Theodore Roosevelt: Life & Accomplishments of this American President

Theodore Roosevelt was a highly popular president for his progressive reforms that addressed core issues the United States was facing at the time.

Aug 26, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
president theodore roosevelt life and accomplishments
Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt in his Rough Rider uniform by George Gardner Rockwood, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt entered the presidency as the youngest president in the nation’s history at 42 years old. The adventurous outdoorsman introduced progressive policies and reform and expanded US foreign relations. A known advocate for wildlife conservation and preservation, Theodore Roosevelt established several wildlife reserves, national forests, and national monuments. Roosevelt’s run as a modern president is marked by great accomplishments that benefited the United States and its people.


Early Life of Theodore Roosevelt

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Young Theodore Roosevelt posing with his horse courtesy of T.W. Ingersoll, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Theodore Roosevelt was born into a well-off family on October 27, 1858 in New York City, New York. His father was a philanthropist and businessman, and his mother was a southern woman who was raised on a Georgia plantation. Roosevelt was homeschooled by private teachers and spent a chunk of his childhood traveling with his family across Europe and the Middle East in the 1860s and 1870s. At the age of 18, Roosevelt was accepted into Harvard University and studied a variety of subjects, including natural history, zoology, German, and forensics. He met Alice Hathaway Lee during his studies, whom he married in October 1880. Roosevelt graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree and went on to study law at Columbia Law School. He dropped out after just one year to pursue a career in the civil service field.


Roosevelt entered the political arena in 1882 when he was elected as a member of the New York State Assembly. He served until 1884, when he suffered the devastating losses of his wife and mother on the same day in February, just hours apart. Alice died from Bright’s disease, and his mother died from typhoid fever. To cope with his losses, Roosevelt ventured out to the Badlands in the Dakota Territory and became a rancher and big game hunter. A disastrous blizzard wiped out most of his cattle in 1886, causing Roosevelt to return to New York. After traveling back East, Roosevelt met with childhood friend Edith Kermit Carow, whom he would marry in 1886. The two moved to Oyster Bay, New York, where Roosevelt acquired land and built his permanent residence, known as the Sagamore Hill house.


Public Service Career

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President Theodore Roosevelt dressed in a suit and top hat walking in the street, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Once Theodore Roosevelt resettled in New York following his marriage to Edith, he unsuccessfully ran for New York City mayor. In 1888, Roosevelt was appointed to the US Civil Service Commission after successfully campaigning for Republican presidential nominee Benjamin Harrison. Roosevelt’s main focus throughout his early political career was enforcing civil service laws and tackling key issues that the rapidly changing nation was facing at the turn of the century. By the late 19th century, the US was growing into an industrial nation. Labor laws, safety issues, and economic and social injustice were core issues that needed to be addressed.

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Roosevelt left his position in the Commission to become the president of the New York City Police Board in 1895. The NYC Police Board was facing major corruption at the time, which Roosevelt helped clean up. Two years later, Roosevelt was appointed as assistant secretary of the US Navy. Roosevelt believed the Navy was a valuable force that needed a stronger presence. He would later use his executive powers as president to strengthen US naval power. While acting as the US Navy assistant secretary, Roosevelt helped coordinate the Navy’s response to the US battleship Maine explosion in Havana Harbor. This event would lead to the start of the Spanish-American War, in which Roosevelt played a significant role.


The Spanish-American War & New York Governorship

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Theodore Roosevelt (standing center front) with the Rough Riders, via Soldiers Walk Memorial Park, Wisconsin


At the start of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt volunteered to become the commander of the First US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, known as the Rough Riders. Roosevelt helped lead the US to victory in one of the last battles by charging up Kettle Hill in the Battle for San Juan Heights. The victory led the Rough Riders to be recognized as war heroes, and they received a warm welcome home following the end of the war.


Due to his great war efforts, Roosevelt attracted the attention of Republican party leaders in New York. He was encouraged to run for Governor of New York. Roosevelt agreed and won the election, largely due to Republican party leader Thomas C. Platt, who fully supported Roosevelt in the election process. However, Platt and other Republican leaders in New York quickly grew upset over a number of decisions that Roosevelt made during his term.


The political environment in New York was very corrupt at the time, and Roosevelt’s aggressive approach to enforcing laws and policies was getting in the way of the Republican leaders’ crooked agenda. Roosevelt’s decisions that angered the Republican leaders included the refusal to appoint previous leaders into the State Insurance Commissioner and Public Works Commissioner roles, which were very prominent positions. He also decided to support the taxation of public service assets.


Supporting public service asset taxation was the final straw for Platt, who dropped his support for Roosevelt. Platt conspired a secret plan to force Roosevelt out of New York politics by encouraging him to run for vice president. The plan worked, and instead of running for New York Governor for a second term, Roosevelt successfully campaigned for President McKinley’s second term and became vice president in 1900.


Theodore Roosevelt Becomes President

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President Theodore Roosevelt in a vehicle waving his hat to the crowd, via Soldiers Walk Memorial Park, Wisconsin


President William McKinley’s second term in office was cut short when he was shot by an anarchist during his attendance at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901. McKinley died a little over a week later from his gunshot wound, and Theodore Roosevelt was sworn into presidency from his friend Ansley Wilcox’s home on September 14. He became the youngest president in the nation’s history and is often described as the first modern president of the US because of his progressive reforms.


The legislative branch held the most power compared to the other government branches prior to the 20th century. Roosevelt turned a new leaf in the government because he took advantage of all of his executive powers. This transformed the role of the executive branch. Roosevelt wanted to expand foreign relations to make the US a global power and also directed his attention to social and economic issues the country was facing at the time. Conservation and preservation of the nation’s natural resources were also at the forefront of his concerns.


