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Documentary - The Roosevelts - An Intimate History - Episode 2, by Ken Burns (2014)

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The Assassination of President McKinley

Upon the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, for the first few days of his Presidency stayed at his sister Bamie’s.  His first thoughts were of his father, wishing that he could see his son as he resided in the White House.  At dinner, Bamie had decorated the table with Saffronia roses, the kind that Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. had worn in his buttonhole each day.  September 23, 1901 was the new President’s first night spent in the White House.

Theodore Roosevelt was a brand new kind of President for a brand new century. Most American Presidents were content to be caretakers, not caring that the realpower lay with the Congress.  This new man would clear Washington of the fetid atmosphere that pervaded the national capital.

                                     

Theodore Roosevelt

                       Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent - Wikimedia

Qualities of Theodore Roosevelt

TR, as he was called, claimed not to be an orator or a writer.  He was incorrect on both counts.  He also had an uncanny gift of leadership.  At 42, he was the youngest President in the history of the United States.  He was a big game hunter, a bird watcher, a moral crusader, a shrewd politician, and a hyperactive adult.  He was also a proud husband and father.  The man was brilliant; he was close to being a genius.  He spoke a variety of languages.  He was the first President to go down in a submarine.  He was the first to send a transatlantic cable.  He was the first to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first to invite an African American to dine with him in the White House.  TR made a pledge to follow the policies of his predecessor, President McKinley.

Theodore Roosevelt’s niece, Eleanor, was just 16 when he became President.  His young cousin. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, followed his activities voraciously.  FDR’s mother referred to him as “Your noble kinsman.”

Booker T. Washington

Within hours of his Presidency, TR admitted a Negro in evening dress into a private apartment in the White House.  His name was Booker T. Washington, the most powerful black man in America.  Blacks had been disenfranchised throughout the south.  Roosevelt wanted to control the black delegates at the presidential convention in 1904.  Washington dined in the company of the President’s wife Alice and his daughter.

President Roosevelt planned to appoint African Americans to political jobs as a matter of simple courtesy.  Black slaves had built the Executive Mansion.  Blacks worked at the White House.  None had ever dined there with the President and his family, however.  The President was astonished at the furor that his act had aroused.  He never asked another African American to dine at the White House.

J. Pierpont Morgan and the Trust System

Industrial production in the country at that time had never been higher.  Certain parties reaped the results of that progress.  J. Pierpont Morgan, a New York financial titan was one of those.  His remark was “I owe the public nothing.”  That type of thinking was anathema to Theodore Roosevelt.  He had an inbred responsibility to society.  He held that the rich man should be held to the same accountability as the poor man.

Trusts were important to the country but were getting out of control.  In 1902, Roosevelt agreed to a suit that was filed against a company called Northern Securities.  J. P. Morgan had an interest in that company.  He was stunned.  The Supreme Court upheld the President’s action.  Northern Securities functioned as an illegal restraint of trade.  Roosevelt invoked the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against 40 additional trusts.  He regarded it as his moral duty to curb these excesses.  

Theodore Roosevelt is known as the President who had done the most writing during his term in office.  At 150,000 letters, he had written more than Thomas Jefferson who had that reputation previously.

TR Loved to Talk

TR was called a one-man gas bag.  Most people did not mind, however, because he was so interesting.  The story is told that he asked to meet a certain man, and the man was ushered into his office.  After a long time, the man left the office, looking disheveled, and a staff person said “What did you tell the President?”  He said “I told him my name.”

As a young man, he enjoyed the sport of boxing.  When he was older, he took up ju-jitsu.  He refused to be photographed playing tennis since it was considered a rich man’s game.

The Coal Miners Strike

Coal-mining was a lucrative business.  It was important that the rights and interests of the laboring men would be protected and cared for.  America ran on Anthracite Coal, much of it mined from the Pennsylvania hillsides.  The men worked 16-hour days for low wages.  They were forced to patronize company-owned stores which often overcharged them.  The mine owners were opposed to change.

The mine workers went on strike.  A total of 130,000 men laid down their pickaxes.  The price of coal rose from $5 to $30 a ton.  Riots occurred, the likes of which the country had never seen.  The President needed to intervene.  It was a matter of vital concern to the entire nation.  When the two sides refused to arbitrate, Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the mines and order the military to run them.  He had no Constitutional authority to do this.  Yet, he felt that his greater duty was to the people of the country.  He stated “The Constitution was made for the people, and not the people for the Constitution.”  The mine owners retreated.  The workers received a ten percent raise and a nine hour day.  The strike ended.  Thus, Roosevelt was the first to mediate a labor dispute and the first to have federal troops seize a strike-bound industry.

