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Theodore Roosevelt: The First Conservationist President

HistoryTheodore Roosevelt: The First Conservationist President

Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for many different things, but perhaps his most important achievement was his work in the conservation movement. The creation of the national parks left a legacy that will last for centuries to come. Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th United States President, but he was also involved in local politics and had a long career in public service ( Editors). Over the course of his life, he made a large impact on the world, through his work in conservation, foreign policy, and his contributions to getting the Suez Canal built. On his way to the presidency, Roosevelt held many political offices. While in these offices it became clear that honesty and loyalty were very important to him and that he would not stop at exposing corruption and making sure that politicians were serving the people, not the other way around. This mindset of doing what was best for the common person, not the corporations, was what made Roosevelt stand up to the environment-exploiting entities when he was president and protect the wilderness. Also, without the many offices that Roosevelt held on his way to becoming President, he may have never been able to make a large impact on conservation. Roosevelt is known for his reformist policies that targeted corruption and giant corporations, when he was president and when he held political offices in New York. His “square deal” made sure that the trusts could not continue to control America ( Editors). Roosevelt was a very big reformer in the field of conservation (“Theodore Roosevelt.” Historic). He was driven by a love of the natural world and his domestic and worldwide travels (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). He saw the importance of America’s natural resources and knew that they needed to be conserved. His actions made him the first conservationist president (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Domestic”). Theodore Roosevelt was an important part of the Progressive Era with his work in conservation because of his love of the wilderness and nature, extensive career as a public servant with reformist policies, and strong belief in honesty.

Theodore Roosevelt grew up and became a prominent political figure during the Gilded Age. America became the largest economic power in the world during this time. Immigration was a very big part of the Gilded Age. Tens of millions of people were coming to the United States. Many of them were coming from places like Italy and Russia. They had to come through Ellis Island, which was an immigration processing center. These immigrants provided cheap labor for the newly created giant corporations. Huge corporations were very prominent during this time. Rockefeller, Carnegie, and others created corporations that dominated entire industries. Examples of such corporations are Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel. Corporations had the new concept of limited liability and stock which made corporations grow quickly because they could easily raise capital and not collapse because of a lawsuit. New inventions were also rapidly changing America. Some of these important inventions included electricity and light bulbs, assembly lines, the first automobiles, and the mass production of steel. In addition, sewing machines and indoor toilets that could flush had just been invented. Poverty was everywhere, especially in the cities. Many people had to live in small apartments. Corruption was also pervasive. A lot of politicians were not honest and were not acting in the best interest of their constituents. Corporations and big mining companies were buying up the wilderness and then destroying it. There was lots of logging. There were also Jim Crow laws which made life even more difficult for a lot of people, especially African-Americans, across the South. In addition, women did not have the right to vote, so mainly men were running everything.

Theodore Roosevelt’s early life set the stage for his election to political offices and his love of conservation. Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, in New York City (Cooper). His father was Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., a wealthy merchant and philanthropist. Roosevelt’s mother was Martha Bulloch Roosevelt. Their family was known as the Oyster Bay Roosevelts, as opposed to the Hyde Park Roosevelts, a related family that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was to be born into ( Editors). When Teddy Roosevelt was young, he spent a lot of his time inside his family’s house in New York City. He was a sickly child and had many illnesses such as asthma ( Editors). Roosevelt had to be homeschooled as a young child. Being privately tutored allowed him to pursue his interest in animal life and study natural science ( Editors). It is interesting how Roosevelt is well known for conserving the outdoors and wilderness, but he did not even go outside much during a lot of his childhood. This must have made him even more appreciative of the wilderness once he got into it. Roosevelt’s life as a young child laid the foundation for his interest in the natural world and public service.

Roosevelt’s life as a young adult made him begin to be interested in places outside the US and politics, and it also made him like the wilderness and the outdoors even more. Roosevelt continued to be tutored into his early adulthood. The first real school that he attended was Harvard University. The private tutoring allowed Roosevelt to continue studying the outdoors and natural sciences from the comfort of his family house ( Editors). As a teenager, Roosevelt decided that he would try to fight his sickness and build up his strength through physical exercise. He developed an exercise program that included gymnastics and weight lifting. He also went swimming, hiking, and horse riding. Roosevelt also began boxing when he entered college (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). This exposed Roosevelt to the outdoors and made him appreciate it, especially since, before, he had spent most of his life inside. As a young man, Teddy Roosevelt saw the world with his parents. He went to many places in Europe and the Middle East. He also lived in Germany for five months with a host family (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). This may have sparked Roosevelt’s interest in the world and politics without which he would not have been able to make such a big impact on conservation. 

Roosevelt’s higher education and early political offices allowed him to see that he wanted to continue to be a politician and conserve the earth. He was admitted into Harvard University in 1876 but found that science was not what he wanted to pursue as a career. He instead wanted to be a politician. His father died in his second year of college which made Roosevelt want to work harder. He graduated from Harvard in 1880 with magna cum laude (high) honors (“Theodore Roosevelt.”Contemporary). Roosevelt entered Columbia Law School in 1880, but he was too interested in politics to continue in law school. He left after one year to become a politician ( Editors). He never practiced law, so this time at law school was essentially wasted (Mahoney). It probably did give him helpful knowledge, though. When Roosevelt was in college, he met Anne Hathaway Lee, a woman who was from a powerful and famous banking family. He got married to her in 1880 (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). In 1881, Roosevelt was elected to be a member of the New York State Assembly, the lower house in the New York State legislative branch. He was a Republican (“Theodore Roosevelt.”Contemporary). Roosevelt served two terms as a Republican member of the New York State Assembly. He took office first in 1882 after being elected the preceding year and stayed for two terms until 1884 (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). Unfortunately, in 1884 Hathaway Lee died and Roosevelt in his grief resigned his office and took a break from his career (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life).  In 1886 Roosevelt married Edith Kermit Carow and they moved to Sagamore Hill, a house in Oyster Bay, New York (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). She became his most trusted political advisor (“Theodore Roosevelt.” Contemporary). Even though Roosevelt’s higher education and his early political career did not always go as he planned, it definitely was an important step in his journey to becoming the president.

Theodore Roosevelt held many offices on his way to the presidency, which gave him a lot of experience that was useful when he was the conservationist president. The next office that Roosevelt was elected to after the New York Assembly was president of the Civil Service Commission. In 1888, Roosevelt campaigned for a Republican U.S. presidential nominee, Benjamin Harrison. In return for campaigning for Harrison, Roosevelt was appointed to the Civil Service Commission in New York, which was made up of only three people. Roosevelt became the chair unofficially of the Commission (“Theodore Roosevelt.” Historic). In 1895, the mayor of New York, William Strong, who stood for reform, made Roosevelt a New York Police Commissioner (“Theodore Roosevelt.” Historic).  Roosevelt was specifically made the president of the New York City Police Board (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). Then, in 1897 President William McKinley appointed Roosevelt the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt helped with fleet movements. Once he told Commodore Dewey to move the US fleet to block the Spanish in the Philippines, in preparation for war. He was a strong supporter of a possible war against Spain and wanted it to happen (“Theodore Roosevelt.” Historic).

After the Spanish-American War, which Roosevelt championed, finally began, Roosevelt resigned his position and volunteered to be in the Army as the commander of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, an elite military unit known as the Rough Riders. In Cuba, Roosevelt earned more fame by leading the charge up San Juan Hill. Many people were injured and died which made the Rough Riders return to the US as famous war heroes. The Rough Riders got a lot of attention in America for many reasons, but one of them was certainly their leader, Roosevelt. Roosevelt really enjoyed his time in the war (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). 

Roosevelt’s growing fame as a politician and a war hero led him to be a prime Republican candidate for New York Governor in 1899. He ran against Democrat Augustus van Wyck. Roosevelt won by a small margin mainly because of the support of prominent members of the Republican Party. Roosevelt became the governor of New York and could mainly do what he wanted (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life).

