Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was our 26th President (1901–1908), and by any measure, one of the most impressive men ever to hold this office. Several of his records still stand: youngest president (42), and number of federal judge appointments (75). He was also a historian, author, soldier, lawman, explorer, mountaineer, and the first American to win a Nobel prize. But with all that, his legacy is mixed.
Heritage and Early life
The Roosevelt family is one of the most venerable in the country, tracing back to a Dutch immigrant, ClaesMaartenszen van Rosenvelt. He arrived in the mid 1600s to New York, when it was still Nieuw Amsterdam. Go forward a century, two of Claes’ grandsons were the ancestors of the Hyde Park and Oyster Bay branches of the Roosevelts. Another century on, the Hyde Park Roosevelts were mainly Democrats, and the Oyster Bay branch was largely Republican.
So not surprisingly, Theodore was born into the Oyster Bay branch, while his famous fifth cousin Franklin Delano came from the Hyde Park Roosevelts. These branches were on fairly good terms, especially when Teddy gave his niece Eleanor in marriage to Franklin.
Theodore was born into wealth, but not into health. He was asthmatic, long before modern inhalers. But his enormous strength of character showed, since he overcame his physical disadvantage with what he later called “the strenuous life”. He was also homeschooled and loved nature.
In 1880, Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee. He then attended Harvard, and a year later (1881) won election to become the youngest member of the New York Assembly. A year after that, he published The Naval War of 1812, which even today is regarded as one of the best historical studies on that war.
Teddy soon experienced terrible tragedy, losing both his mother and his wife on the same day in 1884, two days after his daughter was born. He left politics to operate a cattle ranch in the Dakotas for a few years. He was also a deputy sheriff, and used this time to write more books. But the especially bad winter of 1886–87 killed the cattle in his area, so he returned to New York.
He then visited London where he married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow, a marriage that would produce five children. After honeymooning in Europe, he led an expedition to climb Mont Blanc, for which the British Royal Society made him a member.
Next year, he campaigned successfully for the Republican Benjamin Harrison for President. Harrison appointed TR to the US Civil Services Commission. Here he fought vigorously against the corrupt “spoils” system, where the victor would appoint friends to jobs like postmaster, firing excellent workers to make room. He was so good that after Harrison lost to Grover Cleveland in the 1892 election, the last good Dem president, Cleveland reappointed TR although he had campaigned for Harrison.
In 1895, TR was appointed president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners, an unenviable task because the NYPD was then considered one of the most corrupt in the country. But TR cleaned up the force, greatly improved its efficiency, even walked his officers’ beats in the dark, and was praised for “unimpeachable honesty.”
TR and Henry Cabot Lodge
In 1895, TR became great friends with the then new Massachusetts congressman Henry Cabot Lodge, the future Republican Senate Majority leader in all but name and international statesmen. They shared a staunch patriotism, “100% Americanism,” that welcomed immigrants who wanted to add to our nation. Their views on this never changed, and TR’s most famous statement was made not long before he died in 1919 (and yes, it is genuine!):
“In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile…We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language…and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”
What a contrast to today’s absurd policies! Those who want to immigrate legally and contribute to this nation face huge expenses and ridiculous bureaucratic hoops. Conversely, many illegals who have nothing but contempt for our language and culture are sheltered in “sanctuary cities,” and their children given in-state tuition privileges in some states, greater than those available to US citizens from other states.
Lodge and Roosevelt co-authored a great book, Hero Tales From American History(1895), about our great past from Washington to Lincoln, including Daniel Boone, and the Alamo. Kids won’t learn this real history in today’s Democrat-run government schools. The book has just been reprinted and is available from our web store.
Secretary of the Navy and the Rough Riders
Lodge helped TR gain his next advancement, by persuading President William McKinley to appoint him to Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897. In reality, TR was in charge. He saw that war was imminent and had the Navy prepared.
Next year, the Spanish–American war broke out for about ten weeks. TR resigned from the Navy and recruited many—including a number of blacks—for the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, better known as the “Rough Riders”. They played a big role in America’s victory, taking the Spanish strongholds in Cuba, Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. This was largely due to Colonel Roosevelt’s valor, for which he became the only President who has ever been awarded our highest military award, the Medal of Honor (posthumously in 2001). TR himself generously gave credit to Lt. John Parker, for one of the first military uses of machine guns (gatlings). He also lamented the terrible casualties—even more from diseases like malaria, so he demanded that his men be brought home.
Governor and Vice President
Upon returning to civilian life, Colonel Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York. He was such a determined corruption fighter that Republican Party leaders forced McKinley’s re-election campaign to accept him as running mate. This was very wise, because thanks largely to TR, they crushed the Democrat William Jennings Bryan in a landslide.
TR’s career as Vice President was short. Towards the end, in a speech onSeptember 2, 1901, he made one of his most famous sayings, “Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.” But a few days later, President McKinley was assassinated.
Thus Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest President in history. Then in 1904, he retained the Presidency by election in another landslide.
Roosevelt was one of the first presidents to be recorded on phonograph and film. We can still hear his eloquent speech “The right of the people to rule (themselves)”, which contrasted that with the rule by small groups, and also America’s founding with the bloody French Revolution.
Next part, I will continue with TR’s Presidential achievements, both great and not so great.
Conclusion of Part 1
Theodore Roosevelt was a man of almost unparalleled ability, and his career up to this point showed him to be highly honorable and brave as well. Sadly, in Part 2, I must show how his record is tarnished, demonstrating that even the greatest of men can be undone by hubris.