William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > II. Breaking into Politics
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William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
 
II. Breaking into Politics
 
ROOSEVELT was a few months less than twenty-two years old when he graduated from Harvard. His career in college had wrought several important changes in him. First of all, his strength was confirmed. Although he still suffered occasionally from asthma, he was no longer handicapped. In business, or in pleasure, he did not need to consider his health. Next, he had come to some definite decision as to what he would do. His earlier dream of becoming a professor of natural history had faded away. With the inpouring of vigor into his constitution the ideal of an academic life, often sedentary in mind as well as in body, ceased to lure him. He craved activity, and this craving was bound to grow more urgent as he acquired more strength. Next, and this consideration must not be neglected, he was free to choose. His father’s death left him the possessor of a sufficient fortune to live on comfortably without need of working to earn his bread and butter—the motive which determines most young men when they start in life. Finally, his father’s example, reinforced by wholesome advice, quickened in Theodore his sense of obligation to the community. Having money, he must use it, not for mere personal gratification, but in ways which would benefit those who were deprived, or outcast, or bereft. But Theodore was too young and too energetic to be contented with the life of a philanthropist, no matter how noble and necessary its objects might be. He had already accepted Emerson’s dictum:
       
  “He who feeds men, serves a few;
  He serves all who dares be true.”
   1
  Young as he was, he divined that much of the charitable work, to which good people devote them selves in order to lighten or relieve the ills which the sins and errors of mankind beget, would be needless if the remedy were applied, as it ought to be, to fundamental social conditions. These, he believed, could be reached in many cases through political agency, and he resolved, therefore, to make a trial of his talents in political life. The point at which he decided to “break into politics,” as he expressed it, was the Assembly, or Lower House of the New York State Legislature. Most of his friends and classmates, on hearing of his plan, regarded it as a proof of his eccentricity; a few of them, the more discerning, would not prejudge him, but were rather inclined to hope. By tradition and instinct, he was a Republican, and in order to learn the political ropes he joined the Twenty-first District Republican Association of New York City. The district consisted chiefly of rich, respectable, and socially conspicuous inhabitants of the vortex metropolis, with a leaven of the “masses.” The “classes” had no real zeal for discharging their political duty. They subscribed to the campaign fund, but had too delicate a sense of propriety to ask how their money was spent. A few of them—and these seemed to be endowed with a special modicum of patriotism—even attended the party primaries in which candidates were named. The majority went to the polls and cast their vote on election day, if it did not rain or snow. For a young man of Roosevelt’s position to desire to take up politics seemed to his friends almost comic. Politics were low and corrupt; politics were not for “gentlemen”; they were the business and pastime of liquor-dealers, and of the degenerates and loafers who frequented the saloons, of horse-car conductors, and of many others whose ties with “respectability” were slight.   2
  To join the organization, Roosevelt had to be elected to the Twenty-first District Republican Club, for the politicians of those days kept their organization close, not to say exclusive, and in this way they secured the docility of their members. The Twenty first District Club met in Morton Hall, a dingy, barnlike room situated over a saloon, and furnished severely with wooden benches, many spittoons, and a speaker’s table decorated with a large pitcher for ice-water. The regular meetings came once a month and Roosevelt attended them faithfully, because he never did things by halves, and having made up his mind to learn the mechanism of politics, he would not neglect any detail.   3
  Despite the shyness which ill health caused him in his youth, he was really a good “mixer,” and, growing to feel more sure of himself, he met men on equal terms. More than that, he had the art of inspiring confidence in persons of divers sorts and, as he was really interested in knowing their thoughts and desires, it never took him long to strike up friendly relations with them.   4
  Jake Hess, the Republican “Boss” of the Twenty-first District, evidently eyed Roosevelt with some suspicion, for the newcomer belonged to a class which Jake did not desire to see largely represented in the business of “practical politics,” and so he treated Roosevelt with a “rather distant affability.” The young man, however, got on well enough with the heelers—the immediate trusty followers of the Boss—and with the ordinary members. They probably marveled to see him so unlike what they believed a youth of the “kid-glove” and “silkstocking” set would be, and they accepted him as a “good fellow.”   5
  Of all Roosevelt’s comrades during this first year of initiation, a young Irishman named Joe Murray was nearest to him, an honest fellow, fearless and stanch, who remained his loyal friend for forty years. Murray began as a Democrat of the Tammany Hall tribe, but having been left in the lurch by his Boss at an election, he determined to punish the Boss, and this he did at the first opportunity by throwing his influence on the side of the Republican candidate. The Republicans won, although the district was overwhelmingly Democratic, and Murray joined the Republican Party. He worked in the district where Jake Hess ruled. Like other even greater men, Jake became arrogant and treated the gang under him with condescension. Murray resented this and resolved that he would humble the Boss by supporting Roosevelt as a candidate for the Assembly. Hess protested, but could not prevent the nomination and during the campaign he seems to have supported the candidate whom he had not chosen.   6
  Roosevelt sent the following laconic appeal to some of the voters of his district:
New York, November 1, 1881.
DEAR SIR:
  Having been nominated as a candidate for member of Assembly for this District, I would esteem it a compliment if you honor me with your vote and personal influence on Election day.
Very respectfully                
THEODORE ROOSEVELT
   7
  Certainly, nothing could be simpler than this card, which contains no puff of either the party or the candidate, or no promise. It drew a cordial response.
Twenty-first Assembly District.
40th to 86th Sts.,       Lexington to 7th Aves.
   8
  We cordially recommend the voters of the Twenty-first Assembly District to cast their ballots for
Theodore Roosevelt
for member of Assembly
and take much pleasure in testifying to our appreciation of his high character and standing in the community. He is conspicuous for his honesty and integrity, and eminently qualified to represent the District in the Assembly.
       
