He was a sickly boy who struggled just to breathe, but he became a vital man who was one of the most influential people the world has ever known. Follow the remarkable journey of our 26th President.
Theodore Roosevelt was born at 28 East 20th Street, New York City on October 27, 1858. He was the second child of Theodore and Martha "Mittie" Bulloch Roosevelt. His father was a glass importer and one of New York City's leading philanthropists. His mother was a southerner who never really adjusted to living north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The new baby also had an older sister Anna, and later, a younger brother Elliott and a younger sister Corinne would follow.
As a young boy, Theodore suffered from asthma. His father was worried that Theodore "had the mind but not the body," so he told the boy to "make his body" by exercising in a home gym. Gradually, Theodore grew stronger. To escape his health problems, he turned to books. He spent hours in the family library reading books about wild animals, hunting trips and faraway places. When he was seven, he created the "Roosevelt Museum of Natural History." It was opened in the family parlor and admission was one cent.
When Theodore was eighteen, he went to Harvard University. He initially studied natural science but switched to law after the death of his father. Theodore was an industrious student who read, wrote and debated extensively. He graduated in 1880 and shortly afterward married his college sweetheart, Alice Hathaway Lee.
In 1881, Roosevelt won his first political office as a New York State Assemblyman. During his three years in the Assembly, Roosevelt was known as a progressive reformer who aligned himself with Democratic Governor Grover Cleveland. Meanwhile, although Roosevelt’s political career was moving forward, his personal life presented him with heartbreaking challenges.
February 12, 1884, a daughter, Alice, was born. The joy of that event, however, was overshadowed by a double tragedy. His mother died of typhoid two days later, and within a few hours his wife died of complications related to childbirth. Overwhelmed by grief and shock, Theodore left Baby Alice with his sister and headed for the Dakota Territory. The solitude and ruggedness of the West both comforted and hardened Roosevelt. He arrived there as something of an outcast but slowly earned a reputation as an experienced cattle driver. Two harsh winters forced Roosevelt to sell his land and cattle. The experience, however, had a lasting effect on him and he later wrote that he could not have become president without it.
He returned to New York in 1886, refreshed and renewed. He married his childhood friend, Edith Kermit Carow, whom he had been secretly courting. The couple moved to Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, New York. Though it would not become a permanent residence until his retirement, Sagamore Hill was always considered home to the Roosevelts. Five children were born over the next ten years: Theodore Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin. His daughter Alice also came to live at Sagamore Hill.
In 1889, Roosevelt was appointed U.S. Civil Service Commissioner by President Grover Cleveland to fight patronage and corruption. Six years later, Roosevelt found a new challenge as president of the New York City Police Board. Roosevelt led midnight raids that caught policemen sleeping, drinking and accepting bribes while on duty.
In 1897, newly elected President William McKinley appointed Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. One year later, the battleship Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. Pre-existing tensions between the United States and Spain escalated. Two months after the Maine incident, war was declared. Seizing this opportunity to serve his country in a time of war, Roosevelt resigned his position and raised a volunteer cavalry regiment to fight in Cuba.
The First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, better known as the Rough Riders, was recruited from Roosevelt's own personal acquaintances. The bulk of the regiment was composed of Ivy League graduates, western ranchers, Native Americans, as well as New York City businessmen and policemen. After training in Texas and Florida, the Rough Riders were finally ordered to Cuba. Ironically, there was no room on the ship for the regiment’s horses. The Rough Riders thus became an infantry unit. After weeks of waiting, Roosevelt and the Rough Riders finally had their first chance at battle when they took Kettle Hill from the Spanish. Roosevelt called this victory "the greatest day of my life." By the end of August, the regiment was home and its leader was hailed as a hero.
Almost immediately following his return from the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt was nominated as the Republican candidate for governor of New York State and easily won the election in November, 1898. New York Republican Party boss Thomas Platt believed he could control the new governor's policy despite Roosevelt's reputation as an independent reformer. Platt soon learned that he was mistaken. By 1900, Platt and the other Republicans wanted Roosevelt out of New York and maneuvered to have him nominated on the Republican national ticket as vice president, a position in which they believed he could do no harm. Roosevelt reluctantly accepted and was elected with McKinley in 1900.