                               

Franklin D. Roosevelt

                                            Franklin D. Roosevelt at Groton - Wikimedia

Franklin D. Roosevelt at Harvard

Theodore’s young cousin Franklin was a Harvard sophomore at this time.  He felt that the President made a serious mistake by interfering.  Franklin was not an outstanding student and was not very well liked.  Success did not come easily to him.  He ran for Class Marshall and lost.  He was invited to join the elitist Porcellian Club but was blackballed.  His father had been an honorary member and Theodore had been a member.  He was deeply hurt and considered it to be the greatest disappointment of his life.

During his college years, Franklin fell in love with a girl named Alice Sawyer.  He told her that he hoped to be President and would like to have six children.  Alice turned him down and stated to friends that she did not wish to become a cow.  He never told his mother about Alice.  Soon after, his diary began mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt.

American Expansionism

Theodore Roosevelt was in favor of American Expansionism.  It occurred during his tenure beyond his wildest dreams.  The Philippines was wrested from the Spanish and the United States annexed Hawaii.  Mark Twain confessed to being an Anti-Imperialist.  He felt that military adventures betrayed American beliefs and that most Americans were uncomfortable with Imperialism.  Criticism did not concern TR.  He divided the world between civilized nations and uncivilized nations.  The civilized nations were industrialized and were mostly white.  The uncivilized nations were those which bought products but did not manufacture them.  They were also incapable of self-government.  He conceded that Japan had become a civilized nation through its industrial and military power.  He believed that the United States should police the western hemisphere.

The Panama Canal
                                                     The Panama Canal - Wikimedia        

The Panama Canal

Roosevelt was not good in dealing with foreign nations, especially if he thought they were inferior to us.  Investors had a dream of a Central American Canal.  TR agreed to buy the French rights to a Canal and negotiated a fee of $10 million.  The Columbian Senate rejected the offer and doubled the price.  Roosevelt was enraged.  He went on to exploit the wishes of the people of the Panama Province who wanted their freedom from Columbia.  In 1903, the rebels proclaimed their independence, and the United States recognized the Republic of Panama.  Work on the Canal began, but it was an American Canal.  Roosevelt was the first President to leave the country while in office when he visited the Republic of Panama.  The Panama Canal was opened in 1914 and affirmed America’s greatness through an achievement which did not involve war.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Upbringing

Franklin Roosevelt was often in contact with his fifth cousin Eleanor Roosevelt.  He was 21 years old at the time and she was 19.  She was the daughter of Theodore’s brother Elliot. Franklin had always felt secure and so he was surprised at Eleanor’s insecurities.  Eleanor’s mother was disappointed in her daughter’s looks.  She called her “Granny” at times.  Eleanor grew up thinking that her mother did not love her and that she had failed her mother in some way.  Her mother was subject to headaches and allowed Eleanor to rub her forehead at those times.  Eleanor learned that the way to be loved was to be useful to others.  Her absent father was erratic, alcoholic, and delusional.  He always promised Eleanor that they would travel together and that he would take her to see the Taj Mahal.  Both of her parents had died before she was ten years old.  She was sent off to live with her maternal grandmother in a house with an unstable aunt and two alcoholic uncles.  She was lonely, timid, and withdrawn, and felt that she displeased the people she lived with.

Eleanor’s Schooling in London

On her visits to Sagamore, Eleanor experienced the kindness of her uncle Theodore.  Bamie, TR’s sister, was her salvation.  She sent Eleanor to a girl’s school called Allenwood on the outskirts of London.  It was the first time in her life that all of Eleanor’s fears left her.  Her three years at Allenwood were the happiest years of her life. The headmistress devoted herself to Eleanor who eventually became the most admired girl in the school.  She was deeply loved and loved in return. 

