FOOT Prints, today, examines the feats of another great American hero; one of the strongest and most vigorous Presidents in United States history; a leader who, in battles between business and labour, extended the power of both the Presidency and of the Federal Government to protect what he saw as the public interest; a man who enjoyed the responsibilities of world power and greatly expanded United States involvement in global affairs; a man whose domestic social and economic reforms were the first federal attempts to deal with the problems created by a modern industrial society – Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th president of the United States of America (1901-1909).
Roosevelt became the youngest man ever to be president when he succeeded the assassinated William McKinley in 1901 at the age of 42. However, he was older than John F. Kennedy when he was elected in his own right. Roosevelt was adored by the majority of Americans. The reason, he thought, was that he “put into words what is in their hearts and minds but not their mouths.”
Theodore Roosevelt was a descendant of Claes Martenssen van Rosenvelt, who migrated to New Amsterdam (now New York City) from Zeeland, Holland (now in the Netherlands), in 1649. Roosevelt’s father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., was a New York businessman who married Martha Bulloch, a Southern belle from a prominent Georgia family.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) caused the Roosevelts much distress, because Mrs. Roosevelt’s brothers fought for the Confederacy. To spare his wife’s feelings, the elder Roosevelt did not enlist in the armed forces, although he was a staunch supporter of the Union. During the war he distinguished himself as an adviser to Union troops on missions that took him to the front lines. To his son the elder Roosevelt was “the best man I ever knew,” but the younger Roosevelt was ashamed all his life that his father had not fought during the war. Although he was an uncompromising Unionist, Roosevelt also took pride in the war exploits of his Southern relatives.
“Teedie,” as he was known in his childhood, was born in New York City on October 27, 1858, the second of four brothers and sisters. He was educated privately. Although never a profound student and despite having weak eyes, Roosevelt learned to read with phenomenal swiftness and breadth of interest. His first love was natural history. The subject fascinated him all his life, and he moved with considerable authority in its various branches.
Roosevelt suffered ill health through much of his youth, but his later battle for strength and manliness became a model for generations of young people. Roosevelt’s frequent boxing, wrestling, riding, hunting, and swimming activities, often under dangerous circumstances, continued during his years in the White House, the presidential mansion. There a boxing match with a professional fighter in December 1904 cost him the sight of one eye.
Theodore Roosevelt traveled with several members of his family to Europe and Egypt, and in 1872 and 1873 he lived with a family in Germany. During his years at Harvard University, from 1876 to 1880, he was an earnest student, achieving through hard work what others did through brilliance. Young men of Roosevelt’s wealthy social position were supposed to remain distant from the aggressive pursuits of the less wealthy, so his gusto, energy, and versatility were unusual among his fellow students. He engaged not only in club and literary activities but in athletics as well, riding horses at every opportunity and making numerous camping and hunting trips.
In 1878 he met Alice Hathaway Lee, with whom he fell in love. Married several months after his graduation, they settled down to live in New York City.
Roosevelt explored several careers before entering politics. He attended law classes at Columbia University, but he didn’t enjoy it. He worked industriously at his first book, The Naval War of 1812, for which he had begun research while still at Harvard. A thorough study of the subject, it was published in 1882. Although people of Roosevelt’s social position often believed politics to be beneath them, Roosevelt declared that he “intended to be one of the governing class.” Roosevelt easily won his first election in 1881 to the state assembly in Albany, New York, as a member of the Republican Party.
Despite his extreme youth, his expensive clothes, upper-class manners, and his high squeaky voice, Roosevelt immediately made his mark. He won respect by exposing a corrupt judge and by learning to work with men of both parties, notably Democratic Governor (later President) Grover Cleveland. Roosevelt became leader of the Republican minority but earned the ill will of powerful members of his party. In 1884, after rejecting what would have been another term in the legislature, he went to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, as chairman of the New York delegation. There he offended Republicans favoring reform by supporting the party’s presidential choice, United States Senator James G. Blaine of Maine.
