Theodore Roosevelt

Much More Than Just a U.S. President

A picture of President Theodore Roosevelt
Portrait of U.S. President Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Who Was Theodore Roosevelt?

Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th president of the United States, ascending to the office following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. At 42, Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president in the nation's history and was subsequently elected to a second term. Dynamic in personality and filled with enthusiasm and vigor, Roosevelt was more than a successful politician.

He was also an accomplished writer, a fearless soldier, and a dedicated naturalist.

Considered by many historians to be one of our greatest presidents, Theodore Roosevelt is one of the four whose faces are depicted on Mount Rushmore. Theodore Roosevelt was also the uncle of Eleanor Roosevelt and the fifth cousin of the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Dates: October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919

Presidential Term: 1901-1909

Also Known As: "Teddy," TR, "The Rough Rider, "The Old Lion," "Trust Buster"

Famous Quote: "Speak softly and carry a big stick—you will go far."

Childhood

Theodore Roosevelt was born the second of four children to Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. and Martha Bulloch Roosevelt on October 27, 1858 in New York City. Descended from 17th-century Dutch immigrants who made their fortune in real estate, the elder Roosevelt also owned a prosperous glass-importing business.

Theodore, known as "Teedie" to his family, was an especially sickly child who suffered from severe asthma and digestive problems his entire childhood. As he grew older, Theodore gradually had fewer and fewer bouts of asthma. Encouraged by his father, he worked to become physically stronger through a regimen of hiking, boxing, and weightlifting.

Young Theodore developed a passion for natural science at an early age and collected specimens of various animals. He referred to his collection as "The Roosevelt Museum of Natural History."

Life at Harvard

In 1876, at the age of 18, Roosevelt entered Harvard University, where he quickly earned a reputation as an eccentric young man with a toothy grin and a tendency to chatter constantly. Roosevelt would interrupt professors' lectures, injecting his opinion in a voice that has been described as a high-pitched stammer.

Roosevelt lived off campus in a room that his older sister Bamie had chosen and furnished for him. There, he continued his study of animals, sharing quarters with live snakes, lizards, and even a large tortoise. Roosevelt also began work on his first book, The Naval War of 1812.

During the Christmas holiday of 1877, Theodore Sr. became seriously ill. Later diagnosed with stomach cancer, he died on February 9, 1878. Young Theodore was devastated at the loss of the man he had so admired.

Marriage to Alice Lee

In the fall of 1879, while visiting the home of one of his college friends, Roosevelt met Alice Lee, a beautiful young woman from a wealthy Boston family. He was immediately smitten.

They courted for a year and became engaged in January 1880.

Roosevelt graduated from Harvard in June 1880. He entered Columbia Law School in New York City in the fall, reasoning that a married man should have a respectable career.

On October 27, 1880, Alice and Theodore were married. It was Roosevelt's 22nd birthday; Alice was 19 years old. They moved in with Roosevelt's mother in Manhattan, as Alice's parents had insisted they do.

Roosevelt soon tired of his law studies. He found a calling that interested him far more than the law—politics.

Elected to the New York State Assembly

Roosevelt began to attend local meetings of the Republican Party while still in school. When approached by party leaders—who believed his famous name might help him win—Roosevelt agreed to run for the New York State Assembly in 1881.

Twenty-three-year-old Roosevelt won his first political race, becoming the youngest man ever elected to the New York State Assembly.

Brimming with confidence, Roosevelt burst upon the scene at the state capitol in Albany. Many of the more seasoned assemblymen derided him for his dandified apparel and upper class accent. They ridiculed Roosevelt, referring to him as the "young squirt," "his Lordship," or simply "that fool."

Roosevelt quickly made a reputation as a reformer, supporting bills that would improve working conditions in factories. Re-elected the following year, Roosevelt was appointed by Governor Grover Cleveland to head a new commission on civil service reform.

In 1882, Roosevelt's book, The Naval War of 1812, was published, receiving high praise for its scholarship. (Roosevelt would go on to publish 45 books in his lifetime, including several biographies, historical books, and an autobiography. He was also a proponent of "simplified spelling," a movement in support of phonetic spelling.)

Double Tragedy

In the summer of 1883, Roosevelt and his wife purchased land at Oyster Bay, Long Island in New York and made plans to build a new home. They also discovered that Alice was pregnant with their first child.

