William Roscoe Thayer (18591923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
VIII. Governor of New York-Vice-President
WHILE Roosevelt was at Montauk Point waiting with his regiment to be mustered out, and cheering up the sick soldiers, he had direct proof that every war breeds a President. For the politicians went down to call on him and, although they did not propose that he should be a candidate for the Presidencythat was not a Presidential yearthey looked him over to see how he would do for Governor of New York. Since Cleveland set the fashion in 1882, the New York governorship was regarded as the easiest stepping stone to the Presidency. Roosevelts popularity was so great that if the matter had been left in the hands of the people, he would have been nominated with a rush; but the Empire State was dominated by BossesSenator David B. Hill, the Democratic State Boss, Senator Thomas C. Platt, the Republican State Boss, and Richard Croker, Boss of Tammany,who had intimate relations with the wicked of both parties, and often decided an election by throwing their votes or withholding them.
Senator Platt enjoyed, with Senator Quay of Pennsylvania, the evil reputation of being the most unscrupulous Boss in the United States. I do not undertake to say whether the palm should go to him or to Quay, but no one disputes that Platt held New York State in his hand, or that Quay held Pennsylvania in his. By the year 1898, both were recognized as representing a type of Boss that was becoming extinct.
The business-man type, of which Senator Aldrich was a perfect exponent, was pushing to the front. Quay, greedy of money, had never made a pretense of showing even a conventional respect for the Eighth Commandment; Platt, on the other hand, seems not to have enriched himself by his political deals, but to have taken his pay in the gratification he enjoyed from wielding autocratic power. Platt also betrayed that he dated from the last generation by his religiosity. He used his piety as an elephant uses his proboscis, to reach about and secure desired objects, large or small, the trunk of a tree or a bag of peanuts. He was a Sunday-School teacher and, I believe, a deacon of his church. Roosevelt says that he occasionally interlarded his political talk with theological discussion, but that his very dry theology was wholly divorced from moral implications. The wonderful chapter on The New York Governorship, in Roosevelts Autobiography, ought to be read by every American, because it gives the most remarkable account of the actual working of the political Machine in a great American State, the disguises that Machine wore, its absolute unscrupulousness, its wickedness, its purpose to destroy the ideals of democracy. And Roosevelts analysis of Platt may stand alongside of Machiavellis portraits of the Italian Bosses four hundred years beforethey were not called Bosses then.
Senator Platt did not wish to have Roosevelt hold the governorship, or any other office in which the independent young man might worry the wily old Senator.1 But the Republican Party in New York State happened to be in such a very bad condition that the likelihood that it would carry the election that autumn was slight: for the public had temporarily tired of Machine rule. Platts managers saw that they must pick out a really strong candidate and they understood that nobody at that moment could rival Roosevelts popularity. So they impressed on Platt that he must accept the Rough Rider Chief, and Mr. Lemuel Quigg, an ex-Congressman, a journalist formerly on the New York Tribune, a stanch Republican, who nevertheless recognized that discretion and intelligence might sometimes be allowed a voice in Machine dictation, journeyed to Montauk and had a friendly, frank conversation with the Colonel.
Quigg spoke for nobody but himself; he merely wished to sound Roosevelt. Roosevelt made no pledges; he defined his general attitude and wished to understand what the Platt Machine proposed. Quigg said that Platt admitted that the present Governor, Black, could not be reelected, but that he had doubts as to Roosevelts docility. Republican leaders and local chairmen in all parts of the State, however, enthusiastically called for Roosevelt, and Quigg did not wish to have the Republican Party split into two factions. He believed that Platt would accede if he could be convinced that Roosevelt would not make war on him. Roosevelt, without promising anything, replied that he had no intention of making war on Mr. Platt, or on anybody else, if war could be avoided. He said:
that what [he] wanted was to be Governor and not a faction leader; that [he] certainly would confer with the organization men, as with everybody else who seemed to [him] to have knowledge of and interest in public affairs, and that as to Mr. Platt and the organization leaders, [he] would do so in the sincere hope that there might always result harmony of opinion and purpose; but that while [he] would try to get on well with the organization, the organization must with equal sincerity strive to do what [he] regarded as essential for the public good; and that in every case, after full consideration of what everybody had to say who might possess real knowledge of the matter, [he] should have to act finally as [his] own judgment and conscience dictated, and administer the State Government as [he] thought it ought to be administered. 2
Having assured Roosevelt that his statements were exactly what Quigg expected, Quigg returned to New York City, reported his conversation to Platt, and, in due season, the free citizens of New York learned that, with Platts consent, the Colonel of the Rough Riders would be nominated by the Republican State Convention for the governorship of New York.
