America’s Long Journey: Theodore Roosevelt

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

Henry Ford and automobiles: The $5 day, mass production, “Any color you want, as long as it is black.” Automobiles were important, they had a vast influence on everything from warfare to farming, but I don’t even want to read about them, let alone write about them. So we’ll take a look at the presidency and influence of Theodore Roosevelt, and consider that we’ve given the 20th century its due, and proceed to the 19th.

Theodore Roosevelt

One of the most fascinating and exasperating of subjects. Naturalist, explorer, hunter, rancher, conservationist, historian, author, war hero. The man who said “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The high-handed 26th President of the United States who got the Panama Canal built. And sent the Great White Fleet on a world tour on inadequate appropriations, leaving Congress the choice of appropriating the rest or leaving the fleet at the other side of the world. And negotiated the treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War. and won the Nobel Peace Prize. And walked away from re-nomination in 1908, handing the presidency to his friend William Howard Taft, who didn’t particularly want it. And went off to Africa to hunt animals. And came home and decided he wanted a third term after all — and split the Republican Party in 1912 when it re-nominated Taft, thus allowing Woodrow Wilson to be elected.

A mass of contradictions. Europeans saw him that way, too, and saw America in him.

Two-thirds of Roosevelt’s life was lived in the 19th century, for, even though he was only 41 when the century turned, he would die in January, 1919. His life story is easily found  in one of the hundreds of biographies that have been written. (Probably the best is a two-volume set by historian Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex.) We cannot tell that very entertaining and amazing tale here, but have to start in 1900.

Roosevelt was Governor of the State of New York, having won the office in a fast campaign in 1898 on his return from his celebrated service in Cuba with the Rough Riders. As governor, he was such a thorn in the side of Republican boss Thomas Platt that Platt compelled incumbent president William McKinley to take him on as running mate,  McKinley’s first vice president having died in office, presumably of boredom, in 1899. The vice president had no constitutional duties but to preside over the Senate, which should keep Roosevelt safely sidelined.

McKinley’s campaign manager was unable to stop the nomination, but he was livid at the idea. “Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the Presidency? Platt and Quay are no better than idiots! What harm can he do as Governor of New York compared to the damage he will do as President if McKinley should die?”

True enough. President McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901, and died a week later. Roosevelt never presided over a single session of the Senate, as in those days the new Senate didn’t convene until the December following the president’s inauguration. By the time it did convene, he was presiding over the whole nation. (And, on hearing of McKinley’s death, Platt blurted out, “Oh. God, now that damned cowboy is president of the United States.”)

The chief things for which Roosevelt is remembered were listed in that fast gallop above. He was in many ways a reformer who became known as a “trust buster,” a rich man who harangued against “malefactors of great wealth.” A colorful personality who knew how to harness the power of the press, he endeared himself to the public, using the White House – in his words — as “a bully pulpit.” (“Bully” in his usage meant wonderful, not overbearing.) He won the election of 1904 – essentially, though not technically his re-election — in the most one-sided landslide since the election of 1824 and undoubtedly could have been re-nominated and re-elected in 1908, but chose to support William Howard Taft instead.

But none of the specifics capture the magnetism of this man, this man who showed genius in so many ways:

One year out of Harvard, he published The Naval War of 1812, a classic work of scholarship that remains an essential text for professional historians, to this day.

Born sickly, he turned himself into a remarkable physical specimen of hardiness and endurance, a lifelong advocate and practitioner of “the strenuous life.”

Born into wealth and privilege, he went into politics, declaring that he intended to be part of the ruling class. Once in power, he repeatedly and forcibly reminded the privileged class that it had correspondingly large responsibilities.

At first bookish and shy, all his life he mingled freely with all classes, winning their affection and respect. When war over Cuba was clearly imminent, the troops he organized and led, popularly named the Rough Riders, included everything from college friends to cowboys.

He was impulsive, direct, ingenuous. He was often described as a great boy who never grew up. His appeal to boys and young men was beyond measuring. It was Roosevelt’s example – his ideals — his image – that shaped young Ernest Hemingway and sent him off to Europe in 1918 thinking that war was something glorious. He affected a whole generation – two generations – that way.

His story continues to inspire even today when everything he knew is gone and everything we know would have been unimaginable to him, and much of it repugnant. Even today, you can’t read memoirs such as Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, by novelist Owen Wister, without liking the man, even if with half your mind you are disapproving some of his ideas and ideals. Remarkable man.

* * *

Snapshot: America in 1900

* The population in 1900 was about 76 million, the 1950 total of 151 million, and a little more than three times the 23 million of 1850.

* The union had 45 states, as opposed to 50 in 2000 and 45 in 1900.

Backward ho, to the amazing 19th century, which was every bit as revolutionary as the 20th, transforming every aspect of life into something previously unimaginable. America ended that century on the verge of world leadership; a hundred years before, it was in a very different, and precarious, situation. It was an interesting ride.


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