August 1, 1899 – Elihu Root Appointed the 41st U.S. Secretary of War

Elihu Root, born in 1845, was an American lawyer and statesman who served as Secretary of War for both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, first appointed to that position on this day in history.

Root was the son of a professor of mathematics at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Attending Hamilton himself, Root graduated first in his class in 1864 at the age of nineteen. He taught school for one year, graduated from the Law School of New York University in 1867, and founded a law firm after one year of practice. By the time he was thirty Root had established himself as a prominent lawyer specializing in corporate affairs.

In 1899, President McKinley invited him to become his Secretary of War, saying that he needed a lawyer in the post, not a military man. Root served in this capacity from 1899 to 1904. The much-later appointed Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson said of Root “no such intelligent, constructive, and vital force” had occupied that post in American history.

Elihu Root in 1902

Elihu Root in 1902

As the biography on the Nobel Prize website (Root won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912) reports:

Root reorganized the administrative system of the War Department, established new procedures for promotion, founded the War College, enlarged West Point, opened schools for special branches of the service, created a general staff, strengthened control over the National Guard, restored discipline within the department. He was most concerned, however, about the three dependencies acquired as a result of the war. He devised a plan for returning Cuba to the Cubans; wrote a democratic charter for the governance of the Philippines, designing it to insure free government, to protect local customs, and to bring eventual self-determination; and eliminated tariffs on Puerto Rican goods imported into the United States.”

Root returned to his private legal practice in 1904, but answered President Theodore Roosevelt’s call to serve as his Secretary of State in 1905. Again, Root compiled an impressive record.

From 1909 to 1915, Root served as a United States Senator from New York, but he declined a candidacy for reelection thereafter. He did remain active as a statesman, however, accepting President Woodrow Wilson’s appointment as ambassador on a special diplomatic mission to Russia in 1917.

Théobald Chartran’s portrait of Elihu Root was painted in 1903, as Root served as what was then secretary of war under President Theodore Roosevelt.

Théobald Chartran’s portrait of Elihu Root was painted in 1903, as Root served as what was then secretary of war under President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1922, when Root was 77, President Warren G. Harding appointed him as a delegate of an American team to the Washington Naval Conference (International Conference on the Limitation of Armaments).

Root also worked with Andrew Carnegie on programs for international peace and the advancement of science, becoming the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was also among the founders of the American Law Institute in 1923, and helped create the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands. In addition, he served as vice president of the American Peace Society, which publishes World Affairs, the oldest U.S. journal on international relations.

In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize, Root was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown (from Belgium) and the Grand Commander of the Order of George I (from Greece).

Root died in 1937 in New York City, with his family by his side.


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