On February 3, 1880, Theodore Roosevelt reported in his diary:
Snowing heavily, but I drove over in my sleigh to Chestnut Hill, the horse plunging to his belly in the great drifts, and the wind cutting my face like a knife. My sweet life was just as lovable and pretty as ever; it seems hardly possible that I can kiss her and hold her in my arms; she is so pure and so innocent, and so very, very pretty. I have never done anything to deserve such good fortune.
Nearly ten months after making this declaration of his enchantment with the young Alice Lee of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Theodore Roosevelt married his “sweet life.” Four years later, during the young man’s third term as an independent-minded reformer in the New York State Assembly, tragedy occurred: on February 14, 1884, Roosevelt’s young wife died after giving birth to the couple’s first child. Only a few hours earlier, his mother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, had died in the same house. After the double funeral and the christening of his new baby daughter, Alice, on February 17, 1884, the bereaved husband wrote:
For joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out.
For the two years following his wife’s death, Roosevelt sought consolation in writing, hunting, fishing, and working on his ranch in the Dakota Territory. In spite of his intense grief, Roosevelt found a renewed interest in life. In fact, all the activities and accomplishments for which he is remembered occurred after this time of great sorrow. The Today in History collection includes more than thirty features mentioning Roosevelt in connection with historical events of the years 1890-1916.
In 1886, Roosevelt returned to New York. On December 2, 1886, in London, he married Edith Kermit Carow, a friend from earliest childhood. Of his second wife, Roosevelt said, “She is not only cultured, but scholarly.” The Roosevelts had a close and happy family life. Alice became the eldest sister of four boys and a girl: Theodore Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin. The family’s large home at Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, on Long Island, was always full of books, pets, and rambunctious activity.
Edith Roosevelt presided over this lively household with quiet grace and humor. Her husband continued to write and publish histories and biographies and to pursue a career of public service.
A progressive Republican, Roosevelt soon enhanced his reputation as a corruption-fighting reformer at the national level as a member of the nation’s Civil Service Commission (1889-95) and then as president of the New York City Police Board (1895-97). In 1897 he was appointed assistant secretary of the navy by President William McKinley. In the Spanish-American War (1898), a cause for which he had argued strongly, Roosevelt left his official position to lead the volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders, whose bravery captured the popular imagination and made Roosevelt a war hero. Roosevelt believed that such triumphs strengthened both national and individual character, warning that “[i]f . . . we lose the virile, manly qualities, and sink into a nation of mere hucksters . . . subordinating everything to mere ease of life, then we shall indeed reach a condition worse than that of the ancient civilizations in the years of their decay.”
Roosevelt’s new popularity enabled him to win the governorship of New York, where he quickly established himself as an independent and iconoclastic reformer in tension with his own party. New York’s traditional Republican “bosses” were more than happy to relieve themselves of his presence by engineering his nomination as vice president in 1900, whereupon he campaigned to a landslide victory with President William McKinley.
McKinley was shot by an assassin on September 6, 1901, and when he died eight days later, Theodore Roosevelt became the twenty-sixth president of the United States. Given his reputation as a reformist leader ready to overturn established ways with flamboyant zest and energy, some were appalled at this turn of history. “Now look,” exclaimed McKinley’s political mastermind, Mark Hanna, who had opposed Roosevelt’s nomination, “that damned cowboy is president of the United States!”
Roosevelt and his lively family took up residence in the White House, which became a center of the capital’s social and intellectual life, as well as a playground for the six Roosevelt children and their menagerie of pets—including Alice’s pet snake, Emily Spinach. Alice herself, who had inherited her father’s fearlessly irreverent spirit and had a somewhat troubled relationship with her stepmother, was the first presidential child to capture the public imagination in her own right, often through rebellious behavior that dismayed her parents and kept her name in the newspapers in an age when no proper lady’s name was supposed to be there. “I can either run the country or attend to Alice,” Roosevelt sighed, “but I cannot possibly do both.”
As president (1901-9), Roosevelt exercised a forthright vision of American leadership in international affairs and an expansive, reform-oriented activism in domestic policy that made his the first truly modern presidency. In foreign affairs, he sought to exercise the maxim “speak softly and carry a big stick”: in other words, use diplomacy but be prepared to use force effectively, and never let other powers doubt it. Accordingly, he built the U.S. Navy to unprecedented levels, and then sent it around the world for all to see. He expanded the Monroe Doctrine to include the “Roosevelt Corollary”: that the United States was properly the policeman of the Western Hemisphere, intervening wherever it thought necessary to protect its own national interests. He initiated the building of the Panama Canal. And “speaking softly,” he mediated the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War, an achievement that won him the Nobel Peace PrizeExternal.
