Theodore Roosevelt is probably best remembered for one of his more colorful exploits that occurred three years before he became president: leading the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Pressed to think a little harder, some people might recall TR’s legendary battles against big business ("trust-busting"), his conservation efforts, and perhaps his "big stick" foreign policy in Latin America. Historian David McCullough writes that his first and lasting impression of TR came from the comical and crazy cousin in Arsenic and Old Lace who disposed of the "gentlemen" in the basement (digging the Panama Canal) and then ran up the stairs with his bugle, yelling "Charge!" Unfortunately, this comedic character probably represents the popular image of TR today: a cartoonish character with pince-nez glasses, a toothy grin, and his legendary "big stick."
The real Theodore Roosevelt was, in fact, quite sane and serious. Though bold and impulsive, in important matters he was calculating and deliberate. Arguably the only truly intellectual president since Thomas Jefferson, he was fluent in several languages, a voracious reader and a prolific writer. (In all, Roosevelt wrote over thirty books and hundreds of articles on a wide range of subjects.) But TR was not an intellectual in the "ivory tower" sense. Guided by an uncompromising moralism, he was nonetheless a savvy and pragmatic politician. He used the presidency as a "bully pulpit" for shaping and leading public opinion, not merely riding the political currents of the Progressive Era. Moreover, Roosevelt was genuinely tough and courageous. Whether in his western exploits, leading his Rough Riders in Cuba, rattling Wall Street plutocrats (whom he called the "malefactors of wealth"), or battling political adversaries in Congress, Roosevelt always enjoyed a good fight.
Theodore Roosevelt was born into a wealthy New York family on October 27, 1858. His father, also named Theodore, was a prominent businessman and philanthropist. His great-grandfather Johannes established the Oyster Bay Roosevelt clan before the American Revolution; Johanasses' brother Jacobus simultaneously established the rival Hyde Park clan. This fraternal split led to the Republican Roosevelts, represented by President Teddy Roosevelt, and the Democrat Roosevelts, represented by cousin Franklin (born in 1882) who was elected to the White House thirty years later. (Further complicating the family ties, Franklin married President Theodore Roosevelt's niece Eleanor.)
Teddy was the the second of four children and the apple of his father's eye. His younger brother Elliott, who grew restless and troubled with alcoholism, died in 1892 at the age of 34. Young "Teddie" (as he was called) was a bookish and sickly child with an intense interest in nature and a special fascination with birds. Perhaps in compensation for his extreme myopia, he had a keen sense of hearing and could identify many bird species by their chirp. He became sort of an amateur ornithologist, turning his room into a mini-museum of natural history.
To overcome severe asthma, at the urging of his father, he began a strenuous regimen of exercise and outdoor activity that would become a lifelong obsession. During his presidency forty years later, Roosevelt would become noticeably overweight, but he still maintained a "strenuous life" (his term) of horseback riding, tennis, hiking, swimming, hunting, polo, rowing, wrestling, jiujitsu, and boxing. (In 1905 he was blinded in his left eye from boxing with his sparring parther in the White House.) He often led visiting foreign dignitaries to the White House on strenuous swims in the Potomac and hikes in Washington's Rock Creek Park. Among family and friends he was famous for challenging outdoor romps at home in Oyster Bay, New York, or at Pine Knot, the family retreat near Charlottesville, Virginia.
Teddy was attending Harvard when his father died of cancer at age 47. He overcame his grief, graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1880, and married Alice Lee. He wrote a naval history of the War of 1812 and began to study law. He also launched his political career, successfully running for the New York Assembly in 1882. Politics was considered too unseemly for someone of Roosevelt's social class, but Teddy inherited a strong commitment to public service from his father, and he enjoyed the combativeness. Young Mr. Roosevelt quickly earned a reputation for integrity, tenacity and courage through his efforts on behalf of "good government." In 1884 his wife gave birth to a daughter named Alice (after her mother); then two days later both TR’s wife (just 23 years old) and his mother died. Emotionally devastated, he would never speak again of Alice. "The light has gone out of my life," he wrote in his diary. When the legislative session ended, Roosevelt left baby Alice in the hands of his sister and sought relief in the great escape of the 19th century: the west.
