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American President Essays: Theodore Roosevelt

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Theodore Roosevelt: Life in Brief

Theodore Roosevelt, who came into office in 1901 and served until 1909, is considered the first modern President because he significantly expanded the influence and power of the executive office. From the Civil War to the turn of the twentieth century, the seat of power in the national government resided in the U.S. Congress. Beginning in the 1880s, the executive branch gradually increased its power. Roosevelt seized on this trend, believing that the President had the right to use all powers except those that were specifically denied him to accomplish his goals. As a result, the President, rather than Congress or the political parties, became the center of the American political arena. As President, Roosevelt challenged the ideas of limited government and individualism. In their stead, he advocated government regulation to achieve social and economic justice. He used executive orders to accomplish his goals, especially in conservation, and waged an aggressive foreign policy. He was also an extremely popular President and the first to use the media to appeal directly to the people, bypassing the political parties and career politicians.

Early Life

Frail and sickly as a boy, "Teedie" Roosevelt developed a rugged physique as a teenager and became a lifelong advocate of exercise and the "strenuous life." After graduating from Harvard, Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee and studied law at Columbia University. He dropped out after a year to pursue politics, winning a seat in the New York Assembly in 1882.

A double tragedy struck Roosevelt in 1884, when his mother and his wife died in the same house on the same day. Roosevelt spent two years out West in an attempt to recover, tending cows as a rancher and busting outlaws as a frontier sheriff. In 1886, he returned to New York and married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow. They raised six children, including Roosevelt's daughter from his first marriage. After losing a campaign for mayor, he served as Civil Service commissioner, president of the New York City Police Board, and assistant secretary of the Navy. All the while, he demonstrated honesty in office, upsetting the party bosses who expected him to ignore the law in favor of partisan politics.

War Hero and Vice President

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt volunteered as commander of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, known as the Rough Riders, leading a daring charge on San Juan Hill. Returning as a war hero, he became governor of New York and began to exhibit an independence that upset the state's political machine. To stop Roosevelt's reforms, party bosses "kicked him upstairs" to the vice presidency under William McKinley, believing that in this position he would be unable to continue his progressive policies. Roosevelt campaigned vigorously for McKinley in 1900—one commentator remarked, "Tis Teddy alone that's running, an' he ain't a runnin', he's a gallopin'." Roosevelt's efforts helped ensure victory for McKinley. But his time as vice president was brief; McKinley was assassinated in 1901, making Roosevelt the President of the United States.

By the 1904 election, Roosevelt was eager to be elected President in his own right. To achieve this, he knew that he needed to work with Republican Party leaders. He promised to hold back on parts of his progressive agenda in exchange for a free hand in foreign affairs. He also got the reluctant support of wealthy capitalists, who feared his progressive measures, but feared a Democratic victory even more. TR won in a landslide, becoming the first President to be elected after gaining office due to the death of his predecessor. Upon victory, he vowed not to run for another term in 1908, a promise he came to regret.

Modern Presidency

As President, Roosevelt worked to ensure that the government improved the lives of American citizens. His "Square Deal" domestic program reflected the progressive call to reform the American workplace, initiating welfare legislation and government regulation of industry. He was also the nation's first environmentalist President, setting aside nearly 200 million acres for national forests, reserves, and wildlife refuges. In foreign policy, Roosevelt wanted to make the United States a global power by increasing its influence worldwide. He led the effort to secure rights to build the Panama Canal, one of the greatest engineering feats at that time. He also issued his "corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine, which established the United States as the "policeman" of the Western Hemisphere. In addition, he used his position as President to help negotiate peace agreements between belligerent nations, believing that the world should settle international disputes through diplomacy rather than war. Roosevelt is considered the first modern U.S. President because he greatly strengthened the power of the executive branch. He was also an extremely popular President—so popular after leaving office in 1909 that he was able to mount a serious run for the presidency again in 1912. Believing that his successor, William Howard Taft, had failed to continue his program of reform, TR threw his hat into the ring as a candidate for the Progressive Party. Although Roosevelt was defeated by Democrat Woodrow Wilson, his efforts resulted in the creation of one of the most significant third parties in U.S. history. With the onset of World War I in 1914, Roosevelt advocated that the United States prepare itself for war. Accordingly, he was highly critical of Wilson's pledge of neutrality. Once the United States entered the war in 1917, all four of Roosevelt's sons volunteered to serve, which greatly pleased the former President. The death of his youngest son, Quentin, left him deeply distraught. Theodore Roosevelt died less than a year later.

Theodore Roosevelt: Life Before the Presidency

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, and grew up in New York City, the second of four children. His father, Theodore, Sr., was a well-to-do businessman and philanthropist. His mother, Martha "Mittie" Roosevelt, was a Southerner, raised on a plantation in Georgia. "Teedie" grew up surrounded by the love of his parents and siblings. But he was always a sickly child afflicted with asthma. As a teenager, he decided that he would "make his body," and he undertook a program of gymnastics and weight-lifting, which helped him develop a rugged physique. Thereafter, Roosevelt became a lifelong advocate of exercise and the "strenuous life." He always found time for physical exertions including hiking, riding horses, and swimming. As a young boy, Roosevelt was tutored at home by private teachers. He traveled widely through Europe and the Middle East with his family during the late 1860s and early 1870s, once living with a host family in Germany for five months. In 1876, he entered Harvard College, where he studied a variety of subjects, including German, natural history, zoology, forensics, and composition. He also continued his physical endeavors, taking on boxing and wrestling as new pursuits.

