The turn of the century has always been a big deal for modern civilizations.
One hundred years of life is quite large compared with the average 70 or
so given to most. Because of that, people tend to look in trends of decades,
rather than centuries or millennia. When it does come time for a new century,
when that second digit rotates, as it does so seldom, people tend to look
for change. Events tend to fall before or after the century, not on top
of it, and United States history, particularly, has had a tendency for
sudden change at the century marks. Columbus' accidental discovery of the
West Indies in 1492 brought on the exploration age in the 1500s. Jamestown
colony, founded in 1607, was England's first foothold on the New World.
A massive population surge, brought on in part by the import of Africans,
marks entry into the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson's presidency, beginning
in 1800, changed the face of American politics. 1900 was a ripe year for
change, but needed someone to help the change arrive.
That someone was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt's political
presence altered the course of the United States, transforming it into
a superpower fully ready to handle the challenges of any opposition, and
changed the role of the president and executive branch of US government,
making it a force with which to be reckoned. As the first president with
progressive views, Roosevelt enacted the first regulatory laws and prosecuted
big businesses who had been violating them and others for years. Roosevelt
also initiated the United States' active interests in other countries,
and began to spread the benefits of democracy throughout the world. Before
Roosevelt, the United States was an inward-looking country, largely xenophobic
to the calls of the rest of the world, and chiefly concerned with bettering
itself. As one critic put it, "Roosevelt was the first modern president"(Knoll).
After Roosevelt, the United States would remain a superpower, chiefly
interested in all the world's affairs for at least a century (Barck 1).
It would be foolish to assume that Roosevelt was a fantastically powerful
individual who was able to change the course of the United States as easily
as Superman might change the course of a river. It would be more accurate
to say Roosevelt was the right person in the right place at the right time.
It is necessary, though, to show how the United States was progressing,
and how Roosevelt's presence merely helped to catalyze the progression.
It has been said that when John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln,
he "extinguished the light of the republic" (Cashman 1). While this is
a small hyperbole, it serves as an example of the general mood that pervaded
the period from 1865 to 1901. The early dominating factor was, of course,
Reconstruction. Reconstruction was a dirty game, and nobody liked it. Johnson
fought with congress and the end result proved very little had changed.
The South was still largely agrarian, and the North was commercial. Most
importantly, the Southerners and the Northerners still felt they had as
little to do with each other as a fish does with a bicycle.
To the young "Teedie" Roosevelt, this must have made itself apparent.
He was born in a mixed household, where "Theodore Roosevelt (Sr.) was as
profoundly...for the North as Martha Roosevelt was for the south" (Hagedorn
10). The fact that the family was able to live, from all accounts, very
harmoniously, is quite astonishing and gives credit to the fine parents
who raised young Theodore. Reconstruction's greatest (and perhaps only)
accomplishment was the establishment of a basis for industrialization.
The basic destruction of the southern agrarian process combined with the
greater need for items in the North caused the economy of the post-war
United States to shift toward the cities (Nash 576). The general aim of
the Untied States had turned toward the big cities, but was still focused
on building the nation's power from within. And along with the improvement
of industry in the United States came the spark of ingenuity that found
itself in the minds of great inventors like Edison and Bell. Once again
maintaining the goal of "hasten[ing] and secur[ing] settlement," both men
concentrated on improvements in communications, improving the transmission
of light and sound (Cashman 14). The presence of these two, who are representative
of so many others, shows the interest the citizens of the United States
had at this time in improving their infrastructure. It is interesting to
note here that Roosevelt, as the first president to make use of the popular
press to his advantage, grew up at the same time as these men, eleven years
The period of the United States directly before Roosevelt's was known
as the Gilded Age, due to a book of the same name by Mark Twain that made
use of references to "gild[ing] refined gold," and "guilt" from Shakespeare
combined with the "guilty, gilden guilds" that had sprung up in the forms
of interest groups, labor unions, and monopolies (Cashman 3-4). Indeed,
the most dominant figures in this age (for the presidents were certainly
beneath mention) were the robber barons. These individuals came to power
in two generations. The first, peppered by those such as Jay Gould, Jim
Fisk, and Daniel Drew, rose to the top quickly by acquiring the nation's
railroads through not always legitimate means (Cashman 34). The railroads
were power, as can be seen by the significant rise in miles of rail, nearly
a 500% increase from 1865 to 1900. Those who controlled the railroads controlled
the country, and were able to maintain a lock on the industry. Later robber
barons, such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and, of course, J. P. Morgan, operated
much the same way, eliminating the competition by one way or another until
they could control their industry (Cashman 38).
