Podcast #43: The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt - Part 2


TR’s love for the natural world started as a young boy. He drew pictures of animals and wild life, he even had small birds and animals that he preserved himself. Many specimens at both the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian are animals that were hunted by Teddy Roosevelt and preserved. He had taken lessons in taxidermy as a young teenager! His legacy for Conservation is one that is hotly debated, particularly due to his love of hunting. A 1902 hunting trip in Mississippi where the trip had pretty much come to an end without the President having been able to get anything. The guides tied an injured bear to a tree for the President to shoot. He refused, the story ran in newspapers and a candy shop owner in Brooklyn, NY asked the President’s permission to name two stuffed bears that his wife had sown, “Teddy’s Bears” and the name stuck and the toy became and remains very popular.

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.

If you go to the US Dept. of Interior website, they have a great write up on the role that Teddy Roosevelt played in Conservation. The numbers are really astounding. He helped to establish 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments. From his early years, Roosevelt loved nature and he wrote to John Muir when he was President and asked him to take him camping out in Yosemite. The two spent a few nights camping and it is believed that that trip inspired him to work to preserve America’s vast wilderness for future generations.

In a speech given in Kansas in 1910, Roosevelt stated the following “There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation and not impaired in value.”

John Muir was another important Conservationist, more extreme in his thinking than Pinchot who I’ll talk more about in a minute. John Muir is sometimes referred to as the “Father of the National Parks”. His work helped to preserve many parts of our National Parks that exist today.

In addition to land preservation, he also understood the importance of infrastructure and its ability to improve life for those living in the Western half of the United States. In 1902, the Newlands Reclamation Act was passed. Roosevelt knew first-hand about the scarcity of water in the west from his time living there. This law helped to plan and design irrigation projects that would allow hot and dry western states to be settled. It is second only to the Homestead Act in aiding the development of the western United States. One of the projects was the Roosevelt Dam along the Salt River in Arizona. It cost 10 million dollars and was completed in 1911. It wasn’t named the Roosevelt Dam until 1959. Another major irrigation project from that act is the Imperial Dam along the Colorado River, which helps to bring needed water to other parts of California.

He Created the US Forest Service in 1905 under the US Department of Agriculture and it was led by Gifford Pinchot. He was from a wealthy family, studied forestry in France, no schools had programs on it in the United States at the time. Gifford Pinchot was one of the greatest minds in Conservation.

The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain healthy, diverse and productive forests and grasslands for future generations. Gifford Pinchot saw the number of acres of national forests go from 56 million to 172 million acres. Today, they protect 193 million acres.

In the Presidential Election of 1904, Roosevelt ran against Democratic candidate Alton Parker and won in a landslide victory. He promised to step down after this 2nd term. It was not yet a Constitutional requirement for him to do so. He regretted making that promise but he stepped aside willingly. He would run again for a third term, but 4 years later, when his handpicked successor of sorts William Howard Taft wasn’t as Progressive as he would have liked him to have been. His split of the Republican Party allowed Woodrow Wilson to win election in 1912 but we will get more into that in a later podcast.

Let’s discuss his second term. He wore a ring with a locket of Lincoln’s hair to his inauguration. It was given to him by his Secretary of State, John Hay who had also been Lincoln’s private secretary. In his inaugural address he touted his triumphs of the last 4 years and he set out to achieve more.

I want to mention a 1905 US Supreme Court Case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts – the case deals with compulsory vaccination laws. In 1902, due to a smallpox outbreak in Massachusetts, the state required vaccination against smallpox. Those who didn’t comply were fined ($5, today that would be the equivalent of a $100 fine). A man by the name of Henning Jacobson who had refused vaccination and was fined, sued. He appealed the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court upheld the right of a state to impose Vaccination requirements during an epidemic. Within the court’s decision they stated the following:

There is, of course, a sphere within which the individual may assert the supremacy of his own will and rightfully dispute the authority of any human government, especially of any free government existing under a written constitution. But it is equally true that in every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.

In addition, they also included a word of caution. The court also recognized the importance of medical exemptions in circumstances where the vaccination could lead to medical issues or death of an individual. So, if you are looking for an example in history that links to what is happening today with the process that is being seen to vaccinate the world’s population against COVID 19, this is a great example and could certainly be used in a class debate.

