Theodore Roosevelt receives a hero’s welcome in New York on June 18, 1910, following his expedition to Africa.
ROOSEVELT IS COMING HOME, HOORAY! Exultant headlines in mid-June 1910 trumpeted the daily progress of the Kaiserin, the luxury liner returning the former president, Theodore Roosevelt, to American shores after his year’s safari in Africa.
Despite popularity unrivaled since Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt, true to his word, had declined to run for a third term after completing seven and a half years in office. His tenure had stretched from William McKinley’s assassination in September 1901 to March 4, 1909, when his own elected term came to an end. Flush from his November 1904 election triumph, he had stunned the political world with his announcement that he would not run for president again, citing “the wise custom which limits the President to two terms.” Later, he reportedly told a friend that he would willingly cut off his hand at the wrist if he could take his pledge back.
Roosevelt had loved being president—“the greatest office in the world.” He had relished “every hour” of every day. Indeed, fearing the “dull thud” he would experience upon returning to private life, he had devised the perfect solution to “break his fall.” Within three weeks of the inauguration of his successor, William Howard Taft, he had embarked on his great African adventure, plunging into the most “impenetrable spot on the globe.”
For months Roosevelt’s friends had been preparing an elaborate reception to celebrate his arrival in New York. When “the Colonel,” as Roosevelt preferred to be called, first heard of the extravagant plans devised for his welcome, he was troubled, fearing that the public response would not match such lofty expectations. “Even at this moment I should certainly put an instant stop to all the proceedings if I felt they were being merely ‘worked up’ and there was not a real desire . . . of at least a great many people to greet me,” he wrote one of the organizers in March 1910. “My political career is ended,” he told Lawrence Abbott of The Outlook, who had come to meet him in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, when he first emerged from the jungle. “No man in American public life has ever reached the crest of the wave as I appear to have done without the wave’s breaking and engulfing him.”
Anxiety that his star had dimmed, that the public’s devotion had dwindled, proved wildly off the mark. While he had initially planned to return directly from Khartoum, Roosevelt received so many invitations to visit the reigning European sovereigns that he first embarked on a six-week tour of Italy, Austria, Hungary, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and England. Kings and queens greeted him as an equal, universities bestowed upon him their highest degrees, and the German Kaiser treated him as an intimate friend. Every city, town, and village received him with a frenzied enthusiasm that stunned the most sophisticated observers. “People gathered at railway stations, in school-houses, and in the village streets,” one journalist observed. They showered his carriage with flowers, thronged windows of tenement houses, and greeted him with “Viva, viva, viva Roosevelt!” Newspapers in the United States celebrated Roosevelt’s triumphant procession through the Old World, sensing in his unparalleled reception a tribute to America’s newfound position of power. “No foreign ruler or man of eminence could have aroused more universal attention, received a warmer welcome, or achieved greater popularity among every class of society,” the New York Times exulted.
“I don’t suppose there was ever such a reception as that being given Theodore in Europe,” Taft wistfully told his military aide, Captain Archie Butt. “It illustrates how his personality has swept over the world,” such that even “small villages which one would hardly think had ever heard of the United States should seem to know all about the man.” The stories of Roosevelt’s “royal progress” through Europe bolstered the efforts of his friends to ensure, in Taft’s words, “as great a demonstration of welcome from his countrymen as any American ever received.”
In the week preceding his arrival in America, tens of thousands of visitors from all over the country had descended upon New York, lending the city’s hotels and streets “a holiday appearance.” Inbound trains carried a cast of characters “as diversely typical of the American people as Mr. Roosevelt himself . . . conservationists and cowboys, capitalists and socialists, insurgents and regulars, churchmen and sportsmen, native born and aliens.” More than two hundred vessels, including five destroyers, six revenue cutters, and dozens of excursion steamboats, tugs, and ferryboats, all decked with colorful flags and pennants, had sailed into the harbor to take part in an extravagant naval display.
An army of construction workers labored to complete the speaker’s platform and grandstand seating at Battery Park, where Roosevelt would address an overflow crowd of invited guests. Businesses had given their workers a half-holiday so they could join in the festivities. “Flags floated everywhere,” an Ohio newspaper reported; “pictures of Roosevelt were hung in thousands of windows and along the line of march, buildings were draped with bunting.”
The night before the big day, a dragnet was set to arrest known pickpockets. Five thousand police and dozens of surgeons and nurses were called in for special duty. “The United States of America at the present moment simulates quite the attitude of the small boy who can’t go to sleep Christmas Eve for thinking of the next day,” the Atlanta Constitution suggested. “And the colonel, returning as rapidly as a lusty steamship can plow the waves, is the ‘next day.’ It is a remarkable tribute to the man’s personality that virtually every element of citizenship in the country should be more or less on tiptoes in the excitement of anticipation.”
SHORTLY AFTER 7 A.M. ON June 18, as the bright rising sun burned through the mists, Theodore Roosevelt, as jubilant with anticipation as his country, stood on the bridge of the Kaiserin as the vessel headed into New York Harbor. Edith, his handsome forty-eight-year-old wife, stood beside him. She had journeyed halfway around the world to join him in Khartoum at the end of his long African expedition. Edith had found their year-long parting, the longest in their twenty-three years of marriage, almost unbearable. “If it were not for the children here I would not have the nervous strength to live through these endless months of separation from Father,” she wrote her son Kermit after Theodore had been gone only two weeks. “When I am alone & let myself think I am done for.”
