The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Roosevelt, Theodore

Edition of 1920. See also Theodore Roosevelt on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

ROOSEVELT, Theodore, American author, naturalist, explorer, statesman and soldier, and 26th President of the United States: b. New York City, 27 Oct. 1858; d. Sagamore Hill, N. Y., 6 Jan. 1919. He was born at No. 28 East 20th street, New York City. His father (of the same name) was a prominent merchant and a man noted for patriotism, public spirit and enlightened interest in many movements for social betterment. His mother's maiden name was Martha Bullock; she was a native of Georgia and had two brothers who served in the Confederate navy during the Civil War. The Roosevelt family is descended from Klaes Martensen Roosevelt, who came from Holland to what was then “New Amsterdam” in 1644; for seven generations thereafter all of Theodore's paternal ancestors bearing the family name were born on the island of Manhattan, and were well known there as leading citizens. Young Theodore was a sickly child, greatly troubled with asthma and extremely near-sighted; the condition of his health somewhat retarded his education, but he developed, when he was still very young, a passion for serious reading and an intelligent interest in natural history. In 1876 he entered Harvard College and received his degree of bachelor of arts in 1880. Before going to college and while there, as well as afterward, he gave much time to athletic exercises of various kinds and, although seriously handicapped by physical deficiencies, became, by sheer force of will and indomitable perseverance, a good boxer, a good rider and a good marksman, while, by frequently living in the open air and persistence in strenuous exercise, he not only threw off the maladies of his childhood, but became a tireless walker and rider and developed a magnificent physique, able to respond for many years to the exhausting calls he made upon it. While in college he began a History of the Naval War of 1812, which he completed after graduation; this is a work of much greater literary merit than he himself afterward ascribed[1] to its opening chapters, but the most interesting and significant incident connected with its preparation is the generally admitted fact that he undertook it because he found all the American narratives of that conflict, then current, untrustworthy, prejudiced and unfair to the public enemy; then, as ever throughout his life, his love of truth and fair play was, perhaps, his most striking characteristic; hypocrisy, humbug and obtaining praise through false pretenses were always, for him, the very abomination of desolation.

At the age of 23 he was elected to the New York assembly. Through family tradition and personal conviction he was a Republican, and his district was normally Republican also; but, two years before, the local bossling, to please the supreme party boss, had caused the nomination and election of a candidate whose record at Albany of unscrupulous subserviency to the boss in question had so disgusted decent people among his constituents as to make the choice of a Democrat reasonably certain, were he renominated by the Republicans. Nevertheless, the boss insisted on his tool's renomination, and the bossling proceeded to obey orders; young Roosevelt reluctantly consented to be a candidate in the primaries, at the urgent entreaty of a local politician named Joe Murray, who pointed out to him how his party was about to suffer defeat merely to promote the discreditable personal ends of its unscrupulous leaders; and, to the great astonishment of these leaders, the supposed stripling was nominated, despite their hostility, and easily elected. In the assembly his independence, courage, devotion to duty, outspoken enmity to corruption in every form and enlightened and fearless efforts to promote practical reforms and truly progressive legislation, in the face of bitter hostility on the part of wealthy “interests” and politicians owned by them, soon made him a figure of national prominence. The sudden deaths of his mother and his first wife within a few hours of each other in February 1884, and the discouraging political outlook after the nomination by the Republicans of James G. Blaine for the Presidency, a nomination which Roosevelt, as a delegate to the National Convention, had sought vainly to prevent, caused his temporary retirement from public life and led him to become for some two years a ranchman in the wild country then given over to cowboys and their herds.

Two years later he returned to New York to accept the Republican nomination for mayor, tendered him principally because the more wealthy and conservative element of his party was alarmed by the candidacy of Henry George, representing an ephemeral “United Labor” organization; Roosevelt was defeated on this occasion, mainly by reason of defections among the same class of his supporters who deemed Abram S. Hewitt, the Tammany nominee, a “safer” mayor for their purposes. In February 1889 he attended a National Conference of Civil Service Reformers in Baltimore and there expressed such outspoken and unqualified devotion to the principles of the merit system that President Harrison appointed him a member of the Civil Service Commission. In this post he made the Civil Service Law a living force for good government and pure politics and himself a source of real terror to politicians who had previously believed, with good reason, and acted on the belief that this statute and the commission it created could be safely ignored and defied by officials having “pull.” He remained in office for more than three years after President Cleveland had succeeded President Harrison, resigning to become one of the police commissioners of New York City, appointed by Mayor Strong after the Reform victory of 1894. Here again he showed himself the fearless and inflexible enemy of the many abuses which had become chronic in the New York police, and thereby incurred the rancorous hostility of all those who profited, in one way or another, by these abuses, including many citizens outwardly reputable and ready to favor reforms so long as these led only to talk, but shocked by Roosevelt's thoroughgoing and practical discharge of his sworn duty. After two years of what he called a “grimy struggle” he was given a new field of useful activity by his appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