As the three or four thousand tycoons made their fortunes, defying government,
and basically creating a plutocracy of businessmen, another large group
was entering the American melting pot in larger numbers than before. Ten
million people came to the United States between 1860 and 1890, and the
great majority of them had little more worth to their name save the clothes
on their back and the boat ticket that had brought them to America (Cashman
86). Having nowhere to turn, the large majority settled in the port cities
into which they came. These immigrations were largely unrestricted; the
United States not yet having installed a quota system. The Chinese-Exclusion
act and the subsequent "gentlemen's agreement" with Japan slowed the influx
of Asian immigration after 1880, but these did not impact the numbers of
immigrants as much as one would think. Americans could not flee, as there
was no frontier left to speak of, and assimilation increasingly failed
to be effective. The result was nativism, "a defensive type of nationalism"
The need to impose the will of the American civilization onto other
nations can be seen here, in its early stages. The main difference between
this era and the next, in that respect, is that the jingoism had not yet
left the country. The Gilded Age's strongest presidential race would end
up to be its last, and the resulting president, McKinley, can not be classified
as a Gilded Age president. However, the issue of the Gold and Silver standards
shows the United States for the last time as a totally inward-looking nation.
Although a metal standard would not disappear from United States currency
until well into the mid-twentieth century, and the question of the purchase
of silver would again be raised by President Franklin Roosevelt, the Free
Silver campaign of William Jennings Bryan versus the Gold Standard enforced
by McKinley shows the last internal economic agitation until the great
The National Grange died upon McKinley's election, and "after the excitement
of Bryan's Free Silver campaign died down, the agrarian ferment largely
subsided" (Barck 21). The end of the old era could now begin. It is ironic
that McKinley's presidency ended in assassination, for without the sudden
change of leadership in the White House in 1901, the transformation undergone
by the United States may have appeared as gradual as it was intended to
be. McKinley was president over the "closing years of the nineteenth century,
mark[ing] the end of comparative isolation and the beginning of an epoch
during which the United States emerged as a world power" (Barck 77). Indeed,
McKinley fits this description of the end of the nineteenth century well.
He was a very transitionary character; not as bland or powerless as the
three who had come before him, yet still figurehead enough to be led by
Mark Hanna, the national republican boss. McKinley's stare typifies his
character: "His stare was intimidating in its blackness and steadiness...Only
very perceptive observers were aware that there was no real power behind
the gaze: McKinley stared in order to concentrate a sluggish, wandering
mind" (Morris 586).
McKinley was president when the United States' first modern military
interventions began. However it is clear McKinley was not an expansionist
at heart. He declared in his inaugural address, "We want no wars of conquest;
we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression"(Cashman 315). However,
much of America did want war with Spain, and after the American ship Maine
blew up in Havana, killing 266 soldiers, Assistant Secretary of the Navy
Theodore Roosevelt called for war with Spain to free Cuba. The subsequent
defeat of the Spanish in 100 days and the capture of the Philippines demonstrates
the expansionist nature of the United States increasing. During the election
of 1900, Bryan ran against McKinley again. This time, both men campaigned
on the same side of the same issue, advocating annexation of overseas territories
(Cashman 329). This confused Democrats and allowed McKinley's re-election
for the last year of the nineteenth century. The progress of the United
States from the death of Lincoln to the Assassination of McKinley has shown
the trend away from Jeffersonian views of a loose government, allowing
the people to be independent, and into one more pro-government, like that
of Hamilton. Coupled to this was a tendency to look outside United States
borders into the global community. The pendulum of history had passed its
middle mark and was sweeping upward. It needed, however, an individual
to carry it to its apex.
