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Column: A Republican to remember

Posted: March 15, 2018 3:37 p.m.
Updated: March 16, 2018 1:00 a.m.

In the progressive spirit that marked the Republican Party for more than a hundred years from Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to Dwight Eisenhower’s Federal highway program, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858 -1919) created the U.S. Forest Service, took our navy from fifth place to second, and was the first to sound the alarm about corporate takeover of the government. He was the force behind the Panama Canal, the largest engineering project in history. He passed The Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and The Pure Food and Drug Act. He sent the Great White Fleet on a world tour to demonstrate American power and negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, for which he won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. He created five national parks, 18 national monuments, and under Gifford Pinchot, 150 National Forests, four big game refuges, 51 bird sanctuaries, and laws for the protection of wild life.

Teddy Roosevelt came from seven generations of prosperity on both sides in a city where in one neighborhood 7,000 people were living in cellars, most of which flooded. Most tenements had no toilets or plumbing. In 1858, two-thirds of the deaths in the city were children under 5. By 1900, life expectancy in New York was 45 and only 3 percent of Americans had graduated from high school. Roosevelt’s father, Theodore Sr., a progressive Republican himself, set the bar. With friends, he established the Children’s Aid Society that provided 100,000 homeless children with new homes in the Midwest. He helped start the New York Orthopedic Dispensary and Hospital for children deformed by spinal disease. He helped found the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the charter for the Museum of Natural History was approved in the Roosevelt home in 1869 when Teddy was 10.

Roosevelt’s first book, “The Naval War of 1812,” published at 23, established him as a serious historian; it remains the standard. Biographer Edmund Morris states that Roosevelt read some 20,000 books and wrote 15. With the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson, he was our greatest public intellectual.

As president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners, Roosevelt reformed the notorious police department. Jacob Riis, author of “How the Other Half Lives,” about the city’s millions of poor, wrote about him: “For the first time a moral purpose came into the street. In the light of it everything was transformed.”

In 1897, President Mc-Kinley appointed Roosevelt as assistant secretary of the Navy. After the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor, Roosevelt ordered the Navy to prepare for war and formed the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, “The Rough Riders.” A war hero, he was elected Governor of New York and rooted out so much corruption that party bosses forced him on McKinley as a running mate in the 1900 election. Four days after his landslide victory, McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt, at 42, became the youngest President in history. He was proud to be half-Southern. He imagined the South as a place of heroes, and that vision sustained him.

In 1902, with 147,000 coal miners on strike, Roosevelt wrote, “The big coal operators refused to consider that the public had any rights in the matter. The owners were good men who were merely taking the extreme individualistic view of the rights of property.” Setting up a commission that resulted in workers getting more pay for fewer hours, Roosevelt’s fundamental loyalty was neither to management or to labor, but to the community. He believed the labor question was the most pressing question of the oncoming century: “No straightforward man can believe and no fearless man will assert that a trade union is always right, but the organization of labor into trade unions and federations is one of the greatest possible agencies in the attainment of a true political democracy in the United States, a fact that many well-intentioned people even today do not understand.” Of the Constitution, he said, “The Constitution was made for the people and not the people for the Constitution.”

In 1912, he founded the Progressive Party and ran for a third term. His platform: women’s suffrage; primary elections; direct election of Senators; farm relief; workers comp; a federal securities commission; the eight-hour workday; a minimum wage law for women; social insurance for the elderly, the unemployed, and the disabled -- and National Health Service. He lost the election.

In January 1919, when Roosevelt died at 60, Historian Henry Adams proclaimed, “Roosevelt, more than any other living man.... showed the quality that mediaeval theology assigned to God -- he was pure act.”


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