In death, Theodore Roosevelt was just as eccentric as he was in life; his coffin rested on a bed of lion skins, the walls were covered with stars and stripes and Rough Rider flags, and the room was filled with the exotic scent of Brazilian mimosas.
After the president passed away in 1919 — just 10 years after he left the White House — he was hailed as one of the greatest presidents of all time, a notion that remains today.
But despite the high praise in his final years, he preferred the moniker “Colonel Roosevelt.” That’s where Edmund Morris’ latest book, the final installment in a three-volume series about the former president, derived its name.
It’s a fitting title for a man who set out to make a new legacy for himself after his celebrated presidency came to an end. In fact, Roosevelt spent the last decade of his life leading African expeditions, hunting wild animals and exploring the Amazon.
But “Colonel,” which chronicles TR’s life from 1910 to 1920, doesn’t just read like an adventure book, although the descriptions of his expeditions are wildly vivid and entertaining. Morris also covers some of the greatest battles in Roosevelt’s life, including an unsuccessful bid for a second term, conflict with and contempt for his successors, and several assassination attempts.
Perhaps his greatest battle was trying to establish a new, post-presidency identity. As Morris demonstrates throughout his first two books, Roosevelt had big shoes to fill, even if those shoes were his own. He had been a leader of the progressive movement, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and an innovator in U.S. foreign policy. He therefore struggled to determine who he would be after he no longer called the White House home.
But Morris seems to grapple with the same identity crisis in “Colonel,” as conflicting images of Roosevelt appear throughout the 600-page book. Was Roosevelt truly a champion of the rights of the working class or did he actually look down “with aristocratic fastidiousness” on “poor whites, and at the dreg level, imported coolies, reservation Indians and disenfranchised blacks,” as Morris suggests?
Another central theme is that after his presidency, TR continued to keep America’s best interests at heart by pushing for workers’ rights and early intervention in World War I. But through his outspoken criticism of President Woodrow Wilson, whom Roosevelt described as an “absolutely selfish, cold-blooded and unpatriotic rhetorician,” it is evident that the former president might have just been reluctant to step out of the limelight and bitter about his loss in the election against Wilson.
Even if Morris doesn’t make up his mind about Roosevelt’s character in the last decade of his life, one thing that’s clear is that TR is one of the most interesting presidents in American history. Morris brings his biography to life through an extensive use of primary sources, including Roosevelt’s own writings: He kept diaries, wrote thousands of letters and even created nature guides.
It was difficult for the nation to watch the great Colonel fall ill in his final years. Morris even suggests he may have “died from a broken heart,” because he lost one of his sons in battle after the United States entered the war. But even in his old age, he remained a powerful and influential figure, and people still cared what he had to say. Right up until his death, Roosevelt continued to live up to his own adage, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”