Edith was no stranger to the anxiety of being apart from the man for whom she “would do anything in the world.” They had been intimate childhood friends, growing up together in New York’s Union Square neighborhood. She had joined “Teedie,” as he was then called, and his younger sister Corinne, in a private schoolroom arranged at the Roosevelt mansion. Even as children, they missed each other when apart. As Teedie was setting off with his family on a Grand Tour of Europe when he was eleven years old, he broke down in tears at the thought of leaving eight-year-old Edith behind. She proved his most faithful correspondent over the long course of the trip. She had been a regular guest at “Tranquillity,” the Roosevelts’ summer home on Long Island, where they sailed together in the bay, rode horseback along the trails, and shared a growing passion for literature. As adolescents, they were dancing partners at cotillions and constant companions on the social scene. Roosevelt proudly noted that his freshman college classmates at Harvard considered Edith and her friend Annie Murray “the prettiest girls they had met” when they visited him in New York during Christmas vacation.
In the summer of 1878, after his sophomore year, however, the young couple had a mysterious “falling out” at Tranquillity. “One day,” Roosevelt later wrote, “there came a break” during a late afternoon rendezvous at the estate’s summerhouse. The conflict that erupted, Roosevelt admitted, ended “his very intimate relations” with Edith. Though neither one would ever say what had happened, Roosevelt cryptically noted to his sister Anna that “both of us had, and I suppose have, tempers that were far from being of the best.”
The intimacy that Edith had cherished for nearly two decades seemed lost forever the following October, when Roosevelt met Alice Hathaway Lee. The beautiful, enchanting daughter of a wealthy Boston businessman, Alice lived in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, not far from Cambridge. The young Harvard junior fell in love with his “whole heart and soul.” Four months after his graduation in 1880, they were married. Then, in 1884, only two days after giving birth to their only child, Alice died.
A year later, Theodore resumed his friendship with Edith. And the year after that they were married. As time passed, Edith’s meticulous and thoughtful nature made her an exemplary partner for Theodore. “I do not think my eyes are blinded by affection,” the president told a friend, “when I say that she has combined to a degree I have never seen in any other woman the power of being the best of wives and mothers, the wisest manager of the household, and at the same time the ideal great lady and mistress of the White House.”
Their boisterous family eventually included six children. Three of the six were standing next to their parents on the bridge of the ocean liner: twenty-year-old Kermit, who had accompanied his father to Africa; eighteen-year-old Ethel; and twenty-six-year-old Alice, the child born to his first wife.
The girls had joined their parents in Europe. Along the rails of the four upper decks, their fellow passengers, some 3,000 in all, formed a colorful pageant as they waved their handkerchiefs and cheered.
Although wireless telegrams on board the ship had alerted Roosevelt to some of the day’s planned activities, he was surprised to learn that President Taft had assigned the massive battleship South Carolina as his official escort. “By George! That’s one of my ships! Doesn’t she look good?” an overwhelmed Roosevelt exclaimed when he saw her gray bulk pulling near. “Flags were broken out from stem to stern in the ceremony of dressing the ship,” reported the Boston Daily Globe, while “a puff from the muzzle of an eight-pounder” signaled the start of a 21-gun salute, the highest ceremonial honor, generally reserved for heads of state. Sailors clad in blue lined the decks of the warship, as the scarlet-uniformed Marine Band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The cannon roar of the South Carolina was followed by the rhythmic volley of salutes and whistles from the dozen or more additional naval ships in the bay. President Taft had clearly gone to great lengths, Captain Butt proudly noted, “to add dignity to the welcome and to extend a warm personal greeting to his predecessor.”
From the deck, Roosevelt spotted the tugboat carrying the reporters whose eyewitness accounts of the spectacular scene would dominate the news the following day. As he leaned over the rail and vigorously waved his top hat back and forth to them, they stood and cheered. To each familiar face, he nodded his head and smiled broadly, displaying his famous teeth, which appeared “just as prominent and just as white and perfect as when he went away.” Then, recognizing the photographers’ need to snap his picture, he stopped his hectic motions and stood perfectly still.
During his presidency, Roosevelt’s physical vigor and mental curiosity had made the White House a hive of activity and interest. His “love of the hurly-burly” that enchanted reporters and their readers was best captured by British viscount John Morley, who claimed that “he had seen two tremendous works of nature in America—the Niagara Falls and Mr. Roosevelt.” One magazine writer marveled at his prodigious stream of guests—“pugilists, college presidents, professional wrestlers, Greek scholars, baseball teams, big-game hunters, sociologists, press agents, authors, actors, Rough Riders, bad men, and gun-fighters from the West, wolf-catchers, photographers, guides, bear-hunters, artists, labor-leaders.” When he left for Africa, the “noise and excitement” vanished; little wonder that the members of the press were thrilled to see him return.
Shortly after the Kaiserin dropped anchor at Quarantine, the revenue cutter Manhattan pulled alongside, carrying the Roosevelts’ youngest sons, sixteen-year-old Archie and twelve-year-old Quentin, both of whom had remained at home. Their oldest son, twenty-two-year-old Theodore Junior, who was set to marry Eleanor Alexander the following Monday, joined the group along with an assortment of family members, including Roosevelt’s sisters, Anna and Corinne; his son-in-law, Congressman Nicholas Longworth; his niece Eleanor Roosevelt; and her husband, Franklin. While Edith anxiously sought a glimpse of the children she had not seen for more than two months, Roosevelt busily shook hands with each of the officers, sailors, and engineers of the ship. “Come here, Theodore, and see your children,” Edith called out. “They are of far greater importance than politics or anything else.”