On February 12, 1884, Roosevelt, working in Albany, received word that his wife had delivered a healthy baby girl in New York City. He was thrilled by the news, but learned the following day that Alice was ill. He quickly boarded a train.

Roosevelt was greeted at the door by his brother Elliott, who informed him that not only was his wife dying, his mother was as well. Roosevelt was stunned beyond words. His mother, suffering from typhoid fever, died early on the morning of February 14. Alice, stricken with Bright's disease, a kidney ailment, died later that same day. The baby was named Alice Lee Roosevelt, in honor of her mother.

Consumed with grief, Roosevelt coped the only way he knew how—by burying himself in his work. When his term in the assembly was completed, he left New York for the Dakota Territory, determined to make a life as a cattle rancher.

Little Alice was left in the care of Roosevelt's sister Bamie.

Roosevelt in the Wild West

Sporting pince-nez glasses and an upper class East-Coast accent, Roosevelt didn't seem to belong in so rugged a place as the Dakota Territory. But those who doubted him would soon learn that Theodore Roosevelt could hold his own.

Famous stories of his time in the Dakotas reveal Roosevelt's true character. In one instance, a barroom bully—drunk and brandishing a loaded pistol in each hand—called Roosevelt "four eyes." To the surprise of bystanders, Roosevelt—the former boxer—slugged the man in the jaw, knocking him to the floor.

Another story involves the theft of a small boat owned by Roosevelt. The boat wasn't worth a lot, but Roosevelt insisted that the thieves be brought to justice. Although it was the dead of winter, Roosevelt and his cohorts tracked the two men into Indian Territory and brought them back to face trial.

Roosevelt stayed out West for about two years, but after two harsh winters, he lost most of his cattle, along with his investment. He returned to New York for good in the summer of 1886. While Roosevelt had been away, his sister Bamie had overseen the construction of his new home.

Marriage to Edith Carow

During Roosevelt's time out West, he had taken occasional trips back East to visit family. During one of those visits, he began seeing his childhood friend, Edith Kermit Carow. They became engaged in November 1885.

Edith Carow and Theodore Roosevelt were married on December 2, 1886. He was 28 years old, and Edith was 25. They moved into their newly-built home in Oyster Bay, which Roosevelt had christened "Sagamore Hill." Little Alice came to live with her father and his new wife.

In September 1887, Edith gave birth to Theodore, Jr., the first of the couple's five children. He was followed by Kermit in 1889, Ethel in 1891, Archie in 1894, and Quentin in 1897.

Commissioner Roosevelt

Following the 1888 election of Republican President Benjamin Harrison, Roosevelt was appointed Civil Service commissioner. He moved to Washington D.C. in May 1889. Roosevelt held the position for six years, earning a reputation as a man of integrity.

Roosevelt returned to New York City in 1895, when he was appointed city police commissioner. There, he declared war on corruption in the police department, firing the corrupt chief of police, among others. Roosevelt also took the unusual step of patrolling the streets at night to see for himself if his patrolmen were doing their jobs. He often brought a member of the press with him to document his excursions. (This marked the beginning of a healthy relationship with the press that Roosevelt maintained—some would say exploited—throughout his public life.)

Assistant Secretary of the Navy

In 1896, newly-elected Republican President William McKinley appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy. The two men differed in their views toward foreign affairs. Roosevelt, in contrast to McKinley, favored an aggressive foreign policy. He quickly took up the cause of expanding and strengthening the U.S. Navy.

In 1898, the island nation of Cuba, a Spanish possession, was the scene of a native rebellion against Spanish rule. Reports described rioting by rebels in Havana, a scenario which was seen as a threat to American citizens and businesses in Cuba.

Urged on by Roosevelt, President McKinley sent the battleship Maine to Havana in January 1898 as protection for American interests there. Following a suspicious explosion on board the ship a month later, in which 250 American sailors were killed, McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war in April 1898.

The Spanish-American War and TR's Rough Riders

Roosevelt, who, at the age of 39 had waited his entire life to engage in actual battle, immediately resigned his position as assistant secretary of the Navy. He secured for himself a commission as a lieutenant colonel in a volunteer army, dubbed by the press "The Rough Riders."

