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.
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