Some people’s lives make for good stories. In the 1870’s, the notorious “Boss” Tweed stood trial for corruption in New York City. In 1898, Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Hill—a decisive battle of the Spanish-American War. Admiral Dewey famously landed in Manila Bay, bringing total victory to the United States against the Spanish fleet there. After WWI, Woodrow Wilson boldly proclaimed his Fourteen Points that would ensure peace and tranquility among nations. Although he was a part of each major historical event, a name rarely heard in all of these landmarks is Elihu Root.
Elihu Root’s Career
- United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (1883-1885)
- Secretary of War (1899-1904)
- Secretary of State (1905-1909)
- U.S. Senator (1909-1915)
- Nobel Prize Winner (1912)
- Elder Statesman (1915-1937)
No doubt about it—Elihu Root’s résumé is impressive. Yet, despite this, he is not featured as a leading man in American history. In 1914 James B. Morrow, writing of Root’s life and accomplishments in the Washington Herald, echoed this sentiment when he wrote, “No anecdotes are told of Elihu Root.” Root is reported to have once said to a group of friends, “Let us take no action unless we are in earnest and are prepared to follow it to the end.” Morrow concluded: “Following it to the end, first being in earnest, may explain the influence and eminence of this tranquil man in Europe and America.” An earnest man who dutifully served without flourish or fame does not make for a grand tale. But, as the New York Times put it in 1899, “Any person meeting Elihu Root for the first time and on an occasion of no especial significance, would be likely to underestimate the aggressive vigor of the man’s character.”
New York Lawyer (1867-1899)
Root, a native of Clinton, NY, graduated from the New York University School of Law in 1867. The bread and butter of Root’s early private practice was corporate law. In this line of work, he “often represented railroads, banks, and some of the so-called ‘robber barons’ of American industrial expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.” His clients included “railroad tycoons” such as Jay Gould and E.H. Harriman, future president Chester A. Arthur, and most famously, William “Boss” Tweed.
“Boss” Tweed was known for controlling Tammany Hall, “the democratic political machine that dominated New York politics.” Tammany Hall, especially under Tweed’s leadership, was known for its corruption—one historian estimates that between 75 and 200 million dollars were “swindled from the City” from 1865 to 1871. In 1873, Tweed stood trial for corruption charges. Elihu Root served as junior defense counsel—a role that would haunt his political career in later years.
Even with Boss Tweed’s controversial trial, Root was still regarded as a well-respected, trustworthy lawyer in New York. He ran in the highest circles; when President Garfield died in 1881, Root, one of Chester A. Arthur’s closest friends, was present as he was sworn in to the highest office of the United States. Almost immediately after Arthur took office, rumors began to swirl about a possible appointment for Root. Arthur initially squashed these rumors, but did give his friend an influential position a couple of years later. In 1883, Elihu Root was appointed United States Attorney for the southern district of New York—“the most prestigious federal prosecutor’s job outside Washington,” according to the New York Times. This esteemed position allowed Root to rub elbows with more important people, such as Teddy Roosevelt. When Tammany Hall attempted to keep Roosevelt from the New York governorship, Root came to his defense, allowing Roosevelt to be elected in 1898.
Secretary of War (1899-1904)
Though Root was well-known as a lawyer, he was not known as a political figure. Still, President McKinley entrusted Root with the office of Secretary of War in 1899. The United States was just emerging from the Spanish-American war, so it seemed strange that the President would choose a lawyer instead of a military man. For his part, Root was happy to serve what he called “the greatest of all our clients, the government of our country.”
The New York Times ran a story introducing America to the new Secretary of War. The lede read:
“Any person meeting Elihu Root for the first time and on an occasion of no special significance, would be likely to underestimate the aggressive vigor of the man’s character…There is nothing in his character to suggest the lawyer militant, much less the warrior militant. Yet there are many men who have felt his power in legal and political controversy who are willing to concede that the new Secretary of War has the essential qualities of a fighter.”
Root’s Nobel biography states, “Since the nation was just emerging from the Spanish-American War, it seemed an unlikely appointment. But President McKinley, with remarkable insight, said that he needed a lawyer in the post, not a military man.” The war in the Philippines was about territorial control, but it was also about rule of law. Military strength had given the United States the islands, but it would take a legal mind to figure out how to keep them. Only a lawyer could deftly determine how a constitutional republic that boasted a representative government could have colonies, rule subjects, and build an overseas empire without seeming to sacrifice its principles.
Root is largely responsible for reforming the War Department. The Spanish-American War revealed that the U.S. Army was more of a rag-tag bunch of militiamen than a sophisticated military force. Root made it his personal mission to bring order to the Army. He enlarged West Point, the nation’s foremost military academy. In November of 1901, he established the General Staff and the U.S. Army War College as a sort of military graduate school, in order to better train military officers.
As Secretary of War in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Root was also a key figure in administration of new U.S. territories. Elihu Root was the primary author of the Platt Amendment, which put significant limitations on Cuba’s newfound independence, including a provision that stated:
“That the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the government of Cuba.”
