History Vs. Episode 7: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Other Presidents


Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

“Shifty, adroit logothete. Cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician. No more backbone than a chocolate éclair. A flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him. Puzzlewit! Fathead! Brains less than a guinea pig!”

Yes, those are the words of Theodore Roosevelt. President of the United States, author, philanthropist, avid reader, and inspiration for the teddy bear. He was, from most accounts, a kind and sociable man. But if Roosevelt found flaws, he was quick to articulate them—a fast and furious torrent of putdowns designed to bombard the target of his attack with insults that might require a dictionary to fully process.

Roosevelt didn’t unleash these particular tirades at just anyone. He reserved them for individuals he held to the highest standard because they held the highest office in the land. For Roosevelt, anything less than the naked, harsh truth directed at the commander-in-chief would be a disservice to his country. When it came to other presidents, Theodore Roosevelt pulled no punches. How rough did it get? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. This week’s episode is TR vs. Other Presidents.

Roosevelt’s famously tempestuous attitude toward politicians may have started with his impossible standards. His role model for all things presidential was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th commander-in-chief of the United States, and one of the few presidents Roosevelt had no quarrel with. He grew up in a household where Lincoln was revered—at least by his Republican father, Theodore Senior, or Thee. (His mother Mittie, a southerner and Confederate sympathizer, likely had other feelings.) Thee had worked with Lincoln’s administration during the Civil War and had even joined Abraham and his wife Mary at church.

After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his funeral procession ran through New York City. From his grandfather’s mansion in Union Square, 6-year-old Roosevelt and his brother, Elliott, watched as the president’s coffin was carried through the streets.

A photographer even captured the moment, a young Theodore peering out of the window in what would be the first of his many eyewitness experiences in history. Here’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Jenkinson: Lincoln, in Roosevelt's view, was the savior of the country. He was also a friend of his father and TR worshipped his father and his father's associations, and he regarded Lincoln as somebody who had the moxie and the moral strength to do the right thing against almost impossible odds and he knew that Lincoln had paid the ultimate price for that—that he had been assassinated in part because he grew in office, whereas most presidents, as you know, don't grow in office, they decline. But Lincoln was one of the few who actually grew in a big way during the course of his presidency.

Roosevelt’s admiration for Lincoln endured throughout his life. As president, Roosevelt referred to him as “my great hero,” a degree of affection he reserved for very few people aside from his father.

With Lincoln’s portrait hanging both in the White House and in his home office at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt was constantly reminded of Lincoln’s legacy. “I look up to that picture,” he said, “and I do as I believe Lincoln would have done.”

He even kept a lock of Lincoln’s hair in a ring, which Roosevelt wore for his inauguration in 1905. It was given to him by John Hay, who had served in Lincoln’s administration—and went on to serve in Roosevelt’s.

Tyler Kuliberda: It was kind of like a Victorian thing, and they would make jewelry into them, so that's what Hay does, and he keeps these, and I think he has two of them made, and he has them for quite a while, and gives them to TR to wear at his inauguration in 1905.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, the education technician at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s onetime home and now a National Historic Site.

Kuliberda: I think Roosevelt saw Lincoln as kind of this incredible president, and I think in his own presidency would have liked to been president during a time like Lincoln when the nation was in crisis, and he had to solve these kind of major problems as president.

Roosevelt enjoyed having a memento of Lincoln so close to him. But he was not so fond of one of the other presidents who would end up on Mount Rushmore alongside him.

Roosevelt was famously cool toward Thomas Jefferson, blaming the long-deceased president for his ineffectual efforts in building a military force during the War of 1812 and for Jefferson’s subversive opposition to George Washington’s policies while serving as his secretary of state.

But it was Roosevelt’s contemporaries that received most of his scorn. That rant about a “cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician”? That was directed at Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president from 1889 to 1893 and the same man who appointed Roosevelt as a civil service reform commissioner around the start of his term.

Roosevelt had campaigned for him when he was on the Republican ticket. So where did things go so wrong?

For one thing, Harrison didn’t really want reform for federal employees. The position was more of a figurehead role. That didn’t suit Roosevelt and his high standards at all. In his mind, if someone was granted a federal job, it should be because they deserved it and not because they were owed a favor.

For the six years he held the post, Roosevelt was defiant, putting lackadaisical civil service workers and departments in his crosshairs. He advised Harrison to fire George H. Paul, postmaster of Milwaukee, for granting jobs to his friends. His investigation into the Baltimore Postal Service—where Roosevelt found workers soliciting money for political purposes on government property, which, according to historian Edmund Morris, was against the Civil Service Code—put him against Postmaster General John Wanamaker even more directly.

Wanamaker tried to run his own investigation into the matter and reported that it found that no wrongdoing had occurred. But a House Investigative Committee, acting on Roosevelt’s insistence, found that Roosevelt was right. Here’s Jenkinson:

Jenkinson: It was just a natural instinct of his to read the job as boldly as possible and to make sure that he got himself in the newspapers and to make sure that he was on the right side of these questions and he wasn't afraid to take on his own political party. He'd take it right up to the edge, and … where they're just like so annoyed and disgusted with him because he won't … he won’t play the game. You know, he just couldn't play the game and they wanted him to be a figurehead at least and to be … they knew that he was the best stump speaker they had and that he could galvanize an audience, but they wanted him to be less hectic and to be less certain of things and to go along more than he did.

This wasn’t how government was supposed to work—government wasn’t supposed to be fair. Cynicism and cronyism mandated that politicians did favors and the winning team showed support. But Roosevelt didn’t care what party anyone belonged to. He was on a mission, and if Harrison’s allies were in the way, he had no problem taking them down.

That commitment had consequences for their relationship. When Harrison and Roosevelt met, Harrison took to tapping his fingers, a nervous tic that developed as a result of the aggravation Roosevelt caused him.

There was, of course, the situation with the money-soliciting Baltimore postal workers.

And the fact that Roosevelt went after William Wallace, the postmaster of Indianapolis and a man who also happened to be Harrison’s best friend, for hiring incompetent—and corrupt—workers because they were Republicans.

Later, Harrison would say of Roosevelt, “The only trouble I ever had with him … was that he wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset.”

Harrison’s overt displays of favoritism needled Roosevelt, perpetuating some of his most articulate insults. He called Harrison “the little gray man in the White House” and “a genial little runt” behind his back.

Roosevelt managed to last through Harrison’s term, and would end up being re-appointed civil service reform commissioner once Grover Cleveland entered office in 1893. He left his post in 1895 and became president of the board of police commissioners in New York City. His next brush with the presidency would come when William McKinley ran for the office in 1896.

McKinley’s campaign had given Roosevelt pause. Before McKinley’s first term, Roosevelt wrote to his friend and Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that “it will be a great misfortune to have McKinley nominated … If I could tell you all I have learned since his campaign has progressed, you would be as completely alarmed over the prospect of his presidential nomination as I am.”

When it seemed like McKinley would soon be named the Republican nominee, Roosevelt dashed off a letter to his sister, Bamie: “McKinley, whose firmness I utterly distrust, will be nominated; and this … I much regret.”

Roosevelt didn’t dislike McKinley. He noted he was an “honorable man, of very considerable ability and good record as a soldier and in Congress.” But where Roosevelt felt Harrison was politically savvy, he got the impression that McKinley was without a spine. “He is not a strong man,” Roosevelt said. “Unless he is well-backed I should feel rather uneasy about him in a serious crisis, whether it took the form of a soft-money craze, a gigantic labor riot, or danger of foreign conflict.”

Roosevelt’s tune changed slightly when McKinley was elected.

Jenkinson: TR was an ardent Republican and he could never stray from the Republican camp. And so that dictated a lot of what he did.

McKinley appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy in 1897. But the peace didn’t last long.