For Roosevelt it was a labor of love to promote the efficiency of the American navy, and to his energy, eminent talents for administration and fervent patriotism the brilliant success of our fleets in the war with Spain must be fairly ascribed in very large measure. He took part in the war, however, in another capacity; as soon as its outbreak became certain he tendered his services as a soldier, was offered the command of a regiment of volunteer cavalry, declined this in view of the superior experience of his old friend, afterward Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, then a surgeon with a notable record as an Indian-fighter, but accepted a commission as lieutenant-colonel in the same organization, soon to be known as the famous Rough Riders, and served with distinction at the engagement of Las Guasimas and the battle of San Juan Hill. He became colonel of the regiment when Colonel Wood was promoted, was nominated brevet brigadier-general “for gallantry in battle” and was warmly commended by Generals Wheeler, Young, Sumner and Wood and several other officers of rank who were eye-witnesses of his conduct. When his regiment was disbanded he became at once the Republican candidate for governor of New York.

He owed his nomination to the extremity of the bosses and bosslings then in control of the party, who at that time hated Roosevelt, but hated yet more their own exclusion from power and its profits, and recognized that he was the only man they could then put up with any hope of victory. The result justified both their forecast and their antipathy, for Roosevelt was elected by a good majority and also proved himself as unsatisfactory a governor, for their purposes, as he had been an assemblyman 17 years before. Especially did he render himself obnoxious to wealthy corporations and to the prominent politicians (both Republicans and Democrats) employed by such corporations by insisting on their paying reasonable taxes on their franchises. As the only means to prevent his obtaining a second term as governor, the leading Republican politicians tried to force and finally succeeded in forcing upon him the nomination for the Vice-Presidency at the National Convention of 1900 in Philadelphia.

It had been the hope of these politicians that, when thus “kicked upstairs,” he would be reduced to ornamental impotency; but these calculations were falsified by the murder of President McKinley, and, on 14 Sept. 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office as President at the house of Mr. Ansley Wilcox in Buffalo. On 8 Nov. 1904 he was elected to the same office against Judge Alton B. Parker, the Democratic candidate, by 330 electoral votes to 136 and a popular majority of some two millions and a half.

To relate, even in the barest outline, the events of Roosevelt's Presidency would be quite impossible within the limits of this article. His virtually enforced adjustment of the great coal strike, his long struggle, in Congress and the courts, with “trusts” and combinations in restraint of trade and actual or threatened monopolies, his successful mediation between Russia and Japan, his restoration of order in Cuba, his vindication of the Monroe Doctrine in the case of Venezuela, his rescue of the Isthmus from Colombia and construction of the Panama Canal, his steadfast and untiring efforts to preserve the public lands from misappropriation and trespass on the part of land thieves, to develop the country's natural resources for the benefit of the people and to detect, root out and punish corruption and breach of trust in all branches of the public service — each of these subjects could be fairly and adequately treated only if it had an article to itself as long as the present. The history of his Presidency was, in short, the history of the United States during seven and a half years of great moment. On the evening of election day 1904 he said publicly that he would not accept a nomination for another term. To this determination he adhered inflexibly in 1908, resisting a tremendous pressure from almost every part of the country, based upon the universal conviction that his nomination and election were absolutely certain if his consent could be obtained, and a large measure of doubt as to whether he could transfer to any other candidate enough of his own immense popularity to assure the latter's choice. He succeeded, however, in bringing about the nomination and election, as his successor, of William Howard Taft, whom he had selected, after very serious consideration and some hesitancy, as on the whole the most suitable among the public men connected with his administration to continue the practical application of his theories and principles in the conduct of the government. A few weeks after Mr. Taft's inauguration Roosevelt started on a hunting trip to East Africa.

