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Teddy Roosevelt: the Man Who Changed the Face of America


The turn of the century has always been a big deal for
modern civilizations. One hundred years of life is quite
large compared with the average 70 or so given to most.
Because of that, people tend to look in trends of decades,
rather than centuries or millennia. When it does come time
for a new century, when that second digit rotates, as it
does so seldom, people tend to look for change. Events tend
to fall before or after the century, not on top of it, and
United States history, particularly, has had a tendency for
sudden change at the century marks. Columbus' accidental
discovery of the West Indies in 1492 brought on the
exploration age in the 1500s. Jamestown colony, founded in
1607, was England's first foothold on the New World. A
massive population surge, brought on in part by the import
of Africans, marks entry into the 18th century. Thomas
Jefferson's presidency, beginning in 1800, changed the face
of American politics. 1900 was a ripe year for change, but
needed someone to help the change arrive. That someone was
Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt's political presence altered
the course of the United States, transforming it into a
superpower fully ready to handle the challenges of any
opposition, and changed the role of the president and
executive branch of US government, making it a force with
which to be reckoned. As the first president with
progressive views, Roosevelt enacted the first regulatory
laws and prosecuted big businesses who had been violating
them and others for years. Roosevelt also initiated the
United States' active interests in other countries, and
began to spread the benefits of democracy throughout the
world. Before Roosevelt, the United States was an
inward-looking country, largely xenophobic to the calls of
the rest of the world, and chiefly concerned with bettering
itself. As one critic put it, "Roosevelt was the first
modern president"(Knoll). After Roosevelt, the United
States would remain a superpower, chiefly interested in all
the world's affairs for at least a century (Barck 1). It
would be foolish to assume that Roosevelt was a
fantastically powerful individual who was able to change
the course of the United States as easily as Superman might
change the course of a river. It would be more accurate to
say Roosevelt was the right person in the right place at
the right time. It is necessary, though, to show how the
United States was progressing, and how Roosevelt's presence
merely helped to catalyze the progression. It has been said
that when John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln, he
"extinguished the light of the republic" (Cashman 1). While
this is a small hyperbole, it serves as an example of the
general mood that pervaded the period from 1865 to 1901.
The early dominating factor was, of course, Reconstruction.
Reconstruction was a dirty game, and nobody liked it.
Johnson fought with congress and the end result proved very
little had changed. The South was still largely agrarian,
and the North was commercial. Most importantly, the
Southerners and the Northerners still felt they had as
little to do with each other as a fish does with a bicycle.
To the young "Teedie" Roosevelt, this must have made itself
apparent. He was born in a mixed household, where "Theodore
Roosevelt (Sr.) was as profoundly...for the North as Martha
Roosevelt was for the south" (Hagedorn 10). The fact that
the family was able to live, from all accounts, very
harmoniously, is quite astonishing and gives credit to the
fine parents who raised young Theodore. Reconstruction's
greatest (and perhaps only) accomplishment was the
establishment of a basis for industrialization. The basic
destruction of the southern agrarian process combined with
the greater need for items in the North caused the economy
of the post-war United States to shift toward the cities
(Nash 576). The general aim of the Untied States had turned
toward the big cities, but was still focused on building
the nation's power from within. And along with the
improvement of industry in the United States came the spark
of ingenuity that found itself in the minds of great
inventors like Edison and Bell. Once again maintaining the
goal of "hasten[ing] and secur[ing] settlement," both men
concentrated on improvements in communications, improving
the transmission of light and sound (Cashman 14). The
presence of these two, who are representative of so many
others, shows the interest the citizens of the United
States had at this time in improving their infrastructure.
It is interesting to note here that Roosevelt, as the first
president to make use of the popular press to his
advantage, grew up at the same time as these men, eleven
years their junior. The period of the United States
directly before Roosevelt's was known as the Gilded Age,
due to a book of the same name by Mark Twain that made use
of references to "gild[ing] refined gold," and "guilt" from
Shakespeare combined with the "guilty, gilden guilds" that
had sprung up in the forms of interest groups, labor
unions, and monopolies (Cashman 3-4). Indeed, the most
dominant figures in this age (for the presidents were
certainly beneath mention) were the robber barons. These
individuals came to power in two generations. The first,
peppered by those such as Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, and Daniel
Drew, rose to the top quickly by acquiring the nation's
railroads through not always legitimate means (Cashman 34).