  New York November 1, 1881
  F. A. P. Barnard, William T. Black, Willard Bullard, Joseph H. Choate, William A. Darling, Henry E. Davies, Theodore W. Dwight, Jacob Hess, Morris K. Jesup, Edward Mitchell, William F. Morgan, Chas. S. Robinson, Elihu Root, Jackson S. Shultz, Elliott F. Shepard, Gustavus Tuckerman, S. H. Wales, W. H. Webb.
   9
  This list bears the names of at least two men who will be long remembered. There are also several others which were doubtless of more political value to the aspirant to office in 1881.   10
  Just after the election Roosevelt wrote to his classmate, Charles G. Washburn:
       
  Too true, too true; I have become a “political hack.” Finding it would not interfere much with my law, I accepted the nomination to the Assembly and was elected by 1500 majority, leading the ticket by 600 votes. But don’t think I am going to go into politics after this year, for I am not.
   11
  Roosevelt’s allusion to the law requires the statement that in the autumn of 1880 he had begun to read law in the office of his uncle, Robert Roosevelt; not that he had a strong leaning to the legal profession, but that he believed that every one, no matter how well off he might be, ought to be able to support himself by some occupation or profession. Also, he could not endure being idle, and he knew that the slight political work on which he embarked when he joined the Twenty-first District Republican Club would take but little of his time. During that first year out of college he established himself as a citizen, not merely politically, but socially. On his birthday in 1880 he married Miss Lee and they set up their home at 6 West Fifty-seventh Street; he joined social and literary clubs and extended his athletic interests beyond wrestling and boxing to hunting, rifle practice, and polo.   12
  His law studies seem to have absorbed him less than anything else that he undertook during all his life. He could not fail to be interested in them, but he never plunged into them with all his might and main as if he intended to make them his chief concern. For a while he had a desk in the office of the publishers, G. P. Putnam’s Sons: but Major George Putnam recalls that he did little except suggest wonderful projects, which “had to be sat down upon.” Already a love of writing infected him. Even before he left Harvard he had begun “A History of the Naval War of 1812,” and this he worked on eagerly. The Putnams published it in 1882.   13
  One incident of Roosevelt’s canvass must not be overlooked. The Red Indians of old used to make their captives run the gauntlet between two lines of warriors: political bosses in New York in 1880 made their nominee run the gauntlet of all the saloonkeepers in their district. Accordingly, Jake Hess and Joe Murray proceeded to introduce Roosevelt to the rum-sellers of Sixth Avenue. The first they visited received Theodore with injudicious condescension almost as if he were a suppliant. He said he hoped that the young candidate, if elected, would treat the liquor men fairly, to which the “suppliant” replied that he intended to treat all interests fairly. The suggestion that liquor licenses were too high brought the retort that they were not high enough. Thereupon, the wary Hess and the discreet Joe Murray found an excuse for hurrying Roosevelt out of the saloon, and they told him that he had better look after his friends on Fifth Avenue and that they would look after the saloon-keepers on Sixth Avenue. That any decent candidate should have to pass in review before the saloon-keepers and receive their approval, is so monstrous as to be grotesque. That a possible President of the United States should be the victim needs no comment. It was thoroughly characteristic of Roosevelt that he balked at the first trial.   14
  He says in his “Autobiography” that he was not conscious of going into politics to benefit other people, but to secure for himself a privilege to which every one was entitled. That privilege was self-government. When his “kid-glove” friends laughed at him for deliberately choosing to leap into the political mire, he told them that the governing class ought to govern, and that not they themselves but the bosses and “heelers” were the real governors of New York City. Not the altruistic desire to reform, but the perfectly practical resolve to enjoy the political rights to which he had a claim was his leading motive. It is important to understand this because it will explain much of his action as a statesman. Roosevelt is the greatest idealist in American public life since Lincoln; but his idealism, like Lincoln’s, always had a firm, intelligent, practical footing.   15
  Roosevelt himself thus describes his work during his first year in the New York Assembly:
       
  I paid attention chiefly while in the Legislature to laws for the reformation of Primaries and of the Civil Service and endeavored to have a certain Judge Westbrook impeached, on the ground of corrupt collusion with Jay Gould and the prostitution of his high judicial office to serve the purpose of wealthy and unscrupulous stock gamblers, but was voted down.
   16
  This brief statement gives no idea of either the magnitude or quality of his work in which, like young David, he went forth to smite Goliath, the Giant Corruption,, entrenched for years in the Albany State House. I do not believe that in at tacking the monster, Roosevelt thought that he was displaying unusual courage, much less that he was winning the crown of a moral hero. He simply saw a mass of abuse and wickedness which every decent person ought to repudiate. Most decent persons saw it, too, but convention, or self-interest, party affiliation, or unromantic, every-day cowardice, made them hold their tongues. Being assigned to committees which had some of the most important concerns of New York City in charge, Roosevelt had the advantage given by his initiation into political methods as practiced in the Twenty-first District of knowing a little more than his colleagues knew about the local issues. Three months of the session elapsed before he stood up in the Chamber and attacked point-blank, one formidable champion of corruption. Listen to an anonymous writer in the Saturday Evening Post:
       
  It was on April 6, 1882, that Roosevelt took the floor in the Assembly and demanded that Judge Westbrook, of New bury, be impeached. And for sheer moral courage that act is probably supreme in Roosevelt’s life thus far. He must have expected failure. Even his youth and idealism and ignorance of public affairs could not blind him to the apparently inevitable consequences. Yet he drew his sword and rushed apparently to destruction—alone, and at the very outset of his career, and in disregard of the pleadings of his closest friends and the plain dictates of political wisdom.
  That speech—the deciding act in Roosevelt’s career—is not remarkable for eloquence. But it is remarkable for fear less candor. He called thieves thieves, regardless of their millions; he slashed savagely at the judge and the Attorney General; he told the plain unvarnished truth as his indignant eyes saw it. 1
   17
  Astonishment verging on consternation filled the Assemblymen, who, through long experience, were convinced that Truth was too precious to be exhibited in public. Worldly wisdom came to the aid of the veteran Republican leader who wished to treat the assault as if it were the unripe explosion of youth. The callowness of his young friend must excuse him. He doubtless meant well, but his inexperience prevented him from realizing that many a reputation in public life had been shattered by just such loose charges. He felt sure that when the young man had time to think it over, he would modify his language. It would be fitting, therefore, for that body to show its kindliness by giving the new member from New York City leisure to think it over.   18
  Little did this official defender of corruption understand Mr. Roosevelt, whose business it was then to uphold Right. That was a question in which expediency could have no voice. He regarded neither the harm he might possibly do to his political future nor to the standing of the Republican Party. I suspect that he smarted under the leader’s attempt to treat him as a young man whose breaks instead of causing surprise must be condoned. Although the magnates of the party pleaded with him and urged him not to throw away his usefulness, he rose again in the Assembly next day and renewed his demand for an investigation of Judge Westbrook. Day after day he repeated his demand. The newspapers throughout the State began to give more and more attention to him. The public applauded, and the legislators, who had sat and listened to him with contemptuous indifference, heard from their constituents. At last, on the eighth day, by a vote of 104 to 6 the Assembly adopted Roosevelt’s resolution and appointed an investigating committee. The evidence taken amply justified Roosevelt’s charges, in spite of which the committee gave a whitewashing verdict. Nevertheless the “young reformer” had not only proved his case, but had suddenly made a name for himself in the State and in the Country.   19
  Before his first term ended he discovered that there were enemies of honest government quite as dangerous as the open supporters of corruption. These were the demagogues who, under the pretense of attacking the wicked interests, introduced bills for the sole purpose of being bought off. Sly fellows they were and sneaks. Against their “strike” legislation Roosevelt had also to fight. His chief friend at Albany was Billy O’Neil, who kept a little crossroads grocery up in the Adirondacks; had thought for himself on American politics; had secured his election to the Assembly without the favor of the Machine; and now acted there with as much independence as his young colleague of the Twenty first District. Roosevelt remarks that the fact that two persons, sprung from such totally different surroundings, should come together in the Legislature was an example of the fine result which American democracy could achieve.   20
  The session came to a close, and although Roosevelt had protested the year before that he was not going into politics as a career, he allowed himself to be renominated. Naturally, his desire to continue in and complete the task in which he had already accomplished much was whetted. He would have been a fool if he had not known, what every one else knew, that he had made a very brilliant record during his first year. A false standard which comes very near hypocrisy imposes a ridiculous mock modesty on great men in modern times: as if Shakespeare alone should be unaware that he was Shakespeare or that Napoleon or Darwin or Lincoln or Cavour should each be ignorant of his worth. Better vanity, if you will, than sham modesty. There was no harm done that Roosevelt at twenty-three felt proud of being recognized as a power in the Assembly. We must never forget also that he was a fighter, and that his first contests in Albany had so roused his blood that he longed to fight those battles to a finish, that is, to victory. We must make a distinction also in his motives. He did not strain every nerve to win a cause because it was his cause; but having adopted a cause which his heart and mind told him was good, he strove to make that cause triumph because he believed it to be good.   21