On his return he found the Republican party threatened with defeat and the administration gravely discredited by Mr. Taft's complete failure to justify the hopes of those who had secured his nomination and most signally of all, of Roosevelt himself; he found also a general conviction, which every day strengthened, that only his own acceptance of the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 1912 could prevent a Democratic victory. Against both his own inclination and his own judgment he finally yielded to the overwhelming pressure brought upon him, and consented, in his own words, to “cast his hat into the ring.” The party primaries gave him an undoubted majority in the convention held at Chicago in June 1912, but the wealthy “interests” which controlled the National Committee, and, through it, the preliminary organization of the convention, and the unscrupulous politicians who did their bidding deliberately preferred defeat at the polls to four years more of Roosevelt, and unseated enough of his delegates to ensure the formal renomination of Mr. Taft. An improvised “Progressive” party, created largely as a protest against the injustice and dishonesty of this nomination, put Roosevelt in the field, and a bitter, three-cornered contest followed; during this a partially demented man, maddened by the violent abuse of Roosevelt's enemies, attempted to kill him at Milwaukee, inflicting a wound which obliged him to remain two weeks in a hospital. At the election Mr. Taft met probably the most humiliating defeat ever experienced by a candidate for the Presidency, carrying only two small States and receiving only eight electoral votes; Roosevelt obtained 80, and a popular vote of over 4,000,000, but the division of the Republicans made inevitable the election of the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.

In October 1913, Roosevelt sailed for South America to explore a virtually unknown portion of the Brazilian wilderness. This expedition was attended by great dangers and hardships; his party was for months entirely cut off from civilization and suffered terribly from the tropical fevers always lurking in those regions. He was himself so very ill and the whole party so utterly exhausted that he urged them to leave him to die; but his companions, including his son Kermit, refused to do this, and finally succeeded in reaching a frontier settlement. Roosevelt returned to his home in May 1914, and thereafter was outwardly as earnest, as active and as interested in public affairs as he had ever been; but the poison of the South American fever remained in his system, undermined his strength and undoubtedly shortened his life.

Roosevelt's return to the United States was very soon followed by the outbreak of the European War. He had entirely disapproved of President Wilson's policy of “watchful waiting” and inconclusive intermeddling in Mexican affairs, and now found himself yet more radically out of sympathy with the latter's advocacy of “neutrality in thought” respecting Belgium and the settlement underlying his “too proud to fight” speech: moreover Roosevelt had naturally and strongly felt as an unseemly reflection on his own official course that a successor in the Presidency should negotiate a treaty with Colombia apologizing for the action of the United States at Panama. He became more and more critical of the administration as he realized more and more clearly the imminent danger to the United States involved in a possible German victory, and the unwillingness of President Wilson and of the political party then dominant to adopt any adequate measures of preparation for war, or even to resent with dignity and spirit repeated and insolent outrages on our citizens. To bring about Mr. Wilson's defeat in 1916, he refused to run as the Progressive candidate for the Presidency (thereby virtually destroying the short-lived Progressive party), when the same interests and, in the main, the same men responsible for Mr. Taft's candidacy four years before again showed that they preferred their party's defeat to Roosevelt's election, by giving the Republican nomination to Justice Charles E. Hughes. Roosevelt earnestly and whole-heartedly supported Hughes in the ensuing campaign, but his innumerable friends were less forgiving than himself, and their profound dissatisfaction, joined to some clumsy and arrogant blunders on the part of the Republican managers, gave Woodrow Wilson four years more in the White House.

The President's final break with Germany was to Roosevelt a very agreeable surprise. He threw himself with all possible ardor into the advocacy of an energetic participation in the war on our part, and offered to raise a division of volunteers, in which he should himself serve as one of the brigadier-generals. He was instantly overwhelmed with applications to serve in the force from all parts of the Union; it is said that more than 250,000 men asked to join it. Congress authorized its organization, notwithstanding strenuous opposition from the President; but the latter refused to avail himself of the authority thus conferred; Roosevelt could not be allowed to return home with a military record.

Roosevelt was bitterly disappointed by this refusal; prevented by the President from serving his country in the field, he did everything in his power to arouse an imperative demand by public opinion for a prosecution of the war with unflinching vigor up to a decisive victory, without regard to the cost and sacrifices involved, and protested with all possible energy against any thought of negotiation or parley with the public enemy; for, with many others, he entertained something more than a suspicion that peace without victory was the secret aim of President Wilson. All four of his sons promptly entered the army and served with distinction; one of the four was killed; two were wounded. When on 25 Oct. 1918, the President appealed to the voters of the Nation to elect a Democratic Congress, as a mark of confidence in himself and approval of his policy, Roosevelt vigorously denounced the President's course, and united with ex-President Taft in urging that the voters should choose “a Congress which will not register the will of one man, but, fresh from the people, will enact the will of the people.” The extremely significant result of the election, which, instead of giving the President the vote of confidence he had asked, changed Democratic majorities of 10 in the Senate and five in the House into Republican majorities of 2 in the Senate and 45 in the House was the last of Roosevelt's many political triumphs; and it proved a solace to the last two months of his life. His health, fatally weakened by the results of his South American explorations, had gradually failed during the four busy and exciting years succeeding his return. About midnight on 5 Jan. 1919, he dictated from his sick-bed a communication to the chairman of the Republican National Committee; some four hours afterward, he died quietly in his sleep.

