A prominent lawyer, statesman, and key member of the Roosevelt administration, Elihu Root directed the American military and diplomatic service towards a new global role after the Spanish-American War and left a lasting impact on foreign affairs and international law. Born in Clinton, New York, on February 15, 1845, Root entered Hamilton College, an institution closely connected with his family, at age 15. An outstanding student, Root was valedictorian at Hamilton, earned a law degree from New York University in 1867, and started a law partnership a year later. Root excelled at trial work and quickly earned a reputation as a young, hotshot lawyer. His law practice prospered and found many clients among business and financial leaders.
An active Republican at the local level, Root’s politics were contradictory. He represented major moneyed interests and was close friends with Chester Alan Arthur, a top figure in the New York Republican political machine and 21st President of the United States. However, Root was also interested in reform and in 1881 supported a young Theodore Roosevelt for assemblyman from the Twenty-first District. In 1886 Root became the Republican Party leader in New York City and his politics were increasingly reform minded, including continued support for Roosevelt. The two men became friends and Root’s legal advice and political sense were an asset throughout Roosevelt’s career. When Roosevelt ran for governor of New York in 1898, his opponents claimed that he did not meet residency requirements. They were correct. Roosevelt had previously claimed residency in Washington, D.C., to avoid New York taxes. Root saved Roosevelt’s candidacy by deploying some legal jargon and delivering an emotional speech at the Republican state convention.
Root found his own political success at around the same time, becoming Secretary of War for President McKinley, a position he would also hold during the first years of Roosevelt’s administration. He was presented with the unenviable task of administering the territories taken from Spain and preparing them for civil government. He succeeded in setting the stage for Cuban independence and for civilian government in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. However, his accomplishments were tarnished by hiding American atrocities during the Philippine-American War and the Moro Rebellion.
Letter from Elihu Root to Theodore Roosevelt, July 16, 1903. From the Library of Congress Manuscript collection.
Root left the War Department in 1904 but would return to the Cabinet a year later as Secretary of State. Root’s time in office was relatively quiet but he was instrumental in establishing a more professional diplomatic service based on competitive examinations, and he promoted friendlier relations between the United States and Latin America. His efforts to promote international peace were rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1912. Root resigned as secretary in 1909 to join the United States Senate where he served for one term. He was also chairman of the 1912 Republican National Convention and, his legal mind repelled by Roosevelt’s support for the popular recall of judicial decisions, he sided with President Taft and the “Old Guard” against Roosevelt and the progressive wing of the party.
After leaving political office, Root continued his support for international arbitration and law. He was president of the American Society of International Law from 1907 to 1924, helped convene the 1927 World Disarmament Conference, and was a leading proponent of the World Court. He also promoted greater knowledge about world affairs by helping to found and lead the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Council on Foreign Relations. Root passed away on February 7, 1937, and is remembered in foreign policy circles as a promoter of internationalism and a greater American role in world affairs.
Braeman, John. “Root, Elihu.” American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Vol. 18. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
Zimmermann, Warren. First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Print.