Jenkinson: He thought that McKinley was unimaginative and unnecessarily cautious and that McKinley was timid about going to war against Spain in 1898. And TR really went on a somewhat questionable campaign to sort of force McKinley's hand to declare war against Spain when McKinley said, you know, "We've had one big war during my lifetime. I hesitate to begin another one." But TR read every possible story coming out of Cuba in the way that made the Spanish look worst, made it sort of a righteous issue of whether we stand for anything and especially after the sinking of the Maine. That's why he called McKinley names and said that he had the backbone of a chocolate éclair.

He would later campaign extensively for McKinley’s second term. By this point, Roosevelt was more than just a supporter. After a two-year term as governor of New York, he was the vice-presidential candidate on the McKinley ticket.

Jenkinson: Roosevelt campaigned for McKinley in a really big way in 1900 against William Jennings Bryan; McKinley didn't leave his home in Canton, Ohio. He ran that front porch campaign and sent out this voluble, hectic, crazy, energetic vice presidential candidate to do all the work on the stump. Roosevelt of course threw himself into just head and shoulders and had the time of his life. And took on Bryan and probably McKinley would have won anyway, but it's Roosevelt who did the heavy lifting in the campaign and really found his voice in the American West while doing that. He said horrible things about Bryan. He said he was a human trombone, which is virtually my favorite thing, my favorite Roosevelt insult of all. So he believed that McKinley was sound economically and he realized especially after 1898, that McKinley could be manipulated or managed, let's put it, to pursue a more vigorous American role in the world than he might instinctively have intended.

One would think that Roosevelt would exert a little more patience with the guy on his campaign ticket, but … it’s Theodore Roosevelt we’re talking about here.

For one thing, Roosevelt didn’t really want to be vice president. He thought the office was ineffectual and constricting. “I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president,” he said.

Here’s Kuliberda:

Kuliberda: This is a man who cannot sit still, and you put him in the vice presidency, which he just regarded as an idle office.

But Roosevelt’s friends knew it was a step closer to the presidency. Senator Lodge urged him to take it on and stick by McKinley’s side, declaring it “invaluable” for his future in politics.

So why would McKinley select him as a running mate? It was more indifference than anything. Supporters buzzed in McKinley’s ear that Roosevelt, then the governor of New York and a war hero, would bring some much-needed fire into the campaign. Plus, the New York Republican party machine desperately wanted him out of the state.

And so McKinley and Roosevelt became the Republican hopefuls of 1900. Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, who viewed Roosevelt as a loose cannon, was not a fan. “Don’t you realize,” he said, “that there is only one life between this madman and the White House?”

Roosevelt’s concerns about the role proved accurate. McKinley never consulted him on policies and refused to let him interact with the Senate as a liaison, as he had done with his previous vice president, Garret Hobart. Roosevelt, meanwhile, found McKinley’s glacial decision-making process infuriating. But he wouldn’t have to endure it for long.

On September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot in the stomach by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

He died of gangrene only a little over a week later. According to an eyewitness, when Roosevelt heard the news of McKinley’s shooting, “a look of unmistakable anguish came to his face, and tears immediately filled his eyes.”

Jenkinson: Well, TR was in upstate New York. He had presided over the Senate for I think five days before they adjourned and now he was sort of just wandering and giving speeches and going hiking and camping and, you know, writing and doing all the things the Theodore Roosevelt does. He got the word that McKinley had been shot. And he made an emergency trip to Buffalo to be at McKinley's bedside and then he realized McKinley was probably going to recover. He went back. He thought it was unseemly for him to hang around the sick man's bed. And so he went to upstate New York. He was on Marcy, the highest point in the state, when a messenger came running up the path and informed him that the president was going to die that night.

Roosevelt raced to Buffalo to be by McKinley’s side, although he would be too late to see the president before he passed. Though they had their differences, the tragedy overshadowed any political divide.

Following McKinley’s assassination, it was time for Roosevelt to step into the role held by men he had often criticized.

The so-called madman was now in the Executive Mansion. Would that experience afford him a new perspective on the challenges of the job? Of course. Would it prompt him to bite his tongue when it came to his successor? Probably not.

We’ll be right back.


Imagine what it would be like to disappoint someone with the standards of Theodore Roosevelt. Just … think about that for a moment.

William Howard Taft didn’t have to think about it. He experienced it first-hand.

Taft was Roosevelt’s secretary of war. When Roosevelt left office, he selected Taft as his choice for the presidential nomination. Taft was named the nominee in 1908, and Roosevelt believed he would welcome advice with an open ear.

Hmm. Not quite.

Roosevelt felt Taft was a little too careless with his image. Seeing Taft fishing and golfing instead of shaking hands and kissing babies, he urged Taft to “put yourself prominently and emphatically into this campaign.”

Of his recreational activities, he said: “I am convinced that the prominence that has been given to your golf playing has not been wise, and from now on I hope that your people will do everything they can to prevent one word being sent out about either your fishing or your playing golf.”

Roosevelt had very particular ideas about how a president should behave, and what kind of image they should project. Presidential candidates weren’t supposed to be seen enjoying themselves. “I never let friends advertise my tennis, and never let a photograph of me in tennis costume appear,” he said. And Roosevelt believed that Taft should allow his constituents to see him smiling: “Always. Because I feel that your nature shines out so transparently when you do smile—you big, generous, high-minded fellow.”

According to Kuliberda, TR had tight control over his public image—very much a thing with politicians today but a new concept in TR’s time. It’s one of the things that made him the first modern president.

Kuliberda: He was very aware that you are going to be written about in newspapers. Your image is going to be broadcast through newspapers, people are going to see you, even the ones you don't interact with, so if you're playing golf, like William Howard Taft did, that has its sort of own connotation, if you're playing tennis that has its own connotations. Roosevelt thought it was feminine. He didn't want to be seen as feminine, so he doesn't allow anyone to photograph him playing tennis.

If it sounds like Roosevelt was acting as an image consultant for Taft, well, he was. He was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, and his success—or failure—would in some way reflect back on Roosevelt’s legacy.

According to Jenkinson, Roosevelt was right to lecture Taft about golfing, because average people back then couldn’t afford to golf.

Jenkinson: That was a rich man sport. It takes time, it takes money, it takes privilege. Roosevelt said, "If you want to be the leader of a people, you have to narrow the distance between yourself and the common man, not accentuate it by being photographed in an aristocratic hobby." Roosevelt had incredible political instincts. He wanted to be photographed climbing a mountain or being lowered on a rope in front of a waterfall or killing something because then that would be something people could really respect. But if you're photographed doing something that only the privileged get to do, then you're sending the wrong signal to the country.

It’s not hard to imagine that Roosevelt’s nagging irritated Taft. The press’s spin on things may have also rubbed him the wrong way: They decided that his last name could be an acronym, short for Take Advice from Teddy.

Taft beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan, and TR was sure his successor would continue his legacy of reform. Roosevelt left on a hunting trip to Africa for a year, allowing Taft a chance to make his own mark in office.

Jenkinson: So TR was not as good a judge of character as his wife, Edith. He loved Taft and Taft was an incredibly able man, but Taft really wanted to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court. And that's what he was well suited to. It was his wife, Nellie, who forced him to accept the presidency. He didn't really want it but she was ambitious for him. And so TR thought that Taft would continue his policies. What he didn't realize is that Taft was not strong. He was big, but he wasn't strong. And so in the Republican Party at the time, there was a progressive wing of people who wanted reform and child labor and to lighten the burdens of the poor and clean up our food supply and so on, and then there was the stand-pat wing of rich capitalists who just wanted government to either be their handmaiden or to get out of the way. And Roosevelt was able to hold those two tribes, those two factions of the Republican Party, together, because he was a war hero and because he was our first cowboy president and because he was Roosevelt. But Taft wasn't able to do it. He didn't have enough firepower, enough charisma. And so Taft had to choose, and he chose to move back towards the old stand-pat J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller wing of the party.

