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Theodore Roosevelt: President, Reformer, and Conservationist

Theodore Roosevelt was born into a wealthy and influential family in New York City. Young “Teedie” was plagued by asthma and poor eyesight and was educated at home by tutors until he enrolled at Harvard.

Roosevelt developed deep interests in natural science and military history. The family traveled widely, and Roosevelt spent a year living with a family in Germany. His poor health concerned him deeply, fearing that he would lose the respect of his father, whom he idolized.

On a family vacation in New England, young Roosevelt was traumatized by a couple of young toughs; his embarrassment drove him into a lifelong quest for the strenuous life. His father prepared a gymnasium at home and Roosevelt began a vigorous program of physical self-improvement.

Theodore Roosevelt In 1876, Roosevelt entered Harvard where he excelled, graduating Phi Beta Kappa four years later. He entered the law school at Columbia University in the hope of finding a lucrative profession; his father had left him a significant inheritance, but Roosevelt felt he needed a profession to assure his security. He found the study of law uninspiring and spent much of his time completing The Naval War of 1812, a book he had started as an undergraduate.

Roosevelt was elected to the New York state assembly in 1882 and allied himself with the Republican Party`s reform elements. He drew attention for his efforts to investigate the noted financier Jay Gould`s shady dealings. Roosevelt further bucked the conservative leadership by cooperating with the Democratic governor Grover Cleveland and opposing the presidential nomination of James G. Blaine at the Republican convention in 1884.

In 1880, Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee, the daughter of a prominent New England banking family. She died in 1884, while giving birth to their daughter, Alice. Roosevelt’s mother died from typhoid fever on the same day.

Shaken by his losses, Roosevelt purchased two cattle ranches in the Dakotas and moved westward. He hoped to boost his spirits through physical activity. Ranch hands and neighbors were initially cool toward the bespectacled Easterner with the funny accent, but he soon won their friendship and respect.

Roosevelt was not successful as a rancher, however; he lost most of his cattle in a snowstorm. His sojourn in the West was, however, fruitful from the literary standpoint. His Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885) and Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail were written for popular audiences and played a role in attracting tourism to the area. Roosevelt’s four-volume The Winning of the West (1889-96), while heavy on adventure and heroism, is regarded as an outstanding work.

Roosevelt returned to New York City in 1886, where he mounted an unsuccessful run for the mayor’s office. He finished last behind the Democratic winner and runner-up third party candidate Henry George.

In that year, he married the refined and introspective Edith K. Carow, a childhood friend. The Roosevelts had a daughter and four sons of their own. Living the life of a country squire, Roosevelt settled into relative quiet at Sagamore Hill on Oyster Bay, Long Island. He wrote two biographies for the popular American Statesmen series, a widely admired one on Thomas Hart Benton and a more pedestrian treatment of Gouverneur Morris.

In 1889, Roosevelt returned to public life, accepting an appointment to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. This position was a reward for his assistance with the Benjamin Harrison campaign in 1888.

Roosevelt’s energy in combating the spoils system brought attention to the Commission. Reforms of this era included an increase in the number of government jobs subject to competitive examinations, a revision of the those examinations, and the opening of many positions to female applicants. Roosevelt’s service was appreciated by the next president, his friend Cleveland, and he was reappointed to another term.

In 1895, Roosevelt became Police Commissioner of New York City. His efforts to end corruption were not very successful, but he gained widespread public popularity by conducting nighttime patrols of the city to ensure that the police were doing their jobs. Roosevelt drew the ire of the Tammany Hall and many German immigrants by enforcing an often ignored law requiring the closure of beer halls on Sundays.

In 1896, Roosevelt campaigned vigorously for the Republican nominee, William McKinley, and pressed for an appointment after the election victory. The new president thought Roosevelt was a brash young man, but nevertheless nominated him to be the assistant secretary of the Navy. In his new position, he pressed hard for stronger action against Spain for thwarting the Cuban drive for independence. At this time, he also expressed his dedication to keep European powers out of active involvement in the Western Hemisphere (see Monroe Doctrine) and his conviction that stronger nations must bestow the benefits of their civilization upon the weaker nations (see Manifest Destiny). As a disciple of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Roosevelt also advocated a strong navy and overseas bases.

In May 1898, after war against Spain had been declared, Roosevelt resigned as assistant secretary and joined a volunteer cavalry unit under Colonel Leonard Wood. His exploits with the Rough Riders in Cuba were reported in the press, which made him a national celebrity. Roosevelt regarded his experiences in combat as the high point of his life.

Capitalizing on his popularity, Roosevelt ran for governor of New York. Republican leaders knew of his reform tendencies, but pushed his nomination as a means to overcome a recent history of corruption on the state level.

In November 1898, Roosevelt was elected by a narrow margin. He showed typical vigor in Albany and, as feared, alienated political boss Thomas Platt by pushing through a new tax on corporate franchises. His efforts at moderate reforms included a number of conservation measures and improvements in Public Education.

In 1900, Platt and other New York Republicans urged President McKinley to take Roosevelt as his running mate; the previous vice president had died in office and Platt was anxious to be rid of the hard-charging governor.

Roosevelt was initially reluctant, but quickly realized that he had no base in the Republican Party and that his only hope for the presidency would come by exposure on a national ticket. He accepted the offer of the nomination and campaigned tirelessly for the ticket, a distinct contrast to the homebound McKinley.

Roosevelt`s tenure as vice-president was cut short by McKinley`s asassination in September 1901. Mark Hanna lamented that "that damned cowboy is president now," giving expression to the fears of many old line Republicans.

During his first term, Roosevelt earned a reputation for trust-busting, but his inclination was to seek regulation of the giants, not their destruction. He also won widespread approval for forcing arbitration upon a reluctant management during the coal strike of 1902. Roosevelt took tentative steps toward addressing the concerns of farmers and other small shippers who believed the railroads were treating them unfairly.

In 1904, Roosevelt`s main challenger for the Republican nomination, Hanna, died before the convention, clearing the path for the incumbent. He campaigned on the merits of his "square deal" for all of the American people and was an easy victor in November. In a move that he later regretted, Roosevelt announced that he would not seek the nomination in 1908; in effect, he labeled himself a lame duck.

Domestic progress was muted during Roosevelt`s second term. Congress had tired of his activism and resisted many of his proposals. Major progress was made toward conserving the nation`s resources, but the president was blamed by his critics for contributing to the onset of the Panic of 1907.

Roosevelt was extremely active in foreign affairs, particularly in his first administration. He regarded the quest for the Panama Canal as his greatest achievement, but was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his services in settling the Russo-Japanese War.

The Republican Party followed Roosevelt`s counsel in 1908, and nominated William Howard Taft. The outgoing president believed that Taft would continue to carry the torch of reform, but the Party believed it would be able to mold Taft`s actions.

Roosevelt, in typical fashion, was an active former president. He immediately set out on a 10-month safari in Africa. His critics at home actively rooted for the lions, but Roosevelt and his party bagged nearly 300 animals. He then traveled on to the Middle East and Europe, culminating in a meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Roosevelt`s return to the United States in June 1910, was front-page news.

Enjoying his active retirement, Roosevelt was reluctant to reenter the political arena. However, he became increasingly unhappy with what he regarded as Taft’s disloyalty and his abandonment of progressivism. In the summer of 1910, the former president delivered an address at Osawatomie, Kansas, outlining the New Nationalism and separating his brand of progressivism from Taft’s.

In 1912, Roosevelt initially declined any interest in receiving the Republican nomination, but when the anti-Taft forces appeared to be turning to his progressive rival Robert M. La Follette, he reconsidered. Roosevelt entered a number of presidential primaries and met with great success. When the nominating convention met, however, it became clear that Roosevelt’s challenge would be defeated by the political pros serving the incumbent Taft.

TR led his supporters out of the convention, later forming a third alternative, the Progressive Party. In response to a reporter’s question about his health, TR said, “I feel as strong as a bull moose,” providing a popular nickname for the new party.

Three weeks before the election, Roosevelt was shot in the chest while delivering a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The bullet was slowed and deflected by a folded 50-page speech and a metal glasses case that were in Roosevelt’s coat pocket. He did not realize that he had been shot until he touched his chest and saw blood on his hand.

Despite the protests of his hosts, he insisted on completing his talk before being taken to the hospital. It was discovered that the bullet had lodged in his chest, but presented no threat to his health and was never removed. Roosevelt remained under observation for a week and did not resume campaigning. The attempted assassin, a deranged saloonkeeper, was later committed to a mental institution. Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, was the easy victor over the fatally split Republicans in 1912. Roosevelt, however, had the satisfaction of finishing ahead of Taft.

Following his defeat, Roosevelt turned to writing his autobiography and traveling in South America, where he contracted a serious case of malaria. His relationship with the Wilson administration was not cordial. Roosevelt was irate over the president’s efforts to compensate Colombia for the loss of Panama, which Roosevelt regarded as an implication that he had acted improperly.

As World War I spread through Europe, Roosevelt chided the administration for its lack of preparedness and its acceptance of the violation of American Neutral Rights on the seas. Roosevelt hit the campaign trail in 1916 on behalf of Charles Evans Hughes, but did so half-heartedly.

In 1917, at the time of American entry into the conflict, a vain Roosevelt sought a military command; he was denied. By this time, Roosevelt was a shadow of his former self, having been blinded in one eye in a boxing bout with an aide years earlier, but never mentioning the incident to anyone. He also was deaf in one ear and was considerably weakened by the ravages of malaria. Roosevelt died in early 1919, and was buried without ceremony at his beloved Sagamore Hill.

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