Roosevelt explored several careers before entering politics. He attended law classes at Columbia University, but he didn’t enjoy it. He worked industriously at his first book, The Naval War of 1812, for which he had begun research while still at Harvard. A thorough study of the subject, it was published in 1882. Although people of Roosevelt’s social position often believed politics to be beneath them, Roosevelt declared that he “intended to be one of the governing class.” Roosevelt easily won his first election in 1881 to the state assembly in Albany, New York, as a member of the Republican Party.
Despite his extreme youth, his expensive clothes, upper-class manners, and his high squeaky voice, Roosevelt immediately made his mark. He won respect by exposing a corrupt judge and by learning to work with men of both parties, notably Democratic Governor (later President) Grover Cleveland. Roosevelt became leader of the Republican minority but earned the ill will of powerful members of his party. In 1884, after rejecting what would have been another term in the legislature, he went to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, as chairman of the New York delegation. There he offended Republicans favoring reform by supporting the party’s presidential choice, United States Senator James G. Blaine of Maine.
In 1883, Roosevelt had visited the West, and the next year he started what became the Elkhorn Ranch on the Little Missouri River, in Dakota Territory. During much of the next several years he lived the hard life of a cowboy. At one time he took part in the capture of three thieves, whom it took six days to escort at gunpoint to the authorities. His accustomed heartiness and enthusiasm never flagged. He often traveled back and forth to the East and published such different books as Hunting Trips of a Ranch Man (1885) and the vigorous but lightly researched Thomas Hart Benton (1886). Roosevelt, mistrusted by both liberals and party leaders, remained unsure of his career in politics.
In 1885 Roosevelt fell in love with Edith Kermit Carow, a life-long friend, and that year they became secretly engaged. In 1886 he went East to be the Republican candidate for mayor of New York City. He ran a disheartening third.
Roosevelt then went abroad. On December 2, 1886, he and Edith were married in London. Roosevelt brought her back to the new home he had built on Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The couple had five children, Theodore Jr., Kermit, Ethel Carow, Archibald Bullock, and Quentin. They also raised Alice, Roosevelt’s daughter from his first marriage.
Discouraged with politics, Roosevelt enjoyed family life and literary pursuits. He wrote Essays on Practical Politics in 1888. The same year he also wrote an opinionated biography of Gouverneur Morris, an American statesman who helped draft the Constitution of the United States. The book revealed far more about Roosevelt’s mind than that of his subject. Roosevelt then undertook what became his most famous book, The Winning of the West, the four volumes of which appeared from 1889 to 1896.
Roosevelt was active in the presidential campaign of 1888, when Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent Grover Cleveland. During this time, Roosevelt also spoke forcefully in favor of hiring workers for government jobs (also called civil service jobs) based on their skills. At that time many government workers were hired not because of their skills, but because they were loyal members of the winning political party. Giving out government jobs based on party loyalty was called patronage. Harrison rewarded Roosevelt’s activities by appointing him U.S. Civil Service commissioner in 1889. Roosevelt broadened his knowledge of capital politics and became an intimate of intellectuals, like historian Henry Adams, and of scholar-politicians like Massachusetts Representative Henry Cabot Lodge. Roosevelt injected new life into the battle for competence in government appointments. He exposed weaknesses in the patronage system and challenged the postmaster general, a major dispenser of federal jobs. Roosevelt made the civil service debate interesting, and, in the process, increased his own public reputation. When Cleveland defeated Harrison and won election to a second presidential term in 1892, he kept Roosevelt on as commissioner.

