Men of Mark in America/Volume 1/Elihu Root



ROOT, ELIHU, lawyer and cabinet officer, was chosen by President McKinley for secretary of war at an epoch in our nation’s history when that position demanded the most assiduous application to military and political affairs. He brought to his position acute discernment, well-balanced judgment, power of resource, administrative ability and determined will. He found the department in a somewhat chaotic state through the following of old usages. Under his control it was reduced to order. He has been a judicious and broad-minded counsellor in the cabinet, a support to right measures, a foe to favoritism and incompetency. In the army, in particular, his energy and persistence have made themselves felt, in changing conditions which were deplored, but were considered to be unalterable. It has been truly said that he has “modernized military business methods and has made the service an effective force.” Administrative leadership and discipline are the key to his admirable work in the secretaryship, perhaps the most notable since that of Stanton.

He was born in Clinton, New York, February 15, 1845. He is the son of Oren and Nancy (Buttrick) Root. He attended the common schools and entered Hamilton college, in which institution his father was professor of mathematics. His home and surroundings in boyhood and youth were such as to stimulate his mind and to awaken and elevate his ambitions. Rev. Dr. Anson J. Upson, for many years the chancellor of the University of the State of New York, was a member of the Root family during Elihu’s boyhood, from 1851 to 1860; and the late Dr. C. H. F. Peters, the astronomer, mathematician and botanist, was also an inmate of his father’s family for many years. His training for life was all acquired in small institutions and this brought him into close contact with his teachers, men of superior minds. While in college he did not care to share in the pranks and escapades of student life; but he was not by any means wanting in college spirit. His writings in college were thoughtful, logical and impressive. His own will entered into his assimilation of knowledge — and although not naturally an orator, his persistent and conscientious efforts have made him one. When he was nineteen years old he took the Clark prize for his oration on “The Jew of Dickens, Scott, and Shakespeare.”

He was graduated from Hamilton college in 1864; and he taught with his brother, Oren, in the academy at Rome, New York, for one year, and was graduated from the law department of the University of New York in 1867. He was at once admitted to the bar, and entered into partnership, first with John H. Strahan and afterward with Judge Willard Bartlett. His assets, on going to New York, were not much more than his diploma and his Phi Beta Kappa pin; and to his credit be it said he lived most economically. His study was often prolonged far into the night.

His law practice grew rapidly and he was retained by many corporations as counsel. President Arthur appointed him United States attorney of the Southern district of New York, which position he held from 1883-85. He was a member of the Republican county committee, and its chairman from 1886-87. In 1894 he was delegate-at-large to the state constitutional convention of New York, and was chairman of the Judiciary Committee of that body.

William M. Tweed employed him as counsel when on trial for the “Tweed Ring” frauds; but it has been said that Mr. Root felt constrained to accept this position as he was urged to this course by one who had in former years acted a most friendly part to Mr. Root before he had attained prominence, and when friends were rare.

Judge Hilton availed himself of Mr. Root's services in the Stewart will case; and he has been attorney for the sugar trust and in other important litigations.

August 1, 1899, President McKinley appointed him secretary of war, as successor to Russell A. Alger, and he was continued in the office by President Roosevelt, and was reappointed March 5, 1901. His public career as secretary of war has made him known round the world. President McKinley's choice was vindicated as soon as Mr. Root began to apply his well-trained legal mind to our national problems. The war department immediately felt the pressure as well as the inspiration of his presence. Intellect is said to be impersonal; and this characteristic is not without great weight in questions concerning the most efficient men and methods. Personal considerations of friendship and favor may be allowed to enter into the private judgment of a business man, if he is willing to bear the consequence of choosing poor instruments of service. But in national affairs the only question to be asked is : “What is best for the nation, for the people at large?” This question Mr. Root has seemed to consider carefully and to answer fearlessly; and if men were set aside, it was not from personal animosity or from prejudice; it was the result of the deliberate judgment that better results would follow. Events seem to have proved his wisdom in most of these cases.

Brigadier-General Carter says: “Mr. Root entered the War Department without special knowledge of military affairs. Perhaps it was best for the country that this condition existed, for it induced him to apply his great mind to the study, not only of the details, but of all the higher questions of mihtary administration. He realized that it was necessary to make a study of the entire system, since in this way only could he qualify himself to differentiate the good from the evil. Early in his career he was obliged to bring into service in the distant Philippines, a body of 35,000 volunteers. He accomplished this in the most efficient manner.”