Theodore Roosevelt was in the right place at the right time. Whether
he was the right person for the job remains a matter that must be dealt
with. His foundations and his career demonstrate that he was the perfect
person to succeed McKinley and take the United States into its modern era.
Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, one week before Buchanan was elected
president, and two and a half years before the outbreak of the Civil war.
Not having much in the way of genuine learning skills at such an early
age, Roosevelt, in a sense, "slept through [the war]" (Hagedorn 11). In
another sense, he did not. Theodore Roosevelt was born into a house of
strikingly opposite leaders. His father was a large, cheerful, powerful
man, who tended to be joyful and move quickly. It is safe to say Theodore
Roosevelt, junior, received his stature from the man bearing his name (Morris
34). If Roosevelt's father was a "northern burgher," his mother was an
archetypal Southern belle, refined and elegant. By all accounts she was
absolutely lovely, and had a wonderful taste for the beautiful things in
life (Morris 36). From her, young Theodore inherited his love of the natural,
his sense of decorum, and his strong wit. The even balance that existed
in the Roosevelt home fell into a disarray of sorts as war broke out. TR,
Senior was a Lincoln Republican and desired strongly a chance to fight,
however his wife, her sister, and her mother, all staunch confederates,
resided in the same house. To compromise, TR, Senior hired someone to fight
for him and served the army in a civilian sense. TR, Junior has always
been known as a staunch militaristic man. Although his father was, in his
own words, "the best man I ever knew" (Miller 32), in his failure to fight
for his government, Roosevelt felt ashamed, and never mentioned this blemish
on his father's great reputation in his Autobiography. It is speculated
that it was this lack of military display that encouraged Roosevelt to
be so military and almost hysterically desire warfare (Morris 40). Theodore
Roosevelt, Senior, was always a strong individual in body and soul. Consequently,
he felt sympathy towards those about him, and strove to help them by teaching
mission schools, providing care for poor children, and finding jobs out
west for those upon whom hard times had fallen. He was even known to take
in invalid kittens, placing them in his coat-pockets (Morris 34).
The powerful mind and will of Theodore Roosevelt, Junior, however, was
born into a sickly body. Teedie suffered from bronchial asthma, and incurred,
along with it, a host of associated diseases such as frequent colds, nervous
diarrhea, and other problems (Miller 31). He was left very weak as a young
child, and was often subject to taunting. His father spoke to him, saying:
Theodore, you have the mind but not the body, and without the help of the
body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It
is hard drudgery to make one's body, but I know you will do it (Miller
46). Accordingly, Teedie replied with fervor, "I'll make my body!" Indeed
he did. The young Roosevelt spent hours in the gym, working on weights
to make himself better. It was this indomitable spirit that pushed Roosevelt
forward, and urged him into his form of powerful politics. Theodore Roosevelt,
Senior, had always hated politics. He had received a particularly nasty
dose when caught up in the Rutherford B. Hayes campaign. Roosevelt, a Hayes
supporter, had drawn the particular ire of Hayes' opponent for the Republican
nomination, Roscoe Conkling. Hayes attempted to put Roosevelt in as position
of Collector, but failed to receive senate nomination due to Conkling's
ire (Miller 76-8).
Theodore Roosevelt, Junior, "inspired by his father's humiliation at
the hands of the politicians...was determined to become part of...the governing
class" (Miller 110). This inspiration was coupled in Roosevelt with a strong
desire for power. Unlike many men who had gotten into the political game,
Roosevelt boldly admitted that he desired power, and his desire served
him well, allowing him to become a genuine career politician (Miller 111).
