How Teddy Roosevelt's Views on Race Shaped His Policies

How Teddy Roosevelt's Views on Race Shaped His Policies

Theodore Roosevelt, known for his boundless energy and brash, adventurous spirit, possessed one of the biggest personalities of any American president. But, he once said, “It is a quality of strong natures that their failings, like their virtues, should stand out in bold relief.”

That could certainly be said of the 26th president, whose complex legacy includes not just his achievements as a progressive reformer and conservationist who regulated big business and established the national park system. He also believed firmly in the existence of a racial hierarchy, which shaped his attitudes on race relations, land rights, American imperialism and the emerging—and disturbing—science of eugenics.

“The force of race in history occupied a singularly important place in Roosevelt’s broad intellectual outlook,” wrote Thomas G. Dyer in Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race. Roosevelt believed fundamentally that American greatness came from its rule by racially superior white men of European descent.

READ MORE: 7 Little-Know Legacies of Teddy Roosevelt

Roosevelt Believed Individual Self-Determination Was Possible

Roosevelt maintained that although white men held firm at the top of the social hierarchy, “inferior” races could rise from their lower stations. “Roosevelt believed that individuals could learn positive traits within their lifetime and assumed racial mobility was within human control,” says Michael Patrick Cullinane, a history professor at London’s University of Roehampton and author of Theodore Roosevelt's Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon. But Roosevelt didn’t come to those ideas himself. According to Cullinane, his racial ideology drew on his readings of leading evolutionary theorists such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.

Roosevelt “admired individual achievement above all things,” wrote biographer Edmund Morris—which is why he became the first president to invite an African American to dine at the White House when he broke bread with Tuskegee Institution founder Booker T. Washington just weeks after his inauguration. “The only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each Black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less than he shows himself worthy to have,” Roosevelt wrote of his meeting.

Roosevelt also defended Minnie Cox, the country’s first African American female postmaster, after she was driven out of Indianola, Mississippi, because of the color of her skin. He appointed Black Americans to prominent positions, such as his nomination of Dr. William Crum as customs collector in Charleston, South Carolina, which drew considerable political opposition and this presidential response: “I cannot consent to take the position that the door of hope—the door of opportunity—is to be shut upon any man, no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race or color.”

READ MORE: How Woodrow Wilson Tried to Reverse Black American Progress

He Took a Dimmer View of Racial Groups as a Whole

In spite of those words, though, Roosevelt hardly saw all Black Americans as equals. “As a race and in the mass they are altogether inferior to the whites,” he confided to a friend in a 1906 letter. Ten years later, he told Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that “the great majority of Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for the suffrage” and that giving them voting rights could “reduce parts of the South to the level of Haiti.”

Roosevelt also believed that Black men made poor soldiers. He denigrated the efforts of the buffalo soldiers who fought alongside his men at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, falsely claiming that they ran away under fire. “Negro troops were shirkers in their duties and would only go as far as they were led by white officers,” he wrote. In reality, the buffalo soldiers served with distinction, and several men were officially recognized for their bravery. Twenty-six died on the slopes of San Juan Hill.

As for Native Americans, Roosevelt’s considerable time spent ranching in the Dakota Territory only hardened his mindset toward them, years before he became president. “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian,” he said in 1886, “but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”

Roosevelt viewed Native Americans as impediments to the white settlement of the United States and believed that white frontiersmen had forged a new race—the American race—by “ceaseless strife waged against wild man and wild nature.”

READ MORE: Why Buffalo Soldiers Served Among America's First Park Rangers

Roosevelt's Views on Race Impacted Both His Domestic and Foreign Policies

As president, he favored the removal of many Native Americans from their ancestral territories, including approximately 86 million acres of tribal land transferred to the national forest system. Roosevelt’s signature achievements of environmental conservation and the establishment of national parks came at the expense of the people who had stewarded the land for centuries. Roosevelt also supported policies of assimilation for indigenous Americans to become integrated into the broader American society. These policies, over time, contributed to the decimation of Native culture and communities.

Roosevelt’s attitudes toward race also had a direct impact on his foreign policy as president, says Cullinane: “Because he believed that white Anglo-Saxons had reached the pinnacle of social achievement, he thought they were in a position to teach the other peoples of the world who had failed to reach such heights. The United States would help tutor and uplift the Western Hemisphere.”

