Most of us can name three of the four people depicted on Mount Rushmore, especially if they count their pocket change, (the penny, nickel and quarter). The fourth president on Mount Rushmore that few can name is Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Although not on any money today, he was right on the money in his day. He had more fun in the White House than any other president, and he took the presidency in new directions. John Hay, his secretary of state, once said that Teddy was “more fun than a goat.”
Teddy was the first president to be elected on his personality. There had been earlier campaigns which created an image (rarely if ever true) such as the log cabin campaigns of Jackson, W.H. Harrison, and Lincoln. But Teddy was the first to be pure personality. He was before the people, so a falsely packaged image would not succeed. He was real, and the people sensed it. He was the first president to be identified by his initials. When you spoke of “TR”, everyone knew you meant Teddy.
Teddy was a small, sickly child. One day when Teddy was 12 or 13 years old, he was taunted by some local bullies. His father installed a gym for Teddy in the basement of their home, and Teddy became a life-long advocate of what he called “the active life.” By the time he entered Harvard University, things had changed. He joined the boxing team, and became the team captain. While in Law School, he joined the National Guard and became an active horseback rider.
But Teddy was also a serious student. While a senior at Harvard, he wrote a book entitled “The Naval War of 1812.” Although it did not sell well due to his dull writing style, it was hailed by scholars and military experts as the best history of the War of 1812 up to that time.
After school, he surprised his friends and family by entering politics. Although considered an occupation of low class people, Teddy decided that politicians were the governing class, and he “intended to be one of the governing class.” He was elected as a Republican to the 21st District seat in the state assembly. At first, the other legislators did not take him seriously due to his age and the fact that he “looked like a dude.” But his energy and intelligence soon earned him respect, and in the second of his three terms, he was elected leader of the Republican minority in the assembly. His close cooperation with the Democratic governor, Grover Cleveland, prevented him from being re-elected as Republican leader during his third term.
During his third term, tragedy struck. Teddy had been married shortly after graduating. He was deeply in love with his wife, and had a very happy home life. His mother, who lived with Teddy and his wife, became very close to Teddy’s wife. In February 1884, Teddy’s wife died in childbirth. His mother died later the same day. Teddy was devastated.
After leaving his new daughter with relatives, Teddy went west and became a cowboy. He bought several large spreads in the Badlands, and put together the largest cattle ranch in the area. At first, he was not accepted by the locals. He would use language such as “hasten forward quickly” when he wanted a ranch hand to do something. Again, he was considered a dude, but he quickly won respect and even admiration.
Once, when riding through a neighbor’s land as a shortcut to a far piece of his own ranch, Teddy and some of his men came across a stray calf. The rules of the range were that any stray calf would be branded with the mark of whoever owned the land on which the calf was found, and everyone carried branding irons of his neighbor’s for that purpose. Teddy built a fire, but one of his men put Teddy’s brand on the calf. Teddy fired him on the spot. The man protested that he had put Teddy’s brand on the calf, and Teddy replied “Any man who would steal for me would steal from me.” The story spread over the badlands, further making Teddy’s reputation.
Teddy came back east, met and married his second wife, and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City. He served for six years as Civil Service Commissioner, returning to New York City to become Police Commissioner. As Commissioner, he often walked city streets late at night catching police officers accepting bribes.
In 1896, Teddy campaigned for McKinley and was rewarded with the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Teddy opposed McKinley’s efforts to keep peace, favoring a war with Spain. Teddy even said publicly that McKinley “had no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.” One day, when Teddy was in charge due to the Secretary’s absence, he ordered the entire Pacific Fleet from California to Hong Kong with orders to be ready to move against the Spanish in the Philippines in the event of war. This was against the policy of McKinley, but when war came shortly thereafter, the fleet hit the Spanish before they could get away, sinking every Spanish ship with no American losses.
Teddy resigned from his Navy post and joined the fight. He organized a volunteer unit known as the Rough Riders, and Teddy became a national hero. He was always surrounded by reporters due to his colorful personality and his penchant for headline-making statements and actions. The height of his exploits was the famous charge up San Juan Hill (really Kettle Hill) reported (or mis-reported) in great detail by the reporters. He emerged as the greatest hero of that short war, and a household name.
Upon his return, he was elected governor of New York. New York Republican Party leaders found him just as hard to control as he had been in the legislature, but too popular to contain. After two years, he looked unbeatable for re-election. To get rid of him in favor of someone more cooperative, the party leaders worked to get him the vice-presidential nomination. New York Republican boss Senator Thomas Platt said “I don’t want him raising hell in my state any longer.”
