It is hard to imagine such an impulsive and physically active man of the outdoors could sit quietly at his desk and patiently learn to be a great writer, but Theodore Roosevelt did just that. A “strenuous life” describes not only how he lived, it also is the title of one of the 35-odd books he wrote. Roosevelt was such a diligent and skilled writer, that when he lost his fortune in the Dakota Territory after the brutal winter of 1886 and had to find a way to make a living and support his family, he did so for the rest of his life by writing. Relatively modest salaries from public and elected positions never were his main source of income. Except for novels, Roosevelt could write on a wide range of topics and genres, from history, biography, commentary, editorials, memoir and guides. His style could be strong, introspective, exuberant, angry—whatever the occasion called for. Theodore Roosevelt was more than a great president and iconic American, he was and still is a pleasure to read.
Theodore Roosevelt is mostly remembered as the 26th President of the United States, but this dynamic, multi-talented, charismatic man became a hero to millions of Americans for many other reasons. By the time he rose to the presidency at age 42—still the youngest person ever to hold the office—Roosevelt already had served as a New York State Assemblyman, a deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory, Police Commissioner of New York City, U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Colonel of the Rough Riders, Governor of New York, and Vice President.
In addition to these official positions, Roosevelt was an original member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters, and a founder of the Boone and Crocket Club and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. As a historian, he served as president of the American Historical Association, and as a naturalist was considered an authority on large American mammals. In the latter role, he led two major scientific expeditions for prominent American Museums, one in South America and one in Africa. Between these busy enterprises, Roosevelt found time to ranch in the West, hunt on several continents, raise a family of six rambunctious children, read a remarkable number of books (often one a day), write more than thirty-five himself, and develop an extraordinary network of friends and contacts, which he maintained mostly by mail, writing well over 150,000 letters.
Roosevelt left an indelible mark as President, first by establishing the office of chief executive as the center of the federal government, thereby creating the modern presidency. He also reversed the traditional federal policy of laissez-faire and sought to bring order, social justice, and fair dealings to American industry and commerce. His administration led efforts to bust trusts—the large corporate monopolies that controlled much of the economy in the early 1900s—and enacted numerous business regulations like the Elkins Act of 1903, the Hepburn Act of 1906, and the Federal Employers' Liability Act for Labor. Roosevelt also worked with Congress to see numerous consumer protections enacted, including the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which created the forerunner of the US Food and Drug Administration.
Roosevelt also thrust aside the American tradition of isolationism, leading the country into the arena of international power politics. He negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, for which he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. In addition, he successfully mediated international disputes involving Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Morocco. He also was the first world leader to submit a dispute to the Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and the first head of state to call for what became the Second Hague Peace Conference. Roosevelt also took decisive action to see the long-desired Panama Canal built after decades of fruitless efforts. Roosevelt viewed the US Navy not only as essential to America’s defenses, but also a valuable diplomatic tool, and he tirelessly supported modernization and expansion of the fleet and sent 16 battleships on a 14-month around-the-world cruise.
Roosevelt’s greatest legacy is in the field of conservation. He set-aside 150 National Forests, the first 51 Federal Bird Reservations, five National Parks, the first 18 National Monuments, the first 4 National Game Preserves, and the first 21 Reclamation Projects, all-in-all placing under federal protection nearly 230 million acres, a land area equivalent to that of all the East Coast states from Maine to Florida.
After two terms in office, Roosevelt unsuccessfully ran again for President in 1912 as the head of the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. While this effort failed, many of the policies he advocated during this time later were adopted by Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.
Towards the end of his life, Roosevelt was a major voice for military preparedness. He died at the age of 60 on January 6, 1919, at his home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, New York. Criticized as a militarist, egotist, and political opportunist, Roosevelt's greatness has been debated, but his importance in American history is as obvious as his face on Mount Rushmore. Much of what he achieved affects Americans everyday and his name and personality have become icons for what America stands for at its best.
When Theodore Roosevelt became president of the U.S. in 1901 America’s society and economy were changing rapidly, and with his energy and visionary leadership he set the maturing nation on the path to prosperous growth and diplomatic influence that would last throughout the 20th Century. By the time he left office in March 1909, Roosevelt also had changed forever the influence and scope of the presidency.