Expanding US Foreign Relations

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Theodore Roosevelt on a digging machine at the Panama Canal construction site, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Roosevelt inherited a new kind of nation when he first entered office. The US had just acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico following the victory of the Spanish-American War. With these new territories came more responsibility to establish stronger foreign relations. The creation of the Panama Canal was one of Roosevelt’s most notable foreign relations accomplishments. Prior to its construction, ships had to make two-month-long voyages around South America from the Pacific to the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean.


Roosevelt began negotiations with Britain in 1901 to establish a canal controlled by the US. The Senate approved plans for the canal, but Colombia had to be on board. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty agreement was established in 1903, granting the US permission to create the Panama Canal for $10 million and a $250,000 annual payment. In 1906, Roosevelt became the first president to leave the country while in office to visit Panama and oversee the canal’s construction. The Panama Canal cost $400 million and took ten years to build, and was completed in 1914. The canal proved to be highly successful in making passage between the seas separated by Central America easier.


great white fleet united states navy battleships
Great White Fleet naval battleships anchored presumably in Brazilian waters courtesy of Enrique Muller, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Roosevelt was also known as a peacemaker for his negotiation efforts on behalf of Russia and Japan during the Russo-Japanese War. He convinced Russian and Japanese leaders to meet in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1905 to discuss disputes over Manchuria. Thanks to Roosevelt’s role as mediator in the discussion, the Treaty of Portsmouth officially ended the Russo-Japanese War on September 5, 1905. Other negotiations included disputes between Germany and France, which were having disagreements about France’s involvement in Morocco. A settlement between the two countries was reached in 1906. These efforts are often recognized as preventing a world war from occurring.


In 1907, Roosevelt decided to send the US Navy on a world tour to show off the naval power of the US, help Navy men gain more experience sailing overseas, and gain domestic support for his naval program. The tour consisted of 16 naval battleships, which became known as the Great White Fleet. The fleet spent 14 months at sea between December 1907 and February 1909. The fleet returned home, and the voyage was considered a huge success.


Domestic Affairs & Conservation Efforts

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Sitting portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by Peter A. Juley, 1903, via National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


Roosevelt’s domestic program was known as the Square Deal. The term encompassed three areas Roosevelt targeted throughout his presidency: federal regulation of big business, conservation, and protection of consumers. Roosevelt wanted the federal government to be more involved in regulating big business and breaking down corrupt monopolies.


The Sherman Antitrust Act was implemented in 1890, but it was highly ineffective because it wasn’t being enforced. Roosevelt believed that the federal government should be allowed to intervene in big business relations if it meant protecting the welfare of the people. He targeted the Northern Securities Company railroad trust. A lawsuit was filed against the company on behalf of the Department of Justice in 1902, and it reached the Supreme Court in 1904. The Supreme Court ruled that the Northern Securities Company violated the Sherman Antitrust Act because it was a monopoly. The company was ordered to dissolve. Roosevelt was nicknamed the “trust buster” for his victory over the case.


Roosevelt also tackled railroad rebate issues by signing the Elkins Act of 1903 into law. This led to the passing of the Hepburn Act of 1906, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) more power to enforce federal regulations on railroads. He also addressed unsanitary meat factory conditions that were exposed by muckraking journalists. The Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 were signed into law by Roosevelt, which led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


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President Theodore Roosevelt (left) with naturalist John Muir (right) at Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley courtesy of Underwood & Underwood, 1903, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Roosevelt helped put an end to the Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 when he summoned the two disagreeing parties to meet to make amends. Although Roosevelt didn’t have the authority to formally intervene in the strike, he created a commission to investigate it. Upon accepting the commission, the United Mine Workers of America union agreed to end the 163-day strike in October 1902. Roosevelt managed to get the union leaders and mine owners to meet to discuss the findings of the commission, and a deal was made in March 1903 that workers’ pay would increase by 10% and workday hours would be reduced from ten to nine hours.


Theodore Roosevelt always advocated for preserving the beauty of nature and the Earth’s natural resources. He implemented several executive orders that allowed him to establish about 230 million acres of federally protected lands. Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law in June 1906, which allowed him to preserve and protect federal lands that had natural, historical, or scientific significance.


Using the Antiquities Act, Roosevelt established 150 national forests, five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 federal bird reserves, and four national game preserves. Of the 230 million acres of federally protected lands, 150 million were established for national forests. In 1903, Roosevelt met with naturalist John Muir to explore Yosemite National Park, which expanded the park’s acreage. Roosevelt created the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903 when he established Pelican Island in Florida. This was a precursor to the establishment of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Roosevelt’s conservation efforts were very important for the nation’s future as America was turning into an industrial society, which later created huge environmental concerns due to pollution and habitat destruction.


Theodore Roosevelt’s Life After Presidency

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Family portrait of Theodore Roosevelt with his wife Edith and children by Pach Brothers, 1903, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


President Theodore Roosevelt gained popularity among the people for his great efforts in dismantling monopolistic business practices that negatively affected consumers and focusing on other social and economic issues that the nation faced. His aggressive approach to enforcing laws to ensure that fairness was above all and decisions was made for the benefit of the public made him one of the most successful presidents.


Recognized as the first modern president, Roosevelt set the precedent for what policies and reform would look like in future presidencies. Pieces of his progressive New Nationalism campaign were adopted decades later by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the New Deal, the Fair Deal of President Harry S. Truman, President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and the Great Society of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.