Theodore Roosevelt shares Mount Rushmore with fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln, they shaped the nation but with vastly different styles. Theodore was born (27 October 1858) in New York City into an influential family (on his father’s side).
Theodore’s influences came from both northern and southern roots. His father, Theodore, Sr., was successful in the family business which allowed time the time and luxury to be a philanthropist. His mother Martha was raised on a plantation in Georgia; dividing his family during the Civil War. Theodore, Sr. supporting the Northern cause and his mother’s side supporting the Southern.
Theodore as a child had multiple health conditions: specifically asthma, a weak heart, and poor eyesight. He was sensitive to his poor eyesight into adulthood (resulting in a few fights from comments made about having to wear glasses). Observing the events around him, he was aware of his father not serving in the Civil War.
He witnessed families with influence buying their way out of service or paying someone to fight in their place. He didn’t think it was right and it was something that stuck with him for the rest of his life. After the Civil War, Theodore and his family had the opportunity to travel through Europe and North Africa; he spent his time hunting and cataloging local animals, giving him a taste for adventure.
As a teenager, after speaking to his father about his “weak” physical condition and his heart problems, Theodore decided that he would “make his body,”, even if it killed him. He developed program of gymnastics and weightlifting in an effort to overcome what he thought were his weaknesses.
These experiences influenced his personality, worldview, and what he wanted his place in the world to be.
In Harvard, Theodore studied subjects he was interested in since childhood: German, natural history, zoology, forensics, and writing. He continued working on his health by participating in boxing and wrestling. This would later inspire him to write his famous “man in arena” speech.
During college, he fell in love with Alice Lee, a member of an influential New England family. Theodore and Alice married in October 1880.
Theodore enrolled in Columbia Law School, but withdrew after a year to begin his career in politics. While at Columbia, Theodore focused his attention towards completing his research for a book he started while at Harvard. His attention was brought to the British and Americans naval battles in the War of 1812. He wanted to focus on the facts and present an unbiased evaluation of the battles. His work was found to be so thorough and accurate, the Navy ordered a copy of the book for every ship.
After leaving Columbia law school and publishing his Naval book, Theodore served to two terms to the New York Assembly in Albany while his wife was in Manhattan. A life changing tragedy occurred for Theodore in 1884.
His wife had a difficult birth with their daughter, Alice Lee. Two days later, Theodore’s mother died of typhoid fever and soon after, his wife died of kidney disease, these tragedies happened within a few hours of each other; in the same house.
For the next few months, distressed, Roosevelt dedicated all his time to political work as a way to escape his despair. Giving his sister custody his young daughter Alice, he put his political career on hold and travelled to the Dakota Badlands.
In the West, Theodore felt at home in the frontier; he purchased a couple of ranches to raise cattle (which failed), he would range the land for days at a time, sustaining himself on wild game and hunting grizzly bears. He spent his ranching time managing the cows and chasing outlaws as a frontier sheriff. A hard winter killed most of his cattle causing Theodore to re-evaluate his circumstances, influencing his decision to return to New York.
During his time in the Badlands, he kept up on events in the East by communicating with with a close childhood friend, Edith Carow. Their bond grew over this time and were married in England in 1886; they had five children: Theodore, Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin.
Re-entry into political life
Upon returning to New York, Theodore continued writing books, essays, and articles. Theodore continuing his career in politics, starting with a failed bid for mayor of New York City.
After the failed Mayoral attempt, he campaigned for the Republican presidential nominee Benjamin Harrison, hoping of his hard work leading to a job in Washington DC. Harrison, winning the election, appointed Roosevelt (who was very persistent for a post in Washington DC) to the U.S. Civil Service Commission.
He was successful in this position, applying fair evaluations and enforcement of laws independent of party affiliations and party pressure. His success in the Commission lead to his re-appointed by Democratic President Cleveland.
Theodore, finding limitations in the Commission and the expenses of living in Washington DC, accepted an offer of presidency of the New York City Police Board. Theodore in this position lead by example, fought corruption, and walked the streets late at night to make sure officers were doing their jobs.
After two years of working on the Police Board, President McKinley appointed Theodore as assistant secretary of the Navy. History would later show, Theodore acted as secretary of the Navy for Secretary Long, as the Secretary was uninformed or unavailable to address events. Theodore was a strong believer in the importance of a strong Navy for national defense.
