The young Theodore Roosevelt did not strike most people as promising enough to become one of the nation's greatest Presidents. His august Knickerbocker family had grown rich from generations of shrewd investments in real estate, banking, glass importing and even hardware. But in his youth--and for that matter in his adulthood--T.R. showed very little interest in adding to the family fortune. When Roosevelt was a toddler, his asthma began to overshadow everything he did. As he grew, Theodore was too "delicate" for school--until Harvard he was educated at home--and too weak to stand up to other boys. On doctor's orders his father Theodore Sr.--called Thee by everyone in the family--and his mother Martha, called Mittie, rushed him to seashore resorts one day and mountain cabins the next in search of air to help him breathe. The sickly boy seemed unlikely to survive into manhood or amount to much if he did.
But Roosevelt's childhood weakness would turn out to be the provocation for the ferociously robust man he became. At about the time Theodore reached the end of boyhood, Thee, whom young T.R. adored, set off a crisis in their relationship. He insisted on making his favorite child into a strong man by directing him to embrace a life of vigorous exercise. He told him with characteristic sternness to throw off his invalidism by force of will. He ordered the boy to "make your own body." According to Theodore's sister, Theodore "resolved to make himself strong," to turn his back on his "nervous and timid" childhood and embrace manhood. The cure would come by way of sports and outdoor activity, mountains to be climbed and harsh weather to be endured.
From that day forward, T.R. became a fierce champion of what he called the "strenuous life," a self-imposed struggle to live with vigor and determination. He boxed and pulled at weight machines, and his chest expanded along with his capacity to breathe. To conquer his fragility he began, wrote a friend, "constantly forcing himself to do the difficult and even dangerous thing." Years later, T.R. wrote in his autobiography that his life changed forever because he set fearlessness before him "as an ideal" that by dogged practice he achieved. Advised that he had a bad heart and shouldn't climb stairs, the 22-year-old T.R. ascended the Matterhorn.
His self-making had costs. Throughout his life he repeatedly injured himself, even sustaining a boxing injury when he was 45 that on top of a cataract cost him the sight in his left eye. Obsessively seeking strength through exercise and adventure, he developed an equally overdone hatred for sissies, "cripples and consumptives," for anyone who could not measure up physically or who reminded him of his childhood shortcomings. He even told his sons he'd rather see them dead than have them grow up to be weaklings. He could never admit to frailty in himself. That was one reason his charge up Kettle Hill in the Battle of San Juan Heights with the Rough Riders, the volunteer cavalry unit he organized to fight in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, was so important to him. It proved to the world--and himself--that Roosevelt, a man who could talk very admiringly about war, had the strength and courage to fight in one. Although all his life, even when he was President, he continued to suffer on occasion from asthma he did not want the public to know of his illnesses. It didn't fit his self-image.