During the campaign, Roosevelt stumped the State at a pace unknown till then. It was his first real campaign, and he went from place to place in a special train speaking at every stop from his car platform or, in the larger towns, staying long enough to address great audiences out of doors or in the local theatre. In November, he was elected by a majority of 18,000, a slender margin as it looks now, but sufficient for its purpose, and representing a really notable victory, because it had been expected that the Democrats would beat any other Republican candidate but him by overwhelming odds. So, after an absence of fifteen years, he returned to dwell in Albany.
Before he was sworn in as Governor, he had already measured strength with Senator Platt. The Senator asked him with amiable condescension whether he had any special friends he would like to have appointed on the committees. Roosevelt expressed surprise, supposing that the Speaker appointed committees. Then Platt told him that the Speaker had not been agreed upon yet, but that of course he would name the list given to him. Roosevelt understood the situation, but said nothing. A week later, however, at another conference, Platt handed him a telegram, in which the sender accepted with pleasure his appointment as Superintendent of Public Works. Roosevelt liked this man and thought him honest, but he did not think him the best person for that particular work, and he did not intend as Governor to have his appointments dictated to him, because he would naturally be held responsible for his appointees. When he told Platt that that man would not do, the Senator flew into a passion; he had never met such insubordination before in any public official, and he decided to fight the issue from the start. Roosevelt did not allow himself to lose his temper; he was perfectly polite while Platt let loose his fury; and before they parted Platt understood which was master. The Governor appointed Colonel Partridge to the position and, as it had chiefly to do with the canals of the State, it was most important. In deed, the canal scandals under Roosevelts predecessor, Governor Black, had so roused the popular conscience that it threatened to break down the supremacy of the Republican Party.
Jacob Riis describes Roosevelts administration as introducing the Ten Commandments into the government at Albany, and we need hardly be told that the young Governor applied his usual methods and promoted his favorite reforms. Finding the Civil Service encrusted with abuses, he pushed legislation which established a high standard of reform. The starch which had been taken out of the Civil Service Law under Governor Black was put back, stiffened. He insisted on enforcing the Factory Law, for the protection of operatives; and the law regulating sweat-shops, which he inspected himself, with Riis for his companion.
Perhaps his hottest battle was over the law to tax corporations which held public franchises. This touched the owners of street railways in the cities and towns, and many other corporations which enjoyed a monopoly in managing quasi-public utilities. In politics there is no politics, said that elderly early mentor of Roosevelt when he first sat in the Assembly. Legislatures existed simply to do the bidding of Big Business, was the creed of the men who controlled Big Business. They contributed impartially to the Republican and Democratic campaign funds. They had Republican Assemblymen and Democratic Assemblymen in their service, and their lobbyists worked harmoniously with either party. Merely to suggest that the special privileges of the corporations might be open to discussion was sacrilege. No wonder, therefore, that the holders of public franchises marshaled all their forces against the Governor.
Boss Platt wrote Roosevelt a letterone of the sort inspired more by sorrow than by angerto the effect that he had been warned that the Governor was a little loose on the relations of capital and labor, on trusts and combinations, and, in general, on the right of a man to run his business as he chose, always respecting, of course, the Ten Commandments and the Penal Code. The Senator was shocked and pained to perceive that this warning had a real basis, and that the Governors altruism in behalf of the people had led him to urge curtailing the rights of corporations. Roosevelt, instead of feeling contrite at this chiding, redoubled his energy. The party managers buried the bill. Roosevelt then sent a special message, as the New York Governors are empowered to do. It was laid on the Speakers desk, but no notice was taken of it. The next morning he sent this second message to the Speaker:
I learn that the emergency message which I sent last evening to the Assembly on behalf of the Franchise Tax Bill has not been read. I, therefore, send hereby another. I need not impress upon the Assembly the need of passing this bill at once . It establishes the principle that hereafter corporations holding franchises from the public shall pay their just share of the public burden.3
The Speaker, the Assembly, and the Machine now gave heed. The corporations saw that it would be suicidal to bring down on themselves the avalanche of fury which was accumulating. The bill passed. Roosevelt had set a precedent for controlling corporate truculence.