During college, Roosevelt fell in love with Alice Hathaway Lee, a young woman from a prominent New England banking family he met through a friend at Harvard. They were married in October 1880. Roosevelt then enrolled in Columbia Law School, but dropped out after one year to begin a career in public service. He was elected to the New York Assembly and served two terms from 1882 to 1884. A double tragedy struck Roosevelt in 1884. On February 12th, Alice gave birth to a daughter, Alice Lee. Two days later, Roosevelt's mother died of typhoid fever and his wife died of kidney disease within a few hours of each other—and in the same house. For the next few months, a devastated Roosevelt threw himself into political work to escape his grief. Finally, he left his daughter in the care of his sister and fled to the Dakota Badlands. Once out West, Roosevelt soaked in the frontier lifestyle. He bought two ranches and a thousand head of cattle. He flourished in the hardships of the western frontier, riding for days, hunting grizzly bears, herding cows as a rancher, and chasing outlaws as a frontier sheriff. Roosevelt headed back East in 1886; a devastating winter the following year wiped out most of his cattle. Although he would frequent the Dakota Badlands in subsequent years to hunt, he was ready leave the West and return to his former life. One of the reasons he did so was because of a rediscovered love with his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow. The two were married in England in 1886 and moved to Oyster Bay, New York, into a house known as Sagamore Hill. In addition to raising Roosevelt's first child, Alice, he and Edith had five children: Theodore, Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin.

Renewed Political Spirit

After returning to New York, Roosevelt continued his writing career, which began with the publication of his book, The Naval War of 1812, in 1882. He wrote a number of books during this period, including The Life of Thomas Hart Benton (1887), The Life of Gouverneur Morris (1888), and The Winning of the West (four volumes, 1889-1896). Roosevelt also resumed his political career by running unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1886. In 1888, he campaigned for Republican presidential nominee Benjamin Harrison. When Harrison won the election, he appointed Roosevelt to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Roosevelt was re-appointed to the Commission by Democratic President Grover Cleveland in 1893. As commissioner, he worked hard to enforce the civil service laws, although he regularly clashed with party regulars and politicians who wanted him to ignore the law in favor of patronage. Roosevelt served dutifully as a commissioner until he accepted the presidency of the New York City Police Board in 1895. He demonstrated honesty in office, much to the displeasure of party bosses. He also cleaned up the corrupt Police Board and strictly enforced laws banning the sale of liquor on the Sabbath.

In 1897, the newly elected Republican President, William McKinley, appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt had long believed in the importance of the Navy and the role it played in national defense. As acting secretary of the Navy, he responded to the explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 by putting the Navy on full alert. (See McKinley biography, Foreign Affairs section, for details.) Roosevelt instructed Commodore George Dewey to make ready for war with Spain by taking the necessary steps for bottling up the Spanish squadron in Asian waters. He also asked Dewey to prepare for the probable invasion of the Philippines.

The Rough Riders

When the Spanish-American War began, Roosevelt resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy and volunteered for service as commander the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, a unit known as the Rough Riders—an elite company comprised of Ivy League gentlemen, western cowboys, sheriffs, prospectors, police officers, and Native Americans. Once in Cuba, Roosevelt distinguished himself by leading them on a charge—on foot—up San Juan Hill (actually Kettle Hill) on the outskirts of Santiago. The contingent suffered heavy casualties. The Rough Riders returned to the United States as war heroes. Their varied backgrounds, colorful leader, and bravery on the battlefield brought them considerable attention. Roosevelt personally reveled in his time in the military. He later wrote about his military exploits: "I would rather have led that charge and earned my colonelcy than served three terms in the United States Senate. It makes me feel as though I could now leave something to my children which will serve as an apology for my having existed."


Roosevelt returned home a war hero and caught the eye of Republican leaders in New York who were looking for a gubernatorial candidate. He agreed to run for governor against a popular Democrat, Judge Augustus van Wyck, the candidate of Tammany Hall. Roosevelt carried the election by just a few thousand votes; his victory stemmed largely from the work of the state's Republican Party boss, Thomas C. Platt, who threw the full support of his political machine behind the hero of San Juan Hill. Although Platt and Roosevelt had agreed to consult each other on matters of policy and patronage, the new governor was his own man. TR steadfastly refused to appoint party regulars as State Insurance Commissioner or Public Works Commissioner—the two most important patronage jobs in the state. When Governor Roosevelt supported a bill for the taxation of the value and assets of public services (gas, water, electric, and streetcars), his actions led to an explosive break with Platt. Almost overnight the insurance companies, the construction contractors, and the privately owned public service corporations realized that all the money they were contributing to Platt's political machine brought them little if any influence with Governor Roosevelt.

Boss Platt knew that something had to be done with the governor before he completely destroyed the Republican state machine. Consulting with Mark Hanna, the top Republican political boss in the nation, Platt conspired to "kick [Roosevelt] upstairs" to the vice presidency in 1900. (Vice President Garret Hobart had just died in office.) This would keep Roosevelt from running for a second term in New York (the governorship was a two-year term in those days). Roosevelt reluctantly agreed, persuaded that the vice presidency might lead to a shot at the White House in 1904. He also knew that the party bosses had rigged the convention, making it nearly impossible for him to avoid being nominated.