Roosevelt searched the promenade deck of the Manhattan, reported the Chicago Tribune, until his eyes rested on “the round face of his youngest boy, Quentin, who was dancing up and down on the deck, impatient to be recognized,” telling all who would listen that he would be the one “to kiss pop first.” At the sight of the lively child, “the Colonel spread his arms out as if he would undertake a long-distance embrace” and smiled broadly as he nodded to each of his relatives in turn.
When Roosevelt stepped onto the crimson-covered gangplank for his transfer to the Manhattan, “pandemonium broke loose.” The ship’s band played “America,” the New York Times reported, and “there came from the river craft, yachts, and ships nearby a volley of cheers that lasted for fully five minutes.” Bugles blared, whistles shrieked, and “everywhere flags waved, hats were tossed into the air, and cries of welcome were heard.” Approaching the deck where his children were jumping in anticipation, Roosevelt executed a “flying leap,” and “with the exuberance and spirit of a school boy, he took up Quentin and Archie in his arms and gave them resounding smacks.” He greeted Theodore Junior with a hearty slap on the back, kissed his sisters, and then proceeded to shake hands with every crew member.
Around 9 a.m., the Androscoggin, carrying Cornelius Vanderbilt, the chairman of the reception, and two hundred distinguished guests, came alongside the Manhattan. As Roosevelt made the transfer to the official welcoming vessel, he asked that everyone form a line so that he could greet each individual personally and then went at the task of shaking hands with such high spirits, delivering for each person such “an explosive word of welcome,” that what might have been a duty for another politician became an act of joy. “I’m so glad to see you,” he greeted each person in turn. The New York Times reporter noted that “the ‘so’ went off like a firecracker. The smile backed it up in a radiation of energy, and the hearty grip of the hand that came down upon its respondent with a bang emphasized again the exact meaning of the words.”
When Roosevelt grasped the hand of Joe Murray, the savvy political boss who had first nominated him for the state legislature years before, it must have seemed as if his public life had come full circle. “This takes me back 29 years,” he said, “to the old Twenty-first Assembly district when I was getting a start in politics.” Earlier he had warmly welcomed Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, his closest friend for more than a quarter of a century, and Archie Butt, who had served as his devoted military aide before taking up the same position with President Taft. Jacob Riis, the Danish immigrant whose book, How the Other Half Lives, had greatly influenced Roosevelt when he was police commissioner of New York City, received a fraternal welcome and “the broadest of smiles.” Roosevelt clasped him with both hands, exclaiming, “O, Jake. I’ve got so much to tell you.” His face grew somber as he glimpsed Beverly Robinson, who conjured memories of McKinley’s assassination. “This boy was with me on top of Mount Marcy,” he mused, “when the sudden news came that I had become President.” Nothing, however, could dampen his innate joviality for more than a moment. “Why, hello, Stimson, old sugar trust,” he laughed, his eyes twinkling, as he approached Henry Stimson, the government’s special counsel in the famous trust case. “Oh, friend, this is good. I can’t tell you how I feel,” he confided to Frank Tyree, the Secret Serviceman who had protected him loyally for years. On and on he went, his personal greetings for all interspersed with expressions of outright delight: “Fine! Fine! Oh, it’s simply great!” “George, this is bully!”
When Vanderbilt suggested it was time to go up to the bridge to acknowledge the thousands of people massed solidly on both the New Jersey and the Manhattan sides of the river, Roosevelt hesitated. “But here are the reporters,” he said, turning to the members of the press eagerly taking down his words. “I want to shake hands with them.” Indeed, at every stop during the long day, he made sure to deliver a special welcome to the members of the press. “Boys, I am glad (emphasis on the glad) to see you. It does me good to see you, boys. I am glad to be back.” Clearly, that pleasure was reciprocated. “We’re mighty glad to have you back,” shouted one exuberant reporter.
From the time reporters had accompanied the Colonel to Cuba—helping transform him and his intrepid Rough Riders into a national icon—Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches. Little wonder, then, that these same journalists celebrated Roosevelt’s return from Africa, flocking to lower Manhattan to welcome him home. For the members of the press, the story of Roosevelt’s homecoming was not merely an assignment—it was personal.
Reporters present at the festivities remarked how “hale and hearty” the fifty-one-year-old Roosevelt looked, tanned and extremely fit. “It is true that the mustache, once brown, has grown grayer, but the strong face is not furrowed with deep wrinkles and the crows feet have not changed the expression which is habitual to the man who is in robust health and has a joy in living.” After the long African expedition he displayed a leaner physique, but overall, he seemed “the same bubbling, explosively exuberant American as when he left.” Archie Butt, however, detected “something different,” though at first he could not put his finger on it. After talking with Lodge, the two men speculated that as a citizen of the world, not simply an American, Roosevelt had developed “an enlarged personality,” with a “mental scope more encompassing.”
At Battery Park, where the Androscoggin was due to dock at around 11 a.m., an immense crowd had gathered since early morning, straining for sight of the ship that would bring Roosevelt onto American soil. A reporter captured this mood of anticipation in his story of a stevedore who, in the midst of unloading cargo off another ship, laid aside his hook in hopes of glimpsing Roosevelt. His foreman shouted at him: “You come back here or I’ll dock you an hour.” The stevedore, undaunted, retorted: “Dock me a week. I’m going to have a look at Teddy.”
