Name:  Theodore Roosevelt

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Born:  October 27, 1858
Died:  January 6, 1919
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Youth and Early Political Career

Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th president of the United States (1901-1909), having previously served as assistant secretary of the Navy (1897-1898), governor of New York (1898-1900), and vice president (1901).  Descended from a wealthy, old-line Dutch family, he was the son of Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt of Georgia and Theodore Roosevelt Sr., a New York importer known for his charity work.  His uncle, Robert Roosevelt, was a Democratic congressman (1871-1873), U.S. minister to the Netherlands (1888-1890), and an early conservationist.  From his parents, Theodore developed a sense of social responsibility and fair play.  He characterized his father as the best man he ever knew and the only man he ever feared. 

As a youth, Theodore Roosevelt was frail and severely asthmatic, which he worked hard to overcome through physical training and sports, becoming an advocate of the “strenuous life.”  Intellectually curious, he was educated by private tutors until entering Harvard in 1876.  By his early teens, he had a keen knowledge of the natural world, but switched in college from the study of science to history and government.  Roosevelt graduated from Harvard 21st out of a class of 158 in June 1880, and four months later married Alice Hathaway Lee.  He also entered Columbia Law School that year, and worked on his first book, The Naval War of 1812, which was published in 1882.  He soon gave up his legal studies to begin a career in politics.

In November 1881, Roosevelt was elected as a Republican to the first of three consecutive terms in the New York State Assembly (1882-1884).  Although at 23 he was the legislature’s youngest member, he worked quickly and diligently to make an impact.  As a member of the Committee on Cities, Roosevelt introduced four bills within the first 48 hours of the legislative session.  Although only one bill passed, his efforts gained him the leadership of an informal group of reform Republicans who were independent of machine politics.  The press discovered that Roosevelt made good copy.  In 1883, he served as minority leader and oversaw passage of the state’s first civil service reform bill.

Tragedy struck Roosevelt in February 1884 when his wife, Alice, and his mother died within hours of each other.  Alice died of Bright’s disease and complications following the birth of their daughter, also named Alice.  Deeply affected by his wife’s death, he never spoke of her again.  When the legislative session adjourned, Roosevelt spent the next two years at a ranch he purchased in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory.  Along with hunting big game and driving cattle, he wrote biographies of Thomas Hart Benton (1887) and Gouverneur Morris (1887), a personal account of Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), and began work on the four-part history, Winning of the West (1889-1896).

In 1886, Roosevelt returned to New York City, where he was nominated by the Republican Party to run for mayor.  He finished third (28%) in the November election behind radical economic theorist Henry George (31%) and Democrat Abram Hewitt (41%).  Roosevelt lost a substantial number of middle- and upper-class voters who cast ballots for the victorious Hewitt out of fear that the three-way race might put George in office.  That December in London, Roosevelt married Edith Carow, a childhood friend.  The couple later had four sons and a daughter.

In 1889, Republican President Benjamin Harrison appointed Roosevelt to the United States Civil Service Commission.  The ideal of merit over partisanship in public service fit with Roosevelt’s political philosophy that efficiency and progress for the public good resulted from the application of “scientific” principles to government administration.  He performed his duties as commissioner energetically, sometimes angering politicians (even of his own party) in the process.  He resigned in 1895 to accept the presidency of the New York Board of Police Commissioners, where he again demanded rigor and honesty in public service.  The New York Police Department had a reputation for corruption.  During two combative years, Roosevelt established a training program, upgraded equipment, improved officer selection, implemented strict discipline, and oversaw a nearly tenfold increase in the dismissal rate.

In the spring of 1897, Roosevelt resigned as police commission president to serve as assistant secretary of the Navy under Republican President William McKinley.  Roosevelt lobbied tirelessly for expansion of the Navy to a force capable of patrolling both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, worked to improve the department’s administration and the fleet’s technology, and privately pushed for war against Spain over Cuba.  Following the sinking of the Maine in February 1898, and in the brief absence of Navy Secretary John D. Long, Roosevelt ordered Commodore George Dewey to prepare for an engagement with the Spanish Navy in the Philippines in case of war.  The order complied with Naval Department contingency plans and was not rescinded.

Rough Rider, Governor, and Vice President

When war between Spain and the United States was declared in April 1898, Roosevelt resigned from the Navy Department and organized with Dr. Leonard Wood the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.  Soon known as the “Rough Riders,” the regiment was an odd but talented mix of cowboys, Indians, and black “Buffalo soldiers” from the West with sportsmen and Ivy League athletes from the East.  As a boy, Roosevelt had been embarrassed that his father had not served in the Union military in deference to his Southern mother.  The Spanish-American War gave him a chance to uphold family honor, test and prove his own worth, and serve his country.  In their first fight in Cuba, the Rough Riders repelled a Spanish ambush; afterward, Roosevelt was promoted to colonel and given command of the regiment.  On July 1, the Rough Riders gained fame when they charged bravely up Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill during an intense and important battle. 

