Theodore Roosevelt: A Bully Reformer


Theodore Roosevelt was the twenty-sixth president of the United States. His presidency would become the symbol of strong leadership, reform, and a square deal for Americans in the new century.

When Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1901, the nation was adjusting to the rapid changes that began in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The process of industrialization was continuing, the economy was expanding, and cities were growing as people both immigrated and migrated to find opportunity and work. The magnitude of all the changes led people to believe that the nation had broken with the past and that its future would be defined by the intolerable problems that accompanied the change, especially industrialization and urbanization.

The desire to restore order and justice gave rise to a veritable army of reformers activists ready to experiment with solutions to the varied dilemmas of a modernizing nation on an international stage. These progressives, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, took on problems that ranged from city sanitation and conservation to visiting nurses and settlement houses. Progressives studied and exerted influence in most every aspect of society, government and the economy in order to end injustice and curb perceived excesses of privilege.

Although Roosevelt was born into privilege and influence in the United States and was a member of the Republican Party, his presidency exposed a more complex individual. His life, the times and progressivism informed the actions and policies of his presidency. This lesson will ask students to analyze the twenty-sixth president of the United States.


  • Students will be able to create a model to be used to evaluate the validity of historical evidence.
  • Students will examine primary documents and secondary sources to analyze the history of the Progressive era and the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Students will be able to examine the effects of industrialization and urbanization on the United States in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
  • Students will be able to identify the major social, economic and political factors that led to the rise of the progressives.
  • Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of the significant social, economic and political events of this era.


Student Exercise One: Define the Progressive Era

Have students research the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century. Have them read secondary accounts of the era in order to develop a context for the Roosevelt presidency.

The students may have difficulty agreeing on a single definition of progressivism; they may need to develop several definitions.

The following sites and textbook accounts will provide the information needed:

Student Exercise Two: Research the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt with a focus on his domestic reforms and his foreign policy.

Have the class brainstorm the kinds of information that they should gather in order to understand Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive reformer and Theodore Roosevelt, the imperialist.

Identify the style and substance of Roosevelt's domestic and foreign policies.

Identify significant domestic and foreign policy issues during T.R.'s terms of office.

The following sites are useful for this exercise:

Student Exercise Three: Discover the public image of Theodore Roosevelt.

Divide class into small groups. Assign each group two issues: one domestic (such as trusts) and one foreign policy (such as the canal) from the list generated in the previous exercise. Have each group look at the cartoons and select four (two about T.R.'s domestic policy and two about T.R.'s foreign policy) that exemplify assigned issues.

Prepare to present cartoon choices with explanations to the class.

There is a wealth of political cartoons about Theodore Roosevelt, both as a public servant in New York and as President of the United States on the cartoon page of

Extension Activities

Political Campaign

Divide class into small groups. Have the students design a 1904 presidential campaign for Theodore Roosevelt

Each campaign should include the following:

  • A platform statement based on TR’s quotations and his first term (1901–1904)
  • Three campaign posters (These should be creative and attract attention and support.)
  • One ad or speech exposing the weakness of the Democratic Party and candidate
  • Each group should present their TR campaign

The following sites are useful sources for TR quotations:


To what extent did Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy sustain or detract from his image as a progressive/reformer?