  So he allowed himself to be renominated and he was reelected by 2000 majority, although in that autumn of 1882 the Democratic candidate for Governor, Grover Cleveland, swept New York State by 192,000 and carried into office by the momentum of his success many of the minor candidates on the Democratic ticket.   22
  The year 1883 opened with the cheer of dawn in New York politics. Cleveland, the young Governor of forty-four, had proved himself fearless, public-spirited, and conscientious. So had Roosevelt, the young Assemblyman of twenty-three. One was a Democrat, one a Republican, but they were alike in courage and in holding honesty and righteousness above their party platforms.   23
  Roosevelt pursued in this session the methods which had made him famous and feared in the preceding. He admits that he may have had for a while a “swelled head,” for in the chaos of conflicting principles and no-principles in which his life was thrown, he decided to act independently and to let his conscience determine his action on each question which arose. He flocked by himself on a peak. He was too practical, however, to hold this course long. Experience had already taught him that under a constitutional government parties which advocate or oppose issues must rule, and that in order to make your issues win you must secure a majority of the votes. Not by playing solitaire, therefore, not by standing aloof as one crying in the wilderness, but by honestly persuading as many as you could to support you, could you promote the causes which you had at heart. The professional politicians and the Machine leaders still thought that he was stubborn and too conceited to listen to reason, but in reality he had a few intimates like Billy O’Neil and Mike Costello with whom he took counsel, and a group of thirty or forty others, both Republican and Democratic, with whom he acted harmoniously on many questions.   24
  They all united to fight the Black-Horse Cavalry, as the gang of “strike” legislators was called. One of the most insidious bills pushed by these rascals aimed at reducing the fares on the New York Elevated Railway from ten cents to five cents. It seemed so plausible! So entirely in the interest of the poor man! Indeed, the affairs of the Elevated took up much of Roosevelt’s attention and enriched for years the Black-Horse Cavalrymen and the lobbyists. He also forced the Assembly to appoint a commission to investigate the New York City police officials, the police department being at that time notoriously corrupt. They employed as their counsel George Bliss, a lawyer of prominence, with a sharp tongue and a contempt for self-constituted reformers. While Roosevelt was cross-examining one of the officials, Bliss, who little understood the man he was dealing with, interrupted with a scornful and impertinent remark. “Of course you do not mean that, Mr. Bliss,” said the young reformer with impressive politeness, “for if you did we should have to put you out in the street.” Even in those early days, when Roosevelt was in dead earnest, he had a way of pointing his forefinger and of fixing his under jaw which the person whom he addressed could not mistake. That forefinger was as menacing as a seven shooter. Mr. Bliss, with all the prestige of a successful career at the bar behind him, quickly understood the meaning of the look, the gesture, and the studied courtesy. He deemed it best to retract and apologize at once; and it was.   25
  Roosevelt consented to run for a third term and he was elected in spite of the opposition of the various elements which united to defeat him. Such a man was too. dangerous to be acceptable to Jay Gould and the “interests,” to Black-Horse Cavalry, and to gangs of all kinds who made a living, directly or indirectly, by office-holding. His friends urged him for the speakership; but this was asking too much of the Democratic majority, and besides, there were Republicans who had winced under his scourge the year before and were glad enough to defeat him now. Occasionally, some kind elderly friend would still attempt to show him the folly of his ways, and we hear reports of one gentleman, a member of the Assembly and an “old friend,” who told him that the great concern in life was Business, and that lawyers and judges, legislators and Congressmen, existed to serve the ends of Business. “There is no politics in politics,” said this moral guide and sage. But he could not budge the young man, who believed that there are many considerations more important than the political.   26
  During this third year, he made a straight and gallant fight to improve the condition under which cigars were made in New York City. By his own investigation, he found that the cigar makers lived in tenements, in one room, perhaps two, with their families and often a boarder; these made the cigars which the public bought, in ignorance of the facts. Roosevelt proposed that, as a health measure which would benefit alike the cigar-makers and the public, this evil practice be prohibited and that the police put a stop to it. His bill passed in 1884, but the next year the Court of Appeals declared it unconstitutional, because it deprived the tenement-house people of their liberty and would injure the owners of the tenements if they were not allowed to rent their property to these tenants. In its decision, the court indulged in nauseating sanctimony of this sort: “It cannot be perceived how the cigar-maker is to be improved in his health, or his morals, by forcing him from his home and its hallowed associations and beneficent influences to ply his trade elsewhere.” This was probably not the first time when Roosevelt was enraged to find the courts of justice sleekly upholding hot-beds of disease and vice, on the pretense that they were protecting liberty. Commenting on this episode, Mr. Washburn well says: “As applied to the kind of tenement I have referred to, this reference to the ‘home and its hallowed associations’ seems grotesque or tragic depending upon the point of view.” 2   27
  Amid work of this kind, fighting and fearless, constantly adding to his reputation among the good as a high type of reformer, and adding to the detestation in which the bad held him, he completed his third term. He resolutely refused to serve again and declined the offers which were pressed upon him to run for Congress; nor did he accept a place on the Republican National Committee.   28
  The death of his mother on February 12, 1884, followed in twenty-four hours by that of his wife, who died after the birth of a daughter, brought sorrow upon Roosevelt which made the burden of his political work heavier and caused him to consider how he should readjust his life, for he was first of all a man of deep family affections and the loss of his wife left him adrift.   29
  To S. N. D. North, editor of the Utica Herald and a well-wisher of his, he wrote from Albany on April 30, 1884:
       