Roosevelt decided to invest in the cattle business, so he purchased the Chimney Butte
Ranch, located seven miles south of Medora, Dakota Territory, on the Little
Missouri River. It later became known by its brand, the Maltese Cross. From 1884 to 1886 Roosevelt lived the rough life of a rancher in the Badlands. Though the typical Eastern dude in some respects--with his fancy cowboy outfit, eyeglasses, books, clean language and hygiene--he soon gained the respect of the other ranchers by working hard and using his fists (and rifle) when necessary. He captured two local outlaws who stole his boat and single-handedly marched them some fifty miles on foot to the nearest jail. One time, he was out looking for lost horses and stopped at a hotel in Mingusville for the night. As Roosevelt related the story, a "shabby individual" with a cocked gun in each hand was shooting at the bar-room clock and "talking with strident profanity." He began to taunt Roosevelt ("Four Eyes is going to treat"). Teddy cold-cocked the rascal with two quick punches to the head and then disarmed him.
Another time, Teddy learned that a neighbor had threatened to kill him. On hearing this, he calmly said, "Its that so?" Then he mounted his horse, rode to the man's house, and confronted the Marquis de Mores at the front door. The startled neighbor insisted he had been "misquoted" and apologized for the misunderstanding. Most of the time his cowboy days were not so adventurous but plenty rough. He spent entire days in the saddle and was dramatically transformed, developing a deep tan, broad shoulders, a powerful chest, and a purposeful walk. The western experience also sharpened and deepened his love of the great outdoors.
Return to New York Politics
Roosevelt relished his "cowboy life" for a while but eventually lost his enthusiasm for ranching. He also realized that his financial investment in the Badlands was sinking as the cattle market headed toward a collapse. He sold his ranch in October 1886, returned to New York, and ran for mayor. A long shot anyway, he did not have the support of the party bosses. He suffered his first election defeat, finishing in third place. It was a bitter disappointment, but on a positive note, a month later he married a lifelong family friend and childhood playmate, Edith Carrow. For the next three years he wrote a number of successful books, including The Winning of the West, a multi-volume study and perhaps his most important historical work.
Roosevelt remained active in New York politics and in 1889 he was appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, where he served until 1895. Then at age 36 he was appointed to the New York City Police Board. As police commissioner from 1895 to 1897, Roosevelt added to his credentials as both a colorful public figure and a dedicated reformer. Police comissioners typically saw it as a patronage "desk job," but not Teddy. In the company of investigative reporters Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens (the likes of which he would later criticize as "muckrakers"), Roosevelt took to the streets at night to clean up police inefficiency and corruption.
Campaigning for President William McKinley in 1896 paid off for Roosevelt, earning him appointment to the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897. The Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, was fond of extended visits to his home in Massachusetts, leaving Roosevelt to handle the daily routines of the office. While Secretary Long visited his doctor and then rested at home, Roosevelt was busy building up the Navy. With war clouds on the horizon in Cuba, Roosevelt cabled Commodore George Dewey in the Pacific, ordering him "keep full of coal" and prepare to destroy the Spanish Asiatic Squadron in the event of war. He sent similar orders to "keep full of coal" to the Navy's squadron commanders in the Atlantic.
He also ordered large supplies of reserve ammunition, and generally placed the Navy in a state of war readiness, all at his own initiative as Acting Secretary. When war was declared on April 25, Dewey won a quick and easy victory, destroying the Spanish Pacific fleet in just seven hours, without a single U.S. casualty. Roosevelt had already resigned from the Navy Department in answer to President McKinley's call for volunteers when the news of Dewey's stunning victory reached Washington.
On May 6, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the newly organized 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. His father had avoided military service in the Civil War by hiring a substitute. This was completely legitimate and common, especially among wealthy businessmen, but historians speculate that Teddy felt a sense of shame that drove his ambition for combat. True or not, the manly test of war was glorified by young men of his generation, Roosevelt was not exceptional in this regard.
