President Theodore Roosevelt not only practiced judo in the White House, he also became America’s first brown belt. It was an accomplishment in the combined history of world leaders and martial arts not surpassed until a century later, when Russian president Vladimir Putin advanced to the level of sixth-degree black belt. (Putin’s known for his vicious sweeping hip throw, by the way.) Of course, Roosevelt wasn’t exactly shy about his hobby. He lined the White House basement with training mats, and he practiced with anyone who was willing to tussle—including his wife and sister-in-law. Once, he even brightened a boring state luncheon by throwing the Swiss minister to the floor and demonstrating a judo hold, to the delight of his guests.
Was this typical behavior from the 26th president? Absolutely. Teddy loved a good fight, both literally and metaphorically. Just as he wasn’t afraid to spar with boxing champion John L. Sullivan in the White House gym, he wasn’t scared to take on big business in America, either. Though a capitalist at heart, Roosevelt believed the trusts being formed by a few powerful banks (notably J.P. Morgan’s First National City Bank) were hurting American competition. To fight back, he enforced the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, thereby sticking it to giant corporations like Standard Oil, the American Tobacco Company, and DuPont.
Although he didn’t intend to become “the Trustbuster,” Roosevelt did see the need to protect business from its own excesses. He passed the first workers’ compensation bill to cover federal employees and pushed for more stringent child labor laws. Those measures made him enormously popular with the American public, and that image was only bolstered after he went hunting in Mississippi and refused to shoot a black bear cub.
The story became so beloved that stuffed bears were soon named after him.
Roosevelt’s presidency wasn’t all fluff, though. When it came to foreign policy, Teddy followed the proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” After the United States won the Spanish-American War in 1898, former Spanish colonies Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam were up for grabs. The United States had a choice: gobble them up, or promote independence and self-determination. Roosevelt opted for the former, feeling that it was the white man’s burden to bring order to these lands.
The new “colonies” felt betrayed, having fought with the United States against Spain only to be annexed by their former ally. The Philippines fired back, launching a guerrilla war for independence. In one of the uglier episodes in American history, Roosevelt authorized U.S. troops to pacify the rebellion. Soldiers burned down villages and herded natives into detainment camps. In the United States, opposition to the conflict quickly sprang up in the form of the Anti-Imperialist League, led in part by Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie. Then, in 1902, Roosevelt declared the war over, but the issue wasn’t really resolved until the Philippine Islands gained independence in 1946.
Teddy definitely could’ve spoken softer in that situation, but he still accomplished a great many things by daring to carry a big stick. He led the construction of the Panama Canal, thus forming a strategic shortcut between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and he even won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.