Thee understood what the problems he saw through gendered language. Men, he believed, were naturally strong and moral but under the corrosive influence of modern society, they had become "feminized," losing their natural vigor and morality. (Politically incorrect? Totally. But we're not interested in attacking Thee, just understanding him.) For New York City to go clean, he believed, men needed to rediscover their masculinity.
Thee believed that "muscular Christianity" offered them that chance. Like regular Christians, muscular Christians believed that turning to Jesus Christ offered mankind a path to salvation. But muscular Christians—guys like Dwight Moody and Phillips Brooks—preached that Christ was not just morally pure, but physically fit. Christ didn't just help the poor and preach for a better world. He was a strong, confident man's man, loving work and physical exertion. If mankind wanted to become more like him, they should spend less time worrying about saving their souls and more time worrying about firming up their waistlines.
Thee used his substantial wealth and free time to further the ideals of muscular Christianity. He promoted the YMCA and distributed exercise equipment, donated money to the city's educational and religious institutions, and built a hospital. He even delivered lectures on moral hygiene and manliness at local missions. He didn't stop there though. He tried to put the ideals of muscular Christianity to work in his own life too: he forced his children to exercise, kept them perpetually doing something, and taught them to fight evil and corruption wherever they found it. Thee may have been a part of the Gilded Age elite, but his moral convictions turned him into a very active reformer.4
Thee's ceaseless promotion of the manly ideal made his occasional inabilities to live up to it that much more painful. No failure bothered him more than his shirking of the duty to serve in the Civil War. Just after the war broke out in 1861, Mittie's southern brothers enlisted in the Confederate army, and Thee's brother Rob joined up with Union. Thee planned to enlist as well, but Mittie couldn't bear the thought of her husband fighting against her brothers. She begged Thee not to go, and he acquiesced, hiring two replacements for the price of $300 each. He regretted his decision almost immediately; he would spend the war years away from home, supporting the Union in a civilian capacity. But he did not fight, and for that, he never forgave himself.
Thee's convictions and anxieties imprinted themselves directly onto the young T.R. Theodore Roosevelt was Thee's eldest son and his obvious favorite. From an early age—owing in part to Mittie's reluctance, and in part to Thee's own enthusiasm—Thee took charge of Teddy's education. And, unsurprisingly, that mostly meant moral training. Although Thee encouraged his son's budding interest in science, he took special care to bring him on his missionary rounds and teach him the values of muscular Christianity. He forced T.R. to memorize Bible stories, and preached to him the principles of patriotism and manly valor. He chastised laziness and demanded constant action.
The effect of Thee's ideas on T.R. is hard to overstate. Just consider T.R.'s relationship to his own body. Theodore was a sickly child, prone to debilitating asthma attacks. His health was so fragile he that had to be educated at home—not exactly the makings of a strong, muscular Christian. Frustrated with his son's weakness, Thee demanded that a fourteen-year-old T.R. "make his own body." Within the year T.R. had taught himself to box and was sparring with his brother Elliott. He began lifting weights. When, that summer, Thee took the family on a trip through Egypt, T.R. showed his father his muscular manliness by hunting along the banks as the family rode a barge down the Nile. For the rest of his life, T.R. would sing the praises of exercise and seek out all kinds of arguably unnecessary physical exertion. When it came to Thee's expectations, T.R. would stop at nothing to make sure he measured up.5
Theodore's incredible devotion to his father did not make him especially popular with his peers. A preachy eighteen year-old with a 40 year-old's values went over about as well as you'd imagine. When he arrived at Harvard at 18, his classmates found him moralistic and prudish. They could not understand his obsession with religion. He, in turn, found them depraved. They drank, and gambled, and acted in what seemed to him completely selfish ways. T.R. quietly studied his plants and animals and associated only with a couple of other muscular Christian types. He wrote home a lot; he clearly still counted on his father for support. He had few friends, but he didn't mind. With Thee's backing, he felt supremely confident.