Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt. By Edward P. Kohn. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 271 pp.
Given the number of biographies and studies written about Theodore Roosevelt (TR), any new biography faces a significant hurdle in creating a unique approach to examine the life of the twenty-sixth president of the United States. In this short monograph, Edward Kohn meets this challenge with his distinctive interpretation of Roosevelt. He argues that the romanticized influence of the American West on TR has been overplayed, and that New York City is the real source of the future president's formative experience. Kohn writes that Roosevelt's interests and political values were "firmly rooted in New York City, not the Dakota Territory" (p. x). For Kohn, TR was much more a product of his Knickerbocker upbringing, underscored with a Germany-focused European tour and a Harvard education. In New York, he developed his brand of urban progressivism, focused his desire for civil service and municipal reform, and mastered the craft of politics in the epicenter of machine politics at the turn of the twentieth century. Going a step further, Kohn adds that Roosevelt also shaped New York City, making the American city "cleaner, safer, and less corrupt" (p. xv). Ultimately, the author laments that there is no memorial to TR that adequately emphasizes the interdependent relationship between America's first progressive president and its greatest city (p. 225).
For the most part, Kohn has provided a persuasive portrayal to demonstrate the significance of New York City in Roosevelt's rise to fame and power. Kohn's TR is one who hitched his future to the Republican Party machine in New York, but remained his own man. Both in good and bad times, he stayed mostly loyal to the party, always ensuring to be in the city each October during the political season. As assemblyman, mayoral candidate, and a civil service reform advocate, the young Roosevelt honed his political prowess in New York. Here, Kohn makes the crux of his point, writing that "on the tobacco-stained planks above a 59th Street shop ... [TR] became christened in the manly virtues" usually associated with the American West (p. 51).
After the death of his first wife, Alice, TR ranched out West for two years. Kohn emphasizes that this foray was more a series of trips to the West, as opposed to a full-time relocation. The young Roosevelt had not become a true cowboy, but rather...