“To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” – President Theodore Roosevelt
When Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901, he was 42 and the youngest President in American history (a distinction he still holds over a century later). Despite his age, Roosevelt harbored a mature understanding of his position, believing that the President was a “steward of the people” in service to the American public. At the time, he was a relatively new Freemason, having been raised just five months before. Perhaps his new station in the Brotherhood informed his view that the commander-in-chief should be singularly committed to the public good.
Historians generally consider Brother Roosevelt as one of the greatest American presidents. He pushed ardently for progressive government reforms and a strong foreign policy, achieving much during his two terms. As a conservationist, writer, and naturalist, he vastly expanded the country’s national forests, reserves, and wildlife refuges during his presidency. A passionate public servant, Teddy proudly carried Masonic teachings and rituals with him during his tenure in the oval office, leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s history in doing so.
Youth and education
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born on October 27, 1858, in Manhattan, New York City. Teddy was the second of four children born to Martha Stewart Bulloch and businessman and philanthropist Theodore Roosevelt Sr. Known in adulthood for his sturdy, robust frame and demeanor, Theodore was sickly as a boy. He had severe asthma, which left him in poor health and his parents in fear for their son.
Despite his condition, young Teddy was energetic, curious, and of a keen mind. Well-known to history for his interest in zoology, the young naturalist soon learned the fundamentals of taxidermy, creating a makeshift museum with animals caught and studied. At age nine, Teddy published his first scientific paper, an observation of insects entitled, “The Natural History of Insects.”
Like many young boys, Theodore’s father profoundly influenced him, helping shape his hobbies and values. As a prominent leader in New York’s cultural affairs, the elder Roosevelt helped establish the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Teddy Jr. spoke highly of his father, saying, “My father, Theodore Roosevelt, was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness.”
Additionally, Teddy’s father ensured his family was well-traveled, taking the boy and his siblings on trips across Europe and Egypt. On one of these trips in 1869, Teddy discovered rigorous exercise brought significant benefits by helping him mitigate his asthma. With this new knowledge and willingness to push himself, he pursued regular exercise, including gymnastics and weightlifting, to build up his strength.
Primarily homeschooled, Theodore excelled in history, geography, biology, and language. He entered Harvard College in 1876 and studied science, philosophy, and rhetoric, continuing his accomplishments as a young naturalist through his biology study. Beyond his studies, Roosevelt participated in rowing and boxing. He was a member of the Alpha Delta Phi literary society (later the Fly Club), the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and the prestigious Porcellian Club. Continuing his passion for writing, Teddy also served as an editor of The Harvard Advocate.
When he graduated from Harvard College in 1880, Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee and started at Columbia University Law School, where he completed just one year before heading to his calling in public service. When he was only 23, he was elected to the New York State Assembly, serving two terms.
Tragically, both Teddy’s wife and mother died on the same day in 1884. Shaken by the losses, Roosevelt retired for the next two years to his ranch in the Dakota Badlands, spending his days hunting big game, driving cattle, and working as a frontier sheriff. When he finally returned to New York, he wedded his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow, with whom he raised six children.
Life in the public eye
After two years outside the public service, Theodore tried and failed to become mayor of New York City. Ardent in his desire to root out corruption in American politics, Roosevelt remained undeterred and served on the U.S. Civil Service Commission and as President of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners.
Noticing Roosevelt as a young upstart in the Republican party, President William McKinley appointed him as assistant secretary of the navy. When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, Roosevelt organized the 1st Volunteer Cavalry. Today, this band is famously-known to Americans as the Rough Riders, who fought in Cuba. Roosevelt quickly became revered as a brave military leader for the charge taken by the Rough Riders up Kettle Hill during the Battle of Santiago. This mission turned Teddy into a national hero overnight.