The political game had not changed so much since Theodore, Senior had tried
to run it, and Theodore, Junior had an uphill battle. He had to fight from
the beginning, but fortunately was adequate in that respect. At first plagued
by strict-line party voting, Roosevelt managed to finally secure political
office, but it was there that his true troubles would begin. An important
and revealing part of TR's early political career occurs during his stint
as a civil service commissioner in Washington. One memorable incident occurred
in 1889 when Roosevelt faced some difficult political maneuvering. In Milwaukee,
Postmaster George Paul was accused of making appointments to friends and
altering records to hide it. Hamilton Shidy, a Post Office superintendent,
provided most of the damaging evidence. The commission was to recommend
Paul's firing, when Paul announced his term of office was up regardless.
The commission returned to Washington, where they learned Paul had lied
about his length of service. Roosevelt immediately drafted a call for Paul's
removal to the White House and the Associated Press.
This publicity irked numerous republicans who were no strangers to corruption
themselves. Postmaster General Wanamaker, who was not particularly fond
of Roosevelt to begin with, was quite angry. He allowed Paul, who had not
been removed, to dismiss Shidy, who had been promised protection by Roosevelt,
for insubordination. Now Roosevelt was stuck between a rock and a hard
place. He was bound both to Shidy as a protector and to uphold his post,
which would warrant Shidy's removal. Wanamaker was trying to force Roosevelt
to resign. Luckily, president Harrison intervened and agreed to find a
place for Shidy, but the battle was not over. As he waited for Paul's removal
orders from the White House, which were not forthcoming, Frank Hatton,
the editor of the Washington Post decided to launch an attack, lying blatantly
about Roosevelt's misappropriation of funds or other egregious acts. The
Post fired back with more attacks, causing Roosevelt to angrily point to
Wanamaker's misdeeds. Rather than continue the battle, Harrison managed
to have Paul resign, and Roosevelt accepted half of a victory. He had successfully
stopped the wheels of the political machine once.
It was not to be the last time (Morris 403-8). Roosevelt spent several
years as a commissioner of police in New York City, eventually rising to
become president of the board of commissioners. In these years, the true
signs of the presidency that was to come shone through. Two of Roosevelt's
closest acquaintances were Lincoln Steffens, and Jacob Riis (Morris 482),
both reporters of New York newspapers. It was through them that Roosevelt
communicated to the people, and he found it good practice to have the relayers
of his messages be his friends. Through Riis' book How The Other Half Lives,
Roosevelt had learned of the plight of the poor. Roosevelt saw the awful
living conditions present in police lodging houses, and had them done away
with (Cashman 123). He battled police corruption, trying hundreds of officers
and finding corruption and graft in every corner of the department (Morris
491). When McKinley's first vice-president, Hobart, died, Roosevelt found
himself in the capacity of Governor of New York. He had already fought
in a war and been Assistant Secretary of the Navy, where he helped to orchestrate
the United States' roles in Cuba and Panama. Roosevelt's expansionist views
were here seen. As governor, he continued to defy the old political tactics,
including bossism. Platt, the political boss of New York, had gotten Roosevelt
elected governor, yet constantly ran up against Roosevelt, who would not
follow any of his orders.
Roosevelt spent a good time of his governorship attempting to outmaneuver
Platt and his agents who were heavily present in the state legislature
(Morris 708). Hobart's death, in 1899, forced the search for a new vice-presidential
candidate, especially due to the upcoming election. Roosevelt emerged as
the leading candidate, to the dismay of the Republican National Party's
boss, Senator Mark Hanna. Hanna considered Roosevelt quite dangerous; in
the previous term Hanna had done a great deal of controlling the president,
and he feared what would happen if Roosevelt became vice-president. McKinley
did not show any special preference. Hanna chose his own candidate, John
D. Long, but was convinced through some slightly shady political maneuvering
to vote for Roosevelt against his own better judgment (Morris 727). Hanna's
personal dislike of Roosevelt did not diminish in the slightest, however.
Shortly after the 1900 elections, Hanna sent McKinley a note saying "Your
duty to the Country is to live for four years from next March (Miller 342).