The Rough Riders, as they were known, included an odd assortment of cowboys and some of TR's polo-playing buddies from Harvard. On June 24, 1898, two days after landing in Cuba, Roosevelt led his men into their first battle. His "crowded hour" of glory came on July 1, when the Rough Riders took Kettle Hill, then San Juan Hill, suffering the heaviest losses of the war. Colonel Roosevelt gallantly led the charge, first on horseback and then on foot, receiving only minor nicks from the hail of Spanish bullets as men dropped all around him. At the top of the hill, with his flair for poetic drama, Roosevelt shot a Spanish soldier with a gun retrieved from the sunken battleship Maine. Of the 490 Rough Riders who entered the battle for San Juan Heights, 89 had been killed or wounded.
Six months later, General Samuel Sumner recommended Colonel Roosevelt for the Congressional Medal of Honor "as a reward for conspicuous gallantry." The Secretary of War rejected the request, the reasons for which deserve brief explanation here. A month after the fighting ended, Roosevelt's unit still sat in Cuba, suffering from malaria and yellow fever, waiting for the Army to transport them home. Roosevelt reported that of the 600 troops with whom he landed, over half were dead or in the hospital. Seething with impatience, Roosevelt signed an open letter to the War Department insisting that "this army must be moved at once, or perish." This political indiscretion caused his nomination to be "dead on arrival" on Washington. Finally in 1998, on the centennial of the war, Roosevelt was posthumously nominated for the Medal of Honor and it was presented to his grandson by President Clinton in 2000.
Statehouse to White House
As soon as Roosevelt mustered out of military service the New York Republican Party nominated him for Governor. Capitalizing on his popularity as a waar hero, he canvassed the state with promises of honest government and colorful war stories. Elected by a narrow margin, he served as Governor of New York from 1898 to 1900. His modest accomplishments of tax reform and civil service reform were enough to convince the conservative state party machine that Roosevelt had to go, and they helped position him for the nomination as McKinley’s running mate in the presidential election of 1900. McKinley had reservations but chose to leave it up to the convention. TR won the nomination for vice president, prompting the famous line from Senator Marc Hanna, "Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the Presidency?"
The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket won an easy victory, and Roosevelt resigned himself to four years as a "dignified nonentity." Then on September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot while shaking hands at an exposition in Buffalo. Roosevelt was summoned but the president seemed to recover. To reassure the public that all was well, Vice-president Roosevelt went ahead with a planned family vacation in upstate New York. On September 14 McKinley died. Senator Hanna supposedly commented, "Now look, that damned cowboy is president of the United States." In 1901 Roosevelt became the youngest president ever, at age 42. Nervous Wall Street tycoons and Washington plutocrats worried what the new "Boy President" might do.
If not one of America’s greatest presidents, surely Theodore Roosevelt deserves a place in history as one of the most interesting and influential men to occupy the White House. (Incidentally it was Roosevelt who officially changed the name of the Executive Mansion to the White House.) He brought to the White House a large and rambunctious family of six children--Alice, Ethel, Ted, Archie, Kermit, and Quentin--and also an interest in art, literature, science and history unmatched since Thomas Jefferson.
Bride at Every Wedding
A complex man of intense moralism, savvy pragmatism and irrepressible spunk, he was the first President to ride in an automobile, the first to go up in an airplane (after leaving office; cousin Franklin was the first president to travel in an airplane while in office), the first to go down in a submarine, and the first sitting president to leave the country (to inspect progress on the Panama Canal). Without question, TR liked to be the center of attention. Alice said her father wanted to be "the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral." It should be noted that "Princess Alice" was no shrinking violet herself; TR once told a friend: "I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both."
TR was an immensely popular president, with boundless energy and a natural talent for causing commotion. His political enemies branded him a dangerous egomaniac, but to his friends, to quote Secretary of State John Hay, Roosevelt was "more fun than a goat." Certainly some of his popularity was due to colorful antics, symbolism and excellent use of the press. Roosevelt was the first president to hold "background briefings" in addition to informal chats with reporters as a way of anonymously getting his ideas into the newspapers. He was also the first to issue press releases on a Sunday in order to capture Monday morning's headlines. Simply being himself, TR was a reporter's dream come true.
