President #26, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #4
There is no person whose has been President who led a life that seems like it came out of a work of fiction more than Theodore Roosevelt. It seemed apropos that a novelist, Louis Auchincloss (The Rector of Justin among many other titles) wrote this biography of a larger than life figure.
Theodore Roosevelt was a President that America seemed to need. After Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, the Presidency had passed through the hands of men who ranged from highly capable to grossly incompetent. Even a Civil War hero like Ulysses Grant could not elevate the office to the same stature that it had in Lincoln’s time.
It took a man, born of privilege, but who still took nothing for granted in life, to bring the United States fully up to the level of a world power on par with the British and French. It took a man who could bring together upper crust New Yorkers and rough-edged Westerners into a cohesive fighting unit, for one day of military success. A triumph that would propel him to the White House.
Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858 in New York City. His father, also named Theodore (as an adult, President Theodore Roosevelt did not use the “Junior” suffix), did not serve in the Union Army in the Civil War, instead buying a replacement. This was a source of great embarrassment to young Theodore, who felt his father, whom he idolized, displayed cowardice.
As a child, Roosevelt was plagued with debilitating asthma attacks. There was no effective treatment for that condition at that time, aside from just being propped up in a chair. The condition made it difficult for Roosevelt to attend school on a regular basis.
In an effort to improve his physical condition, young Theodore Roosevelt took up boxing. This led to a lifelong interest in physical fitness, as well as a love of the outdoors. Roosevelt called this “the vigorous life.”
Through home schooling, Roosevelt was able to develop a sufficient background to get himself admitted to Harvard in 1876. He proved to be an excellent student, devouring knowledge in seemingly every field. Roosevelt had an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, and was also well-versed in geography, the natural sciences, and history. After graduating from Harvard, Roosevelt would write a book, the Naval War of 1812.
In 1878, while at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt’s father passed away at age 47 from a form of colon cancer. Young Theodore missed seeing his father before he passed away, and always regretted it. As it would turn out, tragedy would stalk him much of his life. It is amazing that he was able to overcome it.
Theodore Roosevelt married Alice Lee in 1880 and seemed to be a happy couple. Roosevelt had carefully picked out his wife, wanting only a woman of the finest breeding, as well as one who was a virgin. He was strongly opposed to sex outside of a marriage. However, he was a big supporter of sex in marriage and believed it was every person’s duty to have as many children as possible.
Alice became pregnant in 1883 and gave birth to a daughter, also named Alice, on February 12, 1884. Two days later, the new mother passed away from kidney failure. On the same day, Roosevelt’s mother passed away as well as from typhoid fever. Roosevelt never spoke about his first wife to anyone ever again, even to his daughter.
In response to these tragedies, Roosevelt decided not to run for reelection to the New York State Assembly (where he had begun to build his resume as a reformer) and moved out to his ranch, Elk Horn, in the Dakota Territory. He spent time living a life that would seem to be too fantastic for even a Hollywood Western. Roosevelt caught a group of thieves and marched them back through the wilderness for a week until he could turn them over to the nearest law enforcement authority.
Roosevelt returned to the political arena later in 1884, making an appearance at the Republican National Convention. He held his nose and endorsed James Blaine for the nomination, even though he could not stand Blaine’s policies. Roosevelt felt that politically, he could not go out on a limb just yet.
In 1886, Roosevelt had his ups and downs. He ran for mayor of New York, but lost. But, he also remarried. Edith Carow was a childhood acquaintance of Roosevelt. The two married in London. They would have five children together.
Roosevelt then served in a series of political jobs that burnished his image as a reformer. He also was a member of the Federal Civil Service Commission from 1888 through 1895. He then moved on to become the Police Commissioner of New York. Roosevelt would walk the beats of officers and often find them asleep. He completely revamped the police force. (It is not known if alarm clocks were part of the revamping.)
The election of William McKinley as President in 1896 would give Roosevelt his chance to shine. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy, John T. Long, was getting on in years and not an active manager of the department. Roosevelt took this opportunity to push across a plan to improve the Navy. He knew that a war with Spain over Cuba was likely. Roosevelt, when Long was on vacation, ordered the Pacific fleet to Manila Bay in the Philippines in preparation for the war. When war was declared, the Navy, under Admiral George Dewey, immediately scored a major victory over the Spanish fleet and kept other European powers from joining the fray.
