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Theodore Roosevelt: A Life of Public Service

The New York Assembly: (November 1881 - 1883)

TR was elected to the state legislature in January, 1882 from the twenty-first district in Manhattan. He started his campaign with a very simple form letter to the voters of the twenty - first district. “Dear Sir, Having been nominated as a candidate for member of Assembly for this District, I would esteem it a compliment if you honor me with your vote and personal influence on Election Day. Very respectfully, Theodore Roosevelt” As you can see from this early campaign letter, TR was truly a novice when it came to politics. There is no mention of his qualifications, his views on the issues of the day or what he hoped to do if he were to be elected. He was elected to this office with the help and support from the so - called "Fifth Avenue Crowd, "a group of respected businessmen, writers, bankers, etc. , who helped TR gather support from influential families who lived in the district. They basically stated that he was the man who had "honesty and integrity" and was "eminently qualified" for the job. In addition to these endorsements TR was encouraged to go on a saloon tour which his advisors realized early on was not a good idea for the outspoken Roosevelt. TR was elected by a majority of some 1,500 votes. Even after his election to the Assembly he assured a friend in a letter, "But don't think I am going to go into politics after this year, for I am not. " In fact, he remained in politics for his entire life.

The Race for Mayor of the City of New York: (1885)

TR would enter the race for Mayor of the City of New York shortly after losing both his mother and wife on the same day. Even though he was very reluctant to enter the race, he did so as a way of showing loyalty to the Republican Party. He even knew that he had little chance of winning. As he confessed to a friend, “The best I could hope for is to make a decent run." His opponents were Abram Hewitt, the Tammany Hall - backed candidate, and Henry George, an independent - social reformer candidate. The outcome was encouraging in that even though he came in third (Hewitt won) his vote total was such that he certainly could be proud. This result gave him the confidence to put his hat back in the political arena not too long afterwards.

Civil Service Commissioner: (May 1889 - May 1895)

President Benjamin Harrison appointed TR as one of three commissioners on the federal Civil Service Commission in May, 1889. The job was a thankless one. He could only make recommendations to the President about reforms and who should be placed in which jobs. His primary thrust for job seekers was " what you know not who you know.” TR took his position seriously as indicated in a letter to Representative Henry Cabot Lodge (R - Mass). "I am perfectly willing to be turned out - - or legislated out - - but while in office I mean business."

Police Commissioner: (May 1895 - April 1897)

TR accepted his role as police commissioner with the same gusto as he did his other political challenges. As he readied himself for his new job he commented to a friend, " It is a position in which it is absolutely impossible to do what will be expected of me; the conditions will not admit it. I must make up my mind to much criticism and disappointment." He was right in that the word spread throughout the department that the new commissioner was searching the streets of New York City for derelict and corrupt officers. He had no room for corruption of any kind under his tenure. This reputation of being a reformer would be his political calling card for the remainder of his career.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy: (April 1897 - May 1898)

TR wanted this job badly because the thought of being without a job in the political arena was unimaginable. He also wanted to pave a new path for himself after serving as Police Commissioner. “ I am very glad to get out of this place; for I have done all that could be done, and now the situation has become literally intolerable, ” he said. TR welcomed the opportunity to become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and was thrilled to be offered the job. He got right to work by advocating the construction of a dozen new battleships, and warning President McKinley of the encroachment of the Japanese cruiser Naniwa near Hawaii and spelling out the various options available to him, which impressed President McKinley. TR also warned the President of dispatching the United States’ fleet to the Mediterranean for f ear of future action closer to home in Cuba, and informed McKinley that in event of a war with Spain, he would resign his office and volunteer to fight. TR had consistently advocated war with Spain. Conflict with Spain became closer to reality on the night of February 15, 1898 when a horrendous explosion rocked the battleship Maine which was in port in Havana Harbor, killing some 250 crewmen. Up until this point TR had been in a minority of those who advocated war with Spain. However, after the devastation of the Maine, American views changed. The American outrage toward Spain was egged on not only by Roosevelt but also by the Hears t newspaper chain. This "yellow journalism" as it was called pushed President McKinley toward s asking Congress for a declaration of war. TR had prepared the U.S. fleet well and made sure the ships could sail at any time. Roosevelt confidently told his good friend Dr. Leonard Wood, “ I have done everything I can to get our navy ready. ” On April 11, President McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war. Congress promptly voted for a war with Spain. Now TR had his war.

