A couple hours past midnight on 14 September 1901, William McKinley died of his gunshot wounds. Theodore Roosevelt suddenly became the youngest man ever to hold the office of president of the United States.
Entrenched political elites were not happy. From Congress's perspective, Roosevelt's political priorities could not have been more wrong. Roosevelt wanted to promote the rights of workers. Meanwhile, Congress would have been happier to continue confirming judges who struck down labor regulations as violating the freedom of contract. Roosevelt wanted the federal government to take the lead in dealing with public health and poverty. But congressional Democrats from the South, since returning to the government after the Civil War, had tried to restrict the federal government's power in the interest of states' rights. Roosevelt idolized Abraham Lincoln, and even wore a ring with Lincoln's hair in it. He would quote from Lincoln often, reminding Americans of what Lincoln had told Congress in 1861: "Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." The Gilded Age Congress, for its part, was in the pay of the railroad industry. Even Republicans had mostly abandoned Lincoln's dreams when they traded Reconstruction for Rutherford B. Hayes. From the start of his presidency, T.R. understood that he and the Congress were not going to see eye-to-eye.10
Knowing that the legislature was hostile to his policies, Roosevelt decided to use the president's executive authority to realize his vision. If he couldn't get Congress to legislate what he wanted into law, maybe he could just impose change by fiat. Without so much as consulting Congress, T.R. intervened in the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, setting a new precedent for federal mediation in conflicts between labor and capital. T.R. expanded the government's role in market regulation by prosecuting the Northern Securities Trust for anti-competitive practices (from which he got his "trust-buster" nickname). And he gave free reign to his taste for expansionism, asserting American supremacy in Latin America (the so-called "Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine).
T.R.'s most dramatic use of executive authority concerned conservation. Making use of the president's right to create national forest preserves, Roosevelt quadrupled the size of federally protected forests to 172 million acres nationwide. When Congress, horrified at T.R.'s action, restricted his preserve-creating powers, Roosevelt reinterpreted the newly passed Antiquities Act to allow him to create more protected sites, including the Grand Canyon and Devil's Tower.
However, as T.R. knew, if he wanted to create real lasting change, he would have to work with Congress. When the American people reelected him in 1904, T.R. decided he had enough popular support to challenge Congress more directly. He lobbied hard for railroad regulation, and used his popularity to force his own party into line. He threw his weight behind food regulation and helped to create the Food and Drug Administration.
But although his strategies changed, his priorities remained unchanged. Throughout his presidency, he had four major goals, which he pursued with a single-minded focus: more protections for the poor and the working class, more regulation of large business interests, a stronger assertion of American global power, and the preservation of America's natural heritage.
What shocked Roosevelt was how hard it was to make progress on any these fronts. Congress, T.R. came to believe, was too deeply corrupt to ever enact real change. The push for national reform was going to have to come from the people, not from the representatives in Congress. In his last two years as president, Roosevelt took his vision directly to the American public. His was an old line—he called on the American people to return to private virtue to restore public integrity. But he added a modern, almost pragmatic twist to it. It wasn't enough for the citizens to practice virtue. They needed to actually live virtuous lives. But to do that, they would need to be able to lead good lives—lives free from the abuses of powerful industries, lives in which they did not have to worry about finding food, decent shelter, or health insurance. And since the community called on them to live virtuous lives, it was the community—represented by the government—that had the responsibility to make sure they received those protections and had access to those services. But, as T.R. learned, the government wasn't going to provide those services without being pressured. Americans needed to understand these weren't just useful services to have, he argued. These were services to which they were entitled. Roosevelt began calling for a new kind of nationalism, one which proclaimed every American's right to actual equality of opportunity, not mere equality before the law.
How far the country would have to go to realize that vision was driven home to T.R. rather forcefully at his presidency's end. In 1907, a major financial panic threw the American economy into disarray. As men lost their jobs and companies went bankrupt, T.R. and the government discovered they were powerless to intervene. They had, literally, no way of stopping the crisis. T.R. was put in the humiliating position of relying on a private banker, J.P. Morgan, to stem the panic and rebuild the economy. Morgan was happy to oblige, and made a handsome profit doing it too. To create the new nationalism, T.R. realized, it was going to take labor protection and stock market regulation and currency reform—it was going to take a total war on what he saw as predatory wealth.
But that war would have to wait. In a fit of jubilation after his 1904 reelection, Roosevelt had promised not to seek a third term in office. As he ended his second term, he did the next best thing to running again: he handpicked his own successor, William Howard Taft. T.R. was sorry to go, and, as he did whenever he felt down, he sought out something stereotypically manly to do to raise his spirits. This time he settled on an African safari. When Taft won the election of 1908 (largely on the strength of Roosevelt's popularity), T.R. was able to relax. It would be difficult to leave the United States, but his vision, he thought, was safe in the hands of a man he could trust.