Root staunchly supported American rule in the Philippines (read: “Secretary Root Defends Army in Philippines”), and was responsible for drafting a charter for governance in the islands.
In regards to Puerto Rico, Root managed to eliminate all tariffs on goods imported from the island to the mainland United States. Root’s stint as Secretary of War was so impressive that Henry L. Stimson, who would later hold that post himself, said “no such intelligent, constructive, and vital force had occupied that post in American history.”
Secretary of State (1905-1909)
Root returned to his private practice in 1904, but returned to Washington in 1905 when he received an appointment from his old friend Teddy Roosevelt to be Secretary of State.
Once again, Mr. Root’s record as Secretary of State is quite remarkable. During his tenure, he negotiated many arbitration treaties. In 1906, he embarked on a goodwill tour through Latin America, easing tensions over the Platt Amendment and the role the U.S. played in the Panamanian revolt against Colombia. Root sponsored the first Central American Peace Conference in 1907 and helped establish the Central American Court of Justice.
Root also worked on U.S.-Asian relations. He maintained John Hay’s “Open Door” policy, which mandated Chinese trade with western nations. Since acquiring the Philippines in the 1898, the United States became a power in East Asia, and did not want Chinese trade to be wholly dominated by the Europeans and the Japanese. John Hay, and later Elihu Root, promoted an Open Door Policy, in which each nation promised to uphold Chinese sovereignty and ensure open trade with all countries. When increasing nativism in California threatened to add Japan to the existing Chinese Exclusion Act, Root negotiated the “Gentleman’s Agreement.” The U.S. agreed not to formally restrict Japanese immigration while Japan agreed to prohibit further emigration to the United States. Root also negotiated the Root-Takahira Agreement, which quelled tensions between the two emerging Pacific powers.
United States Senator (1909-1915)
Elihu Root was already being considered for the Senate before he left his post as Secretary of State. In November of 1908, the New York Tribune reprinted a statement issued by then-Secretary Root:
“I think the Republicans in New York who have expressed a wish to bring about my election as Senator are entitled to a definite statement of my position. I am not seeking the office of Senator. I do not think that great office ought to be given to any one because he wants it; but if the Legislature of New York, representing the people of the State, feel that I can render useful service to the state and the country in the Senate, and call upon me to render that service, I shall respond to their call and accept the office.”
In January of 1909, the New York Republican caucus convened and unanimously nominated Root. Root defeated his democratic opponent, Lewis S. Chanler, in the State Senate and Assembly, and was elected.
In 1909, Root managed to resolve a long-standing American-Canadian fisheries dispute. Root was a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He very publicly supported a tax amendment which would someday become the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In a letter printed in the New York Times, Root allayed the fears of those who opposed the amendment:
“This amendment will be no new grant of power…Under the proposed amendment there will be the same and no greater power to tax incomes from whatever source derived, subject to the same rule of construction, but relieved from the requirement that the tax shall be apportioned.”
New Yorkers especially opposed the bill, fearing they would pay a large part of the new tax. Root wrote:
“The main reason why the citizens of New York will pay so large a part of the tax is that New York City is the chief financial and commercial centre [sic] of a great country with vast resources and industrial activity…We have the wealth because behind the city stands the country. We ought to be willing to share the burdens of the National Government in the same proportion in which we share its benefits.”
While serving as a U.S. Senator, Root held many other positions. He served as the first President (1910-1925) of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a “private, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing cooperation between nations and promoting active international engagement by the United States.” He was on a committee in the League of Nations, helping to develop the Permanent Court of International Justice, a predecessor of the International Court of Justice. Root was also a member of The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration and the U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to the International Conference on the Limitation of Armament.
Once again, before his term ended, Root was already being considered for other positions, but his past sometimes hindered him. In 1910, when Root was being considered for Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Spokane Press ran a scathing article, exposing Root’s affiliation with Boss Tweed:
Root’s supporters, however, wanted him to assume the highest office in the United States—the presidency. George Henry Payne sang his praises in the New York Tribune in 1915, but noted that “Root himself was the only one who could stop Root from being nominated.” Indeed, Root thought himself too old for the job, and for all intents and purposes, rejected his party’s nomination.
Nobel Peace Prize Winner (1912)
On the eve of the First World War, Elihu Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The honor was bestowed upon him for his efforts to bring about peaceful arbitration and his work to promote international justice and law. His Nobel biography says, “He believed that international law, along with its accompanying machinery, represented mankind’s best chance to achieve world peace, but like the hardheaded realist he was, he also believed that it would take much time, wisdom, patience, and toil to implement it effectively.”
The decision to award Root the Nobel Prize is still contentious, however. Elihu Root was Secretary of War during the Philippine-American War. In 1902 the Philippine Investigating Committee found that “the destruction of Filipino life during the war has been so frightful that it cannot be explained as the result of ordinary civilized warfare.” They wrote that as Elihu Root was Secretary of War during this time, “the responsibility for what has disgraced the American name lies at his door.” Ten years later, Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A hundred years later, many feel that his role in the harsh, brutal occupation of the Philippines, in which hundreds of thousands of people died, precludes him from deserving such an honor.