Taft didn’t live up to Roosevelt’s lofty expectations. He found it easier to be complacent with existing laws than to become combative. A former lawyer, he wanted to remain within the boundaries of office, whereas Roosevelt was keen on exerting as much control as he could. Taft possessed none of Roosevelt’s firebrand policies, none of his aggressive attitude towards improving the country. At the end of the Africa trip, he wrote to Roosevelt to complain: “I do not know that I have had harder luck than most presidents, but I do know that thus far I have succeeded far less than … others. I have been conscientiously trying to carry out your policies but my method of doing so has not worked smoothly.” Poor Taft bemoaned that he couldn’t even lose weight.

In some ways, Taft was like a sibling, looking up to a bigger brother for approval. He invited Roosevelt to the White House, but Roosevelt refused. “I don’t think it well for an ex-president to go to the White House, or indeed to go to Washington, except when he cannot help it,” he sniffed. Time and again, Taft would make advances and Roosevelt would rebuff them. Taft would later say Roosevelt’s chilly demeanor “deeply wounded” him.

Jenkinson: He had felt that he had assurances from Taft that Taft would continue the progressive initiatives, particularly on conservation questions. And when Taft didn't, Roosevelt felt angry, betrayed, and somewhat righteous and vindictive. Plus, I mean, it’s just the case that Roosevelt couldn't stand not to be empowered. He just couldn't stand not to be the guy. He was the youngest former president because he was youngest president and he made a stupid mistake by renouncing a third term. He left at the height of his powers before he had finished all that he wanted to do.

The friction grew worse when Taft finally made a sweeping change, advising the government to sue the monopolistic U.S. Steel—an industrial behemoth Roosevelt had tacitly approved of in 1907 in order to avert financial panic. Not only was Taft slow to act, but when he did, it was to try and reverse one of Roosevelt’s decisions. An irate Roosevelt actually penned entire published essays devoted to separating his policies from those of his onetime friend.

The problem? Roosevelt’s decision on the U.S. Steel situation was probably a mistake. According to Jenkinson, the key players in the merger concealed their true motivations from the president. Economics was not TR’s strong suit, and he acted quickly to stave off the panic—but if he’d had more time to read up on his options, he might not have approved the merger. Still, nothing stopped him from defending the decision he had made.

Jenkinson: When it became abundantly clear that he had been manipulated and that it was probably an unnecessary thing and maybe an unethical thing for him to have done, he just got more and more and more righteous about it. The same was true about Panama when the Wilson administration gave the Colombian government $25 million. He threw just a gigantic hissy fit over that and broke with the Wilson administration.

A poison pen was not Roosevelt’s only comeback. He decided to challenge Taft in the ultimate arena of the presidential election. Roosevelt announced he was returning to run in 1912, vying for the Republican nomination against Taft. Those references to a “flubdub” and “someone with brains less than a guinea pig”? Roosevelt was referring to Taft. The incumbent was quick to retort, calling Roosevelt a “honeyfugler,” or someone who gains an advantage by cheating, as well an egotist, a demagogue, and a flatterer. And after Roosevelt said he was no longer going to attack Taft personally, Taft proclaimed, “having called me everything in the category of bad names that are mentioned in polite society, he now wishes to indulge in less emphatic expressions.”

Jenkinson: So now, their friendship has been damaged and frayed by all of this, but now it was really a tragic business because Taft loved Roosevelt. He actually wept and said, "He was my closest friend. I loved TR." And TR was much less emotional about it. He was really caught up in his own righteousness. So they began to call each other names. And, you know, Roosevelt was great at insults. He called him a fathead and all the other things that he said. A puzzlewit.

McCarthy: How did the public react to his insults, especially with Taft because it's not like you're insulting just anyone when you call them a guinea pig power brain, you're insulting the president.

Jenkinson: Well, most people didn't know about this. Most people were … So they knew that TR was this cowboy and that he was shot from the hip and that he was not afraid to punch somebody metaphorically or physically if necessary. Certainly, that was his public persona—that he was a Christian warrior and that he was not afraid to take on trusts or anything that got in his way, and he loved that, and he circulated those stories. He was glad that they circulated because he felt that they gave him a political advantage. But we know more about this than they did because some of this was in private letters.

The Republicans tried to curb the rivalry, offering to arrive at a compromise and find a third candidate. Roosevelt would have none of it. “I’ll name the compromise candidate,” he said. “He’ll be me. I’ll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform.”

After a controversial convention that saw the Republican National Committee award Taft the necessary delegates to guarantee his selection, Roosevelt could have been gracious in defeat. Instead, he remained in the race, breaking away from the Republicans and running as a Progressive in his Bull Moose party. The sniping continued.

Jenkinson: These were picked up in the newspapers and it was like the public was following this feud and Roosevelt wasn't sorry—he knew that his only path to victory was to bring down the sitting incumbent president of the United States. And so he wanted the public to share his view that Taft really wasn't up to it.

McCarthy: Did any of his remarks come back to sort of bite him or ...

Jenkinson: Well, you never really want to burn your bridges but TR—when I lecture about this, Erin, and I always say that TR, the post-president, was really a very unpleasant person. He just couldn't stand not being in power. And he didn't realize this when he left. He wrote all these letters to his children like, "I've had my time and the public moves on and, you know, nobody has enjoyed this more than I have and it's time for others. And there's a weariness about me in the country," but he didn't believe it. He actually thought that he was the indispensable man.

Indispensable, or indestructible? Preparing for a speech at Milwaukee Auditorium on October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin named John Schrank. He survived. He even finished his speech. Schrank later said he shot him in part because William McKinley had come to him in a dream and ordered him to do the deed. It seemed that Theodore Roosevelt’s clashes with presidents both past and present were far from finished.

We’ll be right back.


In competing against each other, both Taft and Roosevelt lost. It was Democrat Woodrow Wilson who secured the 1912 election. And unfortunately, Roosevelt didn’t much care for him, either.

Wilson was bookish and self-aware. He knew Roosevelt appeared to be larger-than-life. “He is a real, vivid person, whom they have seen and shouted themselves hoarse over and voted for, millions strong,” Wilson said. “I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.”

In the face of such self-deprecating commentary, Roosevelt still let him have it with both barrels. Wilson, he said, was “a good man who has in no way shown that he possesses any special fitness for the presidency.” Here’s Jenkinson:

Jenkinson: He just belittled poor Wilson and treated him just so shabbily and undermined him. Most presidents when they leave are graceful to their successors but TR just couldn't be and it wasn't a partisan thing. He was equally awful to Wilson as he was to Taft.

As it often did, Roosevelt’s scorn stemmed in part from a president who deviated from Roosevelt’s well-worn path. In a treaty with Colombia a few months before the opening of the Panama Canal, the United States proclaimed “sincere regret” that anything came between the friendship of the United States and Colombia, like the Panamanian coup Roosevelt had sent a ship to support.

To Roosevelt, that was an admission—a sign of institutional weakness he would never have allowed. That it was in open defiance of his decision rankled him even more.

In a press release, Roosevelt called Wilson’s handling of foreign affairs “such as to make the United States a figure of fun in the international world.” He criticized the treaty and with the help of Senate allies blocked the treaty’s ratification. When the treaty was finally ratified a few years after Roosevelt’s death, the “sincere regret” clause had been removed.

But it was more than a difference of diplomacy. In his heart, Roosevelt was a soldier. He lived for combat, be it verbal, physical, or territorial. When Wilson was faced with the decision to bring America into World War I, Roosevelt criticized his cabinet’s pacifism.

Writing to his friend Arthur Lee, Roosevelt said that “It is not a good thing for a country to have a professional yodeler, a human trombone like [William Jennings Bryan] as secretary of state, nor a college president with an astute and shifty mind, a hypocritical ability to deceive plain people … and no real knowledge or wisdom concerning internal and international affairs as head of the nation.”

