Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), the twenty-sixth President of the United States, is most well-known for his dedication to conservation, domestic policy and public works projects like the Panama Canal. In the early nineteenth century, environmental conservation policy was considered very radical and was virtually unheard of in the political arena. Roosevelt, however, was passionate about preservation of the environment and, during his presidency (from 1904-08), he established 150 national forests, fifty-one federal bird reservations, four national game preserves, five national parks, eighteen national monuments, twenty-four reclamation projects, and seven conservation commissions (TRA "Biography: Conservation"). It is calculated that the forest reserve in the U.S. increased from 43,000,000 acres to 194,000,000 acres during his tenure, an increase of over 400% (TRA "Biography: National Forests").
Along with groundbreaking policy regarding the environment and conservation, Roosevelt also made great strides with anti-trust domestic policy. He broke up large business monopolies and enforced existing regulatory laws such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. He also created new laws regulating the food industry with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and made significant strides in meat packing plants with an additional meat inspection bill.
President Roosevelt was not only radical in his conservation and domestic policy but was also progressive in other areas. He was the first president to: fly a plane, be submerged in a submarine, own a car, have a telephone, entertain an African American in the White House, and win a Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, he had risen to true political power as a war hero-as Lieutenant-Colonel of the Rough Riders credited with winning the battle at San Juan Hill, a turning point in the Spanish-American War.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was born on 27 October 1858 to Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. and Martha ("Mittie") Bulloch Roosevelt. The Roosevelt family lived in New York City and was descendents of Dutch immigrants. Theodore, Sr. was a wealthy glassware merchant and provided his family with many luxuries. "Teedie" (as he was nicknamed) was said to be the favorite in the family of four children and was given special favor by his father. Perhaps this was on account of his fragile state. "Teedie" had severe asthma that turned him into an invalid at the young age of three. His attacks were so brutal that the family and his physicians often thought his life was at stake. Because of the delicate condition that often confined him to bed, "Teedie" became an avid reader and kept a
journal for most of his life. This love of reading and writing prompted Roosevelt to write more than three dozen books in his lifetime. Young Roosevelt was not satisfied with his bedridden and sickly state and, in early adolescence, with the urgings of his father, began a regiment of rigorous exercise and strength training. Theodore, Sr. said to his son, "You have the mind but you do not have the body, and without the help of the body the mind can not go as far as it should. You must make your body" (Auchincloss 2001, 12). His efforts were fruitful - they helped to transform him into the robust, vigorous outdoorsman who became the twenty-sixth President of the United States.
In 1876, young Theodore set out on his own to attend Harvard University. At Harvard he thrived on the scientific coursework but dismissed it as a career path because of the necessity of working in an indoor lab. During this time, Roosevelt met and courted Alice Hathaway Lee, a cousin of one of his classmates. According to his hand-written journal, Roosevelt was deeply in love with her. Upon graduation and his twenty-second birthday Alice and Theodore were married.
Soon after he married, Roosevelt began attending Columbia Law School (1880), but gave it up after only two years to run for the legislative assembly in Albany, New York. He was elected to the assembly and reelected twice, in both 1883 and 1884. As a member of the Assembly, Theodore was an outspoken and active opponent of corrupt business and the upper class. Tragedy struck his life twice on the same day in 1884, when both his mother and beloved wife Alice died. This left him devastated and a single parent to their daughter. With the weight of these tragedies too much to bear, he retreated from public life to the badlands of the Dakotas.
There, Roosevelt spent two years recovering from disappointment and grief and forging great friendships that, in later years, would aid his political career. It is often said that his devotion to conservation was solidified at his Elkhorn Ranch as he became increasingly concerned with the disappearing wildlife and their natural habitats. Roosevelt saw that these problems were due to overgrazing of land, deforestation and other land abuses. He made a vow to protect these natural resources by any means necessary.
