In any poll of historians or American citizens Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) ranks among the top five of presidents of the United States. He is certainly one of the two or three most colorful individuals who ever held the highest office. The mere mention of his name inspires smiles and, often enough, imitations of his toothy falsetto. Roosevelt is an American giant—smaller in achievement, perhaps, but greater in American mythology than his distant cousin Franklin. Indeed FDR’s New Deal was in many respects a working out of ideas that were formulated during the later phases of Theodore Roosevelt’s career—particularly during the Bull Moose Party era that began in 1912.
Of the four presidents that Gustav Borglum hacked out of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt is the only one who could not have been kept off of the mountain. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were all enormously important presidents, each one with a strong interest in the development of the American West, but Roosevelt alone found his soul in the West (in what is now North Dakota), and he became the greatest conservationist in American history. Traveling through during his first term as president of the United States, Roosevelt stopped long enough in Medora to announce his debt to the northern Great Plains. “It was here that the romance of my life began.”
As president, Roosevelt tripled the acreage of the National Forest system, created the first fifty-one National Wildlife Refuges, secured passage of the National Monuments and Newlands (reclamation) acts, and doubled the number of National Parks. He also convened the first national Governors Conference at the White House on May 13, 1908. The basic infrastructure of twentieth century development of the American West took shape during Roosevelt’s presidency.
And this was just one (comparatively minor) arena of Roosevelt’s greatness.
Roosevelt’s more general achievement as an American statesman may be summarized as a nearly lifelong threefold campaign. First, he believed that the United States was ready to make the transition from an inward-looking, isolationist, and agrarian republic into a world power. Roosevelt believed this revolution was coming, like or not, and that such an unprecedented event would require a new kind of leadership. But he was not merely speaking as a dispassionate sociologist. Roosevelt’s most ardent wish was that the United States would take its rightful place among the great powers during his lifetime, and eventually dominate all other nations. Roosevelt was certain that one of the principal tools of this essential metamorphosis would be a world class navy.
Second, Roosevelt believed that the United States Constitution of the Founding Fathers, written in 1787, needed to be broadly, expansively, and energetically interpreted to enable it to embrace the challenges that had emerged in the post-Civil War period. He despised the cherished civic tradition—best represented by Thomas Jefferson—that the Constitution should be read as a restraining rather than an enabling document. Roosevelt believed that the national government had a right—and duty—“to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.” “I am not,” he insisted, “pleading for an extension of constitutional power. I am pleading that constitutional power which already exists shall be applied to new conditions which did not exist when the Constitution went into being.” Theodore Roosevelt was a thoroughgoing Hamiltonian, though is favorite president, and his most frequently cited presidential model, was Abraham Lincoln. “The Constitution belongs to the people and not the people to the Constitution.”
Third, Roosevelt believed that the executive branch (and especially the president) needed to take charge of American national life on behalf of the American people, and that state and local authorities, not to mention the national legislative branch, ought to defer to the national executive. Between 1901 and 1909 Roosevelt increased the authority and power of the American presidency to an unprecedented mass and volume. The president, Roosevelt wrote, should “do all he could for the people, and not . . . content himself with the negative merit of keeping his talents undamaged in napkin. . . . I did not care a rap for the mere form and show of power; I cared immensely for the use that could be made of the substance.” The effect of his assertion of executive power was to create a de facto (and unratified) constitutional revolution in the United States. Though Roosevelt was on the whole supremely confident of the rightness of his actions, a note of some defensiveness crept into his celebrated Autobiography: “I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the President and the heads of the departments. I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.” Reflecting upon his executive actions with respect to the Panama Canal, Roosevelt said, “I deemed it better not to have half a century of debate prior to starting in on the canal; I thought that instead of debating for half a century before building the canal it would be better to build the canal first and debate me for a half-century afterward.”
Naturally, Roosevelt believed that he was the American citizen best suited to lead the United States into the twentieth century.
He was probably right.
The irony of this is that Theodore Roosevelt was an accidental president. He had been shunted into the vice presidency in 1900 to get him out of New York state, where as governor he had been too reformist for the old guard Republican machine, and to stall out his meteoric political rise, which had been remarkable from the beginning, and, after his heroics at San Juan (actually Kettle) Hill in Cuba, seemingly unstoppable. This strategy failed. When it did, the consummate Republican insider mark Hanna blurted out, “Now look, that damned cowboy is President of the United States.” Roosevelt became president on September 14, 1901, when the intelligent, sensible and stolid Republican president William McKinley died of gunshot wounds he received ten days earlier at the Pan American Exposition at Buffalo, New York.
Although Roosevelt immediately proclaimed that “it shall be my aim to continue, absolutely, unbroken, the policy of President McKinley for the peace, the prosperity, and the honor of our beloved country,” he threw himself into the presidency with such imagination, verve, and optimism that he very soon cast poor McKinley into the historical shadow and redefined the presidency for the modern era.
Roosevelt was an accidental president in two senses. First, he was the fifth vice president in American history to be elevated into the presidency by the death of the elected incumbent. This greatly bothered Roosevelt until he was resoundingly elected in his own right in 1904. “I am no longer a political accident,” he said with evident relief, and then made the most significant political mistake of his entire life. “The wise custom which limits the President to two terms regards the substance and not the form,” he declared, by which he meant that he chose to consider the three and a half years in which he filled out McKinley’s second term as his own first term. “Under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination.” When—as was inevitable—Roosevelt thought better of his rash promise, he admitted that he would gladly cut his right arm off to be able to take back the election-night utterance. But he declined in 1908 to permit himself to be drafted into a third term. “My value as an asset to the American people consists chiefly in a belief in my disinterestedness and trustworthiness, in the belief that I mean what I say, and that my concern is for the good of the country. [If I ran again] many good people would have their faith in me shaken, and that therefore my influence for good would be measurably, and perhaps greatly, diminished.”
Second, he was “accidental” in the sense that he ascended to the presidency at the dawn of the twentieth century, after the triumph of the Spanish-American War (1898), just as the United States was beginning to plant its imperial flag beyond the shores of the North American continent, when the accumulated urbanization and industrialization of America meant that the social compact drawn up by the diffused farmer-citizens of the early national period was straining to embrace technological, social, demographic, and political circumstances that no statesman of Madison’s era could have foreseen. Roosevelt was a hyperkinetic man who understood the uses of power, who was not afraid to use power on behalf of what he took to be the common good, and who exhibited no squeamishness about traditional or constitutional restraints. If ever there was the right man in the right place at the right time for the right purpose, it was Theodore Roosevelt in the autumn of 1901, and yet without Leon Czolgosz’ anarchic bullet, he might never have become the president of the United States.
When he left the presidency—voluntarily—in March of 1909, Roosevelt said, “I don’t think any President ever enjoyed himself more than I did.” He was probably right. Then he went on a yearlong safari in Africa to find a new arena for his vast animal spirits and his bloodlust—and to permit William Howard Taft to try to establish himself as president without the burden of living in the immediate shadow of his predecessor.
Roosevelt’s “accidental” importance can be measured in part by listing his presidential “firsts.” Roosevelt was the first president to ride in an automobile (August 22, 1902), the first to ride in a submarine (August 25, 1904), the first to leave the United States (and visit a foreign country: Panama) during the course of his presidency (November 14-17, 1906), the first to ride in an airplane (1910—after he left office). He was the first president, indeed the first American, to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Roosevelt’s theory of the Constitution, his commitment to an energetic executive, and his ability to respond to the emerging needs of the republic are all of immense historical importance, but that is not why America loves Theodore Roosevelt. America loves Roosevelt because he was a man of amazing capacities and a much larger than life personality. We remember the Roosevelt who practiced ju jitsu in the White House, permitting a man even bigger and stronger than himself to toss the President of the United States unceremoniously over his head; whose rebellious daughter Alice could reduce him to impotent rage, and lead him to burst forth with “Listen, I can be President—or—I can attend to Alice.”; who employed his Harvard-trained fisticuffs to knock out a gun slinging ruffian in a Dakota territory saloon; who had to rebuke his children for throwing water balloons on secret service agents from the second story windows of the White House, but who did so with a sympathetic wink; who led cronies, cabinet ministers, and foreign diplomats on heroic rambles through Rock Creek park and insisted that they strip naked to wade through a swollen creek; who as police commissioner of New York disguised himself in a cloak and low-slung hat, and walked the beat late at night to determine which cops were faithfully protecting the public and which were sleeping, drinking, or worse; who as deputy sheriff in Dakota territory pursued boat thieves down the Little Missouri River, disarmed and arrested them, and marched them to the nearest jail, meanwhile reading his way through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to occupy himself during the successive nights through which he was forced to stay awake to prevent the prisoners from escaping.
