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Our History: President Roosevelt ushers in the modern era

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In this month of January when we welcome a new year in very different circumstances from those in the past it is interesting to look at where we were and what we were about a century ago.

The man who was our president then was to become a figure larger than life. Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president, was a native New Yorker whose vision led America into its role as a modern world power. Differing from some of the log cabin presidents of the preceding century, he was born into an aristocratic New York City family. Plagued with physical problems as a youth, he dealt with his physical weaknesses by pursuing sports vigorously and by becoming a naturalist.

After spending years in state politics he joined the Civil Service in 1889 and became a dynamic corruption fighter following this as a reformer as New York City’s police commissioner. In 1897 he became secretary of the Navy, later participating in the Spanish American War as a colonel leading the famed “Rough Riders.”

After serving as the governor of New York he became vice president under William McKinley. With the assassinated McKinley’s untimely demise in September 1901, Roosevelt at 42 became the youngest president in American history.

As president, Roosevelt in 1902 stamped a new era with his forceful personality. Often intervening on behalf of labor, he advocated that company trusts needed to be regulated, and though he was dubbed a “trustbuster,” he actually advocated restraint under the principle of “the public interest.”

In May 1902 the attorney general invoked the Sherman Anti-Trust Law to bring suit against Morgan and Harriman’s Northern Securities, a holding company for their Western Railroad combine. During this first term the Census Bureau was created by an act of Congress, and our troops were withdrawn from the island of Cuba, allowing the Cubans to elect their first president.

As an advocate of progressivism Roosevelt pressured the states to pursue social justice and several states, including Oregon, experimented with reforms such as women’s suffrage, primary elections, labor legislation and minimum wage and workmen’s compensation.

Theodore Roosevelt’s concerns for conservation inspired the passage of a Reclamation Act in June 1902 which authorized the building of irrigation dams all across the West. He also sponsored a national forest preserve of 150 million acres withdrawing also from sale 85 million acres of prime Alaskan land until their mineral contents could be assessed.

Though a hunter, the story that he refused to shoot a baby bear made headlines all over the country and the famous and popular toy the Teddy Bear was born.

By June 1902 Congress had passed the Isthmian Canal Act, and the president was authorized to buy the rights from France to begin canal construction, eventually leading to the Panama Canal.

The famed justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court in August of that year and he became known for effectively supporting the principle of “the public interest.”

In September 1902 the United States and Mexico became the first countries to settle an international dispute through the very new machinery of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

Culturally the year 1902 saw a series of investigative reports on practices in business and social institutions such as Ida Tarbell’s expose of the oil monopoly, Standard Oil, which appeared in McClure’s Magazine, as well among others Lincoln Steffen’s “The Shame of Cities,” Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and the “Iron Heel”" by Jack London. These publications were carefully researched and noted by many as they directly impacted future political action.

The year 1902 was dominated by an American president who led the Congress and the nation toward progressive reforms and a strong foreign policy. Known as a “trust buster” and as “wielding a big stick,” later in life Roosevelt would write, “I did not usurp powers but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.”

Theodore Roosevelt was to win reelection by a landslide in 1904. Henry James, the novelist, coined the phrase “Theodore Rex.” Though not meant to be complimentary, for he abhorred Roosevelt, it is now the title of a new book by Edmund Morris.

A figure larger than life, Theodore Roosevelt is one of four presidents memorialized on Mount Rushmore. He died in 1919 and is buried in Young’s Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay, L.I., where his home still stands.

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