Roosevelt returned to New York in mid-August 1898, and six weeks later was nominated for governor by the Republican Party, with the blessing of state party boss Thomas C. Platt.  In the November election, he edged Democrat Augustus van Wyck 49%-48%.  As governor, Roosevelt supported regulation of factory working conditions, a limit on the work hours of women and children, an eight-hour workday for state employees, extension of civil service rules, repeal of racially segregated public schools, and creation of the Palisades Interstate Park (with New Jersey).  Although he consulted regularly with Platt, Roosevelt often ignored the advice.  The party boss was particularly upset when the governor advocated and signed a law imposing taxes on business corporations.

With national renown as a war hero and a strong record as governor of an important electoral state, Roosevelt was a leading contender for the Republican vice-presidential nomination in 1900.  (Vice President Garret Hobart had died in November 1899.)  Although eager to be president, Roosevelt worried that the vice presidency would be a dead-end job and was ambivalent about accepting an offer.  Republican National chairman Mark Hanna lobbied hard against the governor’s nomination, while Boss Platt promoted it as a way to remove Roosevelt from New York.  President McKinley left the decision to convention delegates, who all voted for Roosevelt, except the governor himself.  When McKinley followed tradition for sitting presidents by not campaigning openly for reelection, Roosevelt traveled 21,000 miles to deliver 673 speeches before an estimated audience of three million Americans.  On November 6, the Republican national ticket won a decisive victory over the Democratic slate of William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson, 292-155 in the Electoral College and 52%-46% in the popular vote. 

First Presidential Term

Only six months into his second term, President McKinley was assassinated while attending the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.  On September 14, 1901, Roosevelt was sworn in as president of the United States; at 42 years of age, a month-and-a-half away from his 43rd birthday, he was the youngest man to assume the office (John Kennedy was the youngest elected at the age of 44 years, 5 months).  

Roosevelt’s first annual message to Congress in December 1901 set forth his administration’s antitrust policy.  While acknowledging that business corporations were beneficial to the American economy, the new president recognized the existence of “great evils” and called for the regulation, not prohibition, of large business firms known as “trusts.”  On February 19, 1902, the Justice Department sued in federal court under the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) to break up J. P. Morgan’s railroad trust, the Northern Securities Company.  It was the first of 45 antitrust suits filed by his administration.  In March 1904, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Northern Securities had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.   

Roosevelt earned the nickname, “Trustbuster,” but his preferred tactic was government regulation of big business.  When 150,000 Pennsylvania coalminers went on strike in May 1902, Roosevelt pressed the reluctant owners to negotiate by threatening a government takeover of the mines.  In October, an arbitration panel settled the dispute largely in favor of the strikers, though stopping short of formal union recognition.  The precedent-setting executive action was the first time a president had intervened on the side of labor.  In 1903, he signed an act establishing the Bureau of Corporations, which was charged with inspecting and publicizing corporate earnings; the Elkins Act, which outlawed freight-rebates for large shippers; and an act creating the Department of Commerce and Labor. 

One of Roosevelt’s foremost legacies concerned environmental conservation.  Against strong opposition, his administration set aside 230 million acres as national parks, national forests, wildlife reserves, and other federally protected areas.  In May 1902, Crater Lake (Oregon) was the first of five national parks he established, and the Newlands (Nevada) Reclamation Act he signed the next month was the first of 21 federal irrigation projects under his watch.  The next year, Pelican Island (Florida) became the first of 51 federal bird reservations and Luquillo (Puerto Rico) the first of 150 national forests established during his presidency (and the only tropical forest to date).  In 1905, after his reelection, Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, with Gifford Pinchot as its first director, and signed a law designating Wichita Forest (Oklahoma) as the first of four federal game preserves. 

The most notable event in foreign policy of Roosevelt’s first term was the Panama Canal Treaty.  American interest in building an interoceanic canal across Central America dated to the 1870s.  However, it was the Spanish-American War of 1898, fought in Cuba and the Philippines, that drove home to American politicians the need for a shorter route.  In January 1903, Secretary of State John Hay signed a treaty with Columbia in which the United States purchased a 99-year lease to a canal zone in Panama (then part of Columbia).  When the Columbian senate rejected the treaty, Roosevelt and Hay concluded the nation had negotiated in bad faith.  That November, French engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla led a successful revolt against Columbian rule in Panama.  Roosevelt had been aware of the plan and, although he gave no verbal support, had ordered the Pacific fleet to the area.  On November 18, Secretary Hay and Bunau-Varilla, representing Panama, signed a treaty giving the United States sovereignty over a canal zone in return for $10 million and $250,000 annual rent (which was raised over the years).  Construction on the Panama Canal began in 1904, and it opened in 1914.  (Panama resumed ownership in 2000.) 

