Discussion Questions

These questions help students explore the major ideas and themes in the film. Read a Program Summary for descriptions of specific program chapters.

Before Watching

1. Have students briefly investigate American life at the turn of the century. Ask them to gather artifacts, pictures, or books that illustrate the times. List important characteristics and facts students have presented on chart paper and display the materials to create a portrait of American life. As they watch the video, have students note additional items, including inventions, fashions, arts, music, political issues, social life, etc.

2. With students, brainstorm a list of qualities they think an ideal U.S. president should have, including political as well as personal abilities and characteristics. Have them discuss why they think these characteristics are important. As they watch the program, have students take notes about the qualities and characteristics they admire or dislike in TR.

3. Brainstorm a list of the admirable qualities of an ideal U.S. president.

4. Have students read and watch media coverage of the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign and discuss how the candidates used the media to create their images. As students watch Roosevelt's 1904 or 1912 presidential campaign, have them take notes on how he used the media to create his image.

5. Have students work with a partner to research and present the U.S. government's current policy -- and any opposition to that policy -- on one of the following subjects -- an environmental issue, Cuba, Japan, Panama, business monopolies, labor unions, or food and drug regulation.

6. Have students research the goals of a third political party in U.S. history (including today). Have them note the similarities and differences between that party and the contemporary mainstream parties. Create a class chart of those similarities and differences.

After Watching

1. Now that students have developed a portrait of American life at the turn of the century, have them consider whether or not TR was the embodiment of his time. In what ways was he the right president for his time? How was he a product of his time or ahead of his time? Would his policies and philosophies make TR a good president for our time? Why or why not?

2. Using the students' list of ideal presidential qualities, have them evaluate TR as president. Which qualities did TR have? Which did he lack? In what situations were certain characteristics beneficial? In what instances might these characteristics be detrimental? Are there qualities students now want to add or remove from the list? Overall, how would they rate TR's presidency?

3. Compare TR's experience with the media with that of the current president. Encourage students to speculate on how modern media, such as television and the Internet, might have helped or hindered TR if he were president today. For example, how might TR have fared under the close scrutiny now given to all presidents and presidential candidates? How did TR make "modern" use of the media to foster a particular image of himself? Ask students to come up with ad copy, a slogan, or a theme song TR might have chosen.

4. Ask students to work in small groups to create two eulogies for TR -- one composed at the time of his death and one composed now. Have the groups incorporate the answers to the following questions: What were TR's lasting contributions to the office of the presidency and the United States in general? How was TR viewed by his contemporaries? How is he viewed now? Would TR have been a successful president today? Why or why not? 

5. How did Roosevelt's childhood and early adulthood influence his personal values and political agenda? How did his values and agenda reflect or differ from society's values during different stages of his political career? In your opinion, was Roosevelt admirable? Why or why not?

6. How did Roosevelt use the media? What do the political cartoons and photographs in the series tell you about how the media presented him to the public? What similarities and differences do you see in the role of the media in politics today?

7. Think about the policies you discussed before watching. How were Roosevelt's domestic and foreign policies similar to or different from those of the current administration? Discuss the political motivations and historical context of the policies in each time period.

8. How did the goals of the Progressive Party differ from the goals of the Republican and Democratic parties in the early 1900s? How did the Progressive Party's goals influence Roosevelt's political career? mainstream politics? How did the third parties you researched influence mainstream politics?

9. How did Roosevelt challenge the political system? How did he make changes within the system? As a class, choose a school policy that students would like to change. Divide the class into small groups to outline plans for making this change within the existing system or by challenging the system.

Activities

Early Career -- Self-Improvement Plan

TR was an early advocate of self-improvement. He overcame ill health as a child through hard work and commitment to increasing his physical strength, and he continued to "reinvent" himself throughout his life. Have students discuss TR's various transformations throughout his life -- from sickly child to hardy outdoorsman -- from aristocrat to reformer -- from grief-stricken widower to happy family man, etc. What obstacles did he have to overcome to achieve his goals? What qualities helped him persevere? Ask students to read the beginning of TR's 1899 speech on The Strenuous Life, which outlines his philosophy about working hard, despite being born into a life of privilege.

Ask students to choose something about themselves that they would like to improve, and create a plan outlining how they would go about reaching their goal. Whose help will they need? What obstacles will they have to overcome? What resources or tools will they need? Have students write their plan as an outline, journal entry, letter, or brief essay. 

Presidential Politics -- The Election of 1912 Debate

Divide the class in half and have one group represent Roosevelt and the other Woodrow Wilson. Have small groups from each side choose an issue from the 1912 campaign to research and debate. Issues might include women's suffrage, child labor laws, conservation, anti-trust regulations. Students can begin their research by reading the Platform of the Progressive Party, 1912 and Wilson's Inaugural Speech, 1913, as well as using the library to find editorials, candidates' acceptance speeches, State of the Union addresses, etc.

For each issue, have the opposing groups debate in front of the class. After each debate, ask the class to vote on which "party" made the best arguments. Note: To prepare for this activity, it may be helpful to hold mock debates on topics important to students, such as school issues. This will help students understand the elements of a good debate and the impact of debating.

