Theodore Roosevelt has a stirring biography that matches his larger-than-life personality. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning U.S. president was a champion of wilderness, yet he was also renowned as a big-game hunter. Who was Teddy Roosevelt, and does he deserve to be known as an environmentalist?
Theodore Roosevelt: Early Life
Born October 27, 1858, into a life of wealth and privilege, Roosevelt was the second child in a socially prominent New York City family.
Poor health, unfortunately, plagued him for much of his life; as a child, Roosevelt suffered from asthma and a number of other ailments. Despite this, he was encouraged to be as active as possible, and he adopted a "strenuous life" as a means of combating the effects of illness.
An avid student, Roosevelt graduated from Harvard College in 1880 and married soon after. But tragedy struck on February 14, 1884 -- his young wife and his beloved mother died within hours of each other. A devastated Roosevelt wrote in his diary, "the light has gone out of my life." Though he was active in New York State politics, he abandoned his political career and his family to move out to the Badlands of the Dakota Territory and pursue the life of a cattle rancher.
His two years in the Dakota Territory taught Roosevelt to ride, rope and hunt, and instilled in him a love of the outdoors. A severe winter in 1886-87, however, wiped out his livestock, and Roosevelt returned to New York to reenter politics.
Theodore Roosevelt: The Political Life
In 1886, Roosevelt remarried and began campaigning for Benjamin Harrison. After his election victory, Harrison tapped Roosevelt to lead the U.S. Civil Service Commission, where he cemented his reputation as a vigorous foe of political corruption. He brought the same zeal for reform to his 1895 post as president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners; the police force was known to be a sewer of corruption, but Roosevelt took sweeping measure to improve the force, even walking the beat with cops on patrol.
Roosevelt's reputation as a brilliant manager and political strategist -- as well as his background in naval history -- earned him a position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897. When the Spanish-American war broke out one year later, Roosevelt (who aggressively supported the war) went to Cuba and engaged in some well-publicized military campaigns, including the taking of San Juan Hill by his regiment of "Rough Riders."
Now a military hero, Roosevelt handily won the election for New York State Governor. Though his interest in conservation won him many admirers -- he outlawed the use of feathers as clothing adornment in order to prevent the slaughter of birds -- his relentless anti-corruption zeal was making him as many enemies as friends. To get rid of him, he was encouraged to leave New York and campaign as vice-president with William McKinley. After winning the 1900 election, Roosevelt's term as vice-president was cut short when McKinley was assassinated the following year, and Roosevelt, 43, became the youngest person ever to occupy the Oval Office.
President Theodore Roosevelt
His occupancy of the White House did nothing to temper Roosevelt's zeal for reform. He earned a reputation as a "trust buster" unafraid to take apart corporate monopolies to reduce their unchecked power.
He used his "bully pulpit" to support policies like improved health and safety inspections for meat processing plants and for other foods and drugs. He was also active in foreign affairs, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War.
But perhaps his greatest and most lasting contribution as president was instilling an ethos of natural resource conservation in Americans. In that regard, Roosevelt was influenced by early environmentalists like John Muir. "The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem," Roosevelt once said. "Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others."
To that end, Roosevelt embarked on a campaign of wilderness conservation that was nothing short of astounding. He preserved some 230 million acres -- roughly the size of two Californias plus room for Ohio -- as national parks, national forests, game preserves, national monuments and other federal reservations.
He created the Forest Service and appointed renowned conservationist Gifford Pinchot as its head.
Was Theodore Roosevelt an Environmentalist?
Following his term of office, Roosevelt -- ever the adventurer -- embarked on a lengthy African safari with dozens of other people. Partly a scientific expedition financed by the Smithsonian Institution and partly a big outdoor party, the safari trapped or shot over 11,000 animals, from insects and moles to elephants, hippos and six rare white rhinos.
Modern environmentalists might recoil in horror at the massive slaughter, but Roosevelt's big-game hunts were entirely in keeping with the mores of his era. (Even now, hunters and fishermen are among the most vocal and active proponents of habitat preservation.)
Weighed in balance with his success at wilderness preservation and making conservation an international priority, Roosevelt's legacy as a champion of environmentalists stand intact. "I can be condemned," he later said of his safaris, "only if the existence of the National Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and all similar zoological institutions are to be condemned."
Poor health continued to plague Roosevelt in his later years, due in part to an assassination attempt in 1912 (he carried the bullet in his chest for the rest of his life) and a severe infection he picked up on a 1914 South American river rafting trip. Roosevelt died in his sleep in 1919 at the age of 60. One politician of the time noted, "Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight."