Making Progress: U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt

As a young boy, Roosevelt often struggled to breathe at night because of his asthma. Although modern doctors would be appalled, Roosevelt’s doctors suggested that the boy smoke cigars to improve his symptoms.

His family thought Roosevelt’s brother, Elliot (later father of Eleanor Roosevelt), was most likely to succeed. Elliot struggled with alcoholism, however. Theodore soon outpaced his brother both physically and mentally. He was a voracious reader and would read almost anywhere about almost any subject. Even as president he snuck a few minutes between appointments to read nature books.

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Photo of Theodore Roosevelt 1918

After McKinley’s death the presidency was thrust upon Roosevelt. He was one of the few men who genuinely enjoyed the job. While in office he expanded the authority of the president. Roosevelt believed that the president could do whatever the law didn’t specifically prohibit him from doing.

Roosevelt engaged in a number of presidential firsts. He was the first president to understand and use the press to gain public support for his programs. In fact, Roosevelt enjoyed talking with the press so much that he spoke to a reporter during his morning shave. Roosevelt was also the first president to invite an African American (Booker T. Washington) to dinner at the White House.

Roosevelt’s administration was the first to actually apply the anti-trust law signed under President Benjamin Harrison. Roosevelt believed that while successful businesses could merge, their mergers needed to be regulated. By the time he left office, Roosevelt had brought over 20 anti-trust suits.

Although he loved being president, Roosevelt was disappointed to preside over the country in a time of peace. He believed that he could not be a great president without steering the nation through a great crisis. He also regretted that he promised not to serve for a third term. That did not stop him from running for the office several years later, however.

Frequently Forgotten President Benjamin Harrison

In 1888 President Cleveland lost the election to Benjamin Harrison. Harrison ran on a pro-business platform and hailed from Indiana, a state that had a healthy number of electoral votes. The election was so close that without states like Indiana and New York, Harrison could not have won.

Throughout his life Benjamin Harrison wanted to be known as an individual. He did not want his presidential campaign to mention his grandfather, former President William Henry Harrison. Against his wishes his campaign supporters used references to “Tippecanoe” and his grandfather’s allegedly humble origins.

They also pointed out that the grandson had inherited his grandfather’s reputation as a fighter. During the Civil War Harrison fought in as many battles as possible. In 1864 he joined General Sherman’s Atlanta campaign.

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Official Presidential Portrait of Benjamin Harrison

Harrison’s actions as president included generous pensions for Civil War veterans and the signing of an anti-trust law. Under Harrison and the next few presidents, the law, meant to prevent the establishment of monopolies, remained mainly symbolic. Harrison did not wish to anger the businessmen who helped elect him.

The American voters were unimpressed by Harrison’s spending of millions of dollars on pensions and his pro-business stance. As a result his opponent (former President Grover Cleveland) was re-elected in 1892.

Harrison’s personality did nothing to endear him to voters either. Nicknamed “The Icebox” for his cold manner, he disliked having to deal with people outside his family. In public he often looked up at the sky so he would not have to greet others, even if he knew them! He was, however, very devoted to his wife, who died of tuberculosis during his re-election campaign. Harrison personally nursed her through her illness and didn’t care at all when he lost the election.

After his wife’s death he went home to Indiana. In his loneliness he married his wife’s niece, a circumstance that shocked his older children. The couple had a daughter, and Harrison doted on her until he died.