William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > III. At the First Crossroads
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William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
 
III. At the First Crossroads
 
THE YEAR 1884 was a Presidential year, and Roosevelt was one of the four delegates-at-large 1 of New York State to the Republican National Convention at Chicago. The day seemed to have come for a new birth in American politics. The Republican Party was grown fat with four and twenty years of power, and the fat had overlain and smothered its noble aims. The party was arrogant, it was corrupt, it was unashamed. After the War, immense projects involving huge sums of money had to be managed, and the Republicans spent like spendthrifts when they did not spend like embezzlers. I do not imply that the Democrats would not have done the same if they had been in command, or that there were not among them many who saw where their profit lay, and took it. The quadrupeds which feed at the Treasury trough are all of one species, no matter whether their skins be black or white.   1
  But now a new generation was springing up, with its leaven of hope and idealism and its intuitive faith in honesty.   2
  More completely than any one else, Roosevelt embodied to the country the glorious promise of this new generation. But the old always dies hard after it has long been the blood and mind of a creed, a class, or a party. Terrible also is the blind, remorseless sweep of a custom which may have sprung up from good soil, not less than one spawned and nurtured in iniquity. Frankenstein laboriously constructing his monster seems to personify society at its immemorial task of creating institutions; each institution as it becomes viable rends its creator.   3
  So the Republican Party lived on its traditions, its privileges, its appetites, its arrogance, and it refused to be transmuted by its youngest members. In 1876 it resorted to fraud to perpetuate its hold on power. Unchastened in 1880, three hundred and six of its delegates attempted through thick and thin to force the nomination of General Grant for a third term. The chief opposing candidate was James G. Blaine, whose unsavory reputation, however, caused the majority of the convention which was not pledged to Grant to repudiate Blaine and to choose Garfield as a compromise. Then followed four years of factional bitterness in the party, and when 1884 came round, Blaine’s admirers pushed him to the front.   4
  Blaine himself was not a person of delicate instinct. The repudiation which he had twice suffered by the better element of the Republican Party, seemed only to redouble his determination to be its candidate. He had much personal magnetism. Both in his methods and ideals, he represented perfectly the politicians who during the dozen years after Lincoln’s death flourished at Washington, and at every State capitol in the Union. By the luck of a catching phrase applied to him by Robert G. Ingersoll, he stood before the imagination of the country “as the plumed knight,” although on looking back we search in vain for any trait of knightliness or chivalry in him. For a score of years he filled the National Congress, House and Senate, with the bustle of his egotism. His knightly valor consisted in shaking his fist at the “Rebel Brigadiers” and in waving the “bloody shirt,” feats which seemed to him heroic, no doubt, but which were safe enough, the Brigadiers being few and Blaine’s supporters many. But where on the Nation’s statute book do you find now a single important law fathered by him? What book contains one of his maxims for men to live by? Many persons still live who knew him, and remember him, but can any of them repeat a saying of his which passes current on the lips of Americans? So much sound and fury, so much intrigue and sophistry, and self-seeking, and now the silence of an empty sepulchre!   5
  The better element of the Republican Party went to the Chicago Convention sworn to save the party from the disgrace of nominating Blaine. Roosevelt believed the charges against him, and by all that he had written and spoken, and by his political career, he was bound to oppose the politician, who, as Speaker of the National House, had, by the showing of his own letters, taken bribes from unscrupulous interests. In the convention, and in the committee meetings, and in the incessant parleys which prepare the work of a convention, Roosevelt fought unwaveringly against Blaine. The better element made Senator George F. Edmunds their candidate, and Roosevelt urged his nomination on all comers. When the convention met, Mr. Lodge, of Massachusetts, nominated J. R. Lynch, a negro from Mississippi, to be temporary chairman, thereby heading off Powell Clayton, a veteran Republican “war-horse” and office-holder. Roosevelt had the honor—and it was an honor for so young a man—to make a speech, which proved to be effective, in Lynch’s behalf; and when the vote was taken, Lynch was chosen by 424 to 384. This first victory over the Blaine Machine, the Edmunds men hailed as a good omen.   6
  Roosevelt was chairman of the New York State delegation. The whirling days and nights at Chicago confirmed his position as a national figure, but he strove in vain in behalf of honesty. The majority of the delegates would not be gainsaid. They had come to Chicago resolved to elect James G. Blaine, and no other, and they would not quit until they had accomplished this. Pleas for morality and for party concord fell on deaf ears, as did warnings of the comfort which Blaine’s nomination would give to their enemies. His supporters packed the great convention hall, and when his name was put in nomination, there followed a riot of cheers, which lasted the better part of an hour, and foreboded his success.   7
  As had been predicted, Blaine’s nomination split the Republican Party. Many of the better element came out for Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate, who, as Governor of New York, had displayed unfailing courage, integrity, and intelligence. Others again, disgusted with many of the principles and leaders of both parties, formed themselves into a special group or party of Independents. They were hateful alike to the Bosses who controlled the Republican or Democratic organization; and Charles A. Dana, of the New York Sun, who took care never to be “on the side of the angels,” derisively dubbed them “mugwumps”—a title which may carry an honorable meaning to posterity.   8
  I was one of these Independents, and if I cite my own case, it is not because it was of any importance to the public, but because it was typical. During the days of suspense before the Chicago Convention met, the proposed nomination of Blaine weighed upon me like a nightmare. I would not admit to myself that so great a crime against American ideals could be committed by delegates who represented the standard of any political party, and were drawn from all over the country. I cherished, what seems to me now the sadly foolish dream, that with Roosevelt in the convention the abomination could not be done. I thought of him as of a paladin against whom the forces of evil would dash themselves to pieces. I thought of him as the young and dauntless spokesman of righteousness whose words would silence the special pleaders of iniquity. I wrote him and besought him to stand firm.   9
  There followed the days of suspense when the newspapers brought news of the wild proceedings at the convention, and for me the shadow deepened. Then the telegraph reported Blaine’s triumphant nomination. I waited, we all waited, to learn what the delegates who opposed him intended to do. One morning a dispatch in the New York Tribune announced that Roosevelt would not bolt. That very day I had a little note from him saying that he had done his best in Chicago, that the result sickened him, that he should, however, support the Republican ticket; but he intended to spend most of the summer and autumn hunting in the West.   10
  I was dumfounded. I felt as Abolitionists felt after Webster’s Seventh of March speech. My old acquaintance, our trusted leader, whose career in the New York Assembly we had watched with an almost holy satisfaction, seemed to have strangely abandoned the fundamental principles which we and he had believed in, and he had so nobly upheld. Whittier’s poem “Ichabod” seemed to have been aimed at him, especially in its third stanza:
       