Another major accomplishment during his Presidency was the work he did to modernize the Navy or “The Great White Fleet”, as it became known. His impact on the Navy started as early as his College years with his book on the Naval War of 1812 and continued up until his death. As President, he helped to reorganize the Navy. He divided the Navy into three fleets in order to improve efficiency: the Atlantic Fleet (including all battleships), the Pacific Fleet, and the Asiatic Fleet. The new and improved US Navy went on a 14-month long world tour. Yes, it showed the might and the Military capabilities of the United States, but also allowed for an incredible amount of experience and improvement with the use of practice exercises and knowledge gained from traveling at sea. I mean, imagine the sight of 16 battleships? Imagine the impact this had in furthering the image of the United States as an emerging Global Power.

In regards to Foreign Affairs, Teddy Roosevelt becomes President when the US has just recently become an Imperial Power. How do we manage this territory, how do we earn our place as a global power and gain equal footing with European powerhouses? This is no easy feat. Once upon a time, when it came to Foreign Policy, the United States followed a policy of Neutrality and Isolationism. That is no longer the case. While he was still Vice President in early Sept. of 1901, TR was giving a speech at a State Fair in Minnesota. In his speech he stated a number of different things. Ever the politician TR stated “We have but little room among our people for the timid, the irresolute and the idle, and it is no less true that there is scant room in the world at large for the nation with mighty thews that dares not to be great. …”

He goes on to say things like “You, the sons of pioneers, if you are true to your ancestry, must make your lives as worthy as they made theirs.” But it is this soundbite that outlines his Foreign Policy

“A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.” If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power.”

“Whenever on any point we come in contact with a foreign power, I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully of that foreign power.” He talks of all the good the US has done in Cuba and the Philippines. He talks about how at one time the land they were standing on was once Indian Territory and even though some terrible things were done to Natives and Natives to settlers it was a necessary evil because the US brought civilization to the area. Now in 2021 this a statement with a lot of ammunition. You are talking about the early 1900s where Rudyard Kiplings “Take up the White Man’s Burden” is widely accepted as being the status quo. This idea of there are barbarians and there are those who are civilized.

This became known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. This idea of we will start with the nice way first, but there is also this unspoken threat, a promise even of force to get what we want. You know, consider the story of the world tour the Great White Fleet went on that we discussed a few minutes ago. Look at what we are ready and capable of bringing to your shores. These were not empty words, he practiced what he preached and we will talk about a number of different foreign policy issues during his presidency. In 1904, a few years into his Presidency in a message to Congress, he issued what would become known as The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. It stated that the United States would intervene as a last resort to ensure that other nations in the Western Hemisphere fulfilled their obligations to international creditors, and did not violate the rights of the United States or invite “foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations.” This was made in response to a number of countries in Latin America, specifically the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, who had stopped paying back their debts to European countries. That European countries shouldn’t intervene in this part of the world, that if there are debts to be paid, we will handle it and make sure things are being taken care of. On one hand, European powers are getting some insurance that they will get their money back but on the other hand, this was a bold statement to make to European powers. Future Presidents will also use the Roosevelt Corollary to justify their intervention in Latin America. If you look at this from a Latin American perspective, the U.S. is becoming a neighbor that you start to worry about, maybe even begin to distrust. What are your motives? We can handle our own affairs. These were somewhat newly independent nations and if anyone was going to influence or direct foreign affairs in this region it was going to be the United States.

