The Most Consequential Elections in History: Theodore Roosevelt and the Election of 1904

Roosevelt expanded the power of the presidency and demonstrated the power of the "bully pulpit"

President Theodore Roosevelt.

President Theodore Roosevelt

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He took a very tough and aggressive line in foreign affairs, adopting as a motto the African proverb "Speak softly and carry a big stick." He blocked efforts by Great Britain, Italy, and Germany to meddle in South America and Central America, saying such intervention was the prerogative of the United States, reasserting the Monroe Doctrine. He favored a treaty to build a canal through the country of Colombia to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across an isthmus. The Colombian legislature rejected the treaty, and so TR supported a revolution, which created the country of Panama. Roosevelt recognized the new state and got approval from its government to build what became known as the Panama Canal.

Just before the Republican nominating convention in 1904, a rich American-born man named Perdicaris was abducted in Tangier by a bandit named Rasuli, who demanded a ransom. Roosevelt sent U.S. warships to Tangier with an ultimatum: "Perdicaris alive or Rasuli dead." The businessman was freed after the election.

The campaign of 1904, when Roosevelt sought the presidency in his own right, was a referendum on him and his policies, and he defeated Democrat Alton Parker, chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals, 7.6 million votes to 5 million. This pushed TR to go even further, since he considered his victory a sign that the country wanted him to take on big interests even more aggressively. In his exuberance, he promised not to seek another term in 1908, which he later regretted.

But the 1904 victory gave him the chance to continue reinventing the presidency as an activist institution based on his larger-than-life personality. And that's what he did for the next four years. He was more active than any chief executive before him and set the standard for future activist presidents. He was forever in motion and eager to stay in the public eye. His daughter Alice said he wanted to be "the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral."

Roosevelt mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese war, for which he won a Nobel Prize. He inspected the construction of the Panama Canal as a hands-on manager. He sent the U.S. fleet around the world to project American strength more aggressively than ever before. He continued to fight the big corporate interests, battled the railroads to regulate their rates, favored federal meat and food inspections, and created immense national parks.

Through it all, he used the presidency as a "bully pulpit" to promote his views and dominate the nation's political debate, something the most effective presidents have emulated ever since.

More from our Most Consequential Elections series:

George Washington and the Election of 1788
Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800
Andrew Jackson and the Election of 1828
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864
Woodrow Wilson and the Election of 1912
Franklin Roosevelt and the Election of 1932
Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964
Ronald Reagan and the Election of 1980