With the assassination of President William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt became President. Roosevelt’s retirement could hardly be called that. After leaving the White House in March 1909, he went big game hunting in Africa. The year-long safari included more than 200 porters, his son Kermit, and taxidermists and naturalists from the Smithsonian Institution. Roosevelt and his party killed 5 elephants, 7 hippos, 9 lions and 13 rhinos, and collected more than 200 specimens of plants and animals for the Smithsonian Institution. After that, he took a tour of Europe where he was greeted royally by the crowned heads of Europe, and then returned home to the United States to a hero’s welcome.
Roosevelt felt that his successor, President William Howard Taft, had become too conservative. Many progressive members of the Republican Party urged Teddy to run for President again. In February 1912, he declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. He lost the nomination to Taft, whose supporters controlled the convention machinery, and bolted the party to form the Progressive Party. His Progressive, or Bull Moose, ticket split the majority Republican vote and allowed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson to win the election. This was the only time in our history in which an incumbent President, a former President, and a future President ran against each other in the same election.
It was during this Bull Moose campaign that Roosevelt survived an attempted assassination. On October 14, 1912, a bartender named John Schrank shot TR with a .38 caliber Colt revolver in the chest. The bullet passed through a doubled-over copy of his speech and his metal spectacles case. The bullet, although greatly slowed-down by the speech and case, entered Roosevelt’s chest. He insisted on finishing the speech before going to the hospital for treatment. In a dramatic but foolhardy display of bravado, he spoke for almost an hour. He then went to the hospital, where doctors treated the wound, but decided not to remove the bullet. Roosevelt carried the bullet inside him for the rest of his life.
In 1916, Roosevelt returned to the Republican Party and helped campaign for the candidate Charles Evans Hughes, who was favored to defeat President Wilson. Roosevelt campaigned for the Republican, but often opposed the stated position of his party and its candidate. Roosevelt campaigned more for war than for the Republican Party, and caused many voters to vote for Wilson as the peace candidate. The day after Wilson’s surprise victory, one Republican sent Roosevelt a telegram saying, “you contributed more than any other person in American (to Wilson’s victory) . . . Wilson ought to give you a Cabinet position, as you elected him beyond doubt . . . You made Wilson a million votes.”
During World War I, Roosevelt offered to recruit and lead a division of soldiers, but Wilson rejected the offer, and made sure Roosevelt did not serve in uniform. He continued to write books and magazine articles, and served as associate editor of Outlook Magazine. In 1913-1914, he led an expedition up the River of Doubt in Brazil and collected more plant and animal specimens. On this trip, he contracted malaria, and also suffered a gash in his leg that became infected. The malaria recurred for the rest of his life for which he received treatment at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. He died in 1919, as he was beginning another run for the Presidency.
William Howard Taft was elected President in 1908 to succeed Theodore Roosevelt with, and because of, Roosevelt’s support. By 1912, the two Presidents had become opponents for the nomination. When Roosevelt lost, he formed a third party and ran against Taft. Taft lost his bid for re-election. (See above.) He left the White House and became the Kent Professor of Law at Yale University. He lectured on government and constitutional and international law. He spoke around the country and wrote magazine articles. The year he left the White House, he was elected President of the American Bar Association. In 1916, he campaigned for Charles Evans Hughes, but later supported President Wilson’s efforts to keep the U.S. out of the war. In 1918, after we entered the war, Wilson appointed Taft head of the National War Labor Board.
The position Taft had always wanted was Chief Justice of the United States. Ironically, one of his first duties as President had been to name another person to the position. That person retired in 1921, after Republican Warren Harding was elected. Harding appointed Taft to the coveted position of Chief Justice. He was the only person to serve as both President and Chief Justice of the United States. His administrative accomplishments were more important than his judicial decisions. He cleared the court’s backlog of cases and secured the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1925, which reorganized and modernized the federal judicial system. Taft wrote more than his share of the Court’s decisions during his tenure, and the strain of overwork finally took its toll. On February 3, 1930, he resigned due to health problems, mainly heart trouble. He died on March 8, 1930 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He and John F. Kennedy are the only Presidents buried there.
Democrat Woodrow Wilson followed Taft in the White House. Wilson won the election with a plurality of the popular vote due to the split in the Republican majority caused by the Bull Moose Party. (See above.) He was re-elected in a surprise victory in 1916. In October 1919, weakened by the workload and stress of the war, Wilson suffered a paralytic stroke. He had been campaigning for the acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles, and with it the League of Nations, which was opposed by the Republicans. His stroke left him weak and bed-ridden for the next six months. He watched as his League of Nations went down to defeat in the Senate. The U.S. never did join the League of Nations. In the election of 1920, the Democratic candidate campaigned in support of Wilson’s policies, including the League of Nations, and was overwhelmingly defeated.
Wilson took the rejection with calm and dignity. He retired in Washington, D.C. where he opened a law partnership with his third secretary of state, Bainbridge Colby. His health prevented him from doing any real work, however. On December 10, 1920, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his role in creating the League of Nations.
Wilson attended Warren Harding’s funeral in August 1923. On November 10, 1923, he made his only radio address, on the significance of Armistice Day. Unfamiliar with the equipment, he concluded his speech and then asked in range of the open microphone, “That’s all, isn’t it?” The next day, he addressed a crowd gathered outside his home saying, “I am not one of those that have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for. I have seen fools resist Providence before, and I have seen their destruction, as will come upon these again, utter destruction and contempt. That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns.” On February 3, 1924, Wilson died in his sleep.
The next article will examine the conservative Presidents who took over before the Great Depression and what they did after they left office. Some made even greater contributions after they retired than they did during their elective career.