While Roosevelt was accomplishing these very real triumphs for justice and popular welfare, the professional critics went on finding fault with him. Although the passage of one bill after another gave tangible proof that, far from being Platts man, or the slave of the Machine, he followed his own ideals, did not satisfy these critics. They suspected that there was some wickedness behind it, and they professed to be greatly disturbed that Roosevelt frequently breakfasted or dined with Platt. What could this mean except that he took his instructions from the Boss? How could he, who made a pretense of righteousness, consent to visit the Sunday School political teacher, much less to sit at the table with him? The doubts and anxieties of these self-appointed defenders of public morals, and of the Republic even, found a spokesman in a young journalist who had then come recently from college. This person, whom we will call X., met Mr. Roosevelt at a public reception and with the brusqueness, to put it mildly, of a hereditary reformer, he demanded to know why the Governor breakfasted and dined with Boss Platt. Mr. Roosevelt replied, with that courtesy of his which was never more complete than when it conveyed his sarcasm, that a person in public office, like himself, was obliged to meet officially all kinds of men and women, and he added: Why, Mr. X., I have even dined with your father. X. did not pursue his investigation, and the bystanders, who had vague recollections of the fathers misfortunes in Wall Street, thought that the son was a little indiscreet even for a hereditary reformer. The truth about Roosevelts going to Platt and breakfasting with him was very simple. The Senator spent the week till Friday afternoon in Washington, then he came to New York for Saturday and Sunday. Being somewhat infirm, although he was not, as we now reckon, an old man, he did not care to extend his trip to Albany, and so the young and vigorous Governor ran down from Albany and, at breakfast with Platt, discussed New York State affairs. What I have already quoted indicates, I think, that no body knew better than the Boss himself that Roosevelt was not his man.
One other example is too good to omit. The Superintendent of Insurance was really one of Platts men, and a person most grateful to the insurance companies. Governor Roosevelt, regarding him as unfit, not only declined to reappoint him, but actually appointed in his stead a superintendent whom Platt and the insurance companies could not manage, and so hated. Platt remonstrated. Finding his arguments futile, he broke out in threats that if his man was not reappointed, he would fight. He would forbid the Assembly to confirm Roosevelts candidate. Roosevelt replied that as soon as the Assembly adjourned, he should appoint his candidate temporarily. Platt declared that when it reconvened, the Assembly would throw him out. This did not, however, frighten Roosevelt, who remarked that, although he foresaw he should have an uncomfortable time himself, he would guarantee to make his opponents more uncomfortable still.
Later that day Platt sent one of his henchmen to deliver an ultimatum to the Governor. He repeated Platts threats, but was unable to make an impression. Roosevelt got up to go. You know it means your ruin? said the henchman solemnly. Well, we will see about that, Roosevelt replied, and had nearly reached the door when the henchman, anxious to give the prospective victim a last chance, warned him that the Senator would open the fight on the next day, and keep it up to the bitter end. Yes, replied the Governor; good-night. And he was just going out, when the henchman rushed after him, calling, Hold on! We accept. Send in your nomination. The Senator is very sorry, but will make no further opposition.4 Roosevelt adds that the bluff was carried through to the limit, but that after it failed, Platt did not renew his attempt to interfere with him.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt made no war on Platt or anybody else, merely for the fun of it. We must use the tools we have, said Lincoln to John Hay; and Lincoln also had many tools which he did not choose, but which he had to work with. Roosevelt differed from the doctrinaire reformer, who would sit still and do nothing unless he had perfectly clean tools and pure conditions to work with. To do nothing until the millennium came would mean, of course, that the Machine would pursue its methods undisturbed. Roosevelt, on the contrary, knew that by cooperating with the Machine, as far as his conscience permitted, he could reach results much better than it aimed at.
