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Politics in The Spanish-American War

Young Teddy

Born in New York in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt was a small and frail child. Bullied for much of his youth, he became obsessed with physical fitness, strength, and "manliness." As a teen, he lifted weights and practiced boxing. As a young man studying at Harvard he joined a fraternity, a rowing club, and competed in several boxing matches. Still, upon completing college, doctors advised him to limit his physical activity and choose a more sedentary lifestyle. But it was not in Roosevelt's nature to take such advice. By the age of 26 he had moved to the Dakota Territory to become a rancher, a hunter, and a deputy sheriff.

A Man of Letters and a Man of Arms

Not long after pursuing his dreams in the West, Roosevelt returned to New York to fulfill another. As an avid reader with a tremendous love for history and politics, Roosevelt sought the life of a civil servant. First, he ran for mayor of New York City, but lost. In the following presidential election he campaigned for the Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison. In 1895, Roosevelt returned to his work as a lawman and became president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners, but just two years later he accepted a position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, an exciting role for a man fascinated by the military. Upon declaration of war against Spain in 1898, Roosevelt found himself itching for frontline experiences. He resigned from his post in the Navy Department and proceeded to organize a volunteer regiment of young men willing to aid the fight in Cuba. As Colonel of the "Rough Riders," Roosevelt took up arms and headed off to war.

The Rough Riders

In Rough Riders, a testimonial sketch of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt fashioned himself a "natural leader" of the regiment, a man among often-unruly volunteer soldiers. He successfully harnessed the passions of his motley group, he wrote, to form a cohesive, organized unit. Imagining himself carrying on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, he assembled and commanded a distinctly "American" force, one uniting Ivy Leaguers with miners, cowboys with Native Americans, and sons of Confederate veterans with African Americans.

Upon arrival in Daiquari, Cuba in the summer of 1898, Roosevelt wrote, he and his Rough Riders struck fear in the hearts of the Spanish. "[The Spaniards] had fled even before the ships began shelling." Cuban insurgents cowered too, he recalled, as they shirked the firing line and were of "no use in serious fighting."25 Roosevelt claimed that without Cuban soldiers he was forced to prepare each Rough Rider to shoulder the burden of battle, to fulfill the "full duty" of an American no matter the risk. This is the context, according to Roosevelt's testimony, within which United States troops delivered the assault against Spanish fortifications in Santiago, effectively ending the war against Spain and liberating Cuba. Under the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the war, signed in December of 1898, Spain granted independence to Cuba. After only a few weeks on the frontlines—a "splendid little war"—Theodore Roosevelt and his motley crew returned home as war heroes.

The Political Cowboy

Back in the United States, Theodore Roosevelt channeled his new fame into a campaign for governor of New York, and easily won the fall election. Upon claiming victory, he chose to publish his war memoirs. Fancying himself both a historian and a great leader, he sought to glorify his adventures and sacrifices, and, in doing so, rally support for his administration.

He also hoped to awaken the American public to the precarious fate of newly independent peoples abroad. On 10 April 1899, Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech in Chicago in support of U.S. military action in the Philippine Islands. He dramatically proclaimed, "The guns that thundered off Manila and Santiago left us echoes of glory, but they also left us a legacy of duty."26 He reflected upon the American Civil War as he offered his recommendation for foreign policy, noting that the nation must honor the legacies of "Lincoln and Grant, men who preeminently and distinctly embody all that is most American in the American character." Theodore Roosevelt beseeched Americans to follow these examples, to accept "the life of strenuous endeavor." New international ventures were vital to national defense and justified by what he called the "utter chaos" threatening newly independent nations such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. "If we drove out a medieval tyranny," he warned, "only to make room for savage anarchy we had better not have begun the task at all."27

As Roosevelt had hoped, the U.S. remained in Cuba following the war with Spain, occupying the island in order to establish and maintain "stable liberty."28 In addition, the Spanish government ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands to the United States. For expansionists, these acquisitions would aid American business. For men like Roosevelt who treasured glorious memories of the open frontier, these territories represented the new Wild West—lands to be tamed by "great and high-spirited nations."

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