February 22, 2012
On February 22, 1909, one of Theodore Roosevelt’s last days as President of the United States, he journeyed out to Hampton Roads, Virginia, to welcome back a fleet of battleships he had ordered on an around-the-world cruise in mid-December 1907. The homecoming ended his presidency on a high note, though the cruise had not been without its problems.
The Great White Fleet was, for the most part, a presidential publicity stunt. Roosevelt hoped the cruise would raise awareness of the need for military preparedness in the United States, particularly a need in the United States Navy. Congress, however, was not completely on board with the president’s idea. The Great White Fleet was Roosevelt’s response to Congress’ hesitation. On December 16, 1907, the Roosevelt family watched the fleet sail out from Hampton Roads from aboard the presidential yacht, Mayflower. However, the training cruise was plagued by news leaks, in-port fighting, and a minor ship collision. Over time, the cruise shifted into a sort of goodwill diplomatic tour of the world, both showing off the US Navy’s power and promising American friendship wherever it stopped. While Congress grumbled about the costs, the American people bought maps in record numbers to follow the progress of the fleet.
Upon the fleet's return to the United States, a capstone moment for Roosevelt’s presidency, TR welcomed back the men of the fleet with these stirring words:
Over a year has passed since you steamed out of this harbor, and over the world’s rim; and this morning the hearts of all who saw you thrilled with pride as the hulls of the mighty war-ships lifted above the horizon. You have been in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres; four times you have crossed the line; you have steamed through all the great oceans; you have touched the coast of every continent. Ever your general course has been west-ward; and now you come back to the port from which you set sail. This is the first battle fleet that has ever circumnavigated the Globe. Those who perform the feat again can but follow in your footsteps.
You may read more of the speech here from the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace collection. Our incomplete copy of the speech includes Roosevelt’s handwritten edits.
Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life. 2002.