Theodore Roosevelt as Governor of New York

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 learn about the role Theodore Roosevelt played during his short time as governor of New York. We will learn what led to him pursuing the office of governor, and we will explore key themes and developments surrounding this role.

Theodore Roosevelt: Destined for Greatness?

In retrospect, it almost seems as if Theodore Roosevelt was ''destined'' for greatness. A ''jack-of-all-trades'' with expertise in science, history, and war, Theodore Roosevelt was among America's most popular and most dynamic presidents. As a physically weak boy he overcame debilitating asthma to become a robust athlete; after his first wife and mother died on the same day, he moved to the West where he became a real-life cowboy. And of course, in the Spanish-American War, he earned fame and glory for his charge up San Juan Hill.

Indeed, Roosevelt appeared destined for great things. It was his decision to run for governor of New York, however, that introduced him to ''big-time'' national politics. As some of you may know, for many politicians the governorship is sometimes a ''path'' to the White House. Just think about the many presidents who first served as state governors: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and the list goes on and on. Serving as a state governor is an important (and often pivotal) part of one's political career. Roosevelt's short time as governor introduced him to national politics and gave him experience that would prove crucial once he assumed the office of President of the United States. Let's learn more about ''TR'' as governor!

From the life experiences of Theodore Roosevelt, it almost seems as if he was destined for greatness.

The 1898 New York Gubernatorial Race

In August 1898, the Spanish-American War ended. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt returned to the United States a major war hero for leading his ''Rough Riders'' during the Battle of San Juan Hill. Upon his return, he was increasingly considered for public office. During this time, the New York Republican Party was experiencing difficulty. The current Republican governor, Frank S. Black was unpopular and mired in controversy. As New York's 32nd governor he had been elected in 1896, but a scandal involving the Erie Canal Commission caused many within his own party to have misgivings. Among those who doubted Black was the ''boss'' of New York Republican politics, Senator Thomas C. Platt. Platt was corrupt and held tremendous political power in New York. Although Platt didn't particularly like Roosevelt, he recognized that a strong candidate was needed to replace the scandal-ridden governor. Platt and others in the party encouraged Roosevelt to run in the 1898 New York gubernatorial election.

Senator Thomas C. Platt was the boss of New York Republican politics.

Initially, Roosevelt declined to run, but when met with protests from those in his party he finally decided to go ''all in'' for the governorship of New York. Roosevelt was from New York and had many political connections and allies. Replacing Governor Black as the Republican nominee, Roosevelt defeated Democratic candidate Augustus Van Wyck by a slim margin.

Role as Governor

Theodore Roosevelt was the 33rd Governor of New York. He served just short of two years, between January 1899 until December 1900. As governor, Roosevelt was especially concerned with social reforms, combating internal corruption, and reducing the power of large corporations. Roosevelt was not a typical Republican, especially by today's standards: he was not pro-big business. Instead, he tried to look out for the ''little man'' by regulating big business. For example, he pushed through the Ford Franchise-Tax Bill which taxed state-created public franchises. Justifying this decision, Roosevelt stated: ''A corporation which derives its powers from the State, should pay to the State a just percentage of its earnings.''

As Governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt was reform-minded and sought to root out corruption.

However, ''Boss'' Platt and Roosevelt did not see eye to eye. Platt sought to keep Roosevelt under his thumb so he could continue engaging in questionable political activities. Roosevelt, however, was incorruptible and had a mind of his own. Never one to ''tow the line'' when it went against his conscience, Roosevelt upset Platt on numerous occasions by rooting out corruption and instituting reform. Roosevelt was successful in distancing himself from the ''machine'' of party politics, and instead presenting himself as a leader for the ordinary people. This approach proved effective: Roosevelt was a popular governor.

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