The 1904 Republican National Convention unanimously endorsed Roosevelt for a second term (his first presidential nomination) and chose Senator Charles Fairbanks of Indiana as his vice-presidential running mate.  Roosevelt grudgingly accepted the tradition of an incumbent president not openly campaigning for reelection, so Fairbanks undertook a speaking tour of 33 states.  The Democratic presidential nominee, Judge Alton B. Parker of New York, conducted quiet campaign until hitting the hustings in late October.  Nevertheless, Roosevelt managed to remain in the limelight by opening the White House to the press, making policy statements, and conducting official duties, all done with his attention-getting personality.  In November, Roosevelt won the presidential election by 336-140 in the Electoral College and 56%-38% in the popular vote, the largest popular margin in American history until Republican Warren Harding defeated Democrat James Cox in 1920 (61%-34%).

In 1904, the bankrupt Dominican Republic was unable to repay its foreign debt and the International Court of Justice ruled that creditor nations could intervene to collect the money.  In his annual report to Congress that December, President Roosevelt articulated what became known as the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine.  It declared that the United States’ purported sovereignty in the Western Hemisphere gave it the right of international police power to intervene in cases of “chronic wrongdoing” in any regional nation.  At the invitation of the Dominican Republic, the United States assumed that country’s customs collection to pay off its debt. 

Second Presidential Term

In 1905, Roosevelt played a central role in mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).  Early in the conflict, the president had headed an international coalition aimed at preserving China’s neutrality and territorial integrity by limiting the theater of war.  Although initially concerned by Russia’s aggressive behavior in East Asia over recent years, he came to fear that Japan might upset the balance of power in the Far East by emerging from the war as the dominant nation. In mid-June 1905, the belligerents finally agreed to negotiate a settlement, provoking the London Morning Press to express a common sentiment, “Mr. Roosevelt’s success has amazed everybody.”  The president was instrumental in the positive outcome of the peace talks, which resulted in a treaty signed on September 5.  In 1906, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in ending the Russo-Japanese War, the first American and the first president to win a Nobel Prize in any category. 

In 1905-1906, Roosevelt also helped mediate a dispute between Germany and France over Morocco.  Two years before, Britain and France had signed the Entente Cordiale, which recognized the authority of Britain in Egypt and of France in Morocco.  The agreement worried Germany, which had previously relied on British-French rivalry to help check the power of each.  On March 31, 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany delivered a speech calling for an international conference to ensure Morocco’s independence. When the situation threatened in June to erupt into war, Roosevelt persuaded the French to negotiate.  The conference in Algeciras, Spain, began in January 1906, with diplomat Henry White representing the United States.  A proposal by Roosevelt contributed to breaking an impasse, and a treaty was signed in April recognizing Morocco’s independence and free trading rights, though allowing France and Spain to police the sultanate.

Tension between Japan and the United States had been building over the issue of Japanese immigrant workers, who were resented by white Americans in the West.  In October 1906, the San Francisco School Board announced that Asian students would henceforth attend racially segregated schools.  The move sparked a diplomatic crisis and war scare between Japan and the United States.  In his annual report to Congress in December, the president labeled the school segregation a “wicked absurdity.”  In February 1907, the Senate approved Roosevelt’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” in which Japan agreed to prohibit passports for travel to the United States, except for Hawaii.  With the new immigration restrictions adopted, the San Francisco school board reversed its segregation order.  Afterward, improving relations between the two countries resulted in the Root-Takahira Treaty, which attempted to secure peaceful trade in the Pacific.

Roosevelt had a relatively good, though flawed, record on the treatment of black Americans.  As governor, he had overseen school desegregation in New York.  Shortly after assuming the presidency in 1901, he sought the advice of Booker T. Washington, the nation’s most prominent black leader.  They had dinner and a lengthy discussion at the White House.  Washington was the first black officially entertained at the White House, which caused a severe negative reaction by white Southern politicians and newspapers.  In 1902, Roosevelt used a Memorial Day speech to condemn the lynching of blacks, and spoke out at other times against the practice.  In 1903, the president withstood pressure to revoke his appointment of Dr. William D. Crum, a black man, as Collector of the Port of Charleston, South Carolina.  Later that year, he closed a post office in Indianola, Mississippi, when white residents protested against his appointment of a black postmistress. 