  “Oh, dumb be passion’s stormy rage,
  When he who might
  Have lighted up and led his age,
  Falls back in night.”
Amid the lurid gleams and heat of such a disappointment, men cannot see clearly. They impute wrong motives, base motives, to the backslider. In their wrath, they assume that only guilt can account for his defection.
   11
  We see plainly enough now that we misjudged Roosevelt. We assumed that because he was with us in the crusade for pure politics, he agreed with us in the estimate we put on party loyalty. Independents and mugwumps felt little reverence and set even less value on political parties, which we regarded simply as instruments to be used in carrying out policies. If a party pursued a policy contrary to our own, we left it as we should leave a train which we found going in the wrong direction. There was nothing sacred in a political party.   12
  In assuming that Roosevelt must have coincided with us in these views, we did him wrong. For he held then, and had held since he first entered politics, that party transcended persons, and that only in the gravest case imaginable was one justified in bolting his party because one disapproved of its candidate. He did not respect Blaine; on the contrary, he regarded Blaine as a bad man: but he believed that the future of the country would be much safer under the control of the Republican Party than under the Democratic. This doctrine exposes its adherents to obvious criticism, if not to suspicion. It enables persons of callous consciences to support bad platforms and bad candidates without blushing; but after all, who shall say at what point you are justified in bolting your party? The decision must rest with the individual. And although it was hard for the bolting Independents in 1884 to accept the tenet that party transcends persons, it was Roosevelt’s reason, and with him sincere. Some of his colleagues in the better element who had struggled as he had to defeat Blaine, and then, almost effusively, exalted Blaine as their standard-bearer, were less fortunate than he in having their sincerity doubted. George William Curtis, Carl Schurz, Charles Francis Adams, and other Independents of their intransigent temper formed a Mugwump Party and this turned the scale in electing Grover Cleveland President.   13
  There used to be much discussion as to who persuaded Roosevelt, although he detested Blaine, to stand by the Republicans in 1884. Those were the days when very few of his critics understood that, in spite of his youth, he had already thought for himself on politics and had reached certain conclusions as to fundamental principles. These critics assumed that he must have been won over by Henry Cabot Lodge, with whom he had been intimate since his Harvard days, and who was supposed to be his political mentor. The truth is, however, that Roosevelt had formed his own opinion about bolting, and that he and Lodge, in discussing possibilities before they went to the Chicago Convention, had independently agreed that they must abide by the choice of the party there. They held, and a majority of men in similar position still hold, that delegates cannot in honor abandon the nominee chosen by the majority in a convention which they attend as delegates. If the rule, “My man, or nobody,” were to prevail, there would be no use in holding conventions at all. And after that of 1884, George William Curtis, one of the chief leaders of the Independents, admitted that Roosevelt, in staying with the Republican Party, played the game fairly. While Curtis himself bolted and helped to organize the Mugwumps, Roosevelt, after his trip to the West, returned to New York and took a vigorous part in the campaign. Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s decision, in 1884, to cleave to the Republican Party disappointed many of us. We thought of him as a lost leader. Some critics in their ignorance were inclined to impute false motives to him; but in time, the cloud of suspicion rolled away and his action in that crisis was not laid up against him. The election of Cleveland relieved him of seeming perfunctorily to uphold Blaine.   14

Note 1. The other delegates-at-large were President Andrew D. White of Cornell University, J. T. Gilbert, and Edwin Packard. [ back ]

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