“There he is!” rose the cry, soon confirmed as a beaming Roosevelt came ashore to a rendition of “Home, Sweet Home” by the Seventy-first Regimental Band. The uplifted cheers that greeted “the man of the hour” as he disembarked were said to exceed the “echoing boom of saluting cannon and the strident blast of steam whistles.”
Straightaway, Roosevelt headed from the pier to the speaker’s platform. He was in the midst of shaking hands with cabinet members, senators and congressmen, governors and mayors when his daughter Alice cried, “Turn around, father, and look at the crowd.” Outspread before him was “one vast expanse of human countenances, all upturned to him, all waiting for him.” Beyond the 600 seated guests, 3,500 people stood within the roped enclosure, and beyond them “unnumbered thousands” on the plaza. Still more crammed together on the surrounding streets. It was estimated that at least 100,000 people had come to Battery Park, undeterred by the crushing throngs and the oppressive heat and humidity. From a ninth-floor window of the nearby Washington Building, “a life-size Teddy bear” belted with a green sash was suspended. A large white banner bearing Roosevelt’s favorite word, “Delighted,” was displayed on the Whitehall Building, where “from street level to skyline every window was open and every sill held as many stenographers and office boys and bosses as the sills could accommodate.” Clearly, this was not a day for work!
“Is there a stenographer here?” Roosevelt asked, as he prepared to speak. Assured that one was present, he began, his voice filled with emotion: “No man could receive such a greeting without being made to feel very proud and humble. . . . I have been away a year and a quarter from America and I have seen strange and interesting things alike in the heart of the wilderness and in the capitals of the mightiest and most highly polished civilized nations.” Nonetheless, he assured the crowd, “I am more glad than I can say to get home, back in my own country, back among the people I love. And I am ready and eager to do my part so far as I am able in helping to solve problems which must be solved. . . . This is the duty of every citizen but it is peculiarly my duty, for any man who has ever been honored by being made president of the United States is thereby forever after rendered the debtor of the American people.” For those who wondered whether Roosevelt would remain active in public life, his brief but eloquent remarks were telling.
The address at Battery Park only served to set off the real celebration. A five-mile parade up Broadway to 59th and Fifth followed, with an estimated 1 million spectators lining the streets. “The sidewalks on both sides of Broadway were jammed with people, from curb to building fronts,” the Chicago Tribune noted. “There were people in all the windows, people on the housetops, and people banked up in the side streets.” As Roosevelt took his place in the open carriage leading the procession, an additional surprise lay in store for him: 150 members of his Rough Rider unit, whom he had led so brilliantly in the Spanish-American War, appeared on horseback to serve as his escort of honor. Beyond the Rough Riders, there were 2,000 additional veterans from that same war who had come to participate in the celebration. The demonstration was “incomparably the largest affair of its kind on record,” the Washington, D.C., Evening Star claimed, “characteristic of the man himself, the man of superlatives, and of intense moods.”
Placards with friendly inscriptions, familiar cartoons, and exhortations for Roosevelt to once again run for the presidency in 1912 hung in shop windows all along the way. At 310 Broadway, an immense Teddy bear stared down an enormous stuffed African lion. At Scribner’s, a ten-foot-high portrait of the Colonel in full hunting gear graced the front of the building. Peddlers were everywhere. “You could not move a step,” one reporter observed, “without having shoved in your face a remarkable assortment of Teddy souvenirs. There were jungle hats with ribbons bearing the word De-lighted, there were Roosevelt medals, Teddy’s teeth in celluloid, miniature Teddy bears, gorgeous flags on canes, with a picture of the Rough Rider, buttons, pins and many other reminders of the Colonel’s career.” Even along Wall Street, where it was jokingly predicted black crepe would signal Roosevelt’s return (given his storied fights with “the malefactors of great wealth”), flags waved and colored streamers were tossed from upper windows.
“Teddy! Teddy! Bully for you, Teddy,” the crowd yelled, and he responded with “unconcealed delight” to the gleeful chants. “One could see that he enjoyed every moment of the triumphal progress,” the New York Times reported, and “those who cheered cheered the louder when they saw how their cheers delighted him.” Near the end of the route, a reporter shouted: “Are you tired?” His answer was clear and firm despite the long day, the hot sun, and the perspiration dripping down his face. “Not a bit.”
Around 1 p.m., when the parade finally concluded at the 59th Street Plaza, Roosevelt, with tears in his eyes, flashed his dazzling smile and headed toward a private residence for a family lunch. No sooner had the Colonel reached his destination than a frightening storm began. Lightning, thunder, and ferocious winds accompanied a heavy downpour. Uprooted trees littered the ground with fallen limbs. In all, seventeen lives were lost. It seemed the sky had stayed peaceful and blue only for the sun-splashed hours of the celebration for Roosevelt.
“Everyone began talking about Roosevelt luck,” Captain Butt observed. While the pelting rain continued, Roosevelt relaxed in the Fifth Avenue home belonging to the grandfather of his son’s fiancée and enjoyed a festive meal of chicken in cream sauce with rice while catching up on the news of the day. In the late afternoon, he boarded a special train for his hometown of Oyster Bay, Long Island. Once again, the Roosevelt luck came into play. The severe rainstorm miraculously ceased just as his train pulled in. He was met by “the whole town,” complete with a 500-member children’s choir, a display of devotion that nearly “swept the former President from his feet as he stepped to the ground.” Walking beneath “triumphal arches” constructed by his neighbors, Roosevelt reached a nearby ballpark where grandstands had been raised to seat 3,000 people. There, he spoke movingly of what it meant to be home once more, “to live among you again as I have for the last 40 years.” Reporters who had followed Roosevelt since he began shaking hands on the Kaiserin that morning marveled at the energy with which he continued to grasp the hands of his neighbors, finding something personal to say to one and all, without revealing “the slightest trace of fatigue in voice or manner.”