Though he remains the youngest person ever to hold America’s highest office, Roosevelt was one of the best prepared to be president, entering the White House with a broad understanding of governmental and legislative processes and with executive leadership experience. He led the U.S. onto the world stage by becoming actively involved in foreign affairs. On the home front, Roosevelt believed the federal government had a role, even an obligation, to ensure a level of equality in Americans’ daily lives and used government regulations and policies to bring about social and economic justice.
In contrast to those who served before him, Roosevelt believed the president had the power to act except in areas specifically prohibited by law or granted in the Constitution to Congress or the Courts. He put this approach to good use in 1902 when he negotiated a settlement to the anthracite coal strike, the first time the federal government intervened in a labor dispute and recognized the rights of organized labor. Roosevelt also negotiated with Congress to see the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, putting in place many safeguards Americans take for granted today involving food safety, quality controls in manufacturing, and drug labeling. In addition, he fought against unfair trade practices, establishing precedents for the president’s intervention in business, trade and consumer affairs.
In international affairs, Roosevelt also acted boldly and decisively. He negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and became the first American honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. Realizing that the Navy needed to be able to move ships quickly between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, he acted to recognize the fledgling country of Panama, negotiate control of the Canal Zone and push to see the Panama Canal built, one of the grandest engineering projects of the 20th Century. Considered the father of the modern American Navy, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to provide funding for modern steel-hulled battleships and sent the Great White Fleet—16 ships from the Atlantic fleet—in an around-the-world cruise, which raised America’s visibility and respect among world powers.
Roosevelt left his greatest mark on conserving America’s natural resources. He realized the country’s abundant resources were being used faster than they could be replaced or replenished, and that great natural wonders like the Grand Canyon were in danger of commercial development. This led him as president to use executive power like none of his predecessors had, to protect nearly 230 million acres of land, including 150 national forests, the first 55 federal wildlife refuges, 5 national parks, and the first 18 national monument sites.
Theodore Roosevelt was a passionate hunter. He loved the thrill of tracking and chasing game, the skill in marksmanship, the careful and deliberate recording of his observations about each hunt, the demanding—if smelly—preservation of specimens, and the pleasure of capturing in rich and vibrant language this ephemeral experience so that he could share it with the world. His first hunting trips were in the Northeast, in the backwoods of Maine with two men who became mentors and life-long friends, Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow. But the heart and soul of Roosevelt’s hunting experiences were in the American West, which he idealized in his 1885 book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. His love for the rugged beauty of the land and the vigorous hunting experience shaped his values for life.
After leaving the presidency in 1909, Roosevelt cast further afield, embarking first on an epic 11-month, 2,500-mile safari through British East Africa and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and later conducting a harrowing expedition along Brazil’s uncharted River of Doubt. The African safari, commissioned as a scientific expedition by the Smithsonian Institution, involved trapping or shooting over 11,000 animals, including everything from insects to the largest of game—elephants, hippos, and white rhinos. Roosevelt and his colleagues also chronicled the wildlife and habitat of the region and collected specimens that formed the basis of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum collection. Several of these animals—displayed for many years in the Smithsonian—became widely known as iconic pieces of taxidermy.
Roosevelt viewed hunting as both sport and an opportunity to further knowledge about a land and the species that inhabit it. Beginning with several pamphlets on birds in the Adirondacks and around his home in Oyster Bay, New York, he wrote book after book about his observations, including Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, and African Game Trails, to name just a few. All capture his awe of nature, love of the outdoors and knowledge of the species he hunted.
As an adult, Roosevelt did not hunt just for the sake of killing, and was against senseless slaughter of animals. During one long, unproductive bear hunt in Mississippi, his guide tracked a bear and tied it to a tree so that the president could at least say he shot something. But Roosevelt refused to shoot the injured old bear, a scene that political cartoonist Clifford Berryman famously illustrated. After the cartoon appeared, a shopkeeper decided to call his toy bears “Teddy’s Bears,” and one of the most popular toys in the history of this nation was born.
