Mittie Roosevelt: The mother made the man

Teddy Roosevelt was shaped by his Southern mother’s charm into the man who became a nation’s beloved president.
Mittie Roosevelt

Credit: Sagamore Hill National Historic Site Collection, National Park Service

Credit: Sagamore Hill National Historic Site Collection, National Park Service

Mittie Roosevelt

According to his grandmother, young Theodore Roosevelt was “a [mischievous] rogue.” Like many a grandparent then and now, she watched her progeny, a quartet of rambunctious Roosevelt children swirling in constant motion, with a mix of admiration and relief: “It is amusing when they are all around her in the nursery to see Mittie’s perplexed look.”

The woman with the “perplexed look” was Mittie Roosevelt, mother to the 26th president and grandmother to future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mittie was home with four children, all but one under the age of 5, while her husband traveled for weeks at a time at the start of the Civil War. Mittie’s story, at best forgotten and at worst maligned by history, proves a surprising and startling point worth celebrating this Mother’s Day: Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most masculine president in the American memory, was shaped by women.

Mittie Roosevelt was born in Hartford, Conn., decidedly Northern soil, but her family moved south, first to Savannah, and then Roswell, where, in the words of her famous son, she was “a sweet, gracious, beautiful Southern woman, a delightful companion and beloved by everybody” but “entirely ‘unreconstructed’ until the day of her death.”

Indeed, Mittie was a sharp-witted romantic, and, as her brother said, “a black haired bright eyed lassie lively in her disposition and with a ready tongue” who “does everything by impulse with an air of perfect self-confidence” — words that predict how people almost uniformly saw her son. Margaret Mitchell, then a reporter for The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, interviewed Mittie’s last surviving bridesmaid in 1923 and later used the example of the irascible, impetuous Southern belle to inspire her most famous character, Scarlett O’Hara. That this “lassie lively in her disposition” married a Northerner, moved to New York City before the Civil War and is the direct ancestor of two of the most influential figures of the 20th century is a story equal in its twists and turns to the 1936 novel “Gone with the Wind’ and its 1939 Academy Award-winning adaptation.

Edward O'Keefe

Credit: David Burnett

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Credit: David Burnett

Mittie’s first meeting with her future husband, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., known as Thee, was hardly auspicious — at least not from her point of view. The 15-year-old found Roosevelt rather too serious and even pedantic (he called every plant he saw by its Latin name). They met again three years later, and this time the long-delayed courtship accelerated. “The first day from Mittie was rather lonely, was it?” Mittie flirtatiously wrote Thee. Mittie continued to socialize after they became secretly engaged, sometimes writing Thee, back in New York, about the attention local men were lavishing on her.

Mittie and Thee were married on Dec. 22, 1853, at Bulloch Hall in Roswell. Mittie called her stoic husband her “loving tyrant.” “Do not become a strong-minded woman,” Thee wrote her. Mittie had, as ever, other ideas. Thee was as stern as Mittie was indulgent. And though TR gave his father virtually all the credit for his character, Thee displayed none of the vivaciousness and infectious personality for which his son and daughters became renowned. “Darling, I will try for yours and my own sake not to be provoked,” Mittie wrote Thee a year and a half into their nearly quarter-century long marriage, “I am very sensitive and impulsive, you know what my temperament is.”

Despite their very different personalities, Mittie and Thee were devoted to one another. “You will be a companion to me, will you not dearest, in all my hopes and thoughts?” Thee asked of Mittie. She was more direct: “I love you inexpressibly dearly. … I want to talk to you. I want to see you. I cannot live without you.”

A nation at war with itself

Their unity was severely tested during the Civil War, which erupted eight years into their marriage. The Roosevelts lived in a house divided in a nation divided, and young Theodore and his siblings learned from their example.

“I wish we sympathized together on this question of so vital moment to our country,” Thee wrote Mittie during the war. Mittie’s brothers were serving in the Confederate Navy and government, forcing Thee to find a way to be of service to his country without firing a shot. Thee and two like-minded associates devised a legislative bill to authorize the appointment of unpaid allotment commissioners, whose mission would be convincing Union soldiers to send part of their pay back to their families. Thee traveled for weeks at a time each month during the war, leaving Mittie at home with their four children, her mother and sister, both of whom left the South to join the Roosevelts in New York before the start of the war.

