, attach their feelings of self worth to their children’s performance.

He concludes that the involved parent is “bad for parents, bad for children, bad for families (obviously), and for all those reasons, bad for America.” 

Just a few years prior to Roosevelt’s Strenuous Life speech, Booker T. Washington spoke to the same club, noting, “The greatest injury that slavery did my people was to deprive them of that great executive power, that sense of self-dependence which are the glory and the distinction of the Anglo-Saxon race.  For 250 years we were taught to depend on someone else for food, clothing, shelter and for every move in life.”

Rosemond might argue that this injustice has spread to children of all races.  We have moved from an interested to an involved society, never allowing anyone to learn the lessons of life, nor live the strenuous life, but instead are ever dependent on someone else.

Possibly in celebration and in honor of Theodore Roosevelt’s life, we should once again strive to live out the doctrine of the strenuous life.

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