10 of the Most Intense Moments From Theodore Roosevelt's Life
10 of the Most Intense Moments From Theodore Roosevelt’s Life

10 of the Most Intense Moments From Theodore Roosevelt’s Life

Larry Holzwarth - February 25, 2018

10 of the Most Intense Moments From Theodore Roosevelt’s Life
Roosevelt in full uniform. He trumpeted his military achievements when campaigning for governor. Library of Congress

Governor of New York

When Roosevelt ran for governor near the end of the same year in which he had served in Cuba he relied heavily on his war record when he made stump speeches and appeared at other campaign functions. Even with his popularity the Colonel whom the voting public called Teddy – a named which grated on him but he endured it – did not exactly give him overwhelming support. His victory over the Democratic candidate, a member of New York’s Van Wyck family and a judge of high repute, was by less than 1% of the votes cast.

When he spoke at his inaugural, Roosevelt announced that while he was a loyal Republican and partisan to his party, he recognized the need to put the needs of the people of the state above those of partisan politics. Roosevelt was determined to achieve a level of popularity for himself and his programs with voters. This would allow him a measure of independence from the party power structure in the state, and the ability to demonstrate that failure to support him among the party power structure could cause the loss or losses of their positions.

To get his message through to the people Roosevelt relied on the press, and to ensure that the message was presented undistorted he set a schedule in which he held two press conferences every work day. Some were mere announcements of policy or administrative action and others were give and take question and answer sessions. The two a day policy meant that errors or distortions appearing in the early editions of the afternoon papers could be corrected by the time the final editions were printed. Despite the growing support of the public for many of his policies and programs, Roosevelt could not accomplish all that he wanted. Party conservatives often blocked him, backed by big business interests.

He did marshal through legislation which improved the civil service system in the state, eliminating much of the graft and patronage which had marked it in the past. In education he eliminated racial segregation in public schools and obtained increases in the salaries paid to teachers. He was an active supporter of conservation, establishing fish and game preserves and placing more of the state’s land in conservation, including the Forest Preserve’s. Much of what he did made enemies within the part’s controlling faction.

In the end, he lost to the controlling faction, led by Senator Thomas Platt, who had him blocked for a second term as governor by controlling the 1900 Republican National Convention and nominating Roosevelt to be the candidate for vice president, joining the ticket of the popular William McKinley. McKinley was the incumbent President of the United States and winner of the Spanish-American War (which he had tried to avoid). McKinley’s first vice-president, Garret Hobart, had died in 1899 and the office was unfilled. McKinley and Roosevelt won election in a landslide.

10 of the Most Intense Moments From Theodore Roosevelt’s Life
Roosevelt became president following the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901. Library of Congress

Accession to the Presidency

On September 6 1901 President McKinley was attending the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when he was shot twice by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. When it at first appeared that the President may recover Roosevelt left for a camping vacation in the Adirondacks (there was at the time no law which allowed for presidential succession in the event the president was disabled). However, unknown to the doctor’s treating McKinley the gangrene which would kill him and which the doctors had no means of fighting had already set in, and the President died on September 14. Interestingly, his assassin was tried and sentenced to death before the end of the month and was executed by the end of October.

The new 26th President was and is the youngest man to take the oath of office, being just 42 years of age. It was not long before youthful vigor was a hallmark of his administration. Roosevelt sought to improve the lot of the average citizen and he did so throughout the remainder of his first term and through his second. He carried two big sticks, in international affairs it was the US Navy and in domestic affairs it was the Constitution of the United States. Special interest groups, monopolies, trusts, and other entities harmful to the common man one by one encountered the president and his policies, and one by one they lost.

Roosevelt protected the consumer and the nation’s health through the Pure Food and Drug Act and established federal standards for meat. Federal regulations of big businesses were enacted and enforced. His Justice Department broke up monopolies wherever they were found to be against the common interest, or were in violation of the law. Political graft and patronage was rooted out and exposed. He decided that just because the French couldn’t build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was no reason the Americans couldn’t and started the process which would lead to its completion.

To demonstrate to the world the rising power of the United States Roosevelt dispatched a fleet of sixteen modern battleships on an eleven month round the world cruise, all of them with their hulls painted white, giving the endeavor the name the Great White Fleet. The considerable logistics difficulties presented by the cruise helped the US Navy develop a global means of fueling and maintaining their ship’s during extended deployments. It also demonstrated to the Congress the strategic value of the Panama Canal.