Mittie’s letters to Thee during their prolonged absences detail the splendor and exhaustion of motherhood: “Last night [Elliott, future father of Eleanor Roosevelt] slept still until two oclock when he awoke in the brightest possible frame of mind. After getting up many times with him, letting him eat an indefinite quantity of crackers, being very much amused at his cunning ways. When he saw Teedie asleep he would whisper, ‘Teedie heep’ then suddenly catching sight of [eldest sister] Anna he cried out in the loudest possible voice, ‘Allie.’ Finally becoming very sleepy and tired myself, I tried to coax him to sleep which I accomplished first after a crying spell. Then he came into my bed and fell asleep while I was stroking his curls, etc. Teedie was miserably jealous about his sleeping by me.”

Toward the end of the war, Mittie’s mother died. After the Union victory, her brothers’ actions were deemed so egregious that they were among the very few singled out for exclusion from general amnesty. They moved to Britain. She lost her mother and contact with two brothers and had given birth to four children in six years. She instigated a voyage to Liverpool, where her brothers now lived. Thee vastly expanded the trip into a grand tour of Europe: 10 months, thousands of miles, staying in 66 hotels in eight countries. Asthma and chronic, potentially deadly, diarrhea plagued her eldest son, Theodore, the entire journey. In Munich, the boy recorded in his diary that he was “verry sick,” and in Dresden, he had a restless night: “All was dark [except] the fire. I lay by it and listened to the wind.” His asthma came on fiercely, and Mittie massaged her son’s chest until “the blood came out.”

Mittie spent countless hours tending to her son. Historian David McCullough observed: “Mama’s love and attention were magic. His physical need for her, the intense attachment he felt, are expressed with striking candor and frequency. … Whereas Papa made him drink black coffee or smoke a cigar or swallow ipecac (with “dreadful effects”), Mama soothed.” After one the worst nights in Salzburg, young Theodore had a nightmare that the devil came in the darkness of night to carry him away. His mother knew one thing that would be more restorative to her son than any tonic: showing him a portrait of his childhood friend and sweetheart, Edith Carow.

His parents’ striking differences would ultimately serve TR well. Father challenged his son physically, and, in later years, TR would benefit politically from his ability to project manliness. From his mother, however, he learned empathy and the essential ability to connect with people.

An early death

Tragically, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. died of cancer when he was only 46. His namesake was 20 and in his second year at Harvard. “He was everything to me,” a dazed, stunned Roosevelt wrote, proclaiming his father, taken too soon, was “the greatest man I ever knew.” Mittie encouraged, and perhaps even shared, the view that her husband was the important one in the family. Yet, in the wake of her husband’s death, she did not recoil from life. She introduced a new family credo: “Live for the living, not the dead.” She had always espoused a philosophy that embraced living in the moment, but now she would teach her children to forge on through life’s inevitable disappointments and losses.

After Thee’s death, her renowned New York salons were touted in the New York Times, Sun and Observer. She was fun to be around, an amusing conversationalist. “[Mittie] and [her sister] were the people who gave [us] whatever humor we have,” recalled her granddaughter. The sisters “had perfected a combination of competence and feminine fragility. … Their smiles could wilt all but the most hostile audience, and their accents, retaining the long vowels of their native Georgia, underlined their easy, relaxed approach to life and their insistence on seeing the pleasures and not the pain.”

His mother’s strength

Mittie was, in many ways, the source of Theodore Roosevelt’s greatest strength: resilience — a quality he called on frequently in his life, but perhaps most especially in the wake of Feb. 14, 1884, when he lost Mittie and his first wife, Alice, on the same day in the same house.

“Without you, Thee, I feel as tho life would lose its charm,” Mittie wrote her husband at the height of the Civil War. “It seems to me as tho my very thought and feeling had some mysterious connection with you.” The mysterious connection between Mittie and Thee, their ability to love through their contradictions, a commitment to civility, even among the most divisive time in our nation’s history, produced one of its greatest leaders. Thee’s brother once told Mittie and Thee that “between Mittie’s liveliness and your solemnity you strike an even balance.”

It was, perhaps, a more reasoned alternative to invoking the cliché about opposites attracting. It is also on this Mother’s Day (and a month from Father’s Day) a reminder from history that the greatest gift we can give our children is a good example despite our differences and perhaps, most important, during the most trying of times.

Edward F. O’Keefe is the chief executive of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, scheduled to open in Medora, N.D., on July 4, 2026, and the author of “The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt: The Women Who Created a President.”