On another occasion, he bemoaned Wilson’s lack of action following the German sinking of the Lusitania and told his son Kermit that a “lily-livered skunk” was occupying the White House.

Speaking to the public at large about the sinking of the Lusitania, he said: “This represents not merely piracy, but piracy on a vaster scale of murder than any old-time pirate ever practiced.” Roosevelt said that the act “constituted warfare against innocent men, women, and children traveling on the ocean, and to our own fellow countrymen and countrywomen, who are among the sufferers. It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity, but to our own national self-respect.”

Jenkinson: He belittled Wilson's manhood over this, that he wasn't a real man because he said he was an Aunt Nancy, I think he called him, and made all these slurs about the virility of Woodrow Wilson because Wilson was trying so hard to keep the peace and when Wilson said that he was going to keep us out of war, Roosevelt's view—and Roosevelt turned out to be right, by the way—Roosevelt’s view was, "We will have to get involved in this war. There's no way the United States of America is going to avoid World War I. So we may as well get ready for it. If we're prepared when the war comes, we'll be able to fight it more successfully and the victory will be more complete. If you dilly-dally around, by the time you get into war, you're not going to be ready for it and then that's going to be a delay and that means you're not going to be able to control the postwar arrangement in Europe. You're going to lose some of your leverage over the postwar."

Writing to his son, Archie, Roosevelt was even more accusatory, placing the blame for the victims of the Lusitania directly on Wilson’s shoulders. “As a nation, we have thought very little about foreign affairs; we don’t realize that the murder of the thousand men, women, and children in the Lusitania is due, solely, to Wilson’s abject cowardice and weakness in failing to take energetic action when the Gulflight was sunk but a few days previously.”

(Just a quick fact check here: Though there were reports that the Gulflight had been sunk, it was actually just damaged and towed in. OK, back to the quote.)

“… [Wilson and Bryan] are both abject creatures and they won’t go to war unless they are kicked into it, and they will consider nothing but their own personal advantage in the matter.”

Wilson, however, did put up a fight—when Roosevelt goaded him into one. “The way to treat an adversary like Roosevelt is to gaze at the stars over his head,” Wilson said.

The men reconciled, if ever so briefly, when Wilson decided to join the war. Roosevelt came over to the White House and, over lemonade, pitched himself as going back to the Army to take up his post as a commander of the Rough Riders, which had barnstormed the Spanish-American War in 1898 and helped perpetuate Roosevelt’s reputation as a hands-on combatant. Wilson eventually refused, which once again drew Roosevelt’s ire.

Jenkinson: He said, "Theodore, war has kind of changed since San Juan Hill. It's not done that way anymore. There's no room for a voluntary cavalry unit in France. When Wilson wouldn't do it, it just threw Roosevelt, who was a naturally pugnacious figure and won a gloried war, it threw him in to a complete tailspin. He just wanted someone to punish and there was Wilson. And so he wrote increasingly awful op-ed pieces and then wondered why Wilson wouldn't send them over to France with the Rough Rider unit.

Wilson later said he believed Roosevelt’s cause was borne out of ego and self-aggrandizement. Secretly, he may have also feared Roosevelt becoming a war hero once more could lead to a White House run in 1920.

Roosevelt’s four sons wound up enlisting. One of them, Quentin, died in the skies over France. It was Wilson who confirmed the news via telegram.

Roosevelt wouldn’t live to see the remainder of Wilson’s second term. He died on January 6, 1919. Some of his remaining days were spent authoring editorials for the Kansas City Star about his repeated criticisms of the president. While it concerned Wilson, it summarizes Roosevelt’s feelings about the office he treated with such reverence:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or [his] bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”

Roosevelt was fiercely critical of the office of the presidency, a role he believed needed to be contextualized and challenged constantly, which could be one explanation for why he assessed other presidents so harshly. But there is another possible explanation. Were his insults, criticisms, complaints, and admonishments fed by ego? By a sense that he, Theodore Roosevelt, could and did do a better job? Perhaps.

McCarthy: I feel like a lot of his hostility, you know, was about sort of people failing to live up to his standards for what he thought the presidency should be, but do you think his standard was just like: it should be me?

Jenkinson: Just think of it this way: Who would you think could follow him? Who has his mighty potency and his power of language and his patriotism? There's nobody. I mean, we think that Franklin Roosevelt in many respects saved the country, maybe saved the world, but he was a mere shadow compared to TR and he always lived in envy of TR's vitality and TR's sheer political joy at being at a good slugging match with his opponents or perceived opponents. So I think, we sort of lock ourselves into a problem, because what follows TR? Wilson is a more kind of professorial figure and then the whole series of Harding and Coolidge and so on. These are just nonentities who released power back to the legislative branch. So TR was going to have trouble no matter what, but it was his own personality problem, his own righteousness and his own sense that he was the only one that really puts him in such an ugly light in the years from 19-9 to 1919.

But Roosevelt wasn’t fighting just for the sake of fighting or to have his own legacy polished. He fought because he felt it was the role of citizens to confront government, to force politicians to defend their positions and remain culpable to the individuals they represent. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t want to fight other presidents. He wanted other presidents to fight for him.


History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jake Rossen, with research by me and fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Clay Jenkinson and Tyler Kuliberda.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. Is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.

The Unusual Journey of Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin

Before becoming president and moving to the White House, Theodore Roosevelt made a ponderosa pine log cabin in the Dakota Badlands his temporary home. The Maltese Cross Cabin was a place he came to live the life of a cowboy, in a secluded area that was basically the opposite of the bustling streets of his native New York City. But the house didn't stay secluded for long: Throughout the first half of the 20th century, it was exhibited in cities across the country, making it one of the most well-traveled former homes of any U.S. president.

Though it looks humble by today's standards, the Maltese Cross Cabin was regarded as a mansion by Dakota ranchers in the late 1800s. After Roosevelt purchased primary interest in the Chimney Butte Ranch—or the Maltese Cross Ranch, as it was known by locals—he had a one-and-a-half story cabin constructed on the property. It had many features that were luxurious for the plains of the Dakota territory, such as three rooms, wood floors, and a pitched, shingled roof that housed space for a loft. It was the New Yorker's main Dakota home when he made trips to the area in 1883 and 1884, when the Elkhorn became his primary ranch.

Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt in hunting outfit.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Roosevelt assumed the presidency at the turn of the 20th century, the Maltese Cross Cabin embarked on an eventful new chapter. It was no longer owned by TR by that time, but thanks to its former owner's new title, the building was more famous than ever. The organizers of the North Dakota exhibit at the 1904 World's Fair hatched a plan to share the landmark with a wider audience. The state purchased the cabin, took it apart, and shipped it to St. Louis where it was reassembled in time for the World's Fair on April 30, 1904. The 20 million people who attended the exposition were able to see the rugged cabin that once housed the president without trekking to the Badlands as TR had 20 years earlier.

The exhibit was a success. In fact, it was so well received that Portland, Oregon, asked to show the cabin at the city's Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition the following year.

So the Maltese Cross Cabin made another trip—this time to the West Coast, where it would stay from June 1 to October 15 of 1905. When the exposition concluded, the structure was shipped back to North Dakota for the state fair in Fargo. The next time it was moved—now to Bismarck in North Dakota—excitement around the artifact had faded, and it was left on the grounds of the state capital for years, where it fell into a state of disrepair. It wasn't until the Daughters of the American Revolution took possession of the cabin in 1919 that it was restored to its former glory.

In 1959, the cabin made its final journey. Some of TR's old ranch land in North Dakota had been made into a National Park, and the National Park Service wanted to return the structure to its original home. They worried that the cabin wouldn't be able to handle another disassembly, so instead of breaking it down, they secured the entire 26-by-18-foot house to a flat-bed truck and drove it 135 miles across the state.

