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Gen. President Theodore Roosevelt - good president.

Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 January 6, 1919) was more than just the 26th president of the United States. He was a writer, historian, explorer, big-game hunter, soldier, conservationist, ranchman and Nobel Peace Prize winner. It is not surprising that his philosophy of life was known as The Strenuous Life. Theodore was born into a wealthy and socially prominent New York family in 1858. Although blessed with a quick mind he was not blessed with a strong body. He suffered from life-threatening asthma attacks throughout his childhood. Spurred on by his father, Theodore began to build up his body by strenuous exercise, and by adulthood he had become a model of physical courage and toughness. This early example of his character was indicative of the way he lived the rest of his life. He did not back down in the face of adversity, and he continually displayed remarkable physical and moral courage.

As a young man Roosevelt decided on a dual career; law and politics. At the time, New York politics was dominated by men involved in machine politics. These were not exactly the kind of people he had met at Harvard. Yet he persisted in getting to know and understand them, while at the same time attending Columbia Law School. Eventually he secured the friendship and patronage of an influential man named Joe Murray who was able to get him nominated as a 21st District State Republican Assemblyman. Together, with Murray's contacts and knowledge of machine politics and his own family and social connections, Roosevelt was able to easily win the election. He was 23 and in Albany. Theodore served three terms in the New York Assembly. He became known as an outspoken and active opponent of the "wealthy criminal class" as he called them and of political corruption - of which there was no shortage. He was a rising progressive star. His ascent, however, was cut short by the presidential election of 1884. Roosevelt was a delegate to the Republican convention, and as a matter of principle he vigorously opposed the leading candidates - James G. Blaine and President Arthur. Roosevelt supported a reformer, Senator George F. Edmunds. In the end Blaine won the nomination, and this put Roosevelt in a difficult position. He did not believe that Blaine was honest, yet if he followed the example of other progressives and did not support him he realized he would be through in the Republican party. He supported Blaine. When Blaine lost Theodore received no political position, and his political career was over.

Roosevelt not only suffered political defeat in 1884 but deeply personal defeats as well. On the same day both his mother and wife died. These disappointments led to a radical change in Roosevelt's life. He decided to move to the Dakota Badlands to become a rancher. At the time many people thought that this was a good way to become rich. The Dakotas were not like the East - life could be a little wild and woolly. Resolution of disputes was done at the end of a gun, and thieves were often hanged as soon as they were caught. Roosevelt excelled at this rough and tumble way of life and earned the respect and devotion of the men around him. Roosevelt, however, did not excel at making money. He lost about half of his entire capital in ranching. But what he gained was, in the long run, of much greater value. The men he met there were to later join the famous Rough Riders whose exploits were the major impetus to his political success. In 1886 Roosevelt returned to New York to marry a childhood friend - Edith Carow. Highly intelligent, Edith was one of the few people who could actually manage Theodore. In order to control his free spending habits she put him on a strict two dollar a day allowance - even when he was president. Together they had a very successful marriage and produced five children in addition to Alice, Roosevelt's child by his first marriage.

Politics was still the place that Roosevelt wanted to be, but there were not many opportunities since his party was out of power. In order to support his family Roosevelt spent his time writing. This was not a new vocation for Roosevelt. Equally at home hunting for a book as hunting for a bear he wrote his first book The Naval War of 1812 while in law school and running for the New York Assembly. By the end of his life he had written and published dozens of books.

In 1888 Roosevelt saw his chance to jump back into politics by campaigning for the election of Benjamin Harrison. When Harrison won he appointed Roosevelt to be a Civil Service Commissioner. It was with this job and later as Police Commissioner that Roosevelt made his reputation as a reformer. At the time both the Civil Service and the New York Police Department had serious corruption problems. Roosevelt did his best to clean up the corruption and make things work fairly. For example, as a Police Commissioner he took control of the police department, reorganized it, fired corrupt policemen and used to spend his nights walking through the city looking for policemen asleep on their jobs.

