Study Guide

Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt A Promising Career

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A Promising Career

Although T.R.'s political tactics were more sophisticated than his father's, his political concerns were largely the same. T.R. sought to fight the corrupting influences of modern society by rooting them out or keeping them from developing in the first place. We can understand T.R.'s historical writing and environmental advocacy as part of a preventative strategy; T.R. believed that by exposing Americans to their own history or by forcing them into direct contact with the wild, he could get them to rediscover their authentic, virile, manly spirit, which would, like a vaccine, inoculate the national soul from modern society's diseases. By contrast, his quest for civil-service reform and his fight against political cronyism were part of an attempt to eliminate corruption where it was already festering. They were the antibiotics to work where his natural-historical vaccine hadn't had a chance to take effect.

Ironically, the very same corrupt "spoils system" that T.R. fought so hard against was also responsible for rewarding him for his own campaign work on behalf of the Republican Party. In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison won the presidency, and, to compensate T.R. for his support during the campaign, he offered him a job as a Civil Service Commissioner. T.R. jumped at the opportunity. He moved his family to Washington the very next year, throwing himself into his new duties. Working for the Civil Service Commission, he thought, would give him a chance to serve on the front lines in the fight against government corruption.

He was wrong. It wasn't that he couldn't fight corruption as a Civil Service Commissioner—he could, and he did. (Quite well, too: his reputation for integrity was so great, it convinced Harrison's Democratic successor, Grover Cleveland, to keep T.R in office, even though he belonged to the opposition party.) It was just that T.R felt his post at Civil Service left him too far away from where the real political action was. National events reminded him at every turn of just how much change was needed. The dark recession of 1893 left working-class families destitute, and the violent strike of the Pullman factory workers in Chicago the same year showed T.R. how vulnerable labor was to what he saw as predatory capital. T.R. could see how workers' pain was a product of those industries' power. Here were the consequences, he came to believe, of society's corruption: the unchecked powerful mercilessly and amorally exploiting the undefended weak. Someone needed to get out there and do something! But from his desk job in D.C., there was nothing Roosevelt could do. T.R. began to itch for a job that would put him in touch with the gravest social problems of the day. He didn't just want to fight government corruption anymore. He wanted to change society for the common man.

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