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Teddy Roosevelt
1858 - 1919


With limitless energy and a passionate sense of the nation, he set the stage for the American century
By EDMUND MORRIS for Time Magazine


They don't hold White House lunches the way they used to at the beginning of the century. On Jan. 1, 1907, for example, the guest list was as follows: a Nobel prizewinner, a physical culturalist, a naval historian, a biographer, an essayist, a paleontologist, a taxidermist, an ornithologist, a field naturalist, a conservationist, a big-game hunter, an editor, a critic, a ranchman, an orator, a country squire, a civil service reformer, a socialite, a patron of the arts, a colonel of the cavalry, a former Governor of New York, the ranking expert on big-game mammals in North America and the President of the U.S.

All these men were named Theodore Roosevelt.

In his protean variety, his febrile energy (which could have come from his lifelong habit of popping nitroglycerin pills for a dicey heart), his incessant self-celebration and his absolute refusal to believe there was anything finer than to be born an American, unless to die as one in some glorious battle for the flag, the great "Teddy" was as representative of 20th century dynamism as Abraham Lincoln had been of 19th century union and George Washington of 18th century independence.

Peevish Henry Adams, who lived across the square from the White House and was always dreading that the President might stomp over for breakfast (T.R. thought nothing of guzzling 12 eggs at a sitting), tried to formulate the dynamic theory of history that would explain, at least to Adams' comfort, why America was accelerating into the future at such a frightening rate. His theory was eventually published in The Education of Henry Adams but makes less sense today than his brilliant description of the President as perhaps the fundamental motive force of our age: "Power when wielded by abnormal energy is the most serious of facts ... Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter — he was pure Act."

In his youth, as indeed during his infamous "White House walks," which usually culminated in a nude swim across the Potomac, Theodore Roosevelt's cross-country motto was "Over, Under or Through — But Never Around." That overmastering directness and focus upon his objective, be it geological or political or personal, was the force that Adams identified. But T.R., unlike so many other active (as opposed to reactive) Presidents, also had a highly sophisticated, tactical mind. William Allen White said that Roosevelt "thought with his hips" — an apercu that might better be applied to Ronald Reagan, whose intelligence was intuitive, and even to Franklin Roosevelt, who never approached "Cousin Theodore" in smarts. White probably meant that T.R.'s mental processor moved so fast as to fuse thought and action.

He was, after all, capable of reading one to three books daily while pouring out an estimated 150,000 letters and conducting the business of the presidency with such dispatch that he could usually spend the entire afternoon goofing off, if his kind of mad exercise can be euphemized as goofing off. "Theodore!" Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was once heard shouting, "if you knew how ridiculous you look up that tree, you'd come down at once!"

The obvious example of T.R.'s "Never Around" approach to statesmanship was the Panama Canal, which he ordered built in 1903, after what he called "three centuries of conversation." If a convenient revolution had to be fomented in Colombia (in order to facilitate the independence of Panama province and allow construction to proceed p.d.q.), well, that was Bogota's bad luck for being obstructionist and good fortune for the rest of world commerce. Being a historian, T.R. never tired of pointing out that his Panamanian revolution had been merely the 53rd anti-Colombian insurrection in as many years, but he was less successful in arguing that it was accomplished within the bounds of international law.

"Oh, Mr. President," his Attorney General Philander Knox sighed, "do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality." Dubious or not as a triumph of foreign policy, the canal has functioned perfectly for most of the century, and still does so to the honour of our technological reputation, although its control has reverted to the country T.R. allowed to sprout alongside, like a glorified right of way.

But T.R. deserves to be remembered, I think, for some acts more visionary than land grabbing south of the border. He fathered the modern American Navy, for example, while his peacemaking between Russia and Japan in 1905 elevated him to the front rank of presidential diplomats. He pushed through the Pure Food and Meat Inspection laws of 1906, forcing Congress to acknowledge its responsibility as consumer protector.

Many other Rooseveltian acts loom larger in historical retrospect than they did at the time, when they passed unnoticed or unappreciated. For example, T.R. was the first President to perceive, through his own pince-nez, that this nation's future trade posture must be toward Asia and away from the Old World entanglements of its past. Crossing the Sierra Nevada on May 7, 1903, he boggled at the beauty and otherworldliness of California. New York — his birthplace — seemed impossibly far away, Europe antipodean. "I felt as if I was seeing Provence in the making." There was no doubt at all in T.R.'s leaping mind which would be the world's next superpower. Less than five years before, he had stormed San Juan Heights in Cuba and felt what he described as the "wolf rising in the heart" — that primal lust for victory and power that drives all conquerors. "Our place ... is and must be with the nations that have left indelibly their impress on the centuries!" he shouted in San Francisco.

It's tempting to speculate how T.R. might behave as President if he were alive today. The honest answer, of course, is that he would be bewildered by the strangeness of everything, as people blind from birth are said to be when shocked by the "gift" of sight. But he certainly would be appalled by contemporary Americans' vulgarity and sentimentality, particularly the way we celebrate nonentities. Also by our lack of respect for officeholders and teachers, lack of concern for unborn children, excessive wealth and deteriorating standards of physical fitness.

Abroad he would admire our willingness to challenge foreign despots and praise the generosity with which we finance the development of less-fortunate economies. At home he would want to do something about Microsoft, since he had been passionate about monopoly from the moment he entered politics. Although no single trust a hundred years ago approached the monolithic immensity of Mr. Gates' empire, the Northern Securities merger of 1901 created the greatest transport combine in the world, controlling commerce from Chicago to China.

T.R. busted it. In doing so he burnished himself with instant glory as the champion of American individual enterprise against corporate "malefactors of great wealth." That reputation suited him just fine, although he privately believed in Big Business and was just as wary of unrestrained, amateurish competition. All he wanted to establish, early in his first term, was government's right to regulate rampant entrepreneurship.

Most of all, I think, Theodore Roosevelt would use the power of the White House in 1998 to protect our environment. His earliest surviving letter, written at age 10, mourns the cutting down of a tree, and he went on to become America's first conservationist President, responsible for five new national parks, 18 national monuments and untold millions of acres of national forest. Without a doubt, he would react toward the great swaths of farmland that are now being carbuncled over with "development" as he did when told that no law allowed him to set aside a Florida nature preserve at will.

"Is there any law that prevents me declaring Pelican Island a National Bird Sanctuary?" T.R. asked, not waiting long for an answer. "Very well, then," reaching for his pen, "I do declare it."


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 labour 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.

Early Career

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 labour 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 Governor 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 maneuvres 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 honour 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 labour's side.

Foreign Policy

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 favourable 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.

Second Administration

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.

Conservation Program

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."

Foreign Policy

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 laboured 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.)

Progressive Movement

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 labour 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 labour unions. The best-liked man of his times, he has never been revered because his militarism and chauvinism affronted the human spirit.










This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008