In the presidential election of 1896 the Republican William McKinley ran against the Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Roosevelt campaigned hard for McKinley, and he was rewarded by the job he coveted most - Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It was during this time that Roosevelt first met William Allen White, a newspaper editor from Kansas. White's autobiography paints Roosevelt's personality perfectly "..and we sat there for an hour after lunch and talked our jaws loose about everything. I had never known such a man as he, and never shall again. He overcame me. And in the hour or two we spent that day at lunch, and in a walk down F Street, he poured into my heart such visions, such ideals, such hopes, such a new attitude toward life and patriotism and the meaning of things, as I had never dreamed men had. ...so strong was this young Roosevelt--hard-muscled, hard-voiced even when the voice cracked in falsetto, with hard, wriggling jaw muscles, and snapping teeth, even when he cackled in raucous glee, so completely did the personality of this man overcome me that I made no protest and accepted his dictum as my creed."

Being Assistant Secretary of the Navy provided this powerful young man his first chance to act on his foreign policy ideas. Roosevelt was a strong nationalist. He believed fervently that not only was the United States on the brink of becoming a world power, but that it had a responsibility and a duty to establish U.S. supremacy. For an explanation of these views in his own words see his speech The Strenuous Life. This faith in national supremacy spawned a host of related goals. In order for the U.S. to become a world power it needed to be able to transport its military quickly between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. At that time ships had to sail around the tip of South America to make that trip. If, instead, they could go through an isthmian canal it would cut weeks off the trip time. But having a canal meant that military control had to be established over the canal. To do this the United States would have to secure the Caribbean, and that in turn meant war with Spain. Spain's empire in Latin America was just a sliver of what it had once been, but it still controlled Cuba and Puerto Rico. This is why Roosevelt zealously worked to promote the Spanish-American War. All wrapped around and through these ideas was the need for a strong navy. Toward this goal Roosevelt worked very hard while Assistant Secretary. He fought and pushed and prodded and on occasion was insubordinate in his efforts to strengthen the navy for war. His cause was helped enormously when the United States battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. This was just the sort of incendiary event needed to push the U.S. into war. The bombing was blamed on the Spanish even though nobody really knew who or what was responsible. War was officially declared on April 21, 1898.

It would have never done for Roosevelt to be stuck behind a desk while a war was on. He was just itching to become a soldier. He quit the Naval Department and joined the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel. Together he and his superior officer, Colonel Wood, were responsible for raising volunteers for the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry regiment. By the time the war was over Roosevelt was the Colonel in charge, and his regiment, popularly known as Roosevelt's Rough Riders, was famous. For Roosevelt the war was the event that catapulted him politically. It was only three more years until he was the President of the United States.

When Roosevelt returned from Cuba he was a national hero and political gold. Men were lining up to beg him to run for office. Tom Platt, the boss of the Republican machine in New York was no exception, except that he was not real thrilled about it. Platt's political power base was big business, but here he was asking Roosevelt to run for governor - a man that had an annoying tendency to do what he felt was right rather than heedlessly protect powerful business interests. Unfortunately for Platt finding a man that could actually win was a bigger problem - a problem that Roosevelt could solve. When Roosevelt became governor in January of 1899 he fulfilled Platt's worst expectations. He would not let Platt dominate his term or his decision making. In particularly he angered and defied Platt on the biggest issue of his term - utility franchise taxes. At that time public service corporations did not pay taxes on their franchises. They did pay Platt to make sure it stayed that way. Roosevelt felt that government should not give preferential treatment to big business, and that it had an important role in its regulation. In the end Roosevelt prevailed and utility companies were forced to pay taxes. This enraged both Platt and his supporters. In a weird twist it was this anger that helped paved the way for Roosevelt to become president.

In 1899 Garret Hobart, vice-president of the United States, died and in his death Platt saw his chance. He did everything he could to encourage the nomination of Roosevelt for vice-president. Others, with less selfish motivations, also thought it was a wonderful idea and applied pressure to both President McKinley and Roosevelt. Neither one of which was thrilled about the idea. McKinley had no particular interest in Roosevelt, and Roosevelt's active nature revolted at the thought of having a ceremonial and impotent political position. In the end they both relented, Roosevelt accepted the vice-president nomination and their ticket went on to win the 1900 presidential election against William Jennings Bryan. Roosevelt resigned himself to being vice-president.

Roosevelt's next opportunity also came at the expense of another person's death. In September of 1901, less than one year into his new term, McKinley was shaking hands with the public at the Pan-American Exposition when a young man named Leon Czolgosz walked up to him and shot him twice. At first it looked like McKinley would survive the shooting, but he ended up dying on September 14th. Characteristically Roosevelt was climbing a mountain when he got word that McKinley was dying, and that he would soon be President.

At the turn of the century the United States was a country rapidly coming into its own. Now it had a president that could not only keep up with it but push it even faster. Both on the domestic and international front Roosevelt aggressively expanded the power of the presidency, the federal government and the nation.

It was in the business arena that Roosevelt most aggressively extended the power of the federal government. Until his administration the dominate idea that governed the relationship between government and business was laissez faire. The government passed few business regulations and in general left businesses to do as they saw fit. Roosevelt was the first president that felt it was the proper role of the federal government to make sure that business was responsive to public needs. Because of this he actively sought to regulate business by enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and pushing new regulatory legislation through Congress.

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act had been passed in 1890, but it had never been used to prosecute a trust - only unions. Meanwhile the changes in the business environment were phenomenal. Whole industries became dominated by a single company or a combination of companies controlled by a trust. Once it had a monopoly a trust could unilaterally control prices and rack up huge profits. The king of trusts was J.P. Morgan, a banker, who was to become the first target of Roosevelt's assault. Many progressives felt that all trusts were bad and should be abolished. Roosevelt was more moderate. He thought that the era of big business was inevitable, and that it had important economic benefits such as increased productivity and efficiency. In his opinion, there were good trusts and bad trusts. The good ones were responsive to the needs of the public, and he wanted to leave those alone. He only wanted to go after ones that did not act in the public interest. In order to do this he came up with the radical idea of actually enforcing existing law.

On February 18, 1902 he directed the Justice Department to use the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to prosecute the Northern Securities Company run by J.P. Morgan. Morgan had created this trust to control the activities of several powerful railroad companies. He was a rich and powerful adversary, but Roosevelt was victorious in March of 1904 when the Supreme Court ruled against the Northern Securities Company and forced it to break up. This marked an important shift in the scope of government. For the first time the federal government was taking an active, regulatory position in regard to business. Roosevelt could not achieve all he wanted with existing law. So he worked to pass two landmark pieces of legislation - the Pure Food & Drug Act and a meat inspection bill. These laws were intended to protect consumers against the food industry - especially meat packing. Meat packers used diseased and rotten meat, processed meat in unsanitary conditions and put labels on their cans that had precious little relationship to the actual contents. This was a problem that Roosevelt had personally experienced. He wrote the following about the meat supplied to his regiment in the Spanish-American War. "If we had been given canned corn-beef we would have been all right, but instead of this the soldiers were issued horrible stuff called "canned fresh beef." There was no salt in it. At the best it was stringy and tasteless; at the worst it was nauseating. Not one-fourth of it was ever eaten at all, even when the men became very hungry". Roosevelt's greatest ally in his struggle against meat packers was the novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Its descriptions of the conditions in meat packing horrified and enraged the public, who in turn motivated their political representatives to support Roosevelt. As a result, on June 30, 1906 the President signed both of his consumer protection bills into law.

Roosevelt was also the first president to use the power of the federal government as a broker in the conflict between labor and capital. In May of 1902 the coal miners of eastern Pennsylvania went on strike. They were working 12 hour shifts, six days a week for an average wage of $560 per year. The mine owners rejected their demands, and the strike continued through the summer into the fall. Eventually the prospect of a winter without heat began to frighten people, and Roosevelt decided to intervene in the interest of the public. He invited the leaders of both sides to come to Washington to meet with him. At that meeting he proposed that an arbitration committee help them settle their differences. The union agreed to this but the mine owners rejected it. By that time Roosevelt had become very put off by the attitude of the mine owners. He threatened to send in federal troops to take charge of the mines. Eventually they gave in and agreed to arbitration. The miners won a 9 hour day, a 10% wage increase and the right to have their own representatives present when the coal was weighed.

International affairs was marked by the same activism as domestic affairs. He was definitely not an isolationist. He aggressively positioned the United States as a new world power in order to establish a leadership position and protect national security. For example, in 1901 the U.S. was the fifth strongest naval power in the world. By 1907 it was in second place behind Great Britain.

In 1823 the United States had issued the Monroe Doctrine which stated that the American continents were to be free of European interference and conquest. This expression of territoriality came before the U.S. really possessed the force necessary to back up its words. But by the turn of the century this was no longer true. European countries were quickly gaining respect for the might of the new american power. It was Roosevelt, of course, who added the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. This confirmed the restriction on European activities in the Western Hemisphere but added the idea that when a country in the Western Hemisphere did not "behave", such as by not paying their debts to European countries, the United States had a responsibility to discipline them. This is where the idea of the United States fulfilling the role of world policeman got started. A role still being played by the U.S. in places like Haiti and Bosnia.

