Knowing the Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, 1858–1919

Twenty-Sixth President, 1901–1913

Personal Information

Theodore Roosevelt was born in New York City to glass importer and leading philanthropist Theodore, Sr. and Georgia-born mother Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt.

As a student at Harvard University (1876-1880), Roosevelt studied German, zoology, natural history, forensics, and composition. Upon graduating, he decided to pursue a career in public service.

In 1884, Roosevelt lost both his wife and his mother within two days of each other. Distraught, he sought refuge out West in the Dakota Badlands, returning to Oyster Bay, New York in 1886 after marrying his new wife in England.

Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee in 1880 and they had one child, Alice Roosevelt. After his wife’s death in 1884, Roosevelt rekindled a romance with his childhood love and second wife, Edith Kermit Carow (married 1886). They had five children; Theodore, Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin.

Roosevelt authored about 35 books including The Life of Thomas Hart Benton (1887), The Life of Gouverneur Morris (1888), and The Winning of the West (four volumes, 1889-1896).

He was wholly committed to his career as a public servant serving as Commissioner of the U.S. Civil Service Commission (1889-1895) and as President of the New York City Police Board (1895). In 1897, he became assistant secretary of the Navy.

During the Spanish- American War, Roosevelt left his position as assistant secretary of the Navy to be Commander of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, “The Rough Riders”. Comprised of men from varied backgrounds, education and race, they are remembered for the Battle of San Juan Hill, instrumental to defeating the Spanish. Upon returning home, they received a war hero’s welcome.

Republican Boss Thomas C. Platt assisted Roosevelt, “The hero of San Juan Hill”, to become Governor of New York in order to defeat popular Democrat, Judge Augustus van Wyck. However, when Roosevelt deviated from the plans of party bosses, they rigged the Republican convention to ensure Roosevelt would run on the McKinley ticket as his Vice President to “kick [Roosevelt] upstairs” and get him out of New York government.


In 1901, Roosevelt became the 25th Vice President of the United States.

On September 14, 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated. At the age of 42, Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States.

After becoming President due to McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt was determined to win the presidency “in his own right” in the next election. In 1904, Roosevelt ran on the Republican ticket, defeating conservative New York Democrat, Alton B. Parker with 366 electoral votes to Parker’s 140. At time of the election, the American population was 82,166,000.

After his 1904 victory, Roosevelt pledged he would not run for re-election.


Roosevelt’s progressive reforms and vigorous foreign policy were so ambitious that he could not always finish them within his presidential term.

In foreign policy, however, Roosevelt was inconsistent in supporting the growth of American power internationally. He wavered on the Open Door policy of his predecessor as well as the buildup of the American naval fleet.

Roosevelt had to manage the territory of the Philippines (acquired during the War of 1898) during an era of violence. He often made decisions without consulting Congress.

Major Acts

Before the end of his second term, Roosevelt created five national parks and battled mining interests to name the beloved Grand Canyon one of 16 national monuments.

Roosevelt also oversaw the creation of 20 federal irrigation projects, 13 national forests, and 16 bird refuges. Altogether, 230 million acres were placed under federal protection during Roosevelt’s administration.

In foreign policy, Roosevelt famously advised, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He mediated a peace treaty to end the Russo-Japanese war in which Russia acknowledged Japan’s ascendancy in Korea and southern Manchuria.

In 1903, Roosevelt signed the the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama. The treaty guaranteed that the US had total control of the canal for the price of $10 million and an annual payment of $250,000.


In his two terms as president, he increased federal oversight of big business and expanded the reach of government. However, he failed to transform the Republican Party, which remained mired in conservative, pro-corporate interests.

He focused on educating the public and used his power broadly to improve the lives of the lower class and to expand the rights of women.

A racist whose beliefs reflected those of the elite of this period, Roosevelt thought African Americans to be inferior to white citizens. Although he invited Booker T. Washington, one of the leading philosophers of the time (and African American) to dine at the White House, he also dismissed 160 black soldiers from service, assuming them all to have colluded in a criminal shooting spree.