In their lengthy coverage of the historic day, the press corps brought to light scores of colorful anecdotes. The story they failed to get, however, was the story they wanted above all—Roosevelt’s response to the major political issue of the day: the growing disenchantment of progressive Republicans with the leadership of President Taft.
AS HIS SECOND TERM NEARED its end, Roosevelt had handpicked from his cabinet the trusted friend he desired to succeed him: William Howard Taft. The two men had first met in their early thirties, when Roosevelt headed the Civil Service Commission and Taft was U.S. Solicitor General. “We lived in the same part of Washington,” Taft recalled, “our wives knew each other well, and some of our children were born about the same time.” Over the years, this friendship had deepened, becoming what Taft described as “one of close and sweet intimacy.” During his first presidential term, Roosevelt had invited Taft, then governor general of the newly acquired Philippine Islands, to serve as his secretary of war. Initially reluctant to leave a post to which his talents were ideally suited, Taft had finally been persuaded to join his old friend’s administration as “the foremost member” of his cabinet, his daily “counsellor and adviser in all the great questions” that might confront them.
Roosevelt had thrown all his inexhaustible energy behind the drive to make Taft president. “I am quite as nervous about your campaign as I should be if it were my own,” he had told Taft. He had edited Taft’s speeches, relayed a constant stream of advice, and corralled his own immense bloc of supporters behind Taft’s candidacy. When Taft was elected, Roosevelt reveled in the victory, both delighted for a “beloved” friend and confident that America had chosen the man best suited to execute the progressive goals Roosevelt had championed—to distribute the nation’s wealth more equitably, regulate the giant corporations and railroads, strengthen the rights of labor, and protect the country’s natural resources from private exploitation.
At the start of Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901, big business had been in the driver’s seat. While the country prospered as never before, squalid conditions were rampant in immigrant slums, workers in factories and mines labored without safety regulations, and farmers fought with railroads over freight rates. Voices had been raised to protest the concentration of corporate wealth and the gap between rich and poor, yet the doctrine of laissez-faire precluded collective action to ameliorate social conditions. Under Roosevelt’s Square Deal, the country had awakened to the need for government action to allay problems caused by industrialization—an awakening spurred in part by the dramatic exposés of a talented group of investigative journalists he famously labeled “muckrakers.”
By the end of Roosevelt’s tenure, much had been accomplished. The moribund 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act had been revived, vast acres of lands had been protected from exploitation, and railroads had been prevented from continuing long-standing abuses. Congress had passed workmen’s compensation, a pure food and drug law, and a meat inspection act. Nevertheless, much remained to be done. Roosevelt’s legacy would depend upon the actions of his chosen successor—William Howard Taft. “Taft is as fine a fellow as ever sat in the President’s chair,” Roosevelt told a friend shortly after the election, “and I cannot express the measureless content that comes over me as I think that the work in which I have so much believed will be carried on by him.”
While he was abroad, however, Roosevelt had received numerous disturbing communications from his progressive friends. Word that his closest ally in the conservation movement, Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, had been removed by Taft, left Roosevelt dumbfounded: “I do not know any man in public life who has rendered quite the service you have rendered,” he wrote to Pinchot, “and it seems to be absolutely impossible that there can be any truth in this statement.” When the news was confirmed, he asked Pinchot to meet him in Europe in order to hear his firsthand account. Pinchot had arrived with a number of letters from fellow progressives, all expressing a belief that Taft had aligned himself with old-line conservatives on Capitol Hill and was gradually compromising Roosevelt’s hard-won advances.
Roosevelt found it difficult to believe he had so misjudged the character and convictions of his old friend. On his final day in Europe, he confided his puzzlement to Sir Edward Grey as the two outdoorsmen tramped through the New Forest in southern England in pursuit of the song or sight of several English birds Roosevelt had only read about. “Roosevelt’s spirit was much troubled by what was happening in his own country since he left office,” Grey recalled. “He spoke of Taft and of their work together with very live affection; he had wished Taft to succeed him, had supported him, made way for him. How could he now break with Taft and attack him?” Yet the concerted voice of his progressive friends was urging him to do precisely that.
All through the spring of 1910, as the date of his return approached, one question had dominated political discourse and speculation: “What will Mr. Roosevelt do?” Which side would he take in the intensifying struggle that was dividing the Republican Party between the old-line conservatives and a steadily growing number of “insurgents,” as the progressive faction was then known. Aware that anything he said would be construed as hurtful or helpful to one side or the other, Roosevelt determined to remain silent on all political matters until he could more fully absorb and analyze the situation. “There is one thing I want, and that is absolute privacy,” he told reporters as the day’s celebration came to an end. “I want to close up like a native oyster . . . I am glad to have you all here; but . . . I have nothing to say.”
THE WEEKS PRECEDING ROOSEVELT’S HOMECOMING had been especially difficult for President Taft. “He looks haggard and careworn,” Captain Butt told his sister-in-law, Clara. His characteristic ruddy complexion had faded to a sickly pale, his weight had ballooned to 320 pounds, and his jovial temperament had turned mournful. “It is hard on any man to see the eyes of everyone turn to another person as the eyes of the entire country are turning to Roosevelt,” Butt speculated. Nonetheless, Butt acknowledged that Taft’s low spirits had little to do with jealousy. Never once had he heard Taft “murmur against the fate” that kept him, “a man of tremendous personality himself . . . in the shadow” of his predecessor. “He is so broad as to show no resentment” of his “secondary role,” Butt marveled. Rather, Taft’s anxiety stemmed, he thought, from the fact that “he loves Theodore Roosevelt,” and the specter of a potential rupture in their friendship was causing great emotional distress.
