In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt was a pencil-pushing desk jockey with no clear political future. Six months later, he was the war-hero governor-elect of New York and well on his way to the presidential ticket. How'd he do it?
Follow along as Roosevelt pushes the nation toward war with Spain, quits the safety of his Washington desk job to fight in Cuba, comes home a war hero with a bright political future, rises to the white house, then father's the modern progressive movement and overcomes treaties, disease, jungles, and international intrigue to build the Panama Canal.
1. T.R. the last Romantic – H.R. Brands
2. The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century – Scott Miller
3. William Howard Taft – Jeffrey Rosen
4. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made – Patricia O’Toole
5. Grover Cleveland – Henry F. Graff
6. Rutherford B. Hayes – Hans. L. Trefousse
7. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur – Scott S. Greenberger
26.) Teddy Roosevelt 1901-1909
Welcome to the Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 26, Theodore Roosevelt, the Roughrider.
Theodore Roosevelt is a politician who has been looming on the horizon for a while now and I have to say, cutting an intimidating figure.
This is a guy who drank a gallon of coffee a day and lived the type of hyper-active lifestyle you’d expect from someone with that much caffeine in their veins. He was a state assemblyman, a rancher, a police chief, an author, an assistant naval secretary, a rough rider, a governor, a vice president, a president, a big game hunter, and more. How do you tell that story in less than 60 minutes, which is the whole conceit of my show?
You don’t. You can’t! Which is why it’s lucky I started interviewing historians to fill the gaps in the narrative a year ago. I have a bunch of them lined up over the weeks ahead to help fill in the portrait that is Teddy Roosevelt.
For this episode, I’m going to focus most of my time on the 15 months that turned Teddy from a C-list political nobody to an A-list political heavyweight, and the ways his administration changed the presidency.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born October 27 , 1858, in New York City with a silver spoon in his mouth. And I’m not kidding. Theodore’s family had been loaded ever since his grandfather made the right business moves during the panic of 1837 to turn an economic tragedy into opportunity, creating a business and fortune that would last for generations.
By the time TR came into the world, his father was something altogether new in the 19th century – a full-time philanthropist. Someone who spent their time, and their fortune, improving the community they were a part of. TR senior had a HUGE influence on TR junior’s personality, politics, and career. So I’m going to spend a little bit more time than usual on TR’s childhood here.
For one, TR’s father inspired Theodore to live an “active lifestyle.” Young Theodore was a scrawny kid who frequently suffered terrifying asthma attacks. When Theodore was a boy, his father told him he’d have to build a strong body to overcome his Asthma. And TR took this advice to heart. He started working out and taking boxing lessons. When he turned 14, his father bought him a gun. When he couldn’t hit anything, his father bought him glasses. TR is famous for living a non-stop lifestyle, and it started here with the influence of his father.
Roosevelt sr., in a weird way, also inspired his son’s martial vigor, when he refused to serve in the Civil War. Teddy’s mother was from the south, and she forbid her husband from joining a war against her southern family. Theodore would forever have trouble reconciling his father’s refusal to fight in the civil war and it would inspire him to go to great lengths to engineer his own chance to serve in a war and prove that Roosevelts could be heroes.
The third big impact TR’s father had on his son was instill him with a passion for political and economic reform. TR senior’s nickname among his children was “Greatheart,” and he led the charge to found the New York children’s aid society and orthopedic hospital. In 1877, Greatheart was asked by president Rutherford B Hayes to clean up the New York City Customs House, which corrupt party boss Roscoe Conkling was using as a piggy bank to fuel his political machine. What happened next is familiar to anyone who listened to episodes 19 or 21 on Presidents Hayes or Chester Arthur – Roscoe Conkling opposed Theodore Senior’s appointment to the customs house and fought it every step of the way, dragging Roosevelt’s name through the mud and delaying congressional proceedings to block him. As the battle ground on, Theodore senior got sick with cancer. In December, 1877 Conkling won the fight. Roosevelt senior’s nomination was defeated. Two months later, Greatheart died. Passing away hours before his son could return home from college to say his goodbyes. This would have a tremendous impact on TR’s sense of justice and hunger for reform.
