By Mark Alpert
Question: Which U.S. president was the most prolific writer?
Answer: Teddy Roosevelt.
Surprised? According to Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman, TR wrote 37 works of biography, history, and public policy, the most notable of which was his first book, The Naval War of 1812, which was published when Roosevelt was only 24. In the popular imagination, TR is remembered as a great adventurer, but he was also an inexhaustible writer.
My wife and I have a soft spot for Teddy. About 15 years ago we joined the Theodore Roosevelt Association. We visited his childhood home, a townhouse on East 20th Street in Manhattan. (The building is actually a reconstruction of the original home, which was demolished in 1916, but it’s decorated with many of the original furnishings.) We also toured Sagamore Hill, the beautiful Long Island mansion that was Roosevelt’s home for most of his adult life and served as the Summer White House when he was president. And we trekked across the North Dakota Badlands to see the site of the cattle ranch on the Little Missouri where Teddy sought solace after the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day in 1884.
We love TR because he was an ardent conservationist, and because he was such a big-hearted optimist. His best book, in our opinion, is Letters to Kermit, a collection of the letters Teddy wrote to his second-oldest son, who was away at boarding school when his father was president. While TR struggled with the greatest issues of his day, busting trusts and building navies and negotiating peace treaties, he still found time to write chatty letters to Kermit, sometimes adorning them with charming drawings of elk and horses.
Of course, love is complicated, and as we learned more about TR — by attending conferences with historians such as Douglas Brinkley and Candice Millard — we discovered that parts of his political philosophy weren’t so appealing. He was a bit too fond of war and conquest, and he had some noxious notions about “race suicide” and America’s destiny to dominate Asia and the Pacific. For this reason, I support the recent decision to take down the statue of TR in front of the American Museum of Natural History. Because this statue shows Teddy on horseback next to an African and a Native American walking alongside his horse, it highlights his imperialist and racist attitudes. All in all, though, he was a remarkable president who certainly deserves his hallowed place on Mount Rushmore.
What’s more, the story of TR’s life is fertile ground for historical fiction. Last week, my wife and I drove up to the Adirondacks for a weeklong vacation, and while we were there we paid a special visit to the starting point of Teddy’s Midnight Ride to the Presidency.
So let’s go back to September 1901. Let’s picture President William McKinley shaking hands with the public at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. A man with his right hand wrapped in a handkerchief approaches; he’s an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, and his handkerchief hides a .32-caliber revolver. He shoots McKinley twice in the belly before being tackled by police detectives and onlookers.
McKinley is rushed to the hospital, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt hurries to Buffalo. But the operation to repair the gunshot wounds appears to be successful, and in the following days McKinley seems to get better. This is a great relief to many bigwigs in the Republican Party, who had encouraged Roosevelt to run as McKinley’s Vice President the year before partly because they’d wanted to stow him in a position where he would have no practical power. (TR greatly upset some of those bigwigs during his earlier stint as New York’s governor.)
Once it looked like McKinley would recover, Teddy — who could never sit still for very long — decided to go hiking in the Adirondacks. He went to a tiny village called Tahawus, which is also the Native American name for nearby Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York. (The name means “cloud-splitter.”) Roosevelt set off to climb Mt. Marcy with a few companions, while his second wife Edith and their children remained at the McNaughton Cottage in the village.
Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, McKinley took a turn for the worse. Gangrene festered inside him. The president’s advisers sent a telegram to Tahawus, urging TR to return to Buffalo as quickly as possible, but the vice president was off the grid, camping somewhere in the High Peaks. A band of wilderness guides dashed into the woods to find him, firing their guns as they neared Mt. Marcy. Teddy heard the gunfire and guessed that someone was looking for him. After rendezvousing with the guides, he swiftly hiked down the mountain and reached the village of Tahawus long after nightfall. He couldn’t spend the night with his family at the McNaughton Cottage; instead, he embarked on a desperate 35-mile ride, traveling on muddy roads in horse-drawn buckboard wagons to the town of North Creek, the closest train station. He arrived there at 4:46 a.m. and learned that McKinley was dead. At some point during that midnight ride, TR had become president of the United States.
Today, Tahawus is an Adirondack ghost town. Nothing remains except a few abandoned blast furnaces (the area had been an iron-mining site in the mid-19th century) and the boarded-up McNaughton Cottage, which has been purchased by a preservation group that’s in the process of restoring it. After some poking around, my wife and I found the cottage (see photo above). We also hiked the same wilderness trail that TR used, passing the place where the Hudson River pours down from Henderson Lake (see photo below).
It was inspiring and gratifying to visit yet another place that was important to Teddy Roosevelt. Someday, maybe, I’ll write a piece of fiction that reimagines one of his adventures. But not yet. Even after all these years of studying his life, I feel like I’m still getting to know the man.