In any poll of historians or American citizens Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) ranks among the top five of presidents of the United States. He is certainly one of the two or three most colorful individuals who ever held the highest office. The mere mention of his name inspires smiles and, often enough, imitations of his toothy falsetto. Roosevelt is an American giant—smaller in achievement, perhaps, but greater in American mythology than his distant cousin Franklin. Indeed FDR’s New Deal was in many respects a working out of ideas that were formulated during the later phases of Theodore Roosevelt’s career—particularly during the Bull Moose Party era that began in 1912.
Roosevelt’s more general achievement as an American statesman may be summarized as a nearly lifelong threefold campaign. First, he believed that the United States was ready to make the transition from an inward looking, isolationist, and agrarian republic into a world power. Roosevelt believed this revolution was coming, like or not, and that such an unprecedented event would require a new kind of leadership Second, Roosevelt believed that the United States Constitution of the Founding Fathers, written in 1787, needed to be broadly, expansively, and energetically interpreted to enable it to embrace the challenges that had emerged in the post-Civil War period. He despised the cherished civic tradition—best represented by Thomas Jefferson—that the Constitution should be read as a restraining rather than an enabling document. Roosevelt believed that the national government had a right—and duty—“to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.” “I am not,” he insisted, “pleading for an extension of constitutional power. I am pleading that constitutional power which already exists shall be applied to new conditions which did not exist when the Constitution went into being.” Theodore Roosevelt was a thoroughgoing Hamiltonian, though his favorite president, and his most frequently cited presidential model, was Abraham Lincoln. “The Constitution belongs to the people and not the people to the Constitution.”
Third, Roosevelt believed that the executive branch (and especially the president) needed to take charge of American national life on behalf of the American people, and that state and local authorities, not to mention the national legislative branch, ought to defer to the national executive. Between 1901 and 1909 Roosevelt increased the authority and power of the American presidency to an unprecedented mass and volume. The president, Roosevelt wrote, should “do all he could for the people, and not . . . content himself with the negative merit of keeping his talents undamaged in napkin. . . . I did not care a rap for the mere form and show of power; I cared immensely for the use that could be made of the substance.”
After his wife Alice and mother Mittie died on the same day, February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt believed that the light had gone out of his life forever. That summer he went out to his ranch in the badlands of Dakota Territory, and threw himself into the strenuous life. At first dismissed as an Eastern dude, “Four Eyes,” Roosevelt surrendered to the spirit of place of the Little Missouri River Valley, and found solace and common humanity among the roughriders of the American West. In North Dakota he learned lessons that propelled him into national greatness. Returning to Medora, North Dakota, in 1903, Roosevelt said, “It was here that the romance of my life began.”
Theodore Roosevelt became the twenty-sixth president of the United States on September 14, 1901, following the assassination of William McKinley. Although he considered himself an “accidental president” (until 1904), Roosevelt threw himself into the role with his customary exuberance and effectively redefined the American presidency. He challenged the excesses of American capitalism, taught the American people to accept their emerging imperial role in the Pacific, single-handedly inaugurated the Panama Canal, pushed pioneering economic regulation through Congress, negotiated a settlement of the Russo-Japanese War, and sent the Great White Fleet on a friendship cruise around the world. He is considered the greatest conservationist in American history. He rightly declared that none of his predecessors had ever enjoyed being president more than he did, and he became the first celebrity president.
Statesman, Rough Rider, President
Theodore Roosevelt was an unforgettable part of our history and heritage.