October 27 marks the 152 birthday of one of our nation’s most memorable presidents and one of my personal heroes, Theodore Roosevelt. The twenty sixth president of the United States isn’t just a favorite of historians and scholars, but he’s also popular among the masses, constantly rated as one of America’s greatest presidents (or, in the words of Cracked, “The Most Badass President”). To celebrate one of the country’s most beloved leaders, it’s only fitting to take a look back at his life and learn what exactly made him so popular.
A Difficult Childhood:
While most people know Roosevelt was an avid sportsman with an outgoing personality, he wasn’t always like that. As a child, he was asthmatic and constantly sick. Much of his childhood was spent propped up in bed or slumped over in a chair. He was also rather shy and spent much of his time reading rather than engaging with others his age. As a result, he ended up being incredibly brilliant and well-read and was known to read several books a day throughout his presidency. In fact, he and Thomas Jefferson are considered to be the two most well-read presidents ever. Roosevelt wrote 18 books as well as numerous articles throughout his lifetime. Despite his sickliness, he developed a deep interest in zoology at only seven years old when he saw a dead seal at a local market. He immediately set about learning taxidermy and created a “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” at home with two of his cousins.
The supposed museum featured a number of animals he caught, killed and stuffed. By age nine, he used his observations to write a paper entitled “The Natural History of Insects.” As his health started to improve a little, his father started encouraging Theodore to take up exercise to improve his overall well-being. As a result, Roosevelt started taking boxing lessons, which became a lifelong interest, although he had to give up the sport during his presidency when a blow detached his left retina and left him blind in that eye.
A True Romantic:
While many presidents are known for their playboy behaviors, Roosevelt seemed entirely dedicated to his two wives. His first wife, Alice, died two days after giving birth to their child. Theodore also lost his mother that same day and he wrote about the events in his diary by simply stating “the light has gone out of my life." Throughout the rest of his life, Roosevelt refused to talk about Alice, leaving her out of his biography and ignoring his daughter’s inquiries to learn more about her mother. While you’ve probably heard Roosevelt called “Teddy”, it was actually a name he loathed throughout most of his life because it was Alice’s nickname for him. Throughout his presidency, those close to him always called him by his military rank or his full name –although the press insisted on calling him Teddy throughout his lifetime.
His First Rise And Fall:
In 1880, Roosevelt graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and began attending Columbia Law School, but he dropped out a year later when he had the chance to run for New York Assemblyman. He won and served as the youngest member of the Assembly. In 2008, the school awarded him a posthumous law degree. During his years in the Assembly, Roosevelt was a dedicated activist, writing more bills than any other legislator in the state. Unfortunately, his first attempt at a political career turned sour when he became disenchanted with the results of the Republican National Convention in 1884. He soon announced his retirement from politics and then moved to the Badlands of the Dakota Territory.
The Cowboy of the Dakotas:
While living out west, Roosevelt served as deputy sheriff and wrote about his frontier life for magazines back east. He learned to raise cattle, ride horses and hunt down outlaws. While he loved his time in the Badlands, he gave up his cowboy life after the severe winter of 1886 wiped out his entire herd of cattle. He returned to his home in New York, where he lived throughout the rest of his life (with the exception of his time in office). Upon his return, he attempted to get back into politics, running for Mayor of New York City with the title of “The Cowboy of the Dakotas,” but he lost.
Cleaning Up The Streets (And The Offices):
Prior to the 1888 presidential election, Roosevelt traveled the Midwest and avidly campaigned for Benjamin Harrison. After Harrison’s inauguration, he appointed Roosevelt to the U.S. Civil Service Commission where Theodore served until 1895, fighting the corrupt spoils system that was in place at the time. In 1895, he left his position in the Civil Service Commission to serve as the president of the New York City Police Commissioners board. Rather than just work on fighting crime in the streets, Roosevelt cleaned up the department itself and radically changed the way the department ran. When he entered the office, the NYC force was one of the most corrupt in the nation, but Roosevelt soon established new rules, standardized the use of pistols by officers, established meritorious service medals and introduced annual physical exams to the force. He also created a bicycle squad to help deal with traffic problems in the city.
Rough Riding Ahead:
Roosevelt left his commissioner position when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by William McKinley in 1897. Despite the fact that he had never served in the Navy, Roosevelt displayed unique qualifications due to his groundbreaking study of the U.S. and British roles in the War of 1812 that was published after he left Harvard. Unlike other studies of the war, his book was unbiased and looked at specific facts of the naval strategies involved. The book was so well-written that it is even considered applicable today and is still in publication. Because the Secretary of the Navy was largely inactive, his assistant Roosevelt was able to take full control of the department, where he played a critical role in preparing the Navy for the Spanish-American War. As soon as war broke out though, he resigned and formed the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, although you probably know this group by the name used by the press, the “Rough Riders.”
Interestingly, Roosevelt was the only Rough Rider that actually had a horse, as the rest of the horses were left behind due to limited access to transport ships. Theodore was originally given command of the regiment and promoted to Colonel, where he would ride back and forth between two fronts of the force to pass along news and orders. At one point during the war, Roosevelt and other officers sent a number of letters demanding they be returned home and these letters were leaked to the press. Many, including Roosevelt himself, believe this is why he was denied a Medal of Honor. He was posthumously awarded the medal in 2001. In 1944, his son was also posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in WWII, making them one of only two father and son duos to share the honor. Roosevelt is also the only American president to have won a Medal of Honor.