That worldview formed the foundation of Roosevelt’s vocal support of American imperialism, and in the White House he presided over an expanding overseas empire that included territories won in the Spanish-American War including Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines. His Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, also known famously as his “big stick” foreign policy, laid the foundation for a more interventionist policy in Latin America. He also extended American influence in the region by fomenting a rebellion in Panama that resulted in American construction of the Panama Canal.

And his desire to reset racial hierarchies wasn't limited to the Western Hemisphere. “It is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black and yellow aboriginal owners," Roosevelt wrote in his 1889 book The Winning of the West, "and become the heritage of the dominant world races.”

READ MORE: How Boarding Schools Tried to 'Kill the Indian' Through Assimilation

Only Citizens 'of the Right Type’ Must Procreate

Roosevelt’s racial philosophy of white superiority dovetailed with his support of the eugenics movement, which advocated selective breeding to engineer a race of people with more “desirable” characteristics, and sterilization of “less desirable” people, such as criminals, people with developmental disabilities—and for some, people of color. “Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce,” he wrote in 1913. “Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.”

“Men must be judged with reference to the age in which they dwell,” Roosevelt said in a 1907 speech at the dedication of a monument to the Pilgrims. In his era, Roosevelt was hardly alone in his advocacy for racial hierarchies, American imperialism and eugenics, which became the basis of compulsory sterilization laws enacted by more than 30 states. The man who defeated him in the 1912 presidential campaign, Woodrow Wilson, shared similar views on race, and prominent figures such as Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller and Winston Churchill supported the eugenics movement.

In the context of his time, “Roosevelt engaged meaningfully with the idea of race. He read and published on leading evolutionary thought," Cullinane says. "That said, there were also more progressive voices in Roosevelt’s day that he dismissed.”

Why Teddy Roosevelt Is Popular On Both Sides of the Political Aisle

A president’s career can extend well beyond his death, as family, friends, and fans work tirelessly to maintain his legacy and image.

For roughly 10 years, I have studied the legacy of the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Even after a decade, I continue to be astounded by how regularly Roosevelt is invoked in politics and beyond.

Today, TR is ubiquitous. If you follow sports, you may have seen Teddy Goalsevelt, the self-appointed mascot for Team USA soccer who ran for FIFA president in 2016. Or you may have watched the giant-headed Roosevelt who rarely wins the Presidents’ Race at Washington Nationals baseball games. If you enjoy the cinema, you will likely recall Robin Williams as Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum trilogy, or might know that a biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Roosevelt is slated for production.

In politics, Roosevelt has become the rare figure popular with both left and right. Vice President Mike Pence recently compared his boss Donald Trump to Roosevelt in 2016, candidate Hillary Clinton named the Rough Rider as her political lodestar. Environmentalists celebrate Roosevelt as the founding father of conservation and a wilderness warrior, and small business interests celebrate his battles against large corporations.

And more than a century after he was shot in Milwaukee during the 1912 presidential campaign, Roosevelt remains a target last year, his statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York was splattered in red paint in protest of its symbolic relationship to white supremacy, among other things.

Roosevelt’s high profile is no mere accident of history. Shortly after Roosevelt’s death, two memorial associations organized and worked to perpetuate his legacy.

One of these organizations sought to tie Roosevelt to the politics of the early 20th century, and cast him as a national icon of Americanism. At that time, Americanism stood for patriotism and civic-mindedness, as well as anti-communism and anti-immigration. This ideology helped Republicans win back the White House in 1920, but it also galvanized the first Red Scare.

The second memorial organization rejected the political approach to commemoration, choosing to represent Roosevelt’s legacy in artistic, creative, and utilitarian forms, including monuments, films, artwork, and by applying the Roosevelt name to bridges and buildings. Of course, some of these activities had implicit political angles, but they generally avoided association with overt causes, in favor of historical commemoration. When it came to fundraising, the apolitical organization raised 10 times as much income as the political one, and within ten years the two organizations folded into a single memorial association that abandoned political interpretations. Roosevelt became bipartisan and polygonal.

This is not to say Roosevelt’s legacy lost all meaning. Quite the opposite our perception of Roosevelt has endured a number of declines and revivals. And, through the rounds of historical revision and re-revision, he has maintained certain characteristics.

His civic-minded Americanism endures, as does his record as a conservationist and a progressive. Roosevelt still evokes an image of an American cowboy, a preacher of righteousness, and a leading intellectual.