The Maltese Cross Cabin has resided at Theodore Roosevelt National Park ever since. But it wasn't exactly returned to its original location: Roosevelt's ranch house sits several miles away from the spot where it was constructed in the early 1880s. Despite the numerous trips and deconstructions, many aspects of the building, including its ponderosa pine logs, have remained the same throughout the decades.

History Vs. Episode 6: Theodore Roosevelt vs. Corruption


Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s 2 a.m. on a cool and rainy night in June 1895. Two men in dark coats are loitering on Second Avenue in New York City, observing a police officer across the street. The officer is sitting on an upturned butter tub, asleep—and snoring so loudly that the two men can hear him clearly above the rain.

Finally, one of the men steps off the curb, crosses the street, and rouses the officer, who tells the stranger to get lost.

Bad move. He just gave lip to Theodore Roosevelt, the head of the city’s four-man police commission—and his boss—who is in disguise, wandering the streets on what he calls a “midnight ramble.” He wants to make sure that his officers are actually working.

He finds, however, that they are not. Versions of this same scene would occur, in the words of photojournalist Jacob Riis, TR’s friend and companion that night, “for three hours along 1st and 2nd and 3rd avenues, from 42nd Street to Bellevue.” Police would be standing on street corners outside saloons, chatting or sleeping or otherwise not doing their jobs. All of them would sass Roosevelt, and all would later regret it.

A local newspaper reports that Roosevelt gives the delinquent officers “a raking down which they will not soon forget.” Later, he crows to his sister, Bamie, “These midnight rambles are great fun.”

He begins going on the rambles nearly every Thursday night, sometimes with Riis, sometimes with reporters. Once, he busts an on-duty officer as he’s slurping oysters in a restaurant. The officer—who clearly doesn’t know who he’s speaking to—tells Roosevelt to kick rocks. TR demotes him the next day. It’s just one more chapter in his quest to reform the police department.

As his friend Jacob Riis would say, “There is very little ease where Theodore Roosevelt leads.” From the bars of the Bowery to the halls of power in Washington, TR made a career out of taking on corruption—and we’re about to find out how.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and today, we’re pitting TR against profiteering politicians, treacherous trusts, and fraudulent food. This episode is TR Vs. Corruption.

Nineteenth-century American politics were defined by the spoils system. Party bosses maintained power by handing out favors, like jobs or government contracts, to supporters. In New York City, Tammany Hall was the biggest distributor of spoils, but the system extended to Washington, too.

Theodore Roosevelt hated it. He wrote: “No republic can permanently endure when its politics are corrupt and base; and the spoils system, the application in political life of the degrading doctrine that to the victor belong the spoils, produces corruption and degradation.”

An incident involving his father may have been the reason behind TR’s feeling.

In 1877, when TR was 19, President Rutherford B. Hayes nominated Theodore Senior, or Thee, as Collector of Customs in New York. Thee assumed it was a reward for his philanthropic work. But Hayes actually intended Thee’s nomination to obstruct his rival, Senator Roscoe Conkling, boss of the corrupt New York State Republican machine, who backed his own nominee.

The Senate confirmation process dragged on and on, with Thee at the politicians’ mercy. After more than a month of tortured waiting, his nomination was rejected.

Clay Jenkinson: The political machine crushed him and belittled him, humiliated him.

That’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Jenkinson: It was a giant personal setback and a kind of humiliation of all that Thee stood for, and young Roosevelt witnessed this, and it made him very angry. It kind of added fuel to his righteousness about reform.

Shortly after being rejected for the customs post, Thee died from stomach cancer. TR was then at Harvard studying natural history, but his father’s death helped alter the direction of his life. He now felt that a career in public service would be the best way to honor his father’s memory, and in 1881, was elected as the youngest member of the New York State Assembly.

Jenkinson: He began as a New York snob, a highly educated dandy who wore really weird clothing and had a high pitched voice and was just a kind of an eccentric and an outlier and kind of a bluestocking.

Roosevelt was determined to break the spoils system. But in Albany, he was shocked to see lobbyists openly bribing legislators in the hallways of the capitol. Meanwhile, lawmakers sponsored bills that were unfavorable to corporations, then blackmailed companies so they wouldn’t pass them.

Jenkinson: His view was government is good … but government has to be honorable. That you have to expect that the people that you've elected, that the people that you've appointed, or hold bureaucratic positions, are trying to do the right thing, and when they're not, when they are corruptionists or cronies or lazy or inept, then that discredits the very idea of government intervention in the life of the American people.

According to historian Edmund Morris, in Roosevelt’s first 48 hours on the Committee on Cities, he introduced four reform bills. Only one passed, but he had made an impression—and a few enemies.

When Roosevelt decided to push a reform bill through the committee he was chairing, several corrupt members teamed up to block it. TR realized he might need to use a stronger weapon than persuasive rhetoric. He hid a broken chair leg behind his desk, then announced he would unilaterally approve the bill while accusing its opponents of blackmail—which nearly caused a riot from his colleagues.

Roosevelt wrote later, “The riot did not come off; partly, I think, because the opportune production of the chair-leg had a sedative effect.”

Another time, Roosevelt’s enemies tried to smear him by enticing him into a compromising position with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Roosevelt balked, then had a detective follow her and discovered that he’d avoided a trap.

Jenkinson: Everyone wanted him to shrug his shoulders in the face of the real world, and TR could never do that. So then his view was, "Well, if you find a problem, you've got to fix it." When he discovered that many of his political associates and even allies were not actually interested in fixing it—that they kind of liked the system of cronyism and they benefited from it—then, that really threw him for a loop. And so he then has to decide, "Am I going to go along or am I going to follow my integrity and maybe flame out early?" And, turns out he was able to master it.

But his nascent career in Albany was marred by the tragic deaths of his wife and his mother on February 14, 1884. TR also felt pressure from the Mugwumps—a faction of the Republican Party—to support the Democratic presidential nominee, Grover Cleveland, over James G. Blaine, the controversial Republican presidential nominee. Roosevelt reluctantly stuck with Blaine.

After Cleveland’s victory, TR sensed his time in politics was up. He left his infant daughter, Alice, with his sister Bamie and took off for his ranch in the Dakotas. In the West, Roosevelt felt he could reinvent himself, free from Eastern rules. He dove into frontier life on his ranch and lived as a local, writing books, galloping across the plains on his horse, and managing a herd of livestock.

But he was still drawn to New York … and to politics. For years, he traveled back and forth. He attended political events and began secretly courting Edith Kermit Carow, whom he would marry in 1886. That winter, severe weather killed his cattle, and he had gone through much of his inheritance. His ability to make a living off of his ranches was seeming less likely by the day. And so he turned to politics again, although a career there also seemed uncertain.

According to Kathleen Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, the West failed to satisfy TR. She writes, “He recognized that he had not yet lived up to his father’s—and now his own—expectation that he would make something of himself, but he did not know what to do next.”

Still, TR threw himself into campaigning for Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 presidential election.

Jenkinson: He wanted a job in the administration of Harrison and he wasn't going to get one, because he wasn't far enough along yet and people were frightened of him. And so he had to settle for U.S. Civil Service commissioner, which could have been just a routine sort of thing … I mean, I can't name a single other U.S. Civil Service commissioner ever, but he decided to make the most of it and he did.

The Civil Service Commission managed the government’s civilian employees. Immediately, Roosevelt complained that Harrison’s hand-picked postmaster general, department-store magnate John Wanamaker, was replacing all of the Democratic postmasters with Republicans and extorting money from them. Harrison largely ignored him, leading Roosevelt to fume, “Wanamaker has been as outrageously disagreeable as he could possibly be … We have done our best to get on smoothly with him; but he is an ill-conditioned creature.”

Undeterred, Roosevelt launched a successful campaign to root out corrupt postal officials. As historian Leonard White writes [PDF], TR “struck terror into the hearts of contumacious postmasters and collectors of customs.”