Theodore Roosevelt’s fame as a public servant spread, and in 1895 he returned to New York City to become president of the police board. Roosevelt had long been interested in New York municipal government, and in 1895 people in New York, like those in the rest of the country, were beginning to demand reform. This period of reform was called the Progressive era, and lasted from the last decade of the 19th century into World War I (1914-1918). Reformers, or progressives as they were called, were concerned about abuses of power by government and businesses. They wanted to make the United States a better place to live, and like Roosevelt, they believed that the government had an important role to play in this transformation. The demands for reform in New York grew with the exposure of alliances between criminals and police and by Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), which exposed poverty and its effects. The book had deeply stirred Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s war on police corruption and saloonkeepers was more apparent than real, but it directed newspaper attention to the situation, enhanced Roosevelt’s public image, and broadened his experience.
Roosevelt was eager to be involved in national affairs and hoped for military adventures. Roosevelt believed that strong nations survived and weak ones died; thus the United States had to struggle with other powerful nations for influence and territory abroad. He admired the writings of U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890) advocated a strong navy as a key part of national policy. Roosevelt also dreamed of a canal through Central America, which would connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, to be built and owned by the United States. During a boundary dispute in 1895 over the line between British Guiana and Venezuela, President Cleveland aggressively challenged Britain’s right to intervene in Latin America. Roosevelt was delighted and talked freely to the press in extremely warlike terms.
With the election of Ohio Governor William McKinley to the presidency in 1896, Roosevelt urged influential friends, including Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, to obtain for him the position of assistant secretary of the navy. McKinley reluctantly granted him the office. Roosevelt acted quickly and played a key role in building the Navy and preparing it for action. Roosevelt looked ahead to war, as differences mounted between the United States and Spain.
A Cuban struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire had become an active revolution in 1895 because Spain failed to institute reforms promised to the Cuban people in 1878. In December 1897 the U.S. battleship Maine was sent to the port of Havana, Cuba, to protect U.S. citizens and property. On the night of February 15, 1898, the ship was sunk by a tremendous explosion, and 266 lives were lost. Reports about the explosion pointed to sabotage, but in 1976 the U.S. Navy published a study, which suggested that spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bunkers caused the explosion.
On February 25, 1898, while the secretary of the navy was out of Washington, Roosevelt, as acting secretary, cabled Commodore George Dewey, who was commanding the U.S. Asiatic Squadron. He instructed Dewey to sail for Hong Kong. He hinted that war was at hand, in which case “offensive operations in Philippine Islands” should follow.
The next month Senator Redfield Proctor of Vermont made a speech in the Senate describing the inhumane conditions he had observed in Cuba. On April 20 President McKinley approved a congressional resolution that called for immediate Spanish withdrawal from Cuba, and on April 24 the Spanish government declared war. On April 25 the Congress of the United States announced that the United States was at war with Spain, and on April 30, 1898, United States Commodore George Dewey began his “offensive operations” by attacking the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, the Philippines (see Spanish-American War).
As the war fever mounted, Roosevelt became impatient with administrative duties and eager to participate in actual combat. He had served three years in the National Guard, gaining the rank of captain. He then associated himself with Leonard Wood, who had been commissioned a colonel of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry.
Roosevelt resigned his Navy post in May 1898 to serve as lieutenant colonel under Wood. He raised volunteers from among both his cowboy and socialite companions. Cutting through government red tape, he organized what became known as the Rough Riders. Roosevelt again took the initiative to get them moved out of their training station in Tampa, Florida, and on transports to Cuba
From June 22 to June 24, 1898, troops, including the Rough Riders, were landed in Cuba on Daiquiri Beach. In engagements at Las Guásimas, Caney, and finally San Juan Hill, outside the strategic city of Santiago de Cuba, the Rough Riders performed brilliantly under difficult conditions. The newspapers reported stories of many U.S. heroes in the Spanish-American War, and Roosevelt, who had been the subject of 15 years of newspaper fame and notoriety, became the best-known U.S. hero. Journalists reported his daring under fire and his maneuvers to avoid defeat.
Roosevelt assumed the rank of colonel and the command of his regiment on July 8, when Wood was appointed brigadier general of volunteers. Roosevelt’s determined efforts to take the soldiers home, following the Spanish surrender in Cuba, augmented his popularity. He began to be called “Teddy” in newspaper articles and cartoons.
