Perhaps no political figure in American history has been an enemy of party factions more than Theodore Roosevelt was. Teddy, as he’s affectionately known, was a lifelong Republican who refused to toe the party line. A progressive, Roosevelt worked with moderate Democrats to curb monopoly power and make conservation of parks and forests a source of national pride.
Only 42 when his predecessor was assassinated, the twenty-sixth President of the United States remains the youngest person to ever work in the Oval Office. After eight years in the White House, he left for a sabbatical to Africa and Europe to begin his retirement. But when he returned to his beloved country, Teddy realized that the party he had transformed no longer was advancing the bold agenda he had laid out. As a result, the American people were losing out. So he did something about it.
Although born into a prominent and wealthy New York City family, Roosevelt grew in public life as an opponent of the special interests while serving in elected and appointed positions at the municipal, state, and federal levels during the 1880s and 1890s. As a member of the New York State Assembly, he gained notoriety for exposing bribery in the legislature and opposing the political machines and “special interests”--including the powerful political financier Jay Gould.
As a member of the Civil Service Commision, he fought against the "spoils system" of awarding civil service positions to political supporters and worked to increase the number of positions awarded on merit. In the mid 1890s, he served as the president of the NYC Police Commission and frequently traveled the city streets at midnight with Jacob Riis, a muckraking journalist, to catch corrupt or lazy cops.
Shortly thereafter, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York where he continued to advance his anti corruption agenda while cutting crime, providing relief for the hungry, improving sanitation of major cities and regulating Captains of Industry. Roosevelt hosted daily press conferences in a major break from standard political convention. Working with members of the press, Teddy was able to stay in touch with the people he served, hold those around him accountable, and raise the level of public debate in the state.
In 1900, he was elected vice president of the United States under President William McKinley, and became president only months later when McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. Throughout his first two terms in office, his party held him back from advancing his bold vision for the country.
In his first term, he had to placate more conservative members of the Republican party to ward off a primary challenging. In his second term, he pledged not to seek a third, making him a lame duck and a target of party bosses on both sides of the aisle. The challenges Roosevelt faced with the two party system are even more entrenched today. The American people have allowed partisan politicians control who is allowed on the debate stage, the process for appearing on the ballot, and how legislative districts are drawn.
Despite these challenges, Roosevelt used his warm relationship with the free press to build a coalition strong enough to regulate big business, most notably railroads, in a way that appeased labor unions and entrepreneurs. He supported food and drug regulation, improved conservation of national resources, and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomacy at the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Teddy left office confident that his hand picked successor, and life-long friend, William Howard Taft would continue the progress he had kickstarted.
During his post-presidency travels through Africa and Europe in 1909, Roosevelt became concerned that the countries of Western Europe were outpacing the United States in social welfare. Roosevelt's most well-known enunciation of his evolving views came in his "New Nationalism" speech in 1910 in which he called for an active government to address the country's social and economic issues.
Unsatisfied by his party’s agenda and alarmed by the dissatisfaction felt by the American people, Roosevelt formed the the Bull Moose Party. He challenged party politicians on both sides the aisle during the 1912 election by running for President and was the most successful third party candidate except Lincoln, winning 27% of the vote and 88 electoral votes. He beat Taft but lost to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson.
Despite the loss, the campaign elevated important issues in American political discourse. Teddy will be remembered for starting the conversation, or at least making it a louder one, on the issues of women's suffrage, social security, national health care, unemployment insurance labor reforms, and a minimum wage for women.
If nothing else, the fact that Roosevelt was attacked by both Democrats and Republicans throughout his career stands as a testament to his role as a centrist. He has been both honored and denounced as the author of many proposals that later developed into the modern welfare state during the Progressive Era and the New Deal. His aggressive foreign policy remains controversial, and his imperialistic and archaic racial views have been roundly condemned.
When he thought Republicans had the answer, he worked with his party to advance his vision. When he thought Democrats had the answer, he was always willing to listen and be persuaded. Eventually, when he thought neither party had the answer, he saw the false dichotomy of choosing between the Republican or Democratic Party and started his own.
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