So, to recap, TR’s father inspired him to be a progressive, to live an active lifestyle, and filled him with a shame he felt he could only overcome by serving his country in war. TR is going to carry this with him the rest of his life.
The years following Greatheart’s death were an absolute blur for TR that I’m going to run through quickly, because I have some future historian interviews lined up where we’d dive deeper into much of it.
In 1880, TR married Alice Hathaway Lee and graduated Harvard with a reputation for ok academics but tremendous energy and a voracious appetite for books.
He then started preparing for law school, but dropped out to run for the New York State assembly and won. At age 23, the New York GOP elected TR the youngest minority leader in state history, and he used the position to tick off party bosses and advocate progressive policies. Not one to slow down, TR also published a book on the naval war of 1812 around this time – the first of roughly 35 books he’d write over the course of his life.
And then, tragedy. On February 12, 1884, TR got word that Alice had given birth to their first child, also named Alice. But then a second telegram arrived – his wife and mother were sick, come home quick.
When TR arrived, his brother Elliott met him at the door looking ashen and distraught. “There is a curse on this house,” Elliott said. TR’s mother died of Typhoid that morning. His wife died of complications from the birth that afternoon. In his diary, TR wrote a large X followed by the words “The light has gone out of my life.”
TR left his daughter with his sister and soon left his life in New York altogether. TR went west and spent several years living the life of an exuberant but unsuccessful cattle rancher in the Dakotas. When someone pulled a gun on him and called him “four-eyes,” TR knocked the guy out! Roosevelt did crazy things like personally capture boat thieves and then re-stage their capture for a photo shoot. Which is actually a pretty good metaphor for this phase of his life. It was largely for show. Sure, he bought a ranch and spent time in the Dakotas, but he wintered in New York and made frequent visits back to the east coast. The venture ended for good when a harsh winter killed nearly all his cattle, wiping out his operation.
TR then remarried – Edith Kermit Carow was a childhood friend and the pair had 5 children together – he ran for mayor of New York and lost, served a couple years in D.C. as a U.S. civil service commissioner during Benjamin Harrison’s presidency, spent a few years as police commissioner in New York, where he was infamous for walking the beat at night in search of loafing officers, and then he landed a job as assistant naval secretary in William McKinley’s presidential administration in 1897. TR’s qualifications for this job included writing that book about the naval war of 1812 and, more importantly, vigorously campaigning for McKinley’s election.
And this is where our narrative slows down again, right here in 1897. Because, sure, Roosevelt has been busy to this point, but it’s not like he’s an proven politician with a guaranteed future. He’s been a state assemblyman, held a few appointed posts, is a failed cattle rancher, has published some decent books, lost his campaign for mayor, and was a civil service and police commissioner. It’s not a bad resume, but it doesn’t glitter.
But, starting with his stint as assistant naval secretary, TR’s next few steps rocketed him from C-list to A-list in a matter of years.
And it starts with war.
TR believed that if the United States wanted to be great – if he was going to get an opportunity to be great – there had to be war. It was a fairly popular belief back then that war brings the best out of nations. That it instills them with energy and virtue. A nation that doesn’t fight is a nation that gets soft. The moment you stop fighting is the moment you start dying, more or less.
So, how do these beliefs influence his actions? Welp. They’re going to lead him to do everything in his power to help manufacture a war.
A war he can fight in to prove the Roosevelt name.
A war that would make America strong.
A war where he can invite the press along for the ride.
And he’s going to try to help pick that war with Spain.
Why spain? Well, for a few reasons
1. Defeating a european power would impress the rest of Europe.
2. Spain was an empire with a lot of cache, a lot of name recognition, but it was overstretched and way past its prime. In other words, it was a fight we could win.