Regardless of his love of the limelight and public relations skills, TR’s presidency certainly was not all style and symbolism without substance. He pushed presidential power to new limits in an effort to balance the interests of business, labor and consumers, becoming the first President to "bust a trust" and the first to invite a black man for dinner at the White House (explained below). Roosevelt believed that equal rights should come, and eventually would come, to women and racial minorities. He was socially and morally conservative by today's standards, but he supported equal rights for women--including educational opportunities, legal rights, and voting rights--but he firmly believed in the traditional role of women: wife and mother, first and foremost.
A Damnable Outrage
His famous dinner with Booker T. Washington occurred barely a month into his presidency, on October 16, 1901. Roosevelt dined with the nation's de facto black leader to discuss Southern patronage--important but routine political business--and apparently it had not occurred to him that this was like putting a match to dynamite. It was the era of Jim Crow segregation, and Race relations in the South were quietly smoldering, with lynching the common remedy for "uppidy niggers" who dared to voice their discontent with second-class status or cross a social barrier.
Thanks to an Associated Press reporter who just happened to check the White House guest list that evening, the unprecedented event of a black man dining with the President was in the next morning's newspapers all across the country. Some reaction was favorable, but Southern newspapers and politicians were positively apoplectic: "Roosevelt Dines With Darkey," "Our Coon-Flavored President," and "Roosevelt Proposes to Coddle the Sons of Ham." At a movie theater in Richmond, Virginia, the president's image on the screen was booed. Hate mail and death threats swamped the White House mailroom. A "damnable outrage" was one of the milder descriptions. Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina warned that "the action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again."
Publicly Roosevelt expressed disappointment and "contemptuous indifference" to the political firestorm, defiantly proclaiming, "I shall have him to dine just a soften as I please." But he was stunned. He learned a valuable lesson about the sensitivity of race, the thinness of his popularity in the South, and the power of the press to stir up controversy. Washington advised that it was best to avoid further controversy on the subject, and Roosevelt reluctantly agreed. He continued to invite Washington to the White House to discuss matters of race and political patronage, but not for dinner.
Shortly after taking office in 1901 he "busted" a railroad conglomerate put together by J. P. Morgan called the Northern Securities Exchange Corporation. Shocked by Roosevelt’s impertinence, Morgan came straight to the White House and told TR to "send your man [Attorney General Knox] to my man" to fix the problem, but the president stood his ground. (He also went "big game hunting" after the Swift meat packing trust, Standard Oil, and the American Tobacco Company.) It is true that his successors, Taft and Wilson, prosecuted many more trusts than Roosevelt with much less fanfare, but TR’s ground-breaking undoubtedly made it easier for his successors.
In addition to successful enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act, Roosevelt signed the Elkins Act into law in 1903, followed by the Hepburn Act in 1906, which empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroads and specifically to ban rebates. He also pushed the Meat Inspection Act through Congress, along with the Pure Food and Drug Act, both in 1906. Upton Sinclair's explosive expose, The Jungle, was intended to bring attention to the plight of working class families, but readers were especially alarmed about the stories of chemically adulterated and contaminated meat.
Roosevelt was already gunning for the "meat trusts," having witnessed soldiers being poisoned by canned meat sold to the army, and then having seen his antitrust suit against Armour and Swift dismissed under judicial circumstances with the rotten smell of corruption. The Agriculture Department tried to whitewash the scandal and conservatives in Congress, loyal to the meat packers, offered stiff resistance to reform. But Roosevelt skillfully used a combination of pressure, persuasion, and compromise to get a meat inspection bill through the legislative jungle.
The implications of his famous slogan, "speak softly and carry a big stick…" had been even more evident during the anthracite coal strike of 1902. As winter grew near the nervous public and the press looked to Roosevelt for a solution. In the past, presidents had intervened on the side of business, using federal troops as strikebreakers (e.g., Cleveland in the Pullman strike), but TR sympathized with the striking miners. He was not so much a proponent of labor unions as he was a defender of the public interest. He advocated what he called "a square deal" (fairness) for everyone.