Most interestingly, these elements of his legacy are not mutually exclusive. Invoking one does not require us to exclude another. For example, Barack Obama promoted the Affordable Care Act in 2010 by memorializing Roosevelt’s advocacy for national healthcare in 1911. Obama could recall Roosevelt’s progressivism while avoiding the Bull Moose’s mixed record on race relations or his support of American imperialism. In short, commemorators can take from Roosevelt what they want and, consequently, his legacy grows ever more complex and elastic.

The upcoming centenary of Roosevelt’s death in January 2019 offers us an opportunity to understand more about how presidential legacies are shaped by successive generations. Images of former presidents come from various sources, and because they can act as a powerful emblem for any cause, their images proliferate without much scrutiny.

Politicians are well aware of this. Sarah Palin, a right-wing Republican, co-opted the legacy of Democrat Harry Truman in her 2008 vice-presidential nomination speech, and Barack Obama had a penchant for invoking Ronald Reagan. In a political swamp full of alligators, summoning the ghosts of dead presidents is relatively safe ground.

Likewise, commercial advertisers take great liberty with the past. Beer and whiskey producers have long used presidents as brand ambassadors (Old Hickory bourbon and Budweiser are good examples). Automobile companies have named vehicles for Washington, Monroe, Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, and Roosevelt.

These contemporary invocations remind us of the real value of legacy, however it might be interpreted. The past has meaning for the present, and that meaning can be translated into advantage. Truth is not the highest value in the contest between presidential ghosts.

Happy Warrior: Teddy Roosevelt in 1919, the last year of his life. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Despite being the subject of scholarly historical biographies that document their lives with precision and care, American presidents are dogged by half-truths, myths, and arbitrary citations in public memory. At a time when our political climate is referred to as “post-truth,” and a celebrity tycoon who has mastered the art of self-promotion sits in the Oval Office, it is worth reflecting on how these legacies are produced.

If, as philosopher Williams James once said, “The use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it,” the former American presidents have lived boundlessly productive lives, with legacies that far outlast their tenure. But because their legacies are produced by successive generations, they often tell us more about the agents of commemoration than the men who sat behind the Resolute Desk.

Examining presidential legacies helps us solve a historical problem: It allows us to see who shapes our perceptions of the past. Memorializers lay claim to historical narratives and create the illusion of public memory, invoking select elements of our shared past as shiny baubles to emulate and admire. So by understanding these myths, the mythmakers, and the motives of memorialization, we can see a laminated past with countless layers. The more myths and the more layers, the more insight we gain into the ways the past connects with the present, and the present with the future.

The “real” Theodore Roosevelt is lost to us. He is an imagined character, even to family. Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson Archie met his grandfather only once. Still, every time he visited Sagamore Hill—his grandfather’s home in Oyster Bay, Long Island—he sensed his ghost. Archie felt that TR’s spirit looked over the kids as they played. On numerous occasions Archie reflected on his grandfather’s likely expectations for his family and even attempted to model his life on that conception. “We knew him only as a ghost,” Archie related, “but what a merry, vital, and energetic ghost he was. And how much encouragement and strength he left behind to help us play the role Fate has assigned us for the rest of the century.”

Indeed, conjuring Roosevelt’s ghost gives us another means of observing the last century, a period of time that Roosevelt himself never saw. Because so many have invoked Roosevelt in the way Archie did, examining his legacy helps to illustrate the motives and judgements of those who remember the past. Theodore Roosevelt’s ghost continues to haunt public memory because we continue to conjure it. TR has been dead for a century, but we refuse to let him rest in peace, believing the use of his life can help us achieve our ends.

(1905) Theodore Roosevelt, “Lincoln and the Race Problem”

On February 13, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech at the New York City Republican Club as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln. The speech, which also allowed Roosevelt to expound on his contemporary views of race in the United States, appears below.

In his second inaugural, in a speech which will be read as long as the memory of this Nation endures, Abraham Lincoln closed by saying: “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Immediately after his re-election he had already spoken thus:
The strife of the election is but human nature practically applied to the facts of the case. What has occurred in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great National trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged. . . . May not all having a common interest reunite in a common effort to (serve) our common country? For my own pare, I have striven and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way. So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom. While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election, and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result. May I ask those who have not differed with me to join with me in this same spirit toward those who have?