1900 Vice Presidential Campaign

The Republican convention nominated TR by acclamation. Thereafter, Roosevelt campaigned furiously for the Republican presidential candidate, William McKinley, matching his Democratic opponents, William Jennings Bryan and Adlai E. Stevenson, move for move. Roosevelt traveled more than 21,000 miles on a special campaign train, making hundreds of speeches, and more than three million people saw him in person. He spoke in 567 cities in twenty-four states. "Tis Tiddy alone that's running," observed Mr. Dooley (a press columnist who used an exaggerated Irish accent to make political observations) "an' he ain't a runnin', he's gallopin'." The Republican ticket overwhelmed the Democrats, racking up an 861,757 vote plurality, the largest Republican victory in years. McKinley won the popular vote of 7.2 million (292 Electoral College votes) to Bryan's 6.3 million (155 Electoral College votes). McKinley won his bid for reelection over Bryan by an even larger margin than he had garnered in 1896.

In September 1901, however, an assassin's bullet killed President McKinley (see McKinley biography, Death of the President section). This tragedy put Theodore Roosevelt ("that damned cowboy"—according to Mark Hanna, the top Republican political boss in the nation) in the White House as the nation's twenty-sixth President. He was the youngest person ever to serve in that capacity. Neither the nation nor the presidency would ever be the same again.

Theodore Roosevelt: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1904:

After Roosevelt acceded to the presidency in 1901, he soon began to think about how to win election as President in his own right. He realized that although he did not always agree with conservative Republicans in Congress, he needed their support in order to win the nomination in 1904. To that end, he worked out an understanding with legislators, especially Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, which gave him a free hand in foreign affairs in return for holding back the more progressive items of his domestic agenda. But TR did not refrain from using the executive office to break up monopolies, such as the Northern Securities Company, to mediate in labor disputes between unions and management, as he did in the coal miners' strike in 1902, and to use the White House as a "bully pulpit," from which he lectured the nation on how government should regulate big business. Fearful that his anti-corporate sentiments had soured party bosses, Roosevelt toned down his rhetoric in 1903. Most importantly, he was able to place his people in key party positions and maneuvered Mark Hanna, now the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, to endorse his candidacy several months prior to the 1904 convention. Then TR turned to the public, holding press conferences, launching a national tour of western states that lasted for thirty days, and boldly issuing an executive order that provided pensions for all veterans between the ages of sixty-two and sixty-seven.

With Mark Hanna's untimely death prior to the Republican convention in Chicago, one of Roosevelt's main competitors was gone, making TR's nomination a foregone conclusion. He was nominated unanimously on the first ballot. He picked Senator Charles W. Fairbanks of Indiana—a conservative Republican with close ties to the railroad industry—as his running mate. When the Democrats met in St. Louis, they picked two conservatives, Judge Alton B. Parker, from New York, and eighty-one-year-old Henry G. Davis, a wealthy ex-senator from Virginia and the oldest man to ever run for the vice-presidency. The Democrats, showcasing themselves as the "sane and safe choice," attacked the Roosevelt administration as "spasmodic, erratic, sensational, spectacular, and arbitrary." Republicans touted Roosevelt's record in foreign policy and promised more of the same. Neither Roosevelt nor Parker actively campaigned for the presidency, as was the custom. Over the summer of 1904, Roosevelt directed the campaign from his front porch at Oyster Bay, issuing lofty statements to his supporters and instructions on strategy to Republican state parties. Roosevelt received a large amount of money for the campaign from wealthy capitalists, such as Edward H. Harriman (the railroad tycoon), Henry C. Frick (the steel baron), and J.P. Morgan (the financial potentate of Wall Street). The wealthy capitalists and their friends contributed more than $2 million to Roosevelt's campaign. They supported Roosevelt because they preferred an "unpredictable head of a predictable party" in power than the "predictable head of an unpredictable party." They might have favored Parker as a person, but the Democrats were simply too populist in their constituency and potentially too radical in their ideas for the conservative business leaders ever to trust.

The election, however, had never been in doubt. TR won 336 electoral votes to Parker's 140. He took every state outside of the South, including Missouri. Roosevelt was immensely popular and rode to a second term on a huge wave of public support, unlike anything the nation had ever seen. After the victory, Roosevelt vowed not to run again for the presidency, believing it was wise to follow the precedent of only serving two terms in office. However, he came to regret that promise in advance of the 1908 election, believing he still had much of his agenda to accomplish. However, he held true to his pledge and supported his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, in 1908.