Mark Hanna, President McKinley’s chief advisor, warned him about letting that “damned cowboy” get the nomination. “Don’t any of you realize that there is only one life between this madman and the White House?” Teddy had expected to run for re-election as governor in 1902, and then run to replace McKinley at the end of his second term in 1904. He thought the vice-presidency would be the end of his career. But he felt trapped into accepting the nomination. He was elected vice-president, and became our youngest president when McKinley was assassinated.
Teddy was hunting in the Adirondacks when he received word that President McKinley, shot a week earlier, was near death. Teddy then made a heroic nighttime descent down tortuous mountain roads to reach the railroad. He reached Buffalo the next morning, and was sworn in there on September 14, 1901. Of course, this was great stuff for the newspapers.
As president, Teddy wasted no time taking charge. Teddy, along with Taft and Wilson, viewed the presidency differently from previous and later presidents. They were progressives, as opposed to conservatives. A progressive president felt that he could do anything not specifically forbidden by the Constitution; a conservative felt they could do only what was called for in the Constitution. A conservative president, therefore, would see himself as very limited in what he could do. The progressive president would see himself as able to do almost anything. Teddy also believed in the “stewardship” theory. As the only nationally elected person responsible to all voters (he never counted the vice president in this or anything else for that matter) of the nation, he was the only person responsible to protect their interests as a nation. This is not merely a semantic exercise; this difference justified his energetic actions.
But most of his actions came from his active, energetic style. He simply had fun and loved being president. One of his cabinet members once said, ” You must always remember that the President is about six [years old].” Always on the move, between cabinet meetings he would pillow fight with his boys, spar with heavy-weight champion John L. Sullivan, or go off hunting panthers in Colorado or bears in Mississippi. Reporters could always get a good story when Teddy was around.
He immediately began his “Square Deal” program protecting the people against the “criminal rich.” He initiated a trust busting program that broke up the Northern Securities Company, and filed similar anti-trust suits again the beef, sugar, and coal industries. He also threatened to use troops to take over the nations coal mines to bring about a settlement between the mine owners and striking workers. He established the Department of Commerce and Labor and its Bureau of Corporations, and the Elkins Act strengthened the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission. He is also remembered for his conservation program, setting aside more than 150 million acres of land for national parks.
But it was in foreign policy where Teddy really had his fun. The US had just completed building a fleet of new, powerful battleships. Teddy ordered them painted white and wanted to send them on a good will tour around the world. This was part of Teddy’s “Big Stick” policy; he wanted to show the world our awesome naval power. Congress, trying to assert its authority, refused to appropriate the extra funds needed for the tour. Teddy ordered the Great White Fleet, as it was called, from California to Hong Kong, using existing funding. He then told Congress they if they wanted their new, expensive ships back, they would have to appropriate more money to get them home. When they did, Teddy, as commander-in-chief, chose a route that covered the rest of the world, getting them home about two years after their initial departure.
Another example came during Teddy’s mediation of the Russo-Japanese War at Portsmouth. Teddy invited both nations to send a delegation to negotiate an end to the war. There was the traditional opening formal dinner. The heads of both delegations insisted on having the seat of honor at Teddy’s right. Both said they would leave if they did not receive this honor. When the professional diplomats could not resolve this problem, Teddy simply held a buffet dinner with no chairs. The Treaty of Portsmouth ended the war, and earned Teddy the Nobel Peace Prize, the first president to earn one.
The Roosevelt Administration had negotiated a treaty with Colombia (which then owned Panama) to build a canal across the isthmus. The Colombian Senate rejected the treaty. Roosevelt called to Washington a rebel leader in Panama, recognized his government and sent warships to guard it. He then negotiated the canal treaty with the new nation he had just created, and started building the Panama Canal.
Teddy always had fun. He was known to keep cabinet members waiting for a meeting while he had pillow fights with his four sons. Teddy made one mistake. On the night of his election in 1904, he announced that he would not run for a third term. In 1908, he regretted that statement, but retired anyway. In 1912, he ran again, saying that he had meant not to run for a consecutive third term. One supporter explained by saying that a man may refuse a second cup of coffee, but he does not mean that he will not have another cup the next day or ever again. For years afterwards, vaudeville comics could always get a laugh by asking the audience for another cup of coffee.
Even more than during the Spanish-American War, reporters were always around Teddy. He was always good for a story. Always an avid outdoorsman in every sense, he was a famed hunter. Once on a trip in Mississippi, a bear cub wandered into camp. Teddy was encouraged to shoot it, but refused since there was no challenge in shooting a baby bear. The resulting newspaper stories and editorial cartoons inspired a toy maker to create a stuffed animal that he called Teddy’s Bear Cub. This name was later shortened to Teddy’s Bear, and today it is the famous Teddy Bear.
Teddy, a relative said, always wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. He had a style that caught the imagination of the American public, and was possibly the most popular man in the nation during his term of office. It is interesting that he has so quickly faded from the American memory.
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