The men landed in Cuba in June 1898, and soon suffered some losses as they battled Spanish forces. Traveling both by foot and on horseback, the Rough Riders helped to capture Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. Both charges succeeded at running off the Spanish, and the U.S. Navy finished the job by destroying the Spanish fleet at Santiago in southern Cuba in July.

From Governor of NY to Vice President

The Spanish-American War had not only established the United States as a world power; it had also made Roosevelt a national hero. When he returned to New York, he was chosen as the Republican nominee for governor of New York. Roosevelt won the gubernatorial election in 1899 at the age of 40.

As governor, Roosevelt set his sights on reforming business practices, enacting tougher civil service laws, and the protection of state forests.

Although he was popular with voters, some politicians were anxious to get the reform-minded Roosevelt out of the governor's mansion. Republican Senator Thomas Platt came up with a plan for getting rid of Governor Roosevelt. He convinced President McKinley, who was running for re-election (and whose vice president had died in office) to select Roosevelt as his running mate in the 1900 election. After some hesitation—fearing he would have no real work to do as vice president—Roosevelt accepted.

The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket sailed to an easy victory in 1900.

Assassination of McKinley; Roosevelt Becomes President

Roosevelt had only been in office six months when President McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 5, 1901 in Buffalo, New York. McKinley succumbed to his wounds on September 14. Roosevelt was summoned to Buffalo, where he took the oath of office that same day. At 42 years old, Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president in America's history.

Mindful of the need for stability, Roosevelt kept the same cabinet members McKinley had appointed. Nonetheless, Theodore Roosevelt was about to put his own stamp upon the presidency. He insisted the public must be protected from unfair business practices. Roosevelt was especially opposed to "trusts," businesses that allowed no competition, which were therefore able to charge whatever they chose.

Despite the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890, previous presidents had not made it a priority to enforce the act. Roosevelt did enforce it, by suing the Northern Securities Company—which was run by J.P. Morgan and controlled three major railroads—for violating the Sherman Act. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the company had indeed violated the law, and the monopoly was dissolved.

Roosevelt then took on the coal industry in May 1902 when Pennsylvania coal miners went on strike. The strike dragged on for several months, with mine owners refusing to negotiate. As the nation faced the prospect of a cold winter without coal to keep people warm, Roosevelt intervened. He threatened to bring in federal troops to work the coal mines if a settlement was not reached. Faced with such a threat, mine owners agreed to negotiate.

In order to regulate businesses and help prevent further abuses of power by large corporations, Roosevelt created the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903.

Theodore Roosevelt is also responsible for changing the name of the “executive mansion” to “the White House” by signing an executive order in 1902 that officially changed the iconic building’s name.

The Square Deal and Conservationism

During his re-election campaign, Theodore Roosevelt expressed his commitment to a platform he called "The Square Deal." This group of progressive policies aimed to improve the lives of all Americans in three ways: limiting the power of large corporations, protecting consumers from unsafe products, and promoting the conservation of natural resources. Roosevelt succeeded in each of these areas, from his trust-busting and safe food legislation to his involvement in protecting the environment.

In an era when natural resources were consumed without regard to conservation, Roosevelt sounded the alarm. In 1905, he created the U.S. Forest Service, which would employ rangers to oversee the nation's forests. Roosevelt also created five national parks, 51 wildlife refuges, and 18 national monuments. He played a role in the formation of the National Conservation Commission, which documented all of the nation's natural resources.

Although he loved wildlife, Roosevelt was an avid hunter. In one instance, he was unsuccessful during a bear hunt. To appease him, his aides caught an old bear and tied it to a tree for him to shoot. Roosevelt refused, saying he couldn't shoot an animal in such a way. Once the story went to press, a toy manufacturer began producing stuffed bears, named "teddy bears" after the president.

In part because of Roosevelt's commitment to conservation, his is one of four presidents' faces carved on Mount Rushmore.

The Panama Canal

In 1903, Roosevelt took on a project that many others had failed to accomplish—the creation of a canal through Central America that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Roosevelt's main obstacle was the problem of obtaining land rights from Colombia, which held control of Panama.

