Podcast #42: The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt - Part 1

Theodore Roosevelt didn’t have the usual start to his Presidency. He was sworn in immediately following the death of President McKinley who had succumbed to wounds caused by an assassin. He was the first President to have 24-hour Secret Service Protection. He was the youngest President we have had. He was 42 when he was sworn in as President. John F. Kennedy gets the prize for being the youngest person elected President, but Roosevelt was younger and he became President as a result of the President’s death. When he won the Presidential election in 1904 he is believed to have told his wife, “I am no longer a political accident.” A man who had a larger than life presence with a reputation to match and who is one of four former Presidents whose likeness is carved into Mount Rushmore.

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858 in NY to a wealthy family. He was rather sickly as a child. He suffered from asthma and was often sick. He was privately tutored at home and his father encouraged him to exercise to help make him more physically strong. In fact, he built a gymnasium in the family home. Weight lifting, boxing, and a variety of outdoor activities like fishing, hunting and hiking all attributed to his improved health and his love of the outdoors. The family spent a lot of time outside and the outdoors was something he would love until the day he died. When the Civil War broke out, it was particularly hard for the Roosevelts. His father paid someone to fight in his place for the Union (rich man’s war, poor man’s fight) his mother, who was from Georgia, sided with the Confederacy and sent money to support the cause. His uncles on his mother’s side of the family fought for the Confederacy. While his father didn’t actively fight in the war, he supported the Union Cause and Union soldiers in a number of ways.

TR as he is often referred to by historians, studied at Harvard. He was at first a Natural History major but after his father’s death, he changed his major to Government and History and hoped to enter politics and public service. While studying at Harvard, he met Alice Lee Hathaway and they were married. While earning his college degree, he also managed to fit in writing his first book. It was on the Naval War of 1812. It is considered one of the best books written on the topic to boot. He attempted Law School, but he found it too boring. He decided to go straight into politics. He got involved in the local Republican Party and was sure to get himself noticed by the powers that be within the Republican Party’s Political Machine in NY. His strategy worked and he was elected to the NY State Assembly in 1882. While Party bosses helped him to get elected, he made it clear that he wouldn’t be controlled. He also quickly noticed just how corrupt NY politics were as a member of the state legislature. Always a reformer, he worked to restore the Niagara Falls area and worked to improve both the living and working conditions of New York’s factory workers, went after corrupt officials and worked with then Gov. of NY and future US President, Grover Cleveland to pass a Civil Service Reform Bill.

In Feb. of 1884 , his 1st child, Alice was born.

His wife died of Kidney Disease two days after the birth of his daughter on Valentine’s Day. His mother died of Typhoid Fever the very same day and in the same house. His diary entry that day read “The light has gone out of my life”. Overcome with grief, he returned to work in the legislature and then headed out West to his ranch known as Elkhorn. His sister helped to take care of his daughter until he remarried two years later. His life and adventures in the West helped him to earn his reputation as a “man’s man” He was strong and burly. Hunting Buffalo and other large game. He invested in the cattle business but it wasn’t a wise investment. In fact, he didn’t handle the finances after he was remarried. He married Edith Carow who grew up next door to him. They were married in London. They would go on to have 5 more children. He loved being a father, and was a big kid himself really. He would take his children camping. He loved the outdoors. He was quoted as saying “Home, wife, children. They are what really count in life”. He was known for taking breaks during the workday to play with his children. The family home on Long Island NY in Oyster Bay was known as Sagamore Hill and when he became President, it was known as the Summer White House. The home was full of his hunting trophies, mounted animal heads, rugs, antlers, you name it.

From 1888-1895 he was made Commissioner of the US Civil Service Commission by President Harrison. He hoped to reform the system so that it would attract the best people capable to do specific government jobs. He investigated fraud and worked to expose corrupt government officials. He continued on with this work as President.

He was made the President of the NYC Police Board 1895(he was originally asked to be the head of the Sanitation Dept – his response was something along the lines of “Who in the right mind would want to do that?). The real response was a bit more colorful than that, I’ll let you use your imagination. He worked hard to clean up the Police Dept. which at the time, was incredibly corrupt. He is given this position during the height of the Gilded Age. He believed that no one was above the law. You have police officers taking bribes to look the other way, Police nowhere to be found. TR took this role seriously and would often go on night patrols looking for members of the force. He did that regularly in even the most crime ridden areas. He wanted to ensure that the police officers were where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. He cleaned up the police force a bit and was then appointed the Assistant Sec of the Navy in 1897 and the family moved back to Washington D.C. It was a position he held until he resigned to enlist and fight in the Spanish-American War in 1898. TR was never one to miss out on the action. He wasn’t about to sit behind a desk and hear about the war second hand. He was the de facto leader of the Rough Riders. We talked more about this in our episode on the Spanish-American War. His career as a soldier was only a few weeks long, but that doesn’t matter, his fate as a war hero was cemented in history. Everyone (especially voters, love a war hero)!

He was elected Gov. of NY in 1898 and worked to bring needed reforms. A number of his decisions as Gov. alienated many of the businesses and individuals that supported the NY Republican Party Political Machine. Party bosses needed to get rid of him in NY, so they worked to get him on the ballot for Vice President. This was still a nothing position. They thought they had put TR in a position where he could no longer meddle and make reforms. Little did they know that McKinley would soon be assassinated and he would become the President of the United States.

