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The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt

"Speak softly and carry a big stick." This was Teddy Roosevelt's mantra as president, both at home and abroad. 


  • Theodore Roosevelt served as president from 1901-1909, ascending to the office after the assassination of William McKinley.
  • In foreign policy, Roosevelt advocated for a stronger army and navy, and increased American intervention in Latin America through declaring the "Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine and constructing the Panama Canal.
  • Roosevelt's domestic program was known as the "Square Deal," which promised protections for consumers, workers, and the environment.

Roosevelt's early life and career

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was born into a wealthy New York family in 1858. He was a sickly child who grew up determined to improve his health and stamina through a dedicated regimen of exercise: boxing, rowing, and hunting. He graduated from Harvard in 1880 and started at Columbia Law School, but dropped out in order to run for office. (His niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, would go on to marry his distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt and become First Lady of the United States in the 1930s.)1
Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt.
Official White House portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, painted by John Singer Sargent. Image courtesy the White House Historical Association.
Roosevelt quickly rose through the political ranks, making his mark as an opponent of corruption in business and politics. He garnered national fame for his role in leading a volunteer cavalry regiment, the Rough Riders, in the Spanish-American War, and was elected governor of New York. By 1901, he had ridden his popularity as the hero of Cuba into the position of vice president for President William McKinley's second term.2
Then tragedy struck: McKinley was assassinated less than a year after being reelected. Teddy Roosevelt ascended to the role of President of the United States. At just 42 years old, he was the youngest man ever to hold the office.3

Speak softly, and carry a big stick

As president, Roosevelt was a proponent of an increased American presence in Latin America and the Pacific. He believed that the United States should boast a powerful army and navy, whose very existence would deter potential threats. "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far," he said frequently.4
But Roosevelt's foreign policy was considerably more active than a mere show of power. In accordance with Alfred Thayer Mahan's recommendation that the United States build a canal across Central America in order to secure dominance of the seas, Congress approved a bill to construct a canal in a region of Colombia called Panama. When Colombia rejected the American terms for control of a canal across the isthmus of Panama, the US navy helped rebels in the region break free of Colombia and establish the new nation of Panama. The Panamanians gladly accepted American terms for the new Panama Canal.5
Roosevelt advocated even more American intervention in the affairs of Latin America when he announced the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which stipulated that the United States would intervene in the financial affairs of Latin America whenever necessary in order to prevent European nations from having any form of economic hold over them.6

Roosevelt at home: champion of the "Square Deal"

Roosevelt's energetic foreign policy was joined by an equally energetic domestic policy, based on the principles of the Progressive Era. Always sympathetic to the little guy, Roosevelt embraced the progressive goals of bettering society. His domestic program, known as the "Square Deal" consisted of the "Three Cs:" consumer protection, control of corporations, and conservation.7
Responding to pressures from the American public (who had read with horror muckraker Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle, which went into nauseating detail about the unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry), Roosevelt threw his support behind the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. These laws required the federal inspection of meats and prevented canned foods or pharmaceuticals from being contaminated or mislabeled.8
Roosevelt also worked to curb the abuses of giant corporations. In a move that shocked contemporaries, who were used to the government siding with big business, Roosevelt took the side of striking coal miners in 1902, threatening to use federal troops to take over the mines if the owners did not improve workers' wages and hours (they did). Similarly, Roosevelt went after corporate monopolies, earning a reputation as a "trust-buster" by bringing suit against unfair business practices in the railroad, meat, and sugar industries, among others.9
Lastly, one of Roosevelt's most important achievements was in environmental conservation. As a dedicated outdoorsman, Roosevelt feared that the beautiful lands of the western United States might be steamrolled in the industrial era's boundless greed for land and raw materials. During his presidency, Roosevelt set aside 230 million acres as public land, including forests, wildlife refuges, and national parks.10
Although Roosevelt could have stood for reelection in 1908, he had promised not to run again after his success in the election of 1904, and kept that promise. But when his protege and successor in office, William Howard Taft, raised tariff duties and opened some public lands for development, an irate Roosevelt threw his hat into the ring for the election of 1912 as the presidential candidate for the newly-formed Progressive Republican party (often called the Bull Moose party for Roosevelt's boast that he was as "strong as a bull moose.") Unsurprisingly, Republican voters were split between the warring factions of Taft and Roosevelt, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson swept to victory in 1912.11

What do you think?

Teddy Roosevelt espoused a very imperialistic foreign policy, and yet fought against monopolies at home. Were his foreign policy and domestic policy at odds with each other? Why or why not?
Which of Roosevelt's three Cs—consumer protections, control of corporation, or conservations—do you think has had the most lasting impact on American society? Why?
Do you think it was wise for Roosevelt to run on a third-party ticket in the election of 1912? Why or why not?

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