Friday, November 09, 2007

November 9, 1906:

TR Goes Abroad

On November 9, 1906, Theodore Roosevelt became the first sitting US president to leave the country. Commonplace now, such a trip was unheard of then. But TR had his reasons. He was going to inspect the progress on the Panama Canal (pictured under construction in 1907, below).

"In November 1906 he was setting out on a journey to survey the progress of his project to build that better route between the Atlantic and the Pacific," wrote Alexander Burns in in November 2006. "Seven years earlier, in 1899, Congress had created an Isthmian Canal Commission, charged with plotting out a route for a canal through Panama, but it had taken several years and multiple treaties to guarantee the United States access to and ownership of the land needed to begin construction. Finally, in 1903, the United States under Roosevelt had arrived at a deal with a new Panamanian government by which the U.S. would control the canal’s route across the isthmus as well as a five-mile strip of land on both sides and a few islands in the Bay of Panama. In exchange for this, the government would pay Panama $10 million initially and $250,000 each year starting in 1912.

"It was a remarkably good deal for the United States. Some observers grumbled that it was too good, particularly given that it had been arrived at only after a new, U.S.-friendly Panamanian government had seized power by force. When Roosevelt disembarked in Panama, however, there was no sign of bitterness or resentment on the part of the Panamanian people. His ship arrived in the middle of a storm, but the weather did little to dampen the energy with which he was received. As he rode through Panama City in the pouring rain, with his wife beside him, he looked out on buildings and streets that had been scrubbed clean in anticipation of his arrival. He could see flags flying in window after window. He basked in the knowledge that his hosts had formally declared a day of 'joy and exalted enthusiasm' in honor of his arrival.

"The trip was far from just ceremonial, though. Roosevelt wanted to see firsthand the progress that was being made on the construction of his canal. Contemporary accounts of his expedition highlight the characteristic rigor of his travels. Intentionally visiting the grittiest of the work sites, he didn’t hesitate to tramp through mud or ride on horseback in order to gain access to unfinished portions of the canal. He also went out of his way to witness the conditions in which the project placed its workers. On one of the first days of the tour, he and the First Lady decided not to attend a lavish luncheon to which they had been invited, at the luxurious Tivoli Hotel. Instead they visited a mess hall in which canal workers ate their meals. Sitting down among several hundred laborers, the Roosevelts dined on a 30-cent lunch. At the Cristóbal work site, the President spent most of his time touring workers’ living quarters."

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