In 1905 Roosevelt got his first chance to put the United States in this new role of policeman. Internally the Dominican Republic was a mess and among other things was not able to pay off its debts to its European creditors. The United States took control of the collection of customs receipts, using them to pay off the creditors and put the country back on a stable footing. It should be noted that this was all done at the request of the Dominican Republic not against their will. Roosevelt's extension of control over all of the Western Hemisphere and in particular the Caribbean was directly connected with his intent to build the Panama Canal. Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in Central America had been a dream of many for decades. The advantages were enormous and obvious, but the problems were daunting. The French had already tried and failed. There were huge technological problems to be worked out. Yellow fever killed 22,000 workers during the French attempt. In addition, there were political problems like how to end the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty which committed the United States to building the canal with Great Britain and sharing control. Roosevelt did not want to share control, he wanted to have control. In addition there was disagreement within the U.S. government about what route to take; through Panama or through Nicaragua.

Roosevelt, however, was not a man to let a few problems to stand in his way. He stretched his power to the maximum, and in the end it was due to him that the canal finally got built. In 1901 Great Britain agreed to give up their right to share control of the canal with the United States, and in 1902 the Congress finally decided on the route through Panama. The way was clear for Roosevelt to negotiate with the Colombians for a right-of-way. At that time Panama was part of Colombia - but not for long. Colombia decided it wanted more money, and it rejected the negotiated treaty. Roosevelt was angry. Angry enough to make it clear (unofficially) that a revolution in Panama would be supported by the United States. Panama obliged by declaring their independence on November 4, 1903. The United States got its canal, Panama got $10 million and Colombia got nothing.

Roosevelt's unorthodoxed actions in central america were controversial, but they powerfully illustrated the power of the nation he commanded. In addition they contributed to the growth of that power by giving the United States total control over a strategically crucial waterway. It was one of the most important accomplishments of his administration.

Roosevelt was a man that thoroughly relished the power and responsibility of being president. He really enjoyed his position. But while running for president in 1904 he had made a rash promise to not seek another term in 1908. He decided to honor that promise. He did, however, hand pick his own successor - William H. Taft. Taft was expect to follow his predecessor's progressive policies.

Roosevelt was not the kind of guy to spend the rest of his life retired at his Long Island home. Just his life after the presidency was enough to eclipse the accomplishments of most. Once Taft was inaugurated in 1909, Roosevelt went on a year long hunting trip through Africa and followed it up with an European tour. On his African trip he collected animal specimens for museums and wrote articles for Scribners, which were later turned into a book. He made a triumphant tour through Europe and picked up his Nobel Peace Prize - awarded for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt returned to the States in June of 1910. He had been kept posted on Taft's activities while he had been gone, and he was not happy. Taft had turned from Roosevelt's progressive policies to a more conservative position. Roosevelt was angry, and he decided to contest Taft for the 1912 Republican nomination.

Roosevelt was still extremely popular and won a majority of delegates. Taft, however, controlled the party machinery which made sure he was nominated. A part of the Republican party split off to begin the Progressive Party and made Roosevelt their nominee. This split divided the Republican vote and put the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, in office. After this failure, Roosevelt still did not slow down. He went to South America for a speaking tour and to make a wilderness expedition to map the Rio da Divuda river in Brazil. The trip started in January of 1914 and included one of Roosevelt's sons - Kermit. It was a horrendous trip. Roosevelt injured his leg, got dysentery and malaria and at one point begged to be left behind so that he would not slow down the rest of the group. But in the end he made it, and in his honor Brazil renamed the river Rio Roosevelt.

Roosevelt returned to the United States in 1914, the same year that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and World War I began. He agitated for preparedness and entry into the war. He even wanted to join up to fight but was refused this wish because of his age. In the end he had to be content with sending all four of his sons to war, one of them to his death. Theodore had always been a man determined to wear out - not to rust out. He accomplished this goal like few others ever have. His journey ended on January 6, 1919 when he died of an embolism at his home while still working.

President Abraham Lincoln - one of the most influential men in history. Click on picture to learn about him.



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                The President of the United States - one of the most influential men in history. Click on picture to learn about him.