3. There was a good casus belli.
Casus Belli – latin for occassion for war – was really important. It’s hard to get a democracy to go to war without a good reason, and Spain was the only country out there providing one on a platter. Just 90 nautical miles off the coast of Florida, Spain ruthlessly suppressing a revolution in Cuba. You may remember from episode 25 on McKinley that Cuba was major producer of sugar, and that sugar is a brutal crop to produce. High rates of injury and death on the plantation and abusive treatment the plantation workers led the Cubans to revolt. The Spanish responded by rounding up all the Cubans in concentration camps, where prisoners died of disease and starvation, and then sending soldiers to murder anyone outside of the camps. An effective PR campaign by Cuban expats had the American people squarely in the camp of Cuban independence and there was a lot of pressure on president McKinley to go to war. TR read the room, fanned the flames with the press, and inched the navy toward a war footing.
And some of the things he did were smart moves, but definitely insubordinate in spirit.
For example, when the actual naval secretary was out one day, TR used his temporarily enhanced authority to issue a flurry of orders – American fleets loaded up on coal and munitions so they’d be ready to strike spain at a moment’s notice. TR ordered the American pacific fleet to Hong Kong with orders to attack manilla and capture the Philippines if war broke out. When McKinley’s peace efforts failed due to the accidental exploding of the Maine and Congress authorized $50 million to fund a possible war, TR went on a spending spree, even buying ships the Spanish had commissioned by outbidding them as they came off the blocks. He also acquired and retrofitted private yachts. The navy bought or leased 100 vessels under Teddy’s watch.
TR was also, of course, urging McKinley toward war every chance he got.
Now, this is not a war that was caused by Teddy Roosevelt. He’s not in anybody’s “top-5 reasons the war happened,” but when the war does break out, he’s going to do what he can to become the face of it.
On April 20, 1898, after McKinley felt all avenues to negotiate peace had been exhausted, Congress voted to declare war on Spain.
On May 15, TR submitted his resignation to the naval department. When he told his colleagues why, they thought he was crazy. He wanted to go fight in the war.
Ok, so here’s one of the areas where TR really starts to set himself apart from just about all other politicians. There have been plenty of war hawks in American history – beliggerant politicians who advocated for war and then watched it from D.C. when it happened. But that’s not TR.
Saying “I have a horror of people who bark but don’t bite,” TR quit his desk job in DC and signed up to fight on the front.
The rough riders were a bizarre mix of guys from all slices of life who had gotten swept up with war fever and signed up to fight. There was a Harvard quarterback, a national tennis champion, a former captain of the Columbia crew. There were cowboys and Indians and four New York City police officers. When one member, seeing the ocean for the first time, had his hat blown off his head by the Caribbean winds, he exclaimed, “Oh-oh-Jim! Ma hat blew into the creek!”
The press loved it. This is a war that, frankly, on the Cuban front, got off to a slow start. The old army maxim “hurry up and wait” was very much in force here, and the colorful rough riders gave journalists something to report on during all the waiting they were doing in Texas and Florida while Army and Navy brass tried to figure out how to get everyone to Cuba.
They weren’t doing a good job of it.
The guy organizing things in Florida, where everyone was supposed to muster and board their transports for Cuba, was an old Indian fighter who didn’t know a thing about logistics. Trains would just show up unexpected with nobody knowing what was in them or where they should go.
When it was finally time to load up the ships and depart for Cuba, TR learned the navy had failed to secure enough transports and the same small vessel had been promised to three different regiments when it was only big enough for one. Roosevelt wrote, “I ran at full speed to our train; and leaving a strong guard with the baggage, I double-quicked the rest of the regiment up to the boat, just in time to board her as she came into the quay, and then to hold her against the second regulars and the seventy first, who had arrived a little too late, being a shade less ready than we were in the matter of individual initiative."
The Cuban campaign was a mess from the start and it’s kind of amazing it succeeded at all.
When the Rough Riders’ transport reached the Cuban coast, they realized nobody had ever practiced how to disembark. Two soldiers and numerous mounts drowned trying to get from the ships to the beach and it’s a damn lucky thing the Spanish weren’t there to oppose them or it could have been a 19th century Bay of Pigs.
Once the Rough riders were all on the beach, the ship turned around and left with most of their equipment still aboard. All TR had with him was a yellow Mackintosh, a tooth brush, and an extra pairs of glasses he’d sewn into the linings of his tunic and hat.
