On his many treks across hill and dale, Theodore Roosevelt's motto was "Over, under or through -- but never around." The motto could have been America's own at the turn of the 20th century, and in some sense Theodore Roosevelt's manic energy, undeterrable ingenuity and larger-than-life persona set the tone for what the nation hoped to be in the 20th century.
The second child of a prominent Manhattan banker and his Southern belle wife, born on this day in 1858 in New York City, "Teedie" was a scrawny, sickly child, asthmatic and myopic, yet quite experientially curious (especially about flora and fauna; he wrote a natural history of insects at age 9) and hyperactive. Roosevelt, Sr. encouraged his boy to put all his energy to good use, to build himself up physically, which he did with a rigorous gym workout program.
At 18 he entered Harvard and was an extracurricular star, taking a lead in campus activities from the Hasty Pudding Club to natural history lectures to boxing. Although he wanted to pursue natural history as a career, his girlfriend Alice Lee prevailed upon him to study law. In 1880, he married Alice and entered Columbia Law School, but Roosevelt dropped out before the end of a year to write (The Naval War of 1812) and run for the New York assembly.
At the end of his term 1884, Roosevelt suffered a grievous tragedy: after giving birth to their daughter Alice, Mrs. Roosevelt died from complications of childbirth -- and on the same day, in the same house, Roosevelt's mother also died. Heartbroken, Roosevelt packed himself off to the West, where he worked as a cattle rancher and served briefly as sheriff of Billings County in the Dakota Territory.
After two years in the wilderness, Roosevelt ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1886, married his childhood friend Edith Carow, and then, while also serving as a member of the U.S. civil service commission (1889-95) and president of the New York City police board (1895-7), he concentrated on his writing, publishing biographies of Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Hart Benton as well as books on the West.
William McKinley appointed the 39-year old Roosevelt as his assistant secretary of the Navy, and Roosevelt used the somewhat obscure post as a soapbox for expansionism and war with Spain over Cuban independence. Although McKinley had hoped to resolve the Cuban issue through diplomatic channels, the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst painted pictures of Spanish atrocities which inflamed public opinion and led McKinley to launch the Spanish-American War in April 1898. The following month, Roosevelt resigned his post to serve as commander of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (otherwise known as the "Rough Riders"), and became a national hero with press accounts of his heroic charge up Kettle Hill on the Cuban liberation front.
Upon his return after only four months of service, he narrowly won election as governor of New York, where he promoted women and child labor reform laws and promoted the state's first income tax on corporations. He reluctantly accepted nomination as vice-president for McKinley's 1900 re-election campaign, believing that the job would be a colossal bore following his statehouse stint; but while vacationing with his family in the Adirondacks, he received word that McKinley was dying in Buffalo from an assassin's bullet, and by the time he arrived at the president's bedside, McKinley was dead, leaving the 42-year old Roosevelt to be sworn in as the youngest-ever U.S. president. The old guard was aghast: "Now look," exclaimed Senator Mark Hanna, "That damned cowboy is president!"
The themes of his presidency, both in serving out McKinley's term and following his landslide re-election in 1904, were concerned with macho involvement and grand gestures of socio-economic reform: he led the liberation of Panama, the purchase of the Canal Zone and the construction of the Panama Canal; proclaimed the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine on U.S. intervention in Latin America, summarized in Roosevelt's advice, "Speak softly and carry a big stick"; mediated the Russo-Japanese War (and won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize); promoted federal antitrust laws; launched the National Park system; and, following the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, signed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
He probably had more fun in office than any president, staging wrestling demonstrations in the East Room, leading unsuspecting foreign ambassadors on rambling hikes and playing cowboys and Indians with his children. His greatest achievement, however, was perhaps his transformation of the office into the "bully pulpit" (his own phrase) -- a position of moral influence and a touchstone for the collective emotions of the American public.
Most of his immediate predecessors had, for some time, hidden their countenances behind high collars and full beards; Teddy wore turned down collars (you could see the veins bulging in his robust neck when he got excited) and actually permitted himself to be seen to be smiling in public. For Roosevelt, an uninhibited display of personality was the greatest political tool at his disposal.
After his first full term, he handpicked his successor, William Taft, and went on safari in Africa, bagging elephants, hippos, rhinos and lions and collecting plant and animal specimens for the Smithsonian. After his return, he signaled his discontent with Taft's conservative drift and in 1912, he challenged Taft for the Republican presidential nomination (coining the phrase, "my hat is in the ring"), but his forces were no match for the incumbency machine. Undaunted, Roosevelt and the liberal Republicans launched a third party, the Progressive (or "Bull Moose") Party, with Roosevelt as the standard bearer, supporting an unprecedented regulation of American business. In the 1912 election, Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt (taking a bullet in Milwaukee and insisting on delivering his scheduled speech before going to the hospital) to acquit himself better than any third party candidate during the 20th century, running second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, but effectively splitting the Republican majority.
In 1913, he took to the wilderness again, this time leading an expedition down the River of Doubt in Brazil (where he contracted malaria and a nasty leg infection, both of which would plague him for the rest of his life), wrote books and magazine articles, and, upon the U.S. entry into World War I, he harassed President Wilson about his war policy and offered to raise a regiment (but was turned down by Wilson, despite hearing from French premier Georges Clemenceau that for the French, Roosevelt's name "sums up the beauty of intervention" and that allowing Roosevelt to fight would "gladden the hearts" of the French). Roosevelt's youngest son Quentin died in the War, which took a great deal of gusto out of the old warrior; his recurrent Brazilian infections and a case of mastoiditis which left him deaf in one ear sent him to the hospital in 1918, but the Great American came home to Sagamore Hill on Long Island for Christmas and was dead within 2 weeks, on January 6, 1919.