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
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