When supplies finally were offloaded, the army failed to provide enough food. When TR told a commissary sergeant he needed to requisition a half-ton of beans meant for someone else for his men, the sergeant replied “Why, colonel, your officers can’t eat eleven hundred pounds of beans,” to which TR replied “You don’t know what appetites my officers have.”
He got the beans.
Leading this mess of an army was a mess of a cavalry officer. Joseph Wheeler was a 61-year-old former confederate – yea, he’d fought in the Civil War – who had been placed in his role as a gesture of reconciliation to the south, but he probably should have stayed home. On at least one occasion, the old officer was heard to shout, “We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!”
Despite all this confusion, the American army, with the support of Cuban guerillas, managed to make its way to the outskirts of Santiago, where the Spanish navy was bottled up in port. If the American army could capture the hills overlooking the city and the port, they could shell the navy at their leisure and it would be good game for the Spanish in the Caribbean.
This is the battle of San Juan hill.
There were actually two hills at this battle. Kettle hill, which was smaller, and San Juan hill, which was larger. The rough riders were initially sent to capture Kettle Hill. When they arrived, Roosevelt found a group of regular soldiers hiding in the grass and refusing to attack the dug-in Spaniards at the top. When Roosevelt and the volunteers started charging past the hiding regulars, they were shamed into joining in. With Roosevelt leading the way, the Americans drove the Spaniards from the top of Kettle Hill, only to soon come under fire from Spanish positions on the taller San Juan Hill.
Roosevelt again ordered his men to attack and began the charge, and made it about 100 yards – the length of a football field – before he realized nobody had heard his order and all his men were way back behind him. He ran back, issued the order again, and this time it stuck. By the time he reached the top of San Juan hill, it had largely been cleared by other Americans and the Spaniards were gain in flight, but that didn’t take anything away from the rush TR felt. He had had proven the Roosevelt name. He had restored the family honor. 20 years later, a month before his death, and after many lofty accomplishments, he would say “San Jan was the greatest day of my life.”
The battle of San Juan hill effectively secured Cuba for the Americans. But, before I leave Cuba, I want to hit on one more thing. Remember how the American people were all about Cuban independence? Well, that lasted roughly until the American soldiers saw the Cubans they were coming to help and realized, holy smokes, this people are black. That’s right. The Cubans doing PR for the revolution up in the states were mostly light-skinned and of Spanish origin, so the American people thought they were sailing out to rescue an oppressed white people. The Spanish guerillas who met the soldiers on the island were largely black – the descendants of slaves – and that did not go over well with many of the American rank and file.
After the Spanish had been defeated and the conversation turned to Cuban self rule, one american general told the press “Self-government! Why those people are no more fit for self government than gunpowder is for hell.” Congress, which had passed an amendment before the invasion that said cuba would be independent, now passed a new bill that said, sure, cuba could be independent, but the United States was basically in control of its foreign policy, Cuba had to lease land for naval stations to the Americans, and the United States could intervene in Cuban manners whenever it liked “to preserve its independence.”
And then, Americans came in and built schools, cleaned streets, and trained doctors, but also started buying up all the island’s best land and exploiting Cuba’s resources. By the end of the occupation, more than 80% of Cuba’s mineral exports were controlled by American interests. This planted the seeds for the Cuban revolution of 1953 and the current strained state of Cuban-American relations.
But that’s well down the road. When Teddy Roosevelt sailed back to the United States, he sailed back a hero. The American people had fallen in love with the Rough Riders, and they’d fallen in love with Theodore.
His timing of TR’s return was fortuitous. The republican governor of New York had just been sunk by a scandal of his own making and the party establishment was desperate for a war hero to emerge from Cuba who could save their party and win the governor’s mansion. They would have preferred it not be Theodore, who had proven himself fiercely independent of their control every prior time he’d held office in the state, but beggars can’t be choosers, and Roosevelt was the war hero who emerged. In 1898, running as much as a rough rider as a progressive, TR won the New York Governorship by a hair, 662-thousand to 644-thousand. In six months, he’d gone from forgettable Assistant Naval Secretary to the war hero governor of the empire state. His political career suddenly looked very bright indeed.