The Campaign and Election of 1912

Before he left office in 1909, Roosevelt hand-picked William Howard Taft as his successor and worked to get him elected. Taft had served in the Roosevelt administration as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war. During the election, Taft vowed to run the country just as Roosevelt had. But the new administration was off to a rocky start with the outgoing President. After apparently indicating that he would retain most of the existing cabinet members, Taft soon discovered that he would be better served by his own hand-picked secretaries. Roosevelt was miffed at having his cabinet members dismissed and at not being consulted on the new appointments. After Taft's inauguration, Roosevelt traveled in Africa and Europe for more than a year. He went on safari with his son Kermit, where he acquired more than 3,000 animal trophies, including eight elephants, seven hippos, nine lions, and thirteen rhinos. He then met up with Edith in Egypt, and the two of them journeyed throughout Europe, encountering constant demands to meet and greet royalty and politicians. When the Roosevelts returned to New York in June 1910, they were greeted by one of the largest mass receptions ever given in New York City. When he first arrived back in the United States, Roosevelt remained noncommittal on the Taft presidency. He wanted time to assess Taft's performance before making any judgments. However, some of his old friends had already brought him negative reports. Gifford Pinchot was so angry with Taft regarding conservation that he had earlier traveled to Italy to meet Roosevelt and discuss the situation. Once TR returned home, he was frequently visited by old friends who decried Taft's supposed efforts to undo his work. During this period, progressivism was gradually rising from the local and state level to the national level. Increasing numbers of people across the nation supported expanding the role of the federal government to ensure the welfare of the people. Pressured by the progressive wing of the Republican Party to challenge Taft in 1912, Roosevelt weighed his options. Eventually he decided to throw "his hat into the ring" and run against his former protege. The Republicans met in Chicago in June 1912, hopelessly split between the Roosevelt progressives and the supporters of President Taft. Roosevelt came to the convention having won a series of preferential primaries that put him ahead of the President in the race for party delegates. Taft, however, controlled the convention floor, and his backers managed to exclude most of the Roosevelt delegates by not recognizing their credentials. These tactics enraged TR, who then refused to allow himself to be nominated, paving the way for Taft to win on the first ballot. Roosevelt and his supporters abandoned the G.O.P. and reconvened in Chicago two weeks later to form the Progressive Party. They then nominated TR as their presidential candidate with Governor Hiram Johnson of California as his running mate. Roosevelt electrified the convention with a dramatic speech in which he announced that "we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord." Declaring that he felt "as strong as a Bull Moose," Roosevelt gave the new party its popular name—the Bull Moose Party—and described its party platform as "New Nationalism." Its tenets included political justice and economic opportunity, and it sought a minimum wage for women; an eight-hour workday; a social security system; a national health service; a federal securities commission; and direct election of U.S. senators. The platform also supported the initiative, referendum, and recall as means for the people to exert more direct control over government. TR worried about the power of the minority—often politicians—over the majority and thought these changes would make government more accountable to the people.

The Democrats nominated the reform governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, for President and Thomas R. Marshall, the governor of Indiana, as vice president. Wilson's platform, known as "New Freedom," called for limits on campaign contributions by corporations, tariff reductions, new and stronger antitrust laws, banking and currency reform, a federal income tax, direct election of senators, and a single-term presidency. Although Roosevelt and Wilson were both progressives, they differed over the means and extent to which government should intervene or regulate the states and the economy. Differences between New Nationalism and New Freedom over trusts and the tariff became a central issue of the campaign. Roosevelt believed the federal government should act as a "trustee" for the American people, controlling and supervising the economy in the public interest. Wilson had greater reservations about a large federal government and sought a return to a more decentralized republic. He argued that if big business were deprived of artificial advantages, such as the protective tariff and monopolies, the natural forces of competition would assure everyone an equal chance at success—thus minimizing the role of government. Whereas Roosevelt differentiated between "good" and "bad" trusts, Wilson suggested that all monopolies were harmful to the nation. Roosevelt's colorful personality helped him overcome the disadvantage of running as a third-party candidate, and he and Wilson contended fiercely for the support of voters interested in reform. Near the end of the campaign, TR dramatized his vitality by insisting on finishing a campaign speech even with an assailant's bullet lodged in his chest. Fortunately, the bullet had been slowed down by the pages of a thick speech he had in his coat pocket, but Roosevelt's courageous—perhaps foolhardy—act reminded Americans of what they loved about him.

Wilson captured 41.9 percent of the vote to Roosevelt's 27.4 percent and Taft's 23.1 percent. Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the vote. Despite the divided popular vote, Wilson compiled 435 electoral votes compared to Roosevelt's 88 and Taft's 8. Roosevelt won in six states—California, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Washington. Despite its loss, the strong showing of the Progressive Party signaled the emergence of a significant force in U.S. political history. It also reflected a rising progressive spirit in the United States. Together with Wilson and Debs, Roosevelt had challenged the conservative wing of the Republican Party and left it discredited. In addition, although TR lost the election, much of his New Nationalism program was enacted during Wilson's presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt: Domestic Affairs

When Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office in September 1901, he presided over a country that had changed significantly in recent decades. The population of the United States had almost doubled from 1870 to 1900 as immigrants came to U.S. cities to work in the country's burgeoning factories. As the United States became increasingly urban and industrial, it acquired many of the attributes common to industrial nations—overcrowded cities, poor working conditions, great economic disparity, and the political dominance of big business. At the turn of the twentieth century, Americans had begun to look for ways to address some of these problems. As chief executive, Roosevelt felt empowered by the people to help ensure social justice and economic opportunity through government regulation. He was not a radical, however; TR believed that big business was a natural part of a maturing economy and, therefore, saw no reason to abolish it. He never suggested fundamentally altering American society or the economy to address various economic and social ills. In fact, he often stated that there must be reform in order to stave off socialism; if government did not act, the people would turn to more extreme measures to seek remedies. In addition, TR was a politician who understood the need to compromise in order to implement his ideas. Coming into office following William McKinley's assassination, Roosevelt pledged to maintain the fallen President's policies so as not to upset the nation in a time of mourning. And even when he began to chart his own course, Roosevelt knew that he had to work with congressional Republicans to get the G.O.P. nomination for President in 1904.

