Elihu Root

Elihu Root books and biography


Elihu Root

Elihu Root

42nd United States Secretary of War
In office
August 1, 1899 – January 31, 1904
Preceded by Russell A. Alger
Succeeded by William Howard Taft

38th United States Secretary of State
In office
July 19, 1905 – January 27, 1909
Preceded by John Hay
Succeeded by Robert Bacon

Born February 15, 1845
Clinton, New York, USA
Died February 7, 1937
Clinton, New York, USA
Political party Republican
Spouse Clara Frances Wales
Profession Lawyer, Politician

Elihu Root (February 15, 1845 – February 7, 1937) was an American lawyer and statesman and the 1912 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the prototype of the 20th century "wise man," who shuttled between high-level government positions in Washington, D.C. and private-sector legal practice in New York City.


Early life and career

Root was born in Clinton, New York, as the son of Oren Root and Nancy Whitney Buttrick. His father was professor of mathematics at Hamilton College, where Elihu attended college; there he joined the Sigma Phi Society, later becoming its national mentor and spiritual leader. After graduation, Root taught for one year at the Rome Academy. In 1867, Root graduated from the Law School of New York University. He went into private practice as a lawyer. While mainly practicing corporate law, Root was a junior defense counsel during the corruption trial of William "Boss" Tweed. Root also had private clients including Jay Gould, Chester A. Arthur, Charles Anderson Dana, William C. Whitney, Thomas Fortune Ryan, and E. H. Harriman.

Root was appointed United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York by President Chester A. Arthur.

Root married Clara Frances Wales (died in 1928), who was the daughter of Salem Wales, the managing editor of Scientific American, in 1878. They had three children: Edith (married Ulysses S. Grant III), Elihu, Jr. (who became a lawyer), and Edward.

Root was a member of the Union League Club of New York and twice served as its president, 1898-99, and again from 1915-16.

Political career

He served as the United States Secretary of War 1899–1904 under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He reformed the organization of the United States Army. He was responsible for enlarging West Point and establishing the U.S. Army War College as well as the General Staff. He changed the procedures for promotions and organized schools for the special branches of the service. He also devised the principle of rotating officers from staff to line. Root was concerned about the new territories acquired after the Spanish-American War and worked out the methods of how Cuba would be turned over to the Cubans, wrote the charter of government for the Philippines, and eliminated tariffs on goods imported to the United States from Puerto Rico. Root left the cabinet in 1904 and returned to private practice as a lawyer.

Root with William Howard Taft in 1904.
Root with William Howard Taft in 1904.

In 1905, President Roosevelt named Root to be the United States Secretary of State after the death of John Hay. As secretary, Root placed the consular service under the Civil Service. He maintained the Open Door Policy in the Far East. On a tour to Latin America in 1906, Root persuaded those governments to participate in the Hague Peace Conference. He worked with Japan in emigration to the United States and in dealings with China and established the Root-Takahira Agreement, which limited Japanese and American naval fortifications in the Pacific. He worked with Great Britain in resolving border disputes between the United States (Alaska) and Canada and also in the North Atlantic fisheries. He supported arbitration in resolving international disputes.

He served in the United States Senate (Republican – New York) from 1909 to 1915, and did not seek reelection. He served as President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 1910 to 1925. In that capacity, he helped create the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands.

In 1912, as a result of his work to bring nations together through arbitration and cooperation, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the outbreak of World War I, Root opposed President Woodrow Wilson's policy of neutrality. He did support Wilson once the United States entered the war.

In June 1916, Root sought the Republican presidential nomination. However, Root reached his peak strength of 103 votes on the first ballot. The Republican presidential nomination went to Charles Evans Hughes, who lost the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

In June 1917, at age 72, he was sent to Russia by President Wilson to arrange American co-operation with the new revolutionary government. A large party of well-known people accompanied the Senator, and they traveled from Vladivostok across Siberia in the Czar's former train. Root remained in Petrograd for close to a month, and was not much impressed by what he saw. The Russians, he said, "are sincerely, kindly, good people but confused and dazed." He summed up his attitude to the Provisional Government very trenchantly: "No fight, no loans." Which referred to the current conflict with Germany in World War I.

After World War I, Root supported the League of Nations and served on the commission of jurists, which created the Permanent Court of International Justice. In 1922, President Warren G. Harding appointed him as a delegate to the International Conference on the Limitation of Armaments. He was the founding chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, established in 1921 in New York.

Root worked with Andrew Carnegie in programs for international peace and the advancement of science. He was the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was among the founders of the American Law Institute in 1923.

Portrait of Elihu Root
Portrait of Elihu Root

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Root was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Crown (Belgium) and the Grand Commander of the Order of George I (Greece). He was the second cousin twice removed of Henry Luce, through Elihu Root (1772-1843). Prior to his death, Root had been the last surviving member of the McKinley Cabinet.

Root died in 1937 in Clinton, New York, with his family by his side. He is buried at the Hamilton College Cemetery [1].

Works by Elihu Root

  • Citizen's Part in Government. Yale University Press, 1911.
  • Experiments in Government and the Essentials of the Constitution. Princeton University Press, 1913.
  • Addresses on International Subjects. Harvard University Press, 1916.
  • Military and Colonial Policy of the United States. Harvard University Press, 1916.
  • Miscellaneous Addresses. Harvard University Press, 1917.
  • Men and Policies: Addresses by Elihu Root. Harvard University Press, 1925.


"About half of the practice of a decent lawyer is telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should stop." - Elihu Root[1]

"The trouble is that lawyers necessarily acquire the habit of assuming the law to be right.... As a rule, the pure lawyer seldom concerns himself about the broad aspects of public policy which may show a law to be all wrong, and such a lawyer may be oblivious to the fact that in helping to enforce the law he is helping to injure the public. Then, too, lawyers are almost always conservative. Through insisting upon the maintenance of legal rules, they become instinctively opposed to change, and thus are frequently found aiding in the assertion of legal rights under laws which have once been reasonable and fair, but which, through the process of social and business development, have become unjust and unfair without the lawyers seeing it." - Elihu Root [2]

A few days before the Federal Reserve act was passed Senator Elihu Root denounced the Federal Reserve bill as an outrage on our liberties and made the following prediction:

  • "Long before we wake up from our dreams of prosperity through an inflated currency, our gold, which alone could have kept us from catastrophe, will have vanished and no rate of interest will tempt it to return.


The National Cyclopędia of American Biography. (1939) Vol. XXVI. New York: James T. White & Co. pp.1-5.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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