Excerpts from Chapter II of "Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography" (1914)

Journal of Manly Arts
Jan 2002

Teddy Roosevelt

LOOKING back, a man really has a more objective feeling about himself as a child than he has about his father or mother. He feels as if that child were not the present he, individually, but an ancestor; just as much an ancestor as either of his parents. The saying that the child is the father to the man may be taken in a sense almost the reverse of that usually given to it. The child is father to the man in the sense that his individuality is separate from the individuality of the grown-up into which he turns. This is perhaps one reason why a man can speak of his childhood and early youth with a sense of detachment.

Having been a sickly boy, with no natural bodily prowess, and having lived much at home, I was at first quite unable to hold my own when thrown into contact with other boys of rougher antecedents. I was nervous and timid. Yet from reading of the people I admired-ranging from the soldiers of Valley Forge, and Morgan's riflemen, to the heroes of my favorite stories-and from hearing of the feats performed by my Southern forefathers and kinsfolk, and from knowing my father, I felt a great admiration for men who were fearless and who could hold their own in the world, and I had a great desire to be like them.

Until I was nearly fourteen I let this desire take no more definite shape than day-dreams. Then an incident happened that did me real good. Having an attack of asthma, I was sent off by myself to Moosehead Lake. On the stage-coach ride thither I encountered a couple of other boys who were about my own age, but very much more competent and also much more mischievous. I have no doubt they were good-hearted boys, but they were boys! They found that I was a foreordained and predestined victim, and industriously proceeded to make life miserable for me. The worst feature was that when I finally tried to fight them I discovered that either one singly could not only handle me with easy contempt, but handle me so as not to hurt me much and yet to prevent my doing any damage whatever in return.

The experience taught me what probably no amount of good advice could have taught me. I made up my mind that I must try to learn so that I would not again be put in such a helpless position; and having become quickly and bitterly conscious that I did not have the natural prowess to hold my own, I decided that I would try to supply its place by training. Accordingly, with my father's hearty approval, I started to learn to box. I was a painfully slow and awkward pupil, and certainly worked two or three years before I made any perceptible improvement whatever. My first boxing-master was John Long, an ex-prize-fighter. I can see his rooms now, with colored pictures of the fights between Tom Hyer and Yankee Sullivan, and Heenan and Sayers (EN1), and other great events in the annals of the squared circle.

On one occasion, to excite interest among his patrons, he held a series of "championship" matches for the different weights, the prizes being, at least in my own class, pewter mugs of a value, I should suppose, approximating fifty cents. Neither he nor I had any idea that I could do anything, but I was entered in the lightweight contest, in which it happened that I was pitted in succession against a couple of reedy striplings who were even worse than I was. Equally to their surprise and to my own, and to John Long's, I won, and the pewter mug became one of my most prized possessions. I kept it, and alluded to it, and I fear bragged about it, for a number of years, and I only wish I knew where it was now. Years later I read an account of a little man who once in a fifth-rate handicap race won a worthless pewter medal and joyed in it ever after. Well, as soon as I read that story I felt that that little man and I were brothers.

This was, as far as I remember, the only one of my exceedingly rare athletic triumphs which would be worth relating. I did a good deal of boxing and wrestling in Harvard, but never attained to the first rank in either, even at my own weight. Once, in the big contests in the Gym, I got either into the finals or semi-finals, I forgot which; but aside from this the chief part I played was to act as trial horse for some friend or classmate who did have a chance of distinguishing himself in the championship contests.

Roosevelt wrestling the railways
Roosevelt Grapples With the Railways Commission

When obliged to live in cities, I for a long time found that boxing and wrestling enabled me to get a good deal of exercise in condensed and attractive form. I was reluctantly obliged to abandon both as I grew older. I dropped the wrestling earliest. When I became Governor, the champion middleweight wrestler of America happened to be in Albany, and I got him to come round three or four afternoons a week (EN2). Incidentally I may mention that his presence caused me a difficulty with the Comptroller, who refused to audit a bill I put in for a wrestling-mat, explaining that I could have a billiard-table, billiards being recognized as a proper Gubernatorial amusement, but that a wrestling-mat symbolized something unusual and unheard of and could not be permitted. The middleweight champion was of course so much better than I was that he could not only take care of himself but of me too and see that I was not hurt-for wrestling is a much more violent amusement than boxing. But after a couple of months he had to go away, and he left as a substitute a good-humored, stalwart professional oarsman. The oarsman turned out to know very little about wrestling. He could not even take care of himself, not to speak of me. By the end of our second afternoon one of his long ribs had been caved in and two of my short ribs badly damaged, and my left shoulder-blade so nearly shoved out of place that it creaked. He was nearly as pleased as I was when I told him I thought we would "vote the war a failure" and abandon wrestling. After that I took up boxing again. While President I used to box with some of the aides, as well as play single-stick with General Wood. (EN3) After a few years I had to abandon boxing as well as wrestling, for in one bout a young captain of artillery cross-countered me on the eye, and the blow smashed the little blood-vessels. Fortunately it was my left eye, but the sight has been dim ever since, and if it had been the right eye I should have been entirely unable to shoot. Accordingly I thought it better to acknowledge that I had become an elderly man and would have to stop boxing. I then took up jiu-jitsu for a year or two (EN4).