While confined to a wheelchair following a near-fatal streetcar accident, he summoned company officials and John Mitchell, head of the United Mine Workers, in an effort to negotiate a settlement. Infuriated by the haughty attitude of the company officials--who insulted both Mitchell (calling him a "criminal") and Roosevelt for meddling--and worried about the coal shortage as winter approached, Roosevelt leaked to the press that if necessary he would use federal troops to run the mines. Company officials agreed to arbitration, the miners got a pay raise, and the strike was settled.
Big Stick Diplomacy
Quiet but effective use of his "big stick" approach to foreign affairs was evident in Panama a year later. In November of 1903, Panamanian rebels proclaimed their independence from Colombia. The Colombian Senate had recently rejected a treaty that would have allowed the United States to construct and operate a canal through the isthmus in Panama. The presence of a large American naval task force, conveniently in the area, prevented Colombian troops from putting down the rebellion. The new Republic of Panama quickly endorsed a treaty granting the U.S. rights to the canal zone. Roosevelt's critics in Congress howled and investigated the whole affair. The New York Times called it "an act of sordid conquest" but Roosevelt considered it "by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs" during his presidency. (In a cabinet meeting, Roosevelt complained about the beating he was taking in the press over the Panama affair and gave a lengthy explanation of his position. His old friend, Secretary of War Elihu Root, joked that Roosevelt had been "accused of seduction" and proved that he was "guilty of rape.") Roosevelt later remarked that he seized the opportunity, started the canal, "and then left Congress not to debate the canal but to debate me."
As in the case of Panama, his "corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine (issued in 1904, asserting the right to intervene in the domestic affairs of Latin American countries to quell disorder and forestall European intervention) showed both sides of Roosevelt's geopolitical thinking. He was a shrewd analyst of international relations who sought to maintain a balance of power in order to protect U.S. interests while contributing to world peace and progress, but he was often indifferent to the concerns of lesser nations. Roosevelt was not an imperialist in the 19th century sense; he was more of a globalist in the way that became the norm for American presidents after the Second World War. He believed that the U.S. had both a national self-interest and a moral obligation to assume responsibility for "the proper policing of the world."
Prior to Theodore Roosevelt's ascension to the presidency, the prevailing course of American foreign policy was isolationism; but Roosevelt realized that the war with Spain in 1898 had transformed the United States from a provincial nation on the fringes of global affairs into a world power. "Whether we desire it or not," he warned Congress in his first annual message, "we must henceforth recognize that we have international duties no less than international rights." America, he believed, had a duty to do more than just protect its borders. "More and more," he declared, "the increasing interdependence and complexity of international . . . relations render it incumbent on [the United States] to insist on the proper policing of the world."
Roosevelt had an expansive vision of America's role as a global power in the 20th century, and was an ardent jingoist who glorified war and its role in strengthening both individual and national character, but he was also committed to peace and a skillful diplomat. Roosevelt is well-known for the Panama affair and issuing his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and sending the Navy ("the Great White Fleet") on a world tour to impress rival powers Germany and Japan. Less well-known is the fact that he became the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize--for mediating the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
An even more obscure but revealing example of Roosevelt's diplomatic flair was the case of Ion Perdicaris. Mr. Perdicaris was born in New Jersey, made a fortune in the stock market, and moved to a palatial villa in Tangier, Morocco. In May 1904 he was kidnapped from his villa by a notorious renegade named Ahmed ben Mohammed el Raisuli. Roosevelt dispatched a battleship task force to the Mediterranean when he learned that Raisuli was holding Perdicaris for random. Raisuli hoped to pressure Sultan Mulay Abd al-Aziz of Morocco to release some of Raisuli's captured "kabyle" insurgents. The Sultan sent a messenger to Raisuli with word that he was not interested in bargaining for the release of an American hostage. Raisuli slit the messenger's throat. For TR it was a simple matter of principle: he had to do something or no U.S. citizen overseas would be safe; and besides, American honor was at stake. A U.S. warship appeared off Tangier and fired "a friendly salute" from its big guns. Soon the rest of the fleet arrived, and a few Marines quietly slipped ashore to protect the American Consul and Mrs. Perdicaris.