Jenkinson: He wasn't afraid to take on his own political party. Because, if they challenged him and said, "Well, back away from this corruption in this post office," or, "Back away from Wanamaker," and he'd say, "Well, wait a minute, I'm reading the law. The law says we need to clean up these things and that's precisely what I'm doing. Are you telling me you want me to give up merely on the basis of partisan politics?" And they, of course, they wanted to say, "Yeah, that's exactly what we're telling you," but they couldn't because he was right. They were always about to fire him.

After five years as commissioner, TR was itching for a new challenge. One revealed itself in his home city of New York: a committee of Republican officials tried to draft him as their candidate for mayor. TR’s wife Edith argued against that plan: It would cost too much money, especially if he ended up losing. TR conceded, but immediately regretted it.

A reform-minded Republican, William L. Strong, eventually won. He offered Roosevelt, who had been campaigning for a job, an intriguing gig: New York City Police Commissioner, one of four men to hold the role. TR was elected the board’s president.

At that time, corruption was as much a part of the police department as badges and nightsticks. It supported a seedy underworld where prostitution, alcohol, gambling, and graft thrived. As one example, a captain named Joseph Eakins was accused of allowing brothels in his precinct to operate while he looked the other way.

On Roosevelt’s first day at police headquarters, a chief told him that his efforts at reform would be useless. “It will break you. You will yield. You are but human,” Chief Thomas Byrnes said.

TR never took a threat lying down.

Jenkinson: You've got to clean that up so that people have trust in government and then when government has to do the hard things, which it sometimes has to do, the people will swallow hard and accept it. But if government is filled with just these thuggish people who are in it for themselves and their cronies, then the people are not going to have confidence in government's ability to improve our lives. So that's sort of the groundwork for what he called the square deal.

Roosevelt enlisted Jacob Riis to show him the real face of the city after dark—and the photojournalist knew what to show him. Saloons where whiskey flowed on Sundays. Brothels operating under police protection. Two immigrant families renting a single room in a tenement. Children sleeping in the filth-slicked streets.

The sights deeply affected Roosevelt. A year after he became police commissioner, a deadly heat wave struck New York City. TR saw children sleeping on roofs and fire escapes to beat the heat. Sometimes they fell off during the night.

When the city failed to respond to the crisis, Roosevelt had his police officers give out free ice to poor residents—according to Edward Kohn, author of Hot Time in the Old Town, TR personally supervised the distribution of ice—and visited their homes to make sure they were OK.

Jenkinson: He felt a deep sympathy for the underdog, the underclass in America, and realized that these were not bums. They were recent immigrants for the most part, helpless, with little or no English and no skills that really would command the market, and they were exploitable and they were being exploited. And he felt, "This just isn't fair. We're too great a country to have this sort of desperation being preyed upon by corporate capitalism."

Roosevelt and the three other police commissioners systematically removed the police brass—including Eakins and Byrnes—who had allowed graft to flourish. He appointed Peter Conlin as the new chief of police. Next, Roosevelt took on enforcement of the ban on saloons selling liquor on Sundays.

The Sunday excise law, as it was formally called, had been around in some form since 1857, but there were loopholes allowing hotel restaurants to sell alcohol to their guests. It also didn’t address private clubs, which sold drinks to their dues-paying members. That meant the law largely affected working-class bars frequented by immigrants.

But to TR, it seemed like a win-win. Richard Zacks, author of Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, writes that TR had two main reasons for enforcement.

One, he wanted to demonstrate the newfound incorruptibility of his police force. Zachs writes that Roosevelt “tried to frame it not as a crusade against liquor, but rather against blackmail and selective enforcement of the law.”

Two, Roosevelt knew that “saloons acted as unofficial clubhouses for Tammany Hall,” Zacks continues. By closing them on Sunday, he could strip the Democratic machine of its favored meeting places.

TR told the New York Evening Sun, “I do not deal with public sentiment. I deal with the law.”

But his actions caused enormous controversy.

Jenkinson: We now know that it was really hard on immigrants, who were working six days a week, and these saloons were not like bars you go slam a few down in. They were social clubs at the time. People were rightly offended by this, in knowing that the rich had access to all of their private clubs, but that the regular citizens of New York—and particularly German-American immigrants—were being singled out by the enforcement of this law.

On Sunday, June 23, 1895, Roosevelt deployed more than 2000 officers to monitor about 8000 saloons across New York. Pub owners signaled their compliance by raising their window shades to reveal empty barrooms. The campaign deprived thousands of New Yorkers of a relaxing beer on their only day off from work, but some found a way around the Excise Law. Drinkers traveled all the way to Coney Island in Brooklyn, which was a separate city until 1898, and outside TR’s jurisdiction. Others tried to enter saloons through the side door, but many were turned away.

The next Saturday, Mayor Strong and Roosevelt gave a press conference on the steps of City Hall. A large crowd of German-American residents—who traditionally drank beer at family gatherings on Sundays—denounced TR’s enforcement as too broad.

It was unfair, they said, for vice-ridden saloons and wholesome family picnics to be caught in the same net. Moreover, German immigrants as a whole supported Mayor Strong, and felt betrayed.

According to Zacks, Otto Kempner, a leader in the German-American community, shouted, “Only bigots could enforce such laws. It is an asinine exercise of authority.” TR roared back: “You people want me to enforce the law only a little bit, a little teeny bit … I do not know how to do such a thing, and I shall not begin to learn now!”

The disagreement looked like it would come to a head in September 1895. About 30,000 German-Americans turned out for a huge parade up Lexington Avenue to celebrate liberty and beer.

One of the organizers trolled Police Commissioner Roosevelt with a formal invitation to the festivities, “more as a taunt or a joke,” according to Zacks. But they evidently didn’t know TR very well.

Jenkinson: My favorite of all the stories is when he's invited to the German-American parade ... And he goes, even though they didn't really want him to come. They just wanted to snub him. He goes and he's up there and he's watching the whole parade and then some guy in the group, he calls out, "Wo ist der Roosevelt?"

For those of you who don’t speak German, that’s, “Where is Roosevelt?”

Jenkinson: And instead of, like, ducking, he says, "Hier bin ich, hier bin ich."

Which translates to, “Here I am, here I am.”

Jenkinson: And he kind of turned it around. They kind of loved him, like "Jesus, this guy has so much courage. And he's so game. He's so willing to do this stuff."

Roosevelt also fought the city’s rampant prostitution. Unlike his peers, he believed the male customers were as much a part of the problem as the female workers. In his autobiography, he wrote, “public opinion and the law should combine to hunt down the ‘flagrant man swine’ who himself hunts down poor or silly or unprotected girls … Our duty to achieve the same moral level for the two sexes must be performed by raising the level for the man, not by lowering it for the woman.”

As with the saloons, corruption in the police department allowed illegal brothels to remain open for business. Roosevelt fired at least one officer for negligence in enforcing laws against prostitution, but some newspaper editorials accused Roosevelt of prudish heavy-handedness. The New York Mercury called the officer’s firing “as gross an act of injustice as was ever seen at a Massachusetts witch burning” and said Roosevelt was a “blue-blooded Knickerbocker Puritan gone to seed.”

A minor scandal ensued when an officer arrested a young woman, who was merely lost and asking a man for directions, on suspicion of being a prostitute. Newspapers protested the besmirching of an innocent girl’s honor by an overzealous police force. She was acquitted of the charges, and Roosevelt suffered an embarrassing defeat. An attempt to regain the moral high ground by raiding the city’s most elegant brothel also backfired.

Roosevelt would not be dissuaded. If the law was on the books, he would enforce it. But his black-and-white worldview was not universally popular or practical. TR squabbled with the other commissioners despite their common motives. Citizens evaded the saloon closures and solicitation laws. Some officials felt that TR’s outsize personality got in the way. And in 1898, the consolidation of all five boroughs into the City of Greater New York meant that the city’s police commission would be replaced with a new leadership structure. Seeing the end of his usefulness in New York, Roosevelt campaigned for a higher-profile position in the McKinley administration—and he got it.