Domestic Policy -- Make a Political Cartoon

Review political cartoons and books, magazines, etc. showing TR involved in different areas of domestic policy: trust busting, women's suffrage, the rights of African Americans, policies concerning Native Americans, conservation, government regulations, etc. Have pairs of students analyze the meaning of one TR cartoon and a cartoon about a similar topic from current newspapers or magazines. Then, have them create their own cartoon about the same aspect of current domestic policy.

Ask students to present the historical cartoon, contemporary cartoon, and their own cartoons to the class, comparing the way we view the particular issue today with how it was perceived in TR's time, and including their own thoughts and opinions about the issue. 

Foreign Affairs -- The "Big Stick" Research

TR's famous quotation, "Speak softly and carry a big stick" succinctly summarizes the Roosevelt Corollary, which was an important development in U.S. foreign policy. This attitude and policy seems to have lasted beyond TR's presidency.

After students explain the quotation, have them research one international crisis since TR's presidency, and write or prepare an oral report on how the U.S. response did or did not reflect TR's philosophy. Research topics might include various stages of World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Berlin Airlift, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the war in Vietnam, Nicaragua, the invasion of Grenada, the Persian Gulf War, the war in Bosnia, or Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ask students to outline the actions taken by the U.S. -- the effects of those actions; and whether or not armed force, or the threat of it, was an appropriate response. 

Legacy -- Conservation Map

Ask individual students to choose one of the national parks or forests existing today, either in your state, your region, or elsewhere in the national system. Have students prepare a brochure and a fact sheet for that park. The fact sheet should include when the park was created, its location, major features, current status, and any problems, controversies, etc. (See the Annotated Web Links for more information about the National Park Service.) Ask students to predict what might have happened to the land if it hadn't been designated as a conservation site.

In the classroom, have students locate the park they chose on a large map of the U.S. with pushpins, flags, or other devices. They might also outline the area covered by their various parks. Design a display of the students' brochures. 

The Era -- Explore the Presidency and Media

The media, especially newspapers, the mass news medium of the time, were powerful tools at the turn of the century. In preparation for a discussion on this topic, have students explore the meaning of the terms "yellow journalism" and "muckraking." (Definition of both are listed in Terms to Know, below. Students can also read TR's 1906 speech, The Man With the Muck Rake).

Ask students to search current newspapers or magazines for examples of yellow journalism or muckraking today. Topics could include war, reform, and the president, among others. Using the examples, explore the effects of the media on public opinion in TR's time and today. Do today's media focus. on the same issues as the media in TR's day? What differences or similarities do students see? Ask students to consider how new media forms, such as television and the Internet, have influenced public opinion of events, especially of warfare and the presidency. 

Take It Further

During this unit, students may be interested in doing the following activities related to Theodore Roosevelt and his times:

Present an oral report on the status of medical treatment and diseases in TR's time and today, such as asthma, Bright's Disease, typhoid, malaria, yellow fever.

Choose a controversial issue in conservation (for example, wetlands and rain forest protection, green space, oil drilling, reintroducing wild animals) and create a timeline about it, including important people, events, and legislation.

Write a speech for or against sport hunting. How has opinion on this issue changed since TR's time?

Suppose you've just attended a dinner hosted by one of the "robber barons" of TR's day, such as J. P. Morgan. Write an eyewitness account. (See the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE program The Richest Man in the World: Andrew Carnegie for some insights into the lives of the rich and famous of that time.)

Research one of TR's favorite wild animals, and write a short summary of its habitat, behavior, and current status. Draw or include a picture.

Locate photographs by Jacob Riis, Edward S. Curtis, and William H. Jackson. Explain how they helped to not only document history but bring about reform.

Suppose you were to make a feature film about TR. Who would you cast as the lead, and why? Who would you cast for the other main characters? What events or crises would you focus on?

Write an editorial about how TR's young age affected his presidency and his life afterward. Include your thoughts about how age has been a factor in other presidencies.

Who's Who

Have students choose one of the following individuals who influenced American life and society during TR's time, and present a short biography, highlighting the person's achievements to the class. Students might also enjoy creating a poster featuring their subject, which could include photos and drawings, a chronology of life events, and symbols representing their work. They may also choose to perform a song, recite poetry, or do a reading of a speech or an essay.

Jane Addams: U.S. social reformer and co-founder of Hull house, a social settlement for the poor in Chicago, Illinois.

William Jennings Bryan: politician and lawyer -- served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson and served as the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes "monkey" trial.

Ty Cobb: U.S. baseball player -- first elected member of the Baseball Hall of Fame

Joseph Conrad: British novelist and author of Heart of Darkness.

Eugene Debs: U.S. labor organizer

W.E.B. DuBois: educator, author and African-American leader.

Albert Einstein: German-American physicist and author of the special theory of relativity.

Sigmund Freud: Austrian psychiatrist and founder of psychanalysis.

Samuel Gompers: U.S. labor leader

William Gorgas: U.S. surgeon who successfully controlled the mosquito population in Panama, thus eliminating the risk of malaria and yellow fever and allowing the Panama Canal to be built.