For Roosevelt, hunting was a noble sport, as this passage from The Wilderness Hunter shows: “In hunting, the finding and killing of the game is after all but a part of the whole. The free, self-reliant, adventurous life, with its rugged and stalwart democracy; the wild surroundings, the grand beauty of the scenery, the chance to study the ways and habits of the woodland creatures—all these unite to give to the career of the wilderness hunter its peculiar charm. The chase is among the best of all national pastimes; it cultivates that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone.”
On May 6, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and volunteered to head a cavalry unit destined to fight in Cuba against Spain in the Spanish-American War. Eventually known as Roosevelt's Rough Riders, the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry included cowboys and gamblers, hunters and prospectors, Buffalo soldiers, college boys, and Native Americans from all 45 states then in existence, four U.S. territories and 14 countries.
Roosevelt was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel, with the 1st Volunteer Cavalry serving as a unit of the 1st Cavalry Brigade commanded by his friend, Colonel Leonard Wood, an army doctor who had won the Medal of Honor fighting Apaches in the 1880s. Although the unit’s official uniform was a slouch hat, blue flannel shirt, brown trousers and leggings, boots, and polka-dot bandanas, Roosevelt had his uniform tailored by Brooks Brothers in Boston.
The Rough Riders, consisting of 1,060 soldiers and 1,258 horses and mules, trained at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. The troops departed San Antonio on May 29, 1898, via the Southern Pacific Railroad, en route to Tampa, Florida to await embarkation to Cuba. While awaiting orders to ship-out, the unit was stationed on the grounds of the newly constructed Tampa Bay Hotel, where Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, enjoyed a final visit together. After considerable logistical challenges during which most of the horses and Troops C, H, I and M had to be left behind, the Rough Riders on June 8, 1898 boarded the ship Yucatan and nearly two weeks later on June 22, 1898 finally disembarked at Daiquiri, Cuba, on the southeastern side of the island near the strategically important port city, Santiago. On the eve of battle, Colonel Wood was promoted in the field to Brigadier General and Roosevelt to Colonel.
July 1, 1898 proved to be one of the most significant in Roosevelt’s life. Assembled as part of the Army’s Fifth Corps to assault fortifications protecting Santiago, the Rough Riders were ordered to advance towards the San Juan River. As the troops neared the river, shrapnel from a Spanish shell hit Roosevelt in the wrist, and wounded several other Rough Riders and Army regulars. Wood then ordered the Rough Riders to follow the First Brigade and ford the San Juan River. In the stifling heat with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the Rough Riders moved out but the advance stalled and troops found whatever cover they could from enemy fire.
Ordered to advance up Kettle Hill to support Army regulars, who were attacking nearby San Juan Hill from a different direction, Roosevelt, riding his horse Texas, exhorted his men to ride forward as he pressed on. The Rough Riders found themselves pushing the troops in front of them, and Roosevelt ended up leading the entire advance, which observers at the time thought had no chance of succeeding because there wasn’t sufficient troop strength and the Americans were facing well-entrenched Spaniards.
Still on Texas, Roosevelt advanced about 40 yards from the summit of Kettle Hill where there was a wire fence. Dismounting and releasing Texas, Roosevelt climbed through the fence and quickly reached the summit, along with his orderly, Henry Bradshar, and other Rough Riders and Ninth Infantry troops. Once there, the Americans found themselves under heavy Spanish fire and took cover in Spanish trenches and behind the sugar kettle for which the hill was named. Still, they managed to penetrate and keep up a steady fire on the Spanish line, eventually causing it to collapse.
Roosevelt then ordered a charge and took after the Spaniards on adjacent San Juan Hill. But he didn’t realize that only five men followed, three of whom fell wounded within a hundred yards. The other two held their ground while an angry Roosevelt returned to the main line through the continuing fire and confronted his men for not following. In the heat of the moment, the troops hadn’t heard Roosevelt’s order nor seen him charging up the hill almost single-handedly. Now the charge became general and the troops cleared the Spanish trenches and kept a tenuous hold on both San Juan and Kettle Hills. The Rough Riders lost 89 of 490 men killed or wounded in what came to be known as Roosevelt's Crowded Hour. Most experts agree that his personal valor and leadership were the single strongest elements leading to that day’s victory.