For decades, Panamanians had been trying to break free from Colombia and become an independent nation. In November 1903, Panamanians staged a rebellion, backed by President Roosevelt. He sent the USS Nashville and other cruisers to the coast of Panama to stand by during the revolution. Within days, the revolution was over, and Panama had gained its independence. Roosevelt could now make a deal with the newly-liberated nation. The Panama Canal, a marvel of engineering, was completed in 1914.

The events leading up to the construction of the canal exemplified Roosevelt's foreign policy motto: "Speak softly and carry a big stick—you will go far." When his attempts to negotiate a deal with the Colombians failed, Roosevelt resorted to force, by sending military assistance to the Panamanians.

Roosevelt's Second Term

Roosevelt was easily re-elected to a second term in 1904 but vowed he would not seek re-election after he completed his term. He continued to push for reform, advocating for the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both enacted in 1906.

In the summer of 1905, Roosevelt hosted diplomats from Russia and Japan at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in an effort to negotiate a peace treaty between the two nations, who had been at war since February 1904. Thanks to Roosevelt's efforts in brokering an agreement, Russia and Japan finally signed the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905, ending the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in the negotiations.

The Russo-Japanese War had also resulted in a mass exodus of unwelcome Japanese citizens to San Francisco. The San Francisco school board issued an order that would force Japanese children to attend separate schools. Roosevelt intervened, convincing the school board to rescind its order, and the Japanese to limit the number of laborers they allowed to immigrate to San Francisco. The 1907 compromise was known as the "Gentlemen's Agreement."

Roosevelt came under harsh criticism by the black community for his actions following an incident in Brownsville, Texas in August 1906. A regiment of black soldiers stationed nearby was blamed for a series of shootings in the town. Although there was no proof of the soldiers' involvement and none of them was ever tried in a court of law, Roosevelt saw to it that all 167 soldiers were given dishonorable discharges. Men who had been soldiers for decades lost all of their benefits and pensions.

In a show of American might before he left office, Roosevelt sent all 16 of America's battleships on a worldwide tour in December 1907.Although the move was a controversial one, the "Great White Fleet" was well-received by most nations.

In 1908, Roosevelt, a man of his word, declined to run for re-election. Republican William Howard Taft, his hand-picked successor, won the election. With great reluctance, Roosevelt left the White House in March 1909. He was 50 years old.

Another Run for President

Following Taft's inauguration, Roosevelt went on a 12-month African safari, and later toured Europe with his wife. Upon his return to the U.S. in June 1910, Roosevelt found that he disapproved of many of Taft's policies. He regretted not having run for re-election in 1908.

By January 1912, Roosevelt had decided he would run again for president, and began his campaign for the Republican nomination. When Taft was re-nominated by the Republican Party, however, a disappointed Roosevelt refused to give up. He formed the Progressive Party, also known as "The Bull Moose Party," so named after Roosevelt's exclamation during a speech that he was "feeling like a bull moose." Theodore Roosevelt ran as the party's candidate against Taft and Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson.

During one campaign speech, Roosevelt was shot in the chest, sustaining a minor wound. He insisted on finishing his hour-long speech before seeking medical attention.

Neither Taft nor Roosevelt would prevail in the end. Because the Republican vote was split between them, Wilson emerged as the victor.

Final Years

Ever the adventurer, Roosevelt embarked upon an expedition to South America with his son Kermit and a group of explorers in 1913. The perilous voyage down Brazil's River of Doubt nearly cost Roosevelt his life. He contracted yellow fever and suffered a severe leg injury; as a result, he needed to be carried through the jungle for much of the journey. Roosevelt returned home a changed man, much frailer and thinner than before. He never again enjoyed his former robust state of health.

Back home, Roosevelt criticized President Wilson for his policies of neutrality during the First World War. When Wilson finally declared war on Germany in April 1917, all four of Roosevelt's sons volunteered to serve. (Roosevelt also offered to serve, but his offer was politely declined.) In July 1918, his youngest son Quentin was killed when his plane was shot down by the Germans. The tremendous loss appeared to age Roosevelt even more than his disastrous trip to Brazil.

In his final years, Roosevelt contemplated running again for president in 1920, having gained a good deal of support from progressive Republicans. But he never had the chance to run. Roosevelt died in his sleep of a coronary embolism on January 6, 1919 at the age of 60.