- Elihu Root’s Nobel Lecture
- 1902 Report of the Philippine Investigating Committee: Moorfield Storey and Julian Codman, Secretary Root’s Record: “Marked Severities” in Philippine Warfare: An Analysis of the Law and Facts bearing on the Action and Utterances of President Roosevelt and Secretary Root, (Boston: Geo. W. Ellis Co., 1902)
- Argument of the Hon. Elihu Root on behalf of the U.S., before the North Atlantic Coast Fisheries Arbitration Tribunal at the Hague
- Root’s Letter in the New York Times in support of the Tax Amendment
- “Obama Not First Surprising Nobel Peace Prize Winner: Seven Controversial Recipients,” The Daily Beast
Elder Statesman (1915-1937)
Root’s career did not end when he left the United States Senate. Much like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Elihu Root remained involved in politics and public life. As an elder statesman, he often offered opinions about current affairs based on his experiences in office.
In his Nobel lecture, Elihu Root spoke of “making peace permanent,” and the various ways in which war could become a thing of the past. Despite this purported world view, at the outbreak of World War I, Root was one of the most vocal supporters of American involvement. The U.S. had been largely isolationist, and many felt no good could come from getting entangled in the affairs of the Old World. He clashed with President Wilson over his neutrality policy. Root, along with other influential individuals such as Teddy Roosevelt, Leonard Wood, and Henry L. Stimson, promoted the Preparedness Movement.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote two books in support of the Preparedness Movement: America and the World War (1915) & Fear God and Take Your Own Part (1916)
The Preparedness Movement accepted the inevitability of U.S. involvement in the European War, and proposed that the U.S. military be pre-emptively strengthened before entering the war. They advocated Universal Military Service, which would require 6 months of military training for all male citizens at eighteen years of age. After their training, they would become military reserves. Many opposed this—Nazi Germany required two years active duty for all its citizens.
By 1916, the debate had ended. Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916, which expanded the U.S. peacetime armed forces.
Although Root opposed Wilson during his first term on the issue of the war, he mostly supported the president once the United States entered the war. In the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Wilson selected Root to head the appropriately named “Root Commission” to establish ties with the new revolutionary government in Russia.
- Video: Elihu Root, Chairman, and members of his U.S. Special Diplomatic Mission arrive in Russia
- Video: Elihu Root in Washington DC, 1917
- America’s Message to the Russian People: Addresses by the members of the special diplomatic mission of the United States to Russia in the year 1917
- Letter protesting the appointment of Elihu Root as Chairman of the Commission being sent to Russia
- “Straight Talk,” Goodwin’s Weekly: A Thinking Paper for Thinking People, Sept 29, 1917
After the war, Root was a strong supporter of the League of Nations. He was instrumental in establishing the League’s Permanent Court of International Justice in 1921. For years, he tried in vain to get the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty and join the League, but he was unsuccessful.
Root was part of the American delegation sent to the first Washington Naval Conference in 1921. There, he and the other delegates negotiated several treaties and pacts, including the Four-Power Pact and the Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty.
In 1921, Root helped to found the Council on Foreign Relations, an institute that would “afford a continuous conference on international questions affecting the United States, by bringing together experts on statecraft, finance, industry, education, and science.”
“He might have made history. But he has not.”
In 1937, Elihu Root died in New York City at age 91 of pneumonia. Despite all his years of service and the prominent positions he held, Elihu Root is mentioned, but never lauded in U.S. history.
Clinton W. Gilbert, a critic of Root’s, wrote in Mirrors of Washington
“He might have been President of the United States if his party ever could have been persuaded to nominate him. He might have been one of the great Chief Justices of the Supreme Court if a President could have been persuaded to appoint him. He might have given to the United States Senate that weight and influence which have disappeared from it, if he had had a passion for public service. He might have been Secretary of State in the most momentous moment of American foreign relations if a certain homely instinct in Mr. Harding had not led him to prefer the less brilliant Mr. Hughes. He might have made history. But he has not.” (emphasis added)
Root was involved in, and even instrumental, in much of U.S. diplomacy from the Spanish-American War until his death. Although the American political system is founded on the principle that government officials are chosen by the people, Root was never once popularly elected, despite the numerous positions he held in the U.S. government. He served his country in several capacities, and was always noted as a devoted, diligent worker. He was a leader in the establishment of international law, hoping it would one day lead to world peace. Elihu Root did not make the history books, but he did make history.
For more information:
- Read some of Root’s work online: “Lincoln as a Leader of Men,” in Men and Policies (1924); Miscellaneous Addresses, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1917); Public Service by the Bar, (1916); “Invisible Government,” (1915); and Letters of the Hon. Elihu Root relative to the League of Nations (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919).
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the Gilded Age/Progressive Era