McKinley was re-nominated unanimously, receiving all 926 votes. Roosevelt
received 925, the single vote against him cast by himself (Morris 729).
Roosevelt served four days as Vice President before Congress adjourned
until December. And when the news of McKinley's sudden death on September
14 came to him he said, in a very un-Roosevelt-like manner, that he would
"continue, absolutely unbroken, the policy of President McKinley for the
peace, the prosperity, and the honor of our beloved country" (Barck 45).
This was tradition for replacement presidents, although it certainly
seemed odd coming from such a strong-willed man as Roosevelt. Roosevelt
had already made himself extremely well known in the public eye, so his
transition to president was not as awkward as it might have been. Roosevelt
campaigned furiously during 1900, traveling a total of 21,209 miles and
making 673 speeches in 567 towns in 24 states (Morris 730). Only Bryan
had campaigned more in the 19th century. For this reason, Roosevelt was
able to manipulate, to a certain degree, the popular press. Although he
disliked those "Muckrakers," as he called them, who looked for wrongdoing
everywhere and served mostly to stir sensationalistic ideas, Roosevelt
had a certain penchant for those like Steffens and Riis, who wrote copiously
on the need for social reform. To do his part, Roosevelt attempted reforms
that would benefit the working class. Unlike previous presidents, Roosevelt
refused to use national force to break strikes. He also instituted the
Interstate Commerce Act, which, with the Hepburn Act, allowed government
regulation of transportation systems, preventing the railroad monopolies
from instituting unfairly high prices (Barck 52).
Taking a cue from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which detailed in vivid
description the atrocious handling of meat at sausage factories, Roosevelt
had the Pure Foods and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act passed, preventing
the manufacture of harmful foods and requiring inspection of meat facilities.
A unique aspect of Roosevelt's presidency was his foreign policy. Although
McKinley had been involved in Cuba and the Philippines, he had never expressed
a wish to dominate as a world power. Roosevelt had, indeed, operated a
large part of the United States' aggressive role towards Cuba, and in his
presidency went even further to secure the United States as a dominating
power. In 1904 he declared what would become the Roosevelt Corollary to
the Monroe Doctrine in a letter to Secretary of War Elihu Root (Miller
394). Roosevelt argued that it was a civilized nation's right to intervene
if its neighbors are engaged in wrongdoing. To that end, Roosevelt began
to use force to preserve peace and order in the Western Hemisphere.
The Dominican Republic needed Roosevelt's help first, as it was being
harassed by Italy and France, to whom it owed large sums of money. To alleviate
the problem, a loan was set up from the United States. Although the Dominicans
eventually settled on the loan, anti-imperialists felt the United States
was preparing to annex the Dominican Republic. It has been said that "The
Roosevelt Corollary['s]...promulgation was proof that the United States
realized its position as a world power" (Barck 100). Of course, this was
all contingent on Roosevelt's enforcement of his doctrine. Roosevelt confirmed
the role of the U. S. further by providing a strong military presence to
wrest the boundary line of Alaska from Canada in 1902 and most importantly,
by determination and perhaps a little impropriety in the annexation of
the Panama Canal zone. Colombia had been a friendly country to the U. S.,
and when Panama revolted it seemed suspect that the United States should
allow such an operation. But, as tends to be the case, Roosevelt wanted
Panama free for other means. In his words, he wanted to "take Panama,"
for a canal and he did, demanding independence from a contract with England
and grumbling when the deal ended up to be a 100 year lease of the canal
zone, rather than an outright purchase. The Panama canal was, in Roosevelt's
mind, to be as great a feat as the Louisiana purchase or Texas annexation.
It was a controversial measure, and showed Roosevelt's beliefs in the superiority
and rights of civilization (Miller 399). In 1907 Roosevelt finally decided
he had had enough and, rather than run for a third term, which he could
have easily done, virtually appointed William Howard Taft as his successor
and went off to enjoy retirement. Taft was a good friend of Roosevelt and
shared many of his views.