In May of 1901, Vice President Roosevelt officially opened the Pan-American Exposition. Four months later he returned to Buffalo when President William McKinley was shot at the Exposition. A week later McKinley died and Roosevelt was inaugurated at the Wilcox home. The man who had been relegated to the vice presidency was now President of the United States. His administration would be marked by independence and innovation in both domestic and world affairs.
Roosevelt called his domestic policy the “Square Deal” and sought to treat all Americans fairly. Early in his presidency, he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House, becoming the first president to entertain an African-American as his official guest. A coal strike the following year prompted Roosevelt to take an unprecedented step and threaten a government takeover of the mines. This action forced the mine owners to negotiate with labor and brought about a peaceful settlement. Roosevelt continued his crackdown on big business using the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break-up huge corporate monopolies. He also took on the meatpacking industry, initiating legislation designed to clean up unsanitary conditions. Roosevelt went head to head with the logging and mining industry over the preservation of natural resources, eventually saving over 125 million acres of land.
In foreign affairs, Roosevelt ensured that the United States’ role as a world power would continue and grow. Convinced that a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was necessary for the nation’s security and economic development, Roosevelt took bold steps to ensure that the Panama Canal would become a reality. When war erupted between Russia and Japan in 1905, Roosevelt brought leaders of the two nations to the United States to work out a peace treaty; his efforts were recognized the following year, when he became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In another demonstration of American strength and good will, Roosevelt dispatched a fleet of sixteen new battleships on a worldwide tour. Because the ships had been painted white, they became known as the Great White Fleet.
Although he had been re-elected in 1904, Roosevelt chose not to run four years later. He hand-picked his successor, William Howard Taft, and helped ensure his victory. After leaving the presidency, Roosevelt pursued his longstanding interests in reading, writing, and travel. In 1909, he and his son Kermit departed for a scientific expedition in Africa, to bring back specimens for further research.
Disappointed that Taft had failed to follow through on the initiatives that he held dear, Roosevelt decided to run for the presidency in 1912. Unable to wrest the Republican nomination away from Taft, Roosevelt formed the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. In a hotly contested election, both Roosevelt and Taft lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Two years after his defeat, Roosevelt embarked on another adventure. Once again accompanied by his son Kermit, Roosevelt led an expedition to find the headwaters of a little known river in Brazil. Weakened by illness and injury, Roosevelt almost died on the trip. He returned much thinner and older in appearance, never to fully regain his health.
With the outbreak of World War I, Roosevelt campaigned for the strengthening of national defenses in the event that the United States became involved. His request to form another volunteer regiment was denied by President Wilson. However, Roosevelt's four sons fought in the war; in 1918, his youngest son Quentin was killed in France. Six months later on January 6, 1919, sick with illness and grief, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep at Sagamore Hill. He was 60 years old.
Upton Sinclair’s best-selling book, The Jungle (1906), exposed the filthy and hazardous conditions rampant in Chicago’s meat-packing industry. Shocked by this and other threats to public health, TR called upon Congress to establish a regulatory agency empowered to protect consumers. Since its creation in 1906, the Food & Drug Administration has provided government oversight of everything from food and medicine to cosmetics and microwave ovens. Is the Food & Drug Administration still relevant in today’s world? Why? Why not? Imagine a world without the Food & Drug Administration . . . would you want to live there?
Inspired by his life-long love of the great outdoors as well as his belief that American values and culture were shaped by their frontier heritage, TR wanted to preserve the nation’s wilderness. Business interests, however, argued that preserving natural resources stifled economic development. In reaching a compromise that called for scientific management of natural resources, TR became the nation’s first “conservation” president. He placed more than 200 million acres under government protection, creating numerous national parks, forests, refuges, and monuments. Do you think conservation today is more, less, or equally as important as it was during TR’s time?
Before Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, government generally maintained a “hands off” relationship with big business. TR, however, believed that if the actions of big business harmed the public, government not only had the right but also the responsibility to intervene. A lawsuit filed by TR’s attorney general against the Northern Securities Company forced the monopoly to dissolve. This was the first of more than forty such cases, leading to TR’s reputation as the “trust-buster.” How does government continue to regulate business in today’s world? How much government regulation do you think is necessary to balance public and business interests?
In 1903, TR declared, “We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less.” TR believed that increased government regulation was necessary to achieve the just and equitable society he envisioned. During his administration, numerous reforms were enacted in pursuit of this goal. Do you think TR’s “Square Deal” concept is realistic in today’s world? Why? Why not? Do you think the government has a responsibility to provide everyone with a “Square Deal”?
