An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States

Sep 17, 2013 by


Theodore Roosevelt

Michael F. Shaughnessy –


  1. Today we will look at Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was born October 27, 1858, in New York City. Roosevelt’s father was a wealthy businessman, and his childhood home was in what is now the Gramercy section of New York City. Although frequently sick as a child, Roosevelt had boundless energy and an almost insatiable curiosity. He was home schooled until he was 18, at which point he entered Harvard University. Roosevelt participated in many activities (he finished second in the university’s boxing competition, for example), but still managed to graduate magna cum laude in 1880. He entered law school at Columbia after receiving his bachelor’s degree, doing well academically while at the time writing a well received book on the naval history of the War of 1812. Before receiving his law degree, Roosevelt was offered a chance to run as a Republican for the New York State Assembly in 1881. He did, and was elected to that office. He served until 1884, when he received both a personal and a professional setback.

First, on February 14 of that year, both his wife and his mother passed away. Second, in June of that year he found himself on the losing end of the battle at the Republican national convention regarding the eventual choice of James G. Blaine as the party’s candidate for president. Disillusioned, Roosevelt chose to go west and live on a ranch that he owned in the Dakota Territory. Roosevelt invested close to $80,000 in that ranch and another that he also purchased, but a brutal winter in 1887 virtually wiped out his entire herd of livestock. After this setback, Roosevelt left the Dakota Territory and moved back to New York City. There he resumed his political career, campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison in 1888.

After he won, Harrison appointed Roosevelt to the United States Civil Service Commission. Roosevelt served in that capacity until 1895, when he became a New York City police commissioner. He won high praise for his efforts to make the New York City police force a modern and honest agency. Because of the reputation that he had established as an expert on naval affairs, in 1897 Roosevelt received an appointment as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy from President William McKinley. Roosevelt took many steps that would help the US Navy win two decisive victories over the Spanish Navy during the Spanish-American War. At the outset of hostilities in April of 1898, Roosevelt resigned his position with the Naval Department. He did so because US Army Colonel Leonard Wood, tasked with raising a regiment of volunteer cavalry, had agreed to take on Roosevelt as the regiment’s second-in-command. Appointed a lieutenant colonel, Roosevelt helped train the new regiment, which had among its members an appreciable number of cowboys from the New Mexico and Arizona territories. Because of this, newspapers began to refer to the regiment—officially known as the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment—as “the Rough Riders.” Roosevelt and the regiment sailed to Cuba, and when Wood was promoted to brigadier general Roosevelt became the commander of the outfit.

He led them into action at the battles of Las Guasimas, Kettle Hill, and San Juan Hill, and was recommended for the Medal of Honor. He would receive that award in posthumously in 2001, making him the only chief executive to have ever won the Medal of Honor. After the war ended in August of 1898, Roosevelt returned to New York City. The state’s Republicans chose him as their candidate for governor that fall, and Roosevelt won the election. In his two years in office, Roosevelt proved to be a reformist governor, so much so that the national leaders of the Republican Party faced pressure from New York business leaders to reign in Roosevelt. The solution that they came up with was to ask Roosevelt to become McKinley’s running mate in the election of 1900. Roosevelt was not eager to serve in that capacity, but for the sake of the party he agreed to do so.

The Republican ticket won, and Roosevelt was inaugurated vice-president on March 4, 1901. But Roosevelt’s time as vice-president would be brief: after McKinley was assassinated in September of 1901, Roosevelt succeeded him as president.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

It is difficult to establish what Roosevelt is best known for, as he had a litany of accomplishments to point to when he left office. If I had to choose one thing, however, I would focus on his role in securing land for a canal through Central America. Two routes for this thoroughfare were initially considered, but the one through the Isthmus of Panama became the preferred choice by the time that Roosevelt became president. Roosevelt sought to secure a lease on a strip of land ten miles wide through the isthmus that could be used for a canal, but there was a major complication. The Isthmus of Panama was at that time controlled by the nation of Colombia, and after diplomats from that nation had negotiated a treaty with the United States to give us the lease desired by Roosevelt the Colombian legislature refused to ratify the agreement. Roosevelt then gave encouragement to a diverse group of people who sought to break Panama away from Colombian control, and with his backing the revolution succeeded.

The new Panamanian government then negotiated a treaty with the United States that allowed us to build what would become the Panama Canal. This waterway stands as the most important legacy of the Roosevelt presidency.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Roosevelt was among the most intelligent of all the presidents. He had a photographic memory, and read voraciously. Possessing tremendous energy, Roosevelt acted decisively when he had made up his mind on an issue. Everyone he met was impressed with the force of his personality.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Roosevelt shared the racial prejudices of many of his contemporaries. While capable of treating individuals of color with respect, as when he invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, Roosevelt’s actions towards Colombia show his belief in the superiority of the Caucasian race.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

If only for his putting the United States on a path to building the Panama Canal, Roosevelt’s presidency would be important for its impact on the world. But Roosevelt also influenced world history in a number of other ways. He was, for example, the first American president to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in brokering a peace treaty to end the Russo-Japanese War. He made the United States a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Historians have consistently rated Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt as the three greatest presidents, with Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt rounding out the top five. Theodore Roosevelt will probably never supersede any of the top three because those presidents faced crises far greater he did, but he will likely never lose his spot in the top five because of his record as the chief executive.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Roosevelt will always be a noteworthy president for two reasons. First, although the idea of national parks did not originate with him, he did more than any other president for the cause of conservation. And second, his support for the Pure Food and Drug Act insured that American consumers would always have the federal government looking out for its best interests.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our twenty-sixth President?

While some Presidents have achieved an iconic status, Roosevelt and Lincoln are the only two to have popular toys named after them: Lincoln Logs for the sixteenth president, and the Teddy Bear for the twenty-sixth. That is high praise for a man who held the highest office in the land.

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