Roosevelt became the first president to intervene to settle a labor dispute when he brokered an agreement resolving the Coal strike of 1902. He expanded the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission in response to complaints of gouging by some railroads. He summed up all of his policies and his philosophy in a term far less remembered than his big stick. Roosevelt believed in any dispute between reasonable parties, all parties are deserving of a fair shake. He called it the Square Deal.

10 of the Most Intense Moments From Theodore Roosevelt’s Life
This cartoon from the time mocks some of Roosevelt’s maneuvering to obtain permission to build the canal and its defenses. Wikimedia

The Panama Canal

For hundreds of years transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific by ship required a long, arduous, and, dangerous trip around Cape Horn, the site of some of the stormiest and most dangerous waters on earth. Cape Horn could be avoided by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, increasing the length of the journey enormously, or by unshipping at the Isthmus of Panama, crossing the Isthmus, and embarking again on the Pacific Coast. This too was dangerous, for health reasons due to yellow fever and malaria, and corrupt local governments which often sheltered bandits, not to mention the bandits themselves.

The French began building a canal across the isthmus in 1881. By 1884 more than 200 workers per month were dying from yellow fever, malaria, bites from the poisonous snakes which thrived in the Panamanian jungle, and other causes. The French effort persisted until 1889. In 1894 another French company resumed work, accomplishing just enough to retain French rights to the franchise allowing the work across Panama, at that time part of Colombia. US interests, spurred by Roosevelt and others, explored ways of purchasing the French interests.

A treaty between the United States and Colombia was negotiated through which the United States obtained a lease in perpetuity for the land through which it would complete the canal, but the Colombian government refused to ratify it, and when a rebellion in Panama arose Roosevelt moved quickly to support the rebels. US diplomats urged the Panamanian rebels to declare independence and when they did the United States immediately recognized the new nation of Panama. Roosevelt then sent US ships to intervene in the Panamanian Revolution. Secretary of State John Hay negotiated a treaty with the new Panamanian ambassador which gave the United States a lease on the land, permission to build the canal and defenses to protect it, creating the Canal Zone.

Members of both major political parties in the United States and many Panamanians were outraged, and foreign reaction to Roosevelt’s militaristic actions expressed alarm, many condemning them as acts of war against Colombia. Roosevelt considered it simply fait accompli, especially after the Canal Zone treaty was ratified by the Senate. “I took the isthmus,” Roosevelt said, “started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.” The United States eventually paid reparations to Colombia in exchange for Colombian recognition of the independence of Panama.

The United States purchased the remaining French equipment and paid roughly $1.00 per cubic yard of completed excavations, beginning work on the canal in 1904. Most of the French equipment was discarded quickly, often replaced with equipment designed specifically for its purpose related to canal construction. The Panama Canal was first transited by shipping in 1914. Wider locks to accommodate larger ships have twice been installed, but the original locks remain in operation after more than a century of use. Today it takes under eight hours to transit the canal, and about 15,000 ships do so annually.

10 of the Most Intense Moments From Theodore Roosevelt’s Life
Roosevelt with John Muir atop Glacier Point. Roosevelt was among the first to present the press with what are now known as photo ops. Library of Congress

Roosevelt’s relationship with the press

As with nearly all president’s, Roosevelt’s relationship with the press was complicated. In many ways he used the press to gain support of his programs and gain public approval for his battles with big business and trusts. For all intents and purposes, the modern relationship between the press and the White House evolved from his model. The daily press briefing was initiated during his presidency and he allowed reporters and columnists unprecedented access to the White House, creating space within the White House for the reporters to work there.

Early in his presidency he noticed that there were reporters attempting to shelter themselves from the rain under the portico of the White House. Roosevelt directed his staff to create what became the press room, and with reporters on hand throughout the business day he found coverage of his doings increased. As a former writer himself, he understood the need to provide enough information to ensure the writer would produce copy pleasing to his or her editor, and he complied. He detested writers who launched personal attacks on politicians without proof, coining the term muckraker, to describe them.

