Home  »  New York  »  Postscript

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.


DURING the five years that have passed since I wrote this book, there has occurred in New York a political revolution so noteworthy that it may be well briefly to tell of its principal features. It was barely second in importance to the revolution which resulted in the overthrow of the Tweed ring.

Ever since the days of Tweed, Tammany Hall has, with the exception of a few brief periods, been the controlling force in the New York City Democracy, and has generally held the reins of government in the city itself. There have been honorable men in Tammany, and there have been occasions on which Tammany has acted well and has deserved well of the country; nevertheless, speaking broadly, it may be said that Tammany has always stood for what was worst in our political life, and especially in our municipal politics. The Tammany Hall organization is a machine of ideal perfection for its own purposes. It has as leaders a number of men of great ability in certain special directions. The rank and file of its members are recruited from the most ignorant portion of the city’s population, coming from among the voters who can usually be voted in a mass by those who have influence over them. This influence is sometimes obtained by appeals to their prejudices and by the lowest art of the demagogue; sometimes it is obtained by downright corruption, sometimes it is obtained through the influence the local Tammany organizations exert on the social life of their neighborhoods. The District leaders are able in a hundred ways to benefit their followers. They try to get them work when they are idle; they provide amusement for them in the shape of picnics and steamboat excursions; and, in exceptional cases, they care for them when suffering from want or sickness; and they are always ready to help them when they have fallen into trouble with the representatives of the law. They thus get a very strong influence over a large class, the members of which are ordinarily fairly decent men, who work with reasonable industry at their trades, but who never get far ahead, who at times fall into want, and who sometimes have kinsfolk of semi-criminal type. These men are apt to regard the saloon as their club-house; often, indeed, the saloons are the headquarters of the District political organizations, and become in a double sense the true social centers of neighborhood life.

To the mass of citizens of this kind the local political leaders are not merely individuals of whose public actions they approve or disapprove as mere disinterested outside critics. On the contrary, these leaders are men with whose welfare their own is often intimately bound; men who can, and do, render them important services, both proper and improper, on occasions when they are in need. It is impossible ever to understand the power of the political machines in New York City life until the importance of their social side is fully grasped. Their social functions, the part they play in the everyday life of the people, constitute the chief reason for their overwhelming predominance in the political field.

The saloons form on the whole the most potent factor in the political life of those Districts where the population is the most congested, where the people are poorest and most ignorant, and where the evils of machine domination are most acutely felt. In consequence, the saloon-keeper is, nine times out of ten, a more or less influential politician. In Tammany Hall a very large proportion of the leaders are, or have been, saloon-keepers. The saloon-keeper is usually a comparatively rich man, at least in the eyes of most of the people with whom he is thrown in contact. He is brought into intimate connection with a large number of voters, and he has rooms which they find offer the best accommodations for club purposes. He is thus able to get much influence which he can either use as a politician himself, or can wield in the interest of other politicians. On the other hand, his is a business which always tempts to law-breaking. New York City receives its law from New York State. Country Districts are always favorable to temperance legislation. New York contains a very large element which objects to any regulation of the sale of liquor, and which continually wishes to drink at hours when drinking is prohibited by law. New York State, for instance, has always insisted that the saloons everywhere, including those in New York City, should be closed on Sundays; but in New York City there has been always a very large number of people who wanted the saloons open, and there has generally been entire readiness on the part of the city officials that the saloons should stay open in defiance of the law, so long as they paid for the privilege, and did not antagonize the authorities in some question of moment. In consequence, the saloon-keeper, who did his most thriving trade on Sunday, stood in urgent need of the protection which could be granted by the local politician. Accordingly, every saloon-keeper could, on the one hand, be most useful to the local political leaders, and, on the other hand, needed the services of the local political leaders. The consequence was a very close connection between the saloon-keeper and the politician. A further consequence was that the saloons became one of the chief elements in bringing about the gross political corruption of New York.

The politics, both of New York City and of New York State, continually suffer kaleidoscope changes. Told in detail, their political history is but the unraveling of a tangle of faction fights and intrigues. If, however, we disregard the names of these factions, we can readily get a clear glimpse of the forces at work in New York. Within the Democratic party, Tammany has ordinarily dominated, but the anti-Tammany Democrats are continually joining into an organization, or organizations, which are always of ephemeral existence, but which sometimes accomplish a great deal during their short lease of life. The Republicans include normally rather over two-fifths of the voters of the city. There is among them a corrupt element which is often delighted to make a deal with Tammany, accepting a few offices in consideration of securing Tammany’s control over the remainder.

Of late years, a strong feeling has grown among honest and self-respecting men that in municipal matters there should not be a division along the lines of cleavage between the National parties. For years the great effort of New York municipal reformers has been to combine good citizens against Tammany. The Republican machine has sometimes helped, and sometimes hindered these efforts, and the same has been true of the various Democratic anti-Tammany organizations. At the elections Tammany always runs a ticket. Some times it receives the solid support of the entire Democracy. More rarely it makes a virtue of necessity and indorses a decent ticket nominated by other Democrats. Sometimes it fights for its own hand against both an anti-Tammany Democratic ticket and a Republican ticket. Sometimes its nominee for mayor is opposed by an anti-Tammany man, whether Republican or Democrat, supported by a coalition of all the anti-Tammany forces. The elements opposed to Tammany are so incongruous, and there is so much jealousy among them, that it is very difficult to bring them into any permanent combination. Still, whenever an anti-Tammany Democrat has been elected to office, it has always been through the powerful element of Republican voters, whether the help was given through the Republican machine or against its wishes. In return, a certain proportion of the anti-Tammany Democratic vote has always been willing to support a Republican candidate against Tammany.