No shadow of such troubles was in evidence when Taft’s presidency began. “He is going to be greatly beloved as President,” Roosevelt had predicted. “He has the most lovable personality I have ever come in contact with.” A big man with a big heart, clear blue eyes, and a thoughtful nature, Taft was portrayed as “America incarnate—sham-hating, hardworking, crackling with jokes upon himself, lacking in pomp but never in dignity . . . a great, boyish, wholesome, dauntless, shrewd, sincere, kindly gentleman.”
The time had come, even Roosevelt’s most ardent admirers agreed, for a different kind of leader—a quieter, less controversial figure. Roosevelt, with his fiery temperament, inexhaustible supply of arresting quips, and demagogic appeals, had given powerful voice to the Progressive movement. Now, Roosevelt’s journalist friend William Allen White argued, the country needed a man who could “finish the things” Roosevelt had begun, who could work with Congress to consolidate the imperfect statutes and executive orders generated in the tumultuous previous years. Although Taft would “say little,” White acknowledged, he would “do much.” His mind would not, like Roosevelt’s, move “by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” another journalist wrote, but rather with steady efficiency, “in straight lines and by long, logical habit.”
Taft agreed with this assessment of the situation he faced. He likened Roosevelt’s administration to “a great crusade” that had aroused the people to the need for greater federal regulation of the economy. Now it was the work of his administration to make these expanded powers “permanent in the form of law.” In contrast to Roosevelt, a career politician whose “intense desire to reach practical results” had led him occasionally to chafe under “the restraint of legal methods,” Taft had trained as a lawyer and a judge, disciplines that had instilled “the necessity for legal method.” Roosevelt had ended his presidency “in an ugly fight” with a Congress he had sought to bypass through a direct appeal to the public. With a very different yet complementary temperament, Taft insisted that he must work “with the tools and the men . . . at hand.” It was his misfortune to take office at a time marked by a bitter rift within the Republican Party, when progressives viewed compromise with conservatives as treachery.
Taft had not openly sought the presidency. Since his appointment as a superior court judge at the age of twenty-nine, he had aspired to one day become chief justice of the United States. He had moved swiftly up the judicial ladder, becoming U.S. Solicitor General at age thirty-two and a federal circuit judge at thirty-four. When President McKinley asked him to go to the Philippines, it was with the implied promise that he would return to a Supreme Court appointment. When Roosevelt became president, he honored his predecessor’s promise, twice offering Taft a position on the Supreme Court. With great reluctance, Taft had declined both opportunities; in the first instance, he felt he could not leave his work in the Philippines unfinished; in the second, his wife and closest adviser, Nellie, persuaded him not to bury himself on the Court at the very moment when, as secretary of war, he was being touted throughout the country as Roosevelt’s most likely successor. Indeed, were it not for his wife’s White House dreams, Taft would likely never have agreed to a presidential run.
Taft had found little joy in campaigning for the presidency in 1908. He had “great misgivings” about every speech he was forced to make. For months, the thought of his acceptance speech loomed over him “like a nightmare.” He feared that his efforts to forge a middle ground on issues would “make many people mad.” Unlike Roosevelt, who regularly perused articles about himself and found pleasure in responding to critics, Taft acknowledged that negative press left him “very, very discouraged.” After a while, despite Nellie’s urgings, he refused to read unfavorable articles altogether. His speeches, Nellie warned, tended to be much too long. “But I am made this way and ‘I can do no other,’ ” he told her. “That is the kind of an old slow coach you married.” In the end, with his “campaign manager” (as he called Nellie) by his side to edit his speeches and offer advice, comfort, and encouragement, he won a magnificent victory over William Jennings Bryan.
Taft took office in 1909 with commingled exhilaration and trepidation. “I pinch myself every little while to make myself realize that it is all true,” he told a friend. “If I were now presiding in the Supreme Court of the United States as Chief Justice, I should feel entirely at home, but with the troubles of selecting a cabinet and the difficulties in respect to the revision of the tariff, I feel just a bit like a fish out of water.” More than a year later, such misgivings had not subsided. When asked if he liked being president, he replied that he “would rather be Chief Justice,” for the “quieter life” on the Court would prove “more in keeping with my temperament.” However, he reflected, “when taken into consideration that I go into history as a President, and my children and my children’s children are the better placed on account of that fact, I am inclined to think that to be President well compensates one for all the trials and criticisms he has to bear and undergo.”
Taft well knew how fortunate he was to have a natural politician in his devoted and intelligent wife, one whose superb judgment and political acumen could help him “overcome the obstacles that just at present seem formidable.” They had been partners from the earliest days of their married life in Cincinnati. Like Edith and Theodore, Nellie and Will had grown up together in the same city. Their sisters had been “schoolmates,” and their fathers, Nellie wrote, had “practiced law at the same bar for more than forty years.” Nellie and Will had been friends for six years when their relationship began to deepen into love.