A little while later, Thomas Platt, the political boss of the Republican Party, and other party leaders decided to remove Roosevelt from being governor by promoting him to be Vice President of the United States in 1900. There were numerous reasons for this removal, including the fact that Roosevelt would not take orders from the Republican Party. Roosevelt was not that interested in being Vice President but agreed because he thought it would help him become the President of the United States. The Republican Party bosses made sure that Roosevelt would be nominated as Vice President. They rigged the convention and Roosevelt knew it (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life).

Roosevelt campaigned a lot for McKinley’s reelection. He traveled to many places. When the election day finally came, McKinley and Roosevelt easily defeated the Democrat, William Jennings Bryan. Roosevelt was not too happy as vice president. He had almost no power and could do nothing. This was exactly what the Republican Party bosses wanted (“Theodore Roosevelt.”Contemporary). 

In September 1901, McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, and died shortly after. Roosevelt took McKinley’s place and was sworn in as President of the United States (“Theodore Roosevelt.” Historic). Roosevelt was now the president and had the power to begin to make a change on the nation. This is when his main conservation work began. Without the many offices that Roosevelt held on his way to becoming president, he would never have impacted conservation as much as he did. 

Theodore Roosevelt had an eventful life after serving as US President. Roosevelt left the presidency after two terms in 1908. After him, Taft, one of Roosevelt’s friends, became president, so Roosevelt was happy. Roosevelt then went on an African safari and collected lots of specimens. Then, in 1910, Roosevelt went to England for the funeral of King Edward the Seventh. In 1911 he returned to the US because he did not like how Taft was running things. He created the Bull Moose Party and ran against Taft in 1912. During his campaign, he was shot but survived because of a glasses case and a copy of his speech in his pocket. Roosevelt lost to Woodrow Wilson in 1912, a Democrat. In 1914, Roosevelt was unhappy about how Wilson was being neutral in Europe with the brewing war. He wanted to head a volunteer division in France, but Wilson stopped him from doing this. Eventually, when America entered World War One, all four of Roosevelt’s sons enlisted, and the youngest, Quentin, died in Germany. Roosevelt was very sad because of his son’s death. In 1916 he started to run again but then let Charles Evans Hughes take the Republican nomination ( Editors). Roosevelt’s heart condition and strenuous life finally caused his death on January 6, 1919. He was only 60 and died from a coronary embolism. He was buried at Young’s Memorial Cemetery ( Editors). Roosevelt’s life was certainly not the longest ever but it was very eventful.

Roosevelt’s actions throughout his long career in politics established his reputation as an honest reformer and showed that nothing could stop him from doing what he thought was right, even if other powerful people were unhappy. In the New York Assembly, he investigated corruption and got a bill passed that helped prevent corruption. This bill was originally recommended by Governor Grover Cleveland. (Mahoney). This was the beginning of his anti-corruption stance. When Roosevelt was a member of the Civil Service Commission, he worked hard at enforcing all of the Civil Service Commission laws. He also continued to speak out against corruption. This made him be at odds with people in the Republican Party, his party, because they wanted Roosevelt to stop enforcing anti-corruption and other laws and focus on getting people to join the Republican Party. Roosevelt would not agree to do this (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). This helped him conserve the environment even when his party was unhappy with his actions. Nothing could stop him from protecting millions of acres of land, even the giant corporations and party bosses. Roosevelt was very honest when he was a police commissioner. He continued to support anti-corruption laws. Roosevelt helped to make the police force less corrupt and enforced the rules strictly but fairly. He was very serious about enforcing the ban on liquor on the Sabbath. (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life).  This continued to establish his role as a rule-follower and a public servant who was committed to making the world better. Through all of his offices, Roosevelt was always a champion of honesty and was very anti-corruption. This made many people like him but did gain him some enemies in the Republican Party. As governor, Roosevelt showed that no matter how much money corporations such as insurance and public infrastructure services gave him, Roosevelt could not be influenced.  Roosevelt also did not appoint people to positions just because they were members of the Republican Party. (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). This mindset made Roosevelt be able to stand up to the large corporations who were against conservation and protect land anyway. No one could bribe him into not protecting the environment and not following his heart. Roosevelt showed throughout all his actions in politics that he would follow his morals, be honest, and do what was right for the people, not the corporations. 

