Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
THEODORE ROOSEVELT
26th President of the United States, 1901-1909
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AMERICAN PRESIDENTS

Sagamore Hill National Historic Site
New York
 

Theodore Roosevelt & family, 1903
Theodore Roosevelt & family, 1903
Library of Congress

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, bought 155 acres on the fashionable north shore of Long Island in 1880, with Alice Hathaway Lee, the woman he would marry later in the year.  She helped plan the house, with its many rooms, wide verandahs, and sweeping views of Long Island Sound, but did not live to enjoy it. After her death on February 14, 1884, Roosevelt’s sister Anna convinced him that he would need a home for his baby daughter and he went ahead with the construction of the home.  In 1887, he married Edith Carow, a childhood friend, and together they raised six children at Sagamore Hill.

Sagamore Hill was the center of Roosevelt’s political life as well as his family’s home.  The official notification of his nomination for governor of New York took place here in 1898.  In 1900, Republican leaders gathered at the house to hear Roosevelt accept his nomination for vice president as William McKinley’s running mate.  During the presidential years, Sagamore Hill was the summer White House. It became his unofficial campaign headquarters in 1904, when current custom prevented sitting presidents from active campaigning and in 1912 when he ran as a third party, “Bull Moose” candidate for president. On the day before he died there, on January 6, 1919, Roosevelt asked Edith, “I wonder if you will ever know how I love Sagamore Hill.”

An intellectual and a man of action, energetic, positive, and supremely confident, Roosevelt was one of the most popular presidents ever to fill that office.  He had a clear understanding of how politics worked and strong opinions on the role the United States should play in the world.  He pressed for construction of the Panama Canal.  He earned a Nobel Peace prize for bringing about the peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1905—he met separately with the Japanese and Russian envoys on the presidential yacht “Mayflower” on Oyster Bay before their face-to-face negotiations in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  He changed the relationships among industry, labor, and the government. He made the conservation of the country’s natural resources a headline issue of the day. He considered himself the “steward of the people;” the people knew him as “Teddy,” the “trust buster,” and the man with the “big stick.”  He pioneered new ways of gaining popular support, granting or denying access to Sagamore Hill to ensure that the press would give his policies favorable treatment.  For Roosevelt, the law and the Constitution were the only limits to his power as president.  “I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.”  In many ways, Theodore Roosevelt was the first modern president.

When Roosevelt bought the land in 1880, he already had fond memories of childhood summers spent at Oyster Bay.  He commissioned New York architects, Lamb and Rich, to design his new house, making sure that the interior would incorporate many of his own ideas.  Built between 1884 and 1885, the house is a large, rambling, two and one-half story building combining the asymmetrical plan and many textured finishes of the Queen Anne style with the horizontal lines and smooth wall surfaces of the Shingle Style.  The house features prominent gables, dormers, verandahs, and a porte-cochere. The 23 rooms adorned with family heirlooms, hunting trophies and souvenirs from his travels, hosted domestic and international dignitaries. Roosevelt called his new home Sagamore Hill, after Sagamore (Chief) Mohannis, whose tribe once lived on the land.

Interior room of Sagamore Hill
Interior room of Sagamore Hill
National Park Service

Roosevelt’s political career began when he won a seat in the State legislature in 1882. His independence and zeal for industrial and governmental reform annoyed old-guard politicians, but attracted the attention of reporters. His last year of service in the legislature came in 1884, the same year his wife died from complications of childbirth and his mother died of typhoid on the same day. Roosevelt spent much of the next two years ranching in the rugged Dakota Territory

When Roosevelt completed the house on Sagamore Hill in 1885, his sister Anna moved in to care for his infant daughter, Alice.  In 1886, he married Edith Kermit Carow, a childhood friend, who would bear him four sons and another daughter. The family established its permanent home at Sagamore Hill. The grounds and the woods there were the setting for the rambles and outdoor activities that his children, nephews, and nieces loved, particularly when they could persuade him to drop the affairs of state to join them.

The leaders of the New York Republican Party chose Roosevelt as their candidate for the governorship in 1898, but did not trust his reform policies.  In 1900, they managed to maneuver him into accepting nomination to the relatively powerless job of vice-president. A year later, he became president after President McKinley’s assassination.

Roosevelt was a very active president.  He backed labor unions and initiated numerous suits against trusts.  He was instrumental in enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, signed legislation for the inspection of stockyards and packinghouses, and expanded the Interstate Commerce Commission control over the railroads.  Roosevelt used his powerful influence to pressure mine owners into arbitration with the miners during a coal strike in 1902. In 1903, he convinced Congress to establish the Departments of Commerce and Labor. Roosevelt shocked many people North and South by issuing an unprecedented invitation to an African American, Booker T. Washington, to a dinner at the White House.

President Roosevelt hands responsibility to his successor William H. Taft
President Roosevelt hands responsibility to his successor William H. Taft.
1909 cartoon from Puck magazine

In international affairs, Roosevelt’s policy was "speak softly and carry a big stick." He sent the “Great White Fleet” to impress the world with the strength of the United States Navy. He helped create the Republic of Panama and began construction of the Panama Canal.  He became the first American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War. He convinced a San Francisco school board to abandon its policy of segregating Asian children in 1907, but a year later negotiated a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the Japanese government to limit immigration.

Overwhelmingly elected to a full term in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt vowed not to run for a second term.  He backed William Howard Taft as his successor in 1908, but later became dissatisfied with his conservative policies.  He ran as the nominee of the new Progressive Party in 1912, but his third party candidacy helped insure the victory of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. He died in his sleep at Sagamore Hill in 1919.

Edith Roosevelt lived at the house until her death in 1948. In 1950, the Theodore Roosevelt Association acquired the Sagamore Hill property along with the furnishings and belongings accumulated by the Roosevelt family through the years.  The Association opened the house to the public in 1953 and donated it to the National Park Service ten years later, along with a substantial endowment. The mementos, gifts, hunting trophies, furniture, and furnishings of the Sagamore Hill house are inextricably associated with the outsized personality of Theodore Roosevelt. The carefully preserved house, with its contents and setting, gives visitors a fascinating and intimate insight into a truly singular life.

Plan your visit

Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located 12 Sagamore Hill Rd., Oyster Bay, NY.  Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The site is open seven days a week during the summer and from Wednesday through Sunday between Labor Day and Memorial Day. The Roosevelt Home can be viewed only by guided tour from10:00am to 4:00pm.  Tours are given on the hour and tickets are available at the Visitor Center on a first come first served basis. Because tours often sell out during weekend and holiday afternoons, visitors should arrive early on these days.  The National Historic Site also includes the Roosevelt Museum at Old Orchard, which is open Wednesday-Sunday from 10:00am to 4:00pm. Admission to this building is free, and visitors can view movies and exhibits at their own pace. For more information visit the National Park Service Sagamore Hill website or call 516-922-4788.

Sagamore Hill has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. The National Park Service Museum Management Program is working to develop a new web-based exhibit entitled "Theodore Roosevelt: American Visionary." This exhibit allows people interested in seeing many artifacts owned and used by Roosevelt to do so via their home computers. Check the Museum Management Program website for updates.

 
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