In the first week of September 1901, President McKinley was killed
by an anarchist in Buffalo. The young man who shot him was rather
weak-minded, and had been led to believe, by the speeches and
writings of others, craftier and wickeder than himself, that he
could help the poor and unfortunate by murdering the President.
This he treacherously did while shaking hands with him.
One of the leaders of the poisonous brood who had made this young
man believe such villainous nonsense was a foreign woman named
Emma Goldman, who for twenty or thirty years went up and down the
land, trying to overthrow the law and government, yet always
calling for the protection of both when she was in danger. The
American Government tolerated this mischiefmaker until 1919, when
it properly sent her, and others of her stripe, back to their own
President McKinley, who was the gentlest and kindest of men, did
not die immediately from the bullet wound, but lingered for about
a week. Vice-President Roosevelt joined him in Buffalo, and came
to believe, from the reports of the doctors, that the President
would get well. So he returned to his family who were in the
Adirondacks. A few days later, while Mr. Roosevelt was mountain-
climbing, a message came that the President was worse and that the
Vice-President must come at once to Buffalo. He drove fifty miles
by night, in a buckboard down the mountain roads, took a special
train, and arrived in Buffalo the next afternoon.
Mr. McKinley was dead, and Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of
office as President. He was under forty-three years of age, the
youngest man who had ever become President.
It is important to note his first act. It was to insist that all
of Mr. McKinley's Cabinet remain in office. Thus he secured for
the continued service of the Nation, some of its ablest men: Mr.
Hay, one of the most accomplished Secretaries of State we have
ever had, and Mr. Root, Secretary of War, and afterwards Secretary
of State, whose highly trained legal mind placed him at the head
of his profession.
A test of a great man, as well as a test of a modest man, in the
true sense, is whether he is willing to have other able and
eminent men around him as his assistants and fellow-workers. The
most remarkable instances of this among our Presidents were
Washington and Lincoln. The latter appointed men not because they
admired him, or were personally agreeable to him; indeed some of
his strongest and bitterest antagonists were put in his Cabinet,
because he knew that they could well serve the country.
Mr. McKinley had chosen excellent Cabinet officers, and these Mr.
Roosevelt kept in office, promoting them and appointing other men
of high ability to other offices as the need arose. He did not
care to shine as a great man among a group of second-rate persons;
he preferred to be chief among his peers, the leader of the
strongest and most sagacious of his time.
In saying this, I do not mean to compare Roosevelt with Washington
or Lincoln or any of the noble figures of the past. Such
comparisons are made too often; every President for fifty years
has been acclaimed by his admirers as "the greatest since
Lincoln," or "as great as Lincoln." This is both foolish and
useless. There has been no character in our land like Lincoln; he
stands alone. What we can say of Mr. Roosevelt, now, is that he
was admired and beloved by millions of his fellow-countrymen while
he lived; that his was an extraordinary and entirely different
character from that of any of our Presidents; and that upon his
death thousands who had opposed him and bitterly hated him but a
few years before, were altering their opinion and speaking of him
in admiration--with more than the mere respect which custom pays
to the dead. This has gone on, and other unusual signs have been
given of the world's esteem for him. So much we can say; and leave
the determination of his place in our history for a later time
One thing which many people feared when Roosevelt became President
was that he would get the country into a war. They thought he
liked war for its own sake. Men said: "Oh! this Roosevelt is such
a rash, impulsive fellow! He will have us in a war in a few
months!" The exact opposite was the truth. He kept our country and
our flag respected throughout the world; he avoided two possible
wars; he helped end a foreign war; we lived at peace. Of him it
can truly be said: he kept us out of war, and he kept us in the
paths of honor.
He preached the doctrine of the square deal.
"A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country, is
good enough to be given a square deal afterward. More than that no
man is entitled to, and less than that no man shall have."
[Footnote: Springfield, Ill., July 4, 1503. Thayer, p. 212.]
He did not seek help and rewards from the rich by enabling them to
prey upon the poor; neither did he seek the votes and applause of
the poor by cheap and unjust attacks upon the rich. To the people
who expect a public man to lean unfairly to one side or the other;
who cannot understand any different way of acting, he was a
"Oh! we have got him sized up!" they would say, "he is for the
labor unions against the capitalist!" and in a few months they
would be puzzled again: "No; he is for Wall Street and he is down
on the poor laboring man."
For a long time they could not get it into their heads that he was
for the honest man, whether laboring man or capitalist, and
against the dishonest man, whether laboring man or capitalist.
