Roosevelt, Theodore


Roosevelt, Theodore
(1858–1919)
   Theodore Roosevelt served as the 26th President of the United States from 1901–1909 and was a major architect of American expansionist foreign policy. Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 27, 1858, the scion of an old aristocratic family of Dutch origin. He graduated from Harvard College in 1880 and embraced a political career in 1881 as a Republican reformer. He served as assemblyman from the 21st district of New York City in the New York State Assembly from 1881 to 1884, as U.S. Civil Service commissioner in Washington between 1889 and 1895, and as president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners from 1895 to 1897. He was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy by President William McKinley in 1897, and he resigned a year later to take part in the Spanish-American War as lieutenant-colonel of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry regiment, known as the “Rough Riders.” He returned to civilian life a war hero after his heroic charge up San Juan Hill and was twice elected governor of New York, much to the displeasure of the local Republican boss. To neutralize him, the Republican National Convention nominated him as President McKinley’s running mate - the winning ticket - in the 1900 election. On September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition and died eight days later. On September 14, 1901, Roosevelt took the oath of office as President of the United States, the youngest ever to assume the office.
   A convergence of factors made Theodore Roosevelt the most popular statesman of his generation and the first news-generating president: his close relationship with newspapermen; his colorful and endearing personality; his unbounded energy; his virile postures as a soldier, hunter, and westerner; his consummate showmanship; his eclectic tastes; his frequent eccentricities; and the many controversies that he initiated, to say nothing of his adorable but turbulent children. The White House made ideal news material and easy copy at all times, and a welcome antidote to journalistic routine.
   Theodore Roosevelt’s dedication to progressivism is best illustrated by his 1902 legislative record, criticized by both the Republican Old Guard’s “stand pat reactionaries” and the “lunatic fringe” radicals. His administration’s unexpected enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against the Northern Securities Company; imaginative handling of the Pennsylvania anthracite coal strike; appointment to the Supreme Court of Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the greatest jurists of the twentieth century; and the Newlands Reclamation Act, which inaugurated a national conservation policy - stepped up between 1902 and 1909, often in defiance of Congress - testify to an enduring progressive legacy.
   Several other measures may be regarded as part of the Roosevelt’s Square Deal program, although he coined the phrase during the 1904 campaign. In 1903, a Department of Commerce was created, with a Bureau of Corporations to assist the President in watching corporate dealings. The same year the Elkins Anti-Rebate Act forbade the railroads from granting rebates to large companies. It was reinforced by the 1906 Hepburn Act, which empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission to set rates and to examine the railroads’ bookkeeping, and which prohibited the carrying of commodities unrelated to the companies’ usual operations. More important still, inasmuch as they achieved a major precedent, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 made the national government the overseer of the consumer’s health and safety.
   A longtime apologist of Anglo-Saxon expansionism, the new president was in no way perplexed by the colonial gains of 1898; on the contrary, he welcomed them as the inevitable corollary of greatness. In his eyes the colonial venture of the turn of the century marked a mutation from Monroeism to internationalism, from hemispheric responsibilities to global commitments. Roosevelt was better prepared to deal with foreign policy than most of his predecessors, being blessed with three formidable assets: a cosmopolitan upbringing, an impressive knowledge of world history, and an international network of friends and acquaintances in American and foreign diplomatic circles. Yet Roosevelt’s realism, inventiveness, and professionalism in the handling of European-American or Japanese-American relations are only part of the story, for he was to evince less restraint and less acumen in dealing with “inferior” races or peoples, in China, the Philippines, or the Caribbean. Witness his brutal reaction to the Chinese boycott of American goods in 1905, his ranting diatribes against Emilio Aguinaldo and his followers during the 1899–1902 Philippine-American War, and his spiteful dismissal of Colombian objections to the Hay-Herrán Treaty in 1903. Setting Theodore Roosevelt in context tends to mitigate these shortcomings and to highlight the innovative character of his diplomacy; it also evidences his momentous encounter with his times. The historian and theoretician of expansion would turn out to be a fitting chief executive for the newly born imperial republic of the turn of the century. In fact, the Americans of 1900 who endorsed the acquisition of an empire adopted the Rooseveltian thesis of historic continuity as expounded in his Winning of the West, conquest and settlement were rooted in the Anglo-Saxon past. A tradition-inspired innovator, Roosevelt showed his firm grasp of international politics in a new age, such as the need for Anglo-American cooperation and solidarity. With national greatness and national security foremost in his mind, he continued to advocate and promote preparedness, strengthened U.S. supremacy in the Western Hemisphere by adding his “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904, and cautiously discarded isolation in an attempt to effect the world balance of power in a manner conducive to peace and therefore beneficial to the United States, given the global framework of its security. The 26th President’s geopolitical clear-sightedness was too novel, however, to win easy acceptance and support from his contemporaries; the old isolationist reflex had to be reckoned with whenever foreign policy ventured too far from American shores.
