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Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt served as the twenty-sixth president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. A writer, explorer, and soldier, as well as a politician, Roosevelt distinguished himself as president by advocating conservation of natural resources, waging legal battles against economic monopolies and trusts, and exercising leadership in foreign affairs. An energetic man with a colorful personality, Roosevelt later sought to reclaim the presidency in 1912 as the head of the Progressive Party.
Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, in New York City, a descendant of a wealthy and aristocratic family that first settled in New York in the 1600s. A sickly boy, Roosevelt developed a regimen of diet and exercise that transformed him into a vigorous young man. He graduated from Harvard University in 1880 and was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1881.
Roosevelt resigned in 1884, following the death of his wife, and spent two years at his ranch in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory. During this period he developed both his association with the Wild West world of cowboys and his appreciation of the wilderness. He returned to New York City in 1886 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor. From 1889 to 1895, Roosevelt served as a civil service commissioner in Washington, D.C. In 1895 he was appointed as a reform-minded New York City police commissioner. His main occupation, however, was that of writer: he wrote many magazine articles and twelve books between 1880 and 1900.
Roosevelt's rise to national prominence came during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Anxious to be a part of the forces that would go to Cuba, he organized a group of cowboys and New York aristocrats into a cavalry regiment nicknamed the Rough Riders. As a lieutenant colonel, Roosevelt became a national hero and darling of the national news media when he led his Rough Riders to victory at the Battle of San Juan Hill in July 1898.
The New York Republican Party, under the leadership of Senator Thomas C. Platt, nominated Roosevelt for governor in 1898, in the hope that his popularity could rescue a party plagued by scandal. Roosevelt was easily elected but soon offended party leaders by asserting his political independence. Platt became so frustrated with Roosevelt's reform agenda that he persuaded President William McKinley to make Roosevelt his vice presidential running mate in 1900. Reluctantly, Roosevelt accepted the nomination. His popularity helped McKinley win a second term. On September 6, 1901, an anarchist named Leon F. Czolgosz shot McKinley when he visited the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Eight days later McKinley died and Roosevelt assumed the presidency.
As president, Roosevelt sought to attack corruption and to promote economic and political reform. He insisted that government should be the arbiter of economic conflicts between capital and labor. He demonstrated his convictions by negotiating a settlement of a strike between coal miners and mine operators in 1902, the first time a president had intervened in a labor dispute. Roosevelt referred to his platform for business and labor as the Square Deal.
Roosevelt won public acclaim for being a "trust buster." By the early twentieth century, a few large companies in key industries, including railroads, oil, and steel, had stifled competition and created monopolies. In one of his first major acts, Roosevelt filed suit to dissolve the Northern Securities Company, a trust controlled by the three major railroads in the Northwest. Using the sherman anti-trust act of 1890 (15 U.S.C.A. § 1 et seq.), the Roosevelt administration successfully broke up Northern Securities; antitrust lawsuits against forty-three other major corporations soon followed.
In 1904 the Republican Party nominated Roosevelt for a second term. He easily defeated the Democratic candidate Alton B. Parker of New York. In his second term Roosevelt helped enact several groundbreaking pieces of federal legislation. Spurred in part by public concern over the unsanitary food packing methods revealed by Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, Roosevelt pressured Congress and the meat packing industry to support the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 (21 U.S.C.A. § 601 et seq.). In 1906 Congress also passed the Pure Food and Drug Act (21 U.S.C.A. § 301 et seq.), which criminalized the misleading and harmful sale of patent medicines that made false claims about their medicinal effects. The act also established the Food and Drug Administration, putting in place a federal agency dedicated to Consumer Protection. Roosevelt also was instrumental in the passage of the Hepburn Act of 1906 (34 Stat. 584), which increased the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), allowing the ICC to inspect the business records of railroads.
Roosevelt became the first president to play a major international role in foreign policy. His favorite motto, based on an African proverb, was "speak softly and carry a big stick." The motto epitomized Roosevelt's foreign policy, as he increased the size of the U.S. Navy and sent the fleet around the world in 1908 to demonstrate both U.S. military strength and U.S. involvement in world affairs.
Roosevelt initiated the construction of the Panama Canal in 1902, reduced domestic discord by making an agreement with Japan on limiting the number of Japanese immigrants to the United States, and negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 at a peace conference held in Portsmouth, Maine. He earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for mediating the peace agreement.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Roosevelt's presidency was his commitment to the conservation of natural resources. He lobbied successfully for funds to convert large portions of federal land into national forests. In seven years 194 million additional acres of federal land were closed to commercial development, five times more than his three predecessors had reserved for conservation purposes. Roosevelt also approved the Newlands Act of 1903 (32 Stat. 388), which called for part of the receipts from the sale of public lands in the western states and territories to be reserved for dams and reclamation projects. The legislation saved much western wildlife from extinction.
Despite his relative youth and energy, Roosevelt declined to run for another term. His progressive reforms had angered many conservative Republicans in Congress. In addition, his public comments on "race suicide," in which he lamented the declining birthrate of U.S. citizens of northern European ancestry and the accelerating birthrate of Russian and southern European immigrants, troubled many people. He approved the Republican presidential nomination of his secretary of war, William Howard Taft, in the belief that Taft was a progressive Republican. Taft won the presidency in November 1908.
"No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we ask him to obey it."
—Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt
After leaving office in March 1909, Roosevelt spent ten months in Africa on a hunting trip and then visited Europe. Upon his return to the United States in 1910, he was shocked at Taft's capitulation to the conservative Republicans in Congress. His animosity toward Taft grew, and in 1912 Roosevelt declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Although he won most of the primaries, the Republican Party leaders controlled enough votes to give the nomination to Taft. Undaunted, Roosevelt formed a third party, called the Progressive Party. Following a failed assassination attempt against him in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in October 1912, he said that it would take more than that to kill a bull moose. Thereafter, the Progressives were nicknamed the Bull Moose Party.
Roosevelt won more votes than Taft, but the division of Republican strength allowed Democrat woodrow wilson to be elected president. Roosevelt grew to despise Wilson and his policies, leveling harsh criticism against Wilson's foreign policy. Incensed when Wilson denied him the opportunity to form a regiment and fight in World War I, Roosevelt denounced Wilson's proposal for the League of Nations, even though Roosevelt himself had once advocated such an organization.
Roosevelt's health deteriorated rapidly in his last years. He died on January 6, 1919, at his home in Oyster Bay, New York.
Burns, James MacGregor. 2001. The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly.
Holmes, James. 2003. "Police Power: Theodore Roosevelt, American Diplomacy, and World Order." Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 27 (winter-spring).
Posner, Theodore R., and Timothy M. Reif. 2000. "Homage to a Bull Moose: Applying Lessons of History to Meet the Challenges of Globalization." Fordham International Law Journal 24 (November-December).
Rauchway, Eric. 2003. Murdering Mckinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. New York: Hill and Wang.