Governor and Vice President:
Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1898. True to form, he worked to eliminate corruption and nepotism during his term. He also helped end segregation in the state schools during his office. He made such a strong impression that he was forced upon McKinley as a vice presidential candidate in 1900. He was a strong asset for the president, who won by a landslide. While giving a speech at the Minnesota State Fair in 1901, he first used his soon-to-be-trademark saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Carrying On While Making Changes:
When McKinley was shot and killed by a crazed anarchist, Roosevelt became the youngest president in U.S. history at only 42.While he was known for being incredibly progressive, he did promise to continue McKinley’s policies and he also kept his cabinet in place. One of his first notable presidential acts was to deliver a 20,000 word speech to congress asking for control of monopolies and trusts. Roosevelt stayed dedicated to labor rights and curbing the power of big business throughout his presidency. McKinley was known for effectively rallying the press and Roosevelt took advantage of this by providing regular interviews and photo opportunities to keep the White House in the news.
He also helped establish the first presidential press briefing when he noticed the reporters huddled in the cold one day and opted to give them their own dedicated room inside the White House. Roosevelt was an incredibly active and effective president, maintaining his exercise throughout his presidency while still reading multiple books every day and fighting for progressive legislation. In fact, he was said to be able to dictate letters to one secretary while giving memoranda to another, all while reading. During a hunting trip in 1902, Roosevelt ordered the mercy killing of a wounded black bear and when a cartoonist illustrated the president with a bear, a toymaker asked him if he could use the name on a stuffed toy…thus the teddy bear was born.
Some of Roosevelt's most important contributions to our society though were his passing of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act, which helped curbed the sickening state of the meat packing industry detailed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and prevented drugs and food from being falsely labeled or impure. The president also helped negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War and was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize as a result. This made Roosevelt the only person in history to win a country’s highest military honor along with a Nobel Peace Prize.
Roosevelt is also largely remembered for his role in establishing the National Park System. During his presidency, he established 150 national forests, 5 national parks and 18 national monuments. All in all, he helped conserve 230 million acres of land. While he was a wildly successful president, he opted to give his support to William Taft for the election in 1908, rather than running for a third time.
After Taft was inaugurated, Roosevelt went on safari in Africa on an expedition in an attempt to collect specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He and his companions killed and trapped over 11,000 animals ranging from insects to elephants. The number of animals shipped back to Washington was so massive that after years of mounting, the Smithsonian opted to send a number of duplicate specimens to other museums.
Dividing The Party:
Upon returning home, he soon became disillusioned with Taft and his policies and in 1911, he announced his intention of running for president in the next election. Unfortunately, Taft had already been campaigning and had garnered the support of many of the party leaders. Because most states still used caucuses instead of primaries to select candidates, Taft was given the Republican nomination despite the fact that Roosevelt had more pull with the public. So Roosevelt and his followers had to start out with a new party, The Progressive Party, that was commonly referred to as the “Bull Moose” party. Roosevelt’s platform was based on the politics of his presidency, namely fighting greedy corporations in the name of the little man.
During one speech, he explained, "'This country belongs to the people. Its resources, its business, its laws, its institutions, should be utilized, maintained, or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest.” During a Milwaukee stop in his campaign, a saloon keeper shot Roosevelt in the chest, but his steel eyeglass case and 50 page speech slowed the bullet enough that it did not penetrate his lungs. Roosevelt still gave his speech, which took a full 90 minutes, before agreeing to go to the hospital. He even laughed off the assassination attempt by starting his speech saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
At the hospital, doctors decided that it would be more dangerous to remove the bullet than to leave it there, so Roosevelt carried it with him for the rest of his life. Roosevelt’s split with the republican party is often cited as one of the critical reasons America remains dedicated to a two party system. Given that he won 27% of the popular vote and Taft won 23%, the Republicans would have undoubtedly beat Wilson, who received 42% of the vote, if they had just unified under one candidate.
The Beginning of The End:
After losing the election, Roosevelt embarked on a trip to South America with his son and a Brazilian explorer. The team decided to find the headwaters of the River of Doubt and then trace it to the Madeira and the Amazon. No one had ever taken on such an ambitious expedition and it ended up an exceptionally dangerous trip, particularly to Theodore, who contracted malaria and a major infection in a minor leg wound. At one point, he had to be attended to day and night by the team’s physician and he could no longer walk. He eventually told the rest of the party to leave him and complete the expedition so he would not exhaust their already low supplies. Only his son was able to convince him to continue.
Upon returning home, critics questioned the expedition’s ability to navigate the entire 625 miles of uncharted river that made up the River of Doubt. However Roosevelt was able to satisfactorily convince the National Geographic Society and others of his claims. Later on, the river was renamed after him, the Rio Roosevelt. Roosevelt noted the trip cut his life short by ten years. And as it turns out, he may have been right. He was plagued by malaria flare-ups and later had to get surgery in his leg to treat the infection. To add to matters, his youngest son, Quentin was later shot down behind enemy lines in WWI a few years later. This devastated him and many claim he never recovered from the loss.
Goodbye Mr. President:
Roosevelt died from a heart attack during his sleep on January 6, 1919. At the time, Vice President Thomas R. Marshall proclaimed, "Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight."
A Series of Notable Firsts:
If you can’t already figure out why Roosevelt was such an important figure in American history, then perhaps you should take these important firsts into account:
- Roosevelt was the first president to invite an African American to dinner. On October 16, 1901, he and Booker T. Washington discussed politics and racism over dinner.
- He was also the first president to appoint a Jewish person, Oscar, S. Strauss, to his cabinet.
- In 1902, Roosevelt was the first president to be seen in an automobile in public. He rode in a Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton surrounded by a squad of bicycle cops.
- After his return from South America, Roosevelt was a major proponent of the Scouting movement and he was named the first (and only) Chief Scout Citizen by the Boy Scouts of America.
Obviously, I have a mini crush on Roosevelt, but I’m curious to know what you all think about him? In your opinion, is he good, bad, overrated? Let’s talk about it!