Elihu Root (1845-1937), a U.S. secretary of war and secretary of state and a senator from New York, was the most constructive conservative of his times.
Elihu Root was born at Clinton, N.Y., on Feb. 15, 1845. His father was a college professor of old New England stock. Elihu attended Hamilton College during the Civil War, graduating as valedictorian in 1864. After taking a law degree at New York University in 1867, he went into private practice in New York City. He married Clara Frances Wales in 1878; they had two daughters and a son and were a devoted family.
Root was a junior counsel to William Tweed during the notorious boss's trial in 1873. A decade later Root served briefly as U.S. attorney for the district of southern New York. An astute and resourceful legal counselor, he afterward became one of the nation's preeminent corporation lawyers. He advised the Havemeyer Sugar Trust on the reorganization that enabled it to gain control of 98 percent of the market, and he represented the Whitney-Ryan traction interests and numerous other combines. "It is not a function of law," he explained, "to enforce the rules of morality."
Root opposed the encroachment of government upon individual rights, especially those involving property, but he never pursued the implications of corporate political and economic power. As he confessed in 1906, "The pure lawyer seldom concerns himself about the broad aspects of public policy… . Lawyers are almost always conservative…. Through insisting upon the maintenance of legal rule, they become instinctively opposed to change."
Secretary of War
Root accepted President William McKinley's urgent request in 1899 that he head the mismanaged War Department. His administration of the territories wrested from Spain was at once realistic and enlightened. In Puerto Rico, where the illiteracy rate was 90 percent, he instituted a highly centralized administration virtually devoid of popular participation. At the same time, he pushed public health measures and persuaded McKinley to exempt the colony from American tariff restrictions. In Cuba, Root arranged for almost immediate civil government but insisted that the United States maintain control of its foreign relations. This was accomplished through the Platt Amendment, which he drafted.
In the Philippines, Root also pushed civil government, including extension of the Bill of Rights. He formed the army that suppressed Emilio Aguinaldo's independence movement and was so sensitive to the honor of American troops that he failed to act promptly against American atrocities. Satisfied with the Philippine government that President William Howard Taft created under his broad direction, Root was unsympathetic in later years to the Democrats' insistence that it be liberalized in order to prepare the Filipinos for full independence.
Meanwhile Root reorganized the general staff, created the Army War College, and established the Joint Army-Navy Board. President Theodore Roosevelt valued him for his calm, incisive, and eminently practical judgment, and when Root resigned in 1904, the President wrote, "I shall never have, and can never have, a more loyal friend, a more faithful and wiser adviser."
Secretary of State
In 1905 Root returned to government service as secretary of state under Roosevelt. Continuing to complement Roosevelt admirably, he pacified the Senate, promoted friendly relations with Latin America, kept a wary eye on Germany, and otherwise comported himself with patience, tact, and cordiality. He supported the Second Hague Conference and worked hard and skillfully to maintain amicable relations with Japan. His crowning achievement was the negotiation of 24 bilateral arbitration treaties. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912.
Senator from New York
Root seemed unable to understand the nature or aims of the Progressive movement, and his 6 years (1909-1915) as a U.S. senator were among the least productive of his life. He disapproved much of the reform legislation under President Taft, and all of it under Woodrow Wilson. His attacks on Wilson's Mexican policy were also unfair and simplistic. Concluding that World War I was a struggle for "Anglo-Saxon" liberty, he was a strong proponent of American entry. In 1917 he headed an ineffective and imperceptive mission to Russia designed to keep the provisional government in the war.
During the fight over the League of Nations, Root was caught between his general approval of the League, his strong nationalistic strain, and his own and his party's partisanship. He tried, but failed, to play a constructive role by advocating American entry with nationalistic reservations. Root came out of retirement in late 1921 to serve on the American delegation to the Washington Conference. He also gave freely to the movement to adhere to the World Court and further invested himself in service to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and other Carnegie benefactions. He died on Feb. 7, 1937.
A charming, witty man in the company of intimates, Root lacked charisma in public. Aside from his obvious achievements in the War and State Departments, he is remembered for his embodiment of that which was wisest and most constructive in the conservative tradition.
Further Reading on Elihu Root
Eight volumes of Root's writings and addresses up to 1923 were edited by Robert Bacon and James B. Scott and published between 1916 and 1925. The official biography is Philip C. Jessup, Elihu Root (2 vols., 1938), a full if somewhat adulatory account. It should be supplemented by Richard W. Leopold, Elihu Root and the Conservative Tradition (1954), a dispassionate work that benefits from recent scholarship. Considerable material on Root is contained in Julius W. Pratt, America's Colonial Experiment: How the United States Gained, Governed, and in Part Gave Away a Colonial Empire (1950), and in the biographies of Roosevelt, Taft, and other contemporaries.
Additional Biography Sources
Leopold, Richard William, Elihu Root and the conservative tradition, Boston, Little, Brown 1954.
Root, Grace McClure Dixon (Cogswell) 1890-, Fathers and sons Clinton N.Y., 1971.