Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858 in New York City. After graduating from Harvard, he dabbled in politics as state assemblyman and as an active member of the state Republican Party, while gaining a reputation as an author, historian and conservationist. After a brief retirement from public life caused by the death of his wife and mother on the same day, he stumped for various local and national politicians until he took a job in the U.S. Civil Service Commission, where he served until 1895. This was where Roosevelt showed the first signs of his reformist zeal.
Roosevelt took over as the police commissioner of the city of New York from 1895 to 1897, during which time he actively stamped out corruption in the department. He hired more officers, reinforced standards and increased response times by having telephones installed in all station houses. He left to take over the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but left in early1898 to join military action in the Spanish-American War. He is famous for his charge with the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Hill and used his fame to fuel his successful race for governor of New York in 1898.
Roosevelt tackled corruption and “machine politics” during his two years as Governor, before accepting the Republican vice-presidential nomination alongside William McKinley in 1900. McKinley represented the conservative wing of the party and Roosevelt helped net the support of the reform wing. McKinley was assassinated just 9 months into his term, leaving Roosevelt as the youngest U.S. president at age 42. He pledged to continue with McKinley’s policies. He won re-election in his own right in a landslide victory in 1904.
Roosevelt is best known for his reputation as a “trust-buster” and a progressive who sought to regulate business. He believed that Americans needed a level playing field with corporate interests and promised to give them a “Square Deal.” Anti-trust legislation broke up monopolies and collusion between competitors. The Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act placed regulations on the food industry in an effort to safeguard public health. He sided with unions in several disputes. In addition, Roosevelt was a great conservationist, establishing the national park system and protecting natural landmarks such as Yellowstone Park.
Roosevelt’s foreign policy tended toward increasing the international prominence of the U.S. through empire building. During his administration, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and several other island nations came under direct control of the U.S. Although he earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his part in ending the Russo-Japanese War, he also brokered a backroom deal with the Japanese that condoned their taking of Korea and ignited the expansion policy that lead to the Pacific front of WWII.
Roosevelt chose not to run for re-election in 1908, choosing to throw his support behind his successor in the White House, William Howard Taft. However, he came to have serious issues with Taft and began to openly criticize him for his lack of progressive action. As Taft floundered, Roosevelt went on a successful safari and scientific expedition to Africa and came back as popular as ever, while Taft managed to alienate the reform wing of the Republican Party.
When an attempt to secure the 1912 Republican presidential nomination was unsuccessful, Roosevelt chose to run as a Progressive Party candidate (AKA the Bull Moose Party). He came in second behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson, but far ahead of Taft. After his defeat, Roosevelt went on a naturalist and mapping expedition in South America, where he caught malaria and a serious infection from a leg wound that almost killed him. He managed to make it back, but his health suffered greatly and he never fully recovered.
Roosevelt remained a vocal critic and active participant in American political life as a writer and campaigner. His influence helped the Republicans to win control of Congress in 1918 and he was mentioned as a leading contender for the 1920 Republican presidential nomination. His malaria returned in 1918 and, aided by the loss of his youngest son that year, he lingered until his death on January 6, 1919.