Here are three of his letters to Platt, written at a time when the young journalist and the reformers of his stripe shed tears at the thought that Theodore Roosevelt was the obsequious servant of Boss Platt.
The first letter refers to Roosevelts nomination to the Vice Presidency, a possibility which the public was already discussing. The last two letters, written after he had been nominated by the Republicans, relate to the person whom he wished to see succeed himself as Governor of New York.
ROOSEVELT TO PLATT
February 1, 1900
First, and least important. If you happened to have seen the Evening Post recently, you ought to be amused, for it is moralizing with lofty indignation over the cringing servility I have displayed in the matter of the insurance superintendent. I fear it will soon take the view that it cannot possibly support you as long as you associate with me!
Now as to serious matters. I have, of course, done a great deal of thinking about the Vice-Presidency since the talk I had with you followed by the letter from Lodge and the visit from Payne, of Wisconsin. I have been reserving the matter to talk over with you, but in view of the publication in the Sun this morning, I would like to begin the conversation, as it were, by just a line or two now. I need not speak of the confidence I have in the judgment of you and Lodge, yet I cant help feeling more and more that the Vice Presidency is not an office in which I could do anything and not an office in which a man who is still vigorous and not past middle life has much chance of doing anything. As you know, I am of an active nature. In spite of all the work and all the worry, and very largely because of your own constant courtesy and consideration, my dear Senator,I have thoroughly enjoyed being Governor. I have kept every promise, express or implied, I made on the stump, and I feel that the Republican Party is stronger before the State because of my incumbency. Certainly everything is being managed now on a perfectly straight basis and every office is as clean as a whistle.
Now, I should like to be Governor for another term, especially if we are able to take hold of the canals in serious shape. But as Vice President, I dont see there is anything I can do. I would simply be a presiding officer, and that I should find a bore. As you know, I am a man of moderate means (although I am a little better off than the Suns article would indicate) and I should have to live very simply in Washington and could not entertain in any way as Mr. Hobart and Mr. Morton entertained. My children are all growing up and I find the burden of their education constantly heavier, so that I am by no means sure that I ought to go into public life at all, provided some remunerative work offered itself. The only reason I would like to go on is that as I have not been a money maker I feel rather in honor bound to leave my children the equivalent in a way of a substantial sum of actual achievement in politics or letters. Now, as Governor, I can achieve something, but as Vice-President I should achieve nothing. The more I look at it, the less I feel as if the Vice-Presidency offered anything to me that would warrant my taking it.
Of course, I shall not say anything until I hear from you, and possibly not until I see you, but I did want you to know just how I felt.
ROOSEVELT TO PLATT
Oyster Bay, August 13, 1900
I noticed in Saturdays paper that you had spoken of my suggesting Judge Andrews. I did not intend to make the suggestion public, and I wrote you with entire freedom, hoping that perhaps I could suggest some man who would commend himself to your judgment as being acceptable generally to the Republican Party. I am an organization Republican of a very strong type, as I understand the word organization, but in trying to suggest a candidate for Governor, I am not seeking either to put up an organization or a non-organization man, but simply a first-class Republican, who will commend himself to all Republicans, and, for the matter of that, to all citizens who wish good government. Judge Andrews needs no endorsement from any man living as to his Republicanism. From the time he was Mayor of Syracuse through his long and distinguished service on the bench he has been recognized as a Republican and a citizen of the highest type. I write this because your interview seems to convey the impression, which I am sure you did not mean to convey, that in some way my suggestions are antagonistic to the organization. I do not understand quite what you mean by the suggestion of my friends, for I do not know who the men are to whom you thus refer, nor why they are singled out for reference as making any suggestions about the Governorship.
In your last interview, I understood that you wished me to be back in the State at the time of the convention. As I wish to be able to give the nominee hearty and effective support, this necessarily means that I do have a great interest in whom is nominated.
ROOSEVELT TO PLATT
Oyster Bay, August 20, 1900
I have your letter of the 16th. I wish to see a straight Republican nomination for the governorship. The men whom I have mentioned, such as ex-Judge Andrews and Secretary Root, are as good Republicans as can be found in the State, and I confess I havent the slightest idea what you mean when you say, if we are to lower the standard and nominate such men as you suggest, we might as well die first as last. To nominate such. a man as either of these is to raise the standard; to speak of it as lowering the standard is an utter misuse of words.
