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Press Releases :: 3/20/2000

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Theodore Roosevelt: Icon of the American Century

Albany, New York -- 3/20/2000

ALBANY, N.Y. - Theodore Roosevelt: Icon of the American Century explores the life of one of the most charismatic politicians to ever occupy the White House and New York's State Capitol. The exhibition, from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, will be at the New York State Museum from April 28 to July 9 in Exhibition Hall.

The exhibition includes more than 116 items, including paintings, photographs, political cartoons and memorabilia documenting Roosevelt's enthusiastic pursuit of what he called "the strenuous life."

Theodore Roosevelt: Icon of the American Century is made possible in part by the Office of the Governor of New York State, Gov. George Pataki.

In an adjunct gallery, the New York State Library and the State Museum, programs of the State Education Department, will present Theodore Roosevelt: Popular Image and the Collector, selections from the Lyall D. Squair Collection of Theodore Roosevelt Memorabilia. The Squair Collection was one of the largest private collections of manuscripts, books and artifacts relating to Roosevelt as a New Yorker and as president. Roosevelt, governor of New York from 1899-1900, came back to Albany in 1916 to dedicate the New York State Museum at the State Education Building.

When Roosevelt became the 26th president at age 42 after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, he was the youngest man ever to do so. He infused the executive office with the same frenetic energy that characterized his life. He was the wielder of the Big Stick, the builder of the Panama Canal, father of the conservation movement and the modern day Navy, and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In this exhibition, curated by Portrait Gallery Historian James G. Barber, Roosevelt's life (1858-1919) is told through such objects as:

  • An unequaled collection of Roosevelt's finest portraits, including a 1905 sculpture by Frederick MacMonnies depicting Roosevelt as Rough Rider and a 1920 bronze bust by Gutzon Borglum -- a version of the original plaster model Borglum used in carving Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
  • A colorful collection of original cartoon drawings that were published in such journals as Puck, Harper's Weekly and Life.
  • Photographs of Roosevelt living the "strenuous life" as Rough Rider in 1898, at the Panama Canal in 1906 operating a steam shovel, on safari in Africa in 1909-1910, and on the campaign trail seeking an unprecedented third term as president in 1912.

From Youth to the Presidency

Roosevelt was born in 1858 in New York City. Once a frail child, he became a national celebrity whose persona was so magnetic that the public, one reporter noted, could "no more look the other way than the small boy can turn his head away from a circus parade followed by a steam calliope."

"I rose like a rocket," is how Roosevelt described his meteoric political career, which began when he won a seat in the state legislature in Albany in 1881. It was only a year earlier that he graduated from Harvard, magna cum laude.

By the mid-1880s, he owned two ranches in the Badlands of the Dakota territory, where he lived the rigorous life of a cowboy and hunter. He wrote several books, including a highly acclaimed Naval history of the War of 1812 and a memoir of the West.

By September 1901, when he became the 26th president after the assassination of McKinley, he had served as United States civil service commissioner, New York City police commissioner, assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York and vice president. He won a reputation as a fearless reformer who had made significant inroads against graft, corruption and the spoils system wherever he encountered them.

A highlight of these years occurred in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Congress had authorized Roosevelt to organize a volunteer cavalry regiment of Rough Riders, and he led them in a famous charge up San Juan Heights in Cuba.

Among the memorabilia from that time on exhibit are:

  • From Roosevelt's cowboy days in the Dakota Territory, his sterling silver hunting knife by Tiffany & Co., dated 1884; his Sharp's Old Reliable rifle, his leather chaps; and the iron brand of the Elkhorn Ranch, ca. 1884.
  • Roosevelt's Rough Rider uniform, including his hat by Stetson, and William Dinwiddie's well-known photograph of the Rough Riders posing victoriously at the crest of San Juan Heights in 1898.
  • The nightstick he carried as New York City police commissioner and an umbrella from the McKinley-Roosevelt campaign of 1900.

The Roosevelt Presidency

On Sept. 14, 1901, after only six months as vice president and after the McKinley assassination, Roosevelt became president. From the beginning, Roosevelt's boundless energy was apparent. His face became so familiar that he became the darling of political cartoonists nationwide. Even mail addressed only with eyeglasses and teeth would be delivered to the White House without question.

Soon nicknamed the "Trust Buster," Roosevelt worked tirelessly to regulate the monopolistic excesses of big business, pitting himself against such industrial giants as J. Pierpont Morgan, who had controlling interest in several major railroads and industries.

Roosevelt was equally energetic, and aggressive, in foreign affairs. For example, in his determination to construct the Panama Canal, he took advantage of an uprising of Panamanians against the government of Colombia, which at that time was controlled by Panama. He promptly recognized the new government of Panama and negotiated a treaty that offered $10 million for the rights to the Canal Zone, a proposal the Colombians had rejected. Roosevelt considered the building of the canal a milestone of his presidency and personally oversaw virtually every phase of its progress.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of his presidency was the drive to preserve public lands; he established four wild game preserves, five national parks, 51 bird reservations and 150 national forests. He designated 18 national monuments including the Grand Canyon.

Items illustrating this time period include:

  • Photographs taken in 1903 of Roosevelt with conservationist John Muir at Yosemite in California, and with party conservationists and politicians, posing in front of an enormous redwood tree called the "Grizzly Giant."
  • A Teddy Bear, ca. 1903, and Teddy Bear books and a ceramic pitcher, reminders of the enduring craze inspired by Roosevelt's legendary refusal to shoot a black bear that had been tormented, wounded and run up a tree by a pack of hounds.

Theodore Roosevelt, Civilian

Before leaving office in 1909, Roosevelt vigorously campaigned for his successor, William Howard Taft. Within weeks after Taft's election, with typical zest, Roosevelt embarked with his son Kermit on an African safari, organized in cooperation with the Smithsonian. It lasted nearly a year and resulted in hundreds of specimens for the Institution's collections. After the safari, he promptly began an extended tour of Europe with his wife.

Upon his return to the United States, Roosevelt decided he would run for a third time in light of his dissatisfaction with what he considered President Taft's lack of leadership. When Roosevelt lost the Republican Party's nomination, his supporters formed the Progressive or Bull Moose Party and nominated him as their candidate.

The campaign was volatile -- Roosevelt was wounded in an assassination attempt -- and it generated tremendous response, both pro and con, from the press and public. Although he beat Taft in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, the split vote gave the election to Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson.

After the election, Roosevelt campaigned for national issues. In the months leading to America's involvement in World War I, he became the nation's foremost advocate for preparedness, and even began laying plans to raise a division of volunteer mounted infantry. The Wilson administration declined his offers to participate in the conflict, but Roosevelt's four enlisted sons more than upheld the family reputation for service. In July 1918, the youngest, Quentin, died in aerial combat over France, and two of his brothers were wounded.

Roosevelt remained active in politics and foreign affairs after Quentin's death, but his health deteriorated quickly. He died in his sleep on Jan. 6, 1919.

This exhibition has been organized by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in association with Manhattan Sites and Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. Partial funding has been provided by the Smithsonian Institution Special Exhibition Fund and the Theodore Roosevelt Association.

Additional funding was provided by Metropolitan Life Foundation.


*Color slides are available by calling 518-486-2003.

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