"While I am President the doors of the White House will open as
easily for the labor leader as for the capitalist,--and no
easier." [Footnote: Hagedorn, p. 242. ]
Many Presidents might have said the first part of that sentence.
Few of them would have added the last three words.
He annoyed many people in the South by inviting a very able and
eminent Negro, Booker T. Washington, to eat luncheon with him.
According to the curious way of thinking on this subject, Mr.
Washington who had been good enough to eat dinner at the table of
the Queen of England, was not good enough to eat at the White
House. Shortly after being violently denounced for being too
polite to a Negro, he was still more violently denounced for being
too harsh to Negroes. He discharged from the Army some riotous and
disorderly Negro soldiers. Persons with small natures had attacked
him for showing courtesy to a distinguished man; other persons
with equally small natures now attacked him for acting justly
towards mutinous soldiers.
What did he do while he was President? What laws were passed by
Congress, which he advocated or urged, and which he approved by
his signature? Here are some of them as they are given by Mr.
Washburn, [Footnote: Washburn, "Theodore Roosevelt," p. 128.] a
Congressman of that time:
The Elkins Anti-Rebate Law, to end unjust business dealings of the
The creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor.
The law for building the Panama Canal.
The laws to prevent impure and poisonous food being sold under
false labels; and the law to establish the proper inspection of
The creation of the Bureau of Immigration.
The law limiting the working hours of employees and protecting
them in case of injury in their occupations.
The law against child-labor in the District of Columbia.
The reformation of the Consular Service.
The law to stop corporations from giving great sums of money for
political purposes at election time.
You will notice that these were not laws to enable a few rich men
to get richer still at the expense of the many; neither were they
designed to help dishonest labor leaders to plunder the employers.
They were aimed to bring about justice between man and man, to
protect the weak.
There was, when Mr. Roosevelt became President, a long standing
dispute between this country and England and Canada about the
boundary of Alaska. This was quickly settled by arbitration; our
rights were secured; and all possible causes of war were removed.
The South American country, Colombia, made an attempt to block the
building of the Panama Canal. This canal had been planned to run
through the State of Panama, which was part of the Republic of
Colombia. It was a part of that country, however, separated by
fifteen days' journey from the capital city, Bogota, and so
separated in friendship from the rest of the country that it had
made over fifty attempts in fifty years to revolt and gain
independence. Our State Department, through Mr. Hay, had come to
an understanding with the Minister from Colombia as to the canal,
and the amount we were to pay Colombia for the privilege of
building this important waterway, for the benefit of the whole
But the Colombian Government at that time were a slippery lot,--
dealing with them, said President Roosevelt, "was like trying to
nail currant jelly to a wall." It struck them that they would do
well to squeeze more money yet out of Uncle Sam, and that they
might by twisting and turning, get forty million dollars as easily
as ten millions. So they delayed and quibbled.
In the meantime, the people of Panama, not wishing to lose the
advantage of the canal, and desiring greatly to take any
opportunity to free themselves from the Colombians who had
plundered them for years, declared a revolution, which took place
without bloodshed. Colombian troops, coming to try to reconquer
Panama, were forbidden to land by our ships, acting under
President Roosevelt's orders. We were under treaty agreement to
preserve order on the Isthmus. Our Government recognized the new
Republic of Panama, an act which was promptly followed by all the
nations of the earth. We then opened negotiations with Panama,
paid the money to her, and built the Canal.
Of course the politicians in Colombia howled with rage. A tricky
horse-dealer, who has a horse which he has abused for years, but
desires to sell to a customer for four times its value, would be
angry if the horse ran away, and he lost not only the animal, but
also his chances of swindling the customer. So with the
Colombians. Some people in this country took up their cry, and
professed to feel great sorrow for Colombia. It was noticed,
however, that this sorrow seemed to afflict most pitifully the
people who were strongest in their opposition to Mr. Roosevelt,
and this caused a suspicion that their pretended horror at the act
of our Government was not so much based upon any knowledge of the
facts, as upon a readiness to think evil of the President. Others
who joined in an expression of grief at the time, and later
attempted to bolster up Colombia's claims for damages, belonged to
that class referred to in connection with the sinking of the
Maine, who always think the best of any foreign country and
suspect the worst of their own.