   Unsurprisingly, the main diplomatic episodes that Roosevelt personally handled - the Venezuelan and Moroccan crises, the Russo-Japanese War - directly concerned the two powers that he always considered as potential enemies, Germany and Japan. During the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902–1903, he discreetly but vigorously forced Berlin to pay heed to the Monroe Doctrine. His so-called ultimatum was a reminder that he most probably communicated verbally to the German envoy in February 1903. Roosevelt was also instrumental in the controversial acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone, after Colombia’s rejection’s of the Hay-Herrán Treaty; the Canal Zone was secured thanks to a timely revolution on the Isthmus, which Washington government passively encouraged, and a new treaty signed between the newly independent Republic of Panama and the United States on November 18, 1903. Unknown to most of his contemporaries, he secretly acted as mediator in the Moroccan Crisis of 1904–1906, which opposed Germany to France, and endeavored both to appease the German emperor and to safeguard French interests, notably during the 1906 Algeciras Conference. His greatest diplomatic triumph was his ending of the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War by way of the mediation at the Portsmouth Peace Conference and the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth on September 5, 1905. His masterful peacemaking won Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. He later tried to defuse the Japanese-American crisis triggered by the exclusion of Oriental pupils from San Francisco’s schools. The tension between Washington and Tokyo partly justified his decision to send the Great White Fleet on a world cruise on December 16, 1907, the most powerful motive being the chief executive’s wish to publicize the need for building up the navy. The return of the fleet on February 22, 1909, shortly before he left office, was a crowning achievement for the outgoing president. His friend William Howard Taft succeeded him on March 4, 1909.
   As ex-president, Roosevelt continued to make the headlines and to be active in politics. On leaving the White House, he spent a year hunting big game in Africa then toured Europe for three months before going back home. The Ballinger-Pinchot controversy in 1909–1910 led to his estrangement from Taft, of whom he became increasingly critical. Despite his 1904 statement to the contrary, he announced his decision to run again for president. He was denied the nomination by the Republican Party, broke with it, and founded the Progressive Party. The three-cornered fight of 1912 ensured the election of the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. From 1915 until his death, the former president waged his ultimate political battle, first on behalf of preparedness and intervention, then, after American entry into the Great War, against Wilson’s projected peace settlement. It was on the whole a lonely, quixotic crusade that eventually gathered momentum and culminated posthumously, in a sense, with the U.S. Senate’s rejection of the Versailles Treaty, following a battle in which the Big Stick diplomatist’s “alter ego,” Henry Cabot Lodge, played a leading part. Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep in Oyster Bay, New York, on January 6, 1919.
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   FURTHER READING:
    Beale, Howard K. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984;
    Brands, H. W. T. R.: The Last Romantic. New York: Basic Books, 1997;
    Dalton, Kathleen. Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life. New York: Knopf, 2002;
    Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1991;
    Harbaugh, William H. Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1997;
    Marks, Frederick W., III. Velvet on Iron: The Diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979;
    Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2001;
    Ricard, Serge. Théodore Roosevelt: principes et pratique d ’ une politique étrangère. Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l’Université de Provence, 1991;
    Tilchin, William N. Theodore Roosevelt and the British Empire: A Study in Presidential Statecraft. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
   SERGE RICARD

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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