In 1886, he returned to New York and public life and he married Edith Carow. It has been said that Roosevelt and Carow were a perfect match in that they were both strong-willed and tough and butted heads on more than one occasion. But their marriage was a happy one and produced five children. In 1889, newly elected President Benjamin Harrison appointed Roosevelt the Civil Service Commissioner. As commissioner (1889-1895), he became familiar with the "ins and outs" of Washington politics and gained many lasting friendships, some of which would aid his future political career. In 1895, Roosevelt was appointed to the position of President of the New York City Police Commission. Even though his time as President of the Police Commission was short-
lived, he was able to reorganize the New York police department and purge much of the corruption that had taken over.
Fervent campaigning in William McKinley's 1896 election, won Roosevelt the prized position of Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy under John Long. Long was an inattentive man who was more than happy to have Theodore fill the responsibilities of both of their positions. During this time, Roosevelt established and acted upon most of his notions of foreign policy. He was fervent in wanting to secure the U.S. as a mighty world power, and to do this he recognized that the U.S. navy would have to be built up and become more immediately mobile. It is from this notion that the need for the Panama Canal arose.
In order to build such a canal in South America, the U.S. would have to secure land there, thus provoking war with Spain. Roosevelt was delighted when he was given a reason to join the army. The impetus came in 1898, when the USS Maine battleship, was blown up in Havana Harbor. Roosevelt immediately quit his job and joined the army as a Lieutenant-Colonel. He was a fervent supporter of the Spanish-American War. It was during his time that Roosevelt earned great fame with his regiment of Rough Riders who ultimately altered the course of the war with their capture of San Juan Hill.
When Roosevelt returned home from the war, he was a national hero and immensely popular. Many wanted him to run for office, and none more than Tom Platt the unofficial leader of the New York Republican Party. Platt was an advocate of big business and was concerned with Roosevelt's history of going after corruption no matter the source or consequences. However, at that time, there was no Republican more popular than Roosevelt. He was the only logical choice to run on the Republican ticket for Governor of New York. Roosevelt easily won this election and, in January 1899, he was sworn in as New York state governor. During his time in this office, he made good on his quest to eradicate dishonesty and unfair preferences given to big business by signing into law a provision that eliminated the tax-exempt status of utility companies.
After the death of McKinley's vice-president, Garret Hobart, in 1899, Platt pushed hard for the appointment of Roosevelt as vice-president. It is noted on many accounts that he did so for deceitful reasons: he wanted Roosevelt out of New York and out of his territory. Other high-ranking political men agreed with Platt in his nomination of Roosevelt, but they did so because of their admiration for Roosevelt. In 1900, the McKinley/Roosevelt ticket won the presidential election against William Jennings Bryant. Tragedy struck in 1901 when President McKinley was shot twice while shaking hands at
the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The wounds were fatal and he died on 14 September 1901. Roosevelt was quickly summoned from a mountain climbing expedition and returned to Washington to be sworn in as the twenty-sixth President of the United States. He was elected for a second term in 1904.
As president, Roosevelt was extremely progressive helping to establish the U.S. as a participatory world power as opposed to the isolationist condition under which it had been operating. He reigned in big business and broke up monopolies. He was an avid and radical conservationist who established an unprecedented number of national forests, bird reservations, game preserves, national parks, national monuments, and reclamation projects. Not since Roosevelt has a president conserved so much land purely for environmental preservation.
Roosevelt also created lasting legislation for the protection and conservation of the environment. In 1903, the Public Lands Commission was formed to study public land policy and law. This commission helped Roosevelt shape new government regulations concerning the use of public land. Two years later, the Bureau of Forestry was created so that timberland could be conscientiously harvested rather than stripped bare. With these two commissions and many others, Roosevelt attempted to build a legislative barrier around the environment securing and conserving acreage equal to the size of the states on the eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida. In 1907, he remarked,
"In utilizing and conserving the natural resources of the Nation, the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight. The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life." (TRA "Biography: Conservation")
He continued this quest of environmental exploration and conservation when his presidency ended in 1909. Only a year after leaving office, Roosevelt set out on an expedition to Africa subsidized by the Smithsonian Institution. His goal was to collect rare specimens for the purpose of scientific research. On this safari, he and his companions (taxidermists and naturalists from the Smithsonian) collected over 512 animals that were donated to the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History and the San Francisco Museum. It was on a major trek to the Amazon (for the American Museum of Natural History) that Roosevelt gravely injured his leg. The injury became severely infected and Roosevelt contracted a tropical illness. This condition began the gradual decline of his health, as he was plagued by many illnesses and hospital stays in the following years. Roosevelt, however, had one last trick up his sleeve with the formation of the Bull Moose Campaign (Progressive Party) in 1912. Roosevelt and his followers were disgusted with the state of the Republican Party and refused to support the presidential candidate William Howard Taft. This group, which became known as the Bull Moose Party, decided to break from tradition and create their own place on the presidential ticket. Officially, they formed the Progressive Party and nominated Roosevelt as their candidate. Few in the party actually expected Roosevelt to win, but they were adamant in making a statement against the Republicans. They campaigned tirelessly. The result of the election of 1912 was of little surprise to any of the parties - Woodrow Wilson was elected President of the United States, Roosevelt came in second and Taft a distant third. Theodore Roosevelt said of this campaign and subsequent election, "We have fought the good fight, we have kept the faith, and we have nothing to regret" (Gardner 1973, 280).