We love the Roosevelt who, at 55, in palpably declining health, explored the River of Doubt in South America, one declared of the western hemisphere’s last uncharted rivers. It was a long and perilous journey into the lower continent’s heart of darkness, by a former president of the United States, and Roosevelt came close to dying twice in the course of the ordeal. It was a journey that might have defeated younger explorers like Lewis and Clark or Alexander von Humboldt, but Roosevelt came out alive (barely), chiefly owing to his indomitable will to live. As a young man Roosevelt had been told by his father, “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.” This was one of his life’s quests—he successfully transformed himself from a fragile and sickly boy into America’s most physically active president.
He was, moreover, one of the great name-callers in American history. He coined the phrase “lunatic fringe” (for extremists drawn to otherwise admiral reform agendas), and applied John Bunyan’s “muckraker” to journalists who thrive in digging among the compost of American life. When President McKinley hesitated in declaring war against Spain, Roosevelt declared that he had no more backbone than a chocolate éclair. He called Woodrow Wilson a “white-handy Miss Nancy,” and he derided men whose “shoulders slope like champagne bottles.” When the Spanish refused to cooperate they were, of course, “dagos,” and during the Cuban insurrection of 1906 Roosevelt wished out loud that he could cast the whole population into the sea. Sentimentalists and do-gooders of all sorts were cast aside as “goo-goos.”
Roosevelt had great strengths and great weaknesses, but he was an accessible and immensely likeable man, with an infectious vitality. He called himself an average American writ large, and though this is not really true, the American people, especially westerners, saw him as one of themselves. He managed to connect with the American people more than any previous—and virtually any subsequent—president. Of average Americans, Roosevelt wrote, “For all the superficial differences between us, down at bottom these men and I think a good deal alike, or at least have the same ideals, and I am always sure of reaching them in speeches which many of my Harvard friends would think not only homely, but commonplace.” Young Lincoln Lang, who met the New York dandy Roosevelt when he first came into the Dakota badlands in 1883, understood Roosevelt’s greatness perfectly: “It was in listening to those talks after supper in the old shack on the Cannonball that I first came to understand that the Lord made the earth for all of us and not for a chosen few.”
In the consciousness of the American people, Theodore Roosevelt is a kind of caricature: the man who was forever was spitting out, “Bully!,” and “DEE-light-ed,” and picking fights with anyone who persisted in calling him “four eyes.” He was in many respects the creator of his own caricature. But it would be a terrible mistake to reduce him to the man who talked softly but carried a big stick, for he was much more than a grimacing roughrider.
We think of him as a man of action—“pure act,” the contemplative Henry Adams marveled and sneered—but in fact Theodore Roosevelt was the writingest president, and he may have been the readingest president, too. Depending on how one counts, Roosevelt wrote more than forty books, compared to twenty-four by the best-educated and best-prepared American president John Quincy Adams, whose lifelong dream was to be counted a man of letters rather than a statesman. Most presidents write inconsequential books. Most of them are ghost-written. Roosevelt wrote at least a half-dozen books of genuine importance: The Naval War of 1812 (1882); Thomas Hart Benton (1887); the ranch and hunting trilogy (1888-1893); Governor Morris (1896); Oliver Cromwell (1900); the monumental four-volume Winning of the West (1889), not to mention the finest autobiography of any U.S. president (1913). Add to this a quarter of a million letters (compared to Jefferson’s 22,000).
