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Home : Biography : American Presidents
BIOGRAPHY : American Presidents


 

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Theodore Roosevelt:

The Man Who Changed the Face of America

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 their junior.

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" (Cashman 106).

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 depression.

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.
 
 

Bibliography

Barack, Oscar Theodore Jr., and Nelson Manfred Blake. Since 1900: A History of the United States in Our Times. New York: MacMillan, 1974.

Cashman, Sean Dennis. America In the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.
New York: New York University Press, 1984.

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. New York Times Book

Review, February 28, 1993. p.14. CD-ROM: Resource One.

Miller, Nathan. Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. New Yor: William Morrow, & Co., 1992.

Morris, Edward. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Goward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1979.

Nash, Gary, et. al. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. New York: Harper Collins, 1990. page 15 of 14



 

 



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