The first modern American president, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was also one of the most popular, important, and controversial. During his years in office he greatly expanded the power of the presidency.
A strong nationalist and a resourceful leader, Theodore Roosevelt gloried in the opportunities and responsibilities of world power. He especially enlarged the United States role in the Far East and Latin America. At home he increased regulation of business, encouraged the labor movement, and waged a long, dramatic battle for conservation of national resources. He also organized the Progressive party (1912) and advanced the rise of the welfare state with a forceful campaign for social justice.
Roosevelt was born in New York City on Oct. 27, 1858. His father was of an old Dutch mercantile family long prominent in the city's affairs. His mother came from an established Georgia family of Scotch-Irish and Huguenot ancestry. A buoyant, dominant figure, his father was the only man, young Roosevelt once said, he "ever feared." He imbued his son with an acute sense of civic responsibility and an attitude of noblesse oblige.
Partly because of a severe asthmatic condition, Theodore was educated by private tutors until 1876, when he entered Harvard College. Abandoning plans to become a naturalist, he developed political and historical interests, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and finished twenty-first in a class of 158. He also began writing The Naval War of 1812 (1882), a work of limited range but high technical competence. Four months after his graduation in 1880, he married Alice Hathaway Lee, by whom he had a daughter.
Bored by the study of law in the office of an uncle and at Columbia University, Roosevelt willingly gave it up in 1882 to serve the first of three terms in the New York State Assembly. He quickly distinguished himself for integrity, courage, and independence, and upon his retirement in 1884 he had become the leader of the Republican party's reform wing. Though his reputation was based on his attacks against corruption, he had shown some interest in social problems and had begun to break with laissez-faire economics. Among the many bills he drove through the Assembly was a measure, worked out with labor leader Samuel Gompers, to regulate tenement workshops.
Roosevelt's last term was marred by the sudden deaths of his mother and his wife within hours of each other in February 1884. After the legislative session ended, he established a ranch, Elkhorn, on the Little Missouri River in the Dakota Territory. Immersing himself in history, he completed Thomas Hart Benton (1886) and Gouverneur Morris (1887) and began to prepare his major work, the four-volume Winning of the West (1889-1896). A tour de force distinguished more for its narrative power and personality sketches than its social and economic analysis, it won the respect of the foremost academic historian of the West, Frederick Jackson Turner. It also gave Roosevelt considerable standing among professional historians and contributed to his election as president of the American Historical Association in 1912. Meanwhile, he published numerous hunting and nature books, some of high order.
Politics and a romantic interest in a childhood friend, Edith Carow, drew Roosevelt back east. Nominated for mayor of New York, he waged a characteristically vigorous campaign in 1886 but finished third. He then went to London to marry Carow, with whom he had four sons and a daughter.
In 1889 Roosevelt was rewarded for his earlier services to President Benjamin Harrison with appointment to the ineffectual Civil Service Commission. Plunging into his duties with extraordinary zeal, he soon became head of the Commission. He insisted that the laws be scrupulously enforced in order to open the government service to all who were qualified, and he alienated many politicians in his own party by refusing to submit to their demands. By the end of his six years in office Roosevelt had virtually institutionalized the civil service.
Roosevelt returned to New York City in 1895 to serve two tumultuous years as president of the police board. Enforcing the law with relentless efficiency and uncompromising honesty, he indulged once more in acrimonious controversy with the leaders of his party. He succeeded in modernizing the force, eliminating graft from the promotion system, and raising morale to unprecedented heights. "It's tough on the force, for he was dead square … and we needed him," said an unnamed policeman when Roosevelt resigned in the spring of 1897 to become President William McKinley's assistant secretary of the Navy.
As assistant secretary, Roosevelt instituted personnel reforms, arranged meaningful maneuvers for the fleet, and lobbied energetically for a two-ocean navy. He uncritically accepted imperialistic theories, and he worked closely with senators Henry Cabot Lodge and Alfred Beveridge for war against Spain in 1898. Although moved partly by humanitarian considerations, he was animated mainly by lust for empire and an exaggerated conception of the glories of war. "No qualities called out by a purely peaceful life," he wrote, "stand on a level with those stern and virile virtues which move the men of stout heart and strong hand who uphold the honor of their flag in battle."
Anxious to prove himself under fire, Roosevelt resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy in April to organize the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (the "Rough Riders"). He took command of the unit in Cuba and distinguished himself and his regiment in a bold charge up the hill next to San Juan. In late summer 1898 he returned to New York a war hero.
New York's Governor
Nominated for governor, Roosevelt won election in the fall of 1898 by a narrow margin. His 2-year administration was the most enlightened to that time. By deferring to the Republican machine on minor matters, by mobilizing public opinion behind his program, and by otherwise invoking the arts of the master politician, Roosevelt forced an impressive body of legislation through a recalcitrant Assembly and Senate. Most significant, perhaps, was a franchise tax on corporations. As the Democratic New York World concluded when he left office, "the controlling purpose and general course of his administration have been high and good."