                               

Eleanor Roosevelt

                                                       Eleanor Roosevelt - Wikimedia

Franklin’s Proposal of Marriage

When Eleanor was 17, her grandmother called her home too be introduced to society. She spent a summer with her alcoholic uncles, which necessitated putting locks on Eleanor’s door.  It was not a good preparation for a debutante.  In 1902, she saw Franklin at a New York Horse Show. He asked to see her again and again.  She was TR’s favorite niece.  She was very intelligent, very substantive.  He truly did love her.  She had deeper complexities than the other girls of her time.  It said a lot about the depth of Franklin that he fell in love with Eleanor.  He proposed to her.  He felt that with her help, he could make something of himself.  She said yes.  When he told his mother Sara, she asked him to keep their engagement a secret for a year to see if their feelings would last.

The Presidential Election of 1904

In preparation for the Presidential election, the Executive Mansion was refurbished and renamed the White House.  Theodore and Edith loved the company of the writers, artists, and musicians who visited the White House.  The public loved reading about the Roosevelt White House.  Huge crowds came out wherever he went.  Of course, he was more than happy to oblige.  Theodore was the first American President who had the look and sound of a Harvard man. There had never been anything like that in American politics.  He didn’t try to shed his image.  He didn’t try to talk like ordinary people.  They liked him for that.  He worried that he might not be elected President in his own right.

Edith invited a few friends over on election night.  TR won in a landslide.  He then made the worst blunder of his political career.  Because George Washington had refused to run for a third term, none of his successors would go for a third term. To silence people who said he was a mere politician, Roosevelt said he would not run in 1908. At the pinnacle of his power, he had made himself a lame duck.  He later said that he wished he could have recalled that statement.

On December 1st, FDR and Eleanor announced their engagement.  The year of secrecy was hard on both of them.  They could rarely be alone together.  Franklin’s mother made things more difficult.  She looked for ways to keep them apart.  She even took her son on a Caribbean cruise to get him over his infatuation.

Franklin and Eleanor are Married

Theodore led the St. Patrick’s Parade in New York City in 1905.  Franklin and Eleanor got married on that day so that TR could be there to give his late brother’s daughter away.  They had a three-month honeymoon in Europe.  There were some initial hints of strain when Franklin sleepwalked and developed hives.  He wrote his mother that everyone just wanted to talk to them about President Roosevelt. 

The Treaty of Portsmouth

TR was instrumental in ending a conflict in the Pacific that threatened to disturb the balance of power in the Pacific.  Russia and Japan were at war.  For the first time, an Asian power had threatened to defeat a western one.  Roosevelt felt that the United States should assert itself.  If the Japanese won, it would lead to a destabilization of the Pacific.  TR persuaded both sides to attend a conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire so that a just and lasting peace could be speedily concluded.  It was called the Treaty of Portsmouth.  Russia dropped claims to Korea, and Japan dropped its claim for the costs of the war.  Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Alice Roosevelt

Alice Roosevelt was the daughter of TR’s first wife, Alice Lee.  Alice’s life was divided among her relatives - her aunt Bamie, her father and her stepmother.  She always felt like a fifth wheel.  Edith and TR wanted her to be inconspicuous.  She was desperate to be noticed. She smoked, bet on the horses, and took auto rides.  She flirted with men.  Her face was everywhere.  Overseas, she was called “Princess Alice.”  She was a thorn in the side of many Roosevelts for decades.

 

The White House

                                                            The White House - Wikimedia

The Hepburn Act

One of President Roosevelt’s greatest accomplishments was the Hepburn Act, which limited the rates that railroads charged.  He actually campaigned throughout the country for a piece of legislation in that regard.  TR pushed through many more bills that began to rewrite the role of government.  He championed the Pure Food and Drug Act which ordered that products must be accurately labeled.  He began a federal investigation into the meatpacking industry when it was discovered that meatpacking plants were filthy.  When he threatened to expose them even more, they backed down.

In 1906, he signed into law the Antiquities Act for the protection of prehistoric ruins.  He also saved many of the nation’s natural wonders as national monuments, such as the Grand Canyon.  Before he left office, there were 51 bird sanctuaries, 4 game preserves, 18 monuments, and several national parks.  He saved the buffalo from extinction and created the U. S. Forest Service.

Theodore Roosevelt - A Highly Ranked President

Theodore Roosevelt never regarded himself as a great President.  His tenure did not occur during a time of crisis or war.  Nevertheless, his accomplishments are innumerable and he is ranked 4th in the list of Highly Ranked Presidents of the United States.  He was just 50 years old when he completed his term of office.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Modern Library Paperbacks)
Amazon Price: $18.00 $4.78 Buy Now
(price as of Dec 16, 2015)
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