As the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt defined the dimensions of the president as activist, thereby establishing the predominant model of the modern presidency, one that is still the subject of contention among both liberals and conservatives. In his seven and a half years in office (1901–1908), Roosevelt acted, in his own estimation, as the servant of the people as a whole and in the greater interest of the nation to ensure an efficient and fair operation of the Federal government. He saw his mandate to act where he saw the need, and the Constitution did not forbid him to act. He also believed in the power of the government to protect those less able to protect themselves (especially labor but also wildlife and the environment), and he was a firm believer in the manifest destiny of the United States to play a leading role in world affairs. He thus blended progressive tendencies in domestic affairs with an outspoken assertion of American power that led him to what would be characterized today as aggressive acts. His critics found him high-handed and dictatorial although he was much beloved by the general citizenry who elevated him to almost folk-hero status. He is also the model for the president as celebrity.
Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency was meteoric and almost inevitable even if it was in the actual occurrence the result of an unexpected tragic event. The youngest man to be elevated to the office, he assumed the presidency six months after being sworn in as vice president when President William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. Roosevelt’s presidency was marked by an activist agenda that few presidents since Lincoln had undertaken. The prevailing view of the presidency was as an executive carrying out the laws developed by Congress and the prevailing ideology of laissez-faire generally resulted in not much legislation from that body. Attempts by several late-19th-century administrations to deal with issues resulting from an increasingly industrial economy and an increasingly corporate business structure had been overturned by a conservative Supreme Court, which generally held that the Federal government had little or no authority to legislate working conditions or regulate business. Roosevelt challenged this view, believing in what he called a Hamilton/Lincoln approach to governance as opposed to a Jeffersonian/Buchanan approach. As he argued in his autobiography, “I believed in invoking the National power with absolute freedom for every National need; and I believed that the Constitution should be treated as the greatest document ever devised by the wit of man to aid people in exercising every power necessary for its own betterment, and not as strait-jacket cunningly fashioned to strangle growth.”
His accomplishments included increased regulation of business, especially the railroads, through the establishment of a Bureau of Corporations and legislation controlling freight rates; passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act; and efforts to protect the environment. Many of his accomplishments came about outside of the legislative process. Soon after assuming office, he interceded in an intense labor-management dispute in the anthracite coal industry that threatened the national economy; he threatened to take over the coal mines at the same time as he established an independent commission to arbitrate the dispute (his use of commissions to deal with difficult issues became a hallmark of his administration). He instituted a suit against an attempt to create a railroad monopoly in the Pacific Northwest (the suit was successful) and undertook other initiatives to curb the power of trusts and monopolies, gaining a reputation, somewhat exaggerated, as a trustbuster (he did not believe monopolies were always a bad thing). Through presidential directive, he put millions of acres of wilderness areas under federal protection and created wildlife preserves; historian Douglas Brinkley calculates that Roosevelt was responsible for creating or expanding 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, 4 national game preserves, 6 national parks, and 18 national natural monuments (including the Grand Canyon) for a total of 300 million acres. He also pushed through legislation to regulate the use of natural resources.
In foreign affairs he was equally activist. He enhanced the military preparedness of the nation, especially its navy. Although during his administration the United States was not engaged in any major wars, the country was flexing its imperial muscles in Cuba and the Philippines, territories it now dominated as a result of the Spanish–American War of 1898, for which Roosevelt had actively campaigned. He resisted European involvement in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere (the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine). His most notorious piece of foreign intervention was the building of the Panama Canal. When Colombia, which controlled Panama, refused to sign a treaty giving the United States permission to build the canal unless the United States paid it more than $10 million (the United States paid $40 million to the bankrupt French company that originally began the canal), the United States supported a rebellion that led to the founding of a more compliant Republic of Panama. His major accomplishment, however, was mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His well-known mantra “Speak softly but carry a big stick,” an African proverb, was his guiding principle.
Most of the themes in Roosevelt’s presidency had been present from the beginning of his career and from his childhood. The second child and oldest son of a prominent New York family of Dutch ancestry on his father’s side (his mother was a southerner), Roosevelt was a sickly child, suffering from persistent asthma and recurring stomach disorders; he was also exceedingly nearsighted. His father pushed him to overcome these ailments, and through his own exertions he became a man of generally robust physical and mental health and an advocate for the “strenuous life” (he would periodically experience bouts of physical collapse and mental depression). In college, he became a boxer in the lightweight class (in later life he tended toward portliness) and undertook strenuous excursions into the wilderness. After his graduation from Harvard, he climbed peaks in Maine and tramped the Midwest with his brother; on his honeymoon, he climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland. Later he traveled to the Dakota Badlands and spent several months hunting buffalo and living outdoors under extreme conditions. He did not neglect his intellectual side. As a sickly child, he spent hours reading (despite his eye problems) and developed the interest in natural history that remained one of his life’s major passions. He read Darwin at a young age, and in his senior year at Harvard he began to write a history of the U.S. Navy during the war of 1812, which was published in his first year out of Harvard, when he was also attending law school. By the time he ascended to the presidency, his collected writings totaled 15 volumes in addition to many articles in popular magazines. In his spare time he founded a society dedicated to nature conservancy and wildlife preservation (The Crockett and Boone Society) and helped found the New York Zoological Society (the Bronx Zoo). He followed in his father’s path as a supporter of the American Museum of Natural History.