Young Nellie was an unconventional woman. From early adolescence, she craved a more expansive life. She liked to smoke, drink beer, and play cards for money. She was an avid reader with a passion for classical music, a talented writer, and a dedicated teacher. In her early twenties, she had organized a weekly salon, with Will and his brother Horace among the regular participants. Every Saturday night their circle of six or seven friends presented essays and discussed literature and national politics “with such high feeling and enthusiasm,” Nellie recalled, that the history of the salon “became the history of our lives during that period.” The more time he spent with Nellie, Will told his father, “the deeper grew my respect for her, the warmer my friendship until it unconsciously ripened into a feeling that she was indispensable to my happiness. . . . Her eagerness for knowledge of all kinds puts me to shame. Her capacity for work is wonderful.”
For her part, Nellie found in Will a husband who adored her and highly valued her intelligence. Their union provided a channel for her to pursue her intense ambition to accomplish something vital in life. Will also proved a loving father for their three children, Robert, Helen, and Charlie, who were eighteen, sixteen, and eleven when Taft became president. Throughout their marriage, Taft looked to Nellie as a “merciless but loving critic,” depending on her advice at every crucial juncture. They labored together over his speeches and discussed political strategy in a manner, one observer recalled, much like “two men who are intimate chums.” Their partnership gave Taft confidence that he would learn to navigate the uncharted waters of the presidency.
The New York Times predicted that with Nellie Taft as first lady, “the Taft Administration will be brilliant beyond any similar period in America’s social history.” Over the years, she had established a sterling reputation as a democratic hostess, opening her doors to people from all backgrounds. In the Philippines, she had stunned the conservative military establishment by rejecting their strict segregation of whites and native Filipinos, instead insisting “upon complete racial equality” at the governor’s palace. As first lady, she brought the same egalitarian ethos to her position. She spoke out against the unhealthy working conditions of government employees and embarked upon several civic projects. She helped design a beautiful public park along the Tidal Basin where concerts could be held every week during the summer months, and made arrangements to bring the same flowering cherry trees she had admired in Japan to the nation’s capital.
Nellie Taft was swiftly becoming one of the most respected and powerful first ladies in history. Then, only ten weeks after the inauguration, terrible misfortune shattered these auspicious beginnings. On board the presidential yacht with her husband and some guests, Nellie suffered a devastating stroke that left her temporarily paralyzed and unable to speak. At the sight of his half-conscious wife, only forty-seven years old, Taft turned “deathly pale.” Taft’s “great soul,” Archie Butt empathized, was “wrapped in darkness.” Although Nellie gradually recovered the ability to walk, she would continue to struggle with her speech the rest of her life.
A year after Nellie’s stroke, shortly before Roosevelt was due to return to America, Taft sent him a plaintive handwritten letter weighing his accomplishments and failures as president. “I have had a hard time,” he confided. “I do not know that I have had harder luck than other presidents but I do know that thus far I have succeeded far less than have others. I have been conscientiously trying to carry out your policies but my method of doing so has not worked smoothly.” In closing, he told his old friend, “it would give me a great deal of pleasure if after you get settled at Oyster Bay, you could come over to Washington and spend a few days at the White House.”
Taft had been tempted to go to New York and personally welcome Roosevelt home. According to one report in the Indianapolis Star, his advisers had suggested that “this demonstration of amity would be appreciated by Col. Roosevelt and would do more than anything else to drive away the suspicion that seems to have gained ground that the relations between the chief executive and his predecessor are strained.” Upon reflection, however, Taft concluded that it would diminish the status of the presidential office “if he were to ‘race down to the gangplank,’ to be the first to shake hands with the former President.” He explained to his military aide that he was “charged with the dignity of the Executive” and was determined to “say nothing that will put a momentary slight even on that great office.” No matter how much he would rather be Will, welcoming his friend Theodore, he was now President Taft. “I think, moreover, that [Roosevelt] will appreciate this feeling in me,” he concluded, “and would be the first one to resent the slightest subordination of the office of President to any man.”
Instead, he planned a journey of his own that day—a train trip to Villanova, Pennsylvania, to deliver the commencement address at the Catholic university, followed by a visit to the small town of West Chester, and a second commencement address at a celebrated black institution, Lincoln University. “When you are being hammered,” Taft explained, “not only by the press, but by members of your own party in Washington, and one feels there isn’t anything quite right that he can do, the pleasure of going out into the country, of going into a city that hasn’t seen a president for twenty years, and then makes a fuss over him to prove to him that there is somebody that doesn’t know of his defects, is a pleasure I don’t like to forego.”
He boarded the train at Union Station in Washington for a departure to Philadelphia at 7 a.m., the very hour at which Roosevelt’s ocean liner reached New York. Before the train left, it was noted that he “read with deep interest the latest news of the homecoming of Col. Roosevelt.” Arriving at Philadelphia shortly before ten thirty, he was taken by special locomotive to Villanova, where he was met by a delegation of over five hundred professors and students. The college had arranged to bring all “the members of the faculty, the entire student body and all the townspeople that could get to the station in traps, autos and on foot.” As the president stepped from the locomotive, “the Villanova band played ‘Hail to the Chief’ and the college boys let out one concentrated, prolonged and tremendous yell.” Charmed by the rousing welcome, Taft broke into a beaming smile.
The entire visit to Villanova proved a gratifying relief from the besieging trials of the presidency. The commencement exercises took place in the college auditorium, gaily decorated with bunting and flags. Since the auditorium held only 2,500 invited guests, arrangements had been made for Taft to deliver his address outside, so that an overflow crowd of 5,000 people who had been gathering on the grounds since early morning might hear him. “The Roosevelt luck” that graced the former president’s celebration in New York with sunny skies did not hold for Taft, however; the sky blackened with thunderclouds just as he was set to start his address, prompting a reluctant decision to speak indoors.