You say that we must nominate some Republican who will carry out the wishes of the organization, and add that I have not yet made up my mind who that man is. Of one thing I am certain, that, to have it publicly known that the candidate, whoever he may be, will carry out the wishes of the organization, would insure his defeat; for such a statement implies that he would merely register the decrees of a small body of men inside the Republican Party, instead of trying to work for the success of the party as a whole and of good citizenship generally. It is not the business of a Governor to carry out the wishes of the organization unless these wishes coincide with the good of the Party and of the State. If they do, then he ought to have them put into effect; if they do not, then as a matter of course he ought to disregard them. To pursue any other course would be to show servility; and a servile man is always an undesirablenot to say a contemptiblepublic servant. A Governor should, of course, try in good faith to work with the organization; but under no circumstances should he be servile to it, or carry out its wishes unless his own best judgment is that they ought to be carried out. I am a good organization man myself, as I understand the word organization, but it is in the highest degree foolish to make a fetish of the word organization and to treat any man or any small group of men as embodying the organization. The organization should strive to give effective, intelligent, and honest leadership to and representation of the Republican Party, just as the Republican Party strives to give wise and upright government to the State. When what I have said ceases to be true of either organization or party, it means that the organization or party is not performing its duty, and is losing the reason for its existence.5
Roosevelts independence as Governor of New York, and the very important reforms which, in spite of the Machine, he had driven through, greatly increased his personal popularity throughout the country. To citizens, East and West, who knew nothing about the condition of the factories, canals, and insurance institutions in New York State, the name Roosevelt stood for a man as honest as he was energetic, and as fearless as he was true. Platt and the Machine naturally wished to get rid of this marplot, who could not be manipulated, who held strange and subversive ideas as to the extent to which the Ten Commandments and the Penal Code should be allowed to encroach on politics and Big Business, and who was hopelessly altruistic in caring for the poor and down trodden and outcast. Even Platt knew that, while it would not be safe for him to try to dominate the popular hero against his own preference and that of the public, still to shelve Roosevelt in the office of Vice-President would bring peace to the sadly disturbed Boss, and would restore jobs to many of his greedy followers. So he talked up the Vice-Presidency for Roosevelt, and he let the impression circulate that in the autumn there would be a new Governor.
Roosevelt, however, repeated to many persons the views he wrote to Platt in the letter quoted above, and his friends and opponents both understood that he wished to continue as Governor for another two years, to carry on the fight against corruption, and to save himself from being laid away in the Vice Presidencythe receiving-tomb of many ambitious politicians. In spite of the fact that within thirty-five years, by the assassination of two Presidents, two Vice-Presidents had succeeded to the highest office in the Nation, Vice-Presidents were popularly regarded as being mere phantoms without any real power or influence as long as their term lasted, and cut off from all hopes in the future. Roosevelt himself had this notion. But the Presidential conventions, with criminal disregard of the qualifications of a candidate to perform the duties of President if accident thrust them upon him, went on recklessly nominating nonentities for Vice-President.
The following extract from a confidential letter by John Hay, Secretary of State, to Mr. Henry White, at the American Embassy in London, reveals the attitude towards Roosevelt of the Administration itself. Allowance must be made, of course, for Hays well-known habit of persiflage:
HAY TO HENRY WHITE
Teddy has been here: have you heard of it? It was more fun than a goat. He came down with a sombre resolution thrown on his strenuous brow to let McKinley and Hanna know once for all that he would not be Vice-President, and found to his stupefaction that nobody in Washington, except Platt, had ever dreamed of such a thing. He did not even have a chance to launch his nolo episcopari at the Major. That statesman said he did not want him on the ticketthat he would be far more valuable in New Yorkand Root said, with his frank and murderous smile, Of course notyoure not fit for it. And so he went back quite eased in his mind, but considerably bruised in his amour propre.