Mark Hanna: U.S. politician and financial backer for William McKinley.

Helen Keller: U.S. author and social worker who overcame her loss of sight, hearing, and speech to become a famous lecturer and academic.

Liliuokalani, Queen of Hawaii: last monarch of Hawaii.

Margaret Sanger: U.S. social reformer

Upton Sinclair: U.S. social reformer and novelist, his book The Jungle resulted in safer working conditions in the meatpacking industry.

Lincoln Steffens: investigative journalist whose works exposed municpal corruption.

Ida Tarbell: U.S. journalist who wrote a series of articles that exposed the oil trusts.

Mark Twain (pseudonym for Samuel Langhorne Clemens): U.S. journalist, lecturer and author whose works include Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Edith Wharton: U.S. novelist and author of The House of MirthEthan Frome and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence.

Francisco "Pancho" Villa: Mexican revolutionary leader

Booker T. Washington: educator and civil rights leader who founded the Tuskegee Institute.

Ida B. Wells: Born into slavery, she became a journalist and newspaper owner in Memphis who fought for an end to sexism and racism.

Emiliano Zapata: leader of the Mexican Revolution and champion of agrarian reform in Morelos.

Terms to Know

Bull Moose Party: The nickname for TR's Progressive Party, formed against Taft in the 1912 election. The name derives from the selection of the "bull moose" as the party symbol, taken from a speech in which TR proclaimed that he felt "as strong as a bull moose."

Expansionism: the policy or practice of territorial expansion by a nation

Imperialism: the attempt by a nation to build an empire either through direct conquest or economic and political control of other countries or territories.

Monroe Doctrine: a major U.S. foreign policy based on the ideas of then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and delivered in a speech by President James Monroe to Congress in 1823. The Monroe Doctrine basically stated that the U.S. would consider hostile any European interference or attempts at further colonization in the Western Hemisphere.

Muckrakers: the term applied to a group of American writers active in the first decade of the twentieth century, who tried to expose through their writings the abuses of business and corruption in politics. The term, derived from the word "muckrake", was coined by TR in the speech The Man With the Muck Rake, 1906.

Political machine: an unofficial, widespread political organization usually centered in a particular city or state and under the control of a "boss." The "machines" focused their activities on maintaining political power and influence, and were often corrupt in their methods.

Populist Party: U.S. political party formed in 1891 to represent agrarian interest and to advocate for coinage of free silver and government control of monopolies.

Progressive: describes the largely middle-class reform movement begun at the turn of the twentieth century. The Progressives advocated reform in child labor laws, the prohibition of alcohol, regulation of business, direct election of senators, and conservation, among other causes.

Socialism: system or theory of social organization in which the workers possess both political power and the means of production and distribution.

Square Deal: TR's general philosophy and program for fairness in government and society, which he attempted to implement through legislation controlling big business, reforming industry practices to protect consumers, and conserving natural resources.

Trust: a large-scale business combination formed to prevent competition in the particular market.

Yellow journalism: describes certain newspapers in the 1890s, especially those owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, whose style of news reporting featured sensational headlines and distorted stories to sell newspapers and excite public opinion.

In "Quotes"

Below are quotations from the speeches and writings of TR. Each is followed by a series of questions that you may want to raise with your students.

"The object of the government is the welfare of the people. The material progress and prosperity of a nation are desirable chiefly so far as they lead to the moral and material welfare of all good citizens."

Questions to Consider:

  • What is the "welfare of the people"?
  • Do you agree that it is the purpose of the government? Why or why not?
  • Who would TR have considered a "good" citizen?

   

"I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life."

Questions to Consider:

  • What does "ignoble" mean?
  • What does TR mean by the "doctrine of the strenuous life"?
  • How did he adhere to that doctrine in his own life?

   

"Of all forms of tyranny, the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth."

Questions to Consider:

  • Why do you think TR, from a well-to-do family, might consider wealth to be vulgar or tyrannical?
  • How is his characterization of wealth contrary to the "American Dream" of prosperity?
  • Do you think this sentiment would be popular today? Why or why not?

   

"To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed."

Questions to Consider:

  • How do you think TR would view today's environmental activists?
  • What environmental issues would most concern him and why?

   

"While president I have been president, emphatically; I have used every ounce of power there was in the office and I have not cared a rap for the criticisms of those who spoke of my 'usurpation of power'; for I knew that the talk was all nonsense and that there was no usurpation... I have felt not merely that my action was right in itself, but that in showing the strength of, or in giving strength to, the executive, I was establishing a precedent of value."

Questions to Consider:

  • What does this quotation reveal about TR's personality?
  • Do you agree that he established a "precedent of value"?
  • How much power do you believe a president should have?

   

"Personally I believe in woman's suffrage, but I am not an enthusiastic advocate of it... I do not think that giving the women suffrage will produce any marked improvement in the condition of women. I don't believe that it will produce any of the evils feared, and I am very certain that when women as a whole take any special interest in the matter they will have suffrage if they desire it."

Questions to Consider:

  • Why do you think TR wasn't willing to be a stronger advocate for women?
  • Did suffrage produce a "marked improvement" in the lives of women? If so, how??

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?