Roosevelt’s love of the wilderness and his experiences in nature, especially in the American West, drove him to become a leader of the conservation movement and made him the first conservationist president. Roosevelt’s love of the wilderness and natural sciences began when he was a very young child and only increased as he got older. Roosevelt was fascinated by the wilderness and saw it as a place where people could go to relax and be with nature. Roosevelt stayed inside his family house for most of his childhood, so he enjoyed being in the the outdoors very much. ( Editors). A tragedy also increased his love of the American wilderness. In 1884, both his mother and his first wife, Anne Hathaway Lee, died within a few hours of each other. In his grief, Roosevelt fled to the Dakota Badlands and started ranching. He really enjoyed farming and he soon raised one thousand cattle. Roosevelt loved the frontier lifestyle and lived a rough life in the wilderness. He went hunting for grizzly bears and rode around on horseback. This contributed to his love of the wilderness. (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life). 

The creation of the National Park and National Forest system is the main thing that made Roosevelt such a big conservationist, but he would not have done this without his love of the American wilderness. One experience at the beginning of Roosevelt’s presidency was instrumental in creating this system; a camping trip in Yellowstone. Roosevelt asked the famous conservationist John Muir to go camping with him. The two decided to go camping for four days in 1903. The two sat around a campfire and discussed conservation and protecting places like Yosemite. Roosevelt saw how beautiful Yosemite was, so he also wanted to protect it. Muir suggested a conservation act, so Roosevelt decided to write one. This became the Antiquities Act of 1906. (Terrell). Seeing Yosemite made Roosevelt want to make sure that it would be there for later generations also. Roosevelt saw how America’s wilderness was being destroyed and its mighty animals were also being driven to extinction. He wanted to preserve America’s natural resources and improve the nation’s image and how people saw the wilderness. (National Park Service). He loved the wilderness and did not want to see it vanish and fade. Roosevelt once summarized how he felt about conservation:

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation. (National Park Service)

Roosevelt was very farsighted. He saw how the time would come when we had used up all our natural resources and destroyed our forests and wildernesses in the process. He wanted to make sure that our beautiful forests would not fade into oblivion. He loved the idea of sustainability. Roosevelt was a great conservationist because of his experience in the wilderness and his belief that it needed to be preserved. If he had not loved being in nature, he would have never fought to protect it.

Roosevelt’s actions as United States President undoubtedly were very important to the conservation movement and left an impact on the American wilderness that exists to this day: the national parks and forests. Teddy Roosevelt passed several conservation acts during his time as president which were very important for preserving the environment. In 1902, he passed the National Reclamation Act that focused on large scale irrigation projects in the American West. It set aside federal money for developing irrigation systems to wet arid lands and allow them to be farmed ( Editors). It allowed for agriculture to flourish in the west and allowed people to farm only on irrigated land. This discouraged people from trying to farm in the national parks that were not artificially irrigated. Also, industry in the west could be focused on farming instead of other environment destroying activities. The Antiquities Act of 1906 was the law that allowed for the preservation of all of America’s wildernesses and its wildlife. It was the law that allowed Teddy Roosevelt to create the National Parks. He helped to write this act and he was also the one who signed it into law (Theodore Roosevelt and the Antiquities Act of 1906). After his reelection in 1904, Roosevelt worked closely with Gifford Pinchot, the head of the US Division of Forestry and another conservationist. They moved the Forest Service from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. This gave Pinchot and the Forest Service in general more power to do what they wanted to for conservation because they had more power. Pinchot and Roosevelt worked to get rid of the local and state control over America’s natural resources. They wanted the federal government to have control, so then they could protect land all over the country. Roosevelt then used his power to create 150 new national forests which increased the amount of protected land from 42 million acres to 172 million acres. Roosevelt then made five national parks, 18 national monuments, and 51 wildlife refuges. This was very good for conservation. (Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Domestic). Roosevelt was not necessarily a preservationist which meant that he wanted to completely reserve wilderness and stop anything from happening to it. Instead, he was more of a conservationist who wanted to rationally use the wilderness in a sustainable way. He also wanted to save major forests and natural wilderness. Roosevelt wanted to make sure that America’s natural resources would be preserved for future generations. He also wanted to stop giant corporations from destroying the environment. (“Theodore Roosevelt.” Historic). Every place that he traveled, he taught people how important it was to preserve America’s great wilderness, the mountain ranges, the woodlands, and everything else. He thought that they should be places of refuge and retreat for both humans and animals. He also believed that the country was unique because of its beautiful wilderness and thought that everything that America was, including its culture, was closely intertwined with nature. (Milkis, Sidney “Theodore Roosevelt: Domestic”). This made many people think about conservation. 