The Great Regulator

One of Roosevelt's central beliefs was that the government had the right to regulate big business to protect the welfare of society. However, this idea was relatively untested. Although Congress had passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, former Presidents had only used it sparingly. So when the Department of Justice filed suit in early 1902 against the Northern Securities Company, it sent shockwaves through the business community. The suit alarmed the business community, which had hoped that Roosevelt would follow precedent and maintain a "hands-off" approach to the market economy. At issue was the claim that the Northern Securities Company—a giant railroad combination created by a syndicate of wealthy industrialists and financiers led by J. P. Morgan—violated the Sherman Antitrust Act because it was a monopoly. In 1904, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government and ordered the company dismantled. The high court's action was a major victory for the administration and put the business community on notice that although this was a Republican administration, it would not give business free rein to operate without regard for the public welfare.

Roosevelt then turned his attention to the nation's railroads, in part because the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) had notified the administration about abuses within the industry. In addition, a large segment of the population supported efforts to regulate the railroads because so many people and businesses were dependent on them. Roosevelt's first achievement in this area was the Elkins Act of 1903, which ended the practice of railroad companies granting shipping rebates to certain companies. The rebates allowed big companies to ship goods for much lower rates than smaller companies could obtain. However, the railroads and big companies were able to undermine the act. Recognizing that the Elkins Act was not effective, Roosevelt pursued further railroad regulation and undertook one of his greatest domestic reform efforts. The legislation, which became known as the Hepburn Act, proposed enhancing the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission to include the ability to regulate shipping rates on railroads. One of the main sticking points of the bill was what role the courts would play in reviewing the rates. Conservative senators who opposed the legislation, acting on behalf of the railroad industry, tried to use judicial review to make the ICC essentially powerless. By giving the courts, which were considered friendly to the railroads, the right to rule on individual cases, the ICC had less power to remedy the inequities of the rates. When Roosevelt encountered this resistance in Congress, he took his case to the people, making a direct appeal on a speaking tour through the West. He succeeded in pressuring the Senate to approve the legislation. The Hepburn Act marked one of the first times a President appealed directly to the people, using the press to help him make his case. The passage of the act was considered a major victory for Roosevelt and highlighted his ability to balance competing interests to achieve his goals.

Square Deal

Roosevelt believed that the government should use its resources to help achieve economic and social justice. When the country faced an anthracite coal shortage in the fall of 1902 because of a strike in Pennsylvania, the President thought he should intervene. As winter approached and heating shortages were imminent, he started to formulate ideas about how he could use the executive office to play a role—even though he did not have any official authority to negotiate an end to the strike. Roosevelt called both the mine owners and the representatives of labor together at the White House. When management refused to negotiate, he hatched a plan to force the two sides to talk: instead of sending federal troops to break the strike and force the miners back to work, TR threatened to use troops to seize the mines and run them as a federal operation. Faced with Roosevelt's plan, the owners and labor unions agreed to submit their cases to a commission and abide by its recommendations. Roosevelt called the settlement of the coal strike a "square deal," inferring that everyone gained fairly from the agreement. That term soon became synonymous with Roosevelt's domestic program. The Square Deal worked to balance competing interests to create a fair deal for all sides: labor and management, consumer and business, developer and conservationist. TR recognized that his program was not perfectly neutral because the government needed to intervene more actively on behalf of the general public to ensure economic opportunity for all. Roosevelt was the first President to name his domestic program and the practice soon became commonplace, with Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and Harry S. Truman's Fair Deal.


Roosevelt was the nation's first conservationist President. Everywhere he went, he preached the need to preserve woodlands and mountain ranges as places of refuge and retreat. He identified the American character with the nation's wilderness regions, believing that our western and frontier heritage had shaped American values, behavior, and culture. The President wanted the United States to change from exploiting natural resources to carefully managing them. He worked with Gifford Pinchot, head of the Forestry Bureau, and Frederick Newell, head of the Reclamation Service, to revolutionize this area of the U.S. government. In 1902, Roosevelt signed the Newlands Reclamation Bill, which used money from federal land sales to build reservoirs and irrigation works to promote agriculture in the arid West. After he won reelection in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt felt more empowered to make significant changes in this domain. Working with Pinchot, he moved the Forest Service from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. This gave the Forest Service, and Pinchot as head of it, more power to achieve its goals. Together, Roosevelt and Pinchot reduced the role of state and local government in the management of natural resources, a policy that met with considerable resistance. Only the federal government, they argued, had the resources to oversee these efforts. Roosevelt used his presidential authority to issue executive orders to create 150 new national forests, increasing the amount of protected land from 42 million acres to 172 million acres. The President also created five national parks, eighteen national monuments, and 51 wildlife refuges.

Roosevelt and the Muckrakers

The emergence of a mass-circulation independent press at around the turn of the century changed the nature of print media in the United States. Instead of partisan publications that touted a party line, the national media was becoming more independent and more likely to expose scandals and abuses. This era marked the beginning of investigative journalism, and the reporters who led the effort were known as "muckrakers," a term first used by Roosevelt in a 1906 speech. One of the best examples of Roosevelt's relationship with the muckrakers came after he read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which described in lurid detail the filthy conditions in the meat packing industry—where rats, putrid meat, and poisoned rat bait were routinely ground up into sausages. Roosevelt responded by pushing for the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Both pieces of legislation endeared him to the public and to those corporations that favored government regulation as a means of achieving national consumer standards.

Roosevelt was the first President to use the power of the media to appeal directly to the American people. He understood that his forceful personality, his rambunctious family, and his many opinions made good copy for the press. He also knew that the media was a good way for him to reach out to the people, bypassing political parties and political machines. He used the media as a "bully pulpit" to influence public opinion.