This is the spirit in which mighty Lincoln sought to bind up the Nation’s wounds when its soul was yet seething with fierce hatreds, with wrath, with rancor, with all the evil and dreadful passions provoked by civil war. Surely this is the spirit which all Americans should show now, when there is so little excuse for malice or rancor or hatred, when there is so little of vital consequence to divide brother from brother. Lincoln, himself a man of Southern birth, did not hesitate to appeal to the sword when he became satisfied that in no other way could the Union be saved, for high though he put peace he put righteousness still higher. He warred for the Union he warred to free the slave and when he warred he warred in earnest, for it is a sign of weakness to be half-hearted when blows must be struck. But he felt only love, a love as deep as the tenderness of his great and sad heart, for all his countrymen alike in the North and in the South, and he longed above everything for the day when they should once more be knit together in the unbreakable bonds of eternal friendship.

We of to-day, in dealing with all our fellow-citizens, white or colored, North or South should strive to show just the qualities that Lincoln showed – his steadfastness in striving after the right and his infinite patience and forbearance with those who saw that right less clearly than he did his earnest endeavor to do what was best, and yet his readiness to accept the best that was practicable when the ideal best was unattainable his unceasing effort to cure what was evil, coupled with his refusal to make a bad situation worse by any ill-judged or ill-timed effort to make it better. The great Civil War, in which Lincoln towered as the loftiest figure, left us not only a reunited country, but a country which has the proud right to claim as its own the glory won alike by those who wore the blue and by those who wore the gray, by those who followed Grant and by those who followed Lee for both fought with equal bravery and with equal sincerity of conviction, each striving for the light as it was given him to see the light though it is now clear to all that the triumph of the cause of freedom and of the Union was essential to the welfare of mankind. We are now one people, a people with failings which we must not blink, but a people with great qualities in which we have the right to feel just pride.

All good Americans who dwell in the North must, because they are good Americans, feel the most earnest friendship for their fellow-countrymen who dwell in the South, a friendship all the greater because it is in the South that we find in its most acute phase one of the gravest problems before our people: the problem of so dealing with the man of one color as to secure him the rights that no one would grudge him if he were of another color. To solve this problem it is, of course, necessary to educate him to perform the duties, a failure to perform which will render him a curse to himself and to all around him.

Most certainly all clear-sighted and generous men in the North appreciate the difficulty and perplexity of this problem, sympathize with the South in the embarrassment of conditions for which she is not alone responsible, feel an honest wish to help her where help is practicable, and have the heartiest respect for those brave and earnest men of the South who, in the face of fearful difficulties, are doing all that men can do for the betterment alike of white and of black. The attitude of the North toward the negro is far from what it should be, and there is need that the North also should act in good faith upon the principle of giving to each man what is justly due him, of treating him on his worth as a man, granting him no special favors, but denying him no proper opportunity for labor and the reward of labor. But the peculiar circumstances of the South render the problem there far greater and far more acute.

Neither I nor any other man can say that any given way of approaching that problem will present in our times even an approximately perfect solution, but we can safely say that there can never be such solution at all unless we approach it with the effort to do fair and equal justice among all men and to demand from them in return just and fair treatment for others. Our effort should be to secure to each man, whatever his color, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment before the law. As a people striving to shape our actions in accordance with the great law of righteousness we can not afford to take part in or be indifferent to oppression or maltreatment of any man who, against crushing disadvantages, has by his own industry, energy, self-respect, and perseverance struggled upward to a position which would entitle him to the respect of his fellows, if only his skin were of a different hue.

Every generous impulse in us revolts at the thought of thrusting down instead of helping up such a man. To deny any man the fair treatment granted to others no better than he is to commit a wrong upon him – a wrong sure to react in the long run opon those guilty of such denial. The only safe principle upon which Americans can act is thatt of “all men up,” not that of “some men down.” If in any community the level of intelligence, morality, and thrift among the colored men scan be raised, it is, humanly speaking, sure that the same level among the whites will be raised to an even higher degree and it is no less sure that the debasement of the blacks will in the end carry with it an attendant debasement of the whites.

The problem is so to adjust the relations between two races of different ethnic type that the rights of neither be abridged nor jeoparded that the backward race be trained so that it may enter into the possession of true freedom while the forward race is enabled to preserve unharmed the high civilization wrought out by its forefathers. The working out of this problem must necessarily be slow it is not possible fin offhand fashion to obtain or to confer the priceless boons of freedom, industrial efficiency, political capacity, and domestic morality. Nor is it only necessary to train the colored man it is quite as necessary to train the white man, for on his shoulders rests a well-nigh unparalleled sociological responsibility. It is a problem demanding the best thought, the utmost patience, the most earnest effort, the broadest charity, of the statesman, the student, the philanthropist of the leaders of thought in every department of our national life. The Church can be a most important factor fin solving it aright. But above all else we need for its successful solution the sober, kindly, steadfast, unselfish performance of duty by the average plain citizen in his everyday dealings with his fellows.

