The President Who Randomly Liked to Challenge People to Fist-Fights
If you’ve followed this website, our YouTube channel, or BrainFood Show podcast very long, you know one of our favorite historic individuals is Theodore Roosevelt- among countless other reasons to be admired, a man who enjoys a reputation as one of the most terrifyingly badass individuals to ever hold the office of leader of a nation, with countless stories detailing his cartoonishly manly exploits. For just a small sample to start, at one point while he was living as a rancher, some thieves stole his boat in the middle of an ice storm. Given the rather dangerous weather conditions, you might think he’d just let them go. But this was Teddy Roosevelt and it was the principal of the thing. He states, “In any wild country where the power of law is little felt or heeded, and where every one has to rely upon himself for protection, men soon get to feel that it is in the highest degree unwise to submit to any wrong…no matter what cost of risk or trouble. To submit tamely and meekly to theft or to any other injury is to invite almost certain repetition of the offense, in a place where self-reliant hardihood and the ability to hold one’s own under all circumstances rank as the first of virtues.”
Thus, he spent the next three days building another boat so he could track the thieves down and take his original boat back. Once done, it took him a few days of searching, but using his prodigious skills as a master tracker, he managed to find and capture the men. However, ultimately the river became too frozen over to continue to the nearest town that way, so instead he sent his ranch hand companions home and marched the thieves on foot, alone for 40 hours straight to town. During this trek, he did not bind the thieves’ in any way as he felt sure they’d suffer from frostbite if he did so. To keep them from overpowering him while they trudged along through the frozen wasteland, he simply kept a gun trained on them and, while they slept during rest periods, he kept himself awake by reading Tolstoy’s then relatively recently published Anna Karenina.
It’s also noteworthy here that because of the weather conditions, the fact that he was in hostile territory in the middle of nowhere, and escorting a trio of criminals who would have killed him without hesitation if he’d given them the chance, he was within his rights to simply execute them on the spot and go home, something the vast majority of lawmen of his era would have done. Roosevelt, however, felt they deserved a trial.
Impressed with how honorable a man Roosevelt was, one of the criminals even wrote him later from prison thanking him for being a peerless sentinel of justice. Another of the thieves, Roosevelt didn’t even bother to press charges against, stating the man “didn’t have enough sense to do anything good or bad.”
And don’t even get us started on that time on October 14, 1912 when Roosevelt was shot in the chest at point blank range, shrugged it off and then proceeded to give a 90 minute speech as planned, opening the speech by noting “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” After the speech, he went to the hospital where it was found that the bullet hadn’t penetrated his lung as it had become lodged in his ample chest muscle…
When asked later why he hadn’t rushed to the hospital after being shot, he simply stated, “In the… event of the wound being mortal, I wished to die with my boots on.”
In yet another instance, hinting at his moral badassery, unlike many of his era, Roosevelt was a strong supporter of black American rights, including being the first President to invite a black man, Booker T. Washington, to have dinner at the White House on October 16, 1901. While this seems a little thing today, at the time it was anything but. News of the controversial dinner traveled along the Associated Press wires throughout the night. The morning newspapers in many cases took the opportunity to attack both Roosevelt and Washington with fervor.
For instance, the next afternoon, the Memphis-Scimitar reported: “The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by a citizen of the United States was committed by the President, when he invited a n****r to dine with him at the White House… It would not be worth more than a passing notice if Theodore Roosevelt had sat down to dinner on his own time with a Pullman car porter, but Roosevelt the individual and Roosevelt the President are not to be viewed in the same light.”
A U.S. Senator from South Carolina, Ben Tillman, even publicly proposed a retaliatory measure: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n****r will necessitate our killing a thousand n****rs in the South before they will reach their place again.”
Soon after the dinner, Roosevelt received an honorary doctorate from Yale University, along with famed novelist Mark Twain. Booker T. Washington was also present at this event. Roosevelt spoke to Twain and asked the novelist for his opinion on the controversial matter. Twain replied “that a President was perhaps not as free as an ordinary citizen to entertain whoever he likes.”
Roosevelt disagreed and, a few days later, he had had enough and made a public statement about the “infamous” dinner. True to his no-nonsense style, he simply said,
I shall have him to dine as often as I please.
As for his general opinion of black people, Roosevelt would sum his thoughts up: “…the only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less than he shows himself worthy to have.”