On Race and Civil Rights

Theodore Roosevelt reflected the racial attitudes of his time, and his domestic record on race and civil rights was a mixed bag. He did little to preserve black suffrage in the South as those states increasingly disenfranchised blacks. He believed that African Americans as a race were inferior to whites, but he thought many black individuals were superior to white individuals and should be able to prove their merit. He caused a major controversy early in his presidency when he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House in October 1901. Roosevelt wanted to talk to Washington about patronage appointments in the South, and he was surprised by the vilification he received in the Southern press; he did not apologize for his actions. Although he appointed blacks to some patronage positions in the South, he was generally unwilling to fight the political battles necessary to win their appointment. One incident in particular taints Roosevelt's reputation on racial issues. In 1906, a small group of black soldiers was accused of going on a shooting spree in Brownsville, Texas, killing one white man and wounding another. Despite conflicting accounts and the lack of physical evidence, the Army assumed the guilt of the black soldiers. When not one of them admitted responsibility, an irritated Roosevelt ordered the dishonorable discharge of three companies of black soldiers (160 men) without a trial. Roosevelt and the white establishment had assumed the soldiers were guilty without affording them the opportunity for a trial to confront their accusers or prove their innocence.

Theodore Roosevelt: Foreign Affairs

Theodore Roosevelt inherited an empire-in-the-making when he assumed office in 1901. After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States. In addition, the United States established a protectorate over Cuba and annexed Hawaii. For the first time in its history, the United States had acquired an overseas empire. As President, Roosevelt wanted to increase the influence and prestige of the United States on the world stage and make the country a global power. He also believed that the exportation of American values and ideals would have an ennobling effect on the world. TR's diplomatic maxim was to "speak softly and carry a big stick," and he maintained that a chief executive must be willing to use force when necessary while practicing the art of persuasion. He therefore sought to assemble a powerful and reliable defense for the United States to avoid conflicts with enemies who might prey on weakness. Roosevelt followed McKinley in ending the relative isolationism that had dominated the country since the mid-1800s, acting aggressively in foreign affairs, often without the support or consent of Congress.


One of the situations that Roosevelt inherited upon taking office was governance of the Philippines, an island nation in Asia. During the Spanish-American War, the United States had taken control of the archipelago from Spain. When Roosevelt appointed William Howard Taft as the first civilian governor of the islands in 1901, Taft recommended the creation of a civil government with an elected legislative assembly. The Taft administration was able to negotiate with Congress for a bill that included a governor general, an independent judiciary, and the legislative assembly.

Panama Canal

The most spectacular of Roosevelt's foreign policy initiatives was the establishment of the Panama Canal. For years, U.S. naval leaders had dreamed of building a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Central America. During the war with Spain, American ships in the Pacific had to steam around the tip of South America in two-month voyages to join the U.S. fleet off the coast of Cuba. In 1901, the United States negotiated with Britain for the support of an American-controlled canal that would be constructed either in Nicaragua or through a strip of land—Panama—owned by Colombia. In a flourish of closed-door maneuvers, the Senate approved a route through Panama, contingent upon Colombian approval. When Colombia balked at the terms of the agreement, the United States supported a Panamanian revolution with money and a naval blockade, the latter of which prevented Colombian troops from landing in Panama. In 1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama gave the United States perpetual control of the canal for a price of $10 million and an annual payment of $250,000.

When he visited Panama in 1906 to observe the building of the canal, Roosevelt became the first U.S. President to leave the country during his term of office. He wanted to see the spectacle, which became known as one of the world's greatest engineering feats. Nearly 30,000 workers labored ten-hour days for ten years to build the $400-million canal, during which time American officials were able to counteract the scourge of Yellow Fever that had ravaged large numbers of canal workers. The Panama Canal was finally completed in 1914; by 1925, more than 5,000 merchant ships had traversed the forty miles of locks each year. Once operational, it shortened the voyage from San Francisco to New York by more than 8,000 miles. The process of building the canal generated advances in U.S. technology and engineering skills. This project also converted the Panama Canal Zone into a major staging area for American military forces, making the United States the dominant military power in Central America.

Roosevelt Corollary

Latin America consumed a fair amount of Roosevelt's time and energy during his first term as President. Venezuela became a focus of his attention in 1902 when Germany and Britain sent ships to blockade that country's coastline. The European nations had given loans to Venezuela that the Venezuelan dictator refused to repay. Although both Germany and Britain assured the Americans that they did not have any territorial designs on Venezuela, Roosevelt felt aggrieved by their actions and demanded that they agree to arbitration to resolve the dispute. Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) also encountered problems with European countries. Again, European investors had appealed to their governments to collect money from a debt-ridden nation Latin American nation. After the Dominican government appealed to the United States, Roosevelt ordered an American collector to assume control of the customs houses and collect duties to avoid possible European military action.

During the Santo Domingo crisis, Roosevelt formulated what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1823, stated that the United States would not accept European intervention in the Americas. Roosevelt realized that if nations in the Western Hemisphere continued to have chronic problems, such as the inability to repay foreign debt, they would become targets of European invention. To preempt such action and to maintain regional stability, the President drafted his corollary: the United States would intervene in any Latin American country that manifested serious economic problems. The corollary announced that the United States would serve as the "policeman" of the Western Hemisphere, a policy which eventually created much resentment in Latin America.