His reading can only be called prodigious. Moreover, it was fruitful, because Roosevelt clearly learned life lessons, rules of statesmanship, and an enormous amount of world history, from what he read. Take just two examples. If Thoreau was right when he wrote, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!,” Roosevelt’s biblio-Rubicon was Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower Upon History 1600-1783, published in 1890. Roosevelt not only read the book with his characteristic critical voraciousness, but reviewed it, sought out the friendship of the author, and promoted his career, but also cited Mahan’s text to justify his lifelong advocacy of a strong navy, first as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, later as the twenty-sixth president. Roosevelt’s dispatching of the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet on a round-the-earth voyage (1907-09) was a profound practical application of Mahan’s principles.
In 1906 President Roosevelt read Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, a thinly disguised expose of the meat packing industry and—less to Roosevelt’s liking—a manifesto for socialism. Thereupon Roosevelt ordered an investigation of the meat packing industry, which led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. In addition to championing this landmark legislation, Roosevelt corresponded with poor Sinclair, whom he thanked for his efforts to call attention to the problems in the nation’s food supply, and then pummeled for his naïve flirtation with socialism. Even so, Roosevelt wrote, “The specific evils you point out shall, if their existence be proved, and if I have the power, be eradicated.”
Roosevelt’s principal greatness was an insight about about advanced capitalism and his willingness to bring government to bear on that insight. He realized that industrial gigantism and large scale corporate capitalism together put fundamental pressures on the basic ideals of a modern society. The vast accumulations of capital, property, and power that came with unregulated interstate commerce not only benefited the few in unprecedented ways, but threatened to squeeze the life out of the many. The quasi-libertarian Constitution created in 1787 had assumed that the accumulation of property would not threaten the basic equality of circumstance and opportunity of the American people. By the time Roosevelt achieved national power, it was clear that monopolies, interstate trusts, and great-man capitalists like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller could not be expected to pay attention to the common good. Corporate gigantism was not necessarily bad, Roosevelt reasoned, but it had to be directed and chastened to prevent it from swallowing up the state and the great mass of people.
Roosevelt was a conservative reformer. He believed that unless the privileged classes policed themselves (and TR was a born policeman!), the excesses of urban industrial interstate capitalism would eventually lead the people to take things into their own hands. That was what he wished to avoid more than anything else. Roosevelt was not against the great capitalists. In fact, he praised them endlessly, and did what he could to protect them from what he took to be bubble-headed levelers. But he was not afraid to denounce what he called the “malefactors of great wealth,” and he focused the modest powers of the state (rather timidly, it seems in retrospect) on a handful of out-of-control trusts and combinations in order to make sure that honest competition was still a real possibility, and above all to insure that average Americans got what he called a “square deal”—in other words, that Morgan’s vast success did not prevent them from modest achievement of the American dream. At a time when most men of the establishment believed that the Constitution was (and should be) powerless to address these fundamental concerns, Roosevelt was not afraid to use what state power he could squeeze out of the Constitution to keep the capitalist system from swinging out of control.
In doing so, he was not greatly successful, and from the radical reformers’ point of view he was doing little more than co-opting the rhetoric of the populists and the progressives without genuinely pursuing their agenda. Maybe so, but what makes Theodore Roosevelt revolutionary was that he was the first president willing to address the problems of the modern economy and to act on his contemporary Herbert Croly’s paradoxical dictum, that in order to achieve Jeffersonian democracy in the twentieth century, the people of the United States would need to adopt Hamiltonian methods. The seeds that Roosevelt hesitating planted between 1901 and 1909 bore fruit later in FDR’s New Deal, but in a much more important and lasting fashion in the regulatory society that we all now take for granted. Roosevelt’s essential achievement—in pure food and drug legislation, in environmental legislation, in trust-busting—was to shatter the notion that a modern industrial nation could be governed by a libertarian social compact.
In a letter to the British historian George Otto Trevelyan, written in 1915, Roosevelt described himself wrongly, but in a way that makes him perfectly and perennially endearable to the American people. “I am not in the least a hero, my dear fellow. I am a perfectly commonplace man and I know it; I am just a decent American citizen who tries to stand for what is decent in his own country and in other countries.”
Copyright Clay S. Jenkinson 2004