Roosevelt did not want to sit out of the fighting in the Spanish-American War. So, he managed to get the Army to let him create his regiment, which would be known as the Rough Riders. The unit was a mixture of Western cowboys and wealthy New York scions. Although they trained to fight on horseback, they could not bring the horses to Cuba.
In what turned out to be the single biggest ground action of the war, Roosevelt led his men in a charge up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898. Going up against heavy Spanish fire, Roosevelt and his men captured the hill. And, in turn, captured the imagination of the American public.
Roosevelt knew that malaria was an even bigger enemy than the Spanish. He quickly got his men sent back to the United States. Roosevelt came back and was elected governor of New York later in the year. Two years later, Roosevelt was elected Vice-President alongside McKinley. And on September 13, 1901, McKinley died from his gunshot wound seven days earlier. At age 42, Roosevelt was now the youngest President in American history. In the words of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, a conservative Republican, “that damned cowboy is in the White House.”
After five years of solid, although perhaps not awe-inspiring, leadership from McKinley, America now had a dynamic man in the White House who wanted to get things done. And, he would do so.
Roosevelt soon faced a major strike by coal miners. Labor relations at this time were summed up by one coal corporation executive, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by labor agitators but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country.” Roosevelt ended up threatening to have the Army to operate the mines if a settlement could not be reached. The mine operators agreed to binding arbitration.
The hot button political issue of Roosevelt’s time was the influence of corporations. Antitrust laws were routinely skirted by railroads, oil companies, and financiers. Roosevelt decided to go after one trust, known as the Northern Securities Company. It was a holding company that controlled two railways (the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific) along with J.P. Morgan’s investment house. The company had a value, in 1902 dollars of $400 million. That would be about $9.5 billion today.
Roosevelt had the Justice Department prosecute Northern Securities for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Morgan was outraged. He felt that Roosevelt should have just negotiated with him personally. Roosevelt was having none of that.
Ultimately, the government prevailed in the Supreme Court, although Roosevelt did not get the broad interpretation of the Sherman Act that he wanted. Nevertheless, the days of corporate mergers on a grand scale were over. So says, the guy who has a checking account at a bank that is owned by the House of Morgan. Roosevelt would pick up the nickname “The Trust Buster.”
In 1903, Roosevelt sent Secretary of State John Hay to Colombia to negotiate a treaty that would allow the United States to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The Colombian Senate would not ratify the deal, upsetting Roosevelt.
Around this same time, French engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla was still trying to push the idea of a Panama Canal in the United States. But without Colombia’s cooperation, the United States and Bunau-Varilla had to take a different approach. So, an independence movement in Panama sprung up. The United States backed the Panamanians with a naval force. The Republic of Panama came into existence on November 3, 1903. Bunau-Varilla offered himself up to the Panamanians to serve as their minister to the United States. On November 6, 1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granted the United States the right to build a canal.
Construction on the canal would begin in 1907. Roosevelt would become the first sitting President to leave the United States when he made a visit to the site. In his usual style, he asked to operate a large steam shovel to help do some excavation. The Panama Canal would not open until 1914.
Roosevelt ran for election in his own right in 1904. Prior to that time, no Vice President who had assumed the Presidency because of a death had been elected. Usually, the former VPs were not even considered. Roosevelt was different. He had become the most popular man in the country.
The Democrats had little to offer in opposition to Roosevelt. New York Appellate Judge Alton Parker was given the unenviable task of taking on Roosevelt. It was no contest. Roosevelt won with 56% of the vote and 336 electoral votes. Upon his election, Roosevelt pledged to not run for another term in office. That statement would come back to haunt him.
In his one full term, Roosevelt was still a whirlwind of activity. In 1905, Roosevelt brokered a peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War. For his efforts, Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1906, Roosevelt had the United States participate in a multinational conference in Algeciras, Spain to sort out how the European colonies in North Africa would be governed. The Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, made a personal appeal to Roosevelt to help reduce tensions. The conference only ended up delaying the onset of World War I.
Some of the territories that the United States occupied after the war with Spain were granted independence or autonomy in Roosevelt’s time, in particular, Cuba. However, the Philippines remained a troublesome spot. A bloody insurgency, which the United States tried to stem with often brutal methods, persisted throughout Roosevelt’s Administration.
Roosevelt also oversaw a major buildup in American naval forces. To demonstrate this, Roosevelt dispatched a fleet of newly constructed battleships (“The Great White Fleet”) to take an around the world journey to show that America was now a world power on a par with Britain, France, Russia, and Japan.