Another thing that made people interested in conservation was a meeting. Roosevelt created the first National Conservation Convention in 1908. This convention was focused on getting states to understand the importance of managing natural resources and conserving them. It inspired 41 state conservation commissions to be created by 1910. These conventions made people more conscious and aware of the importance of conservation. It also led to many conservation initiatives. (“Theodore Roosevelt.” Contemporary). The many things that Roosevelt did while he was the president established his place in the history books as a great conservationist leader of the Progressive Era. 

Theodore Roosevelt left an undeniable legacy in conservation. His vision created a system, the national parks, that saved countless acres of land and wildlife. He conserved over 200 million acres of land in total through his work. Roosevelt was such a great conservationist partly because he was in a position to make a change. He was the United States President which gave him the power to achieve his dreams of protecting the wilderness. He also followed his heart, not the Republican Party bosses and the large corporations. This allowed him to save the wilderness from environmental destruction even if some people did not like it. Roosevelt used his positions in political office for good. In addition, Roosevelt was driven to protect the wilderness because of his love for it. He saw the importance of the wild and how it made America unique and great. He channeled his love of the environment into legal acts that made sure that large parts of the wilderness would survive all of the exploitation of humans. Roosevelt’s creation of the United States had repercussion far beyond North America. His actions inspired many countries around the world to create a similar system to the National Parks and conserve their beautiful, pristine, wilderness also. Hopefully, the national parks and forests that Roosevelt helped to create will survive the shortcomings of humans and will last well into the future.

Works Cited Editors. “Theodore Roosevelt Biography.” The website, A&E Television Networks, 16 Oct. 2019, Accessed 11 May 2020.

Cooper, John Milton. “Theodore Roosevelt.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 17 Apr. 2020, Accessed 11 May 2020. Editors. “Theodore Roosevelt.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 28 Feb. 2020, Accessed 11 May 2020.

MAHONEY, DENNIS J. “Theodore Roosevelt.” Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 11 May 2020.

Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Domestic Affairs.” University of Virginia, Rector and Visitors of the U of Virginia, 2019, Accessed 29 May 2020.

Milkis, Sidney. “Theodore Roosevelt: Life Before The Presidency.” University of Virginia, Rector and Visitors of the U of Virginia, 2019, Accessed 19 May 2020. 

National Park Service. “Theodore Roosevelt and Conservation.” The National Park Service Website, National Park Service, 16 Nov. 2017, Accessed 14 May 2020.

Terrell, Ellen. “Roosevelt, Muir, and The Camping Trip.” Library of Congress, 11 Aug. 2016, Accessed 14 May 2020.

“Theodore Roosevelt.” Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, vol. 3, Gale, 1998. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 11 May 2020.

“Theodore Roosevelt.” Historic World Leaders, edited by Anne Commire, Gale, 1994. Gale in Context: Biography, Accessed 11 May 2020.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Antiquities Act of 1906: Timely Action and an Enduring Legacy. Francis McManamon. Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal. XXXII (3): 24-38. 2011 ( tDAR id: 391540) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8XG9S1J

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