  Dear Mr. North: I wish to write you a few words just to thank you for your kindness towards me, and to assure you that my head will not be turned by what I well know was a mainly accidental success. Although not a very old man, I have yet lived a great deal in my life, and I have known sorrow too bitter and joy too keen to allow me to become either cast down or elated for more than a very brief period over success or defeat.
  I have very little expectation of being able to keep on in politics; my success so far has only been won by absolute indifference to my future career; for I doubt if any one can realize the bitter and venomous hatred with which I am regarded by the very politicians who at Utica supported me, under dictation from masters who were influenced by political considerations that were national and not local in their scope. I realize very thoroughly the absolutely ephemeral nature of the hold I have upon the people, and the very real and positive hostility I have excited among the politicians. I will not stay in public life unless I can do so on my own terms; and my ideal, whether lived up to or not, is rather a high one.
  For very many reasons I will not mind going back into private life for a few years. My work this winter has been very harassing, and I feel both tired and restless; for the next few months I shall probably be in Dakota, and I think I shall spend the next two or three years in making shooting trips, either in the Far West or in the Northern woods—and there will be plenty of work to do writing. 3
   30
  This letter is a striking revelation of the inmost intentions of the man of twenty-five, who already stood on a pinnacle where hard heads and mature might well have been dizzy. Evidently he knew him self, and even in his brief experience with the world he understood how uncertain and evanescent are the winds of Fame. If he had ever suffered from a “swelled head,” he was now cured. He felt the emptiness of life’s prizes when the dearest who should have shared them with him were dead.   31

Note 1. Riis, 54–55. [ back ]

Note 2. Washburn, 11. [ back ]

Note 3. Douglas, 41–42. [ back ]

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