Panama Canal

This is a long story worthy of a soap opera plot. To understand what went down in the early 1900s, and how shady it was, we have to go back in time a little bit. In the 1820s, many countries in South and Central America gained their independence from Spain. At one time, countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela were all a part of Columbia which at the time was known as Gran Colombia. Ecuador and Venezuela became independent countries in the 1830s, but Panama remained a part of Columbia. There had long been interest in building a canal through the isthmus of Panama in order to shorten the length of time to travel and move goods and be able to avoid having to go around the tip of South America. Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman who had helped to build the Suez Canal in Egypt felt the canal in Panama could make himself and other investors rich just as the canal in Egypt had done. The French began to dig a canal in 1882. Not only did they have to dig through miles and miles of land, mountains but there was also a river and dense jungle that they had to contend with. That matched with the rainy season, and diseases like malaria and yellow fever, made the task close to impossible and led to incredibly high death tolls for the workers. By 1888, French investors had enough of the painstakingly slow progress, loss of money (and by loss of money we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars) and the high death toll. As the US began to work to obtain the rights to build a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, we were also seriously considering a route through Nicaragua. A natural disaster in the country shifted our focus back to Panama. The US began serious negotiations with Colombia but their Government didn’t recognize the treaty. Panama wanted the canal and the US knew it. Columbia was stalling in the hopes of getting the US to agree to more favorable terms, especially getting more money per year for the lease of the land. The Panama Canal Company which was a US-French owned business supported a faction within Panama that sought independence. In early Nov. of 1903, Panama declared its Independence from Columbia. It was implied that if the Panamanians rebelled, the United States would support their cause. The US was the first country to recognize the Republic of Panama and The US then sent a warship to Panama to prevent Columbia from regaining its territory. I told you, shady soap opera plot. In less than 2 weeks, the US and Panama signed a treaty. In exchange for securing its independence, the US would be given the right to build the canal and the US would pay Panama $10 Million and a yearly lease of 250,000 per year. The United States also paid $40 Million to the original French Company who had started building the canal. Columbia didn’t recognize Panama’s independence until 1921.

When the United States took over this massive project, they had the advantage of learning from the mistakes of the French attempt. They knew they had to deal with the issue of diseases like yellow fever and malaria before they could start with the work of constructing the canal. This meant getting rid of standing water wherever was possible, paving roads, and pesticides to kill the mosquitos. It is estimated that it cost the United States $10 a mosquito! In 1906, President Roosevelt traveled to Panama to see the progress for himself. It was the first time a sitting President traveled to a foreign country. While most canals at the time were sea level canals, and the original French plan was to build a sea level canal in Panama; the Army Engineers instead recommended a lock dam system for the canal. Some American citizens went and helped to build the canal, but there was a considerable labor force from a variety of Latin American countries who were paid much less than their white counterparts and were provided with housing that wasn’t nearly as nice as those of the American workers. The US design for the canal called for a series of gates and locks that would raise ships 85 feet above sea level and allow the ships to pass through a man-made lake. The US not only built the canal but also a dam and a man made lake. This design would save not only time but money as well. It took 10 years for the United States to build the canal and it is believed to have cost 375 Million to build. By 1914, the dream of a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had been realized. Even after the canal was completed, the canal zone remained segregated. Panamanians weren’t allowed in the canal zone after dark unless they had business in the area. The United States maintained control over the canal until 1999. Today it is controlled by Panama and just to give you an idea of how much money is made each year, in 2020 2.7 Billion dollars in toll revenue was generated by the canal.

Russo-Japanese War was fought between the Empires of Russia and Japan from (1904-1905) Russia was in need of warm water ports – not only for trade but for their growing Navy. The areas of interest for both countries were Manchuria and Korea. This is the age of Imperialism both empires are looking to extend their reach and power. Japan is an emerging power. They are newly industrialized and have ended decades of isolation. They need raw materials, markets for their goods, and natural resources. Japan attacked Russian ships in Manchuria and declared war on Russia. Japan had the upper hand in a number of battles. The war in Russia was unpopular, the Czar in Russia would not back down, it saw it as a huge embarrassment. In a few short years, revolution will break out in Russia and the Czar will be dead. The conflict ended with the Treaty of Portsmouth. Negotiations took place in Portsmouth, Maine and it was mediated by President Theodore Roosevelt. In the treaty, Russia gave up Port Arthur and left Manchuria. While Russia recognized Japan’s control over Korea they refused to pay reparations to Japan. The Treaty of Portsmouth was unpopular in both Russia and Japan. Each feeling they had been cheated out of something. President Roosevelt earned serious diplomatic street cred for his role in the negotiations. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end the War between Japan and Russia. It was also the 1st Nobel Prize that was awarded to an American citizen.

The Gentlemen's Agreement with Japan of 1907 was created out of growing anger and tensions over the influx of Japanese Immigrants coming into the United States. Similar to the treatment experienced by Chinese Immigrants, Japanese workers faced discrimination, violence and segregation of school aged children living in San Francisco. In this agreement, Japan agreed not to issue passports to workers looking to emigrate to the United States and in return, President Roosevelt agreed to work with San Francisco and have it repeal the order to segregate Japanese children from white students in school.

