A Walk with President Roosevelt, 1908
Living the "Strenuous Life"
Theodore Roosevelt was born a sickly child. He suffered from asthma and was prone to succumb to any contagious disease to which he was exposed. In order to maintain his health, he developed a daily regimen that emphasized energetic physical activity. Long before today’s emphasis on the relationship between good health and vigorous exercise, Roosevelt advocated a doctrine of living that he referred to as the "Strenuous Life" in order to ensure good health. He went on to expand the concept of the Strenuous Life to include not only rigorous physical exercise but a moral doctrine that emphasized hard work and taking risks to achieve success in life.
Roosevelt summarized this philosophy in a speech delivered in 1899: "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."
Roosevelt widened this personal doctrone to encompass a national policy for the United States that emphasized taking risks in foreign policy in orer to expand the political influence of America on the world stage. "Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness."
Great changes were affecting the national landscape. Waves of European immigrants accelerated a growth in population. The economy was transitioning from an agrarian to an industrial base. Simultaneously, the nation was making its first tentative steps towards establishing a place on the world-wide stage. Roosevelt’s call for the nation to live a "Strenuous Life" reflected America's self-confidence as it entered the 20th century.
Major Archie Butt was a military aide to President Rooselvelt. He describes an afternoon when the President invited him to join him for a "walk" that illustrates Roosevelt’s philosophy of living a "Strenuous Life."
"I went walking with the President this afternoon: rather I should say climbing and swimming, for there was far more of that than walking. . .
We drove from the White House at 4:15 and reached the boulder bridge near the center of the park [the present-day Rock Creek Park] in less than a half hour. I had on heavy marching shoes, leggings, and a flannel shirt. He was dressed in what appeared to me to be a handsome cutaway coat, but wore a campaign hat. I thought, therefore, that we would have a mild walk, especially as he had been laid up with his leg and Doctor Rixey had advised him to take it quietly for a while. I think this very advice inspired him to test his strength and see what his leg could endure.
|President Theodore Roosevelt horseback riding
at the Washington DC Country Club, 1902
As we got out of the carriage he dismissed it and told the two detectives who had followed us on wheels not to attempt to follow us, and so we started. We made a circuitous route through the underbrush and at length came out farther up the creek, where there were no paths and few openings to the water and many overhanging cliffs and rocks. He pushed through the brush like an Indian scout and when he got to the water's edge he began to clamber out on the ridges and overhanging rocks. Sometimes we had to pass ourselves along the outer faces of rocks with hardly enough room in the crevices for fingers or feet. Each time I made it after him he would express his delight and surprise that I had done it so nimbly. I did not tell him how each time I thought it would be my last, nor did I show the real fear I had of falling.
My chief anxiety was for him. I felt that he had no right to jeopardize his health and life as he was doing. Finally we reached one cliff that went straight up from the water, made a turn, and the ledge he would have to make hung over some very nasty and jagged projections, so that if he should fall it might prove most serious to him.
I watched his ascent, therefore, with alarm. The rocks were slippery, and just as he was on the point of making the highest point, imagine my horror when I saw him lose hold, slip, and go tumbling down. He went feet foremost fortunately, and he showed great presence of mind by shoving himself away from the rocks as he fell. Had he swerved his head would have been certain to strike some projection.
I stood paralyzed with fear. I could see what it would mean to have him meet with any accident of this kind. However, he missed all sharp projections and fell straight in the water. It was deep, but he did not go over his head, the water only reaching to his shoulders. With a laugh he clambered to the bank again and started once more. I knew that there would be no use trying to dissuade him from the effort, so I watched him with more anxiety the second time than I had felt the first time. He made it on the second trial and then came my effort. I felt so relieved about him (and I knew he felt chagrined at having fallen) that it was really a matter of indifference to me whether I went into the water or not. On the contrary, however, I went over the ridge like a cat. It was the best climb I made during the afternoon.
But his innings were coming later. We trudged on for about an hour more, sometimes crawling, sometimes climbing. Just about dark we reached a point on the creek where we had to swim it.
|Major Archie Butt, the author of this
eye-witness account, and President Taft
'Are you willing to try it?' he laughed, and plunged in
I followed. He called back to swim hard and straight, which I did, and soon we were on the other side, shivering but laughing, and then he told me how near Fitz Lee came to drowning at that point one after¬noon; that after three efforts he had refused to permit him to make another effort and made him take the detour. We then skirted the Zoo and finally came to a ledge of rocks that rose, I should say, forty feet in the air and was much higher when taken in conjunction with the sloping and rocky surface below it. He said it was dangerous and he doubted if it could be made on account of the rain and darkness. All these rocks and climbs were familiar to him, and he knew what could be done.
He started up, and to my surprise he made it. I began the ascent and got midway and could not budge another inch. I could not see anything and when I glanced below it appeared about as dangerous to go back as to try to go over. I could hear him calling from above not to attempt to follow, that it was too slippery and that it would be fatal to fall. I made one or two more efforts and then decided that I was beaten and started back. But I had better gone on. I simply had to slide down and when I reached the bottom I was pretty nearly used up. He made the detour and joined me about fifty yards further on, coming out of the precipitous jungle like a bear, but laughing and evidently buoyed up over his prowess. Indeed I felt proud of him, too. I told him how chagrined I was not to have been able to follow him.
'Never mind,' he said, "you did not fall into the water. So we are quits."
That was the only reference that had been made to the mishap.
This all sounds like hard work, doesn't it? And yet, it was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of my life."
This eyewitness account is published in: Butt, Archie, "The Letters of Archie Butt, Lawrence F. Abbot, Editor (1924); Roosevelt, Theodore, The Strenuous Life; Essays and Addresses (1900).
How To Cite This Article:
"A Walk with President Roosevelt, 1908," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2012).