I am speaking on the occasion of the celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, and to men who count it their peculiar privilege that they have the right to hold Lincoln’s memory dear, and the duty to strive to work along the lines that he laid down. We can pay most fitting homage to his memory by doing the tasks allotted to us in the spirit in which he did the infinitely greater and more terrible tasks allotted to him.

Let us be steadfast for the right but let us err on the side of generosity rather than on the side of vindictiveness toward those who differ from us as to the method of attaining the right. Let us never forget our duty to help in uplifting the lowly, to shield from wrong the humble and let us likewise act in a spirit of the broadest and frankest generosity toward all our brothers, all our fellow-countrymen in a spirit proceeding not from weakness but from strength a spirit which takes no more account of locality than it does of class or of creed a spirit which is resolutely bent on seeing that the Union which Washington founded and which Lincoln saved from destruction shall grow nobler and greater throughout the ages.

I believe in this country with all my heart and soul. I believe that our people will in the end rise level to every need, will in the end triumph over every difficulty that arises before them. I could not have such confident faith in the destiny of this mighty people if I had it merely as regards one portion of that people. Throughout our land things on the whole have grown better and not worse, and this is as true of one part of the country as it is of another. I believe in the Southerner as I believe in the Northerner. I claim the right to feel pride in his great qualities and in his great deeds exactly as I feel pride in the great qualities and deeds of every other American. For weal or for woe we are knit together, and we shall go up or go down together and I believe that we shall go up and not down, that we shall go forward instead of halting and falling back, because I have an abiding faith in the generosity, the courage, the resolution, and the common sense of all my countrymen.

The Southern States face difficult problems and so do the Northern States. Some of the problems are the same for the entire country. Others exist in greater intensity in one section, and yet others exist in greater intensity in another section. But in the end they will all be solved for fundamentally our people are the same throughout this land the same in the qualities of heart and brain and hand which have made this Republic what it is in the great today which will make it what it is to be in the infinitely greater to-morrow. I admire and respect and believe in and have faith in the men and women of the South as I admire and respect and believe in and have faith in the men and women of the North. All of us alike, Northerners and Southerners, Easterners and Westerners, can best prove our fealty to the Nation’s post by the way in which we do the Nation’s work in the present for only thus can we be sure that our children’s children shall inherit Abraham Lincoln’s single-hearted devotion to the great unchanging creed that “righteousness exalteth a nation.”

Theodore Roosevelt Policy

For Theodore Roosevelt, policies were the lifeblood of presidency. Although the foreign policies of Theodore Roosevelt weren’t always met with overwhelming approval, he knew it was important to secure a place for America in the global community. With a focus on domestic policies such as conservation and progressive reform, he was also ensuring America would be effective on its own turf.

To Theodore Roosevelt, domestic policy was imperative. His main concerns ‘on the home front’ were: conservation of natural resources, government reform, creation or revamping of social programs, and working hard to achieve success. To a president like Theodore Roosevelt, legislation was the key to ensuring America would still be beautiful for future generations. As the first president to tackle the issues of nature preservation, resource conservation, and environment protection, he met with some hesitation. Despite the nation’s rapid descent into pollution (thanks to the booming industrial sector), the average citizenry had not yet begun to concern themselves with possible future ramifications. A nature enthusiast since his earliest childhood years, Teddy sensed the impending disaster if nothing were done to prevent it. As soon as he took over as president (in 1901, following McKinley’s assassination) he set to work protecting America’s beauty. He established the U.S. Forestry Service, designated more 18 locations as national monuments (including the Grand Canyon), and created numerous refuges and preserves. He also enacted legislation that would ensure the same powers for future presidents.

For government reform, Teddy turned to his fellow Progressives, who were determined to make a change for the better in various areas within the country. Not willing to focus solely on government, Roosevelt and his bipartisan colleagues also took on the daunting tasks of corruption, social reform, and promoting the sciences within society. With this dedication to reformation and transformation of American society, Roosevelt also sought to enlist the help of the citizens. His speech in Chicago (April 10, 1899) entitled, “The Strenuous Life” was a call to action of sorts. He challenged the people to work hard, to never spend their time in idleness, even when enjoying leisure. With his own life as a prime example of what hard work could do, his call was met with great applause.