Under Taft, Congress expanded the Conservation Laws, keeping alive TR's
national parks service. In addition, 80 suits were initiated by Taft's
attorney general on companies violating the Sherman Anti-Trust act. Unfortunately,
Taft's presidency was not nearly as successful as Roosevelt's, for while
the country became more and more progressive, Taft stood pat, remaining
mostly conservative (Barck 68). In response to Taft's conservative stance,
progressives united to form the National Progressive League. Meanwhile,
Roosevelt returned to politics. Bored with the quiet life, he desired the
presidency once again, and naturally went for the Republican ticket. However,
Taft decided to give Roosevelt a little taste of his own medicine, and
refused to accede to Roosevelt, who was now playing the political boss.
The friendship that had existed between these two was splintered, and Roosevelt,
in a rage, formed the Progressive party and ran as a third candidate. Although
he feared he would be defeated if the Democrats nominated a progressive
candidate (which they found in Wilson), Roosevelt ran with his soul, as
he did everything in life.
At the Progressive party convention, Roosevelt read aloud his "Confession
of Faith," a sweeping charter for reform that outlined the agenda for the
twentieth century (Miller 528). The confession advocated direct senate
elections, preferential primaries, women's suffrage, corruption laws, referendum
and recall, a federal securities commission, trust regulation, reduced
tariffs, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, anti-child-labor laws,
and food purity laws (Miller 528). Roosevelt lost the 1912 election, but
he certainly did not lose power. Over the next century, he would have every
single part of his agenda made national law. The turn towards progressivism
was only beginning, and continued with Wilson. Although a democrat, his
views were remarkably progressive. They were also remarkably Rooseveltian.
Like Roosevelt, Wilson had a strong
will and did not take kindly to dissent, as can be seen by his appointment
of Louis Brandeis to the supreme court over the objections of at least
six former presidents of the American Bar Association (Barck 110). Wilson
also formally reinvented the role of a strong executive demonstrated so
heartily by Roosevelt by delivering speeches directly before Congress,
rather than having them read by a clerk.
Wilson kept alive Roosevelt's ideals with tariff reductions, the Federal
Reserve System. Wilson even advocated the democratization of the Philippines,
even though he was strongly anti-imperialist (Barck 121). Until the war
in Europe distracted America long enough to lead it eventually back into
a post-war depression, Wilson carried on the traditions of his political
opponent, in the redefined presidency of the newly powerful United States.
Although the United States was moving ever forward in its effort to "policing
the world" it was not as progressive as all that in 1914. Even TR himself
did not advocate joining in on World War I, seeing no reason to take part
in an affair that did not concern the United States in the slightest. However,
once German U-boats began sinking ships carrying American passengers, Roosevelt
changed his tune, along with a percentage of the American people. Eventually,
enough popular sentiment urged Congress to declare war, and it was done.
It seems here as if Wilson was dragging his feet, but in another generation,
the mere consideration of war in Europe would have been ludicrous. Having
gotten its feet wet, the United States became a first-class country with
first-class responsibilities. The United States advocated by TR continued
after the war and beyond. After a brief interlude in which everything seemed
to revert back to the old ways and Americans looked again toward the individual,
another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, used the ideas of his cousin to reinvigorate
the economy and rebuild the nation.
Today, the reforms advocated by TR exist and are in full use, while
other more progressive reforms, like national
health care, are being considered. Although our civilization may not
end abruptly in 1999, as predicted by numerous psychics and fortune-tellers,
it is probable that some large revolutionary act will change the way our
country works in four years or so, just as it has before. While our Roosevelt
may not have the immense popularity or wonderful charm as the original,
it is not doubtful that whoever it is will have to have will, strength,
brains, and fortitude equal to or above that of the original.
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Hagedorn, Hermann. The Boys' Life of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Harper
and Brothers, 1918.
Knoll, Erwin. Review of Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, by Nathan Miller.
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& Co., 1992.
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