But, well. The old guard still didn’t really like his progressive ways. And, after two years, New York’s party bosses plotted a way to get rid of him. They reached out to president McKinley, whose first vice president had just died, and pitched him on the idea of making Roosevelt his vice president in 1900. Roosevelt was known for being a great campaigner and, after all, who wouldn’t vote for a war hero? When McKinley said yes, McKinley’s campaign advisor, Mark Hanna, was horrified, saying “What is the matter with all of you? Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the presidency?!”
On September 6, 1901, an anarchist extinguished that one life with a shot from his pistol at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.
Roosevelt’s unlikely career took it’s unlikeliest leap yet – president of the United States.
And so, on September 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, the former New York governor, rough rider, assistant naval secretary, police commissioner, civil service board member, author, rancher, and state assemblyman, was sworn in as the 26th president of the United States in Buffalo, New York, where Theodore had just arrived. At 42 years old, he was, and still is, the youngest man to become president in American history.
But what did the world, and the country, look like when Roosevelt became president? Let’s look around.
Internationally, the United States was suddenly carrying a lot more clout than it used it. The previous three years, McKinley had annexed Hawaii, defeated Spain, “freed” Cuba, seized Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and sent troops to China. The United States was no longer the former colony across the sea, it was a world power. Not the strongest world power, but a world power.
The strongest power in the world was great Britain, whose monarch Victoria had just died, and whose armies were currently engaged in suppressing a revolt known as the second Boer War in south Africa. A young pig-nosed journalist named Winston Churchill had been captured by the guerillas during this war when his armored train was attacked, but he famously escaped confinement and navigated the 300 miles back to British lines, transforming himself into a national celebrity and sparking his political career in the process.
Over in Asia, Russia was expanding to the East, Japan was expanding to the west, and that’s definitely going to end in a fight. In Africa, Europeans had overthrown almost all the continent’s powers and carved the contintent into a myriad of colonies, with England and France the big winners. In south America, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil dominated a continent that was largely rid of colonial overlords and ruled by 1-party states.
Oh, and back in 1893, New Zealand became the first country to give women the right to vote. Rock on, New Zealand.
Domestically, Americans were trying to decide what to make of their new position in the world. They had overseas possessions! That was weird! One of them, the Philippines, was in revolt. That was very weird! The american body was changing and doing weird things and there were new yearnings – more land! – fighting with old beliefs – colonies are gross! The country had to decide what kind of nation it was going to be.
As Theodore Roosevelt became president, there was a concern bordering on fear that a warmonger like Roosevelt would drag the american flag around the world and through the mud in search of further military glory. But that didn’t happen.
TR rose from side show to center stage by being a hawk and a war hero, but once he had the spotlight, he turned that penchant for military action toward political action. To the surprise of many, American greatness would not be pursued on the battlefield, but by embracing the progressive cause of labor in a way no prior president had before.
The best case in point of how TR’s labor policy was different from the presidents who preceded him is the coal strike of 1902
The start of this story is going to sound familiar, but the end is going to be something new. In 1902, 140,000 coal miners walked off the job to protest low wages, dangerous working conditions, long hours, and other mistreatments. At this time in U.S. history, there wasn’t much that could be more damaging to the U.S. economy than a coal strike. Coal was used to power trains and heat homes. And winter was coming, Winterfell was going to need that coal. The price of coal quadrupled as the strike went on, and every American who didn’t want to freeze to death was feeling the squeeze.
This is the point where all previous presidents had either done nothing, or sent troops to violently break up the strike. But Teddy Roosevelt charted a third way, a new way – he summoned the coal mine operators and union representatives to the white house to personally arbitrate a solution. The union reps were game, but the owners refused to concede anything – they wanted the union members declared outlaws and the army sent in. A frustrated TR said if he was going to send in the army, it would be to seize the mines from the owners, nationalize them, and work them with army labor until the owners and laborers came to terms. When one of the owners cried, that’s not constitutional, TR replied “The constitution is made for the people, and not the people for the constitution.” A compromise was reached. The miners got a 10% raise, the owners didn’t have to recognize the mining union, and coal flowed again.