The railroads were power, as can be seen by the significant
rise in miles of rail, nearly a 500% increase from 1865 to
1900. Those who controlled the railroads controlled the
country, and were able to maintain a lock on the industry.
Later robber barons, such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and, of
course, J. P. Morgan, operated much the same way,
eliminating the competition by one way or another until
they could control their industry (Cashman 38). As the
three or four thousand tycoons made their fortunes, defying
government, and basically creating a plutocracy of
businessmen, another large group was entering the American
melting pot in larger numbers than before. Ten million
people came to the United States between 1860 and 1890, and
the great majority of them had little more worth to their
name save the clothes on their back and the boat ticket
that had brought them to America (Cashman 86). Having
nowhere to turn, the large majority settled in the port
cities into which they came. These immigrations were
largely unrestricted; the United States not yet having
installed a quota system. The Chinese-Exclusion act and the
subsequent "gentlemen's agreement" with Japan slowed the
influx of Asian immigration after 1880, but these did not
impact the numbers of immigrants as much as one would
think. Americans could not flee, as there was no frontier
left to speak of, and assimilation increasingly failed to
be effective. The result was nativism, "a defensive type of
nationalism" (Cashman 106). The need to impose the will of
the American civilization onto other nations can be seen
here, in its early stages. The main difference between this
era and the next, in that respect, is that the jingoism had
not yet left the country. The Gilded Age's strongest
presidential race would end up to be its last, and the
resulting president, McKinley, can not be classified as a
Gilded Age president. However, the issue of the Gold and
Silver standards shows the United States for the last time
as a totally inward-looking nation. Although a metal
standard would not disappear from United States currency
until well into the mid-twentieth century, and the question
of the purchase of silver would again be raised by
President Franklin Roosevelt, the Free Silver campaign of
William Jennings Bryan versus the Gold Standard enforced by
McKinley shows the last internal economic agitation until
the great depression. The National Grange died upon
McKinley's election, and "after the excitement of Bryan's
Free Silver campaign died down, the agrarian ferment
largely subsided" (Barck 21). The end of the old era could
now begin. It is ironic that McKinley's presidency ended in
assassination, for without the sudden change of leadership
in the White House in 1901, the transformation undergone by
the United States may have appeared as gradual as it was
intended to be. McKinley was president over the "closing
years of the nineteenth century, mark[ing] the end of
comparative isolation and the beginning of an epoch during
which the United States emerged as a world power" (Barck
77). Indeed, McKinley fits this description of the end of
the nineteenth century well. He was a very transitionary
character; not as bland or powerless as the three who had
come before him, yet still figurehead enough to be led by
Mark Hanna, the national republican boss. McKinley's stare
typifies his character: "His stare was intimidating in its
blackness and steadiness...Only very perceptive observers
were aware that there was no real power behind the gaze:
McKinley stared in order to concentrate a sluggish,
wandering mind" (Morris 586). McKinley was president when
the United States' first modern military interventions
began. However it is clear McKinley was not an expansionist
at heart. He declared in his inaugural address, "We want no
wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of
territorial aggression"(Cashman 315). However, much of
America did want war with Spain, and after the American
ship Maine blew up in Havana, killing 266 soldiers,
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt called
for war with Spain to free Cuba. The subsequent defeat of
the Spanish in 100 days and the capture of the Philippines
demonstrates the expansionist nature of the United States
increasing. During the election of 1900, Bryan ran against
McKinley again. This time, both men campaigned on the same
side of the same issue, advocating annexation of overseas
territories (Cashman 329). This confused Democrats and
allowed McKinley's re-election for the last year of the
nineteenth century. The progress of the United States from
the death of Lincoln to the Assassination of McKinley has
shown the trend away from Jeffersonian views of a loose
government, allowing the people to be independent, and into
one more pro-government, like that of Hamilton. Coupled to
this was a tendency to look outside United States borders
into the global community. The pendulum of history had
passed its middle mark and was sweeping upward. It needed,
however, an individual to carry it to its apex. Theodore
Roosevelt was in the right place at the right time. Whether
he was the right person for the job remains a matter that
must be dealt with. His foundations and his career
demonstrate that he was the perfect person to succeed
McKinley and take the United States into its modern era.
Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, one week before
Buchanan was elected president, and two and a half years
before the outbreak of the Civil war. Not having much in
the way of genuine learning skills at such an early age,
Roosevelt, in a sense, "slept through [the war]" (Hagedorn
11). In another sense, he did not. Theodore Roosevelt was
born into a house of strikingly opposite leaders. His
father was a large, cheerful, powerful man, who tended to
be joyful and move quickly. It is safe to say Theodore
Roosevelt, junior, received his stature from the man
bearing his name (Morris 34). If Roosevelt's father was a
"northern burgher," his mother was an archetypal Southern
belle, refined and elegant. By all accounts she was
absolutely lovely, and had a wonderful taste for the
beautiful things in life (Morris 36). From her, young
Theodore inherited his love of the natural, his sense of
decorum, and his strong wit. The even balance that existed
in the Roosevelt home fell into a disarray of sorts as war
broke out. TR, Senior was a Lincoln Republican and desired
strongly a chance to fight, however his wife, her sister,
and her mother, all staunch confederates, resided in the
same house. To compromise, TR, Senior hired someone to
fight for him and served the army in a civilian sense. TR,
Junior has always been known as a staunch militaristic man.
Although his father was, in his own words, "the best man I
ever knew" (Miller 32), in his failure to fight for his
government, Roosevelt felt ashamed, and never mentioned
this blemish on his father's great reputation in his
Autobiography. It is speculated that it was this lack of
military display that encouraged Roosevelt to be so
military and almost hysterically desire warfare (Morris
40). Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, was always a strong
individual in body and soul. Consequently, he felt sympathy
towards those about him, and strove to help them by
teaching mission schools, providing care for poor children,
and finding jobs out west for those upon whom hard times
had fallen. He was even known to take in invalid kittens,
placing them in his coat-pockets (Morris 34). The powerful
mind and will of Theodore Roosevelt, Junior, however, was
born into a sickly body. Teedie suffered from bronchial
asthma, and incurred, along with it, a host of associated
diseases such as frequent colds, nervous diarrhea, and
other problems (Miller 31). He was left very weak as a
young child, and was often subject to taunting. His father
spoke to him, saying: Theodore, you have the mind but not
the body, and without the help of the body the mind
cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It
is hard drudgery to make one's body, but I know you will
do it (Miller 46). Accordingly, Teedie replied with fervor,
"I'll make my body!" Indeed he did. The young Roosevelt
spent hours in the gym, working on weights to make himself
better. It was this indomitable spirit that pushed
Roosevelt forward, and urged him into his form of powerful
politics. Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, had always hated
politics. He had received a particularly nasty dose when
caught up in the Rutherford B. Hayes campaign. Roosevelt, a
Hayes supporter, had drawn the particular ire of Hayes'
opponent for the Republican nomination, Roscoe Conkling.
Hayes attempted to put Roosevelt in as position of
Collector, but failed to receive senate nomination due to
Conkling's ire (Miller 76-8). Theodore Roosevelt, Junior,
"inspired by his father's humiliation at the hands of the
politicians...was determined to become part of...the
governing class" (Miller 110). This inspiration was coupled
in Roosevelt with a strong desire for power. Unlike many
men who had gotten into the political game, Roosevelt
boldly admitted that he desired power, and his desire
served him well, allowing him to become a genuine career
politician (Miller 111). The political game had not changed
so much since Theodore, Senior had tried to run it, and
Theodore, Junior had an uphill battle. He had to fight from
the beginning, but fortunately was adequate in that
respect. At first plagued by strict-line party voting,
Roosevelt managed to finally secure political office, but
it was there that his true troubles would begin. An
important and revealing part of TR's early political career
occurs during his stint as a civil service commissioner in
Washington. One memorable incident occurred in 1889 when
Roosevelt faced some difficult political maneuvering. In
Milwaukee, Postmaster George Paul was accused of making
appointments to friends and altering records to hide it.