Roosevelt's political and public services were but a part of his many activities. He was a very prolific writer; beside innumerable addresses, magazine articles and occasional publications he wrote ‘The Winning of the West’ a history of the pioneer settlement of our states beyond the Alleghanies; Lives of Thomas Hart Benson, Gouverneur Morris and Oliver Cromwell; a ‘History of New York’; an ‘Autobiography’; ‘African Game Trails’; ‘Through the Brazilian Wilderness’; and a multitude of other books, some setting forth his theories or narrating his experiences as a naturalist and hunter, some expounding his views on moral, social or economic problems, many devoted to the political issues of the times or defending his opinions (always very pronounced and definite) as to disputed questions of ethics or public policy. He was likewise an indefatigable traveler, and always ready to give the brief holidays allowed him by his literary labors and his public duties to journeys in wild regions and life in the open. He was twice married, in 1880, to Alice Lee, and, in 1886, to Edith Kermit Carow. By his first marriage, he left one daughter, Alice, the wife of Nicholas Longworth of Ohio; by his second, he left three sons, Theodore, Kermit and Archibald, and one daughter, Ethel, the wife of Dr. Richard Derby of New York; his youngest son, Quentin, had been killed in the war.

Theodore Roosevelt was a man of extraordinary powers and, to those who knew him well and understood him, a man of most attractive character and qualities. Doubtless he was sometimes gravely misunderstood; his mental processes were so abnormally rapid that he often seemed to act with little or no reflection, when he had, in fact, considered the question at issue most thoroughly and conscientiously, although, perhaps, in one-tenth of the time which would have been needed for the purpose by an ordinary man. Moreover the strength of his convictions and the vivacity of his speech and manner confused and frightened timid men or those who knew him but slightly, and led them to think of and describe him as arbitrary and overbearing; he was, in truth, somewhat exceptionally anxious for information, assistance and advice from those for whom he felt respect and in whom he had confidence; but only one who wasn't afraid of him could fairly judge or really like him. He had the stern sense of duty, the lofty purpose and the strict morals of puritanism, without any of its prudishness or pharisaism or intolerance, and, most emphatically, without any of its too common hypocrisy or affectation of virtue. He detested falsehood in every form and shams of every kind, and, throughout his long and stormy career as a public servant and a political leader, always fought fairly and in the open, and was restrained by the instincts of a gentleman and the scruples of a man of honor. It were needless to speak of his patriotism or his courage, — the events of his life sufficiently attest these, — but it is the firm belief of the writer that his profound wisdom, the unselfishness of his devotion to duty and his immense usefulness to his country will be more clearly recognized and more highly esteemed by each successive generation of Americans in our national future.

Bibliography. — ‘Autobiography’ (New York 1913); Bennett, J. W., ‘Roosevelt and the Republic,’ bitterly hostile (New York 1908); Burroughs, John, ‘Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt’ (Boston 1907); Douglas, G. W., ‘Life of Theodore Roosevelt’ (New York 1907); Greene, F. V. (in Roosevelt's ‘American Ideals’); Halstead, Murat, ‘Life of Roosevelt’ (Akron 1902); Leupp, F. E., ‘Biography of Theodore Roosevelt’ (New York 1904); Lodge, Henry Cabot, ‘Frontier Town and Other Essays’ (New York 1906); Morgan, James, ‘Theodore Roosevelt, the Boy and the Man’ (ib. 1907); Riis, Jacob A., ‘Theodore Roosevelt the Citizen’ (ib. 1904); Shaw, Albert, ‘Cartoon History of Roosevelt's Career’ (ib. 1910); Thayer, William Roscoe, ‘Theodore Roosevelt’ (New York 1919); Washburn, C. G., ‘Theodore Roosevelt’ (Boston 1916).

Attorney-General in the Cabinet of President Roosevelt.

Copyright, Underwood & Underwood, N. Y.
The Twenty-sixth President of the United States

  1. “Those chapters were so dry they would have made a dictionary seem light reading in companion.” ‘Autobiography,’ p. 27.