From the state house to the White House
After Roosevelt’s return to the United States in 1898, the New York Republican party encouraged Roosevelt to run in the upcoming gubernatorial election. The Republican party was flourishing in the state at this time and was able to help Roosevelt defeat a favored Democratic candidate and win the governorship. Theodore was immediately popular for his political independence and willingness to stand up against the pressure of party bosses.
Roosevelt continued his focus on removing corruption from the state, acting as a reformer that regulated corporations and the civil service. The economic and political knowledge Teddy gained during his time as governor became invaluable during his presidency.
He encountered issues of trusts, monopolies, labor relations, and conservation. He connected with his middle-class political base by holding press conferences twice daily – a tactic underheard of previously.
By 1900, New York Republicans were tired of Roosevelt’s unwillingness to bow to the party bosses. In an effort to keep Roosevelt from seeking a second term as governor, they conspired with the national party to get Roosevelt named as President McKinley’s running mate. As with every endeavor he undertook, Roosevelt campaigned vigorously for McKinley, tallying 21,000 miles on his journey to speak in 24 states. He and McKinley routed Democrats William Jennings Bryan and Adlai E. Stevenson in the election.
One month after he became Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt was raised a Master Mason on April 24, 1901. He was a member of Matinecock Lodge No. 806 of Oyster Bay, New York, and spent many years as an active and proud Freemason. Notably, Brother Roosevelt visited lodges in Africa, Europe, and South America and assisted in laying the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Memorial Monument in Provincetown, MA. He also broke ground for the Spokane, WA, Masonic Temple and, most famously, laid the cornerstone at the north gate of Yellowstone Park.
A Progressive Presidency
On September 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley while he was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Eight days later, Mckinley succumbed to his wounds, and Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th president. Only 42 when he took office, Theodore’s youth, vigor, and progressive policies instantly changed the public perception of the presidency.
He championed his “Square Deal” domestic policies, which included breaking up trusts and regulating railroads. True to form, Teddy made conservation a cornerstone of his approach, establishing the national park system, forests, and monuments to honor and preserve America’s most fantastic natural resources.
Roosevelt’s presidency was characterized by his belief in expanding executive power, as long as it was within the confines of the constitution. With big, bold ideas and youthful energy, Teddy wielded the presidency to build a powerful government that could faithfully execute his agenda. During his first address to Congress in December 1901, Roosevelt reiterated his belief that the government should help ordinary people by mediating between conflicting forces to stabilize American society. These opposing forces included capital and labor, isolationism and expansionism, and conservation and development.
Known for his foreign policy prowess, President Roosevelt began the construction of the Panama Canal while also expanding the navy. After successfully brokering the end of the Russo-Japanese War, he won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. After winning a full term in 1904, Roosevelt grew firmer in his progressive convictions. During his second term, he prepared his close friend and fellow Freemason William Howard Taft to succeed him as President in the 1908 election.
However, once Taft became President, Teddy quickly became upset by Taft’s conservative policies. In 1912, he attempted to win the Republican nomination for President. After failing, Roosevelt left the Republican party, founded the Progressive Party, and ran in the 1912 presidential election. After losing to Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt embarked on a two-year expedition to the Amazon basin, nearly succumbing to a tropical disease. As World War I ravaged Europe, Roosevelt railed against Wilson for refusing to join and support American allies, even offering to lead volunteers to fight in France.
Passionate in his beliefs until the end, Roosevelt considered running for President again in 1920. However, his health deteriorated, and he passed away on January 5, 1919. When Teddy’s son Archibald learned of his father’s death, he sent the following telegraph to his siblings: “The old lion is dead.”
Of Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, said: “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”
A funeral was held at Christ Episcopal Church in Oyster Bay. Political allies and adversaries alike attended out of respect for Teddy, including Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, Charles Evans Hughes, Warren G. Harding, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Howard Taft. Despite snow and cold weather, spectators lined the streets from the church to Youngs Memorial Cemetery to see his funeral procession. Roosevelt is buried on a hillside overlooking Oyster Bay.