When it came time for Campaigning to begin for the Election of 1908, President Roosevelt remained true to his word that he would serve two terms. Many historians have suggested this was a promise he regretted making as he felt he had more he wanted to accomplish. Roosevelt persuaded the Republican Party to nominate his friend and chosen successor, William Howard Taft. Taft was Roosevelt’s Sec. of War and he felt Taft would continue the Progressive policies of his administration. Taft won the election by an overwhelming majority. His support of Taft wouldn’t last long and he ran against him for President in 1912. A third party candidate, he ran unsuccessfully. As assassination attempt was made on Teddy Rooselvelt’s life while in route to give a speech. The bullet hit the 50-page speech that was folded in his pocket. In true Roosevelt fashion, he went and made the speech first before going to the hospital. The lengthy speech, an eyeglass case along with his thick coat likely saved his life and the bullet missed his heart and lungs.

His post-presidency career lasted 10 years. His first order of business was an African Safari with his son Kermit. This trip ended up lasting 14 months. This is where many people have a hard time calling Roosevelt a conservationist. His love for hunting and the amount of animals he hunted make it hard for some to call him that. Since a young boy, he believed in the necessity to collect specimens of animals. Especially ones that were close to becoming endangered or extinct. In 1908, he referred to himself as a Faunal Naturalist. He believed that by preserving these animals and writing histories of them, he was providing a way for future generations to study them. It’s also important to note that many of those specimens he collected ended up on his wall or on the floors of his homes. His African safari was commissioned as a scientific expedition by the Smithsonian Institution. The museum paid for a portion of the trip and Roosevelt believed that a book he planned on writing afterwards would pay for the remainder of it. Writing is how he supported himself and his family in his post political career. Over 11,000 animals, we are talking different types of insects to animals such as elephants, hippos, and white rhinos. “Roosevelt and his colleagues also chronicled the wildlife and habitat of the region and collected specimens that formed the basis of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum collection. Several of these animals—displayed for many years in the Smithsonian.” (Theodore Roosevelt.org) Many of Roosevelt's specimens remain on display at the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.

After the Safari, he traveled extensively throughout Europe with his wife, Edith. While there, King Edward VII of England died. At the request of President Taft, he represented the United States government at the funeral. It afforded him the opportunity to speak with all of the crowned heads of Europe. He wasn’t too impressed with the pomp and pageantry and he is believed to have said of the encounter, “If I met one more King, I should bite him.” While in Europe, he also accepted his Nobel Peace Prize. He received a hero’s welcome upon his return to the United States in 1910, Complete with a Ticker Tape parade in NYC.

His trip to Africa and Europe was followed by a trip to South America after his failed attempt to retake the Presidency. To take the sting out of losing the election of 1912, he traveled through South America. He impressively traveled down the Duvida River in Brazil. It was once known as the river of doubt. Today it is known as The Roosevelt river. The river at the time was unmapped, and Roosevelt along with other explorers and scientists hoped to figure out how it flowed to the Amazon. Never one to go on a boring or relaxing vacation, Roosevelt battled Malaria and a variety of natural dangers. When asked why he would go on such a trip he responded “It was my last chance to be a boy.” Always young at heart and always ready for an adventure.

With the outbreak of WWI, Teddy Roosevelt supported US involvement in the war and disagreed with Wilson’s policy of neutrality. He had petitioned the government to allow him to organize a volunteer regiment just as he had done during the Spanish American war. His request was denied, Wilson supported the Selective Service Act which allowed for a draft of men eligible to fight. In 1917, when the US did get involved all four of Roosevelt’s sons enlisted. His youngest son Quentin, died in action. A devoted father, Roosevelt was devastated. The last months of his life were marred by deep sadness. Theodore Roosevelt died unexpectedly on January 6, 1919 at his home at Sagamore Hill. He died at the age of 60. That is amazing to me. Look at all he accomplished in 60 years. Upon hearing the news of his father’s death, his son Archie replied “The old lion is dead.” Although, my favorite quote about Teddy Roosevelt comes from his daughter Alice. “He wanted to be the Bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral”. She had a lot of great one liners, the press loved her. As they did her father. He knew how to use the media to his advantage. The nation was shocked to hear of his death. Flags on both land and sea were flown at half mast. Wilson’s Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, said "Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight." Roosevelt is buried in Oyster Bay, NY. He once said of his life “No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way.”

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