On the domestic front, Roosevelt sought to regulate business and industry for the public good, including “trust-busting” business structures that he deemed monopolistic. He used his first Annual Message External to explain how such a sweeping federal role could be reconciled with the nation’s founding principles:
When the Constitution was adopted at the end of the eighteenth century, no human wisdom could foretell the sweeping changes, alike in industrial and political conditions, which were to take place at the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time it was accepted as a matter of course that the several states were the proper authorities to regulate, so far as was necessary, the comparatively insignificant and strictly localized corporate bodies of the day. The conditions are now wholly different and wholly different action is called for.
A lifelong hunter and outdoors enthusiast–a story about his willingness to spare a bear’s life led to the invention of the “Teddy” bear—President Roosevelt also distinguished himself for the definitive leadership he gave to the nation’s conservation movement. “The wise use of all of our natural resources, which are our national resources as well, is the great material question of today,” he declared. Among his other practical initiatives was a greatly expanded national forest system. Yet he also believed in preserving wild places undisturbed, supporting the creation of new national parks such as Yosemite and establishing fifty-three federal wildlife sanctuaries by executive order and numerous national monuments by presidential proclamation.
President Roosevelt’s exuberant interests extended to the transformation of the Library of Congress into “the Nation’s Library” under the effective leadership of his friend Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress. According to Paul T. Heffron, former specialist in twentieth-century political history in the Library’s Manuscript Division:
One of the first tasks which confronted the new President was the compilation of his Annual Message to Congress. Scarcely a month after assuming office, he invited Mr. Putnam to forward suggestions on the Library of Congress for possible inclusion in the message. The Librarian promptly responded with a draft of his ideas on what aspect of the Library the President might stress…The keynote of Mr. Putnam’s memorandum to the President was the national character of the Library of Congress and its obligation to set standards and provide leadership for the public library system of the United States…In essence, the President incorporated the librarian’s theme in the message.
Paul T. Heffron, Introduction in the Index to the Theodore Roosevelt Papers,” 1969.
As a historian and avid reader, Roosevelt availed himself of the collections of the Library through inquiries to Putnam. The following passage gives a sense of Roosevelt’s intellectual curiosity and seemingly boundless energy:
My dear Mr. Putnam: As I lead, to put it mildly, a sedentary life for the moment I would greatly like some books that would appeal to my queer taste. I do not suppose there are any histories or any articles upon the early Mediterranean races. That man Lindsay who wrote about prehistoric Greece has not put out a second volume, has he? Has a second volume of Oman’s Art of War appeared? If so, send me either or both; if not, then a good translation of Niebuhr and Momsen [sic], or the best modern history of Mesopotamia. Is there a good history of Poland?
Letter of President Theodore Roosevelt to Herbert Putnam, October 6, 1902. Theodore Roosevelt Papers: Series 2: Letterpress Copybooks, 1897-1916; Vol. 36, 1902, July 29-Oct. 25. Theodore Roosevelt Papers. Manuscript Division
It was President Roosevelt who initiated the transfer of presidential papers from the State Department to the Library’s Manuscript Division, where they became available for scholarly research. During his last years, he began the transfer of his own papers to the Manuscript Division as well.
Although Roosevelt tried and failed to win a third term by running in 1912 against his successor, William Howard Taft, on the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) ticket, thus splitting the Republican vote and ensuring victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson, he was a man of enormous accomplishment in nearly all areas of his life. He would very likely have won the presidency once more, as a Republican in 1920, had he not died suddenly of a blood clot in his sleep on January 6, 1919. In spite of his early sorrow, he was able to say during his last years:
No man has had a happier life than I have led: a happier life in every way.
- Select items from the Manuscript Division’s Theodore Roosevelt Papers are now available online. Use the online finding aid to learn more about the contents of this extensive collection.
- Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first presidents to be filmed. Explore the collection Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Times on Film; and search on Theodore Roosevelt across all Motion Pictures collections to see Thomas Edison’s films of “The Rough Riders” and other clips that include him.
- Roosevelt’s close relationship with his children is suggested by an illustrated letter of July 11, 1890, written to his three-year-old son Theodore Jr., featured in the exhibition American Treasures of the Library of Congress.
- Read other letters written by the namesake of the “Teddy bear” to his children in a 1919 published collection, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children.
- Explore Roosevelt’s formative role in the conservation and preservation of America’s natural environment in the collection The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, or by browsing under Roosevelt’s name in Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera.
- Listen to Roosevelt’s sister Corinne Roosevelt Robinson speak in a 1920 recording from the collection American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I.
- Search on Sagamore in the collection Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey and the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection to find photographs and other documentation of Roosevelt’s and his family’s home at Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, Long Island, N.Y.
- One of the American Treasures of the Library of Congress is the manuscript draft of the poem “With the Tide,” composed by Edith Roosevelt’s cousin, writer Edith Wharton, on January 6 and 7, 1919, after hearing of the death of this beloved president.
- Search Today in History on Theodore Roosevelt to learn more about historic events in which the twenty-sixth president played a role.
- Search on Theodore Roosevelt across all collections to find many more resources documenting the life and influence of Theodore Roosevelt.