And that complaint of the mine owner actually strikes to a philosophy that was central to the entire Theodore Roosevelt presidency. While most previous presidents believed they only had powers that the constitution explicitly said they had, TR loudly took the position that the presidents had the power to do anything the constitution didn’t expressly forbid.
So, take that threat of nationalizing the mines. Previous presidents would have said, “I can’t do that, because the constitution doesn’t say I can.” TR boldly claimed, “I can totally do that, because the constitution doesn’t say I can’t”
This “activist president” philosophy was at force again when TR ordered his attorney general to open up antitrust lawsuits against the Northern Securities Company – a new railroad company that used its effective monopoly of Northwest routes to jack up prices on farmers, cattle ranchers, and travelers. When uber-rich financier J.P. Morgan, who owned an interest in the railroad company, went to the white house and told TR, “If we have done something wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up,” TR’s attorney general replied, “We don’t want to fix it up. We want to stop it.”
And stop it they did. Roosevelt successfully broke up the Northern Securities Company, and launched 44 other antitrust suits – more than presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley had pursued combined.
And TR pushed for regulation. A lot of regulation! When Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle revealed how horrifyingly unsanitary Chicago’s meatpacking plants were, with diseased and rotten meat being sold to the public, and a story of humans falling into vats and being boiled into lard, TR won passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act within a year. TR wanted regulations against banks and railroads so they couldn’t rip off their customers. TR’s definition of which trusts to pursue was simple – if a trust drew profits from behaviors that harmed the public, it should be broken up! If the trust profited from activities that benefited the public, it should be permitted.
Actually, I’ll let TR explain it in his own words. What I’m about to play for you is a speech Roosevelt recorded in 1912 that’s preserved in the Library of Congress. And I should warn you – his voice might not sound anything like the voice you’ve imagined in your head.
Clip from Library of Congress
Pretty crazy, right? Not the sound I expected, but also, you can kinda see how he sounds a little like FDR, so it makes sense.
Anyway, when the economy dipped a bit in 1907, TR's corporate enemies blamed his liberal positions. He threw it right back at them and accused oligarchs of using their massive wealth to tank the economy as a way to make his policies look bad. It’s a counter attack I’m surprised we don’t see more of today.
Inventing the progressive era would be accomplishment enough for most presidents, but not TR. This guy had caffeine for blood in his veins. He also directed his energy toward one of the great engineering challenges of his day – building a canal across Panama.
Ok. I know you probably know TR built the panama canal. It’s one of the most-cited things about him in history books. But frankly, the cloak and dagger story of how it happened is so fascinating that I have to go into it.
Global interest in a canal across Central America extended back decades – arguably centuries. A canal across central America would shorten the sea journey from the United States’ East coast to its West Coast by 8,000 miles – that is weeks of expensive travel around south America eliminated. Everyone in the world knew that whoever could build it would reap a fortune usage fees AND gain the ability to contend the pacific and Atlantic oceans with only a single fleet. Great Britain and United States were so concerned about the potential of each other building the canal that they signed a treaty in 1850 saying neither of them could do it without the other’s permission. In 1881, France tried to build it and failed – for good reason. Panama is a rocky and hilly jungle rife with mosquitos and tropical disease. For the United States to try, Roosevelt would have to acquire a concession to the land and overcome disease, jungle, and civil unrest to complete it. But TR was not one to be daunted by obstacles. During one of his first addresses to Congress in 1902, he made very clear that he wanted to be the president to build the canal, saying “No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is of such consequence to the American people,” and arguing it would mark the United States rise as a great power. He immediately got to work making the dream a reality.
First, he reached out to Britain to negotiate his way out of the 1850 treaty that said a canal couldn’t be built. By now, American-British relations were much better than they had been when two wary and jealous countries signed the treaty, and England was only too happy to have America foot the bill for a canal that would benefit its global trade empire.
Next, TR had to pick a spot and secure the land – Panama, or Nicaragua? – and this is where a new character entered the story. One of the savviest businessmen I’ve seen yet – Philippe Bunea-Varilla.
