Theodore Roosevelt's Presidency

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What criticisms exist about Theodore Roosevelt's presidency?

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Theodore Roosevelt is well-remembered for many of his accomplishments, but he is also the subject of much criticism. In addition to his involvement in the Panamanian Revolution and the canal, thoroughly described in the other answers here, let's look at some of the other common criticism of this president.

Some critics of Theodore Roosevelt point to his excessive use of the executive order. While president, he issued over one thousand executive orders. By contrast, President McKinley issued only around one hundred. Many of Roosevelt's orders were over trivial matters. He also used this power to create vast swaths of federally protected conservation land. Regardless of its effects or motives, many point to Roosevelt's many executive orders as greatly expanding the president's power well beyond what the Constitution originally intended. He frequently inserted himself in the debates going on in Congress. This was something that many felt was contrary to the notion of separation of powers on which the federal government is structured.

Roosevelt is also criticized for his aggressive foreign policy. He was president at a time when many in the United States felt that the country should exercise its power overseas. Using the Monroe Doctrine as a blueprint, Roosevelt issued a corollary to assert the country's prerogative to intervene throughout the hemisphere. While many supported this move, there was also a strong isolationist movement in the country that saw it as overly aggressive and against the country's interests.

On a personal level, Roosevelt has been criticized for his racist views. He believed that the white race was the superior race to all others. He used this view to justify the country's imperialistic actions abroad and to ignore the plight of minorities at home.

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President Theodore Roosevelt's biggest criticism has to do with how he managed the construction and completion of the Panama Canal.

The initial digging of the canal was started by the French in 1880, but the harsh terrain and diseases got the best of them. They ran into losses, and after nine years, they were ready to sell the project. President Roosevelt was very much interested in the deal, but Congress was not for it, because of the risk factors faced by the French. Luckily, the Senate helped him get a lifeline, saying that they would only spend $40 million for the purchase.

The French were willing to sell, but there was a problem. Colombia controlled Panama, and they wanted their share of the money. Since no one was willing to spend more than they wanted to, the deal almost broke down.

President Roosevelt decided to overthrow Panama's administration at the time and bring in leaders that were more supportive of his plan. In the end, the plan worked and Roosevelt got his canal.

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Perhaps the most controversial decision Theodore Roosevelt made during his presidency was his intervention in Panama. Because he wanted to finish the construction of the Panama Canal (after the French had begun, then abandoned, the project), he had a hand in organizing the revolution that overthrew the government of Panama. Roosevelt sent US Navy warships that helped to gain Panamanian independence. However, the new government was guided by a constitution that was written by Americans in terms favorable to US interests in opening the shipping lanes. Roosevelt's critics see it as imperialism.

Although Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House at one point, in a 1905 speech to the New York City Republican Club, he made some racist remarks. Roosevelt referred to whites as a "forward race" and minorities as "backwards" races.

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As with any president, Theodore Roosevelt has his critics.  Some of the most common reasons for criticizing him are:

  • He was excessively egotistical.  He felt that, even after he left office, his vision should be carried out.  He handpicked William Taft as his successor but then became unhappy with Taft’s actions in office.  Therefore, he ran against Taft in the 1912 primaries.  When he lost, he decided to run as a third party candidate, thus dividing the Republican Party and allowing the Democrats to win the election.
  • He was racist.  Roosevelt did not just believe that white people were superior to non-whites.  He also believed, as was fairly common at the time, that some kinds of white people were better than others.  He feared that the best white people of the US (essentially what we would call White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) would commit “race suicide” by intermarrying with the lower kinds of whites and/or by not having enough children while the lower races had more children.
  • He was overly aggressive in his foreign policy.  Roosevelt believed that the US should be able to do essentially whatever it wanted in the Caribbean and in American territories like the Philippines.  He did not worry about letting people from such places have independence or self-government.  He felt, perhaps because these people were non-white, that they could not govern themselves properly and that the US should step in and take control whenever it deemed it necessary.

All of these are criticisms of Theodore Roosevelt that are at least somewhat common today.

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