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Digital History ID 3140

 

At the Republican convention in 1900, a senator warned his colleagues not to make Theodore Roosevelt their vice presidential nominee: "Don't any of you realize that there's only one life between this madman and the presidency?" As New York's governor, Roosevelt had challenged banking and insurance interests; Republican Party boss Tom Platt wanted him out of state affairs.

Born in New York City in 1858, Roosevelt was, in his own words, "nervous and timid" as a youth. He suffered headaches, fevers, and stomach pains. He was so frail and asthmatic that he could not blow out a bedside candle. So he hiked, swam, boxed, and lifted weights to build up his strength and stamina. In 1912, he would be shot in the chest by a deranged man, but proceeded to deliver an hour-long speech before having the bullet removed.

At the age of 23, Roosevelt was elected to the New York state legislature. Then in 1884, his wife and his mother died on the same day. To distance himself from these tragedies, he retreated to a 25,000-acre ranch in North Dakota's Badlands and became a cowboy. He wore spurs and carried a pearl-handled revolver from Tiffany, the New York jewelers.

Roosevelt returned to serve as a U.S. Civil Service commissioner; he also served as New York City's crusading police commissioner, wearing disguises in order to root out corruption. He subsequently became assistant secretary of the Navy and governor of New York, before his election as vice president in 1900.

Lacking any military experience and wearing a uniform custom-tailored by Brooks Brothers, Roosevelt served as second-in-command of the Rough Riders, a volunteer cavalry unit that fought in Cuba during the Spanish American War. With William McKinley's assassination, he became, at the age of 42, the youngest president in American history.

Even those who know nothing about his presidency instantly recognize his image carved on Mount Rushmore--his huge, toothy smile and his wire-rimmed glasses. As president, he made anti-trust, conservation of natural resources, and consumer protection national priorities. He forced coal operators to recognize the United Mine Workers.

Roosevelt’s life was filled with contradictions. He was a member of one of the country's 20 richest families, yet he denounced business magnates as "malefactors of great wealth." The first president born in a big city, he was a hunter as a well as a conservationist. He was a bellicose man who boxed in the White House. He was also the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering peace between Russia and Japan.

Incredibly active and energetic, Roosevelt was "a steam engine in trousers" who somehow found time to write three dozen books, on topics ranging from history to hunting and in languages ranging from Italian and Portuguese to Greek and Latin. He was the first celebrity president known simply by his initials. Said a British envoy, "You must always remember the president is about six."

In office, Roosevelt greatly expanded the powers of the presidency. A bold and forceful leader, he viewed the White House as a "bully pulpit" from which he could preach his ideas about the need for an assertive government, the inevitability of bigness in business, and an active American presence in foreign policy. He broke up trusts that dominated the corporate world and regulated big business. He created the Departments of Commerce and Labor and the U.S. Forest Service. He supported a revolt in a province of Colombia that allowed the United States to build the Panama Canal. He sent a Great White Fleet on an around-the-world voyage to symbolize America's rise to world power. He made a dramatic public statement about race when he invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House.

Roosevelt pushed legislation though Congress, authorizing and establishing the authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission to set railroad rates. In 1904, he won reelection by the largest popular majority up to that time. But on election night, he announced that he would not seek reelection in 1908--a statement that undercut his influence during his second term. In 1909, he retired to hunt big game in Africa, and passed the presidency to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft.

Apart from his philosophy of an active, interventionist government, Roosevelt's most lasting legacy is that he became the model for a new kind of president: a charismatic, hyperkinetic, heroic leader, who sought to improve every aspect of society. He made the presidency as large as the problems posed by industrialization and urbanization.

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