Edgren cartoon
A cartoon by Robert Edgren, circa 1904

When I was in the Legislature and was working very hard, with little chance of getting out of doors, all the exercise I got was boxing and wrestling. A young fellow turned up who was a second-rate prize-fighter, the son of one of my old boxing teachers. For several weeks I had him come round to my rooms in the morning to put on the gloves with me for half an hour. Then he suddenly stopped, and some days later I received a letter of woe from him from the jail. I found that he was by profession a burglar, and merely followed boxing as the amusement of his lighter moments, or when business was slack.

Naturally, being fond of boxing, I grew to know a good many prize-fighters, and to most of those I knew I grew genuinely attached. I have never been able to sympathize with the outcry against prize-fighters. The only objection I have to the prize ring is the crookedness that has attended its commercial development. Outside of this I regard boxing, whether professional or amateur, as a first-class sport, and I do not regard it as brutalizing. Of course matches can be conducted under conditions that make them brutalizing. But this is true of football games and of most other rough and vigorous sports. Most certainly prize-fighting is not half as brutalizing or demoralizing as many forms of big business and of the legal work carried on in connection with big business. Powerful, vigorous men of strong animal development must have some way in which their animal spirits can find vent. When I was Police Commissioner I found (and Jacob Riis will back me up in this) that the establishment of a boxing club in a tough neighborhood always tended to do away with knifing and gun-fighting among the young fellows who would otherwise have been in murderous gangs. Many of these young fellows were not naturally criminals at all, but they had to have some outlet for their activities. In the same way I have always regarded boxing as a first-class sport to encourage in the Young Men's Christian Association. I do not like to see young Christians with shoulders that slope like a champagne bottle. Of course boxing should be encouraged in the army and navy. I was first drawn to two naval chaplains, Fathers Chidwick and Rainey, by finding that each of them had bought half a dozen sets of boxing-gloves and encouraged their crews in boxing.

Boxing Club
A boxing club in 1889

When I was Police Commissioner, I heartily approved the effort to get boxing clubs started in New York on a clean basis. Later I was reluctantly obliged to come to the conclusion that the prize ring had become hopelessly debased and demoralized, and as Governor I aided in the passage of and signed the bill putting a stop to professional boxing for money. This was because some of the prize-fighters themselves were crooked, while the crowd of hangers-on who attended and made up and profited by the matches had placed the whole business on a basis of commercialism and brutality that was intolerable. I shall always maintain that boxing contests themselves make good, healthy sport. It is idle to compare them with bull-fighting; the torture and death of the wretched horses in bull-fighting is enough of itself to blast the sport, no matter how great the skill and prowess shown by the bull-fighters. Any sport in which the death and torture of animals is made to furnish pleasure to the spectators is debasing. There should always be the opportunity provided in a glove fight or bare-fist fight to stop it when one competitor is hopelessly outclassed or too badly hammered. But the men who take part in these fights are hard as nails, and it is not worth while to feel sentimental about their receiving punishment which as a matter of fact they do not mind. Of course the men who look on ought to be able to stand up with the gloves, or without them, themselves; I have scant use for the type of sportsmanship which consists merely in looking on at the feats of some one else.

Some as good citizens as I know are or were prize-fighters. Take Mike Donovan, of New York. He and his family represent a type of American citizenship of which we have a right to be proud. Mike is a devoted temperance man, and can be relied upon for every movement in the interest of good citizenship. I was first intimately thrown with him when I was Police Commissioner. One evening he and I-both in dress suits-attended a temperance meeting of Catholic societies. It culminated in a lively set-to between myself and a Tammany Senator who was a very good fellow, but whose ideas of temperance differed radically from mine, and, as the event proved, from those of the majority of the meeting. Mike evidently regarded himself as my backer-he was sitting on the platform beside me-and I think felt as pleased and interested as if the set-to had been physical instead of merely verbal. Afterward I grew to know him well both while I was Governor and while I was President, and many a time he came on and boxed with me.

Battling Nelson was another stanch friend, and he and I think alike on most questions of political and industrial life; although he once expressed to me some commiseration because, as President, I did not get anything like the money return for my services that he aggregated during the same term of years in the ring.

Battling Nelson
Battling Nelson

Bob Fitzsimmons was another good friend of mine. He has never forgotten his early skill as a blacksmith, and among the things that I value and always keep in use is a penholder made by Bob out of a horseshoe, with an inscription saying that it is "Made for and presented to President Theodore Roosevelt by his friend and admirer, Robert Fitzsimmons."