The Rough Rider: (May 1898 - September 1898)

There was no question in Theodore Roosevelt's mind that he would be an active participant in the upcoming war. He was nearly forty years old and had never really had any serious military training. None of this would prevent TR from becoming the soldier of his dreams. The only question was if the war would end before he could be part of it. If he did not make it to Cuba in time, he hoped to go to the Philippines or some other theater of action. He was proud of his all - volunteer Rough Rider regiment in that the men came from very diverse backgrounds. The First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry consisted of Ivy Leaguers, Native Americans, cowboys, businessmen and sons of veterans of the Civil War. The Rough Riders trained first in San Antonio, Texas. Then it was off to Tampa, Florida where, after an arduous four-day trip, the y arrived to wait for their ship. TR realized immediately that there was much confusion over the logistics of the anticipated invasion, including terrible disorganization around location of camps and shortage s of food and medical supplies. There was a rumor that the Spanish fleet was lurking in the waters off Florida, which delayed the troops' departure. After this rumor turned out to be false some forty-eight-transport ships finally headed for Cuba. The landing faced incredible difficulties. Men struggled to make it from landing vessels on to the beach and many horses and mules drowned in the confusion. Roosevelt finally had his chance to attack, charging up Kettle Hill on his horse "Little Texas" as his men followed on foot. Very near the top of the hill TR ran into a wire fence. He got off his horse and then advanced the short distance to the top on foot alongside his men. Realizing their situation was hopeless, the Spanish troops retreated from their position. TR then turned his attention to San Juan Hill, and he and his men joined in the assault with other units already on their way up. Again, the Spanish realized they were outnumbered and retreated. TR had his Crowded Hour, as he later called it. General Wheeler, TR's commanding officer, recommended him for promotion to colonel and also the Medal of Honor. Roosevelt did not shrink from this when he commented, "I think I earned my Colonelcy and Medal of Honor, and I hope I get them." He would get his promotion to colonel but would not live to receive his Medal of Honor. Congress finally awarded him the medal posthumously in 1999. On January 16, 2001 President Clinton presented the medal to the Roosevelt family in a While House reception. What was the importance of the assault on San Juan Hill in TR's life? TR put it this way years later: "San Juan was the great day of my life. "

Governor of New York: (December 1898 - December 1900)

After returning from Cuba, TR turned his thoughts back to his career. The boss of the New York Republican Party, Tom Platt, had a problem with New York’s then - Governor Black. One of the members of the Governor’ s administration was accused of "losing" one million dollars. This money was earmarked for improvements to the Erie Canal. So boss Platt went looking for a candidate who was untarnished. Theodor e Roosevelt's name came up immediately. He was fresh, untarnished and a popular hero of the just - ended war. Yet Platt wondered if he would be able to control Roosevelt, since TR Roosevelt had a reputation as a reformer -- not something Platt was particularly interested in. However, Platt's advisors pointed out that he had no realistic alternative. So after a brief meeting with Roosevelt, Platt assured him that the nomination was his if he wanted it. TR ran for governor like he soldiered in Cuba: he charged right out of the gate. TR used his war record as the basis for his campaign strategy and had former comrades in arms appear with him on the campaign trail. Rough Riders who served under TR would make testimonials about his leadership. It was pure theater. TR's enemies called him an American imperialist. In an election that centered around corruption in both parties Roosevelt came out the victor, but by an extremely narrow margin of less than eighteen thousand votes out of 1.3 million votes cast. TR made it clear from the start that he was the Governor of New York, not boss Platt. He consulted with Platt on appointments and tried to work with him to a point. Roosevelt always used the advice of his late father when making important decisions. As he put it, "I have done nothing of which I do not think Father would approve if he were a live." Early in his administration Roosevelt supported the franchise tax bill that would tax franchises awarded by the state to railroad and streetcar companies. Platt was very concerned by Roosevelt's support of this bill, but TR asserted that the bill would demonstrate that the Republican Party, "... had the people's interest at heart." In supporting the legislation, Governor Roosevelt had show n his true colors and Platt then knew that TR was a true reformer. Other of his reform accomplishments as governor included: on the job improvements for workers; expansion of the state's conservation program; reorganization of the state's and local civil service systems; improvements to the state's canal system; and reforms to the state's education al, election law, ban king and transportation systems; and regulation of corporations. Any discussion of Roosevelt's stewardship as governor must emphasize that he tried to disassociate himself from the political machine in order to become a governor for all the people of the state.