Hamilton Shidy, a Post Office superintendent, provided most
of the damaging evidence. The commission was to recommend
Paul's firing, when Paul announced his term of office was
up regardless. The commission returned to Washington, where
they learned Paul had lied about his length of service.
Roosevelt immediately drafted a call for Paul's removal to
the White House and the Associated Press. This publicity
irked numerous republicans who were no strangers to
corruption themselves. Postmaster General Wanamaker, who
was not particularly fond of Roosevelt to begin with, was
quite angry. He allowed Paul, who had not been removed, to
dismiss Shidy, who had been promised protection by
Roosevelt, for insubordination. Now Roosevelt was stuck
between a rock and a hard place. He was bound both to Shidy
as a protector and to uphold his post, which would warrant
Shidy's removal. Wanamaker was trying to force Roosevelt to
resign. Luckily, president Harrison intervened and agreed
to find a place for Shidy, but the battle was not over. As
he waited for Paul's removal orders from the White House,
which were not forthcoming, Frank Hatton, the editor of the
Washington Post decided to launch an attack, lying
blatantly about Roosevelt's misappropriation of funds or
other egregious acts. The Post fired back with more
attacks, causing Roosevelt to angrily point to Wanamaker's
misdeeds. Rather than continue the battle, Harrison managed
to have Paul resign, and Roosevelt accepted half of a
victory. He had successfully stopped the wheels of the
political machine once. It was not to be the last time
(Morris 403-8). Roosevelt spent several years as a
commissioner of police in New York City, eventually rising
to become president of the board of commissioners. In these
years, the true signs of the presidency that was to come
shone through. Two of Roosevelt's closest acquaintances
were Lincoln Steffens, and Jacob Riis (Morris 482), both
reporters of New York newspapers. It was through them that
Roosevelt communicated to the people, and he found it good
practice to have the relayers of his messages be his
friends. Through Riis' book How The Other Half Lives,
Roosevelt had learned of the plight of the poor. Roosevelt
saw the awful living conditions present in police lodging
houses, and had them done away with (Cashman 123). He
battled police corruption, trying hundreds of officers and
finding corruption and graft in every corner of the
department (Morris 491). When McKinley's first
vice-president, Hobart, died, Roosevelt found himself in
the capacity of Governor of New York. He had already fought
in a war and been Assistant Secretary of the Navy, where he
helped to orchestrate the United States' roles in Cuba and
Panama. Roosevelt's expansionist views were here seen. As
governor, he continued to defy the old political tactics,
including bossism. Platt, the political boss of New York,
had gotten Roosevelt elected governor, yet constantly ran
up against Roosevelt, who would not follow any of his
orders. Roosevelt spent a good time of his governorship
attempting to outmaneuver Platt and his agents who were
heavily present in the state legislature (Morris 708).
Hobart's death, in 1899, forced the search for a new
vice-presidential candidate, especially due to the upcoming
election. Roosevelt emerged as the leading candidate, to
the dismay of the Republican National Party's boss, Senator
Mark Hanna. Hanna considered Roosevelt quite dangerous; in
the previous term Hanna had done a great deal of
controlling the president, and he feared what would happen
if Roosevelt became vice-president. McKinley did not show
any special preference. Hanna chose his own candidate, John
D. Long, but was convinced through some slightly shady
political maneuvering to vote for Roosevelt against his own
better judgment (Morris 727). Hanna's personal dislike of
Roosevelt did not diminish in the slightest, however.
Shortly after the 1900 elections, Hanna sent McKinley a
note saying "Your duty to the Country is to live for four
years from next March (Miller 342). McKinley was
re-nominated unanimously, receiving all 926 votes.
Roosevelt received 925, the single vote against him cast by
himself (Morris 729). Roosevelt served four days as Vice
President before Congress adjourned until December. And
when the news of McKinley's sudden death on September 14
came to him he said, in a very un-Roosevelt-like manner,
that he would "continue, absolutely unbroken, the policy of
President McKinley for the peace, the prosperity, and the
honor of our beloved country" (Barck 45). This was
tradition for replacement presidents, although it certainly
seemed odd coming from such a strong-willed man as
Roosevelt. Roosevelt had already made himself extremely
well known in the public eye, so his transition to
president was not as awkward as it might have been.