Though often recognized for the aggressiveness of his foreign policy, Roosevelt was also a peacemaker. His most successful effort at bringing belligerent powers to the negotiating table involved a crisis that had broken out in East Asia. Fighting had erupted between Russia and Japan in 1904, following Japan's attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. As the Russo-Japanese War raged on with many Japanese victories, Roosevelt approached both nations about mediating peace negotiations. The President longed for a world in which countries would turn to arbitration instead of war to settle international disputes, and he offered his services to this end. Although Russia and Japan initially refused his offer, they eventually accepted his "good offices" to help negotiate a peace, meeting with Roosevelt in 1905 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. For his role as mediator, Roosevelt won the Nobel Prize for Peace, the first U.S. President to do so. Roosevelt also arbitrated a dispute between France and Germany over the division of Morocco. Britain had recognized French control over Morocco in return for French recognition of British control in Egypt. Germany felt excluded by this agreement and challenged France's role in Morocco. Although the French had a weak claim to Morocco, the United States could not reject it without rejecting Britain's claim as well. The settlement in 1906 reached at Algeciras, Spain, saved face for Germany but gave France undisputed control over Morocco; it also paved the way for British control over Egypt. Some historians think that Roosevelt's intervention in these two hot spots averted fighting that might have engulfed all of Europe and Asia in a world war. In any case, Roosevelt's actions greatly strengthened Anglo-French ties with the United States.

Great White Fleet

Roosevelt believed that a large and powerful Navy was an essential component of national defense because it served as a strong deterrent to America's enemies. During his tenure as President, he built the U.S. Navy into one of the largest in the world, by convincing Congress to add battleships to the fleet and increasing its number of enlisted men. In 1907, he proposed sending the fleet out on a world tour. His reasons were many: to show off the "Great White Fleet" and impress other countries around the world with U.S. naval power; to allow the Navy to gain the experience of worldwide travel; and to drum up domestic support for his naval program. In December 1907, a fleet of sixteen battleships left Hampton Roads, Virginia, and traveled around the world, returning home fourteen months later in February 1909.

Theodore Roosevelt: Life After the Presidency

After losing the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson (see "Campaigns and Elections" for details), Roosevelt and his son Kermit embarked on a voyage into the jungles of Brazil to explore the River of Doubt in the Amazon region. During the seven-month, 15,000-mile expedition, Roosevelt contacted malaria and suffered a serious infection after injuring his leg in a boat accident. Following his return to the United States, he spent his days writing scientific essays and history books. When World War I broke out in Europe, the former President led the cause for military preparedness, convinced that the nation should join the war effort. He was greatly disappointed in President Wilson's call for neutrality and denounced his country's inactivity. When the United States finally entered the war in 1917, he offered to organize a volunteer division but the War Department turned him down. However, all four of his sons volunteered to fight in the war. When his youngest son, Quentin, was shot down and killed while flying a mission in Germany, Roosevelt became despondent. Thereafter, although he continued to tour the nation making speeches in favor of war bonds and the war, his mood and voice were less enthusiastic. For the first time in his life, sadness overtook the once unconquerable warrior. Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep on January 6, 1919, in his beloved house at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, New York. One commentator said that death had to take him while he slept else it would have had a fight on its hands.

Theodore Roosevelt: Family Life

The nation had never known a family in the White House quite like the Roosevelts. The public loved to follow the adventures of the Roosevelt clan; the President understood that his family was a political asset and made it available, to some degree, to the media. When Roosevelt married Edith Kermit Carow in 1886, he already had a daughter, Alice, from his first marriage. He and Edith had five more children—Theodore, Kermit, Edith, Archibald, and Quentin.

For TR, his family was like having his own private circus. His children were everywhere, having the complete run of the place. They took their favorite pony, Algonquin, into the White House elevator, frightened visiting officials with a four-foot King snake, and dropped water balloons on the heads of White House guards. The grand romp continued at the summer White House, Sagamore Hill, the family's home in Oyster Bay, New York. There, the President led the children and anyone who happened to be visiting on hours-long obstacle hikes, picnics, and swims in the ocean. Roosevelt also loved to engage family, friends, and visitors in grand story-telling sessions about ghosts and the cowboys whom Roosevelt had known out West. He taught the boys to box and the girls to run. He never held back in his affections or in his praise for courage and aggressiveness. He almost drove his wife, Edith, to distraction with his antics, and she often told her best friends that the President was just an ornery little boy at heart.

Theodore Roosevelt: The American Franchise

The nation's population numbered 76 million people in 1900. Eight years later, by the end of Roosevelt's second term, it had increased to 88 million. At the same time, the United States was becoming an urban nation, with wider segments of the population joining the workforce. The percentage that lived on farms had declined from 60 to 54 percent, while the number of women holding down jobs increased, rising from 18 to 21 percent of the total labor force. More and more of these working women were married—25 percent of all women working in 1910 compared to 15 percent in 1900. The only new state to enter the Union during the Roosevelt years was Oklahoma (1907).

Limiting the Franchise

Several important procedural changes in the American franchise took place during the Roosevelt years. First, the Progressive Movement undermined old party structures and thus seriously reduced overall voter participation in elections. Angry that traditional partisanship had resulted in political offices being staffed by "boodlers," crooks, and party hacks, progressives supported reforms aimed at destroying the power of party bosses. Such measures as the direct primary, the initiative, the referendum, the recall, and the direct election of senators were aimed at returning power to an informed and responsible electorate unaffected by party machines or boss politics.