The fact that other countries instantly recognized Panama, and
that President Roosevelt's action was completely and emphatically
endorsed by Secretary Hay, proved that the Panama incident was an
example of the promptness, wisdom and courage in the conduct of
foreign relations which leads alike to justice and the
satisfactory settlement of difficult problems. For not the
bitterest opponent of Mr. Roosevelt's administration ever dared to
cast a shadow of doubt upon the honesty of Secretary Hay. The
canal is now built, thanks in large part to President Roosevelt,
and we have had a chance to see that wise decisions may often be
reached swiftly; whereas dawdling, hesitation and timidity, which
are sometimes mistaken for statesmanship, are more than apt to
end, not only in general injustice, but in practical failure.
The war between Russia and Japan took place during President
Roosevelt's term of office. After it had been going on over a
year, and Japan had won victories by land and sea, the President
asked both countries to open negotiations for peace. He continued
to exert strong influence in every quarter to help bring the two
enemies to an agreement. Only since his death has it become
generally known how hard he worked to this end. A peace conference
was held at Kittery Navy Yard in Maine, and a treaty was signed
which ended the war.
For his action in this, President Roosevelt was the first American
to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. This was a sad reverse to the
predictions of those who had been so sure that he was longing to
start wars, instead of end them. Indeed, men who prophesied evil
about Mr. Roosevelt, as well as those who tried to catch him in
traps, had a most disappointing experience. The Nobel Prize
consisted of a diploma, and an award in money of $40,000. This he
tried to devote to helping the cause of peace between capital and
labor in America. When Congress failed to take the needed action
to apply his money for this purpose, it was returned to him.
During the Great War he gave all of it to different relief
organizations, like the Red Cross, and other societies for helping
The President assembled the most powerful fleet we had ever had
together, sixteen battleships, with destroyers, and sent them on a
cruise around the world. This was bitterly opposed at the time.
Public men and newspapers predicted that the fleet could never
make the voyage, or that even if it could, its effect would be to
cause war with some other nation. The most emphatic predictions
were made by a famous newspaper that the entrance of the fleet
into the Pacific Ocean would be the signal for a declaration of
war upon us by a foreign power. Nothing of the sort happened. The
cruise attracted to the American navy the admiration of the world;
it immensely increased the usefulness of the Navy itself by the
experience it gave the officers and men; and it served warning
upon anybody who needed it (and some folk did need it) that
America was not a country of dollar-chasing Yankees, rich and
helpless, but that it had the ability to defend itself.
This was an illustration of Roosevelt's use of the old saying:
"Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." When he
first repeated this, it was seized upon by the newspapers for its
amusing quality, and he was henceforth pictured as carrying a
tremendous bludgeon, of the sort which giants usually bore in the
tale of "Jack the Giant Killer." Timid folk thought that it proved
their worst fears about his fondness for a fight. They failed to
notice the "Speak softly" part of the saying. It was only a vivid
way of advising his countrymen to be quiet and polite in their
dealings with other nations, but not to let America become
defenseless. What hasty and shallow critics denounced as the
threat of a bully, proved in practice to be the sagacious advice
of a statesman, whose promise when he took office, to preserve the
peace and honor of his beloved country, was kept faithfully and
And he was able to keep the peace, to fill the office of President
for seven years without having a shot fired by our forces, because
he made it clear that this country would not submit to wrong,
would not argue or bicker with foreign trespassers, kidnappers,
highwaymen or murderers, but would promptly fight them. He did not
fill the air with beautiful words about his love of peace; but we
had peace. For as he knew perfectly well, there were countries,
like Canada, with which we could live at peace for a hundred years
and more, without needing forts or guns between them and us,
because we think alike on most subjects, and respect each other's
And there were other countries, Germany in particular, against
whom all her neighbors have to live armed to the teeth, and in
deadly fear, because the Germans respect nothing on earth except
force. To argue or plead with the Germans, as he well knew, was
not only a waste of time, it was worse: it was a direct invitation
to war. Because since 1870 the Germans think that any country
which professes to love peace, any country whose statesmen utter
noble thoughts about peace, is simply a cowardly country, bent on
making money, and afraid to fight. So when,--during Roosevelt's
administration, the biggest swaggering "gun-man" of the world, the
Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, made a threat against the peace of
America, Roosevelt no more read him pretty lectures about his love
of peace, than he would have recited poetry to that other gun-man
in the hotel in Dakota years before. He simply told the Kaiser in
a few words, just what would happen if Germany didn't drop it. It
was so quietly done that nobody knew anything at all about it
until years afterward. There was no delay; there was no endless
note-writing; there was no blustering; the Kaiser climbed down;
and there was no war.