Despite the sudden change, Taft’s address was received with enthusiasm. He applauded the Augustinians’ missionary work in the Philippines and spoke wistfully of his years as governor general—perhaps the most fulfilling of his political career. An outburst of applause greeted every positive reference to the Catholic Church, and when he finished his speech, the entire audience rose in loud acclamation.
With lifted spirits, Taft boarded a special train to West Chester, home to Republican congressman Thomas S. Butler. Butler had remained loyal to Taft through all the difficult days of his presidency. Now Taft graciously repaid him by making a “flying visit” to the little town to deliver two short speeches extolling his steadfast supporter. “He came to me at the beginning of my administration,” Taft said of Butler, “and declared he was going to stand by me to the end—he probably didn’t know how much that meant.” The townspeople were thrilled to see the president. “Banks, office buildings, residences and the post office were a mass of colors,” one correspondent wrote, “while displayed on a number of buildings were the ten foot high letters T-A-F-T.”
The president continued on to the campus of Lincoln University, arriving just as “a terrific electrical storm raged overhead.” Undeterred, 2,000 people patiently stood on the grounds in the pouring rain without even the protection of umbrellas. “I thank you sincerely for coming out to greet me,” he humbly told the cheering crowd. “I understand that it is to the President of the United States, and I accept it as such.” In his well-received address, Taft referred to Booker T. Washington as “one of the greatest men of the century” and called on the black community to develop its own educated leaders to help solve the nation’s racial problems.
Despite Taft’s heartfelt reception all along his route, the press could not resist drawing comparisons between the outright jubilation that marked Roosevelt’s sunlit homecoming on the seacoast and the decorous approval accorded the president in the rain-drenched interior. Furthermore, while Roosevelt seemed as fresh and buoyant at day’s end as when he disembarked, Taft was “travel-stained” and exhausted when he boarded the train back to Washington. One reporter went so far as to portray the overweight Taft “in a free state of perspiration . . . suffering from so much prickly heat that it pushes his clothes out from him,” making it impossible for him to keep his shirt buxom in place. On his way home, Taft read the afternoon newspaper accounts of Roosevelt’s homecoming reception, doubtless taking note of the Colonel’s remark that he stood “ready and eager” to do his part in solving the country’s ills.
When the president reached the White House shortly before ten o’clock, his weariness abruptly vanished with news that his bill to expand the federal government’s power to prevent arbitrary increases in railroad rates had passed Congress that day and was awaiting his signature. Even in the worst of times, when bombarded by criticism in insurgent newspapers for his willingness to deal with the conservative bloc in the Congress, Taft had retained “an abiding faith” that if he could secure legislation the country needed, “the credit would take care of itself ultimately.” Now, with the passage of his railroad bill, he could allow himself a bit of optimism. In the previous session, he had secured a corporation tax bill, hailed as “the first positive step toward the National supervision of great corporations,” as well as an amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act that gave the commission “for the first time, the power to prevent stock-watering.”
In addition to the railroad bill, two important progressive measures were about to receive his signature: the first confirmed presidential authority to withdraw millions of acres of land for conservation; the second, a postal savings bill “fought at every step by powerful interests,” provided the poor a secure place to deposit their money. That very afternoon, in fact, the lead editorial in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin suggested that Taft “had unquestionably strengthened his position in the public esteem, within the last thirty days,” as the country was “beginning to realize more clearly the essential force that lies behind his quiet, persistent methods. . . . His policy throughout has been that of a resolute defender of the public interest who preferred to work without parade or ostentation.”
As he went to sleep that night, Taft could take heart that Roosevelt, too, would recognize the necessity that led him to deal with the conservatives. He was working in his own, unspectacular way to accomplish the progressive goals that both shared with equal fervor. That morning, he had dispatched Captain Butt to deliver a second handwritten letter to Roosevelt as he landed in New York. He warmly reiterated the invitation tendered to Roosevelt three weeks earlier, to join him at the White House. Once reunited, despite the swirling tensions and innuendo, they might enjoy the camaraderie of the old days, when, as Roosevelt’s sister Corinne recalled, they had so enjoyed one another’s company that “their laughs would mingle and reverberate through the corridors and rooms, and Edith would say, ‘It is always that way when they are together.’ ”
The restoration of their old friendship—a matter more in Roosevelt’s hands than in Taft’s—was not simply a private concern: “No other friendship in our modern politics has meant more to the American people,” William Allen White wrote, “for it has made two most important and devoted public servants wiser, kindlier, more useful men.”
“The whole country waits and wonders,” the Baltimore Sun noted in a prescient editorial. Roosevelt “seems to hold the future of his party in the hollow of his hand. Taft looks to him for succor. The Insurgents know if they can win his support the Regulars will be swept away. Old leaders tremble, new aspirants take hope. His decision is important to the country, and even more important to himself. Many another has risen to the heights of popularity to be dethroned in a day. Has Roosevelt reached the pinnacle of his fame, or is he to move forward to fresh conquests? It rests with him. He is at the height of his mental and physical powers. He possesses a great influence over the masses of his countrymen. Such power is a tremendous weapon for good or evil. How will he wield it?”
To understand the complex contours of this consequential friendship, however, we must go backward in time to analyze the similarities in experience that initially drew Roosevelt and Taft together and the differences in temperament that now threatened to split them apart.