image of Theodore Roosevelt, (c) Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library
Extremely rare heart-shaped tray commemorating Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1901. Loan Courtesy of the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior.
Laurels for a Hero
Roosevelt’s “crowded hour” at the battle of San Juan Hill arguably made him the most popular man in America. His exploits were toasted by the press, his image in uniform appeared everywhere, and he became a prized candidate for political office. Back in his home state of New York, Republicans thought TR the war hero a shoe-in for governor.
Yet one Republican had to be convinced: that was the party’s boss Senator Thomas Platt, before whom every Republican politician bowed. Platt was used to controlling his officeholders. TR, he feared, might not easily bend. But the public loved the war hero and Platt consented but warned, “If he becomes Governor of New York, sooner or later, with his personality, he will have to be President of the United States … I am afraid to start that thing going.” TR promised to consult with Platt, but he would “act finally as my own judgment and conscience dictated.”
The race was tough. “I am in a hot campaign. Just as hot as Santiago was.” With the help of other Rough Riders at rallies, Roosevelt won by fewer than 18,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast. True to his word, TR consulted with Platt about appointments and issues, but clashed with the Senator and the Republicans’ strongest supporters – businessmen – especially over proposed business taxes. Eventually, Platt’s patience with Roosevelt was overtaxed, and he sought ways to rid himself of the new governor.
But Teddy’s popularity continued to swell until party whispering began linking his name to the presidency. McKinley, however, surely would be reelected in 1900. Ignoring the whispers, TR fixed his sights on another term as governor.
Platt could think of nothing worse than four more years of TR – then he struck upon a solution. Vice President Garret Hobart had died in 1899 leaving McKinley in need of a second. What better way to rid New York of this upstart, thought Platt, than burying him in the vice presidency, a job John Adams described as “the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived.” Most Republicans at the national convention in 1900 agreed with the choice. One, however, was appalled. Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio, master of McKinley’s campaign screamed, “What is the matter with all of you? Here is this convention going headlong for Roosevelt for Vice President. Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the presidency?” But the momentum was too much. About his nomination Roosevelt said, “The thing could not be helped.”
Once confirmed as Vice President, Hanna sighed, “The best we can do is pray fervently for the continued health of the President.”
While visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, President McKinley was gunned down by a self-proclaimed anarchist. Roosevelt, vacationing in Vermont, sat in “stunned amazement” when he heard the news. When he arrived in Buffalo, the Vice President found McKinley on the mend. “Thank Heaven, the President is now out of danger.” TR returned to New England with “a light heart” at McKinley’s recovery. But a few days later his condition took a turn for the worse, infection had set in, and McKinley died on September 14.
The worst fears of Thomas Platt and Mark Hanna had come true. That “cowboy,” that “madman” was now President of the United States after a brief swearing-in ceremony in Buffalo.