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Documentary Review - The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014) By Ken Burns

By Edited Jun 20, 2016 0 0

Episode One

This documentary by Ken Burns consists of seven episodes detailing the lives of three Roosevelts - Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor.  The entire documentary lasts for 14 hours.  This review concerns only Episode One, which begins with the birth of Theodore Roosevelt on October 27, 1858 and ends with the day that he was sworn in as President of the United States on September 14, 1901, making him the youngest man ever to take the oath of office of the Presidency.

The narrator of this intimate history is Peter Coyote, who received a Primetime Emmy as Outstanding Narrator for his work here.


Theodore Roosevelt

                                               President Theodore Roosevelt - Wikimedia

Both Theodore Roosevelt and his fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt regarded the Constitution as a nuisance.  It was not elastic enough for them.  They each had bigger dreams.  They also belonged to different parties.  They were both children of privilege with a sense of stewardship.  They had a love for people and for politics, and had the ability to rally both men and women to their cause.  No other American family has touched so many lives. 

Both Roosevelts had things that happened to them that had to be overcome.  As a child, Theodore suffered colds, fevers, and gasped for breath.  He was an acute asthmatic.  He was not expected to live very long; he was full of fear.  His younger brother Elliott accompanied him everywhere, and helped him cope with his inner terror.


Eleanor Roosevelt

                                                           Eleanor Roosevelt - Wikimedia

Theodore’s Parents

Theodore’s father was his hero.  The senior Theodore had inherited a small fortune with a troublesome conscience which led him to become a philanthropist to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Children’s Aid Society, and many other needy organizations.

Theodore’s mother was called Mittie.  She was a southern girl who was very bright, charming and well-read.  Theodore Jr. was more like his mother than his father, whom he idolized.  Because of her southern ties, Mittie did not want her son to join the Union Army, to which he agreed.  She sent secret packages to the Confederate Army.  Theodore Sr. had bought his way out of the Army, an act which he regretted for the rest of his life.  His son was never able to understand this decision either because he regarded his father as fearless.  At the end of the Civil War, Theodore and Elliott, at ages 6 and 5, remembered watching Lincoln’s funeral passing by in their town.

Theodore’s Qualities

Theodore Jr. loved words and learning, he loved to excel, and was well-read in history and science.  He devoured books and recited poetry.  The focus was always on Theodore rather than on Elliott, although Elliott was handsome, athletic, and charming, and was considered the most likely to succeed.  Because Theodore had neither size nor strength, he took boxing lessons.  He learned how to shoot a gun when he was 14.  He was never able to conquer his asthma fully.  Life itself was an ongoing battle.

Theodore Sr.’s fortune shielded the family from the depression.  Theodore Jr. was sent to Harvard, where he had a manservant.  His friends were “the gentleman sort.”  He was such an extrovert in class that one of his professors said to him “See here, Roosevelt.  Let me talk.”

President Rutherford B. Hayes wanted to name Theodore Sr. Collector of Customs.  He did not get the job.  He collapsed three days later from cancer of the bowel.  Theodore arrived from Harvard too late to say goodbye to his father.  “He was everything to me,” he said.

The family spent their summers at Oyster Bay.  Theodore’s childhood friend and neighbor was Edith Carow.  At Oyster Bay, they ended their relationship.  Both had tempers which contributed to the break.  He went off to Maine to hunt and hike.


Franklin D. Roosevelt

                                            President Franklin D. Roosevelt - Wikimedia

Graduation from Harvard

When his father died, Theodore came into a large inheritance.  He stood 19th in his class at Harvard, and graduated Magna Cum Laude.  He had been a boxing champion at Harvard, as well as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Hasty Pudding Club, and the Porcellian Club.  Two years after he graduated, he wrote “The Naval War of 1812,” published in 1882.

At a classmate’s house, he met and fell in love with Alice Lee, and they married on October 27, 1880.  His childhood friend Edith Carow was a guest at the wedding. The newlyweds built a house in Oyster Bay which Theodore named Lee Home after his wife.

In that same month of October, James Roosevelt I, future father of Franklin D. Roosevelt, married Sara Delano when he was 56 years old and Sara was 25.  He was the epitome of an English country gentleman.  He was called Mr. James by his servants.

