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T. Roosevelt, A Legacy Essay, Research Paper

The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt

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 fricans, 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 arrives.

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 CD). 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 their 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

“hastening and securing 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 “gilding 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, marking] 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 nterventions 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 staunchly 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: xTheodore, 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).

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.

Works Cited

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,1984.

Hagedorn, Hermann. The Boys’ Life of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Harper

and Brothers, 1918.

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 York: William Morrow, & Co.,

1992.Morris, Edward. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Goward, McCann,

& Geoghegan, 1979.

Nash, Gary, et. al. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society.

New York: Harper Collins, 1990.

332


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