Secretary Root was fully assured in his own mind that the United States could not do otherwise than continue to be responsible for the well-being of the Philippine Islands, which had in so unexpected a manner come into our possession. The organization of so many volunteer regiments for such unprecedented expeditions across the seas required not only prompt action, but picked men, with well-trained and expert commanders. Secretary Root himself supervised the selection of officers capable of organizing the army and leading it in battle. The peaceful conclusion of the Boxer troubles in China, too, was largely brought about by his discretion and foresight. Porto Rico and Cuba both had need of military as well as of political management in the settlement of a government suited to the conditions of the people, after the war, and here again was shown the “practised mind and guiding hand of the secretary of war.” The organization of the army (one might almost say the regeneration of our army), was the vital problem which came before the department as soon as thought could be given to the question. Mr. Root soon perceived that certain changes were absolutely needed if our army was to be efficient in the new conditions of our national life. He saw clearly that some of the arrangements of the service were simply traditional, and had no good reason for being. He made changes. The most important of these changes was the establishment of a general staff corps representative of the whole army — who were to have power to recommend plans and bills to congress. This measure was strenuously opposed, but was finally passed by congress. The method of appointment of officers was also scrutinized and reforms were made. A system of reports was made the basis of promotion, with the result of greater efficiency than by the old way which left room for favoritism, and by regarding only seniority in service often placed incompetent men in very important positions. Our country’s present efficient army is the result of his care in investigation, his removal of limitations, and his foresight and broadmindedness in devising measures for making the army an effective machine. Secretary Root’s own words in an address at a dinner given him by the general staff are these: “Effective and harmonious organization is the moving power of the world today. Days of trial for our country are sure to come, but I believe the American people will look back to the inauguration of the general staff and a spirit of brotherhood in arms permeating all branches of the American army, as the beginning of a new day, and the origin of an efficiency never before known in the defenders of our government and of our nation.” By the General Staff bill the army is furnished with what Secretary Root describes as the “directing brain which every army must have.” He organized a corps of artillery for our coast defenses. In his administration of the Philippines, his sanitary measures; his vigorous action in stamping out disease; the establishment of a system of schools in our island possessions; the setting in operation of machinery for law-making in our colonial possessions; and the wise settlement of local questions of right of election — were all planned for and favored by the secretary of war. He sought to make of our army in the Philippines a power to maintain peace, to enforce peace if need be by war. To renovate and reconstruct civil and political conditions, leaving them better than they were, was the aim he set before the American army of occupation. Mr. Root’s concentration on the work in hand is one chief source of his strength. He gives all his mind to whatever question he is considering. He is not only a liberally educated but is also a self-disciplined man. He does not show temper, nor does he express great disappointment if his plans do not immediately carry. In him, caution, memory, vigilance, insight, seem mingled in just proportion. His affection for President McKinley was strong, though not frequently expressed. If he does not especially draw the affections of others to himself, admiration of his intellect is a tribute which none can fail to pay him who have watched his methods and their results. He is a tireless worker, remaining at his desk ten to twelve, and sometimes fifteen hours a day. The American people owe him a debt of gratitude for helpfully adjusting to legal principles our new colonial policy.

In February, 1905, having resigned from the cabinet, Mr. Root resumed the practice of law in New York.

President Roosevelt most clearly recognized Mr. Root's value, and wrote him, as Mr. Root retired from the secretaryship, January 1, 1904: “Your duties have included more than merely the administration of the department and the reorganization of the army on an effective basis. You have also been at the head of the department which dealt with the vast and delicate problems involved in our possession of the Philippine Islands. And your success in dealing with this part of your work has been as signal as your success in dealing with the purely military problems. It is hard, indeed, for me to accept your resignation; and I do it not only with keen personal regret, but with a lively understanding of the gap your withdrawal will make in public life.”

In 1902, Mr. Root was made a member of the executive committee of the Carnegie Institute, Washington, District of Columbia. The honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred on him by Hamilton college, 1894, and by Yale in 1900. He was married January 8, 1878, to Clara, daughter of Salem Wales, of New York city.

After the death of Secretary John Hay, Mr. Root returned to the cabinet of President Roosevelt. Official announcement was made of his appointment as secretary of state, and of his acceptance of that position on July 7, 1905.