A Brief Biography
The future 26th president of the United States was born October 27, 1858 in New York City. He was a sickly boy, suffering from asthma, but he set a pattern in childhood of taking adversity as a challenge. He overcame his asthma through incessant physical exercise, a habit he continued throughout his life. In fact, he was climbing a mountain on September 14, 1901 when William McKinley died from shot fired by an assassin on September 6. Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency at the age of 42, the youngest person ever to be president. (In November 1960, John F. Kennedy became the youngest person elected to the office at the age of 43.)
Long before that day, his course in life was set. He was to be a naturalist. The youthful walks that conquered his asthma also gave him a deep love of nature. Though he was sometimes criticized for shooting animals rather than merely gazing at them, this boyhood passion was far broader than a mere love of hunting. He believed with all his heart that a life in nature, struggling against adversity, was the path to personal growth. When scouting came to America, Roosevelt was one of its most passionate and consistent supporters. His big games hunts in Africa and South America enhanced the collections of the American Museum of Natural History and The Smithsonian Institutions.
In college, Roosevelt began to transform himself. His life goal shifted from nature study to politics, particularly progressive politics. Though some of his political views now seem rather quaint (for instance, he believed women should stay home and have as many babies as they could afford), his political agenda soon developed into one that sounds largely liberal even today. He believed in reigning in the power of big business, he believed government jobs should be awarded on merit rather than political patronage, he thought the government should use it’s police power to assure the safety of food and drugs.
Most importantly, for environmentalists today, he believed that the land, water, minerals, and forests of this country were held in trust by the government. They were not to be sold or given away to the highest bidder. Rather, they were to be protected, used in moderation, developed where necessary, but ultimately protected and passed on to future generations.
After he graduated from Harvard in 1880, Roosevelt’s life endured a quick series of ups and downs. He married right after graduation and in 1882 was elected to the New York State legislature. There, he rapidly achieved prominence as a leader of the reform wing of the minority Republican Party. But on Valentine’s Day in 1884 his wife and mother both died and shortly thereafter his reformists lost power within the Republican Party. Deeply disappointed, perhaps depressed, he withdrew from politics and society. He fled to the West.
Just one year earlier, in 1883, he had visited the Dakota Territory on a hunting trip. He bought two ranches in the Badlands, though he apparently had no intention of living there. With his series of reverses weighing on him, in 1884 he moved to one of his ranches and spent his time hunting and writing a book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman.
His life in the west brought him up from the depths and just two years later, in 1886, he returned east to marry his childhood sweetheart, write a series of books on a variety of subject, and eventually return to public life. In 1889 he was appointed to the U. S. Civil Serice Commission, where he continued his earlier efforts to replace patronage with merit as the basis for Civil Serice appointments. In 1895 he became New York City’s Police Commissioner. In 1897 he was appointed Secretary of the Navy. In 1898, with the outbreak of war with Spain, he resigned from government service to recruit and train First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, popularly known as the Rough Riders. He returned from the war a hero and was immediately elected governor of New York State.
As governor, he pursued his usual policy of vigorous reform. This angered the rich and powerful men of the state because Roosevelt’s reforms meant less power for them. They schemed to get him out of their way by placing his name on the Republican ticket as Vice President. At that time, only two Vice Presidents had ever been called on to take over due to the death of the President, so they may have felt they had gotten Roosevelt off their back for at least four years. An assasin’s bullet proved them wrong. In September of 1901, Roosevelt became President. The office of the Presidency hasn’t been the same since.
The first century of the American Presidency saw a gradual diminution of the prestige of the President. Washington, of course, started the office off with his own personal prestige, but the office never attained a power to challenge that of the Senate until the Civil War, when Lincoln’s position as Commander-in-Chief allowed him to briefly change the balance of power in the capital. With his assasination and the subsequent impeachment trail of Andrew Johnson, the Presidency moved back into the shadows. He doled out offices to party functionaries and supports, but he rarely lead the country in any real sense. With Roosevelt, that changed.
Roosevelt’s accomplishments as President fall into three main areas: anti-trust, international prestige, and environment. In the field of anti-trust action, he used the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up some of the country’s biggest corporation, restoring competition to the marketplace. In international affairs, he promoted the U.S. as a global power and particularly as the only major power with any say in the affirs of the Western Hemisphere.
In the area of the environment and natural resources, his actions set the tone for the national debate on protection vs. use of natural resources. In fact, he was the one person who, more than any other, was responsible for the fact that there is a debate at all. Before Roosevelt, politicians of every stripe were nearly unanimous in treating the land, water and mineral resources of the country as a treasure house to be sold off to the highest bidder, or even the lowest bidder if there was some political advantage to be gained thereby. Roosevelt, on the other hand, argued that natural resources were a public trust. They were to be used only to the extent that they could be conserved, to be passed on to future generation. With the man he called his “conservation conscience,” Gifford Pinchot, he brought Americans to the realization that you can’t keep cutting trees with no thought for the next generation. You can’t keep shooting animals with no regard for the speices’ capacity to reproduce or, like the buffalo in his time, it may hover at the brink of extinction, following the sad fate of the passenger pigeon.
Two of Roosevelt’s most important actions in furthering this conservation agenda were the Governors’ Conference of May 1908 and the appointment of a National Conservation Commission the following month. the latter, in particular, was a landmark event. The commission was charged with compiling the first inventory of the country’s natural resources. You can’t conserve or even think about what you don’t know you had. For the first time, thanks to Roosevelt’s forsight and action, we learned the extent of our remaining forests and other natural resources.
Roosevelt ended his Presidency in January 1909 and immediately set off on the first of two hunting/collecting trips, this one to Africa. He traveled in grand style but hunted, took notes for subsequent books, and generally managed to enjoy life with his usual energy.
In 1912 he ran again for the Presidency. His hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, had turned away from Roosevelt’s progressive politics and had become, in Roosevelt’s view, a tool of big business. When he was rebuffed by the Republicans in an effort to get their nomination, he ran as a candidate of the Progressive Party. Though he failed to win the Presidency, he took enough votes from Taft to throw the election to the Democratic candidate, Princeton Professor and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson.
During the election campaing, on October 14, he was shot in the chest. Despite a certain weakness, he went on to deliver a 90-minute campaign speech before seeking a doctor’s care.
In 1914 he traveled to South America, collecting animals (or rather, their skins and skeletons) for the American Museum of Natural History. He said of the trip, “I had to go. It was my last chance to be a boy.”
In 1917, with the outbreak of World War One, he tried unsuccessfully to form a volunteer regiment, as he had done in the war against Spain in 1898. Two years later, on January 6, 1919, he died suddenly at home. At the time, he was planning another run for the Presidency. What the 1920’s would have been like with Roosevelt in the White House is an interesting speculation. The laissez faire capitalism of the Republicans which helped lay the groundwork for the Great Depression was the opposite of Roosevelt’s own view of proper public policy.
Whatever the future might have been with another term in office, Roosevelt’s status as one of the greats was assured. Particularly in the field of environmental protection, he was the only president prior to Carter who has any claim to consideration for the Ecology Hall of Fame. But Roosevelt, through his writings, his personal leadership, and his political actions, stands as an examplar of someone who acted “with vigor” in the interests of preserving nature and furthering the progress of the American Environmental Movement.