On the domestic front, Roosevelt brought the issue of conservation to the forefront. Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service, created five National Parks, and 18 National Monuments. Roosevelt’s attitude toward forests was that they were a resource that could be managed and preserved.
In response to the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary practices in the food industry (even if that was not Sinclair’s main point in writing the book), Roosevelt pushed for the Pure Food and Drug Act to regulate the industry.
Roosevelt had pushed the Republican Party farther to the left than many in the party felt comfortable with. However, Roosevelt’s enormous popularity made it hard to stop him.
When Roosevelt left office in 1908, he anointed William Howard Taft as his successor. Roosevelt and Taft were good friends and the former hoped the latter would further extend his policies. But, William Taft was not Theodore Roosevelt. He was far more conservative. Friction between the two men began almost as soon as the election of 1908 was over.
Roosevelt departed the political scene for a period. He went on safari in Africa. He toured Europe. He thought he would be happy being a respected world figure.
But, it was not enough. By 1912, Roosevelt had completely broken with Taft and decided to run against his successor for the Republican nomination. However, Roosevelt made his decision too late. Taft was able to secure enough delegates to win the nomination. Roosevelt would not quit. His supporters bolted the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party.
During the campaign, Roosevelt was shot in an assassination attempt in Milwaukee. The bullet was slowed down by the papers that Roosevelt had in his jacket to use for a speech. Despite his wound, Roosevelt insisted on delivering his speech. During the speech, Roosevelt said “it takes more than that [a bullet] to kill a bull moose.” And so, Roosevelt’s supporters became known as the Bull Moose Party. (The bullet was not removed from Roosevelt’s body, but he had to shut down his campaign for the final few weeks.)
The split in the Republican Party handed the 1912 election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt’s 27.4% of the popular vote was the best showing by a third party candidate in the 20th Century. Wilson was everything Roosevelt was not. Wilson was not an advocate of the “vigorous life.” Wilson was dour. Wilson worked in academia. Roosevelt was a man of action. He fought in a war. He inspired men to do great things. Roosevelt never respected Wilson.
With politics closed off to him, Roosevelt went on another journey. He led an expedition to explore a Brazilian river called The River of Doubt (it’s now called Rio Roosevelt.) During the expedition, Roosevelt almost died from an infection in one of his legs. His health would never be good again after the trip.
When World War I began in 1914, Roosevelt cajoled Wilson into getting America involved on the side of the Allies. He could not tolerate Wilson’s cautious plan of neutrality. Once the United States finally did enter the war in 1917, Roosevelt asked Wilson if he could form his own unit like he did in the Spanish-American War. Wilson declined the offer. Wilson did not want to run the risk of having someone like Roosevelt criticizing him in the field. Also, Wilson could tell that Roosevelt was not in the best of health.
Some of Roosevelt’s sons fought in the war. His youngest son, Quentin, served as a pilot and died when he was shot down behind German lines. Roosevelt was crushed both emotionally and physically by this.
Roosevelt still hoped to run for the White House one more time in 1920. But, on January 6, 1919, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep of a heart attack. His health had been compromised by rheumatism, malaria, and the leg infection he picked up in Brazil. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest man ever to be President, died at the age of 60.
It is hard not to find a good biography of Theodore Roosevelt. His life is so rich that historians constantly write about him. If Theodore Roosevelt lived today, there would probably be a “Facts of Theodore Roosevelt” website along the lines of “Chuck Norris Facts.”
Auchincloss starts off his biography of Roosevelt by trying to immediately present him as a flawed individual. This serves to make Roosevelt’s life seem even more remarkable because you realize that he was just a regular person like each one of us. Auchincloss has a portrait of Roosevelt that is respectful, not fantastic.
Theodore Roosevelt, more so than any other President, transformed the office of President. He transformed the nation. Was he a perfect man? No, but none of us are.
For nearly all of us, Theodore Roosevelt is almost a mythical figure. And he very well may have been the last President to achieve that status.
Other stuff: There is a Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota in the area where he had his ranch. There is a Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial in Washington, DC. Theodore Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill, is a National Historic Site. Roosevelt is buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay, New York. Roosevelt’s birth place is a National Historic Site.
Since Roosevelt passed away in 1919, the only President to die of natural causes who was younger than Roosevelt (60 years and 71 days) was Warren Harding, who was 57 years and 273 days old, when he passed away in 1923.