Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Wars of the Roosevelts by William J. Mann

I've always been fascinated by the Roosevelt family, so it was a no-brainer that I'd want to read The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America's Greatest Political Family by William J. Mann when it was offered to me for review.

The Wars of the Roosevelts is about the infighting within the Roosevelt family that went on for decades, including both political backbiting as well as the horrible things they did to each other personally in the name of rising to political power. Warning: This is a long review because I shared a few things I found fascinating. It's not as general as my normal review. Feel free to skip down to my recommendation, near the bottom of the post.

The Wars of the Roosevelts begins with Theodore Roosevelt's concerns about his brother, Eleanor Roosevelt's father Elliott. Elliott and his wife were the partying type and Theodore was concerned that Elliott and his wife Anna's exploits would interfere with his political aspirations.

After Elliott was rude to guests at a party thrown by Theodore's "chief booster and unofficial adviser," Bye, Theodore said, "I am distressed beyond measure."

[...] Theodore was keenly aware of decorum and discretion, as any man with his eye on the presidency would be. He knew careers could be derailed in the drawing rooms of New York society, where Elliott and Anna had made themselves infamous. People would be very reluctant about backing a candidate with a black sheep such as Elliott in his family.

~fr. pp. 10-11 of Advance Reader Copy of The Wars of the Roosevelts (some changes may have been made to the final print version)

It's notable that every generation and every branch of the family managed to cough up at least one black sheep. The author goes on to describe the years of Theodore's attacks on Elliott -- how he constantly tried to separate Anna and Elliott and repeatedly attempted to have Elliott locked away in sanitariums for "moral insanity". The author talks about the impact Theodore's cruel ambition had on Eleanor, who was an outcast even when staying with Theodore's family, the Oyster Bay Roosevelts, and how his determination to physically challenge his own children affected their lives.

In addition to direct family ties, the author also follows the progress of Elliott's illegitimate child, also named Elliott, who was never acknowledged by the family but who was every bit as intelligent and ambitious as the relatives he never got to know. There's a very satisfying conclusion to his story, late in the book.

I have a dozen flags marking passages in The Wars of the Roosevelts. I found it utterly fascinating, not only for the in-depth view of the Roosevelts but also for the political insights. For one thing, I was completely unaware that Progressives were originally a faction of the Republican party. Since Theodore was a Republican Progressive and Franklin a Democrat who became politically active after the Progressives vaulted to the opposite party, you'd think the two sides of the family would have banded together. Instead, they competed with each other and it was for personal reasons that Theodore's daughter Alice spent many years viciously attacking Franklin Roosevelt's policies, even though they were essentially the same as those of her father. By the time Alice's opinions were being regularly published, the Oyster Bay Roosevelts and the Hyde Park Roosevelts (Franklin and Eleanor) had become opponents who were more focused upon their own ambition than their shared interests.

Sometimes, while reading The Wars of the Roosevelts, I was taken aback by the consistency of political arguments. So much of what politicians disagreed about in the early part of the 20th Century has not changed at all. 100 years later, our politicians are still using the same exact wording to make their points.

Theodore's love of the natural world, acquired as a young boy trying to overcome his asthma, was being codified into national policy.

Not everyone saw this as a good thing. Progressives, their critics charged, were all about regulation and control. It was overreach, they argued, to deny Americans the right to develop lands for their own individual gain. 

~p. 126

Sound familiar?

The book continues to describe the various family members who were involved in politics, how their political ambitions were rewarded or quashed, how alcoholism and illness affected their aspirations, and the effects of relationships with friends, lovers, or political connections on the family. I'm most addicted to anything and everything about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom I admire, although they certainly made their share of mistakes and had their personal flaws. I knew less about Alice and her brothers and how their political ambitions played out. Nor did I realize that Eleanor was encouraged to run for office in 1940.

Citing some of the great warrior queens of the past, [The New York Times] demanded of its readers, "What sound reasons can be advanced against a woman for President of the United States?" 

~p. 450

In 1940! And, we still have never elected a female president. I could quote The Wars of the Roosevelts all day, but I'll end with a favorite comment made by Theodore:

This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in if it is not a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.

~Theodore Roosevelt, quoted on p. 200

Highly recommended - Not including notes, bibliography, and index, The Wars of the Roosevelts is a little over 500 pages long and it's a dense 530 pages, so it took me quite a while to get through the book but it was never an effort. As always with any book about the Roosevelts, I kept my iPad handy and spent a lot of time looking up photos of the various characters and their homes, so that I could picture them when they were described and imagine their interactions. That added to how slowly I plodded through the book but I was always, always absolutely engrossed when I picked the book up to read. The author doesn't just describe the lives and ambitions of the four characters pictured on the cover, incidentally; the author described the political ambitions of any and all Roosevelts who became politically active, including the women who were unable or unwilling to run for office but whose influence was widely respected, often behind the scenes.

The author's attention to detail and heavy use of primary sources is admirable. I appreciated the fact that when quotation marks were used, the reader knew that whatever was quoted was actually said by the various individuals. There was some conjecture (why Alice likely kept the baby who was undoubtedly not her husband's when abortion was illegal but obtainable for women of means, for example) but not a great deal. I'd especially recommend The Wars of the Roosevelts to anyone who has a particular interest in the Roosevelt family or the time periods covered (from Theodore's youth to Eleanor's post-Franklin life, with a jump forward to a modern Roosevelt gathering). Although some of what I've read elsewhere about specific events was glossed over because the focus was on the actors and relationships within this political family, I really enjoyed the additional perspective.

©2017 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery  or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. Sadly, I don't know much about the Roosevelts. This one sounds a bit long but if it manages to not feel long it's probably worth the read.

    1. I confess I've recently become kind of addicted to reading about the Roosevelts. This might not be the best starter book, but it's definitely interesting. It almost could be described as "juicy" because it's about the kind of details of their private lives that they tried to keep quiet, as opposed to focusing on their very public sides. It's on the long side and took me quite a while to read but it's not a difficult read; I enjoyed it immensely.

  2. This sounds fascinating, Nancy! I think it's one that I need to wait to read, though, until I'm retired and can spend at least an hour at a time reading the dense text. It doesn't sound like one I would want to listen to on audio, as I am right now with Eleanor and Hick. Even that book deserves to be read, I think. It's a good biography of their relationship, but at times, I find my mind wandering. I'm sure you've watched Ken Burns' series on the Roosevelts, correct? Such a good program!

    1. By "dense" I mean "lots of words on the page" as opposed to "difficult to wade through." It's an easy read, just time-consuming. Yes, I've seen the Ken Burns series and I own the book. I particularly enjoyed the book because it's crammed with wonderful photos; I actually pulled out a magnifying glass and often studied the details of those photos, while I was reading it.


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