The stakes in this year's presidential campaign are high. But that's nothing new. There have been many other pivotal presidential elections in our history, some that set an entirely new course for the United States and a few that were crucial to the very survival of the republic. To put the current campaign in perspective, U.S. News's White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, author of four books on the presidency, examines the 10 most consequential elections in American history—the races that produced the biggest change and had the most lasting impact. An installment of this 10-part series will run on the U.S. News website each Wednesday through September. This is the sixth in the series.
In early afternoon of Friday, Sept. 13, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt and a few friends were hiking down from the summit of Mount Marcy near Albany, N.Y., when a guide suddenly appeared, bearing bad news. President William McKinley, who had been recuperating in Buffalo, N.Y., from an assassination attempt on September 6, had taken a turn for the worst. "The president appears to be dying," said the message from Secretary of War Elihu Root, "and members of the Cabinet in Buffalo think that you should lose no time in coming."
Roosevelt, a Republican who had taken office as McKinley's vice president earlier that year, raced in a buckboard 35 miles to the nearest railroad. As he boarded his train before dawn, he was told that McKinley was dead. Arriving in Buffalo that afternoon, Roosevelt, 40, took the oath of office and became the youngest president in American history. His brand of activism, vigor, and decisiveness has served as a paradigm for many of his successors, and he is consistently rated by historians as one of America's greatest leaders.
Roosevelt, a burly outdoorsman with a flair for the dramatic, came from a rich New York family but was not a man of leisure. He traveled widely, hunted big game, rode horses, boxed, hiked, wrote books, and studied history and biology. He served as assistant secretary of the Navy under McKinley but left his job to volunteer for the Spanish-American War in Cuba. He led the Rough Riders, a cavalry unit, up San Juan Hill in a celebrated battle and returned a hero.
A Republican, he was elected governor of New York in 1898 as a reformer and he quickly alienated the party bosses with his anticorruption campaigns. Seeking to get him out of their hair, those bosses arranged for him to be McKinley's vice presidential running mate in 1900. They believed he would be lost in obscurity in that weak and frustrating office. But McKinley's death in 1901 made Roosevelt the most powerful man in America.
He redefined the office, taking on abuses such as the vastly powerful corporate trusts that were trying to dominate finance and industry across the country. He took it as an affront that the trusts were abusing their power and only a few months after taking office declared war on the "malefactors of great wealth" and the captains of industry, including J.P. Morgan, who was building a railroad monopoly in the Northwest. Marshaling public support, TR campaigned across the country, arguing that the rich were consolidating their wealth and the poor were getting poorer. Americans backed him overwhelmingly.
"He envisioned his role as head of the federal government as that of a disinterested umpire, mediating disputes between two organized minorities on behalf of an impacted but unorganized majority," writes historian Alvin Felzenberg in The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't). "Roosevelt's sense of what was right in both domestic and international affairs emanated less from a consistent set of principles than from his confidence in his ability to discern."
For his part, Roosevelt set forth his philosophy of government and of life in 1906: "Much can been done by wise legislation and by resolute enforcement of the law. But still more must be done by steady training of the individual citizen, in conscience and character." He sought to lead by example, underscoring his commitment to "the strenuous life"—the constant pursuit of excellence, activism, and honor, both publicly and privately.