In his first bid for elective office when he was 23, Roosevelt was one of the youngest men elected to the New York State Assembly, barely two years after his graduation from Harvard. Roosevelt made an immediate impression in the New York State Assembly as an outspoken advocate of reform measures. He was also notable for his dandyish style of dress and his Harvard accent. He became a master at cultivating the press, although he frequently alienated the party bosses by his independence and his attempts to diminish the power of the party machines. After three one-year terms, he made an unsuccessful run for the mayoralty of New York City, losing in a three-way race. Following his defeat (and following the death in childbirth of his first wife Alice Lee, he married his childhood friend Edith Carow two years later and raised a family of four sons and two daughters), Roosevelt contemplated leaving politics and taking up ranching and writing full time. He was appointed a member of the Civil Service Commission in Washington and subsequently became its chairman. In the six years in office, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Roosevelt enhanced the standing of the commission and expanded the principle of meritocratic government service (to the dismay of traditional politicians raised in the spoils system).
By the mid-1890s, Roosevelt was back in New York, as a member of the fourman Police Commission. As it had in Washington, Roosevelt’s outspokenness became fodder for the press and the bane of politicians whose livelihood depended on old-fashioned graft and corruption. As president of the commission, Roosevelt implemented professional standards for police officers and effectuated vigorous enforcement of the law in an age when slack law enforcement and police corruption were endemic. He was particularly vigorous in enforcing the Sunday closing laws on New York’s many saloons, a campaign that angered even some of his ardent supporters. A timely appointment as undersecretary of the navy in the McKinley administration (a position he used to attain all his political contacts) rescued him from what he thought was the ignominy of defeat when a deadlock in the commission led to the frustration of his policies.
Roosevelt’s brief tenure in the navy department took place as tensions rose between the United States and Spain over Spain’s handling of the rebellion in its colony in Cuba. Roosevelt was an advocate for ousting Spain from its Western Hemisphere colonies and for war preparedness. He believed that the United States would become an increasing world power and it needed to prepare to assume its role, especially by strengthening the U.S. fleet. President McKinley temporized over the issue, attempting to find peaceful solutions (including purchasing Cuba from Spain). Following the sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, Roosevelt, while his boss was out of the office for the afternoon, ordered Commodore George Dewey to sail the Pacific fleet to the Philippines in the event war was declared. (Historian William Harbaugh notes that Roosevelt’s order was not rescinded when the navy secretary returned.) When war was declared against Spain following a report of a commission of inquiry that concluded that the Maine had been sabotaged, Roosevelt resigned his office and organized a volunteer cavalry force to fight in Cuba. His heroics leading the Rough Riders in the Battle for San Juan Hill (actually he charged up nearby Kettle Hill) cemented Roosevelt’s folk-hero status, and he returned to the United States after the brief Cuba campaign to the clamor of the general public that he seek nomination for the Governorship of New York; he was just turning 40 when he was elected.
Back in Albany, Roosevelt again took on the party machines. Although he had been elected with the aid of Senator Thomas Platt, the head of the Republican machine in the state, and he occasionally compromised with Platt on some issues, Roosevelt was not hesitant to take on his patron when he felt that principles were at stake. He fought for improved working conditions (including the eight-hour day), for progressive taxation policies, including increased taxes on public utilities, and for conservation measures to protect wilderness areas. Many of his policies challenged corporate interests, whom Platt supported, and as Roosevelt neared the end of his first term (the governorship was then a two-year office), Platt sought ways to oust him. A movement had also begun to draft Roosevelt as vice president in a second McKinley campaign, and although Roosevelt may have encouraged this movement, he soon had second thoughts, seeing the vice presidency as a dead end for an activist such as himself. Nonetheless, Platt’s maneuvering coupled with the efforts of Roosevelt’s supporters led to his nomination and his subsequent election in the 1900 campaign. As Edmund Morris notes, Roosevelt’s actual official activity as vice president lasted exactly four days; Congress was adjourned for much of early 1901, and he spent much of the spring and summer at his home on Long Island before he became president following McKinley’s death the following September.
Roosevelt was exceedingly popular with the general public. With his robust energy (many described him as childlike) and his distinctive physiognomy, dominated by his signature pince-nez glasses and his prominent teeth, he was grist for political cartoonists (he was regularly depicted in his Rough Rider uniform battling corporate enemies) as well as for reporters in the heyday of the popular press. One of the first presidents to be filmed extensively, his presence on the campaign trail is well documented, as he vigorously addressed eager crowds. His exploits as a hunter were front-page news, including his refusal to shoot a bear on a hunt in Mississippi because it had been tied to a tree by his hunting companions; the incident led a toymaker to manufacture the teddy bear, which remains an enduring cultural icon (he hated the nickname Teddy, but it was universally used). He was less popular with members of both parties in Congress, and in his last years in office, after he announced just after his election to his own full term in 1904 that he would not seek a third term, he was stalemated by Congress on most of his agenda. His handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, proved to be a disappointment to Roosevelt, but he failed to seize the Republican nomination from Taft in 1912 and ran instead as a third-party candidate, which led to the election of Woodrow Wilson. Despite Wilson’s support of progressive causes, Roosevelt despised the new president, especially for his passive response to the war in Europe before 1917. The U.S. entry into the war spurred Roosevelt to new heights of patriotic fervor that veered into jingoistic campaigns for 100 percent Americanism. His last years were darkened by the death of his youngest son in the war and his own physical decline. Weakened by an accident and malaria contracted on an expedition in 1913 to map a tributary of the Amazon, Roosevelt died suddenly in his sleep at his home. He was just 60.
Brinkley, Douglas. The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: HarperCollins, 2009 (Harper Perennial ed. 2010).
Grubin, David, producer and director. TR. Written by David Grubin and Geoffrey C. Ward. The American Experience. PBS Video, 1996.
Harbaugh, William. “Theodore Roosevelt.” American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press, 2000. http://www.anb.org/articles/06/06-00569.html .
Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979 (rpt. Random House 2001); Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2001; Colonel Roosevelt. New York: Random House, 2010.
Roosevelt, Theodore. Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography. New York: Scribners, 1913.