obert Roosevelt was born in New York City to Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt, from
a prominent Philadelphia family, and Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, a wealthy
merchant and banker. Young Roosevelt was christened Robert Barnhill, but in
adulthood changed his name to Robert Barnwell. He received the best preparatory
education that money could buy, then studied law and was admitted to the bar in
1850. That same year he married Elizabeth Ellis; they had four children. They
lived next door to his brother Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and his family.
Robert Roosevelt's law practice was very successful and involved him in several
cases that generated public attention. He served as secretary of the Citizens'
Association, a reform organization, and prosecuted cases for them that put
negligent health officers behind bars and cleared the way for a reformed board
of health. He also edited the organization's publication, the New York Citizen.
During the Civil War he identified with the War Democrats and helped found the
Loyal National League and the Union League Club. After the war he pushed for a
professional fire department and helped organize the Committee of Seventy which
proved instrumental in driving the city's corrupt Tweed Ring from power. In 1870
he was elected to Congress as a Democrat and served one term (1871-1873), where
he exposed a corrupt political ring in the District of Columbia.
Roosevelt was an avid sportsman and an early conservationist, writing several
books on the subjects and organizing sportsmen's associations that promoted
conservation. He pressed for the passage of a law creating a state fishery
commission. The New York legislature complied and other states passed similar
laws. He chaired the commission for twenty years (1868-1888) and oversaw the
development of artificial breeding methods and the protection of waterways from
industrial pollution. He also authored other books, including satires and a
After his father died in 1871 Roosevelt's inheritance allowed him to retire from
practicing law. He was appointed to the board of directors of several industrial
and railroad companies. He served as a commissioner of the Brooklyn bridge
(1879-1881) and an alderman (1882), working for passage of a pure-food
ordinance. He wanted to be mayor of New York City, but his commitment to reform
alienated him from Tammany Hall, the dominant Democratic organization, and his
espousal of Democratic principles ruled out Republican support. When his wife
died in 1887 he married Marion O'Shea Fortescue in August 1888. Later that year
he was appointed by Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, as the U.S. minister
to The Netherlands (1888-1890). He worked on relief committees for both the
Spanish-American War and the Boer War. He lived long enough to see his
Republican nephew, Theodore, who shared much of his reformist philosophy, become
president of the United States.