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Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Vision of History

Over a hundred years ago, on August 31, 1910, Teddy Roosevelt gave his famous “New Nationalism” speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. In that speech the former president projected his vision for how the federal government could regulate the American economy. He defended the government’s expansion during his presidency and suggested new ways that it could promote “the triumph of a real democracy.”

Roosevelt’s quest for “a real democracy” and for centralizing power was a clear break with the American founders. James Madison, for example, distrusted both democracy and human nature he believed that separating power was essential to good government. He urged in Federalist No. 51 that “those who administer each department” of government be given “the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist the encroachments of others. . . . Ambition must be made to check ambition.” If power was dispersed, Madison concluded, liberty might prevail and the republic might endure.

Roosevelt argued in this speech that the recent rise of corporations gave businessmen too much economic control. Madison’s constitutional restraints, therefore, allowed too much wealth to be concentrated in too few hands. Redistribution of wealth by government, Roosevelt thought, would achieve “a more substantial equality of opportunity.”

The economic power of railroads triggered Roosevelt’s ire during his presidency. He was frustrated that railroads gave rebates to large customers. In effect, the railroads charged varying rates for carrying the same products the same distance. Roosevelt thought rates should be roughly similar for large shippers and small shippers, especially if the small shippers were far from major cities.

He posed the problem this way: “Combinations in industry are the result of an imperative economic law which cannot be repealed by political legislation. The effort at prohibiting all combination has substantially failed. The way out lies, not in attempting to prevent such combinations, but in completely controlling them in the interest of the public welfare.”

In practical terms, “completely controlling” railroads in the public interest meant that the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) would have power to set rates so that larger shippers would not get such big discounts on their high volume of business. James J. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railroad, argued that large shippers received higher rebates because their massive business created “economies of scale” for the railroads—that is, railroads could reduce their costs best when shipping large amounts of goods over the rails. The bigger shippers contributed more to the reduced costs of shipping, so they got larger rebates.

To Roosevelt and to the smaller shippers, rebates for the bigger shippers were “unfair money-getting” and have “tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” The founders may have provided a “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but Roosevelt believed that the pursuit of happiness and private property were not absolute. “We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity,” Roosevelt said—but then added, “when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows.” If railroads were enriching themselves and larger shippers disproportionately to the smaller shippers, then Roosevelt believed such power to set rates needed to be limited: “The Hepburn Act, and the amendment [Mann-Elkins Act] to the act in the shape in which it finally passed Congress at the last session [1910], represent a long step in advance, and we must go further.”

The Hepburn Act gave the ICC the power to reduce railroad rates and placed the burden on railroads to show their rates were reasonable. One intervention led to another. The railroads now had to prove that the rates they set were fair, so Congress created a Bureau of Valuation, which was empowered with a huge staff to value railroad property. According to historian Ari Hoogenboom, the bureau’s “final report, issued after a twenty-year study costing the public and the railroads hundreds of millions of dollars, disproved assumptions by Progressives that railroads were . . . making fabulous returns on their true investment.”

The lesson that Roosevelt learned from passing the Hepburn Act was that federal power was needed to break up those businesses that engaged in price discrimination. “The citizens of the United States,” Roosevelt said, “must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.”

Once Roosevelt established that the federal government should regulate the prices railroads charged for shipping, the next step was to intervene in other industries as well. “In particular,” Roosevelt argued in his speech, “there are strong reasons why . . . the United States Department of Agriculture and the agricultural colleges and experiment stations should extend their work to cover all phases of farm life. . . .” He added, “The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.”

The shift from the individual rights of the founders to the community rights of the Progressives was a watershed transition in American thought in the early 1900s. But Roosevelt needed a federal income tax to help him redistribute wealth in the national interest. The title “New Nationalism” reflected his view that he and other leaders could determine the national interest and redistribute wealth and power accordingly.

Of the income tax Roosevelt said, “The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means, Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective—a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”

Three years after Roosevelt’s speech, the Sixteenth Amendment, authorizing a federal income tax without regard to source, became law. Roosevelt had his wish—the 1913 tax was progressive: Most people paid no income tax, and the top rate was 7 percent. Roosevelt probably envisioned rates not much higher than that, but once Congress established the principle that some people could be taxed more than others, there was no way to calculate or determine what the national interest was.