In the following years, Roosevelt remained outspoken in the political arena, never shying away from expressing his opinion. He did, however, refuse the 1916 nomination for president from the Progressive Party. He felt that they had become too radical and he once again pledged allegiance to the Republicans.
Roosevelt spent the next three years with family, writing and exploring uncharted territory in both Africa and the Amazon. In the fall of 1918, Roosevelt entered the hospital with an attack of inflammatory rheumatism that rendered him completely bedridden. He never fully recovered and spent the following months in and out of the hospital. He ultimately died in his sleep in January 1919.
Theodore Roosevelt's life of public service was spent in an impressive number of political positions, including New York State Assemblyman, Police Commissioner of New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Colonel of the Rough Riders, Governor of New York, and Vice-President and President of the United States. During his political lifetime, he established himself as a champion of truth, honesty and environmental conservation. In each of the positions he held, Roosevelt made sure to exhaust all resources available to the position to abolish corruption and to preserve the natural resources and wonders of our great nation. Through his great political power, Roosevelt enacted many laws and regulations, most notably for his environmental preservation efforts. In particular, it is estimated that he protected over 230 million acres of wilderness, a feat of conservation that directly contributed to the vast wealth of natural beauty that this country still possesses today.
On a broader note, Roosevelt realized the power wielded by his position as the third branch of government, and he took full advantage of it in ways that his predecessors had not. Before Roosevelt, the U.S. presidency was indeed a powerful position, but no chief executive had realized the vast range of power allotted to this position. Roosevelt made full use of this power, providing a model of executive efficacy that would inspire
many presidents to come, changing both the shape of the presidency and of the nation itself. Historians George Brown Tindall and David Shi explain,
The country had emerged from the Spanish-American War a world power, and [Roosevelt] insisted that this entailed major new responsibilities. To ensure that his country accepted such international obligations, Roosevelt was willing to stretch both the Constitution and executive power to the limit. (1992, 923)
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Roosevelt's actions, both in and out of the political arena, contributed the philanthropic history of the United States in that he was a constant advocate of actions that would result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. His fervor and desire to establish wildlife refuges, national forests and national monuments made him many enemies, but for the greater good he accepted this concession and risk. Roosevelt's ideas truly form the basis for the missions of many present-day environmental organizations like Green Peace and the environmental protection agencies that now exist in every state. In his 1916 book, A Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open , he summarized his view on conservation,
"Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying 'the game belongs to the people'. So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number within the womb of time. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose and method." (From TRA "Quotations")
Key Related Ideas
- Conservation: The protection, preservation, management, or restoration of wildlife and of natural resources such as forests, soil, and water.
- Game preserve: A place in which fish, birds and other wildlife, are preserved from purposes of sport or food.
- National forest: A large expanse of land that is protected by the government and in which harvesting or hunting may only be conducted under controlled conditions designated by the government or law makers.
- National monument: A natural landmark or a structure or site of historic interest set aside by a national government and maintained for public enjoyment or study.
- Panama Canal: A shipping canal, approximately fifty-one miles in length, crossing the Isthmus of Panama connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. It was begun by the French in 1881, but the project was abandoned in 1889. The United States gained construction rights after Panama declared its independence in 1903. The canal was opened to traffic on 15 August 1914.
