A Cowpoke Named Theodore focused on the impact the western frontier had on the development of Theodore Roosevelt’s personality and subsequent political career. He became the cowboy he most admired, and the nation admired him because of it. He left New York in 1884, a broken man, devastated by the death of his mother and wife on the same day. He returned to New York confident, fearless, and as idealistic as ever. But Mr. Roosevelt wasn’t the only man to serve as president affected by the American west nor the first to influence the west’s development.
There may not have been an American west had it not been for Thomas Jefferson, the man who doubled the United States’ size with one swipe of the presidential pen. The official announcement came on 4 July 1803. The bad news was that the Louisiana Purchase turned into an administrative nightmare for the next several decades. His “Corps of Discovery” and the Red River Expedition extended both the physical and mythical “American West.” Jefferson’s father was a surveyor/cartographer on the Virginia frontier, and Thomas grew up romanticizing the western frontier.
Even as a young man, Jefferson seemed committed to asserting (then) British claim to western lands —never mind that at the time they belonged to France and Spain. To many, it was a bit odd that on the one hand, Jefferson held a life-long reverence for the Indians, and on the other hand, in later years, laid the foundation for the destructive reservation system. When Jefferson claimed dominion in the name of the United States of America over all the land acquired from France, it was under the control of Indian nations, and Jefferson well knew this. Anthropologist A. F. C. Wallace opined, “Jefferson appears both as the scholarly admirer of Indian character, archeology, and language and as the planter of cultural genocide, the architect of the removal policy and the surveyor of the Trail of Tears.” Jefferson never saw the west himself; he never ventured further west than Virginia’s the Blue Ridge Mountains, but his contribution to the United States’ westward expansion was unsurpassed by any other.
We may have given credit to Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase, but it was a future president, along with Robert Livingston, who negotiated the deal —and did so on the fly, so to speak. James Monroe’s instruction from Jefferson was simple: negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and Western Florida for up to $10 million.
What Monroe discovered, however, upon his arrival in France, was a nervous French government on the cusp of war with Great Britain. These circumstances led French ministers to offer their American land for sale—for $15 million. Monroe had no way to confer with Jefferson, but neither was he one to dawdle when offered the most incredible land deal in the history of the world. Monroe and Livingston wasted no time clinching the deal.
Some years later, President Monroe announced his 1823 doctrine—a warning to the European powers that the United States would brook no further attempts to colonize the Western Hemisphere. Monroe may not have considered that the United States had no way to enforce such a warning, nor even that once a European power had nestled itself in a given settlement, the United States had the wherewithal to dislodge them. Yet, as the United States grew (some say, in leaps and bounds), the Monroe Doctrine became the cornerstone of America’s westward expansion.
President James K. Polk didn’t coin the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” but no one is more appropriately associated with it. One should ask, has any other one-term president achieved so much toward enlarging the United States’ future? Polk annexed the Oregon territory, which extended America’s land to the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Equally notable was the treaty between the United States and Mexico (The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), which concluded the Mexican—American War. The United States picked up an additional 525,000 square miles of land, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Mexico also gave up all of its claims to Texas and acknowledged the Rio Grande as the United States’ southern border. Was James K. Polk, “the most aggressively expansionist of all American presidents?” According to historian H. W. Brands, he was precisely that.
President Polk realized, perhaps more acutely than any other American official at the time, that California offered the United States an expanded economy and access to Asian markets. On 5 December 1848, Polk announced the discovery of gold in his State of the Union address, which sparked the California Gold Rush. Afterward, westward expansion tripled.
James K. Polk, the man who won the presidency by a mere 5,000 New York votes, transformed the American presidency —and America. Had Henry Clay been elected, Texas would have remained an independent Republic, and Oregon would today be part of the British Commonwealth.
The last president to preside over a “North/South” United States was Honest Abe Lincoln. He was also the first president responsible for creating the so-called cowboy mystique. While true that the Civil War dominated Lincoln’s life as president and led to his general unwellness, Lincoln never failed to promote the American west. During the war, he pushed through the Homestead Act (offering160 acres of land to frontier settlers). Lincoln also established the Department of Agriculture to oversee national land, farming, livestock, and forestry interests. He protected the Yosemite Valley by signing the Yosemite Land Grant Act.
Beyond the foregoing, perhaps Lincoln’s most significant contribution to the American West was his enthusiastic support of railroads. His grant to the Union Pacific-Central Pacific Railroad was the largest federal subsidy in history to that time. He didn’t live to see Alaska’s 1867 purchase, either, but those negotiations ran throughout his presidency.
Noted historians suggest that of all our presidents, Abraham Lincoln did more than any other to shape the American West. Railroads expanded the economy, encouraged the production of goods and services (especially cattle), and thus, he gave us post-mortem, the American Cowboy.
Theodore Roosevelt was changed, in a very significant way, by the American West. But Theodore changed the west in equal proportion. Roosevelt not only fell in love with the American West, but he also fell in love with the idea of the American frontier and the men and women who settled it. Through his writing, he transformed the old west settler into the western cowboy, a soldier hero who epitomized what it was to be strong, courageous, individualistic, and tough. Some today claim that Roosevelt’s policies and those of presidents who later succeeded him transformed individualistic westerners into socialists. These were men who happily accepted one free federal benefit after another, from reservoirs and dams to free land upon which to graze their cattle— and all at the taxpayer’s expense.
As a much older man, as president, Roosevelt feared that the west would be irrevocably changed (for the worse) by unchecked development. He wanted to preserve the west, but he also wanted the United States to benefit from its bounty. Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service, set aside 150 national forests, 51 bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments. In all, he federally protected 230 million acres of public land.
Historians claim that Theodore’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt (not one of my favorite presidents), removed wild from the expression “Wild West.” In his mostly failed efforts to bring the United States out of the depression, FDR believed that his best chance of doing that was to regenerate America’s battered spirit. Noted historian H. W. Brands argued that FDR’s focus on the west was merely an extension of how the American West was created in the first place: the creation of federal territories and possibly the greatest accomplishment of the U.S. federal government.
FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps put 250,000 young men to work in such areas as reforestation, road building, and flood control programs. His Agricultural Adjustment Act revitalized farming and ranching. The Public Works Administration constructed electric-generating dams. All of these were part and parcel of the “socialization” previously mentioned, all of which were heartily supported by the “tough individualist” in the western states.
Finally, President Lyndon B. Johnson ignored none of these lessons in his so-called “War on Poverty.” It is interesting to note that no state has repudiated their favorite son more than the State of Texas disowned Johnson.
- Boles, J. B. Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty. New York: Basic Books, 2017.
- Brands, H. W. The Zealot and the Emancipator and the struggle for American Freedom. New York: Doubleday, 2020
- Brands, H. W. Traitor to his Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Doubleday Books, 2008.
- Chaffin, T. Met His Every Goal—James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014.
- Pringle, H. F. Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Press, 1931,1956, 1984.
- Unger, H. G. The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness. Perseus/Da Capo Press, 2009.
 Jefferson installed a native American hall at Monticello that he filled with Indian artifacts.
 New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan did that in 1845 to describe America’s arrogant belief in a providential empire that would stretch from “sea to sea.”
 Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states, “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” George Washington delivered the first annual message before a joint session of Congress in 1790. Thomas Jefferson discontinued the joint address as being too monarchical. No address was again made until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice. Historians claim that the Theodore’s written addresses to Congress were so long that it cost a fortune to reprint and distribute them and occupied extraordinary time in reading and acting upon his measures. The actual term “State of the Union” was never actually used until 1934; before that, it was simply the President’s annual message to Congress. Harry S. Truman delivered the first televised address in 1947.