Philippe was a French financier slash engineer who had acquired a concession in the failed French route across Panama in 1894. If the canal was built in Panama instead of Nicaragua, Philippe stood to make a fortune.
IF the canal was built in panama.
This made Philippe a very motivated man.
When Philippe learned the United States Congress had voted to build a canal across Nicaragua instead – a longer but flatter route – he leapt into motion to block it and redirect American attention to Panama. He got his shot when a volcano erupted in the Caribbean, burying the french town of St. Pierre in Martinique and killing 29,000 – one of the deadliest volcanos in history. This volcano didn’t impact Nicaragua per say – it was 1,600 miles away – but it did spook Congress, whose members asked Nicaragua to confirm, there aren’t any volcanos along the canal route, right? Nicaragua said no, but Philippe knew that was a lie. There was a volcano along the Nicaraguan rout. It had erupted just a few years earlier, and it was big. It was so big and mighty that Nicaragua had actually put it on the country’s stamps around the time of the eruption. So Philippe bought 90 stamps and mailed one to every senator – see, look! Not only did Nicaragua have a smoking volcano on its stamps, it also clearly couldn’t be trusted. Congress held another vote, and Panama won out by 8 votes.
But then, another road block emerged. Panama, at this time, was part of Colombia. And after TR’s administration negotiated a canal treaty with Columbia and got Congress to sign off on it, everyone was shocked when Columbia’s senate unanimously rejected the treaty – which had been approved by Columbia’s negotiators. The U.S. was offering $250,000 a year for a 99-year lease with a $10-million signing bonus for a strip of land 6-miles across that would become the canal zone. Columbia wanted more – and to be fair, the canal would be worth A LOT MORE in time, but the U.S. didn’t want to pay it – Americans felt it was now the Columbians who were showing they couldn’t be trusted.
And that’s when Philippe popped up again. Philippe had been hanging out in the panama region for some time, and he knew there were revolutionaries in the cities and jungles who didn’t like being ruled by Colombians in Bogota, 500 miles away. They’d revolted before, and the United States had actually helped suppress their revolts in the past in exchange for access to the overland route across Panama. But now, the Americans were about to trade sides.
Philippe met with TR and an unspoken understanding was reached. Philippe told the Panamanian revolutionaries that the US would back their next revolution IF they gave the Americans a good deal on a canal treaty. The Panamanians said yes. On November 3, 1903, they launched their next bid for independence, and within 24 hours, an American cruiser deployed marines to assist in the revolt. Any Columbian soldiers who hadn’t been bought off were neutralized. Another 48 hours later, TR became the first world leader to recognize Panamanian independence. The Panamanians stuck to their bargain and signed a canal treaty that was even more generous to the Americans than the one Columbia had rejected. Work began May 4, 1904 – just six months after the revolt.
In November, 1906, Roosevelt became the first president in american history to visit foreign soil when he sailed south to check progress on the Panama canal. Work was completed 8 years later and the canal opened in 1914. The canal today generates more than $2.6 billion in revenue each year and has seen more than 1 million ships traverse its waters since it opened. It is an engineering marvel of the modern world, and one I’m sure we’ll year about again when control is turned over to Panama in the 20th century.
The idea of a Nicaragua canal, by the way, still gets kicked around from time to time. In recent years, Chinese investors have talked about building the alternate canal, but the deal is currently in limbo. Maybe someday.
Back in 1905, after winning reelection by an overwhelming margin, Teddy Roosevelt surprised his friends and foes alike by announcing he would not run for reelection in 1908, and then he surprised them again by keeping that promise. Instead, he endorsed his good friend and secretary of war William Howard Taft, who won the 1908 presidential election with TR’s vociferous support. Within 4 years, their once best-bud relationship would be destroyed and TR would split the GOP to run against Taft as a bull-moose party candidate, but I’ll save that story for Taft’s episode.
So how had America changed during the 8 years of the Roosevelt administration? Territory-wise, we did now control a strip of land in Central America that would soon be the Panamanian Canal, and Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
Over in North Carolina, the Wright Brothers achieved their first flight in 1903 – so the development of airplanes is right around the corner. And up in Detroit, Henry Ford sold the first Model-T in 1908, meaning the mass production of gas-powered cars is also imminently upon us.