Roosevelt’s race record was besmirched by an incident in 1906.  That August, white residents of Brownsville, Texas, accused 12 black men from the 1st Battalion of the 25th Infantry of a shooting rampage that killed one man.  A commanding officer reported that all troops had been accounted for during the time of the conflict, and two investigations produced no formal charges.  However, Roosevelt signed papers dishonorably discharging 167 black soldiers for insubordination after none of them admitted guilt or provided any knowledge of the incident.  Black organizations and newspapers protested the president’s action.  Decades later, an investigation revealed that the soldiers had been framed, and President Richard Nixon signed an act in 1972 that granted them honorable discharges and $25,000 to the sole survivor.

In 1906, Roosevelt signed three major pieces of domestic legislation into law:  the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Meat Inspection Act, and the Hepburn Act.  For years, reformers had been publicizing threats to public health and safety from the unregulated food and drug industries.  The cause was given further impetus by the “embalmed beef” scandal during which many Spanish-American War soldiers became severely ill or died from tainted food supplies.  Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, chief chemist in the Department of Agriculture, provided scientific evidence against harmful additives used by the meatpacking industry, and Upton Sinclair’s expose of meatpacking in Chicago, The Jungle, gave the issue emotional weight.

The Pure Food and Drug Act established the Food and Drug Administration charged with inspecting all food and drugs intended for humans, mandated prescriptions from state-licensed physicians for the purchase of certain drugs (thereby restricting the patent medicine business), and requiring warning labels for habit-forming medicines.  The Meat Inspection Act established sanitary standards for slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants and authorized the Department of Agriculture to inspect animals intended for human consumption before and after slaughter.  The Hepburn Act gave greater authority to the Interstate Commerce Commission by allowing it to decide which shipping rates were “reasonable” and banning free railroad passes (often given to politicians).

In 1907, the United States suffered an economic panic, affecting primarily the banking system and subsequently the stock market.  Although severe, the economy began recovering in the spring of 1908.  Roosevelt had announced after his 1904 election that he would not seek another term in 1908.  Instead, he persuaded Secretary of War William Howard Taft to become a candidate for the Republican nomination, which the reluctant administrator won.  Roosevelt had believed that Taft’s political views harmonized with his own, but he became increasingly dissatisfied with Taft’s presidency (1909-1912). 

Post-Presidential Years

In 1910, Roosevelt returned from a combined hunting and scientific safari in Africa to find a Republican Party divided into conservative and progressive factions.  On August 31, the ex-president delivered his “New Nationalism” speech, articulating an agenda of economic and social reforms.  It accepted the existence of big business, but aimed to counter its unfavorable aspects with a strong federal government on the side of workers and consumers. 

In the 1910 elections, Roosevelt campaigned for progressive Republican candidates.  The next year, he became editor of Outlook magazine, which provided a forum for his political statements.  In February 1912, he announced his challenge to Taft for the Republican presidential nomination.  Roosevelt won more delegates in state primaries, but most delegates were still selected at state party conventions, which Taft controlled.  The former president attended the Republican National Convention in Chicago that June, accusing his successor of stealing delegates.  When the Taft forces demonstrated control of the convention, Roosevelt and most of his supporters bolted to establish the Progressive Party with the Rough Rider as its standard-bearer.  During the campaign, he survived an assassination attempt.  The split in the Republican Party allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency in November 1912 with an Electoral College landslide, 435 to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8, and a popular plurality of 42% to Roosevelt’s 27% and Taft’s 23%.

In 1913-1914, Roosevelt went on a 1500-mile scientific expedition in Brazil’s Amazon jungle and along its previously unmapped tributary, the Rio da Dúvida (River of Doubt); which was renamed Rio Roosevelt.  He contracted malaria on the trip, but recovered fully.  Upon returning to America, he continued writing books and articles, and in 1916 campaigned for the unsuccessful Republican presidential nominee, Charles Evans Hughes.  When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Roosevelt offered to raise and lead a volunteer regiment, but President Wilson refused the request.  Roosevelt had doubts about the creation of a postwar League of Nations and was preparing to support Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s reservations to the peace treaty when the former president died at his home, Sagamore Hill, at Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York on January 6, 1919. 

Sources consulted:  William DeGregario, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, 4th ed. (New York:  Random House, 1993); William H. Harbaugh, “Theodore Roosevelt,” American National Biography online; Henry Loomis Nelson, “Governor Roosevelt’s Administration,” Harper’s Weekly “Theodore Roosevelt,”; “Theodore Roosevelt,” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Ed., 2003 [online]; “Theodore Roosevelt,” Congressional Biography online; “Theodore Roosevelt,” The White House online; Theodore Roosevelt Association website,











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