Second, the number of registered voters fell greatly in cities and towns where immigrants dominated the population. Nearly every state in the Union passed personal registration laws between 1890 and 1920, which required identification certificates and personal appearances at designated government offices. Most laws required residency for a certain length of time prior to registration, as well as between registration and voting. These laws reduced the participation of working people who failed to register due to work schedules or, in the case of recent immigrants, were intimidated by the complex regulations written in English. Some states, such as New York, required that those registering demonstrate literacy in the English language, a barrier many immigrants could not overcome.

Numerous states that had allowed non-citizens to vote in the nineteenth century reversed themselves in the twentieth. By 1920, only seven states still allowed non-citizens to vote—and these were states with few immigrants. The newly formed Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (1906), moreover, greatly increased the obstacles to citizenship. Applicants were forced to appear before a judge (accompanied by two witnesses to vouch for their moral character and good citizenship) who tested them in English on American history and civics. All applicants had to show proof that they had resided continuously in the United States for five years. They also had to swear, and sometimes prove, that they were not anarchists or polygamists.

Finally, a staggering drop in African-American voters in the South occurred during the first decade of the twentieth century. Every ex-Confederate state stripped blacks of their right to vote through literacy tests, property qualifications, and poll taxes. During the 1870s, more than 130,000 blacks had voted in Mississippi. That number fell to 1,300 in 1900. During the Roosevelt years, whites used terror and lynching to intimidate black males throughout the South. These actions reduced the number of black voters who might have qualified to register under the new laws. From 1900 to 1910, more than 1,300 black men were lynched and burned alive in southern and midwestern states. Once blacks were dropped from the voting rolls, registrars stripped many poor and illiterate whites from the rolls in the southern states, reducing the size of the electorate still further.

As result of these developments, voter participation rates fell from 79 percent in 1896 to 65 percent in 1904. The trend never again reached the high levels known in the late nineteenth century.

Women's Suffrage

The most important exception to this trend towards disfranchisement was the growing suffrage movement for women. Although no states extended the vote to women during the Roosevelt presidency, suffragette victories in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah during the 1890s picked up steam again in the post-Roosevelt years. Washington, California, Kansas, Oregon, and Arizona enfranchised women in the years from 1910 to 1912—creating a momentum that eventually produced the Nineteenth Amendment (suffrage for women) in time for the election of 1920.

Theodore Roosevelt: Impact and Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt is widely regarded as the first modern President of the United States. The stature and influence that the office has today began to develop with TR. Throughout the second half of the 1800s, Congress had been the most powerful branch of government. And although the presidency began to amass more power during the 1880s, Roosevelt completed the transition to a strong, effective executive. He made the President, rather than the political parties or Congress, the center of American politics. Roosevelt did this through the force of his personality and through aggressive executive action. He thought that the President had the right to use any and all powers unless they were specifically denied to him. He believed that as President, he had a unique relationship with and responsibility to the people, and therefore wanted to challenge prevailing notions of limited government and individualism; government, he maintained, should serve as an agent of reform for the people. His presidency endowed the progressive movement with credibility, lending the prestige of the White House to welfare legislation, government regulation, and the conservation movement. The desire to make society more fair and equitable, with economic possibilities for all Americans, lay behind much of Roosevelt's program. The President also changed the government's relationship to big business. Prior to his presidency, the government had generally given the titans of industry carte blanche to accomplish their goals. Roosevelt believed that the government had the right and the responsibility to regulate big business so that its actions did not negatively affect the general public. However, he never fundamentally challenged the status of big business, believing that its existence marked a naturally occurring phase of the country's economic evolution. Roosevelt also revolutionized foreign affairs, believing that the United States had a global responsibility and that a strong foreign policy served the country's national interest. He became involved in Latin America with little hesitation: he oversaw the Panama Canal negotiations to advocate for U.S. interests and intervened in Venezuela and Santo Domingo to preserve stability in the region. He also worked with Congress to strengthen the U.S. Navy, which he believed would deter potential enemies from targeting the country, and he applied his energies to negotiating peace agreements, working to balance power throughout the world. Even after he left office, Roosevelt continued to work for his ideals. The Progressive Party's New Nationalism in 1912 launched a drive for protective federal regulation that looked forward to the progressive movements of the 1930s and the 1960s. Indeed, Roosevelt's progressive platform encompassed nearly every progressive ideal later enshrined in the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Fair Deal of Harry S. Truman, the New Frontier of John F. Kennedy, and the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson.

In terms of presidential style, Roosevelt introduced "charisma" into the political equation. He had a strong rapport with the public and he understood how to use the media to shape public opinion. He was the first President whose election was based more on the individual than the political party. When people voted Republican in 1904, they were generally casting their vote for Roosevelt the man instead of for him as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party. The most popular President up to his time, Roosevelt used his enthusiasm to win votes, to shape issues, and to mold opinions. In the process, he changed the executive office forever.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Sidney Milkis

Professor Milkis is the White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. His writings include:

American Government: Balancing Democracy and Rights (Co-authored with Marc Landy, McGraw-Hill, 2004)

Presidential Greatness (Co-authored with Marc Landy, University Press of Kansas, 2000)

Progressivism and the New Democracy (Co-edited with Jerome Mileur, University of Massachusetts Press, 1999)

The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776–1990 (Co-authored with Michael Nelson, CQ Press, 1990)