Theodore Roosevelt: the First President to Ride in an Automobile

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | May 27, 2012

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If, as if generally acceded, the wheel is man’s first great technical invention, then surely the attachment of four of them to a motor, may be deemed the second: automobiles have forever, and radically, changed how people and products move  through time and space. At the turn of the 20th century, there were 9000 motor cars in the United States, and although they bespoke the latest rage in speed and modernity, not everyone thought these loud, grease-splattered behemoths an improvement – to, in fact, the horse. The fabulously young and eminently modern President, Theodore Roosevelt, despite standing tall for all that was new in the century, hated the new motor cars – and here, between the lines, makes that clear…

Theodore Roosevelt, the only cowpuncher president in American history – he who, on horseback, roped horses, herded cattle, hunted buffalo, controlled stampedes, and lassoed steers; the Colonel who rode into battle at San Juan Hill as a Rough Rider, and the President who galloped for pleasure on cold days, cantered on warm, and jumped hurdles, for fun, as high as himself whenever he could – did not like motor cars, not a bit: they simply weren’t as much fun as horses which were, literally, his idea of heaven. “God Forbid,” he said, “I should go to any Heaven in which there are no horses.”  Cars, he writes here in 1905, just add to “the discomfort of living”…

“Motor cars are a trial, aren’t they? I suppose that ultimately we will get them into their proper place in the scheme of nature, and when by law and custom their use is regulated in proper fashion their objectionable features will probably be eliminated; but just at present I regard them as distinct additions to the discomfort of living.”

Roosevelt knew whereof he spoke: 110 years ago, he was the first president to ride in an automobile, on August 22, 1902. This he did in Hartford, Connecticut, in what the New York Times described as a “handsome [Columbia Electric] Victoria automobile” expertly manned by two chauffeurs.  And if parading down a city street at 10 miles per hour seemed daring, that was nothing compared to his next endeavor – becoming the first president to descend in a submarine, plunging for an hour on August 22, 1904 in Long Island Sound and taking, even, the controls. Flying in an airplane, then, was a natural for Roosevelt.  On October 11, 1910, he became the first president to experience flight when, at an aviation show in St. Louis Missouri, he hopped aboard a pusher biplane and, for four minutes, at an altitude of fifty feet, circled the field, twice.  Waving to the crowd below, he had a capitol time, and said, upon embarking, that he wished he could have stayed up for an hour.

‏But Roosevelt’s romance with aviation would, soon enough, be fraught with tragedy. Two months later, the young pilot who spirited him up, plummeted to his death  – and in World War I, an aerial dogfight would take the life of his youngest and  most adventurous son, Quentin, the one, everyone said, was most like himself. Technology, which beguiled and transformed, it was clear, could kill  just as easily – a fact brought home not just to Roosevelt, but to the whole new century. It was not just motor cars that had deadly accidents or aero planes that crashed, but even unsinkable luxury trans-Atlantic ocean liners suffered from a kind of hubris: the Titanic, after all, went down with 1,520 aboard.

On Sunday, May 27th, 2012, Roosevelt’s disparaged “motor car”, having been consigned to its “proper place in the scheme of nature”, will be celebrated at the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500. Billed as the greatest spectacle in racing, it will be watched in person by 400,000 racing enthusiasts and, on television, by as many as some 9 million more. They may well, as is oft the “custom”, witness a fatal accident: at least 69 deaths – of drivers, crew, track personnel, spectators, and even innocent bystanders – are associated with the Indy 500.  “Motor cars”, in all their glory, and risk, will circle a track, again and again and again, two hundred times, at an average speed of 186 miles per hour – and, one imagines, if Theodore Roosevelt were alive, he’d want to be driving one, having  stated, in the future, “their objectionable features will probably be eliminated.” But since his day, there have been over three million automobile fatalities in the United States alone – which is, considerably, objectionable.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT. 1858 – 1919. The 24th President of the United States.

Typed Letter Signed, as President, with autograph revisions, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, October 8, 1905. To Charles Hughes at the Brassmore Club in Manchester, England.

Related: American President James K. Polk Gives Orders for a Fire-Proof Victory Celebration for the Battle of Cerro Gordo in Washington