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Biography: Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, 1902. Courtesy: Library of Congress

On October 28, 1858, Theodore Roosevelt was born into one of the wealthiest and most well-established families in New York. His father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., was a descendant of the original group of Dutch merchants who made their fortunes building New York harbor into one of the most prosperous ports in America. Theodore Sr. was a gentleman and a glassware merchant. His wife, Martha Bulloch, was descended from the southern "aristocracy" of Georgia. Together, they belonged to the uppermost echelons of New York society. Not at all surrounded by the type of men he would come to champion in years to come, Theodore Jr. was well-positioned to lead a life of privilege and leisure.

Despite the wealth and social position of his family, Roosevelt's young life was far from easy. He chronically suffered from violent attacks of asthma and poor eyesight. Yet his illness inspired him to embrace life all the more fully. To improve his health, he boxed and lifted dumbbells in a room in his home which he had converted into a gymnasium.

In the fall of 1876 Roosevelt entered Harvard University. He excelled in his studies and graduated magna cum laude four years later. While at Harvard, he met Alice Lee, a beautiful young woman, who would become his wife soon after graduation. By 1881, he had entered politics as a New York Assemblyman. A life in politics was virtually unheard of for a man of his social standing and background. In his autobiography, Roosevelt wrote of the disapproval, "These men laughed at me, and told me that politics were ‘low'; that the organizations were not controlled by ‘gentlemen'; that I would find them run by saloon-keepers, horse-car conductors, and the like, and not by men with any of whom I would come in contact outside." Yet this discouragement only spurred Roosevelt further in his determination to be active in the government of the country. Social unrest was his main concern as New York Assemblyman in 1881. While he served as the New York City Police Commissioner in 1895 he worked alongside Jacob Riis, the author and social reformer, to improve living conditions in the tenement districts.

During his early years in politics, Roosevelt enjoyed success in his professional life but suffered personal tragedy privately. In 1884 his mother died of typhoid fever. Two days later, his wife died after giving birth to their first child, Alice Lee. Although he would go on to marry Edith K. Carow, a family friend since childhood, he continued to blame himself for his "inconstancy" to the memory of Alice. On second marriages, he wrote, "I have always considered that they argued weakness in man's character. You could not reproach me one-half as bitterly as I reproach myself."

In 1898 the United States entered the war against Spain and began an imperialist course which would end with the acquisition of colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Roosevelt, believing staunchly in American democracy and the expansion of its ideals, was vehemently in favor of U.S. involvement. He organized a band of volunteers, later to be known as the "Rough Riders," whose exploits in Cuba became the stuff of national legend. Roosevelt returned as a war hero to an adoring American public and his popularity won him the governorship of New York in 1898.

As Governor, he again defied what was expected of him. Roosevelt attacked the political bosses and the monopolistic big businessmen, labeling them as "the wealthy criminal class." The New York Republican boss, Thomas C. Platt, responded by influencing Roosevelt's nomination to the vice presidency in 1900; a position where Roosevelt could do little harm to the bosses' control over the Republican party. Roosevelt knew he was being "shelved," declaring the vice presidency "a position in which there is no work at all and no reputation to make. [T]he office is merely a show office." But when president McKinley was shot and killed by an anarchist just one year later, Roosevelt could not have been in a better position. He took the oath of office as the 26th (and youngest) President of the United States.

In his role as President, Roosevelt expanded the powers of the executive office. He functioned as a moderate Progressive, effecting legislation which was pro-environment, supporting labor in the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and "trust-busting" more than 40 holding companies during his terms in office. Behind all of these actions was his firm sense of moral correctness. The theme of his administration was fairness for all; he promised a "square deal" for all groups of people. This made him an enemy to the big business interests, who had been favored under McKinley's administration, and a hero to the "common man."

While adored during his presidency, Roosevelt often pushed at the boundaries of his power and influence. He backed the "square deal" with a "big stick" in both domestic and international matters. Fearing foreign intervention when the Dominican Republic could not pay off its debts to European creditors, he declared the United States to be the "international policeman" of the Western hemisphere. To the outrage of Latin Americans, Roosevelt boldly assisted with the debt and declared the Republic to be off limits to all countries except the United States. In another questionable gesture, Roosevelt gained the right to build the Panama Canal in 1903, providing a fruitful link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, only after backing Panama's revolt from Colombia, the country with the rights to the zone. Yet his assertive way of using the "big stick" yielded him great fame. In 1905 he became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize after mediating and arranging peace terms between Germany and Russia in the Treaty of Portsmouth.

In domestic affairs, he functioned in much the same way. Roosevelt felt that "bad" trusts, big business conglomerates which hampered free competition, should be exterminated. In 1902 he charged the Northern Securities Company with a lawsuit later upheld by the Supreme Court in 1904. His sense of moral rightness extended to matters of minute detail as well. Feeling that the spelling of the English language was not accessible to all, in 1906 he demanded that spelling be simplified in all government publications; changing "honour" to "honor," "through" to "thru" and so on. The order created a national sensation and placed Roosevelt's manipulation of his powers as president in a new light.

Remaining true to a statement he made when he took the oath of office for a second time in 1904, Roosevelt did not run for a third term. But when the policies of his hand-chosen successor, William Howard Taft, did not coincide with his own, he became determined to run again in 1912. His campaign backfired when the Republican party split into factions -- some of its members following Roosevelt's new Progressive or "Bull Moose" party -- and facilitated the election of the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.

War erupted in Europe in 1914 and Roosevelt was all the more eager to remain active in political affairs. When not criticizing Wilson's reticence to enter the war, Roosevelt petitioned for permission to assemble a band of men in the "Rough Rider" fashion and go himself. He was denied the opportunity and suffered a severe loss when his youngest son, Quentin, was killed in aerial combat.

In 1918, Roosevelt was diagnosed with inflammatory rheumatism. After a night of feeling especially fatigued, he died on the morning of January 6, 1919 at Sagamore Hill, his home in New York. He had lived an energetic and intense life which would establish his memory in the hearts of many as one of the most dynamic leaders in the country's history. As one New York police captain put it, "It was not only that he was a great man, but, oh, there was such fun in being led by him."

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