The Rough Riders dug in on San Juan Hill, foraging for food and waiting for a counterattack, which never came even though the Spanish kept up a steady fire. Roosevelt and his men held their position in the uneasy siege of Santiago until July 10, when they were ordered to guard the El Caney Road. The Spaniards surrendered on July 17. After the armistice, the Rough Riders returned to the U.S. and on August 14 disembarked at Montauk Point, New York, where they were quarantined until being mustered out of service on September 15, 1898. In the four and one-half months the Rough Riders were together, more than one-third were killed, wounded, or stricken by disease, giving them the highest casualty rate of any American unit that took part in the Spanish-American War.
The Family Man
Theodore Roosevelt delighted in being president, but he took even greater satisfaction from his role as husband and father. Two days after being overwhelmingly elected in 1904, he opened his heart in a letter to his 15-year-old son, Kermit: “…No matter how things came out, the really important thing was the lovely life with Mother and you children, and that compared to this home life everything else was of very small importance from the standpoint of happiness.”
From the beginning, family shaped Roosevelt’s character. He idolized his father, Theodore, adored his mother, Martha (known as Mittie), and kept close to his brother and two sisters throughout their lifetimes. When, in 1884, his first wife, Alice, died unexpectedly just two days after the birth of their only child, Alice, Roosevelt confided to his diary, “The light has gone out of my life.” Rebounding, he later married a childhood friend, Edith Kermit Carow, and the two by all accounts enjoyed a happy and flourishing relationship for more than 30 years. Together, they raised five of their own children at Sagamore Hill, their Victorian estate in Oyster Bay, New York:
Alice Roosevelt Longworth was an ambassador for her father and later in life, a colorful Washington, D.C. doyenne who earned the moniker, “The Other Washington Monument”; Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt, Jr., born in 1887, was a noted political and business leader who fought in both the World Wars and posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Utah Beach during the D-Day landings in World War II; Kermit Roosevelt, born in 1889, was an explorer, soldier, writer and businessman who joined his father on African safari and on the fateful River of Doubt expedition in Brazil; Ethel Roosevelt Derby, born in 1891, was a pioneering World War I nurse and Red Cross volunteer who later led the successful campaign to preserve Sagamore Hill; Archibald Roosevelt, born in 1893, was a distinguished Army officer who was seriously wounded in battle during both World Wars and also was a successful businessman; Quentin Roosevelt, born in 1897, said to be the child most like Roosevelt, dropped out of Harvard to volunteer as a pilot during World War I, and died heroically in battle at age 20.
When the children were young, and Roosevelt was separated from them by school, war or expedition, he sent illustrated letters of reflection and love; the children were never out of his mind and heart. This correspondence later was compiled into a book, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to his Children, an international best seller, published in 1919. Roosevelt once wrote, “There is no form of happiness on the Earth, no form of success of any kind, that in any way approaches the happiness of the husband and the wife who are married lovers, and the father and mother of plenty of healthy children.” Roosevelt’s role as devoted family man may have been his most enduring legacy.
As a boy, Theodore Roosevelt wanted to be a naturalist, a scientist who revels in and examines nature. As an adult, the president never forgot his childhood dream, and preserved vast regions of the U.S. for future generations of Americans.
As a young man in the Dakota Territory, Roosevelt saw firsthand how human activities could harm the environment. Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 had pushed civilization westward, and rail lines and the towns that build up around them cut gashes through the pristine grazing lands of the buffalo or bison. Buffalo were being killed on a vast scale for their highly valued hides, and the trains made it easy to transport the hides to market. In just two decades, the great bison that once had thundered across the plains were driven nearly to extinction, with just small bands roaming in areas where great herds used to darken the prairie as far as the eye could see. By the time Roosevelt wrote about them in 1893, fewer than 500 wild buffalo existed, and no herd of more than 100 had been seen since 1884.
