Teddy Roosevelt: a president who defied labels


Monday was Presidents Day, a holiday that, unless you work in a bank or the government or a school, you might have missed.
At the federal level, the holiday marks the birthday of George Washington, who was born Feb. 22, 1732. It’s observed on the third Monday of February, and is intended to honor not only Washington, but all the presidents — whether you liked them or not.
It’s easy to label many of our presidents. Washington, of course, was the “father of the country.” Abraham Lincoln was a liberator and a unifier — even if it took a war to make that happen. James Madison was a father, too — considered the “father of the Constitution.”
While many commanders in chief would find their way to Long Island for various reasons, none have a connection to our home like Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president, who spent the last 30 years of his life at his beloved Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay.
Although he was born in New York City, the Roosevelt family had a long association with Long Island, like many wealthy families in the city at the time. Teddy, however, came to love 150 acres or so of land on Cove Neck — just north of Oyster Bay Cove — that he bought just before he entered politics in 1880, when he was just 22.
He would spend upward of $500,000 in today’s money to build a 22-room mansion he had intended to call Leeholm, after his wife, Alice. But she died before the house was finished, and Teddy would remarry. Instead of naming it in honor of future First Lady Edie Carow, Teddy instead named it Sagamore Hill, an Algonquin word for “chief.”
Labeling Roosevelt is no easy task. When he first stepped into the White House as president in 1901, following the assassination of William McKinley, he was a Republican. Yet he was also described as “progressive” — something many Republicans today would consider an insult.
T.R. was certainly a conservative — for the environment, that is. In just a few years, he doubled the amount of forests protected by the federal government. He did so much that Congress limited the power the president had to designate national forests.
Teddy, however, was also an imperialist. “Speak softly, and carry a big stick — you will go far” summed up his approach to international diplomacy of coming in peace, but if things don’t go your way, be ready to back it up with might.
While we see the United States as a military superpower today, at the beginning of the 20th century it was not. European powers counted their soldiers in the millions. America? In the tens of thousands. It wouldn’t be until the U.S. entry into World War I — in the final two years of Roosevelt’s life — that President Woodrow Wilson would commit billions of dollars to build what he called a million-man army.
Even with a small military, Teddy was committed to supporting the Monroe Doctrine, which treated any European influence on the politics of the Americas as a hostile act against the United States.
Roosevelt used the doctrine not only to kick Spain out of Cuba, but also to construct the Panama Canal. The Monroe Doctrine had never been popular in other countries of the Americas, but it never bothered Teddy.
He was a fan of diversity, but only to a point. During the Spanish-American War, his Rough Riders took in men from all walks of life. And T.R. appointed more African-Americans to federal government positions than all the presidents before him — combined.
But Roosevelt made it clear that once you were an American, you were an American. That hyphens should be left at the door, fearing it would permit the United States to become a “tangle of squabbling nationalities.”
These are just some examples of where Teddy’s policies and philosophy conflicted with both major political parties of today. Then again, a lot has changed in the 120-plus years since he was in the White House, and where we draw the lines in 2023 is much different from where they were drawn in the sand in 1901.
No matter his philosophy, his triumphs — even his flaws — we can’t deny that Teddy Roosevelt was very much his own man, and because of that, was also a great president. The United States is a better place today because of his leadership.
Here’s hoping you didn’t overlook Presidents Day, and miss how special Roosevelt’s role was, especially right here in our own backyard.