President William McKinley, in 1897, appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he devoted his time to preparing for war with Spain which he believed was inevitable. Roosevelt utilized the brief periods when he was Acting Secretary during His chief’s absence to carry forward the policy which he deemed essential to the national safety. It was by such almost surreptitious action that Dewey was provided with the coal and the ships which ultimately enabled him to destroy the Spanish fleet at Manila.
When the war came to an end in April, 1898, he immediately resigned his position and offered his services to the President in raising the cavalry regiments which Congress authorized. General Alger, Secretary of War, offered him the colonelcy of one of these regiments. He refused, asking that the regiment be given to his friend Leonard Wood, a veteran of the Indian wars and at that time a surgeon in the army, with himself as lieutenant-colonel. The offer was accepted. Early in May, the Rough Riders, as they were nicknamed, began to gather from all parts of the country, at San Antonio, Texas. The training was brief but thorough. Six weeks after the regiment was organized, it stood trained and equipped on the firing line outside of Santiago de Cuba.
The Rough Riders came under fire for the first time late in June, at Las Guasimas, where Roosevelt commanded first the center and later also the left wing. He revealed himself there as a brave soldier and an officer of calm judgment and qualities of leadership altogether unusual.
The Battle of San Juan Hill was fought a week later. It was a small but, most bloody battle in which, owing to the inefficiency and blundering of the commanding general, the American casualties were altogether out of proportion to the numbers engaged. The day before the battle, Colonel Leonard Wood had been promoted to Brigadier General and Roosevelt had been given command of the regiment.
All day, waiting for orders that did not come, he lay with his men under the galling fire of Spanish guns. One messenger after another, whom he sent for orders was killed. At last, late in the afternoon, the command came to advance. He dashed forward, conspicuous on his white horse, plunged through the line of regulars who were obstructing his path, and led his men through the tall grass up the long hill. To right and left of him men fell, and the Mauser bullets sang with the sound of ripping silk past his ears. He remained untouched. At a barbed wire fence he sprang off his horse and plunged on, his men close at his heels. He gained the first crest, pushing the Spaniards back; then another, and a third. Inspired by his cool courage the American line advanced along the whole San Juan range. At dusk the Spaniards were in full retreat on the city.
Roosevelt returned home a popular hero. The Republicans of New York State, facing defeat, recognized that in Roosevelt lay their only hope. He was nominated for Governor that autumn, and after a hot and close campaign was elected.
He immediately turned his attention to instituting reforms in the administration of the state business, especially in the management of canals, and he greatly extended the civil service examination system to state offices. By the close of his term, he had become the national leader of the progressive element of the Republican party, and in spite of his repeatedly expressed wishes, he was placed upon the national Republican ticket as a candidate for vice-president. At the death of President McKinley, in September, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president.
He retained President McKinley’s cabinet and continued many of his policies. He urged anti-trust legislation and the negotiation of reciprocity treaties. In his foreign policy, he took a firm stand in favor of maintaining American rights in questions over which other countries were disputing. His action in recognizing the newly-formed Republic of Panama, after the rejection of the canal treaty by Columbia; his efforts to compel the South American republics to deal fairly with European governments; his firm stand in favor of retaining the Philippines; brought him much adverse criticism by the conservative elements in his own party and in the Democratic party. On the other hand, his aggressive domestic policy, his honesty and sincerity and his executive ability won for him a host of friends in both parties and among all classes.
Among the domestic events of his administration were the establishment of a permanent Census Bureau; the establishment of the Department of Commerce and Labor; a great increase in the strength and efficiency of the navy; reorganization in the management of the army, and the settlement by Roosevelt in a personal capacity of the anthracite coal strike of 1902.
President Roosevelt was unanimously re-nominated by the Republican convention in 1904 and was opposed by Judge Alton B. Parker, the Democratic nominee, and by the candidates of several smaller parties. After a rather quiet campaign, he was elected by the largest plurality ever recorded for a presidential candidate and by a phenomenal majority in the electoral college. During his second administration, he continued his vigorous foreign policy and won a striking triumph in his successful efforts to terminate the Russo-Japanese War. Probably the most important event of the period, from a domestic standpoint, was the passage of a radical bill for the regulation of railroad rates by the Interstate Commerce Commission.
On March 4, 1909, Roosevelt retired from office after 20 years of executive work, during seven and one-half of which he had been President of the United States. He had planned an expedition to Africa to hunt and to gather natural specimens for the Smithsonian Institution, and on March 23, 1909, he and his son Kermit and a party of naturalists sailed from New York. The trip to Africa lasted about a year, and on his way home he made a tour of Europe.
In 1912 a new political party called the Progressive Party was organized and Roosevelt became its candidate for President. During the campaign he toured the country making speeches and on October 14th, at Milwaukee, Minnesota, he was shot by a crazy man named John Schrank. Fortunately the wound was not serious, and within a couple of weeks he resumed his speech-making. In the November election the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, was successful, but, Roosevelt received the next largest vote. Four years later, in 1916, he was again nominated by the Progressive party, but, declined and recommended that this party unite with the Republican party.
In 1913 and 1914 he visited South America and headed a scientific expedition into the unexplored regions of Brazil. The hardships he experienced in the jungles of South America caused a serious illness that left him very weak for a long time.
During World War I (1914-1918), Roosevelt was untiring in his advocacy of preparedness and Americanism. He severely criticized the administration for its policy of neutrality. After America entered the war he proposed to raise a force of volunteers for service in France. His offer, however, was declined, and he devoted his time and energies to patriotic service at home.
Roosevelt died at his home at Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, Long Island, on January 6, 1919. The Honorable Charles E. Hughes, in a memorial address before the Union League Club of New York, said of him:
“The career of Theodore Roosevelt has a lasting fascination for the young. There was nothing sordid or commonplace or unclean to mar it. His courage, steadfastness and faith, his deeds of daring, his physical prowess, his resourcefulness, his exploits as a hunter and explorer, his intellectual keenness, his personal charm, and his dominating patriotic motive make their irresistible appeal, and in the shaping of the ideals of American youth for generations to come his most important service is yet to be rendered.”
Hagedorn, Hermann; Theodore Roosevelt – A Biographical Sketch; Roosevelt Memorial Exhibition Committee, Columbia University, 1919.
Free Public Library of Jersey City; Theodore Roosevelt – A Brief Outline of His Life; 1920.