Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
Episode #4 of the course Greatest US presidents by Patrick Allitt
Theodore Roosevelt was physically short, but larger than life. Pugnacious, adventurous, argumentative, and exuberant, he brought a new energy to the White House after 35 years of gray non-entities. Roosevelt spoke and wrote eloquently, and signaled that 20th-century presidents were going to be more dynamic than their predecessors.
Coming from a rich family, he never had to work for a living. After becoming a national hero for his recklessly brave leadership of the “Rough Riders” in the Spanish-American war, he was selected for the vice presidency by William McKinley in 1900. McKinley’s assassination in 1901 pitched Roosevelt into the White House at the age of just 42—making him the youngest of all presidents.
Roosevelt was also the first “progressive” president. Progressivism, much debated among historians, meant, at the least, a commitment to rationality, efficiency, good government, and the extension of democracy. By 1900, many industries were dominated by a few companies or by just one company. Roosevelt was determined to break up monopolies that jeopardized the American tradition of free-market competition. By taking on J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company, he showed that even the richest and most powerful men in the country were not exempt. His Justice Department won and the Supreme Court confirmed the victory.
At the same time, he recognized that “natural” monopolies were sometimes desirable, so long as they were regulated by public commissions. Congress passed two laws, in 1903 and 1906, with his support, to regulate the prices charged by railroads and enforced by the Interstate Commerce Commission.
He also supported the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which created a federal commission to check on quality control. He was one among thousands of readers to have been nauseated by Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, which was about disgusting and insanitary conditions in the Chicago meatpacking business. He recognized that only the federal government had sufficient reach to remedy these abuses, whose bad consequences could affect the whole nation.
He was the first president to invite an African-American to dinner at the White House (Booker T. Washington) and the first to recognize that trade unions, as well as the businesses against which they were striking, had a case to make. He brought coal mine owners and miners’ union leaders together at the White House during a bitter 1902 strike. When the owners proved intractable, he ordered the army to take over—not to defeat the miners but to run the mines. At that point, the owners, being denied their profits, backed down.
The National Forest Service was founded under Roosevelt, also with his active support, to protect and rationalize the nation’s forests. For decades, they had seemed limitless, but now that the western frontier had closed, they needed long-term management against wasteful lumber companies. Gifford Pinchot, the man Roosevelt appointed to head the service, was America’s first PhD in forestry and an exemplary public servant.
Theodore Roosevelt, who loved to hunt and had owned a ranch in the Dakotas during the 1880s, also worked to extend the national park system and to preserve such endangered species as the American bison. He placed the Grand Canyon under federal protection and created five new national parks.
Although he loved war, Theodore Roosevelt ironically became America’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1906. He was given the award for his role in brokering peace between Japan and Russia, who had fought a war in the far east in 1904-05. Roosevelt favored peace through strength, embodied by the “Great White Fleet” (US battleships were then painted white) that he sent on a round-the-world tour in 1907 to show off the flag and demonstrate America’s new military potential. To facilitate its movement between the oceans, he also supervised Panama’s break from Columbia and the building of the Panama Canal.
Leaving the White House in 1909, he soon had second thoughts and tried to regain it in the election of 1912. By splitting the Republican vote that year, however, he created the opening for a Democratic victory and the ascension of another great president, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson will be the subject of tomorrow’s lesson.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
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