From the defeat of Tweed up to 1888, Tammany, though dominant in New York City politics, always held a divided sway. In 1888, however, it obtained absolute power. A Tammany mayor was elected by an enormous plurality, the Republican candidate standing second, and the anti-Tammany Democrat third. The governorship and the State legislature were both in the hands of Tammany’s most faithful Democratic allies. The chief power in the city government is lodged in the hands of the mayor; and when he is backed by the governor and legislature his powers are almost dictatorial. In 1890, the Republicans supported the anti-Tammany nominee for mayor. This was the year of the Democratic tidal-wave, and the Tammany candidate won by a large majority. In 1892, the anti-Tammany Democrats surrendered to Tammany and supported its nominee, who beat the Republican candidate with the greatest ease. During all these years corruption grew apace in the city government. The Tammany officials had put their foes under their feet, and no longer feared resistance or criticism. They did not believe it would be possible to overturn them. They did whatever was right in their own eyes; and what was right in their eyes was generally very wrong indeed in the eyes of men who believed in the elementary principles of honesty. When, with the Presidential election of 1892, the Republican party went out of power in city, State, and nation alike, while Tammany was left supreme and unopposed in the city and State Democracy, the Tammany leaders threw off the last bonds of restraint, and acted with contemptuous defiance of decent public opinion. Corruption and blackmail grew apace, and the dominant note in the Tammany organization was a cynical contempt of decent public opinion. This brought about its own punishment. The abuses in many of the departments, notably in the police force and among the city magistrates, became so gross as to shock even men of callous conscience. The public indignation was latent, but it existed, ready to take effective shape if only the right man arose to direct its manifestation.

The man was found in the person of a Presbyterian clergyman, the Rev. Charles W. Parkhurst. Single-handed, he began a crusade against the gross political corruption of the city government. He made his fight entirely outside of political lines, or perhaps it would be more fair to say that he made it without regard to national politics, attacking the city officials simply as malefactors, and urging a union of all decent men against them. At first he was rewarded merely by ridicule and abuse; but he never flinched for a moment, and decent sentiment began to crystallize in his support. Moreover, the blunders of the Democratic party in State and national affairs helped the reformers, precisely as the shortcomings of the Republicans had helped Tammany in 1890 and 1892. In 1893, the State Democracy, under the lead of Senator Hill, Tammany’s stanch ally, nominated for judge a man who had been disagreeably implicated in election frauds. Even men of low political morality dislike a tainted judiciary, and this nomination shocked many men who never before had bolted the Democratic ticket. The Bar of the State, and especially the Bar of the city, was nearly unanimous in denunciation of the nomination. Tammany and its allies put forth every effort to overcome this hostile sentiment. Not since the days of Seymour’s candidacy for President was the cheating so open and scandalous in New York City. In other places, notably at Coney Island, it was quite as flagrant. Nevertheless, the obnoxious candidate was defeated by one hundred thousand votes, and a Republican legislature was elected.

The result of the election was like an electric shock to the whole reform movement. But a year before it had seemed hopeless to awaken the conscience of decent citizens, and still more hopeless to expect to punish a wrong-doer. Now all was changed. The men most conspicuous in the electoral frauds were vigorously prosecuted, and some forty of them were sent to prison for longer or shorter periods. A Legislative Committee started to investigate the condition of municipal affairs in New York; and before this committee it was shown that Dr. Parkhurst’s accusations were true, and that the system of blackmailing and corruption by the Tammany Hall officials and notably by the Police Department, was as appalling as he had insisted. In the fall of 1894, the decent men of the city joined together, and nominated a union ticket, with, at its head, as candidate for mayor, William A. Strong, a Republican. Helped by the general Republican tidalwave, which in the State secured the defeat of Senator Hill for governor by one hundred and fifty thousand plurality, Strong and the rest of the ticket were elected in New York City, the Tammany ticket being defeated by a sweeping majority.

There followed a complete revolution in the municipal government. The victory had been won, not on party lines, but as a fight for decent government, and for the non-partisan administration of municipal affairs. Democrat and Republican, Protestant and Catholic, Jew and Gentile, the man born of native American stock and the man whose parents came from Ireland or Germany, all had joined in achieving the victory. The change in the city departments was radical. It was not so much a change in policy as a change of administration. It is rather humiliating for a New Yorker to have to confess that this revolutionary change consisted simply in applying the standard of common decency and common honesty to our public affairs. Under the old administration of the departments corruption had been so rife that it may almost be said to have been the rule. With the new dispensation there came an era of strict honesty.

The improvement has been so great that it may fairly be called wonderful. Whether or not it will be permanent is difficult to foretell. I think that those are oversanguine who believe that there will be no falling back. On the other hand, I do not believe that there will be any permanent or complete return to the old conditions, and I do not feel that good citizens should grow downhearted over a momentary check or reaction. Tammany Hall may come back, but it will be a chastened Tammany Hall. The wrong-doing will not be as flagrant as formerly, and it will be easier to arouse a revolt against the wrong-doers.

That there will be some reaction is only to be expected; and it may be questioned whether, in a city with as composite a population as New York, where the bulk of the voters have for so many years been accustomed to the worst kind of machine rule, it will be possible very long to maintain the standard quite as high as it is at present. It is easier to rally the varying elements when in opposition, than to get them to support an administration which is actually engaged in the solution of important problems. Nevertheless, be the immediate outcome what it may, great and lasting good has been done; for New York has been shown that it is possible to obtain a decent and clean administration of municipal affairs, free from the curse of spoils politics, and above all the city at last knows, by practical experience, the immense moral, no less than material, gain which arises from giving the control of civic matters to men who are fearless and disinterested, and who combine the virtues of honesty and common sense.