We’ll be right back.

In 1897, Roosevelt began to emerge as a national political figure. Newly elected president William McKinley appointed him assistant secretary of the Navy. Against the wishes of his boss, Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long, Roosevelt pushed to build up the nation’s fleet of battleships while keeping a close eye on matters in Asia and the Caribbean.

After a suspicious explosion destroyed the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba, the U.S. declared war on Spain. TR quit his post and formed the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.

He and his troops, the Rough Riders, charged up Kettle Hill and helped win a decisive battle on San Juan Hill that quickly led to a U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War.

Back in New York, the Republican Party persuaded TR to run for governor on the strength of his war record. He won by a narrow margin, but soon moved up in the world—partly because the Republican machine wanted the reform-minded Rough Rider out of their hair. He became McKinley’s running mate, and on November 6, 1900, he was elected vice president of the United States when McKinley won a second term.

Less than a year later, McKinley was assassinated, and TR was sworn in as president. And if anyone thought he would ease up on his campaign against corruption as president, well … that was wishful thinking.

As chief executive, Roosevelt continued his war on spoils. He took on the trusts—mega-corporations that controlled multiple companies at once, which were increasingly prevalent in the Gilded Age. Trusts could be used to create monopolies, which might unilaterally dictate prices for goods and services. Monopolies were great for tycoons, who argued that they eliminated inefficiencies among the companies they owned, but they were bad for consumers, who had to pay whatever prices the monopolies charged.

Congress had attempted to regulate trusts to prevent the creation of monopolies with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890. The legislation prohibited “every contract, combination … or conspiracy in restraint of trade,” as well as any attempt to form a monopoly to unreasonably impede fair trade. Unfortunately, the law failed to define terms like “trust,” “monopoly,” and “conspiracy,” and the loose wording made the law hard to enforce. In 1895, the Supreme Court decided in an anti-trust case that the defendant, a sugar company that controlled 98 percent of all U.S. sugar refining, had not violated the Sherman Act. That ruling basically ended the government’s attempts to reign in trusts.

In 1901, railroad magnates James J. Hill and E.H. Harriman, along with banker J.P. Morgan, formed the Northern Securities Company, merging three of the largest railroads in the Upper Midwest. Instantly, Northern Securities became the second-largest company in the world, behind U.S. Steel, and had a capital stock of $400 million.

Critics feared that Northern Securities’s monopoly would allow it to dictate shipping prices from Chicago to Seattle—in other words, impede fair trade.

Enter President Roosevelt.

Jenkinson: He realized, government’s going to have to play a role here because there's no other counterweight to these gigantic accumulations of wealth and power in the hands of people like Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan or in corporations like U.S. Steel or the railroad trusts. And so he realized that unions weren't ready yet to be a sufficient counterweight, and that government was going to have to find some way of protecting the have-nots, to provide what TR called the square deal. If you actually unpack the metaphor of the square deal, it's profound. You know, his view is that this life is a game of poker and the cards are shuffled, you might get a great hand and I might get a weak one. That's just how life works. But if the dealer is putting cards from under the deck into his crony's hands or is misshuffling, then that's not a square deal. As long as the dealing is square, people will accept that life is not equal and fair for everybody, and they won't question the system. … He felt that it was essential that the people have a great deal of trust in their government.

Roosevelt hinted to Congress that he was planning to challenge the Northern Securities Company when he said in his annual message, “the government should have the right to inspect and examine the workings of the great corporations engaged in interstate business.”

The following February, ignoring advice from GOP leaders, Roosevelt instructed his attorney general Philander Knox to sue the monopoly on the grounds that it violated the Sherman Act. According to Larry Haeg, author of Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War, it was the only thing TR, being TR, could do: The law was on the books, and he had to enforce it.

Haeg writes, “Legally, of course, it was Roosevelt’s duty, just as he thought it his duty to enforce the Sunday liquor laws when he was police commissioner. He had solemnly sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”

It was the first time a president had confronted the biggest corporations in America, Dalton writes, and Knox’s suit succeeded in breaking up the company.

That did not go over well with J.P. Morgan, who attempted to reason with TR and Knox at a meeting at the White House. Morgan suggested casually, “if we have done anything wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up.” Roosevelt snorted, according to Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex, that that could not be done.

The Northern Securities Company sued to overturn the decision, and the appeal went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court announced its decision on March 14, 1904. In a 5-to-4 ruling, the justices sided against the Northern Securities Company. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in the majority opinion that “no scheme or device could more certainly come within the words of the [Sherman] Act … or could more effectively and certainly suppress free competition.”

Roosevelt had won. He had shown that anti-trust legislation, part of his broader attack on corruption in government, withstood judicial scrutiny. From then on, TR’s reputation as a trust-buster was cemented, and his victory at the Supreme Court helped Roosevelt’s election campaign that year.

In November, TR was elected to his first full term as president. Having broken up the second-biggest company in the world, he set his sights on rampant corruption in the food and drug industry—the kind of corruption that threatened people’s lives.

Jenkinson: Then he becomes president and he steps back and thinks, "What are the things that need to be done here? What can a president do? What can I do?" He looks at all these problems and he realizes, well, for example, our food supply has changed because in Jefferson's era, 97 percent of the American people were family farmers and they were essentially feeding themselves. Well now, we're an increasingly urban nation. People are living in cities where they don't even have a garden plot. And so they're buying food in tins. If the food is awful, if it's not clean, if it's tainted, then people don't really have any options because they have to eat and they're not producing their own.

According to Deborah Blum, author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, food had to travel farther and for longer periods of time to reach city dwellers. Manufacturers increasingly used preservatives to ensure that food didn’t rot in transit. The problem was, most preservatives were toxic—and unregulated. Formaldehyde was added to milk to keep it fresh, while boric acid was used to preserve meat. Eating these substances in three meals a day could make people extremely ill. Not to mention that what was listed on the label might be completely different from what was in the can.

Adulterated foods and drugs were a huge public health problem, and there were few federal laws for protecting consumers. Journalists had tried to expose the unsafe conditions in the slaughterhouses and the need for federal inspections, but their efforts were foiled by the so-called Beef Trust. Five major meatpacking companies had joined together to fight government oversight of their Chicago-based industry.

Jenkinson: He then gets a copy of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle

That’s the 1906 novel that exposed corruption and unsanitary practices in Chicago’s meatpacking plants.

Jenkinson: … reads it and is appalled and he then contacts Upton Sinclair as only Roosevelt would, and says, "I'm sure you're wrong. This looks like just the worse kind of sensationalism. And by the way, I don't appreciate the socialist track in the last chapter, but I'm going to look into this and if you're right, well then, we'll do something about it."

Roosevelt himself had had experience with America’s lax food laws. As a Rough Rider during the Spanish-American War, he experienced putrid meat supplied by the Army. News reports claimed that meatpackers provisioned the military with tons of rotten canned beef preserved with boric acid to mask the stench. Many soldiers who ate it fell ill, and some died.

Roosevelt wrote to the Army’s commanding general to complain, thus stirring the scandal: “The so-called canned roast beef that was issued to us for travel rations … and which we occasionally got even at the front, was practically worthless. Unless very hungry the men would not touch it … There was also a supply of beef … supposed to be fitted by some process to withstand tropical heat. It at once became putrid and smelt so that we had to dispose of it for fear of its creating disease. I think we threw it overboard.”

Jenkinson: And he looks into it and turns out it's worse than in Upton Sinclair and then Roosevelt calls in the meatpackers and said, "What are you going to do about it?" And they say, "Nothing." He says, "Well, I'll give you some time."

Meanwhile, Roosevelt commissioned a secret undercover investigation into meatpacking industry practices, which issued its findings in the damning Neill-Reynolds report.