In February, Roosevelt issued a public notice that he would not consent to run for the Vice-Presidency, and throughout the spring, until the meeting of the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, on June 21st, he clung to that determination. Platt, anxious lest Roosevelt should be reelected Governor against the plans of the Machine, quietlyworked up a boom for Roosevelts nomination as Vice-President; and he connived with Quay to steer the Pennsylvania delegation in the same direction. The delegates met and renominated McKinley as a matter of course. Then, with irresistible pressure, they insisted on nominating Roosevelt. Swept off his feet, and convinced that the demand came genuinely from representatives from all over the country, he accepted, and was chosen by acclamation. The Boss-led delegations from New York and Pennsylvania added their votes to those of the real Roosevelt enthusiasts.
Happy, pious Tom Platt, relieved from the nightmare of having to struggle for two years more with a Reform Governor at Albany! Some of Roosevelts critics construed his yielding, at the last moment, as evidence of his being ruled by Platt after all. But this insinuation collapsed as soon as the facts were known. As an episode in the annals of political sport, I should like to have had Roosevelt run for Governor a second time, defy Platt and all his imps, and be reelected.
As I have just quoted Secretary Hays sarcastic remarks on the possibility that Roosevelt might be the candidate for Vice-President, I will add this extract from Hays note to the successful candidate himself, dated June 21st:
As it is all over but the shouting, I take a moment of this cool morning of the longest day in the year to offer you my cordial congratulations . You have received the greatest compliment the country could pay you, and although it was not precisely what you and your friends desire, I have no doubt it is all for the best. Nothing can keep you from doing good work wherever you arenor from getting lots of fun out of it.6
The Presidential campaign which followed, shook the country only a little less than that of 1896 had done. For William J. Bryan was again the Democratic candidate, honest moneythe gold against the silver standardwas again the issuealthough the Spanish War had injected Imperialism into the Republican platformand the conservative elements were still anxious. The persistence of the Free Silver heresy and of Bryans hold on the popular imagination alarmed them; for it seemed to contradict the hope implied in Lincolns saying that you cant fool all the people all the time. Here was a demagogue, who had been exposed and beaten four years before, who raised his heador should I say his voice?with increased effrontery and to an equally large and enthusiastic audience.
Roosevelt took his full share in campaigning for the Republican ticket. He spoke in the East and in the West, and for the first time the people of many of the States heard him speak and saw his actual presence. His attitude as a speaker, his gestures, the way in which his pent-up thoughts seemed almost to strangle him before he could utter them, his smile showing the white rows of teeth, his fist clenched as if to strike an invisible adversary, the sudden dropping of his voice, and leveling of his forefinger as he became almost conversational in tone, and seemed to address special individuals in the crowd before him, the strokes of sarcasm, stern and cutting, and the swift flashes of humor which set the great multitude in a roar, became in that summer and autumn familiar to millions of his countrymen; and the cartoonists made his features and gestures familiar to many other millions. On his Western trip, Roosevelt for a companion and understudy had Curtis Guild, and more than once when Roosevelt lost his voice completely, Guild had to speak for him. Up to election day in November, the Republicans did not feel confident, but when the votes were counted, McKinley had a plurality of over 830,000, and beat Bryan by more than a million.
By an absurd and bungling practice, which obtains in our political life, the Administration elected in November does not take office until the following March, an interval which permits the old Administration, often beaten and discredited, to continue in office for four months after the people have turned it out. As we have lately seen, such an Administration does not experience a death-bed repentance, but employs the moratorium to rivet upon the country the evil policies which the people have repudiated. This interval Roosevelt spent in finishing his work as Governor of New York State, and in removing to Washington. Then he had a foretaste of the life of inactivity to which the Vice-Presidency doomed him.
After being sworn in on March 4, 1901, his only stated duty was to preside over the Senate, but as the Senate did not usually sit during the hot weather, he had still more leisure thrust upon him. Of course, he could write, and there never was a time, even at his busiest, when he had not a book, or addresses, or articles on the stocks. But writing alone was not now sufficient to exercise his very vigorous faculties. Perhaps, for the first time in his life, he may have had a foreboding of what ennui meant. He consulted Justice White, now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whether it would be proper for him to enroll himself as a student in the Washington Law School. Justice White feared that this might be regarded as a slight to the dignity of the Vice-Presidential office, but he told Roosevelt what law-books to read, and offered to quiz him every Saturday evening. Before autumn came, however, when they could carry out their plan, a tragic event altered the course of Roosevelts career.