During Secretary Long’s trips, there was an explosion on the battleship Maine stationed in Havana Harbor. Secretary Long was not available to address this event leading assistant secretary Roosevelt to become acting Secretary of the Navy.
Theodore, thinking strategically, put the fleet on alert and sent instructions to the Pacific fleet to prepare for war with Spain by blocking the Spanish squadron in Asia, with the possibility of invading the Philippines.
When Spanish-American War begins Roosevelt resigns as assistant secretary and signs up for volunteer service commanding the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, known as the Rough Riders. The Rough Riders were a volunteer group comprised of cross-section of most societal groups. There were men from influential families, cowboys, police officers and sheriffs, and men from the western frontier.
In Cuba, Theodore and his men distinguished themselves by charging up Kettle Hill (popular culture would call it the adjoining San Juan Hill), on foot and under intense gun fire. They suffered heavy casualties during this attack but overtook the strategic hill; returning to the US as war heroes.
Theodore, influenced by his father not serving in the Civil War, felt personal pride and a sense of legacy for his children. He would consider his military experience and the highlight of his public career saying “It makes me feel as though I could now leave something to my children which will serve as an apology for my having existed.”
Re-entry into political life again
Roosevelt, returning a war hero with experience in public service, caught the attention of New York Republican leaders during their search for a gubernatorial candidate. He agreed to run against a candidate sponsored by the corrupt Tammany Hall, winning by a small margin.
As Governor, Theodore wouldn’t appoint people to posts based on their part affiliations. When Theodore supported a tax bill opposed by his party, party members looked for a way to maintain their power and control. One solution was to remove Theodore by promotion, to have him run for Vice President. This would keep Theodore from obtaining a second term as Governor. Theodore, seeing the political machine turn against him, reluctantly agreed. Theodore knew party bosses would organize the election and there would be no way to avoid the nomination.
Campaigning for the Republican presidential candidate McKinley, Theodore campaigned as if he was in the boxing ring, matching opponent’s moves and exceeding their. Theodore tirelessly traveled thousands of miles by train, making hundreds of speeches, outshining the Presidential candidate; as a result, McKinley won the reelection.
September 1901, McKinley, speaking at a public event, was shot in the stomach and died of infection. News of the President’s death event found Theodore while hiking the mountains with his family and catapulted Theodore to the White House as the nation’s twenty-sixth President and the youngest person to serve as President.
Theodore accomplished many things as President; he established the Office of Chief Executive as a center of federal power. This is when Theodore coined the term “bully pulpit” to advance his legislative agenda; a legacy continued through Presidents today.
Although he grew up in a family of great influence, he fought against laissez-faire policy and corruption. Theodore worked to protect citizens, working with Congress to enact the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which would be the foundation for the modern US Food and Drug Administration.
Theodore, with his experience of travel, found isolationism not in America’s interests and led the country towards being a power in the hemisphere and the world.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his negotiations in the Russo-Japanese War.
Theodore as President undertook a massive and failing project, the Panama Canal, and made it a success. Theodore influenced foreign policy for generations with his view of the Navy not only as a tool of national defense but also a diplomatic tool that should be continuously modernized to address changing challenges around the globe.
Another legacy of Theodore’s is in his work towards conservation. He worked to create over a hundred National Forests, National Parks, National Monuments, and National Game Preserves. His conservation acts created close to 230 million acres of protected lands; this is equivalent to an area equal to all the East Coast states from Maine to Florida.
Roosevelt was a lifelong proponent of conservation, exercise, and what he called the “strenuous life.” He always found time for physical exertions including boxing (he became blind in one eye after a fight), Judo, hiking, riding horses through the woods of Long Island, and swimming (once skinny dipping in the Potomac river).
Theodore was a contradiction; he was a major voice for military preparedness and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his negotiations. Theodore was an avid hunter and conservationists. He had a full life with experiences ranging from historian, politician, police officer, soldier, naturalist, and prolific author; claiming to reading a book a day while writing essays, articles, books, and speeches (he once gave a speech after being shot in the ribs, going to the hospital only after giving his speech).
Theodore’s impact on American culture is felt from the National Parks (his likeness on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson) to the protections we have for food and medications.