Roosevelt campaigned furiously during 1900, traveling a
total of 21,209 miles and making 673 speeches in 567 towns
in 24 states (Morris 730). Only Bryan had campaigned more
in the 19th century. For this reason, Roosevelt was able to
manipulate, to a certain degree, the popular press.
Although he disliked those "Muckrakers," as he called them,
who looked for wrongdoing everywhere and served mostly to
stir sensationalistic ideas, Roosevelt had a certain
penchant for those like Steffens and Riis, who wrote
copiously on the need for social reform. To do his part,
Roosevelt attempted reforms that would benefit the working
class. Unlike previous presidents, Roosevelt refused to use
national force to break strikes. He also instituted the
Interstate Commerce Act, which, with the Hepburn Act,
allowed government regulation of transportation systems,
preventing the railroad monopolies from instituting
unfairly high prices (Barck 52). Taking a cue from Upton
Sinclair's The Jungle, which detailed in vivid description
the atrocious handling of meat at sausage factories,
Roosevelt had the Pure Foods and Drugs Act and the Meat
Inspection Act passed, preventing the manufacture of
harmful foods and requiring inspection of meat facilities.
A unique aspect of Roosevelt's presidency was his foreign
policy. Although McKinley had been involved in Cuba and the
Philippines, he had never expressed a wish to dominate as a
world power. Roosevelt had, indeed, operated a large part
of the United States' aggressive role towards Cuba, and in
his presidency went even further to secure the United
States as a dominating power. In 1904 he declared what
would become the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine
in a letter to Secretary of War Elihu Root (Miller 394).
Roosevelt argued that it was a civilized nation's right to
intervene if its neighbors are engaged in wrongdoing. To
that end, Roosevelt began to use force to preserve peace
and order in the Western Hemisphere. The Dominican Republic
needed Roosevelt's help first, as it was being harassed by
Italy and France, to whom it owed large sums of money. To
alleviate the problem, a loan was set up from the United
States. Although the Dominicans eventually settled on the
loan, anti-imperialists felt the United States was
preparing to annex the Dominican Republic. It has been said
that "The Roosevelt Corollary['s]...promulgation was proof
that the United States realized its position as a world
power" (Barck 100). Of course, this was all contingent on
Roosevelt's enforcement of his doctrine. Roosevelt
confirmed the role of the U. S. further by providing a
strong military presence to wrest the boundary line of
Alaska from Canada in 1902 and most importantly, by
determination and perhaps a little impropriety in the
annexation of the Panama Canal zone. Colombia had been a
friendly country to the U. S., and when Panama revolted it
seemed suspect that the United States should allow such an
operation. But, as tends to be the case, Roosevelt wanted
Panama free for other means. In his words, he wanted to
"take Panama," for a canal and he did, demanding
independence from a contract with England and grumbling
when the deal ended up to be a 100 year lease of the canal
zone, rather than an outright purchase. The Panama canal
was, in Roosevelt's mind, to be as great a feat as the
Louisiana purchase or Texas annexation. It was a
controversial measure, and showed Roosevelt's beliefs in
the superiority and rights of civilization (Miller 399). In
1907 Roosevelt finally decided he had had enough and,
rather than run for a third term, which he could have
easily done, virtually appointed William Howard Taft as his
successor and went off to enjoy retirement. Taft was a good
friend of Roosevelt and shared many of his views. Under
Taft, Congress expanded the Conservation Laws, keeping
alive TR's national parks service. In addition, 80 suits
were initiated by Taft's attorney general on companies
violating the Sherman Anti-Trust act. Unfortunately, Taft's
presidency was not nearly as successful as Roosevelt's, for
while the country became more and more progressive, Taft
stood pat, remaining mostly conservative (Barck 68). In
response to Taft's conservative stance, progressives united
to form the National Progressive League. Meanwhile,
Roosevelt returned to politics. Bored with the quiet life,
he desired the presidency once again, and naturally went
for the Republican ticket. However, Taft decided to give
Roosevelt a little taste of his own medicine, and refused
to accede to Roosevelt, who was now playing the political
boss. The friendship that had existed between these two was
splintered, and Roosevelt, in a rage, formed the
Progressive party and ran as a third candidate. Although he
feared he would be defeated if the Democrats nominated a
progressive candidate (which they found in Wilson),
Roosevelt ran with his soul, as he did everything in life.