Jenkinson: They come back and they tell him, "If we did what you're asking, you would bankrupt the industry and blah, blah, blah." Then, Roosevelt says, "All right. You give me no choice. I'm going to publish the report." And the public is appalled and they demand change and Congress … is forced to attend to this and he gets the Meat Inspection Act of 19-6.

When Roosevelt delivered the Neill-Reynolds report to Congress, he wrote [PDF] in an accompanying letter, “the report shows that the stock yards and packing houses are not kept even reasonably clean, and that the method of handling and preparing food products is uncleanly and dangerous to health … the conditions shown by even this short inspection to exist in the Chicago stock yards are revolting. It is imperatively necessary in the interest of health and of decency that they should be radically changed.”

Congress did pass the Meat Inspection Act, and Roosevelt signed it into law on June 30, 1906. It banned the sale of adulterated or mislabeled meat products as food, and required that livestock be slaughtered in a sanitary environment. It also mandated federal inspections of food animals before and after slaughter.

On the same day, Roosevelt signed another bill with a similar purpose. The Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded food or drugs. In grocery stores and pharmacies, consumers would no longer find spoiled meat freshened with borax, children’s candies tinted with lead, whiskey consisting of prune juice and cheap alcohol, or fruit colored with coal-tar dyes. They could be sure that the drugs they purchased for common colds were actually the medicines they claimed to be.

Two weeks after the Pure Food and Drug Act came into force, The New York Times reported, “Already the effects of it are amazing. The masquerade of alcohol, opium, cocaine, and other injurious drugs as nerve tonics or cure for stomach and lung diseases is at an end … The trade in nostrums and patent medicines is utterly demoralized.”

Jenkinson: One of the things that's so important about Roosevelt is he could never back down. He does this on a whole range of areas where he sees a problem. He tries to handle it quietly. When that won't work, he uses the bully pulpit and publicity to attend to these issues and actually winds up getting stuff done. He's absolutely masterful in his capacity to use publicity as a tool to move the public to accomplish things that he had in mind.

Roosevelt’s reputation as a trustbuster and enemy of corruption was solid before the public. He had gone after more than 40 trusts. But when a national crisis demanded it, TR was willing to negotiate.

We’ll be right back.

In 1907, an economic panic was brewing. People who had deposited their savings in America’s banks and trust companies—a type of financial institution that competed with banks—had no insurance against loss when the companies made bad investments with their money. As Dalton writes, “inadequate regulation left depositors unprotected, and as long as trust companies could speculate in stocks and make unreliable loans to customers who bought stocks on margin, no one could guarantee that any worldwide downturn would not provoke an American panic and depression.”

And that’s what was beginning to happen. Wild speculation had led to the failure of several companies, and worried customers began to pull their money out of the ones that remained. Some felt that Roosevelt’s anti-trust activities also made companies nervous and liable to make fewer investments.

Jenkinson: And so we didn't have a Federal Reserve system yet, and so we had no backstop, and the economy was subject to wild fluctuations, and people were just getting used to the stock market, and to the big banks, and the deep investments and trusts and so on. And so in 19-7, the economy comes apart, and there's a panic.

J.P. Morgan called a meeting with New York’s other leading bankers and U.S. treasury officials. They devised a plan to shore up the failing companies by pooling the bankers’ funds and $25 million from the U.S. Treasury. It wasn’t enough. Then Morgan suggested that U.S. Steel buy the failing Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company to avert the collapse of its investors. Morgan was concerned, however, that Roosevelt’s trust-busting stance could get in the way of the deal.

Jenkinson: Roosevelt didn't really understand economics. He was deeply versed in history, and war, and political theory, and international relations, and American literature, and a lot of other things, but he was not an economist, and he didn't really understand how it worked. That sounds more critical than I mean it to be, but it wasn't his best suit. He gets convinced that if he lets U.S. Steel purchase a Tennessee-based steel corporation that's in trouble, that this will stop the hemorrhaging, that this will help to shore up and provide public confidence in some other ways. And J.P. Morgan plays a critical role in this. He's essentially a one man Federal Reserve system for the time.

Roosevelt and Morgan made a gentlemen’s agreement: Morgan’s deal would stave off complete collapse of the stock market and save American jobs, and Roosevelt would not prosecute U.S. Steel under anti-trust law.

U.S. Steel had other motives, though. Its executives wanted to eliminate its competition and acquire the Tennessee company’s assets—facts they kept from Roosevelt.

Jenkinson: And so he goes for it, and years later it's made clear to him that he was actually kind of tricked or duped. That he wouldn't have had to do that, that that was a much more self-serving acquisition than he was led to believe, that it's not the best use of the federal government to wink at restraint of trade, and that he probably had other options. So was he duped? I don't know. I think that's maybe a little strong. He was susceptible ... he knew we were in a very significant national economic emergency, and like all people who are working suddenly and in a reactive way at a perceived or real emergency, he did things that if he'd had a year to think about and read about, he might not have done.

The agreement became a wedge between TR and his Republican successor in the White House, William Howard Taft. While TR had a reputation as a major trust-buster, Taft actually went after more trusts in his single term, and his Justice Department accused U.S. Steel of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act with its acquisition of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. Taft’s charge blew up Roosevelt’s deal with Morgan and took a swing at his integrity. And if that wasn’t awkward enough, Taft didn’t warn Roosevelt ahead of the news breaking on October 27, 1911—TR’s 53rd birthday.

The case—and the rift between Taft and Roosevelt over control of the party’s ideology—led Roosevelt to challenge Taft in the 1912 presidential election. Roosevelt ran as the nominee of his own pro-labor, anti-corruption Progressive Party, seeking to continue his trajectory of reform that began 30 years earlier. With his “New Nationalism” platform, Roosevelt advocated a judiciary that worked better for the people, women’s suffrage, labor rights including worker’s compensation, a national health service, and other demands. The promises were so radical that the conservative Taft and his followers broke from Roosevelt completely, along with some of Roosevelt’s former allies.

When the votes were cast, TR didn’t win—and neither did Taft. Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy split the Republican vote and handed the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

In his 1913 autobiography, Roosevelt reflected on his legacy of taking on corruption: “Where there is no chance of statistical or mathematical measurement, it is very hard to tell just the degree to which conditions change from one period to another. This is peculiarly hard to do when we deal with such a matter as corruption. Personally, I am inclined to think that in public life we are on the whole a little better and not a little worse than we were 30 years ago, when I was serving in the New York legislature. I think the conditions are a little better in national, in state, and in municipal politics. Doubtless there are points in which they are worse, and there is an enormous amount that needs reformation. But it does seem to me as if, on the whole, things had slightly improved.”

Erin McCarthy: Were things genuinely better after his reforms? Were people safer, were they healthier, were they more politically aware of what was happening?

Jenkinson: You know, I think that for many people the jury is still out. … Did he make our food supply safer? I think that there's an honest debate about that. Did he bring attention to the problem of a nation that's no longer agricultural and self-sufficient? Yes. And do we now largely agree with him? Indeed. You know, every drug has to be vetted, all foods are monitored, we go farther and farther to honesty in labeling, to nutritional labeling, and so on. We are from any libertarian point of view a nanny state, and the nanny state was inaugurated in large part by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt believed that in an advanced urban industrial country, there has to be an entity that's looking out for people and for small companies and for the have-nots, and that entity, whether we like it or not, is government, and we shouldn't wring our hands about it. We should just make sure that government is honest, that the people are ethical, that the standards are being evenly applied, that we study things before we just slap solutions on them. I think Roosevelt was right about that, and so you can make the libertarian case against Roosevelt, and people do, but I think on the whole he inaugurated modernity in a world where the stakes are so high.


History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Kat Long, with research by me, Kat Long, and Michael Salgarolo. Fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand voiced TR in this episode.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Clay Jenkinson.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.