Vice President of the United States: (March - September 1901)

TR wound up as vice p resident for two reasons. First, Garrett Hobart, who had been vice president during President McKinley's first term, died, creating the vacancy. Secondly, " boss " Platt essentially did not want Roosevelt to run for a second term as governor. In February 1900 Roosevelt announced he would run for a second term as governor. He also indicated to Platt that he would not accept the candidacy for vice president even if he were nominated. However, privately TR decided that if the governorship could not be his then he would take the vice presidency if offered. The reason why he would accept the vice presidency is that if there was nothing else on the table for him politically then this would be a viable option. Even though Roosevelt saw a nomination as vice president as a financially poor, do - nothing dead - end job, he eventually would accept the reality that if he were shut out of the race for governor and did not accept the nomination for vice president (if offered) he would be out of the public eye. This, in turn, would mean his political career could come to an abrupt halt. Senator Mark Hanna (R-Ohio) did everything he could to prevent the nomination of Roosevelt at the Republic and convention in Philadelphia but in the end he accepted the inevitable. Delegates to the convention could not understand why Hanna was so upset about the nomination of Roosevelt to the office of vice president. Hanna's response was "Don't any of you realize that there's only one life between that madman and the Presidency?" The expectation was for TR to do most of the campaigning so President McKinley could stay at him home in Ohio in order to convey the image that he was dealing solely with presidential issues. McKinley 's idea was for the energetic Roosevelt to take on the boisterous Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Roosevelt campaigned a great deal in the west. The issues of the campaign centered around the expansion of the U.S. into the Philippines, monopolies and corporate trusts, boss politics and the state of the economy. On a personal level TR did not care for Bryan at all. At one point TR called Bryan (in private) "a thorough - paced hypocrite." The election results were better than McKinley had achieved in his first term. TR did not shrink from giving himself full credit for his share in the victory. However, in the end he said the person who did the most for the Republican victory was no other than William Jennings Bryan. TR realized early - on that once the election was over President McKinley had no use for him. TR essentially had nothing to do. He thought that the office of Vice President should be abolished. The only thing that kept him going was the fact that he could possibly be the next president. He noted carefully the support he had after his campaign in the west. This gave him hope that in 1904 there might be place for him atop the Republican ticket. Little did he know that he would not have to wait for 1904 to be President. TR stated, "Of course I should like to be President," and be added, "I feel I could do the job well." However, no one could possibly expect what would happen next.

The Presidency: (September 1901)

Vice President Roosevelt was on a tour of Vermont where he was scheduled to deliver a number of speeches when he was told some shocking news. President McKinley had been shot while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The accused assassin was an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Roosevelt rushed off to Buffalo by train after getting word of the shooting. By the time Roosevelt arrived in Buffalo, McKinley's doctors had taken decisive action in order to save the President's life. The assassin's bullet had torn through the President's stomach. McKinley's condition improved to the point that Roosevelt felt confident the President would make a full recovery. Roosevelt decided to join his wife and children who were already vacationing in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. While on a hiking trip at Mount Tahawus, he was informed that McKinley had taken a turn for the worse. However, Roosevelt decided not to return to Buffalo unless he was really needed. He came to the conclusion that he would just be getting in the way with the family and close friends of the President. He felt confident that he had showed the nation he was very concerned about the President's condition and was ready for whatever would happen next. This decision would change abruptly when a messenger gave him the news that President McKinley's life was slipping away. By the time he had reached the town of North Creek, he was told by his personal secretary, William Loeb, that the President had died of a massive infection. So the new President boarded a train that would take him not just to Buffalo but to begin a new, unprecedented era in American history. Roosevelt's train arrived in Buffalo at approximately 3:30 p.m. After paying his respects to Mrs. McKinley, TR took the oath of office. So on September 14, 1901 the American people had a new President. At six weeks short of his forty-third birthday, he was the youngest person to become president, then and now. TR was the right man for the right time. Not only did he lead the United States into the twentieth century and make it a major player in world politics, but he also took the presidency to a new level of power and influence both in this country and around the world. The Roosevelt solution to successful leadership was simply this: combine intelligence with courage. TR believed that a president could do whatever the country needed unless expressly forbidden by the constitution to do so. This was certainly an activist approach as opposed to the caretaker approach of many of his predecessors. He believed that being president was a golden opportunity and he meant to take advantage of every minute he was in office. "This office of President of the United States", he commented, is "one of the three or four offices in the world best worth filling."

TR Sets His Goals

TR's accomplishments would be numerous and precedent-setting. There would be few presidents who could match his influence. His style of leadership would help bring the United States prominently on to the world stage as a new star with fresh ideas. As Roosevelt began his presidency he outlined his very specific goals in the annual address to Congress. He stated that there was a great need for regulatory controls over corporations and called for helping wage earners by using protective tariffs, enforcing anti-trust laws, limiting the importation of cheap foreign goods, and cutting taxes. In addition, he favored the gold standard and wise government spending. To the railroad industry he had a very specific one - word message: regulation. He went on to state that railroads were public servants and needed to be treated as such. To the bankers he stated that the federal government would be watching their practices carefully. He wanted to protect the country's natural resources not only for present but also future generations. In foreign affairs he thought the acquisition of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, which had taken place in previous administrations, was in America's best interests. TR thought the U.S. must have a strong navy in order to enforce the Monroe Doctrine against European influence in the Western hemisphere. He pushed for the building of a canal through Central America that would expedite shipping from the long voyage around South America. His willingness to use the power of the presidency to its fullest stands in contrast to his more cautious and conservative predecessors.

A Prime Example of How Roosevelt Was to Run the Country

The Coal Mining Crisis
His presidency had many highlights. An example is the coal-mining crisis in October 1902. On the verge of a strike that could cripple the nation, TR had to make a groundbreaking decision: should he use the office of the President to help mediate stalled negotiations in private industry? Financial magnate JP Morgan urged the President to act for fear that a coal strike would devastate the economy. He wanted the President to use the Sherman Antitrust Act to force the miners back to work. Instead the President had offered the coal miners union a proposal that would create a presidential commission to study the issues and report back to the President with a possible outline for a settlement. While the commission studied the issues, the coal miners would go back to work. The President promised the union president John Mitchell that he would then try to get the mine operators to accept the commission's recommendation. Mitchell turned down the President's offer stating that the union would be giving in way more than the coal mine operators. TR essentially agreed. So to end the stalemate he threatened to have the army take over the mines in order to avoid a nation - wide crisis, especially with winter approaching. The mine operators decided it was too risky to allow the President to do this, so they agreed to have the commission study the issues but they only wanted certain members on the commission. After some haggling back-and-forth they agreed to have the President select certain members of the commission, a move the coal miners union also agreed to. The commission recommended a ten percent increase in pay for the miners but also stated that the United Mine Workers Union would not be the sole bargaining unit for all miners. However the real importance of this crisis was the way the President used the power of his office. He was not afraid to use his influence even in an issue where most other presidents were not willing to get involved.

Additional Highlights of TR’s Presidency

  • Construction of the Panama Canal
  • Passage of the Antiquities Act of 1 906 and Pure Food and Drug Act
  • Conservation and Preservation: 240 million acres set aside for public lands
  • Creation of the first National Monument: Devil's Tower
  • Enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act "trust – busting"


Theodore Roosevelt dedicated himself to a life of public service. Although he died at the age of 60, he accomplished more than most people could in several lifetimes. He was not discouraged by early physical ailments or political disappointments. He established a new philosophy for the presidency in that he believed that the chief executive of the United States could use the power of his office in order to bring about badly needed change, and he was not afraid to step on the toes of those who might prevent such change. He was a president who believed that the ultimate purpose in life was to serve others. His message to the American people could be summed up when he stated, "Keep your eyes on the stars but your feet on the ground."

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