At the Progressive party convention, Roosevelt read aloud
his "Confession of Faith," a sweeping charter for reform
that outlined the agenda for the twentieth century (Miller
528). The confession advocated direct senate elections,
preferential primaries, women's suffrage, corruption laws,
referendum and recall, a federal securities commission,
trust regulation, reduced tariffs, unemployment insurance,
old-age pensions, anti-child-labor laws, and food purity
laws (Miller 528). Roosevelt lost the 1912 election, but he
certainly did not lose power. Over the next century, he
would have every single part of his agenda made national
law. The turn towards progressivism was only beginning, and
continued with Wilson. Although a democrat, his views were
remarkably progressive. They were also remarkably
Rooseveltian. Like Roosevelt, Wilson had a strong will and
did not take kindly to dissent, as can be seen by his
appointment of Louis Brandeis to the supreme court over the
objections of at least six former presidents of the
American Bar Association (Barck 110). Wilson also formally
reinvented the role of a strong executive demonstrated so
heartily by Roosevelt by delivering speeches directly
before Congress, rather than having them read by a clerk.
Wilson kept alive Roosevelt's ideals with tariff
reductions, the Federal Reserve System. Wilson even
advocated the democratization of the Philippines, even
though he was strongly anti-imperialist (Barck 121). Until
the war in Europe distracted America long enough to lead it
eventually back into a post-war depression, Wilson carried
on the traditions of his political opponent, in the
redefined presidency of the newly powerful United States.
Although the United States was moving ever forward in its
effort to "policing the world" it was not as progressive as
all that in 1914. Even TR himself did not advocate joining
in on World War I, seeing no reason to take part in an
affair that did not concern the United States in the
slightest. However, once German U-boats began sinking ships
carrying American passengers, Roosevelt changed his tune,
along with a percentage of the American people. Eventually,
enough popular sentiment urged Congress to declare war, and
it was done. It seems here as if Wilson was dragging his
feet, but in another generation, the mere consideration of
war in Europe would have been ludicrous. Having gotten its
feet wet, the United States became a first-class country
with first-class responsibilities. The United States
advocated by TR continued after the war and beyond. After a
brief interlude in which everything seemed to revert back
to the old ways and Americans looked again toward the
individual, another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, used the
ideas of his cousin to reinvigorate the economy and rebuild
the nation. Today, the reforms advocated by TR exist and
are in full use, while other more progressive reforms, like
national health care, are being considered. Although our
civilization may not end abruptly in 1999, as predicted by
numerous psychics and fortune-tellers, it is probable that
some large revolutionary act will change the way our
country works in four years or so, just as it has before.
While our Roosevelt may not have the immense popularity or
wonderful charm as the original, it is not doubtful that
whoever it is will have to have will, strength, brains, and
fortitude equal to or above that of the original. 
Barack, Oscar Theodore Jr., and Nelson Manfred Blake. Since
1900: A History of the United
States in Our Times. New York: MacMillan, 1974. 
Cashman, Sean Dennis. America In the Gilded Age: From the
Death of Lincoln to the Rise of
Theodore Roosevelt. New York: New York University Press,
Hagedorn, Hermann. The Boys' Life of Theodore Roosevelt.
New York: Harper and Brothers,
Knoll, Erwin. Review of Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, by
Nathan Miller. New York Times Book
Review, February 28, 1993. p.14. CD-ROM: Resource One. 
Miller, Nathan. Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. New Yor:
William Morrow, & Co., 1992.
Morris, Edward. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York:
Goward, McCann, & Geoghegan,
Nash, Gary, et. al. The American People: Creating a Nation
and a Society. New York: Harper
Collins, 1990.
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