Bob Fitzsimmons
Bob Fitzsimmons

I have for a long time had the friendship of John L. Sullivan, than whom in his prime no better man ever stepped into the ring. He is now a Massachusetts farmer. John used occasionally to visit me at the White House, his advent always causing a distinct flutter among the waiting Senators and Congressmen. When I went to Africa he presented me with a gold-mounted rabbit's foot for luck. I carried it through my African trip; and I certainly had good luck.

John L. Sullivan
John L. Sullivan

On one occasion one of my prize-fighting friends called on me at the White House on business. He explained that he wished to see me alone, sat down opposite me, and put a very expensive cigar on the desk, saying, "Have a cigar." I thanked him and said I did not smoke, to which he responded, "Put it in your pocket." He then added, "Take another; put both in your pocket." This I accordingly did. Having thus shown at the outset the necessary formal courtesy, my visitor, an old and valued friend, proceeded to explain that a nephew of his had enlisted in the Marine Corps, but had been absent without leave, and was threatened with dishonorable discharge on the ground of desertion. My visitor, a good citizen and a patriotic American, was stung to the quick at the thought of such an incident occurring in his family, and he explained to me that it must not occur, that there must not be the disgrace to the family, although he would be delighted to have the offender "handled rough" to teach him a needed lesson; he added that he wished I would take him and handle him myself, for he knew that I would see that he "got all that was coming to him." Then a look of pathos came into his eyes, and he explained: "That boy I just cannot understand. He was my sister's favorite son, and I always took a special interest in him myself. I did my best to bring him up the way he ought to go. But there was just nothing to be done with him. His tastes were naturally low. He took to music" What form this debasing taste for music assumed I did not inquire; and I was able to grant my friend's wish.


EN1 - One of the most famous prizefights of the 19th century took place in the backwoods of Maryland on February 7, 1849, when New York-born Tom "Young American" Hyer challenged reigning United States champion James "Yankee" Sullivan at Still Pond, about eight miles from Chestertown. The match was to have taken place on Poole's Island, but police and militia from Baltimore chased away the four boats carrying spectators, reporters, and participants. At Still Pond, the organizers located an appropriate spot and, finding the owner of the property absent, constructed a makeshift ring on the front lawn.

Sullivan had waited two years for this match; a punishing fighter, he had difficulty finding opponents. The match with Hyer, for an unheard-of $10,000 winner's purse, was arranged in part by boxing fans with nativist sentiments who wanted to replace the Irish immigrant Sullivan with an American-born champion. After sixteen half-minute rounds, Sullivan, shorter and lighter in weight than Hyer, suffered the first defeat of his career.

On April 17, 1860, near the tiny hamlet of Farnborough, Hampshire, American John C. Heenan fought Englishman Tom Sayers to an extraordinary and bloody 42 round draw. During the latter part of the contest Heenan battled without the aid of sight and Sayers lost the use of one of his arms.

EN2 - Roosevelt's wrestling instructor was Philadelphia police Captain James J. O'Brien.

EN3 - In a letter to Master James A. Garfield dated December 26, 1902, Roosevelt wrote:

Late in the afternoon I played at single stick with General Wood and Mr. Ferguson. I am going to get your father to come on and try it soon. We have to try to hit as light as possible, but sometimes we hit hard, and today I have a bump over one eye and a swollen wrist.

EN4 - President Roosevelt studied with Professor Yoshiaki (Yoshitsugu) Yamashita, eventually attaining the brown-belt rank. In a letter dated February 24, 1905, he wrote:

I still box with Grant, who has now become the champion middleweight wrestler of the United States. Yesterday afternoon we had Professor Yamashita up here to wrestle with Grant. It was very interesting, but of course jiu jitsu and our wrestling are so far apart that it is difficult to make any comparison between them. Wrestling is simply a sport with rules almost as conventional as those of tennis, while jiu jitsu is really meant for practice in killing or disabling our adversary. In consequence, Grant did not know what to do except to put Yamashita on his back, and Yamashita was perfectly content to be on his back. Inside of a minute Yamashita had choked Grant, and inside of two minutes more he got an elbow hold on him that would have enabled him to break his arm; so that there is no question but that he could have put Grant out. So far this made it evident that the jiu jitsu man could handle the ordinary wrestler. But Grant, in the actual wrestling and throwing was about as good as the Japanese, and he was so much stronger that he evidently hurt and wore out the Japanese. With a little practice in the art I am sure that one of our big wrestlers or boxers, simply because of his greatly superior strength, would be able to kill any of those Japanese, who though very good men for their inches and pounds are altogether too small to hold their own against big, powerful, quick men who are as well trained.

See also Svinth; "Professor Yamashita Goes To Washington".

Jan 2002