History Stories

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, is an outsized figure in American politics. He became president in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, and the brash and independent Roosevelt quickly remade the presidency in his own image. More than a century later, American politics and culture still bear the imprint of his legacy.

1. He Was America’s First Cowboy President

Young Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt at 25, wearing a cowboy outfit from his time working in the Dakotas, 1883.

Born and raised in New York City as an asthmatic and sickly youth, Roosevelt became enamored with stories of frontier adventure. In his 20s, he went on a hunting trip in the Dakota Territory and ending up buying land and a ranch in what would become North Dakota. Through his hunting exploits and self-promoted heroics at the Battle of San Juan Hill, Roosevelt cultivated an image of himself as an avid outdoorsman and cowboy soldier.

Other American presidents embraced Roosevelt’s brand of rugged American manliness. President Lyndon Johnson, a towering Texan, loved to be photographed in his Stetson hat while entertaining heads of state on his LBJ Ranch. President Ronald Reagan, whose Secret Service nickname was “Rawhide,” took daily morning horseback rides on Rancho El Cielo, his “Western White House” in California. And President George W. Bush spent a record 490 days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he was photographed clearing brush and wrangling animals in his cowboy hat.

READ MORE: How Teddy Roosevelt Crafted an Image of American Manliness

2. He Was the First US President to Win a Nobel Peace Prize

Although Roosevelt was famously aggressive in his foreign policy (he famously said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”), he also proved to be a skilled diplomat. When Russia went to war with Japan in 1904, Roosevelt offered his services as an arbitrator. After initial resistance, both sides came to the bargaining table in New Hampshire in 1905, where Roosevelt brokered the peace settlement that won him the Nobel Prize.

When Germany and France almost went to war over the political division of Morocco, Roosevelt stepped in again and brokered an agreement that saved face for each nation involved. Some historians believe the 1906 deal delayed the outbreak of World War I for another decade.

3. He Passed Laws for Clean Meat

Following the publication of Upton Sinclair’s best-seller “The Jungle,” which fictionalized the horrors of the meatpacking industry, including scenes of immigrant workers falling into boiling vats of lard, Roosevelt called for a report on the state of food safety in America.

When word got back of disgusting conditions at meatpacking plants—including wildly unsanitary butchering facilities and near-rotten meat labeled as fresh—Roosevelt pressured Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. Both laid the groundwork for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1930.

READ MORE: 7 Things You May Not Know About “The Jungle”

4. He Spared a Bear and Inspired the Teddy Bear

Theodore Roosevelt and the teddy bear

A 1950s teddy bear sitting with its tag describing the origin of the toy and US president Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1902, Roosevelt was invited on a bear-hunting trip to Mississippi, but struck out. Feeling bad for the president, one of his assistants cornered an older black bear with dogs and tied it to a tree for Roosevelt to shoot. The president refused, seeing it as terribly unsportsmanlike.

The story was picked up by the press and immortalized in a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman with the caption, “Drawing the line in Mississippi.” A candy store owner in New York named Morris Michtom, who also made stuffed animals with his wife, decided to dedicate a black bear doll to the president named “Teddy’s Bear.”

With Roosevelt’s blessing, Michtom mass-produced the teddy bear and sold it worldwide, using its success to found the Ideal Toy Company.

READ MORE: Who Invented the Teddy Bear?

5. He Helped Save Football

Teddy Roosevelt, like other Ivy League elite, loved the new game of American football, but he also worried about the sport’s unchecked violence. Played without pads or helmets, football was a dangerous, even deadly game at the turn of the 20th century. From 1900 to October 1905, 45 football players died from on-field injuries including broken necks, concussions and internal bleeding.

Following the tragic death in November 1905 of Union College footballer Harold Moore, high-profile colleges like Columbia, Duke and Northwestern suspended their football programs, and it looked like Harvard, Roosevelt’s alma mater, would follow suit.

Roosevelt called a White House meeting in December 1905 with football coaches and league officials to discuss rule changes that could save the game from extinction. While Roosevelt himself didn’t come up with the new rules, he was a keen supporter of the game-changing reforms, which included the introduction of the forward pass, and calling a play dead when a player was tackled instead of allowing pile-on scrums, where most of the injuries occurred.

READ MORE: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

6. He Became an Anti-Corporate Crusader

A century before progressive politicians railed against corporate greed and unfair competition, Teddy Roosevelt was busting up monopolies. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed 10 years before Roosevelt entered the White House, but he became the first to use the Justice Department to break apart a big-time monopoly.

In 1904, the Supreme Court ruled that the Northern Securities Corporation, a railroad monopoly sued by Roosevelt, was unfairly colluding to fix prices and had to be dismantled. Roosevelt’s administration also created the Bureau of Corporations, a financial watchdog agency that was the predecessor of today’s Federal Trade Commission.

7. He Championed Conservation

President Theodore Roosevelt's western tour, a speech at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, 1903.

President Theodore Roosevelt's western tour, a speech at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, 1903.

A passionate outdoorsman, hunter and rancher, Roosevelt was a vocal and aggressive advocate for land and nature conservation. During his presidency alone, Roosevelt protected 230 million acres of public land, which included the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and the unveiling of five new National Parks.

Not only did Roosevelt take action during his seven-year presidency to protect iconic American landmarks like the Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon, but he passed the American Antiquities Act of 1906 that gave future presidents sprawling powers to safeguard important natural and cultural sites as national monuments. 

READ MORE: Teddy Roosevelt makes the Grand Canyon a National Monument

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