Today in History
History's Happenings for October 27
The twenty-sixth president and the youngest man to ever become such (he was 42, Kennedy was 43), Theodore Roosevelt may well have represented the finest combination of Americanism, personal courage, respect for the common citizen, and willingness to follow the moral right regardless of political pressures, of any president this nation has seen since its post-revolutionary days.
Born into a wealthy family in New York City on October 27, 1858, Teddy Roosevelt was a sickly, asthmatic child who overcame his disability by pursuing a strenuous outdoor lifestyle, a love that followed him all his life.
Roosevelt graduated with honors from Harvard in 1880, and attended Columbia Law School. Despite the odium that the wealthy class placed on politics as a career, he became the youngest member of the New York legislature in 1881. By 1884 he was the leader of the minority Republicans but, through his outspoken and independent notions, was well on the way to alienating many of the Party's powerful.
After the death of both his mother and his first wife Alice on the same day in 1884, Roosevelt left politics and headed west, establishing a cattle ranch in North Dakota, and enjoying life as a cowboy of sorts. After two years, he returned east and, engaged in 1886 to Edith Kermit Carow, ran for mayor of New York and lost. Disappointed with politics, he and Edith married and set up housekeeping in Teddy's new house on Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, NY.
Inevitably, Roosevelt drifted again onto the political scene. In Benjamin Harrison's race for the presidency against incumbent Grover Cleveland in 1888, Roosevelt spoke out against the use of political patronage to reward supporters with government jobs. Patronage had reached its ugliest zenith during this time, having figured prominently into the recent assassination of President Garfield.
When Harrison won the presidency, he rewarded Roosevelt with a job as Civil Service Commissioner, whose task it was to insure that government jobs were assigned based upon ability rather than party loyalties. He not only did a great job as Commissioner, but kept the debate alive and himself in view. When Grover Cleveland again won the White House in 1893, he kept Teddy on in his position.
Roosevelt used his influence to gain the office of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the new McKinley Administration, in 1896. A fan of a powerful navy as a diplomatic tool, he proceeded to strengthen the U.S. Navy and prepare it for the conflict with Spain that seemed to be over the horizon.
A month after the Spanish-American War broke out in April, 1898, Teddy resigned his post to accept a regimental position under Colonel Leonard Wood, whose friendship he had cultivated, and who was assembling a volunteer cavalry regiment. Using his contacts to speed things along, Roosevelt organized the regiment that he named the Rough Riders, and got them trained, equipped and shipped to Cuba. The regiment's exploits culminated in the history-making charge up San Juan Hill, near the strategic objective of Santiago de Cuba, on July 1, 1898. His courageous leadership of the attack earned Roosevelt well-deserved fame back home.
Returning to America as a hero, Teddy was elected as Republican governor of New York in a tight race, but his independent notions again put him at odds with the local Party, and they shuffled him off to the vice presidency slot as President McKinley's running mate in 1900.
Though resistant to such a do-nothing position, Roosevelt nonetheless found himself as President of the United States when McKinley was assassinated at Buffalo, NY in September, 1901.
As president, Roosevelt was finally able to bring his populist ideas to bear on the national scene. He worked hard to bridge the gulf between capital and labor, arbitrated major strikes, busted the railroad trust and supported legislation that foreshadowed the USDA meat inspection system and today's FDA.
But his policies did not initiate either a war on trusts or blind support of labor. Roosevelt felt that both Capital and Labor should be subject to the same constraints against brutalizing the public good, and supported both when they were right, and opposed both when they were wrong. His policies set a tone.
Elected by a plurality in 1904 to his own term, Roosevelt went on to add millions of acres to the national park system -- reflecting his own love for the wilderness. He continued to believe in a strong navy and a firm foreign policy -- "Speak softly and carry a big stick" -- and sent the U.S. Navy on an around-the-world demonstration cruise. His efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War resulted in his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.
His twist on the Monroe Doctrine stipulated the right of the U.S. not only to oppose European nations seeking to interfere in Western Hemisphere political affairs, as did the original Doctrine, but also to intervene in Latin American nations which were, by their actions, creating the excuse for European interference.
Roosevelt's own favorite accomplishment was the construction of the Panama Canal, begun in 1904 after complex negotiations that precipitated the revolt of the Panamanian people against their Colombian masters in order to prevent the canal being built in nearby Nicaragua. Teddy lived to see the first ship pass through the canal in 1914, though it was not formally opened until 1920, the year after his death. Its total cost was $350 million, the largest project ever undertaken by the U.S. government to that time.
True to his word, Roosevelt refused the 1908 nomination, though his support was strong. He retired from office to pursue his wilderness adventures, and to travel and lecture. He personally anointed his successor, William Howard Taft, who vowed to continue his policies.