Oh, and in 1905, a distant relative of TR’s named Franklin Roosevelt married TR’s niece Eleanor. At the wedding, TR said to Franklin, “Well, Franklin, there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.” We’ll hear more from them later.
Internationally, major events were afoot and TR often found himself in the middle of those, too.
In 1904, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on the Russian Empire at Port Arthur, near Korea, sinking Russia’s Pacific navy and gobbling up huge tracks of the Manchurian railway. The Russians responded by sending their Baltic navy around the world to teach Japan a lesson, and then Japan sunk that navy, too! This is about when both sides realized the war needed to end – Japan, because it was running out of supplies and men; Russia, because it kept losing every friggin battle. TR stepped in to help negotiate a peace. Japan obtained Port Arthur, Korea, some islands, a decent chunk of the Manchurian railroad, and a new level of respect from European powers. The Russians gained nothing, obvi. And TR earned a nobel prize for his efforts.
Other major events include the first Tour de France and Einstein publishing the Theory of Relativity in 1903, and the Boy Scouts being founded in 1908 Britain when cavalry officer Robert S.S. Baden-Powell published the book Scouting for Boys– a title that sounds much creepier today than it did in 1908.
TR’s post-presidency was every bit as action packed as his life and administration.
He kicked it off by going on big safari to Africa, then he nearly died when an assassin shot him during his Bull-moose run for president in 1912 – something we’ll cover in Taft’s episode – then he nearly died again when he got sick on a perilous journey to map an unexplored river in the Amazon in 1914, and he tried to nearly die a third time when he asked President Woodrow Wilson to let him run off to Europe and fight in WW1 basically at the head of another regiment of rough riders.
Wilson said no to TR, but Roosevelt’s sons enlisted when the United States entered World War I in 1917. This turned out tragically for the Roosevelt family when, in 1918, Roosevelt’s son Quentin, a fighter pilot, was shot down behind enemy lines and died. Roosevelt was devastated. Occasionally, when he thought nobody was around, he would be heard softly saying “Poor Quinikins,” lamenting the loss of his boy.
As the 1920 presidential election approached, TR was coming up on 60 years old, but his body and sorrows were older than that. He’d survived war, an assassin’s bullet, disease in the amazon, and the heartbreak of losing his first wife and his youngest son, but he still put on a vigorous show and the GOP was starting to think he had one last hurrah left in him. TR had mended fences with the GOP, which had been pretty upset at him for splitting the party vote in 1912, but it was also getting pretty damn tired to losing to Woodrow Wilson by now. So, as 1918 turned to 1919, Roosevelt was the odds on favorite to be the party’s standard bearer in 1920, but fate had other plans.
On January 5, 1919, Teddy told his wife, Edith, that he felt as if his heart or breathing were about to stop, but felt sure it wouldn’t happen. A nurse gave him morphine and he went to bed. He never woke up. At 4 a.m., his breathing became irregular. At 4:15 a.m., it stopped. His son Archie, who was already home from the war, cabled his brothers across the ocean, quote, “The old lion is dead.”
So what can we learn from the life and administration of Theodore Roosevelt?
I think part of the lesson is: imagine what you could accomplish if you drank a gallon of coffee a day. But no, seriously, the energy is something incredible. And I think it’s a big part of his success, and his charisma. Roosevelt was a scrawny asthmatic with glasses, but he kept showing up places – the Dakota badlands, the Rough Riders, the campaign trail – and jumping into his task with such enthusiasm and energy that even the most unlikely friends couldn’t help but be at least a little won over by him. So, let’s go with this simple lesson: When you pursue something, put your all into it. If the people you lead see you’re committed, they’re more likely to buy in, too. And maybe you can, you know, build a canal across Nicaragua or something.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Oscar Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was T.R., the last romantic, by H.W. Brands
In our next episode, I’ll be joined by fellow podcast host Alycia of Civics and Coffee, and we’ll take a closer look at the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt. Where did it come from? And what is his legacy of environmental, political, and economic reform
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.