A week passed and the Sultan was still not moved to negotiate with Raisuli. Roosevelt's patience was wearing thin. A telegram was sent from Washington notifying the Sultan: "President wishes everything done to secure the release of Perdicaris," and negotiations between the Moroccan government and Raisuli began. Two weeks later, TR was informed that Perdicaris was supposed to have been released but the negotiations had stalled. A second dispatch was sent to Morocco bluntly stating: "The U.S. government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead." The message was simultaneously released to the public over the news wires. The exchange of Perdicaris for $70,000 ransom took place the next morning, ending the crisis peacefully.
Arguably the most important domestic achievement of Roosevelt's presidency was his conservation of natural resources. An avid outdoorsman throughout his life, he was ahead of his time in recognizing the need to protect the country's undeveloped land, fresh water, and wildlife. "We are prone to speak of the resources of this country as inexhaustible; this is not so," he declared. When Congress tried to stop him, TR took independent action. "Is there anything in the law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a Federal Bird Reservation?" he asked his Attorney-General. Informed there was not, he replied: "Very well, then I so declare it."
After pushing the Newlands Reclamation Act through Congress in 1902, Roosevelt subsequently established 51 wildlife refuges, 150 national forests, five national parks, and eighteen national historical monuments: including Arizona's Grand Canyon, California's Muir Woods (treasured for its giant redwoods), New Mexico's Petrified Forest, New York's Niagara Falls, Oregon's Crater Lake, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, Wyoming's Devil's Tower (later made famous in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and Washington's Mount Olympus. In all, he preserved 230 million acres of land by executive order.
Though a lifelong naturalist and committed conservationist, Teddy had no compunction about slaughtering countless wild animals for sport or science. When newspapers reported that he refused to kill a captured bear cub on one of his many hunting trips, stuffed "Teddy's Bears" became the national rage, and they have remained one of the most popular child’s toys to this day.
The story of Theodore Roosevelt and the origin of the Teddy Bear is often told, but seldom told correctly. The seemingly simple tale of a hunting trip with a happy ending actually has much more beneath the surface. In November 1902, a locomotive brought President Roosevelt's private car to the town of Smedes, Mississippi, for one of his many hunting trips. Roosevelt relished the outdoors and especially the sport of hunting big game. Black bears were common on the Little Sunflower plantation, a privately owned forest and wildlife preserve, and the president was hopeful for "a kill." But after five days it had become what he called "simply exasperating." He "never got a shot." One unremarkable disappointment, however, turned out to become a legendary incident in the extraordinary life of Theodore Roosevelt.
The hunting party included Roosevelt, his secretary/chief of staff George Cortelyou, plantation owners George Helm and Hugh Foote, and Holt Collier with his hunting dogs. Early on the morning of November 14, Collier's hounds scented a bear and the chase began. Roosevelt and companion Hugh Foote, on horseback, galloped after the pack but got cut off by thick brush. They gave up and rode back toward camp for lunch. Meanwhile the bear burst through the brush with the dogs in pursuit and lunged into a pond. It reared up and crushed one hound's spine with a powerful swipe. As the dogs circled and lunged, Collier roped the bear around the neck and cracked its skull with the butt of his gun. Then he dragged it over to a tree and sounded the call. A messenger excitedly informed "the Colonel" that "they done got a bear out yonder about ten miles," and Roosevelt rode back at full speed. Upon reaching the pond, he was disappointed to find a stunned, bloody bear tied to a tree. Disgusted, he refused to shoot "the poor creature." As he turned toward camp he muttered, "put it out of its misery." Collier slit the bear's throat with a hunting knife.
Representatives of the press were permitted to visit the camp once a day, and from telegraph to newspapers the word quickly spread that the "sportsmanlike" president had refused to shoot a defenseless bear. Clifford Berryman, cartoonist for the Washington Post, created a visual image largely from his imagination, published two days later on the paper's front page. It carried the caption: "Drawing the Line in Mississippi." Overlooked by many people who know at least part of the story, and perhaps are familiar with the cartoon, is the subtle meaning. It was, after all, a political cartoon with an editorial message. To understand it we need to bear in mind (no pun intended here) the broader context.
