On this day in 1858, future President Theodore Roosevelt is born in New York City to a wealthy family. Roosevelt was home-schooled and then attended Harvard University, graduating in 1880. He served in the New York state legislature from 1881 to 1884.
In 1880, Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee. The couple had a daughter, Alice, on February 12, 1884. Two days after his daughter’s birth, tragedy struck: Both Roosevelt’s wife and his mother died from illness. The deaths so devastated Roosevelt that he ordered those around him not to mention his wife’s name. Burdened by grief, he abandoned politics, left the infant Alice with his sister Bamie and struck out for the Dakota territories at the end of 1884. While in the Dakotas, he raised cattle and acted as the local lawman. He also found time to indulge his passion for reading and writing history books. After a blizzard wiped out his prized herd of cattle in 1885, Roosevelt returned to eastern society and politics. In 1886, he married Edith Carow and the new couple went on to have five children.
Roosevelt served as U.S. Civil Service commissioner from 1885 to 1889 in Washington, D.C., and then as New York City’s police commissioner from 1895 to 1897. President William McKinley chose Roosevelt as assistant secretary of the Navy later that year. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt signed up for cavalry service, leading a pivotal battle at San Juan Heights in Cuba. His exemplary leadership in the war contributed to his successful campaign to become New York’s governor in late 1898, an office he held until 1900 when the Republican Party nominated him to be William McKinley’s vice-presidential running mate. The campaign was successful, but President McKinley was shot by an assassin less than a year into this second term, on September 12, 1901. Two days later, McKinley died from his wounds and Roosevelt began the first of his two terms in the White House.
Roosevelt, the first president of the 20th century, is also seen by many as the nation’s first modern president. He was the first to recognize the potential impact of the fledgling motion picture industry on the presidency, encouraging filmmakers to document his official duties and trips to Africa and Panama. He purposely played directly to the camera with huge gestures and thundering speeches. His presidency is perhaps best known, however, for strict federal regulation of industries and his passion for environmental conservation. Roosevelt’s vigorous enforcement of the Sherman Anti-trust Act resulted in the trust-busting of powerful railroad monopolies. In foreign affairs, he pursued increased American diplomatic involvement in Latin America and the construction of the Panama Canal—all according to his trademark motto “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In 1906, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace treaty between Russia and Japan, becoming the first American ever to win a Nobel Prize in any category.
Prior to becoming America’s first conservation-minded president, Roosevelt had indulged his passion for preservation as president of the American Historical Association and led scientific expeditions to South America and Africa. Once in the White House, he initiated more responsible federal water management and land-use policies with the 1902 Newlands Act. In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities, giving the president the power to officially declare natural and historic sites situated on government land as national monuments. During an age when the environment began to show strain from industrial progress and settlement, Roosevelt assigned national-monument status to a record 18 natural sites. During a visit to the Grand Canyon in 1903, Roosevelt issued this seemingly prophetic statement, “the conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life.”
Roosevelt reluctantly left office in 1909 after serving two terms. On October 11, 1910, he became the first (former) president to fly in an airplane. Roosevelt ran unsuccessfully for a third term as a Progressive candidate in 1912, but lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. During that campaign Roosevelt was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin, but recovered and returned to a life of travel and prolific writing. He published no less than 40 books in his lifetime, on subjects as varied as naval history and nature.
The larger-than-life Roosevelt died quietly in his sleep on January 6, 1919, from a coronary embolism. His popularity was so great that he was immortalized along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in the carvings on Mount Rushmore. Roosevelt’s face was the last to be completed, in 1939.