Within one-third of a century after Roosevelt’s speech, the United States had a top marginal income tax rate of more than 90 percent.

When the individual liberty of the founders was transformed into the national interest of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives, we were only one generation away from a major threat to all our personal liberties. That threat still exists today.


With the construction of the canal now underway, Roosevelt next wanted to send a clear message to the rest of the world—and in particular to his European counterparts—that the colonization of the Western Hemisphere had now ended, and their interference in the countries there would no longer be tolerated. At the same time, he sent a message to his counterparts in Central and South America, should the United States see problems erupt in the region, that it would intervene in order to maintain peace and stability throughout the hemisphere.

Roosevelt articulated this seeming double standard in a 1904 address before Congress, in a speech that became known as the Roosevelt Corollary . The Roosevelt Corollary was based on the original Monroe Doctrine of the early nineteenth century, which warned European nations of the consequences of their interference in the Caribbean. In this addition, Roosevelt states that the United States would use military force “as an international police power” to correct any “chronic wrongdoing” by any Latin American nation that might threaten stability in the region. Unlike the Monroe Doctrine, which proclaimed an American policy of noninterference with its neighbors’ affairs, the Roosevelt Corollary loudly proclaimed the right and obligation of the United States to involve itself whenever necessary.

Roosevelt immediately began to put the new corollary to work. He used it to establish protectorates over Cuba and Panama, as well as to direct the United States to manage the Dominican Republic’s custom service revenues. Despite growing resentment from neighboring countries over American intervention in their internal affairs, as well as European concerns from afar, knowledge of Roosevelt’s previous actions in Colombia concerning acquisition of land upon which to build the Panama Canal left many fearful of American reprisals should they resist. Eventually, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt softened American rhetoric regarding U.S. domination of the Western Hemisphere, with the latter proclaiming a new “Good Neighbor Policy” that renounced American intervention in other nations’ affairs. However, subsequent presidents would continue to reference aspects of the Roosevelt Corollary to justify American involvement in Haiti, Nicaragua, and other nations throughout the twentieth century. The map below ([link]) shows the widespread effects of Roosevelt’s policies throughout Latin America.

In 1904, Roosevelt put the United States in the role of the “police power” of the Western Hemisphere and set a course for the U.S. relationship with Central and Latin America that played out over the next several decades. He did so with the Roosevelt Corollary, in which he stated:

It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save as such are for their welfare. All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. . . . Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however, reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”

In the twenty years after he made this statement, the United States would use military force in Latin America over a dozen times. The Roosevelt Corollary was used as a rationale for American involvement in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Haiti, and other Latin American countries, straining relations between Central America and its dominant neighbor to the north throughout the twentieth century.

Expanding Federal Power

A major part of Roosevelt’s legacy is his conception of the executive branch as a source of regulatory powers for the “good” of the nation.

Learning Objectives

Describe the means by which Roosevelt broadened the scope of executive power

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Roosevelt felt that his power came directly from the people, which authorized him to use his executive power to its fullest extent.
  • Roosevelt’s attitude toward executive power expanded the executive branch considerably.
  • Some scholars consider Roosevelt’s actions inspiration for the central authority-driven legislation of the New Deal.

Key Terms

  • Big Stick Diplomacy: Refers to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that is characterized by peaceful negotiations simultaneously paired with military threats.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable characteristics of Theodore Roosevelt ‘s presidency was his conviction that the president, by virtue of his election by the nation, was the representative figure of the American people, as opposed to Congress. Accordingly, Roosevelt believed that he could act in any manner that benefitted the needs of the nation, unless specifically and explicitly prohibited by the Constitution. In his own words, Roosevelt claimed, “I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.”

“Baby, Kiss Papa Good-By”: This political cartoon satirizes the expectation that Roosevelt would hand his policies over to the incoming president, William Howard Taft, his handpicked successor.

With his “big stick diplomacy” efforts in Latin America, as well as his efforts to expand the regulatory power of the federal government in domestic matters, Roosevelt set a new precedent for his twentieth-century political successors. Some of Roosevelt’s most noteworthy legislative achievements—such as the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Hepburn Act, the Elkins Act, and his conservation laws—embody this concept of the executive branch as an expansive source of regulatory powers for the “good” of the nation. As some scholars have considered, Roosevelt’s domestic policies, taken together, paved the way for the 1930s New Deal legislation as well as for the modern regulatory state and centralized national authority with expansive political power.