He was too much of a Progressive reformer, party leaders pushed him for the nomination for Vice President. Thinking they would get rid of him in NY and put him in a job that was still a minor role. At first, after he was shot, it was thought McKinley would survive, but Vice President Roosevelt was quickly brought to Buffalo when it was apparent that President McKinley was dying. He was sworn in as President less than an hour after McKinley died in the home of his friend. Fun fact, he didn’t use a bible, there wasn’t one and the ceremony was planned pretty quickly. After McKinley’s assassination so quickly into his second term, Roosevelt became the youngest President in US history and you best believe he hit the ground running.


Domestic Issues

Of living in the White House, President Theodore Roosevelt once said “I don’t think any family has enjoyed the White House more than we did.” His young children could be seen roller skating inside the White House. At this time the family rooms and offices were in the same area. Edith Roosevelt changed this. The West Wing of the White House was built where Greenhouses once stood. The famous oval office won’t be added for another few years. Edith Roosevelt was intent on making the White House a home. At this time, they redecorated and modernized a number of rooms and naturally added a few animal heads. The American public was fascinated by the young family.

One of the biggest stories of Roosevelt’s Presidency was his having dinner in the White House with Booker T. Washington. He was an advisor to the President. It made national headlines and both men got flack for it. Booker T Washington getting the brunt of it which included death threats. Enslaved people built the White House, Black Americans were servants in the White House, had meetings in the White House but this was the first time that a person of color dined with the President and the first family in the White House. The southern press and politicians were infuriated.

During his Presidency, the Dept of Commerce and Labor Department was created in 1903. This cabinet dept. was created to investigate business practices, insure fair trade, protect commerce and address labor disputes. It was a very large and complex Federal agency that was in charge of a number of important issues. Prominent Labor Unions had hoped that the Department of Labor established by Congress in 1888 would be elevated to its own cabinet level position. Union leaders became increasingly dissatisfied with the current arrangement because issues pertaining to labor such as higher wages, better working conditions and limits on immigrants regularly took a back seat to big business, commerce and trade. These departments would eventually be separated in 1913 with the Dept. of Labor getting its own cabinet level position.

Coal Miners went on strike in 1902 in order to improve working conditions. As the strike continued and the winter months approached, President Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the coal industry. The intervention of JP Morgan (who also had money to lose if the strike didn’t end) helped to bring both sides together and the strike was ended.

President Roosevelt has a reputation for being known as Trust Buster, others feel the term Trust Regulator is more appropriate.

In regards to “Big business” President Roosevelt didn’t believe that all trusts or monopolies were bad. Businesses that had created a monopoly over an industry by means of unfair practices and exploited the American public, needed to be broken apart. One such bad trust was owned by none other than JP Morgan. Morgan had created a monopoly of the Railroad industry and the Attorney General brought a lawsuit against the Northern Securities corporation. This company had a monopoly on the railroad lines of the Western United States. The Dept. of Justice went after the company. Morgan was furious and met with President Roosevelt, allegedly also asking what other business interests of his might be under attack to which Roosevelt answered, only the bad ones. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The case was called Northern Securities vs. US (1904) As a result of the case, each railroad within the company had to be operated independently (some of those companies would merge decades later). In total, Roosevelt went after over 40 trusts.

The Hepburn Act – gave the ICC (Interstate Commerce Committee) the right to set a maximum rate for railroads and allowed access to the financial records of railroad companies. This wasn’t passed easily. He had to really sell this idea to the American people and he traveled throughout the US, especially, the West to promote it.

When it came to labor, big business, the average consumer and legislation, President Roosevelt presented his Domestic agenda as being a “Square Deal”. What it meant was that everyone was entitled to a Fair Deal. Many historians will look to the 3 Cs when discussing the Square Deal (Consumer Protection, Corporate Regulation and Conservation of natural resources).

Railroads and Oil weren’t the only industries that saw Government regulation. The Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906 and it established the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) . We are going to get more into this topic in our next podcast on the Progressive Era. The federal government began taking an interest in the safety of drugs, medicines and foods in the 1840s. As transportation improved, it changed the way people could sell products. Items that were once too far to be sold in a market, hundreds of miles away, then could be. Dyes and chemicals were being added to foods to disguise impurities or to mask the smell or taste of food that had long ago spoiled. Medications were not only mislabeled but misleading. Studies on milk, for example, exposed the dangers of unpasteurized milk and the importance of testing cows for tuberculosis. There were medicines being sold with ingredients like cocaine and heroin in them and consumers were completely unaware of their existence within the product. This is what happens when you have traveling salesmen/entertainers peddling “magic elixirs'' that claim to treat all sorts of illnesses and aches and pains. By the late 1930s, when another Roosevelt is President, a new law will be passed to replace this one to further protect consumers and to better ensure the safety of foods and drugs. We will get more into this when we discuss the Progressive Era.

Stories of rotten meat being given to US soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American war. Investigations uncovered that preservatives such as borax and formaldehyde were being used on meat. “Embalmed meat” anyone? Countless news stories and the book “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair all added to the public and government support for reform.

“There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was mouldy and white—it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage.”

The Meat Inspection Act prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded meat products. It authorized the Dept. of Agriculture to inspect and label meat products either before or after slaughter. The USDA had the right to inspect to ensure that the meat products were being produced in a sanitary environment and that the animals were healthy. This law hurt smaller businesses in the industry because they couldn’t keep up the cost of meeting the new regulations.

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