Roosevelt enjoyed an afternoon shave while in the White House and he used the time to converse with the press, answering questions and making announcements. He also recognized the value of the press photographers and provided them with what would today be called photo ops. For example, to demonstrate to the nation his faith in a new type of warship – the submarine – he made a descent in one in Long Island Sound and had the press and photographers along on an escort vessel to record the event and report it to the public.

Roosevelt used the press to overcome the influence of big business in both Houses of Congress throughout his administration, never to better results than in his creation of independent agencies to monitor the nation’s food supply and quality. When congressional criticism of the reports on the terrible conditions within the nation’s meatpackers threatened Roosevelt’s attempts to reform the industry, he used the press to investigate the charges of the muckraker’s, specifically Upton Sinclair’s. The press generated stories across the nation reporting most of the conditions described were true, and public opinion backed the president.

Roosevelt responded angrily to the press when stories appeared in several newspapers which charged corruption in the events surrounding the United States acquisition of the Canal Zone and the lease payments to Panamanian and other officials and appointees. He directed the Justice Department to prosecute the New York World – owned by Joseph Pulitzer – and it did, for libel, but the case was eventually thrown out of court on a technicality.

10 of the Most Intense Moments From Theodore Roosevelt’s Life
Roosevelt poses with one of the more than 1,000 big game animals on a safari to obtain specimens alive and dead for the Smithsonian Institution. Library of Congress

The Former President

After Roosevelt left office he sojourned to Africa to lead the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition. The safari was financially backed by the Smithsonian Institution and the earnings from Roosevelt’s articles written while it was underway. Over 11,000 animals were either trapped or killed during the safari, including just over one thousand big game animals, and they were shipped to the United States for mounting or display at several locations across the United States. Roosevelt later wrote African Game Trails, an account of the expedition, in which he defended the large number of animals taken.

He then traveled to Europe. On his tour of pre-war Europe he met with the German Kaiser, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, and the British King. He found much in common with these fellow imperialists, though he did deliver a speech in England calling for a treaty limiting the rapidly expanding European Navies. He also had the opportunity to deliver his long delayed speech accepting his Nobel Prize. In this address he again called for the reduction of navies and the creation of a “League of Peace” through which all nations could work together to resolve disputes.

Although he had backed Taft as his successor he expressed his dissatisfaction with him upon his return to the United States in 1910. Divisions within the Republican Party led to the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives that year, and Roosevelt’s criticism of the president increased. In 1912 he announced his candidacy for president and indicated that he would accept the Republican nomination if offered. It wasn’t. Roosevelt announced that he would run for the Progressives of either party and formed a third party, officially named the Progressive Party, but known to its supporters and history as the Bull Moose Party (after Roosevelt told the press that he was as healthy as a bull moose). Roosevelt was its nominee for president.

While campaigning in October Roosevelt was shot in the chest. He was wounded after the bullet penetrated his eyeglasses case and a copy of a speech he was to deliver. He announced the wound to his audience and delivered the speech, though he could be seen bleeding through his shirt. After his speech the doctors who examined the wound found the bullet in his chest muscle and decided it was less dangerous to leave it there. In the ensuing election Roosevelt garnered more votes than the Republican nominee, Taft, but they both lost to Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt consoled himself over his defeat with another hunting expedition, this one to South America.

During the South American expedition, which he documented in the book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, Roosevelt’s health began to decline, accelerated by an infection he acquired from a cut to his leg, malarial fever, and the bullet still in his chest. He still managed to explore and chart the River of Doubt to the Amazon, a journey of more than 600 miles. He returned home to recovery and politics, and played a significant role in the Republicans wresting control of the House of Representatives in 1918. He died in January 1919 at the age of 60, at Sagamore Hill.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“How Theodore Roosevelt Invented Spin”, by David Greenberg. The Atlantic, January 24, 2016

“Mornings on Horseback”, by David McCullough (biography of Roosevelt’s early life)

“The Path Between the Seas”, by David McCullough (story of building the Panama Canal)

“Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt”, entry, The Theodore Roosevelt Center online

“Portsmouth Peace Treaty”, entry, Portsmouthpeacetreaty.org

“The Soldier”, entry, Theodore Roosevelt Association online

“TR’s Legacy – The Environment”, entry, PBS online

“TR – The Last Romantic”, by Howard Brands (biography of Roosevelt)

“Roosevelt African Expedition Collects for SI”, archive, The Smithsonian Institution Archives