Spring had come late to the Hudson Valley in 1867, too; and when James Roosevelt and his wife, Rebecca, drove up the long driveway to their new home on April 30 of that year, mist hid the hills beyond, and a cold, steady rain slanted down, driven by the wind off the river. The carriage splashed along the edge of a stubbled, muddy field beneath big trees, their bare limbs black and shiny with rain, and stopped in front of the house.
Dark and clapboarded, it was not large as Hudson River manors went—there were just seventeen rooms—and it was in poor repair. A three-storied tower stood at the southeast comer, and a deep veranda ran the full length of the front and around one side, its pillars thickly wound with ivy. The house’s profile reminded James of a locomotive with a tall smokestack pulling a train of cars. Water dripped steadily from the overhanging eaves as the Roosevelts hurried inside.
They were a handsome couple. Rebecca, then thirty-six, was a merry woman, plump and attractive, and capable of putting almost anyone at ease. Her husband was more reserved; his servants, the townspeople, even some of his friends, found it most comfortable to call him “Mr. James.” He was slender and erect, of medium height, with alert hazel eyes, a firm chin, and brown muttonchop whiskers just beginning to go gray at thirty-nine.
The Roosevelts had been happily married now for fourteen years and had one child, an amiable thirteen-year-old boy named James Roosevelt Roosevelt, whom everyone including his parents called “Rosy.” At the moment he was staying with his uncle, John Aspinwall Roosevelt, at his home just two miles down the Albany Post Road, but soon he would be coming to live in the new house as well.
Like many of their friends, the Roosevelts led a serene but peripatetic life, dividing the year between their country home on the Hudson, a house in New York City in which they spent the harshest winter months, and long vacations abroad.
They had been at Interlaken in the Swiss Alps in September of 1865, when word came that their old house in the country, Mount Hope, had been burned to the ground. James Roosevelt’s grandfather had built Mount Hope; James himself had been born there, and he had inherited it at his grandfather’s death. Its loss had seemed “a fearful dream,” he wrote; he could not believe that his “dear old home is among the things of the past.” Rather than rebuild, James had sold the land to the State of New York for $45,000—it became the site of the Hudson River State Hospital, a mental institution—and began looking for a place of his own to buy with the proceeds.
The house whose gloomy, vacant interior he and Rebecca were now exploring had not been their first choice. They had hoped to buy Ferncliffe, the far more opulent Hudson River estate of John Jacob Astor III at Rhinebeck. James Roosevelt was himself a wealthy man—general manager of the Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railroad, director of the Consolidated Coal Company of Maryland, responsible custodian of a considerable inheritance—but his fortune was inconsequential compared to that compiled by Astor’s grandfather, and it had taken him three days to get up the nerve to call and make an offer for his house. He paced outside Astor’s door for half an hour one morning, unable to bring himself to knock, and finally left, wandering the streets the rest of the day until a nervous headache drove him home. Rebecca spoke firmly to him, and two days later he managed to make it past the door. He offered $40,000. Astor turned him down; it was $50,000 or nothing.
The Roosevelts lowered their sights. They tried next to buy a more modest place on the river from Moses Beach, another New York businessman, only to find him unable to decide whether or not he really wanted to sell. (Rebecca was secretly relieved; she thought the Beach place “perfectly hopeless, on account of a villa he had built which would not do for a carriage house.”)
The Hyde Park house the Roosevelts finally settled upon was built in 1826, and had been owned by a railroad executive named Josiah Wheeler. Not only was the house run-down, but Wheeler, whose heart had never been in farming, had neglected the fields and gardens, and all the outbuildings needed attention.
Still, Rebecca wrote, they were “quite satisfied with our purchase.” There was a lot of work to do. But the house could fairly easily be put in good order. An enclosed garden filled with rosebushes and plum and pear trees stood just to the north, its tall hedges already almost half a century old. With the house and garden came 110 acres of land on which James could raise his trotting horses. (Later, he would buy up adjacent tracts until his estate encompassed almost 1,000 acres of fields and forests.) And even through the drizzle the view of the river from the veranda was majestic.
