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The Cowboy President

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

On October 14, 1912, John Schrank shot former President Theodore Roosevelt in the chest with a .38 caliber Colt Police Special at a campaign stop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The bullet was slowed by Roosevelt's coat, the steel case that held his eyeglasses, and a folded copy of the 50-page speech he planned to deliver that day. Roosevelt, who was campaigning for his third non-consecutive term as President, famously went on to deliver the speech prior to seeking medical assistance, telling the crowd, "It takes more than that to kill a bull moose," the bull moose being the symbol of Roosevelt's Progressive Party. Perhaps less well known is that Roosevelt persuaded the crowd, which had quickly surrounded Mr. Schrank in preparation for hanging him for his assassination attempt, to instead bring the assailant forward so that Roosevelt could look the man in the eye and ask why he had pulled the trigger. Though Schrank, who would later be deemed legally insane, had no answer for Teddy, he would later proclaim his admiration for his would-be target, proclaiming him a "Great American."

Headline from the York Daily (York, Pennsylvania) October 15, 1912.

The invocation of the bull moose as symbolic of Roosevelt's personal strength and vigor is a part of a broader association of the 26th President with the American West, drawing on the character of the country to define the character of the man. And just as no symbol of American masculinity and character has proven more pervasive than that of the cowboy, no archetype was more willingly and masterfully assumed by Theodore Roosevelt. According to historian Sarah Watts, "Roosevelt emerged as a central purveyor of the cowboy-soldier hero model because he more than any man of his age harnessed the tantalizing freedom of cowboys to address the social and psychological needs that arose from deep personal sources of frustration, anxiety, and fear. More than any other he sensed that ordinary men needed a clearly recognizable and easily appropriated hero who enacted themes about the body; the need for extremity, pain, and sacrifice; and the desire to exclude some men and bond with others. In one seamless cowboy-soldier-statesman-hero life, Roosevelt crafted the cowboy ethos consciously and lived it zealously, providing men an image and a fantasy enlisted in service to the race-nation."

The Cowboy President - The American West and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt by Michael F. Blake

Roosevelt's assumption of the cowboy mantle began soon after the simultaneous deaths of Roosevelt's mother and his wife on Valentine's Day, February 14th, 1884. Their deaths were soon followed by a major political setback when Roosevelt was forced to lend his support to fellow Republican James G. Blaine, much to the dismay of Mugwump reformers upset at Blaine's potential corruption. Roosevelt retired from politics and left New York for North Dakota, determined to become a rancher. He built the Elkhorn Ranch 35 miles north of Medora and learned to ride western style, rope, and hunt. He began to write articles about life on the frontier for national magazines, venerating the western man, with "few of the emasculated, milk-and-water moralities admired by the pseudo-philanthropists; but he does possess, to a very high degree, the stern, manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation."

Those same qualities would soon propel Roosevelt back into both national politics and the national spotlight. Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President William McKinley, and oversaw the modernization of America's fleet and preparations for the Spanish-American War. Admiral of the Navy George Dewey later credited his victory at the Battle of Manila Bay to Roosevelt's orders. As war erupted, Roosevelt resigned his post and assembled a collection of cowboys, soldiers, Ivy League athletes, Native Americans, glee club singers, and Texas Rangers. Officially the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, they were well known by another name, famously used by Buffalo Bill Cody to denote his Wild West Show's Riders of the World—Rough Riders.

Buffalo Bill's "Congress of Rough Riders of the World" would soon stage depictions of battles fought in Cuba by Roosevelt's Rough Riders, who had named themselves after Cody's Riders of the World.

After his famous charge up Kettle Hill with the Rough Riders, Roosevelt went on to serve as first the Governor of New York and the Vice President during President McKinley's second term. When McKinley was felled by an assassin's bullet in 1901, Roosevelt became President at the age of 42. He remains the youngest man to ever assume the office. As President he was both a noted progressive (he famously invited Booker T. Washington to join him for dinner at the White House, angering many in the segregated South) and a tireless conservationist, his efforts geared at ensuring that society as a whole, rather than just select individuals or companies, benefited from the country's vast natural resources. Roosevelt established the US Forest Service, signed into law the creation of five National Parks, and proclaimed 18 new National Monuments. He established the first 51 bird reserves, four game preserves, and 150 National Forests. During Roosevelt's Presidency, nearly 360,000 square miles was placed under public protection.

Long after Roosevelt's death, his image as The Cowboy President remains pervasive. From the moment Texas Jack Omohundro stepped onto the stage with his friend Buffalo Bill Cody in 1872, the tools of Omohundro's former profession—the tall cavalry boots, the fringed buckskins, the tucked pistols, the Bowie knife, the lasso, the Stetson—have become the symbols of America itself. Though Theodore Roosevelt was the first politician to understand the value in the iconography of the cowboy, he was far from the last. Every politician who dons a Stetson hopes that you think of men like Theodore Roosevelt, like Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, and the assembled Rough Riders charging up San Juan Heights. They all want your vote, and they all believe you'd vote for a cowboy.

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