Roosevelt accepted the vice-presidential nomination in 1900. A landslide victory for McKinley and Roosevelt ensued. Then, on Sept. 14, 1901, following McKinley's death by an assassin's bullet, Roosevelt was sworn in. Not quite 43, he was the youngest president in history.
First Presidential Administration
Roosevelt's first three years in office were inhibited by the conservatism of Republican congressional leaders and the accidental nature of his coming to power. He was able to sign the Newlands Reclamation Bill into law (1902) and the Elkins Antirebate Bill (1903); he also persuaded Congress to create a toothless Bureau of Corporations. But it was his sensational use of the dormant powers of his office that lifted his first partial term above the ordinary.
On Feb. 18, 1902, Roosevelt shook the financial community and took a first step toward bringing big business under Federal control by ordering antitrust proceedings against the Northern Securities Company, a railroad combine formed by J. P. Morgan and other magnates. Suits against the meat-packers and other trusts followed, and by the time Roosevelt left office 43 actions had been instituted. Yet he never regarded antitrust suits as a full solution to the corporation problem. During his second administration he strove, with limited success, to provide for continuous regulation rather than the dissolution of big businesses.
Hardly less dramatic than his attack on the Northern Securities Company was Roosevelt's intervention in a five-month-long anthracite coal strike in 1902. By virtually forcing the operators to submit to arbitration, he won important gains for the striking miners. Never before had a president used his powers in a strike on labor's side.
Roosevelt's conduct of foreign policy was as dynamic and considerably more far-reaching in import. Believing that there could be no retreat from the power position which the Spanish-American War had dramatized but which the United States industrialism had forged, he stamped his imprint upon American policy with unusual force. He established a moderately enlightened government in the Philippines, while persuading Congress to grant tariff concessions to Cuba. He settled an old Alaskan boundary dispute with Canada on terms favorable to the United States. And he capitalized on an externally financed revolution in Panama to acquire the Canal Zone under conditions that created a heritage of ill will.
At the instance of the president of Santo Domingo, Roosevelt also arranged for the United States to assume control of the customs of that misgoverned nation in order to avert intervention by European powers. He had about the same desire to annex Santo Domingo, he said, "as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to." But he had already forestalled German intervention in Venezuela in 1902 and was anxious to establish a firm policy against it. So on May 20, 1904, and again in December he set forth what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The United States, he declared, assumed the right to intervene in the internal affairs of the Latin American nations in the event of "chronic wrongdoing" or "impotence."
Roosevelt's first administration was also marked by a revitalization of the bureaucracy. The quality of appointees was raised, capable members of minority groups were given government posts (in 1906 Roosevelt named the first Jew, Oscar Straus, to a Cabinet position), and the civil service lists were expanded. At the same time, however, the President ruthlessly manipulated patronage so as to wrest control of Republican party machinery from Senator Mark Hanna and secure his nomination to a full term in 1904. "In politics," he disarmingly explained, "we have to do a great many things we ought not to do." Overwhelming his conservative Democratic opponent by the greatest popular majority to that time, Roosevelt won the election and carried in a great host of congressional candidates on his coattails.
Although the resentment of the Republican party's Old Guard increased rather than diminished as his tenure lengthened, Roosevelt pushed through a much more progressive program in this second term. His "Square Deal" reached its finest legislative flower in 1906 with passage of the Hepburn Railroad Bill, the Pure Food and Drug Bill, an amendment providing Federal regulation of stockyards and packing houses, and an employers' liability measure. Yet he probably did even more to forward progressivism by using his office as a pulpit and by appointing study commissions such as those on country life and inland waterways. Several of his messages to Congress in 1907 and 1908 were the most radical to that time. In the face of the Old Guard's open repudiation of him, moreover, he profoundly stimulated the burgeoning progressive movement on all levels of government.
In conservation Roosevelt's drive to control exploitation and increase development of natural resources was remarkable for sustained intellectual and administrative force. In no other cause did he fuse science and morality so effectively. Based on the propositions that nature's heritage belonged to the people, that "the fundamental idea of forestry is the perpetuation of forests by use," and that "every stream is a unit from its source to its mouth, and all its uses are interdependent," his conservation program provoked bitter conflict with Western states'-rightists and their allies, the electric power companies and large ranchers. In the end Roosevelt failed to marshal even a modicum of support in Congress for multipurpose river valley developments. But he did save what later became the heart of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) by vetoing a bill that would have opened Muscle Shoals to haphazard private development.
By March 1909 Roosevelt's audacious use of executive power had resulted in the transfer of 125 million acres to the forest reserves. About half as many acres containing coal and mineral deposits had been subjected to public controls. Sixteen national monuments and 51 wildlife refuges had been established. And the number of national parks had been doubled. As Roosevelt's bitter enemy Senator Robert M. La Follette wrote, "his greatest work was inspiring and actually beginning a world movement for … saving for the human race the things on which alone a peaceful, progressive, and happy life can be founded."