James threw himself into the work. Rebecca marveled at his energy. The first few weeks in their new home she hardly saw him between breakfast and supper as he strode from task to task, seeing that oilcloth and Brussels carpet were properly laid, checking to make sure the painters used the right shade of green on the piazza, supervising the installation of indoor plumbing in the house. Rebecca called him “Boss Plumber” for a time. He took charge of the land, too, riding over it daily with Rosy at his side, inspecting fences, seeing that his horses and his herd of Guernsey, Jersey, and Alderney cattle were well pastured, showing the gardener where Rebecca wanted her new plants set out. The gardener’s name was Sebastian Bauman, but Mr. James addressed him and all the other men and women who worked on the place by their first names; so did Rebecca and Rosy.
One day James and Rosy called Rebecca out from the house to see a trembling newborn Alderney calf they had found in the woods. Sebastian had carried it home in his arms. Precisely one year later they found another one on the same spot.
Each morning, Rebecca wrote, she and James walked together in the enclosed garden, gathering “thousands of roses before breakfast.” And when it grew too hot to do much during the day, James went on working at night. After supper one evening in June, Rebecca walked with him through the woods to the ice pond a quarter of the way down the bluff and sat beneath a tree while he raked leaves from its silver surface by the light of a young moon.
The fire that had razed Mount Hope had also taken with it all but a few of the family’s possessions. “Our loss is total,” Rebecca had confided to her journal in Switzerland. “Nothing left but three lamps and a little bedding.” And when her mother-in-law sent her a charred book from the old library as a memento, she had wept.
Actually, it had not been quite that bad. A rosewood bed and bureau had been rescued, along with two small Duncan Phyfe chairs. So had a large silver tea service that had belonged to James’s great-grandfather. And at either end of the table in their new dining room, James and Rebecca carefully placed a chair from the old house. Carved deeply into the back of each were the roses and plumes of the Roosevelt family crest.
Later, when he had his estate more or less the way he wanted it, James ordered his men to dig up the tall brownstone gateposts that had marked the entrance to his grandfather’s house, haul them up the road by oxcart, and reinstall them on either side of the driveway to his own.
Continuity was important to him. He was very proud to be a Roosevelt.
The Roosevelts were an old New York family, but they came relatively late to the Hudson Valley. By the time Franklin Roosevelt’s great-grandfather built Mount Hope in 1818, more wealthy and powerful clans such as the Livingstons, the Schuylers, the Verplancks, and the Van Rensselaers had already been living along the river for two centuries. In that anachronistic, almost feudal world, the Roosevelts were always parvenus.
They were descended from Claes Van Rosenvelt, a hardy Dutchman about whom little is known except that he was married to an Englishwoman named Thomas, came to New Amsterdam about 1650, and carved out for himself a comfortable farm on what is now the far eastern fringe of the garment district. Claes had a son named Nicholas, who in turn had three sons: one of these, Johannes, was the ancestor of Theodore Roosevelt; the line established by another son, Jacobus, would lead eventually to FDR.
The descendants of Jacobus—James in English—Roosevelt were able, energetic, and prosperous, noteworthy among the leaders of New York’s Knickerbocker society only if unbroken solvency and good manners are thought exceptional. Their wealth came from Manhattan real estate, dry goods, and the West Indian sugar trade. And they had married well, linking their clan with the sons and daughters of other important families, both English and Dutch. In this way, Franklin Roosevelt would write, “the stock kept virile and abreast of the times.”
One eighteenth-century Roosevelt stood out above the rest.
Remembered in the family as “the patriot,” Isaac Roosevelt was a sugar merchant whose indignation at the way British trade laws cut into his profits, rather than any abstract concern with the rights of man, drove him to join the Revolutionary cause. (It was his elegant English tea service that had been salvaged from the ruins of Mount Hope.) He was a moderating influence among his fellow businessmen before the fighting began, determined to help win repeal of illicit taxes but hopeful always that there would be a reconciliation between king and colonies, and adamant against the violence to property encouraged by the Sons of Liberty. Still, when the crisis came in the summer of 1776, he voted for independence as a delegate to the Provincial Congress. It was not an easy decision. Many of his
; closest friends were Tories, and when English troops occupied New York he was forced to abandon his home and business and flee to Dutchess County for the duration.
