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Theodore Roosevelt: The Progressive Republican

Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican, but he was more progressive than most.

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Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858 -1919) became the 26th president of the United States quite by accident. First, to keep him from being re-elected as governor of New York, a Republican conspired to have him run on the presidential ticket with William McKinley. But after McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became president.

Early Life

Teddy was born on October 27, 1858 to a wealthy New York family. As a youngster he was sickly, so he used weightlifting and gymnastics to build up his strength. He graduated from Harvard College in 1880 and married his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee. In 1884, his wife and mother died on the same day and Roosevelt, sick with grief, spent the next two years in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory on his ranch, hunting and serving as a frontier sheriff. He later returned to New York and married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow.


After two failed attempts at becoming mayor of New York City, President Benjamin Harrison gifted Roosevelt a job on the U.S. Civil Service in Commission for the Republican Party. In 1897, McKinley named him the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy. In 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out and Roosevelt left his post to become a colonel of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, known as the “Rough Riders.” In Cuba, he led his men in a charge in the Battle of San Juan which earned him the status as one of the war’s most visible heroes.

The Republicans threw their support on Teddy when he returned to New York, helping him achieve the governorship. However, when he showed that he would not bow down to pressure from party big wigs, Thomas C. Platt conspired with others to have Roosevelt as McKinley’s running mate – all of this just to keep him from being re-elected governor. Was the joke on them?  Teddy campaigned like mad for MicKinley, traveling more than 21,000 miles by train to speak in 24 states. The result: McKinley and Roosevelt won in a landslide.


On September 6, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in New York. Eight days later, McKinley died, and Roosevelt became the 26th president at the age of 42. His presidential legacy includes his work with conservation and the labor industry.

Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” was a promise to the people to battle large corporations and industrial companies that sought to restrain trades. In 1902, he negotiated a modest pay raise for miners, stopping a prolonged coal strike in Pennsylvania. That same year, in June, the president passed the National Reclamation Act where he set aside nearly 200 million acres for national forests, wildlife refuges, and reserves. This was almost five times more than all previous presidents combined.

Roosevelt was a progressive Republican but was still able to win the support of the more conservative in the Party because of his reputation as a “trust buster.” This led to re-election and another landslide victory over the Democrats in 1904. The next task was to work towards making the United States a world power. He believed that America should “speak softly and carry a big stick” in international affairs and that presidents should not be afraid to use force if necessary to back up diplomatic negotiations.

True to his word, Teddy helped Panama secede from Columbia in 1903 to help start the construction on the Panama Canal, which was, according to him, his greatest presidential achievement. Some of the European nations were using forceful tactics to try and collect on debts owed to them by Latin American Nations. The president intervened and promised to police the globe, making sure that countries paid their international debts.

Roosevelt also built up the nation’s defenses so that the Navy was a major international force by the end of his presidency. He negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05 and even won the Nobel Peace Prize for his actions.

Keeping his campaign promise, Roosevelt did not run for re-election in 1908 which paved the way for William Howard Taft, whom he supported, to become the next commander in chief. However, Taft was not living up to his promise for progressive reforms and was siding with the more conservative members of the Republican Party, angering the former president. Angry, Roosevelt campaigned against Taft in 1912, but failed. This led to the formation of the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, likely named such since Roosevelt had referred to himself as being “as strong as a bull moose.”

Roosevelt was shot in the chest by a fanatic while campaigning in Milwaukee, but recovered quickly. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election with 435 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 88 … Taft only gained eight. This party split was the most successful in American history and led to many of Roosevelt’s progressive plans being echoed in the Wilson presidency.

Interesting Fact

Roosevelt was the first president to invite an African American into the White House. Scandal broke after the president entertained educator Booker T. Washington.

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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