Theodore Roosevelt’s larger-than-life personality and seemingly endless supply of energy fascinated the public and attracted a great deal of media attention. TR used his unprecedented popularity to shape public opinion and influence political discussions. He called the presidency a “bully pulpit” and many consider him to be the first to take full advantage of its power. Do you think 21st-century presidents use the power of the “bully pulpit”? Think of a major issue facing the nation RIGHT NOW…has the president tried to shape public opinion? How? Radio broadcasting was not commonplace until after TR’s death…how has technology shaped presidential communication?
Under TR’s leadership, the United States became increasingly active in international affairs. TR himself negotiated a historic peace treaty, but is better known for his “speak softly and carry a big stick”-philosophy. This mindset relies on military strength to deter enemies and preserve peace. TR saw the U.S. as an international policeman, working to maintain global stability. Do you think that any nation has the right or obligation to act as an international policeman? Why? Why not? Much has changed in the past 100+ years . . . do you think TR’s “big stick” diplomacy is still relevant?
Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most recognizable United States’ presidents. Not only is his face memorialized on the iconic Mount Rushmore, but there are five other national park sites linked to him. First created during his presidency, a favorite childhood toy takes its name (teddy bear) from the popular president. Over the years, Roosevelt’s likeness and/or his words have been used to sell everything from life insurance to magazine subscriptions and candy. More than a century after his presidency, pop culture references to TR continue to abound. When was the last time you saw or heard a reference to TR? (Consider the internet, movies, television, books, etc.) Why do you think TR continues to be so popular?
“Is America a weakling, to shrink from the work of the great world powers? No! The young giant of the West stands on a continent and clasps the crest of an ocean in either hand. Our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks into the future with eager eyes and rejoices as a strong man to run a race.” Letter to John Hay, American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, London, written in Washington, DC, June 7, 1897
“There are good men and bad men of all nationalities, creeds and colors; and if this world of ours is ever to become what we hope some day it may become, it must be by the general recognition that the man's heart and soul, the man's worth and actions, determine his standing.” Letter, Oyster Bay, NY, September 1, 1903
“If a man does not have an ideal and try to live up to it, then he becomes a mean, base, and sordid creature, no matter how successful.” Letter to his son, Kermit, quoted in Theodore Roosevelt by Joseph Bucklin Bishop, 1915
“There are two things that I want you to make up your minds to: first, that you are going to have a good time as long as you live – I have no use for the sour-faced man – and next, that you are going to do something worthwhile, that you are going to work hard and do the things you set out to do.” Talk to schoolchildren in Oyster Bay, Christmastime, 1898
“It is no use to preach to [children] if you do not act decently yourself.” Speech to Holy Name Society, Oyster Bay, August 16, 1903
“The one thing I want to leave my children is an honorable name.” "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Chicago, IL, April 10, 1899
“Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.” The Groton School, Groton, MA, May 24, 1904
“Women should have free access to every field of labor which they care to enter, and when their work is as valuable as that of a man it should be paid as highly.” An Autobiography, 1913
“I have a perfect horror of words that are not backed up by deeds.” Oyster Bay, NY, July 7, 1915
“This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.” Chicago, IL, June 17, 1912
“I don't think any President ever enjoyed himself more than I did. Moreover, I don't think any ex-President ever enjoyed himself more.” University of Cambridge, England, May 26, 1910
“A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” An Autobiography, 1913
“I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life; I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Des Moines, IA, November 4, 1910
“There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.” Confession of Faith Speech, Progressive National Convention, Chicago, August 6, 1912
“The worst of all fears is the fear of living.” An Autobiography, 1913
“There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean' horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.” An Autobiography, 1913
“To borrow a simile from the football field, we believe that men must play fair, but that there must be no shirking, and that the success can only come to the player who hits the line hard.” Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, NY, October 1897
“Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready.” San Francisco, CA, May 13, 1903
“It is true of the Nation, as of the individual, that the greatest doer must also be a great dreamer.” Berkeley, CA, 1911
“This country has nothing to fear from the crooked man who fails. We put him in jail. It is the crooked man who succeeds who is a threat to this country.” Memphis, TN, October 25, 1905
The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site is operated by the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site Foundation, a registered non-profit organization, through a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.
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