The Naval Career of Theodore Roosevelt

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will explore the naval career of Theodore Roosevelt before he was elected President of the United States. We will learn why he placed such an importance on the Navy, and we will highlight key themes and developments surrounding his role as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Jack of All Trades

Who has his face on Mount Rushmore and has a stuffed animal named after him? You guessed it, former President Theodore Roosevelt, also known as ''Teddy'' Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt was a dynamic man, and in many respects, a ''Jack-of-all-trades'', meaning he excelled in many areas. As a boy he overcame debilitating asthma through rigorous weightlifting. At the age of 25, he experienced the death of his wife and mother on the same day. While president, he was shot by an assassin while delivering a speech, but he refused to seek medical care, choosing instead to continue speaking for some 90 minutes with a bullet lodged in his chest. You get the idea: Roosevelt was a tough and energetic man. Aside from his involvement in politics, below are some of the other roles he occupied throughout his life:

  • Historian
  • Naturalist (scientist)
  • Cowboy
  • War hero
  • Assistant Secretary of the Navy

A youthful Theodore Roosevelt is depicted in this engraving.

It is this last role we want to examine in this lesson. Roosevelt was an ideal person to serve as the Assistant Secretary to the Navy. It was a role he relished, and one that was suited well to him. Let's learn more!

Roosevelt and the Influence of Sea Power

Fresh out of Harvard University, Roosevelt published his first book in 1882. While in college he had taken an interest in the War of 1812. His book, The Naval War of 1812 examined the naval battles between American and British forces. The book was a big success and it profoundly impacted naval strategy in the late 19th century.

In 1890 another influential book was published. This book profoundly shaped the foreign policy of Theodore Roosevelt, and hence the U.S. as a whole. The book was Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783. Mahan had been a U.S. Navy captain. In his book, he argued that a powerful navy is essential to the prosperity of a nation. Mahan regarded control of the seas as necessary for commerce and expansion, and he suggested that a strong navy can play a more decisive role than a strong army. Mahan's strategy emphasized naval blockades and the construction of heavy battleships. Theodore Roosevelt bought into this doctrine hook-line-and-sinker (no pun intended!) The Influence of Sea Power proved to guide Roosevelt's military strategy and foreign policy throughout his life.

The Influence of Sea Power Upon History had a profound impact on the military strategy of Theodore Roosevelt.
sea power

Role as Assistant Secretary of the Navy

Theodore Roosevelt's passion for the Navy and powerful circle of friends soon helped him begin his career in politics. He had supported William McKinley in the Election of 1896, and had many friends within the U.S. Senate. These friends convinced President McKinley to offer Roosevelt a government post. In 1897 President McKinley appointed Roosevelt to the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Although John D. Long was the Secretary of the Navy, he was in ill health and tended to be relatively aloof. This gave Roosevelt considerable power over the American Navy. Whereas Long tended to be more conservative and cautious, Roosevelt was anything but. He took an aggressive approach to the Navy, and was particularly passionate about the construction of more battleships. Roosevelt was an expansionist, meaning he desire to see U.S. power and territory expand throughout the world.

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