Moving on from there to his mental badassery, Roosevelt is famed for having written several dozen books on a variety of usually academic subjects, from covering his various adventures in the wilderness and things encountered there, to scholarly works on different animals and historic figures, like a biography on Oliver Cromwell. He also wrote books on various historical events, like the War of 1812, including at the age of just 23 writing The Naval War of 1812, covering naval battles, technology, and strategy in that war. This latter ultimately ended up being considered one of the most influential books in its academic field for decades to come, including having a significant impact on the U.S. Navy, who at one point ensured a copy could be found on every ship in the fleet. On the side, he wrote countless editorials and an estimated well over 100,000 letters.
Moving back to his physical badassery, how about that time on one of his many famous adventures, this one the River of Doubt expedition, he almost died when two of his crewmans’ boats were about to crash into rocks, potentially with dire consequences. Disregarding his personal safety completely in favor of attempting to protect his men, Roosevelt jumped out of his own boat into the swift river, grabbed the two boats and via his own strength stopped them from hitting the rocks.
In a discussion of his own personal safety in another instance, he would note his thoughts on protecting those under him, stating, “It was just as when I was colonel of my regiment. I always felt that a private was to be excused for feeling at times some pangs of anxiety about his personal safety, but I cannot understand a man fit to be a colonel who can pay any heed to his personal safety when he is occupied as he ought to be with… his duty.”
And oh, ya- along with all the rest, he was at one point a Colonel in the U.S. military when he helped form the so called “Rough Riders”- the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.
During his time there, his most famous exploit was probably his charge up Kettle Hill, where Roosevelt, the only one of his men with a horse at the time, so an incredibly compelling target as they charged, nonetheless rode at the lead of the charge. He notes of this,
On the day of the big fight I had to ask my men to do a deed that European military writers consider utterly impossible of performance, that is, to attack over open ground an unshaken infantry armed with the best modern repeating rifles behind a formidable system of entrenchments. The only way to get them to do it in the way it had to be done was to lead them myself.
Going back to his standing against a raging river and rescuing his men from crashing against a bunch of rocks, unfortunately for him in this instance, he did sustain a serious injury to his leg, including it becoming infected- an injury that he never fully recovered from, with frequent flare-ups for the rest of his life and, in the immediate aftermath, Roosevelt losing 55 pounds.
As you might have guessed from all of this, Roosevelt was revered as a granite-chinned, barrel-chested mountain of a man who never shied away from a challenge.
Not just built like a Bull Moose, he was also an extremely competent and accomplished fighter who didn’t let something as silly as a major heart condition slow him down. You see, frequently ill as a youth, it was eventually determined he had something wrong with his heart, among other ailments, and, when he was in college, his physician recommended he seek a career behind a desk and avoid any strenuous or stressful activities.
Instead, he took his weak heart as a challenge, leading one of the most active lives imaginable and not at all doing anything stressful like, you know, running the United States and at one point even almost singlehandedly delaying the start of WWI for several years. (More in the Bonus Facts in a bit.)
This all brings us around to his randomly challenging people to fist fights.
As mentioned, born a sickly child who was plagued by a host of physical ailments throughout his formative years, Roosevelt’s life was changed forever at the age of 14 when, on a trip to Moosehead Lake, a group of older boys beat him up. Frustrated at his inability to protect himself, Roosevelt decided to bolster his physical capabilities by taking up boxing, setting the future president on a path that would culminate in him suplexing heads of state in the Oval Office.
From that point on, Roosevelt basically spent every waking moment honing his body into a hunk of granite, continually finding ways to improve himself physically and taking every opportunity he could to punch people for glory and fun.
Although Roosevelt was, by all accounts, no means a fantastic boxer, he was an incredibly tenacious and honorable one, on one occasion taking a solid, unguarded punch to the face during a college boxing competition after dropping his hands the moment the bell rung- after all, the round was over. Unhappy with the despicable blow, the crowd became raucous. But to their astonishment, Roosevelt diffused the situation by jokingly telling the crowd “Hush, he didn’t hear!” and wiping his bloodied nose clean.
This would prove to be a running theme throughout Roosevelt’s life, with ol’ Teddy never missing an opportunity to play to a crowd. For example, later in Roosevelt’s career he would frequently entertain White House guests by demonstrating wrestling throws or challenging especially strapping guests to test his own mettle, often coming out on top thanks to his proprietary blend of fighting styles.
You see, in addition to being a competent pugilist, Roosevelt studied both jiu-jitsu and judo under legendary martial artist and judo pioneer, Yamashita Yoshiaki. Although Roosevelt initially studied and practised Judo to help him shift a few pounds after he noticed his midriff had become a little ungainly during his time in office, he so greatly enjoyed the thrill of combat that he continued to study it, eventually rising to the level of brown belt.