Roosevelt's pronounced impact on the international scene continued during his second term. He intervened decisively for peace in the Algeciras crisis of 1905-1906, and he supported the call for the Second Hague Conference of 1907. But it was in the Far East, where he gradually abandoned the imperialistic aspirations of his pre-presidential years, that he played the most significant role. Perceiving that Japan was destined to become a major Far Eastern power, he encouraged that country to serve as a stabilizing force in the area. To this end he used his good offices to close the Russo-Japanese War through a conference at Portsmouth, N.H., in 1905; for this service he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He also acquiesced at this time in Japan's extension of suzerainty over Korea (Taft-Katsura Memorandum).
By 1907 Roosevelt realized that the Philippines were the United States' "heel of Achilles." He had also come to realize that the China trade which the open-door policy was designed to foster was largely illusory. He consequently labored to maintain Japan's friendship without compromising American interests. He fostered a "gentleman's agreement" on immigration of Japanese to the United States. He implicitly recognized Japan's economic ascendancy in Manchuria through the Root-Takahira agreement of 1908. (Later he urged his successor, President William H. Taft, to give up commercial aspirations and the open-door policy in North China, though he was unsuccessful in this.)
Rejecting suggestions that he run for reelection, Roosevelt selected Taft as his successor. He then led a scientific and hunting expedition to Africa (1909) and made a triumphal tour of Europe. He returned to a strife-ridden Republican party in June 1910. Caught between the conservative supporters of Taft and the advanced progressive followers of himself and La Follette, he gave hope to La Follette by setting forth a radical program—the "new nationalism"— of social and economic reforms that summer. Thereafter pressure to declare himself a candidate for the nomination in 1912 mounted until he reluctantly did so.
Although Roosevelt outpolled Taft by more than 2 to 1 in the Republican primaries, Taft's control of the party organization won him the nomination in convention. Roosevelt's supporters then stormed out of the party and organized the Progressive, or "Bull Moose," party. During the three-cornered campaign that fall, Roosevelt called forcefully for Federal regulation of corporations, steeply graduated income and inheritance taxes, multipurpose river valley developments, and social justice for labor and other underprivileged groups. But the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, running on a more traditional reform platform, won the election.
World War I
Within 3 months of the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, Roosevelt began his last crusade: an impassioned campaign to persuade the American people to join the Allies and prosecute the war with vigor. He believed that a German victory would be inimical to American economic, political, and cultural interests. But he was also influenced, as in 1898, by his romantic conception of war and ultranationalism. As a result, he distorted the real nature of his thought by trumpeting for war on the submarine, or American-rights, issue alone. More regrettable still, he virtually called for war against Mexico in 1916.
Following America's declaration of war in April 1917, Roosevelt relentlessly attacked the administration for failing to mobilize fast enough. Embittered by Wilson's refusal to let him raise a division, he also attacked the President personally. He was unenthusiastic about the League of Nations, believing that a military alliance of France, Great Britain, and the United States could best preserve peace. He was prepared to support Senator Henry Cabot Lodge's nationalistic reservations to the League Covenant, but he died in his home at Oyster Bay, Long Island, on Jan. 6, 1919, before he could be effective.
Roosevelt's reputation as a domestic reformer remains high and secure. He was the first president to concern himself with the judiciary's massive bias toward property rights (as opposed to human rights), with the maldistribution of wealth, and with the subversion of the democratic process by spokesmen of economic interests in Congress, the pulpits, and the editorial offices. He was also the first to understand the conservation problem in its multiple facets, the first to evolve a regulatory program for capital, and the first to encourage the growth of labor unions. The best-liked man of his times, he has never been revered because his militarism and chauvinism affronted the human spirit.
Further Reading on Theodore Roosevelt
Roosevelt can be studied through his own writings. Especially valuable are his Letters, edited by Elting E. Morison and John M. Blum (8 vols., 1951-1954), and a collection of his essays, books, and speeches, The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, edited by Hermann Hagedorn (24 vols., 1923-1925). A general collection, Writings, was edited by William H. Harbaugh (1967). Roosevelt's An Autobiography (1913) is revealing despite the usual deficiencies of such works.
William H. Harbaugh, Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (1961; rev. ed., entitled The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, 1963), is a full-length biography. The best study of Roosevelt's early career is Carleton Putnam, Theodore Roosevelt, vol. 1: The Formative Years (1958); the best treatment of his governorship is G. Wallace Chessman, Governor Theodore Roosevelt (1965). John M. Blum, The Republican Roosevelt (1954; new ed. 1962), is a penetrating essay. The roots of Roosevelt's imperialism are examined in David H. Burton, Theodore Roosevelt: Confident Imperialist (1968).
Howard K. Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power (1956), is a seminal study. Fine short accounts are George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt, 1900-1912 (1958), and G. Wallace Chessman, Theodore Roosevelt and the Politics of Power, edited by Oscar Handlin (1969).