n 1895 Roosevelt left Washington and the civil service commission and returned to his home state to become New York City police commissioner. He worked to make the department more efficient, establishing standardized fingerprinting and mug shots. In a police force riddled with graft and bribery, he enlisted new recruits based on skill and talent, rather than political favor, and established awards for merit. He responded to critics by citing some of the more ridiculous answers that current policemen had given on his new competency tests. In his autobiography, Roosevelt gives some examples:
“A request for a statement as to the life of Abraham Lincoln elicited, among other less startling pieces of information, the fact that many of the applicants thought that he was a general in the Civil War; several thought that he was President of the Confederate States;… one [thought that he had been assassinated] by Thomas Jefferson.”
He worked against rampant corruption in the police department with the same enthusiasm he’d brought to the state assembly and the civil service commission. This time he solicited the help of the press. He walked crime-ridden beats himself—reporters in tow—to bust delinquent cops and establish himself as a force to be reckoned with. Muckraking photojournalist Jacob Riis writes of Roosevelt visiting him after reading Riis’s groundbreaking book, How the Other Half Lives:
I was out, and he left his card, merely writing on the back of it that he had read my book and had “come to help.” That was all and it tells the whole story of the man. … No one ever helped as he did.
Under Riis’s influence, Rooselvelt lobbied for housing reform in overcrowded and unsafe tenements, and also called for mass transit systems and city parks. This was not the last time that the provocative journalism of the muckrakers would make an impact on Roosevelt’s actions.
His next political appointment was as secretary of the Navy, where he prepared the troops for the coming Spanish-American War. When war broke out, he resigned and led a volunteer cavalry dubbed the Rough Riders. He’d barely returned from Cuba before receiving the Republican nomination for governor of New York, and accepting it out of a sense of duty more than personal ambition. He won, and once again worked to destroy machine politics in the party and in the state.
After only two years in the governor’s mansion, his staunch anti-corruption track record led to his inclusion as the vice presidential candidate on the ticket to re-elect William McKinley in 1900. But it wasn’t fellow reformers at the national level that put him on the ticket, it was the New York Republican party boss, Senator Thomas Platt, who wanted to push his troublemaking rival out of the state. By the late 20th century, the vice presidency was a path to greater political ambitions, but in 1900 it was seen as a dead-end job.
The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket easily swept the electoral vote, and Roosevelt’s first few months in office were relatively uneventful. Unfortunately for those who wanted to squash Roosevelt’s rising influence, President McKinley would serve only six months of his second term before being assassinated by wannabe anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the World’s Fair in Buffalo. He died nine days later, and Roosevelt was sworn in as president on September 14, 1901. At 42, he remains the youngest president in history.
The Rough Riders
The Civil War, which had ended just 30 years earlier, left U.S. troops weakened, and volunteers were encouraged to join the Spanish-American War effort. Roosevelt called on his peers to join the 1st U. S. Volunteer Cavalry with him. These peers included cowboys he’d worked with in the Dakotas as well as former Harvard classmates—anyone able-bodied, good on horseback, and willing to serve his country.
After training in a few locations across the American Southwest, the men mustered in Tampa, Florida, to leave for Cuba. Despite a severe shortage of food, horses, and supplies, Colonel Roosevelt led his men in a successful charge on San Juan Hill. Many accounts credit Roosevelt’s forceful personality in keeping the unit motivated, and the successful battle was one of the major turning points in the United States’ favor. Press coverage at home, and the widely touring show “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders,” cemented his reputation as a no-nonsense man’s man once and for all.