Politics as a Career

Theodore Roosevelt dropped his plans to become a lawyer and surprised everyone by going into politics.  People of his breeding considered politics the courser side of life.  You did not do it.  He was elected the Republican Assemblyman from the 21st District of New York in 1882.  During his tenure, he pushed for Municipal Reform Bills and denounced Jay Gould for offering bribes.  He became colorful copy for the newspapers.

Loss of Wife and Mother

Theodore’s wife Alice gave birth to a baby girl who was also named Alice.  Two days later, Alice passed away due to a kidney ailment, and within hours Theodore’s mother Mittie passed away from typhoid fever.  Theodore never spoke of his wife again.  He was devastated at the double tragedy, put his house up for sale, left the infant Alice with his sister Bamie, and struck out for the Dakota territories where he lived as a rancher and worked as a sheriff for two years.  The Badlands of North Dakota were a refuge for him.  He sank half of his fortune into the ranch.  It was a financial disaster for him.  In a huge snowstorm, most of his cattle froze to death. Nevertheless, he conquered the grief that had almost destroyed him.  It was an antidote to his Eastern trappings; he became a Westerner.  He stated “I never would have become the President of the United States if not for my time in North Dakota.”

 Marriage to Edith Carew

Theodore became engaged to his childhood friend Edith Carew two years after the death of his wife Alice.  They were married in England in 1886 and moved into Oyster Bay.  The house was now called Sagamore Hill; it was no longer Lee Home.  When Edith gave birth to a son, he was named Theodore also.  From that time on, his real home and headquarters would always be Sagamore Hill.

Theodore wrote a four-volume tome called “The History of the West.”  He campaigned for William Henry Harrison who then named him a Federal Commissioner in Washington.  He conducted probes of political appointees. He rooted out unqualified postmasters.  Grover Cleveland was so impressed with Theodore that he asked him to stay on after William Henry Harrison’s tenure.  He once stated “When I passed the White House, my heart would beat a little faster.”


The White House

                                                      The White House - MorgueFile

Theodore’s younger brother Elliott was more handsome and the more athletic of the two.  However, he drank heavily and became of unsound mind.  He got a family maid pregnant which they were able to keep out of the papers.  They had him confined to an asylum outside the city of Paris, France.  He died when he was 34, two years after his wife had died of diphtheria.  The children were orphans, one of which was Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, whom everyone called Eleanor.  The children were then raised by their grandmother.

Police Commissioner of New York City

From 1895 to 1897, Theodore Roosevelt was the Police Commissioner of New York City.  The title then was Superintendent, but was later changed to the present title of Police Commissioner.  He ordered the saloons to be shut down on Sunday which made him an unpopular Commissioner.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy

When William McKinley was elected in 1896, he appointed Theodore Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  New York politicians were happy to have the young troublemaker return to Washington.  When the battleship “Maine” blew up in Havana Harbor, Roosevelt blamed Spain.  At the time he was 39 years old and the father of six children.  He wanted to go off to war.  He left the Navy Department and was commissioned as a Lieut. Colonel in the Navy.

The Rough Riders

He formed the “Rough Riders” with one thousand horsemen from the West, and sailed for Cuba.  They stood their ground and flushed out the Spaniards.  They charged up San Juan Hill.  The Rough Riders lost 89 men that day.  Roosevelt craved for the Medal of Honor, but the Army did not like him.  They would not give him the medal.  He wrote a book entitled “The Rough Riders.”  He made himself an American hero.  He vindicated his father, and his heroic deeds opened every subsequent door for him.


Peter Coyote

                                                       Peter Coyote - Narrator - Wikimedia

 Vice President of the United States

When he ran as a Republican for Governor of New York State, he barnstormed with six Rough Riders.  He held the office for two years, and then became William McKinley’s running mate for Vice President in the election of 1900.  He traveled 22,000 miles when he ran for Vice President.

Theodore was on vacation at Sagamore Hills when he heard the news that President McKinley had been shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.  It took him 12 hours to get to Buffalo.  Arrangements were made for him to take the oath of office at the Ansley Wilcox Mansion on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo.  He was 42 years old at the time.   



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