Soon after Roosevelt returned to New York City with his men on August 15, he accepted an invitation from the state Republican leader, U.S. Senator Thomas C. Platt, to run for governor. Senator Platt distrusted Roosevelt’s reform tendencies but needed a strong candidate for what looked like a difficult contest. Roosevelt entered the race and did not hesitate to emphasize his recent war service. Overcoming great political odds and campaigning tirelessly, he won by a small majority.
As governor, Roosevelt continued to be unpredictable. He had disturbed the reformers by promising to consult with Platt, but he had not promised to accept Platt’s views. He opposed Platt on several issues, as when he pressed independently for a tax on public-service businesses. On the other hand, Roosevelt failed to create a broad program of reform, and his assertive attitudes were disliked by many people. In 1900 he published his account of the Spanish-American War, The Rough Riders. Popular humorist Finley Peter Dunne, speaking through his fictitious bartender-philosopher Mr. Dooley, thought Roosevelt should have called his book “Alone in Cubia.” Roosevelt had the wit to appreciate Dunne’s criticism, and the two men became close friends.
Platt quickly tired of the governor’s energy and feared his independence, so he conceived a plot to bury Roosevelt in the vice presidency. Roosevelt didn’t want an office that would make him politically powerless, but having no political organization of his own, he decided to follow his party’s desires. He was nominated in 1900 as McKinley’s running mate and contributed his great energy to the successful campaign.
McKinley’s victory at first seemed to be a triumph for the conservative wing of the Republican Party, but on September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot by an assassin in Buffalo, New York. Eight days later, McKinley died, and the 42-year-old Roosevelt assumed the presidency.
Roosevelt had become known universally, except to his associates, as “Teddy,” a name he hated, but which he endured for public purposes. He and his family quickly became institutions. The White House was run with an aristocratic smartness and distinction that had been lacking for generations. Mrs. Roosevelt also made the White House a home in which children played and in which friends were warmly received. The country became familiar with the children: “Lady Alice,” the grown child of Roosevelt’s first marriage, and Theodore, Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin. Celebrities streamed into the White House in response to the president’s universal interests and were amazed by his detailed knowledge of their professional concerns. Roosevelt had strong and often debatable opinions, as in his distaste for Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist. On the other hand, he had to his honor such an achievement as an unsolicited article, published in Outlook magazine on August 12, 1905, about Edwin Arlington Robinson’s volume of poems Children of the Night. This article, written when Robinson was unknown and totally discouraged, changed the poet’s life and began his rise to fame.
Theodore Roosevelt was known for his irrepressible energy, his rapid and continuous talk and movement, and his joyous and explosive exclamation “Bully!” which he said when he particularly enjoyed something. He was also famous for his expeditions, especially to Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. There he led associates and diplomats on walking, climbing, running, and even swimming adventures, often under astonishingly difficult circumstances. These activities were accompanied by animated discussions across a wide range of subjects. Roosevelt was undoubtedly foolhardy in many of his ventures, but many Americans accepted his spirit as a true expression of their own.
Over the course of his two terms in office, Roosevelt gradually developed what he called his Tennis Cabinet, an informal group of people whom he trusted in matters of state and whose company he enjoyed. They included Leonard Wood, then a major general; James R. Garfield, son of President James A. Garfield and Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior after 1907; and Gifford Pinchot, an outstanding conservationist and chief of the Forestry Service. The Tennis Cabinet also included such friends as the French historian and Ambassador to the United States Jean Jules Jusserand and Sir Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice, a member of the British embassy in the United States.
Roosevelt sought to reassure those who believed that an uncontrollable radical had seized the White House. He announced that he would retain McKinley’s Cabinet of advisors and said he would continue McKinley’s program, but he soon caused controversy. Shortly after he became president, he invited the black educator and leader Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House. Southern politicians were furious with Roosevelt. He held his ground, but he did not invite Washington to the White House again.