This, I am inclined to think, was one of the most important events
of Roosevelt's seven years in the White House. If we wish America
to live henceforth in peace and in honor, there is no incident of
the past thirty years which should be studied by every American
with more care. Germany began her attack on the world long before
1914. She bullied here, and she schemed and plotted there, but she
was at work for years. In 1898 she tried to range the countries of
Europe against us, as we went to war with Spain. England stood our
friend and kept her off. Germany sent a fleet meddling into Manila
Harbor to annoy and threaten Admiral Dewey. He refused to be
frightened by them however and as an English squadron which was
also there played the part of a good friend, the German admiral
had his trip for nothing.
Later, about a year after Mr. Roosevelt became President, the
German Kaiser discovered a way, as he thought, to grab some
territory in South America. Our Monroe Doctrine, which insures
peace in the Western Hemisphere, by forbidding European nations to
seize land here, was an obstacle to the Kaiser. He disliked it.
But taking as pretext the fact that some people in Venezuela owed
money to various Europeans, including Germans, he induced England
and Italy to join in sending a fleet for a blockade of the
Venezuelan coast. The English and Italians agreed, before long, to
arbitrate their difficulty with Venezuela, and moreover they had
no intention of seizing land. The German plan was quite different.
They threatened to bombard Venezuelan towns, and we know enough
now of their methods to say that they were hoping for something
which might serve as an excuse for landing troops and taking
possession of towns and territory. This was in defiance of our
Monroe Doctrine; it aimed at setting up an Emperor's colonies in
South America, and putting the peace of both South and North
America into danger. Mr. Roosevelt did not mean to allow it. But
consider the situation. Germany was the foremost military power of
the world. Her army was almost the greatest; probably the best
trained and equipped. Ours was one of the smallest. Germany was
not engaged in difficulties elsewhere. She faced us across no
barriers but the sea. No great French and British armies held the
lines against her, as they did in later years when once more she
threatened America. No mighty British fleet held the seas and kept
the German Navy cooped up where it could do no harm,--except to
such merchant ships, passenger steamers and hospital boats as it
could strike from under the water. We faced Germany alone. But we
had two means of defense. One of them was Admiral Dewey and his
ships. The first of them, however, and the only one needed, was
the cool-headed and brave-hearted man in the White House.
He told the German Ambassador, quietly and without bluster, that
unless the Kaiser agreed to arbitrate his quarrel with Venezuela,
and unless he agreed within a short time, ten days or less,
Admiral Dewey would be ordered to Venezuela to protect it against
a German attack. The German ambassador said that, of course, as
the All Highest Kaiser had refused once before to arbitrate, there
could be nothing done about it. All Highests do not arbitrate.
People simply have to step aside.
President Roosevelt informed the German Ambassador that this meant
war. A few days later when the German Ambassador was again at the
White House, the President asked if the Kaiser had changed his
mind. The Ambassador seemed to think that it was a joke. The
Kaiser change his mind at the bidding of a Yankee President! It
was almost funny!
"All right," said President Roosevelt, "I can change my mind.
Admiral Dewey will not even wait until Tuesday to start for
Venezuela. He will go on Monday. If you are cabling to Berlin,
please tell them that."
The pompous Ambassador was much flustered. He hurried away, but
returned in about a day and a half, still out of breath.
"Mr. President," he said, "His Imperial Majesty the Emperor has
agreed to arbitrate with Venezuela."
So there was no delay, no long and distressing argument; and there
was no war. The President could do this because he knew his
countrymen; he knew that they were not cowards. He knew they never
had failed to back up their leader in the White House. He knew
that no President need worry about loyalty when he tells America
that a foreign enemy is making threats. He had seen his courageous
predecessor, Grover Cleveland, rouse America, as one man, over
another Venezuelan incident, a dozen or more years before. And he
knew that the only occasion when America had ever seemed about to
fall into doubt and hesitation in time of danger, was when that
doubt and hesitation began in the White House,--in the
administration of Buchanan, before the Civil War. America will
always support her President, if war threatens,--but America
expects him to show leadership. Timidity in the leader will make
timidity in the nation.
So the Kaiser changed his mind and gave in,--why? Because he knew
that there was a President in the White House whose words were
easy to understand; they did not have to be interpreted nor
explained. And moreover, when these words were uttered, the
President would make them good, every one.