Despite Roosevelt’s widespread popularity, many contemporaries resented his policies as encroachments on state power and local authority and accused him of concentrating all real political authority in Washington and replacing municipal and state structures with bureaucratic commissions and departments. Roosevelt, on the other hand, as a Progressive, remained committed to a belief in political efficiency and elimination of unnecessary waste and structures. To that end, by concentrating power in the executive and broadening the scope of federal regulatory power, Roosevelt was arguably attempting to create a modernized, Progressive United States that functioned seamlessly and in the better interests of the nation as a whole, rather than for local political authorities and wealthy interests.

Later years

Immediately upon leaving office, Roosevelt embarked on a 10-month hunting safari in Africa and made a triumphal tour of Europe. On his return he became ineluctably drawn into politics. For a while, he tried not to take sides between progressive Republicans who supported his policies and those backing President William Howard Taft. Although Taft was Roosevelt’s friend and hand-picked successor, he sided with the party’s conservatives and worsened the split in the party. Both policy differences and personal animosity eventually impelled Roosevelt to run against Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. When that quest failed, he bolted to form the Progressive Party, nicknamed the Bull Moose Party—in a letter to political kingmaker Mark Hanna, Roosevelt had once said “I am as strong as a bull moose and you can use me to the limit.”

In the presidential campaign as the Progressive candidate, Roosevelt espoused a “ New Nationalism” that would inspire greater government regulation of the economy and promotion of social welfare. Roosevelt spoke both from conviction and in hopes of attracting votes from reform-minded Democrats. This effort failed, because the Democrats had an attractive, progressive nominee in Woodrow Wilson, who won the election with an impressive 435 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 88. Roosevelt had been shot in the chest by a fanatic while campaigning in Wisconsin, but he quickly recovered.

Since the Progressive Party had managed to elect few candidates to office, Roosevelt knew that it was doomed, and he kept it alive only to bargain for his return to the Republicans. In the meantime, he wrote his autobiography and went on an expedition into the Brazilian jungle, where he contracted a near-fatal illness. When World War I broke out in 1914, he became a fierce partisan of the Allied cause. Although he had some slight hope for the 1916 Republican nomination, he was ready to support almost any candidate who opposed Wilson he abandoned the Progressives to support the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, who lost by a narrow margin. After the United States entered the war his anger at Wilson boiled over when his offer to lead a division to France was rejected. His four sons served in combat two were wounded, and the youngest, Quentin, was killed when his airplane was shot down. By 1918 Roosevelt’s support of the war and his harsh attacks on Wilson reconciled Republican conservatives to him, and he was the odds-on favourite for the 1920 nomination. But he died in early January 1919, less than three months after his 60th birthday.

Teddy Roosevelt and Progressivism

At the end of the nineteenth century, Progressivism emerged as a political movement in response to significant economic, social, and political inequalities. Though Progressives advocated for many different reforms, the central, shared idea was that the government should lead efforts to change society’s ills. Previously, the general consensus was that social or economic ills were best solved through private efforts. Muckraking journalists and intellectuals publicized these issues through newspapers and lectures, and protesters and activists began to affect modest change across the country

Progressives sought the elimination of government corruption, women’s suffrage, social welfare, prison reform, prohibition, and civil liberties. While the progressive promotion of public health initiatives and universal education benefitted everyone, especially the poor and immigrants, progressives did not organize to promote black suffrage or equal rights. However, many progressive individuals did fight for civil rights on a smaller scale, and progressive activists, journalists, and thinkers formed advocacy groups such as the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP)

When President McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901, progressivism became a powerful national movement. During his tenure as president, Roosevelt was a loud and effective advocate for “trust-busting,” the breaking up of enormous monopolies that had controlled prices and prevented competition. He also advocated for fair trade and pro-labor laws, including a decreased workweek, child labor restrictions, and workplace safety rules.

Roosevelt’s attitudes on race fluctuated, though he was generally considered a moderate during his era. As governor of New York, he ended school segregation. Just one month after Roosevelt was sworn in as President, he invited Booker T. Washington, a black civil rights activist, to dine at the White House. The resulting uproar over the perceived impropriety appeared to restrain Roosevelt, who never repeated the invitation. While Roosevelt appointed progressive judges and initially encouraged the prosecution of peonage cases in the South, his administration eventually retreated from these efforts, lacking the political will to uproot the systems of involuntary servitude that existed in the South.