Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 642

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 642


This is the grave of Elihu Root.

Born in 1845 in Clinton, New York, Root grew up comfortable. His father was a mathematics professor at Hamilton College and Root went to Hamilton himself. His parents wanted him to become a minister but he decided to go into the law. He graduated from NYU School of Law in 1867. He went into private practice in New York City focusing on corporate law and defense of the wealthy would define his life. He also was a junior member of Boss Tweed’s defense team.

Root became probably the top personal lawyer for the extremely wealthy in New York as he developed a top corporate firm, which has today evolved into Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. His clients included Chester Arthur, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Charles Anderson Dana, and E.H. Harriman. He was especially valuable for the New York elite in guiding them through antitrust regulations as they began to appear. In fact, he was part of the group of people who told Arthur that James Garfield had died and a man who had never run for any office in his life was now president. Arthur repaid Root by naming him U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

In 1899, William McKinley named Root Secretary of War. He remained in the job until 1904 under Theodore Roosevelt. In that, Root was a prime imperialist. He was not in the job when the nation decided to become an imperialist power in 1898, but it was largely his job to figure out what to do with all these territories that were now American colonies. Root initially demurred, noting he knew nothing of the topic of war. McKinley said that didn’t matter. What he needed was a lawyer to handle the governance of the new American colonies and so Root agreed to sign up. He was highly critical of the Anti-Imperialist League, who were attacking the unjust and genocidal war the U.S. was conducting in the Philippines (possibly even today one of the least known of the nation’s many atrocities toward the world), basically accusing them of treason by giving the Filipinos succor.

Root was also the primary author of the Platt Amendment. Imperialists were upset over the Teller Amendment of 1898, which forbade the United States from taking Cuba as a colony. So Root and others did all they could to make Cuba a quasi-colony after the Spanish-American War. The Platt Amendment forced Cuba to allow the United States to station troops in Cuba, limited Cuba in the conduct of its foreign relations, and allowed the U.S. to establish a permanent naval base on the island at Guantanamo Bay. And nothing bad ever happened there again. The U.S. army ended its official occupation of Cuba in 1902 but the survival of Cuban governments depended almost entirely on U.S. approval until the Cuban Revolution succeeded in 1959. Root had other duties as Secretary of War as well. He created the Army War College and started the rotation of offices from staff to line.

In 1904, Root left the Cabinet and returned to his law practice. But that only lasted for one year. In 1905, John Hay died and Roosevelt, who never liked Hay anyway, asked Root to replace him as Secretary of State. He took the lead on ending Japanese immigration to the United States in the face of California attempting to implement Jim Crow against Japanese migrants. He pushed hard for the Open Door in China, which I like to call “equal imperialism for all,” an attempt to get the Europeans to open their concessions to American free trade since the U.S. was too late to get their own. He was also fairly invested in peace efforts between the major powers. But he was an arch-imperialist. In 1906, he returned to the U.S. after a trip to Latin America. He told a convention of businessmen that the time had come for the U.S. to dominate Latin America. He discussed the differences between the two regions: “Where we accumulate, they spend. While we have less of the cheerful philosophy” which finds “happiness in the existing conditions of life,” they have less of the inventive faculty which strives continually to increase the productive power of men.”

In 1909, the New York state legislature sent Root to the Senate for a term, though he declined to be reelected in 1915. He was on the Judiciary Committee but mostly continued his interest in foreign policy. He was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 1910-25. He actually won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for his work there, promoting international cooperation, though really only between the great powers as he was a full-fledged colonialist. He also was a vocal supporter of the Sixteenth Amendment, which it is worth noting was the single most popular policy of the Progressive Era. That Root had moved from this Gilded Age capital concentration to reform does speak well for him, though he also no real threat to corporate wealth through the income tax.

As World War I began, Root was a proponent of American neutrality. But like many American elites, he became convinced that German militarism was a real threat and moved toward preparedness. The other part of this was that a lot of business leaders soon realized that Britain was far more important for their companies than Germany and that submarine warfare was a real threat to their profits. In 1916, some Republicans talked him up for the presidential nomination and he received 103 votes on the first ballot. But Root himself said he was too old and Charles Evans Hughes was the nominee. Wilson won reelection based upon keeping the nation out of the war, even if that was to change soon after. But Root supported Wilson’s conduct in the war. Wilson sent Root to Russia after the overthrow of the Czar and he was a witness to the failures to establish any kind of functional government before the Bolsheviks took over in October 1917. In 1918, Root was the first chairman of the Council of Foreign Relations. Root was a moderate on the League of Nations, supporting Henry Cabot Lodge‘s reservations about full-fledged American involvement, but also actively participating in League activities after it was established without the U.S.

Through the 1920s, Root remained active in foreign policy. He worked closely with Charles Evans Hughes at the Washington Naval Conference and helped create the Permanent Court of International Justice. He finally died in 1937, at the age of 91.

Elihu Root is buried in Hamilton College Cemetery, Clinton, New York.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks!! If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of War, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Russell Alger, the incompetent who spent more time during the Spanish-American War handling his family’s lumber business than guiding American policy, is in Detroit and the forgettable Daniel Lamont, who held the position in Cleveland’s dreadful second term, is in The Bronx. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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