Roosevelt, an avid adventurer and lover of nature, dedicated himself to protecting both wildlife and natural resources. He recognized that without dramatic action, the rich natural resources and incomparable landscapes of our country would disappear as quickly as the buffalo, leaving future generations without a legacy of natural splendors. As president, Roosevelt provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land, an area equivalent to the entire Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida. He sat aside 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reservations, five national parks, the first 18 national monuments, the first four national game preserves and the first 24 reclamation, or federal irrigation, projects, designations that were bitterly opposed by commercial interests. Roosevelt also appointed as the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service the visionary Gifford Pinchot, who shared his philosophy of natural resource conservation through sustainable use, and he convened four study commissions on conservation for policymakers and leading authorities to shape thought about the then-new field of conservation.
These comments by Roosevelt, delivered on May 13, 1908 at the Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, reflected his visionary thinking about the need to preserve the natural world around us: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.”
Theodore Roosevelt was among his era’s most influential naval strategists, who thought about the overall planning for the U.S. Navy, its use as a military and diplomatic force, and the movement and disposition of the Navy’s assets. For decades, he strove tirelessly to transform the Navy into a highly capable instrument of an ambitious agenda to turn the U.S. into a great power. He made his first contribution as a young amateur historian in the early 1880s and continued to influence U.S. naval strategy right up to his death in 1919.
As an undergraduate student at Harvard, Roosevelt started a serious study of the naval aspects of the War of 1812. He tirelessly pursued primary sources, including official papers and other original documents. He completed two chapters of what became The Naval War of 1812 while still at Harvard and finished the book in 1882 at age 24—in time for the 70th anniversary of the then-obscure war’s start. Prior to Roosevelt’s work, serious studies had pegged the cause of the conflict as the failed U.S. foreign policy designed to avoid war, particularly war with Great Britain. President Thomas Jefferson’s isolationist foreign policy had been lauded, and historians tended to ignore the naval operations and focus on the land war.
Roosevelt’s ambitious book redirected scholarship about the war in several ways. He brought it prominence. He focused attention on the exploits of naval officers, most notably in frigate battles on the Atlantic and small boat heroics on the Great Lakes. Most importantly, Roosevelt started to articulate a theory that America’s greatness depended on the robust deployment of sea power. This vision caught the attention of Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce and Captain Alfred T. Mahan, two important naval leaders and strategists whose own efforts would influence generations of diplomatic and military leaders. Luce, Mahan and Roosevelt quickly recognized their common cause and cooperated to promote a navalist ideology that saw America’s great power destiny in the establishment and use of a blue-water fleet capable of operating in deep ocean waters.
As Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the feverish days following the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898, Roosevelt found opportunities to apply his theories. As acting secretary for only a few hours, he mobilized the navy for war with Spain. He ordered supplies and ammunition, sought support from Congress to recruit more sailors, and ordered the North Atlantic and Asiatic Squadrons to prepare for war. Roosevelt’s aggressive actions set in motion the machinery that soon would lead to the conquest of Cuba, Guam and the Philippines. By that time, Roosevelt himself had assembled the Rough Riders and joined the land war in Cuba.
As president for nearly eight years, Roosevelt strove tirelessly to develop the navy as the “big stick” of an increasingly ambitious U.S. foreign policy. Working with Congress and the service itself, he increased the size, armament, amour, speed, efficiency, and overall capacity of the Navy and its vessels. The squadron system gave way to modern fleets, with coaling stations. Roosevelt deployed naval assets to cultivate American power, including in 1903, when he sent naval vessels to ensure that Panama would secede from Colombia—paving the way for the Panama Canal, which enabled the US Navy to concentrate its battle fleets quickly. Shortly thereafter, he earned a Nobel Peace Prize by successfully mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 at the Portsmouth Navy Yard with the deft support of key Navy assets. Roosevelt’s deployments culminated in the cruise of the Great White Fleet, 16 battleships of the Atlantic Fleet that sailed around the world between December 1907 and February 1909 —sending a clear signal that the US had global reach and ambitions.
Roosevelt’s legacy as a naval strategist is linked closely to the rise of the U.S. as a great power. More than any other individual, he was responsible for creation of the modern, blue-water U.S. Navy and its deployments to promote an ambitious foreign policy—in the Caribbean, Asia and ultimately in Europe.