On the side, we just think it’s also fun to mention his propensity to go skinny dipping in the Potomac River in the dead of winter… As to why? He simply wanted to make sure his body and mind stayed hardened against even the most extreme of elements.
Rewinding a bit to his time as Governor of New York, Roosevelt had a wrestling mat installed in his office so he could fight people on the spot. Roosevelt’s antics annoyed the hell out of those in charge of his safety, who frequently tried to nudge Roosevelt towards gentlemanly pursuits more fitting of his station, like billiards. He was having approximately none of that and continued to challenge anyone who seemed like they might be able to beat him in a fight, even at one point challenging a then current and the other former boxing and wrestling champion in the U.S. to see how he measured up.
As Vice President and later President, Roosevelt continued with this practice, lining the White House’s basement with wrestling mats so he could suplex people whenever he felt like it.
On top of that, he would frequently test judo moves against his apparently understanding wife, random members of White House staff, and any visiting heads of state curious about whether stories of his physical prowess were in anyway exaggerated. Roosevelt also continued his former practice of tasking aides with tracking down prizefighters and boxing champions who they could convince to fight him- all, again, with the man determined to never go soft.
And lest you walk away thinking Roosevelt only won so many of these bouts because nobody would seriously considered “hurting” the President in these fights, the truth of the matter is that Teddy took them very seriously and didn’t just expect, but demanded, his opponents do the same- he gave them his best and required they reciprocate. Thus, he was on more than one occasion severely injured, with the worst being when Roosevelt suffered a punch to the left eye delivered a half a dozen rounds into a boxing match against an army artillery officer. The result of that punch was his retina detaching, leaving him blind in that eye. Rather than fret about it, Roosevelt simply joked it was a good thing it was his left eye he went blind in, as he used his right to aim when shooting.
Nevertheless, the injury effectively ended Roosevelt’s pugilistic endeavours in the White House, for fear he might lose the other eye. Instead, he switched to increasing his judo and wrestling matches, for anyone who still wanted to try their luck in a fight with the Bull Moose.
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In 1905 tensions were mounting between the somewhat allied France and Britain, with Germany on the other side, thanks to the First Moroccan crisis. In a nutshell, this was on its face an issue of which European power should hold sway over Morocco. But more deeply, this was about Germany getting a little nervous over Britain and France buddying up to one another during the crisis, French expansion of influence, and how this all shifted power in Europe.
As tensions rose, Germany attempted to get an official position from the U.S. and Roosevelt, but the general contention at this time in the U.S. was that the country should stay out of the conflict. So Roosevelt stayed more or less neutral publicly.
Eventually Germany considered simply going to war with France, but were concerned that the British would ally with the French in retaliation. In part thanks to Roosevelt’s previous good work helping to mediate the Russo-Japanese War conflict resolution (which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize by the way), Roosevelt was turned to to help convince France to agree to the conference between the different countries in this conflict (13 in total attended).
After securing a promise from Germany that it would back the Roosevelt’s decisions during the conference- at this time, Germany was under the impression Roosevelt would favor them, rather than be neutral- Roosevelt agreed to help and was able to convince France to attend.
This was a key point because the conference almost devolved completely at one point, at the same time France was beginning to march troops towards the German border, with Germany in turn mobilizing its own forces in response.
But once Roosevelt joined in the conference, after securing Frances’ attendance, he then put forward a proposal to resolve the conflict, which heavily favored France. Naturally, Germany rejected it. However, with little support outside of Austria-Hungary, and the U.S. not backing them as they’d thought, along with their previous promise to Roosevelt to back the U.S.’ decisions, Germany finally gave in.
Ultimately the conference had a peaceful ending, with France’s position more or less winning out, though there were a few face saving provisions thrown the German’s way.
Without Roosevelt helping to convince the French to attend the conference, or had it broken off, the conflict would have likely escalated to war, which given many of the treatise that led to the escalation of WWI and the two sides involved here, this may well have seen some version of WWI happen almost a decade sooner than it eventually did.Expand for References
- US President Teddy Roosevelt Trained Jiu-Jitsu & Judo
- THE STRENUOUS LIFE: THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S MIXED MARTIAL ARTS
- Theodore Roosevelt: Mojo in the Dojo
- “How the President is Taught Jiu Jitsu”
- Theodore Roosevelt: The Rough-and-Tumble, Wrestling, Grappling President
- Teddy Roosevelt Held Secret Judo Matches in The White House Basement
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