Later, he helped fashion the new constitution that created New York State, doing all he could behind the scenes to limit the spread of democracy and safeguard the rights of men of property, and he helped win New York’s ratification of the Federal Constitution as a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1788. During forty days and nights of sometimes angry debate at Poughkeepsie, he was a solid but silent member of the Federalist forces led by his friend Alexander Hamilton, never once taking the floor himself. His alliance with Hamilton carried over into his business life as well; he served as president of the Bank of New York, which he, Hamilton, and others had founded in 1784.
Isaac’s son, James, inherited both his father’s business and his politics, serving one uneventful year in the State Assembly. It was he who built Mount Hope on the Hudson, living there or on another farm in Harlem during the summer months and in a handsome town house at 18 South Street the rest of the year. During his long and largely tranquil life he had three wives and eleven children.1
Knickerbocker society, in which Isaac and James Roosevelt and their families were entirely at home, was closed and comfortable, still centered on Manhattan’s tip, and surprisingly small. As late as 1830, a contemporary wrote, “a New Yorker of no very extended acquaintance could tell the names of all the principal merchants and where they lived.”
Their homes were modest by later standards—narrow three-or four-story houses of brick on cobbled streets only a few steps from their places of business. Isaac Roosevelt lived on Pearl Street; his sugar refinery was just behind his house, his bank right across the street. There were few carriages—the city was small enough so that one could walk almost anywhere—and even the most prominent families rarely dined out in public. Guests were entertained in the parlor or strolled with their hosts along the Battery. The Sabbath was strictly observed, the whole family marching to church together three times during the day, their servants following along behind, one old New Yorker recalled, “as an evidence that the family was doing its whole duty.”
If a strong sense of duty and of decorum united the society of old New York, so, too, did a century and a half of family alliances. Money alone provided no entree. “The applicant for admission” to New York society of that day, wrote a nostalgic member of it long after everything had changed, “must possess the requisite affinities and bear the unmistakable evidences which, the world over, proclaim the gentleman by sentiment and education. This idea of aristocracy pervaded Gotham . . . it underlay and formed the foundation of
New York society. The good old fathers and their Madames were great sticklers for form and ceremony; their full ruffles and cuffs were starched, and unwittingly imparted to the wearer an air of dignified composure that would check the merest approach to familiarity from their juniors.”
The dignified composure of the Roosevelts was especially memorable. Many years later, Philip Hone the diarist and former mayor of the city who as a boy had known Isaac Roosevelt, recalled that he and the members of his generation had been another “sort of people from those of the present day. Proud and aristocratical, they were the only nobility we had ... men could not stand straight in their presence.”
1. The consistent conservatism of his ancestors evidently bothered FDR. Not long before his death he rather forlornly asked one of his secretaries, Jonathan Daniels, to see if the Library of Congress couldn’t find some sort of link between his great-grandfather, Isaac the Patriot, and Thomas Jefferson, whom the President found much more congenial than Alexander Hamilton. The historian David C. Mearns, director of the reference department, did his best but neither he nor his staff could find any evidence that the two men had ever even met. A note of somewhat desperate cheer dominates Mearns’s reply to Daniels:
There is an interesting item in Jefferson’s unpublished account book (for 1790), which reads “pd. Roosevelt 3 feather fans. 24/.” Inasmuch as the New York directory for 1789 lists no fewer than five mercantile establishments under the name of Roosevelt, and Isaac and his son were primarily dealers in sugar, it is impossible to link it to them .... Still, it is clear that when in New York, Thomas Jefferson obtained his feather fans from the Roosevelt family!
Source: Mearns to Daniels, April 9, 1945, Jonathan Daniels Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (hereafter designated FDRL).
Excerpted from Before the Trumpet by Geoffrey C. Ward. Copyright © 2014 by Geoffrey C. Ward. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Geoffrey C. Ward is the coauthor of The Civil War (with Ken Burns and Ric Burns), and the author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, which won the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and the 1990 Francis Parkman Prize. He lives in New York City.