- Reclamation: Through the use of dams and irrigation, arable land is created in areas previously too dry to farm.
- Rough Riders: This is the popular name for the 1st Regiment of U.S. Cavalry Volunteers, organized largely by Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War. Its members were mostly ranchers and cowboys from the West, with a few adventurous blue bloods from the Eastern universities.
- San Juan Hill: Located near the Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba, San Juan Hill was the scene of the famous battle in the Spanish-American War in which Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders took part. It was said that the battle was the turning point of the war.
- The teddy bear: While on a hunting expedition, President Roosevelt refused to shoot an injured bear tied to a tree and the incident was drawn by a political cartoonist, Clifford Berryman. The famous cartoon gave a shopkeeper, Morris Michton the idea of calling stuffed bears sewn by his wife "Teddy's bears" (with permission from Roosevelt). In 1903, an American ordered hundreds of stuffed bears from a German company, Steiff (run by Margaret Steiff, the sewer of the soon-to-be famous toy; TRA "TR and the Teddy Bear"). Today, stuffed bears are called teddy bears.
- USS Maine (Battleship Maine): One of the first United States battleships, an innovation in its time. The ship's destruction in the Cuba Harbor of Havana was a catalyst in bringing war between the U.S. and Spain. The loss of the ship was a tremendous shock to the U.S., as its superior construction was supposed to render it "unsinkable" and since it was positioned in "friendly" territory. "Remember the Maine" became the battle-cry of the United States military forces in the Spanish-American War.
Important People Related to the Topic
- Henry Cabot Lodge: Life-long friend and confidante of Roosevelt's, was also a member of the Republican Party. The men had a falling out over Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" campaign.
- John Muir: The father of the United States National Park system and founder of one of The Sierra Club, the country's largest environmental advocacy group. Through his famous writings, lobbying efforts, and western treks, Muir helped many begin to understand the importance of forest and land conservation in America. He is often credited for initiating the modern Conservation movement. Theodore Roosevelt is known to have been inspired by Muir's work and spent time with him in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
- Gifford Pinchot: Chief of the New York Division of Forestry in 1898 under Governor Roosevelt. He was appointed a cabinet position soon after Roosevelt took office as president. The men were both passionate about the environment and conservation and Pinchot was essential to the creation of many of the national forests, preserves and reclamation projects Roosevelt undertook.
- Tom Platt: The unofficial "boss" of New York politics who helped Roosevelt's gubernatorial candidacy and nominated him for vice-president upon Garret Hobart's untimely death, placing Roosevelt in line for the presidency.
Related Nonprofit Organization
- American Land Conservancy works with citizens and local and national government to preserve land and natural resources. This organization was founded on many of the same principals that motivated Roosevelt's conservation efforts (ALC).
- The Conservation Fund is a nonprofit organization that focuses its efforts on land conservation, sustainable programs, and leadership training (The Conservation Fund).
- National Parks Conservation Association , founded in 1919, is an advocacy organization that works to preserve America's national parks (NPCA).
- The Nature Conservancy is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect earth's natural resources. The Nature Conservancy has protected 116 million acres of land around the world in its five decades of operation (The Nature Conservancy).
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- National Parks Conservation Association. "About NCPA." National Parks Conservation Association. https://www.npca.org/about_npca/.
- National Portrait Gallery. "Theodore Roosevelt: Icon of the American Century." Smithsonian Institution. http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/roosevelt .
- The Nature Conservancy. "About Us." The Nature Conservancy. https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/who-we-are/?vu=r.nature.aboutus.
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- Theodore Roosevelt Association. "Biography: Conservation: National Forests." Theodore Roosevelt Association. http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/conservation.htm#NatlForests .
- Theodore Roosevelt Association. "Quotations." Theodore Roosevelt Association. http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/quotes.htm .
- Theodore Roosevelt Association. "TR and the Teddy Bear." Theodore Roosevelt Association. http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/kidscorner/tr_teddy.htm .
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park. "Homepage." National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/thro/ .
- Tindall, George Brown and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History , Third ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. ISBN: 0393961486.
This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.