As mentioned agove, a year earlier Roosevelt had the "audacity" to invite Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. Ever since the famous dinner, Southern blacks had called Roosevelt "our President" and compared him to Abraham Lincoln. When Roosevelt visited Mississippi a year later, he had just announced his first appointment of a Negro to a high federal office: William D. Crum as customs collector in Charleston, South Carolina. Seeking political peace and unity, Washington and Roosevelt had agreed to oppose "drawing the color line" (or, playing the race card, in the phrase used today) in Southern politics. But Roosevelt felt compelled to condemn the practice of lynching, and he denounced it in his annual message to Congress.
In the famous cartoon with the caption: "Drawing the Line in Mississippi," Berryman drew a black bear with a rope around its neck, pulled by a white man, and Roosevelt turning away in disgust. Whether or not readers got the point, they loved the image and demanded more "bear cartoons." Berryman realized he had created a popular symbol, and with repetition, the bear grew progressively smaller and more endearing. Teddy's bear became a feature in every cartoon Berryman drew of Roosevelt.
Meanwhile, a Brooklyn shopkeeper named Morris Michtom took two stuffed toy bears made by his wife Rose and put then in his store window. He wrote President Roosevelt asking permission to call them "Teddy's Bears." Roosevelt replied, "I don't think my name will mean much... but you're welcome to use it." Demand quickly exceeded his wife's capability to produce teddy bears, but before Michtom could expand his business (later to become the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company), F.A.O. Schwartz of New York began producing thousands of cuddly teddy bears for children.
An accidental president in 1901, Roosevelt was elected by a landslide in 1904 and easily could have been elected again in 1908. Instead, he chose not to break the two-term tradition set by Washington and he threw his political support to his good friend, William H. Taft, who easily won the election. Leaving the country in the hands of his handpicked successor, Roosevelt and his son Kermit embarked on an African safari and tour of Europe from 1909 to 1910. Upon hearing reports that Taft was undoing his work, TR returned to America and the political arena. Taft was a fair man with a good legal mind (later serving as chief justice of the Supreme Court, a position that suited him much better than the presidency). He was a big man--6 feet 2 inches tall, weighing over 300 pounds--with a light and cheerful nature, but he disliked politics and allowed Roosevelt's conservative enemies to commandeer the Republican Party. Reluctantly he agreed to run for re-election in 1912.
Roosevelt challenged Taft for the nomination in 1912, sweeping the Republican primaries, but Taft had the support of the party bosses. Denied his Party's nomination, TR and his delegates stormed out of the convention and formed the Progressive Party. Running as a third-party candidate was a long shot, but he could not resist the challenge. While campaigning in Milwaukee a few weeks before the election, Roosevelt was shot point-blank in the chest by a deranged assailant. John Schrank, a German immigrant bartender, claimed that the ghost of McKinley came to him in a dream and told him to avenge McKinley's assassination by killing TR (see attachment below).
Roosevelt survived the assassination attempt thanks to a combination of good luck and a thick chest. The bullet passed through his coat, metal glasses case and folded speech. Exclaiming, "It takes more than [a bullet] to stop a bull moose" (thus, the Bull Moose Party), he went on to speak for nearly an hour, with a blood-soaked shirt, before being rushed to a hospital. Roosevelt recovered, but as he had privately predicted, splitting the Republican vote enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the election with an electoral college landslide. Roosevelt took little satisfaction from beating Taft for second place. The popular vote was 42% for Wilson, 27% for Roosevelt, 23% for Taft, and 6% for Socialist Eugene Debs.
Restless Old Lion
After the political campaign, Theodore and Kermit joined an expedition in the Brazilian jungle in 1913 to explore an uncharted river named the "River of Doubt." At the age of 55, it was, he said, "my last chance to be a boy." The 1,500-mile journey through the Amazon rainforest lasted two months. Suffering from an infected wound in his leg, malaria and dysentery, Roosevelt nearly died. (Delirious with fever and fearing that his weakened condition was jeopardizing the team, Teddy begged Kermit to leave him behind to die.) He lost over 50 pounds but survived and recovered. The Brazilian government renamed the river Rio Roosevelt in his honor. TR returned to Sagamore Hill, his home at Oyster Bay, New York, and remained active in politics. He considered another run for the presidency, but his health was fading.
From the time the war broke out in Europe in 1914, TR relentlessly pushed for American "preparedness" and intervention. When the nation finally entered the war in 1917, he implored Wilson to let him organize a volunteer regiment, like the Rough Riders of the previous war. Wilson refused his request with good reason; World War I was not a place for an old amateur soldier commanding a bunch of volunteers. Instead, "the old lion" stayed home while his four sons--Ted, Archie, Kermit and Quentin--went off to war. Quentin, the youngest, was shot down in an aerial dogfight. (Upon discovering his identity, the Germans buried Quentin with full military honors.) Ted and Archie were both seriously wounded and decorated for heroism, as was Kermit.
Ted, Archie and Kermit all fought again in World War II. So did Ted's son Quentin (named after his uncle). Kermit suffered from depression and eventually took his own life. Ted reached the rank of Brigadier General and helped lead the charge in the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Then on July 11 he dropped dead from a heart attack. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (posthumously) for his heroism during the landing at Utah Beach. Ted and his brother Quentin are buried side by side in the American cemetery near Omaha Beach.
Quentin's death seemed to take a lot of the remaining life out of TR, and he had never fully recovered from the trip through the Brazilian rainforest. A longtime friend observed, "the Brazilian wilderness stole ten years away of his life." Roosevelt had survived numerous brushes with death throughout an action-packed life. He'd miraculously led the famous charge up San Juan Hill in a hail of Spanish bullets on July 1, 1898. On September 3, 1902, a speeding trolley car had rammed into Roosevelt's carriage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, fracturing the president's leg and killing his Secret Service bodyguard. He'd been shot in the chest in an assassination attempt in Milwaukee on October 14, 1912. In 1913 a feverish infection nearly killed him in Brazil.
Roosevelt one said, "Black care [the Angel of Death] rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough." On January 6, 1919, at the age of 60, black care caught him. Teddy died quietly in his sleep from a coronary embolism at his Sagamore Hill home. Archie sent a one-sentence telegram to Ted and Kermit: "The old lion is dead." Vice President Thomas Marshall commented, "Death had to take him while sleeping. If he had been awake there would have been a fight."
In the final analysis, Theodore Roosevelt's years in the White House were eventful but lacked the kind of national crisis that propelled his cousin Franklin to the highest level of presidential greatness. So, Theodore Roosevelt is generally regarded as a wonderfully colorful and important character in American history, but not necessarily one of the nation's greatest presidents. He was immensely popular, and his achievements in domestic and foreign policy rank among the most significant of any peacetime president; but a twist of fate--foolishly answering the call of duty (and perhaps the siren of hubris) and challenging Taft in 1912, and subsequently running off to explore the River of Doubt--may have cost him the opportunity to attain a place at the highest level of presidential greatness.
Who are America's greatest presidents? Surveys of historians consistently put George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt at the top of the list. All three were "eventful" heroes who demonstrated exceptional leadership qualities in times of grave national crises. Some scholars argue that great heroes are products of the times. If so, does this mean that those presidents who do not face such challenging circumstances as the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the Great Depression and Second World War are relegated to a place in history no higher than the second tier ("near great")? Or can a case also be made for "event-making" presidents to whom fate does not grant such extraordinary challenges but nonetheless have a profound and lasting impact on the welfare of the nation?
Had TR played his cards right--sat out the 1912 election and stayed out of the Brazilian rainforest--and patiently waited until 1916, he probably would have been back in the White House just in time to lead the country into World War I. Ironically, it was his most bitter political rival, Wilson, who reluctantly bore that burden. Had Roosevelt led the nation through the Great War and into the postwar era, instead of Wilson and Warren Harding, the course of events in America and Europe might have been very different. With his broad knowledge and extensive experience in both domestic and foreign affairs, Roosevelt might have kept America from slipping back into a reactionary era of political conservatism, economic imbalance, and isolationism after the war; but his body simply gave out too soon. Perhaps to expect more out of one man, even an extraordinary man like Theodore Roosevelt, is to expect too much.