When word caught up with him in Europe that President Taft was siding more and more often with Capital, Roosevelt became concerned. Initially noncommittal as he looked into both sides, he became disappointed with Taft's tilt to the right and, in 1912, again sought the Republican nomination for president.
Denied the nomination by a carefully controlled convention, Teddy formed his own progressive, or Bull Moose, party which advocated an even more pronounced degree of nationalism, and ran for president against both Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Predictably, he split the vote and, though he and Taft together garnered a clear majority, Wilson won the presidency in a landslide of electoral votes.
Roosevelt considered Wilson to be a wimp. As war clouds gathered in Europe and Wilson continued to hew to a position of actual and practiced neutrality, Roosevelt bitterly attacked him, but realized that he was in the minority of public opinion. In 1916, with Europe mired in World War I, Wilson was reelected on the platform that "he kept us out of the war". That was not to continue for long. In April, 1917, America went to war in Europe, now with growing public support.
Roosevelt sought to assemble a volunteer regiment for service in France, very much as he had done in Cuba in 1898. But he was unable to convince Wilson to give him a command. At home he advocated an all-out effort in the war, and reproved anyone who did not demonstrate the ultimate degree of Americanism.
The sense that Roosevelt and his supporters could be better depended upon to secure the unconditional surrender of Germany swept in a Republican congress in 1918, against the wishes of the President. Teddy's chances for a successful run at the presidency in 1920 looked good.
But by 1918, he was ill and no longer enjoyed the energy so evident through his entire career. In January, 1919, he died at Sagamore Hill.
Roosevelt was also a prolific writer, though many of his works are considered to be more reflective of his own thoughts than any deep research into his subject. His best known -- and perhaps only noteworthy -- effort was The Winning of the West (1896, 4 volumes).
The most corrupt politician in the history of the United States (watch for updates!), William Marcy "Boss" Tweed began his adult life as an apprentice chairmaker and bookkeeper in his native New York City.
In 1851 while still in his late twenties, he was elected as a city Alderman. Still holding that position, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1853. It was during his combined stint as Alderman and Congressman that he began to build a power base in New York's Tammany Hall, home of the local Democratic Party.
In 1856, no longer holding his former offices, Tweed was elected to the New York City Board of Supervisors -- a group which, paradoxically enough, was charged with rooting out corruption in government. He gathered around him other officials, notably including the mayor, willing to cut a few ethical corners in return for lined pockets, a group which became known as the Tweed Ring.
They set about using the Board as a virtual graft machine, setting up a law office through which corporations could make large "donations". City contracts were padded by as much as 85%, checks were cut to non-existent people and entities, political favors were exchanged for cash, all of which enriched the members of the Tweed Ring and enhanced their influence. By the 1860's, Tweed virtually controlled politics in both the city and the state.
Ultimately it was the freedom of the press that brought him down. Twenty years after his political career had begun, both Harper's Review and the New York Times began editorial series on Tweed's corruption. His political enemy, Samuel J. Tilden, took the opportunity to prompt concerned citizens to file a class-action suit against Tweed for recovery of the looted funds.
On October 27, 1871, Tweed was arrested and subsequently convicted on larceny and forgery charges, and sent up the river where he belonged. Although he escaped and fled to Spain, he was quickly captured when he was recognized from a political cartoon, and returned to the slammer. He died in 1878.
During his two decades of corruption, his ring is believed to have looted from both the City and the state of New York anywhere from $30 to $200 million -- as much as $4 billion in today's currency. New York City was almost forced into bankruptcy.
Tweed got off way too easily.
The Fascist movement -- named for the Roman fasces, the bundle of sticks enclosing an axe that symbolized imperial power -- was founded in Italy in 1919 by a group of militant agitators led by one Benito Mussolini.
Staunchly anti-socialist, the movement garnered support from landowners opposed to peasant solidarity groups, and from veterans generally opposed to the growing socialism of the post-World War I period. After renouncing their original republican positions, the Fascists also gained the support of Italy's king and army.
On October 27, 1922, the black-shirted Fascist army marched on Rome in a show of popular strength. King Victor Emmanuel III invited Mussolini to form a government, which he proceeded to do in the best of totalitarian, one-party traditions.
Though Il Duce's dictatorial methods eventually led to Italy's involvement with Nazi Germany and its embarrassing and devastating failures in the Second World War, in the 1920's he was successful in stabilizing the country, instituting reasonable social programs, ending friction between the Vatican and the national government and, basically, "making the trains run on time". His popularity only began to fade as he waltzed his country closer to war, first by invading Ethiopia in 1935, then with his alliances with Spain's Franco, and with Hitler.
Italian fascism came tumbling down in July, 1943 when the fickle king, now discouraged by Italy's many defeats and the Allied invasion of his country, dismissed Mussolini. Il Duce escaped into the hands of the Nazis, but was captured and shot by partisans in April, 1945.