The Roosevelts are among the first families of American politics along with the Adams, Kennedys, and, more recently, the Bushes. A major book and a documentary series on public television have renewed interest in this New York political family. Doris Kearns Goodwin had already published on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor during World War II. In her latest work of non-fiction, she turns to the older Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and his Vice President William Howard Taft. Ken Burns’ sets his cameras to examining the lives of the Roosevelt cousins Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor.
Burns film focuses on how the three Roosevelts overcame serious obstacles that challenged their lives. Theodore contended not only with asthma as a young man, but with his wife and mother dying in the same house on the same day. Franklin contracted a disease that left him tied to a wheelchair or with heavy braces on his legs for the rest of his life. Eleanor was orphaned while still a child, and as an adult, discovered fairly early in her marriage her husband had been unfaithful to her. The rest of this blog will focus on Theodore.
Theodore Roosevelt was a weak child who transformed himself into a strong man. His strengths were many: he was a writer, a hunter, a cowboy, an explorer, a husband and a father and last, but not least, a politician. After attending college at Harvard, he married Alice Hathaway Lee In 1880. Alice died in 1884, a few days after giving birth to Roosevelt’s first child, named after her mother. On the day wife died, Roosevelt suffered double loss, his mother had passed away a few hours earlier. In 1886, he married Edith Kermit Carow. Together they had five children, four boys and a girl: Theodore, III, Kermit, Edith, Archibald, and Quentin. Quentin was killed in aerial combat in World War I; Theodore III, died in Europe shortly after DDay in World War II.
Roosevelt’s political career began in the New York State Assembly, from there he was appointed to the United States Civil Service Service Commission, where he advocated strict adherence to the laws governing that aspect of government service. In his brief tenure as a New York City, Police Commissioner, he reformed that department. His next federal government job was Asst. Secretary of the Navy, where he managed the day to day operations of that branch of the military. When Spanish-American War broke out he organized and commanded the Rough Riders and fought in Cuba. In 1898, he was elected Governor of New York, but in 1900, the Republican machine, to Roosevelt out of the state, sought Roosevelt’s nomination for the Vice President of the United State on the ticket with William McKinley, who was running for re-election.
When McKinley died at the hands of assassin, Roosevelt became the President of the United States. Senator Thomas Collier Platt commented, “That damned cowboy is the President of the United States.” The attempt of the New York Republicans to shunt Roosevelt into a job where he no power backfired.
While Theodore Roosevelt was president, he ushered in what became known the Progressive Era. He attempted to bust the powerful economic trusts and corporations who controlled the nation’s economy, regulate workers hours and conditions, control the environment and the methods of food production, set aside federal lands for recreation, etc. The Panama Canal was one Roosevelt’s greatest accomplishments. He sent the naval fleet on a round the world tour. Secretary War Taft and Alice Roosevelt toured the western Pacific on a diplomatic mission designed to impress the Japanese with American power. He negotiated the treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War and earned the Nobel Peace Prize.
When his term of office ended in 1909, he went on a world tour exploring and big game hunting, confident he had left the country in good hands in President Taft. After returning to the United States, Roosevelt discovered Taft was not as progressive as he first thought. When his successor ran for re-election in 1912 against Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt formed the Progressive (“Bull Moose’) party, splitting the Republicans, leading to Wilson’s victory.
For the next seven years, Roosevelt went an expedition to South America, causing him to have health problems, which he never fully recovered. The death of his son Quentin during World War I affected his health even more and died in 1919.
For further reading:
James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn. The Three Roosevelts: Patricians Leaders Who Transformed America.
Selected Books by Theodore Roosevelt:
The Naval War of 1812, 1882
The Wilderness Hunter, 1893
Selected Books about Theodore Roosevelt:
H. W. Brands, T.R., The Last Romantic
Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit
Hermann Hagedorn, Roosevelt in the Badlands
Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex
Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt