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


Recent History. 1860–1890

IN 1860 New York had over eight hundred thousand inhabitants. During the thirty years that have since passed, its population has nearly doubled. If the city limits were enlarged, like those of London and Chicago, so as to take in the suburbs, the population would amount to some three millions. Recently there has been a great territorial expansion northward, beyond the Haarlem, by the admission of what is known as the Annexed District. The growth of wealth has fully kept pace with the growth of population. The city is one of the two or three greatest commercial and manufacturing centers of the world.

The ten years between 1860 and 1870 form the worst decade in the city’s political annals, although the somber picture is relieved by touches of splendid heroism, martial prowess, and civic devotion. At the outbreak of the Civil War the city was—as it has since continued to be—the stronghold of the Democratic party in the North; and unfortunately, during the Rebellion, while the Democratic party contained many of the loyal, it also contained all of the disloyal, elements. A Democratic victory at the polls, hardly, if at all, less than a Confederate victory in the field, meant a Union defeat. A very large and possibly a controlling element in the city Democracy was at heart strongly disunion in sentiment, and showed the feeling whenever it dared.

At the outset of the Civil War there was even an effort made to force the city into active rebellion. The small local Democratic leaders, of the type of Isaiah Rynders, the brutal and turbulent ruffians who led the mob and controlled the politics of the lower wards, openly and defiantly threatened to make common cause with the South, and to forbid the passage of Union troops through the city. The mayor, Fernando Wood, in January, 1861, proclaimed disunion to be “a fixed fact” in a message to the Common Council, and proposed that New York should herself secede and become a free city, with but a nominal duty upon imports. The independent commonwealth was to be named “Tri-Insula,” as being composed of three islands,—Long, Staten, and Manhattan. The Common Council, a corrupt body as disloyal as Wood himself, received the message enthusiastically, and had it printed and circulated wholesale.

But when Sumter was fired on the whole current changed like magic. There were many more good men than bad in New York; but they had been supine, or selfish, or indifferent, or undecided, and so the bad had had it all their own way. The thunder of Sumter’s guns waked the heart of the people to passionate loyalty. The bulk of the Democrats joined with the Republicans to show by word and act their fervent and patriotic devotion to the Union. Huge mass-meetings were held, and regiment after regiment was organized and sent to the front. Shifty Fernando Wood, true to his nature, went with the stream, and was loudest in proclaiming his horror of rebellion. The city, through all her best and bravest men, pledged her faithful and steadfast support to the government at Washington. The Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guards, by all odds the best regiment in the United States Militia, was the first in the whole country to go to the front and reach Washington, securing it against any sudden surprise.

The Union men of New York kept their pledge of loyalty in spirit and letter. Taking advantage of the intensity of the loyal excitement, they even elected a Republican mayor. The New Yorkers of means were those whose part was greatest in sustaining the nation’s credit, while almost every high-spirited young man in the city went into the army. The city, from the beginning to the end of the war, sent her sons to the front by scores of thousands. Her troops alone would have formed a large army; and on a hundred battlefields, and throughout the harder trials of the long, dreary campaigns, they bore themselves with high courage and stern, unyielding resolution. Those who by a hard lot were forced to stay at home busied themselves in caring for the men at the front, or for their widows and orphans; and the Sanitary Commission, the Allotment Commission, and other kindred organizations which did incalculable good, originated in New York.

Yet the very energy with which New York sent her citizen soldiery to the front, left her exposed to a terrible danger. Much of the low foreign element, as well as the worst among the native-born roughs, had been hostile to the war all along, and a ferocious outbreak was produced by the enforcement of the draft in July, 1863. The mob, mainly foreign, especially Irish, but reinforced by all the native rascality of the city, broke out for three days in what are known as the draft riots. They committed the most horrible outrages, their hostility being directed especially against the unfortunate negroes, many of whom they hung or beat to death with lingering cruelty; and they attacked various charitable institutions where negroes were cared for. They also showed their hatred to the national government and its defenders in every way, and even set out to burn down a hospital filled with wounded Union soldiers, besides mobbing all government officials. From attacking government property they speedily went to assailing private property as well, burning and plundering the houses of rich and poor alike, and threatened to destroy the whole city in their anarchic fury,—the criminal classes, as always in such a movement, taking the control into their own hands. Many of the baser Democratic politicians, in order to curry favor with the mob, sought to prevent effective measures being taken against it; and even the Democratic governor, Seymour, an estimable man of high private character, but utterly unfit to grapple with the times that tried men’s souls, took refuge in temporizing, half measures, and /concessions. The Roman Catholic archbishop and priests opposed and denounced the rioters with greater or less boldness, according to their individual temperaments.

But the governing authorities, both national and municipal, acted with courage and energy. The American people are good-natured to the point of lax indifference; but once roused, they act with the most straightforward and practical resolution. Much fear had been expressed lest the large contingent of Irish among the police and State troops would be lukewarm or doubtful, but throughout the crisis they showed to the full as much courage and steadfast loyalty as their associates of native origin. One of the most deeply mourned victims of the mob was the gallant Colonel O’Brien of the Eleventh New York Volunteers, who had dispersed a crowd of rioters with considerable slaughter, and was afterward caught by them when alone, and butchered under circumstances of foul and revolting brutality.

Most of the real working-men refused to join with the rioters, except when overawed and forced into their ranks; and many of them formed themselves into armed bodies, and assisted to restore order. The city was bare of troops, for they had all been sent to the front to face Lee at Gettysburg; and the police at first could not quell the mob. As regiment after regiment was hurried back to their assistance desperate street-fighting took place. The troops and police were thoroughly aroused, and attacked the rioters with the most wholesome desire to do them harm. In a very short time after the forces of order put forth their strength the outbreak was stamped out, and a lesson inflicted on the lawless and disorderly which they never entirely forgot. Two millions of property had been destroyed, and many valuable lives lost. But over twelve hundred rioters were slain,—an admirable object lesson to the remainder.

It was several years before the next riot occurred. This was of a race or religious character. The different nationalities in New York are in the habit of parading on certain days,—a particularly senseless and objectionable custom. The Orangemen on this occasion paraded on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, with the usual array of flags and banners, covered with mottoes especially insulting to the Celtic Irish; the latter threatened to stop the procession, and made the attempt; but the militia had been called out, and after a moment’s sharp fighting, in which three of their number and seventy or eighty rioters were slain, the mob was scattered to the four winds. For the last twenty years no serious riots have occurred, and no mob has assembled which the police could not handle without the assistance of the State troops. The outbreaks that have taken place have almost invariably been caused by strikes or other labor troubles. Yet the general order and peacefulness should not blind us to the fact that there exists ever in our midst a slumbering “valcano under the city,” as under all other large cities of the civilized world. This danger must continue to exist as long as our rich men look at life from a standpoint of silly frivolity, or else pursue a commercial career in a spirit of ferocious greed and disregard of justice, while the poor feel with sullen anger the pressure of many evils,—some of their own making, and some not,—and are far more sensible of the wrongs they suffer than of the folly of trying to right them under the lead of ignorant visionaries or criminal demagogues.

For several years after the war there was a perfect witches’ Sabbath of political corruption in New York City, which culminated during the mayoralty of Oakey Hall, who was elected in 1869. The Democratic party had absolute control of the municipal government; and this meant that the city was at the mercy of the ring of utterly unscrupulous and brutal politicians who then controlled that party, and who in time of need had friends among some of their so-called Republican opponents on whom they could always rely. Repeating, ballot-box stuffing, fraudulent voting and counting of votes, and every kind of violence and intimidation at the polls turned the elections into criminal farces. The majorities by which the city was carried for the Democratic presidential candidate Seymour in 1868, represented the worst electoral frauds which the country ever witnessed,—far surpassing even those by which Polk had been elected over Clay.

This was also the era of gigantic stock-swindling. The enormously rich stock-speculators of Wall Street in their wars with one another and against the general public, found ready tools and allies to be hired for money in the State and city politicians, and in judges who were acceptable alike to speculators, politicians, and mob. There were continual contests for the control of railway systems, and “operations” in stocks which barely missed being criminal, and which branded those who took part in them as infamous in the sight of all honest men; and the courts and legislative bodies became parties to the iniquity of men composing that most dangerous of all classes, the wealthy criminal class.

Matters reached their climax in the feats of the “Tweed Ring.” William M. Tweed was the master spirit among the politicians of his own party, and also secured a hold on a number of the local Republican leaders of the baser sort. He was a coarse, jovial, able man, utterly without scruple of any kind; and he organized all of his political allies and adherents into a gigantic “ring” to plunder the city. Incredible sums of money were stolen, especially in the construction of the new Court House. When the frauds were discovered, Tweed, secure in his power, asked in words that have become proverbial, “What are you going to do about it?” But the end came in 1871. Then the decent citizens, irrespective of party, banded together, urged on by the newspapers, especially the Times and Harper’s Weekly,—for the city press deserves the chief credit for the defeat of Tweed. At the fall elections the ring candidates were overwhelmingly defeated; and the chief malefactors were afterward prosecuted, and many of them imprisoned, Tweed himself dying in a felon’s cell. The offending judges were impeached, or resigned in time to escape impeachment.

For the last twenty years our politics have been better and purer, though with plenty of corruption and jobbery left still. There are shoals of base, ignorant, vicious “heelers” and “ward workers,” who form a solid, well-disciplined army of evil, led on by abler men whose very ability renders them dangerous. Some of these leaders are personally corrupt; others are not, but do almost as much harm as if they were, because they divorce political from private morality. As a prominent politician recently phrased it, they believe that “the purification of politics is an iridescent dream; the decalogue and the golden rule have no place in a political campaign.” The cynicism, no less silly than vicious, with which such men regard political life is repaid by the contemptuous anger with which they themselves are regarded by all men who are proud of their country and wish her well.

If the citizens can be thoroughly waked up, and a plain, naked issue of right and wrong presented to them, they can always be trusted. The trouble is that in ordinary times the self-seeking political mercenaries are the only persons who both keep alert and understand the situation; and they commonly reap their reward. The mass of vicious and ignorant voters—especially among those of foreign origin—forms a trenchant weapon forged ready to their hand, and presents a standing menace to our prosperity; and the selfish and short-sighted indifference of decent men is only one degree less dangerous. Yet of recent years there has been among men of character and good standing a steady growth of interest in, and of a feeling of responsibility for, our politics. This otherwise most healthy growth has been at times much hampered and warped by the political ignorance and bad judgment of the leaders in the movement. Too often the educated men who without having had any practical training as politicians yet turn their attention to politics, are and remain utterly ignorant of the real workings of our governmental system, and in their attitude toward our public men oscillate between excessive credulity concerning their idol of the moment and jealous, ignorant prejudice against those with whom they temporarily disagree. They forget, moreover, that the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic,—the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done.

Neither the unintelligent and rancorous partisan, nor the unintelligent and rancorous independent, is a desirable member of the body politic; and it is unfortunately true of each of them that he seems to regard with special and sour hatred, not the bad man, but the good man with whom he politically differs. Above all, every young man should realize that it is a disgrace to him not to take active part in some way in the work of governing the city. Whoever fails to do this, fails notably in his duty to the Commonwealth.

The character of the immigration to the city is changing. The Irish, who in 1860 formed three-fifths of the foreign-born population, have come in steadily lessening numbers, until the Germans stand well at the head; while increasing multitudes of Italians, Poles, Bohemians, Russian Jews, and Hungarians—both Sclaves and Magyars—continually arrive. The English and Scandinavian elements among the immigrants have likewise increased. At the present time four-fifths of New York’s population are of foreign birth or parentage; and among them there has been as yet but little race intermixture, though the rising generation is as a whole well on the way to complete Americanization. Certainly hardly a tenth of the people are of old Revolutionary American stock. The Catholic Church has continued to grow at a rate faster than the general rate of increase. The Episcopalian and Lutheran are the only Protestant churches whereof the growth has kept pace with that of the population.

The material prosperity of the city has increased steadily. There has been a marked improvement in architecture; and one really great engineering work, the bridge across the East River, was completed in 1883. The stately and beautiful Riverside Drive, skirting the Hudson, along the hills which front the river, from the middle of the island northward, is well worth mention. It is one of the most striking roads or streets of which any city can boast, and the handsome houses that are springing up along it bid fair to make the neighborhood the most attractive portion of New York. Another attractive feature of the city is Central Park, while many other parks are being planned and laid out beyond where the town has as yet been built up. There are large numbers of handsome social clubs, such as the Knickerbocker, Union, and University, and many others of a politico-social character,—the most noted of them, alike for its architecture, political influence, and its important past history, being the Union League Club.

There are many public buildings which are extremely interesting as showing the growth of a proper civic spirit, and of a desire for a life with higher possibilities than money-making. There has been an enormous increase in the number of hospitals, many of them admirably equipped and managed; and the numerous Newsboys’ Lodging Houses, Night Schools, Working-Girls’ Clubs and the like, bear witness to the fact that many New Yorkers who have at their disposal time or money are alive to their responsibilities, and are actively striving to help their less fortunate fellows to help themselves. The Cooper Union building, a gift to the city for the use of all its citizens, in the widest sense, keeps alive the memory of old Peter Cooper, a man whose broad generosity and simple kindliness of character, while not rendering him fit for the public life into which he at times sought entrance, yet inspired in New Yorkers of every class a genuine regard such as they felt for no other philanthropist. Indeed, uncharitableness and lack of generosity have never been New York failings; the citizens are keenly sensible to any real, tangible distress or need. A blizzard in Dakota, an earthquake in South Carolina, a flood in Pennsylvania,—after any such catastrophe hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised in New York at a day’s notice, for the relief of the sufferers; while, on the other hand, it is a difficult matter to raise money for a monument or a work of art.

It is necessary both to appeal to the practical business sense of the citizens and to stir the real earnestness and love of country which lie underneath the somewhat coarse-grained and not always attractive surface of the community, in order to make it show its real strength. Thus, there is no doubt that in case of any important foreign war or domestic disturbance New York would back up the general government with men and money to a practically unlimited extent. For all its motley population, there is a most wholesome underlying spirit of patriotism in the city, if it can only be roused. Few will question this who saw the great processions on land and water, and the other ceremonies attendant upon the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the adoption of the Federal Constitution. The vast crowds which thronged the streets were good-humored and orderly to a degree, and were evidently interested in much more than the mere spectacular part of the celebration. They showed by every action their feeling that it was indeed peculiarly their celebration; for it commemorated the hundred years’ duration of a government which, with many shortcomings, had nevertheless secured order and enforced law, and yet was emphatically a government of the people, giving to the workingman a chance which he has never had elsewhere. In all the poorer quarters of the city, where the population was overwhelmingly of foreign birth or origin, the national flag, the stars and stripes, hung from every window, and the picture of Washington was displayed wherever there was room. Flag and portrait alike were tokens that those who had come to our shores already felt due reverence and love for the grand memory of the man who, more than any other, laid the foundation of our government; and that they already challenged as their own American nationality and American life, glorying in the Nation’s past and confident in its future.

In science and art, in musical and literary development, much remains to be wished for; yet something has already been done. The building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of the American Museum of Natural History, of the Metropolitan Opera House, the gradual change of Columbia College into a University,—all show a development which tends to make the city more and more attractive to people of culture; and the growth of literary and dramatic clubs, such as the Century and the Players, is scarcely less significant. The illustrated monthly magazines—the Century, Scribner’s, and Harper’s—occupy an entirely original position of a very high order in periodical literature. The greatest piece of literary work which has been done in America, or indeed anywhere, of recent years, was done by a citizen of New York,—not a professed man of letters, but a great General, an ex-President of the United States, writing his memoirs on his death-bed, to save his family from want. General Grant’s book has had an extraordinary sale among the people at large, though even yet hardly appreciated at its proper worth by the critics; and it is scarcely too high praise to say that, both because of the intrinsic worth of the matter, and because of its strength and simplicity as a piece of literary work, it almost deserves to rank with the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln.

The fact that General Grant toward the end of his life made New York his abode,—as General Sherman has since done,—illustrates what is now a well-marked tendency of prominent men throughout the country to come to this city to live. There is no such leaning toward centralization, socially or politically, in the United States as in most European countries, and no one of our cities will ever assume toward the others a position similar to that held in their own countries by London, Paris, Vienna, or Berlin. There are in the United States ten or a dozen cities each of which stands as the social and commercial, though rarely as the political, capital of a district as large as an average European Kingdom. No one of them occupies a merely provincial position as compared with any other; while the political capital of the country, the beautiful city of Washington, stands apart with a most attractive and unique life of its own. There is thus no chance for New York to take an unquestioned leadership in all respects. Nevertheless, its life is so intense and so varied, and so full of manifold possibilities, that it has a special and peculiar fascination for ambitious and high-spirited men of every kind, whether they wish to enjoy the fruits of past toil, or whether they have yet their fortunes to make, and feel confident that they can swim in troubled waters,—for weaklings have small chance of forging to the front against the turbulent tide of our city life. The truth is that every man worth his salt has open to him in New York a career of boundless usefulness and interest.

As for the upper social, world, the fashionable world, it is much as it was when portrayed in the “Potiphar Papers,” save that modern society has shifted the shrine at which it pays comical but sincere homage from Paris to London. Perhaps it is rather better, for it is less provincial and a trifle more American. But a would-be upper class based mainly on wealth, in which it is the exception and not the rule for a man to be of any real account in the national life, whether as a politician, a literary man, or otherwise, is of necessity radically defective and of little moment.

Grim dangers confront us in the future, yet there is more ground to believe that we shall succeed than that we shall fail in overcoming them. Taking into account the enormous mass of immigrants, utterly unused to self-government of any kind, who have been thrust into our midst, and are even yet not assimilated, the wonder is not that universal suffrage has worked so badly, but that it has worked so well. We are better, not worse off, than we were a generation ago. There is much gross civic corruption and commercial and social selfishness and immorality, upon which we are in honor bound to wage active and relentless war. But honesty and moral cleanliness are the rule; and under the laws order is well preserved, and all men are kept secure in the possession of life, liberty, and property. The sons and grandsons of the immigrants of fifty years back have as a whole become good Americans, and have prospered wonderfully, both as regards their moral and material well-being. There is no reason to suppose that the condition of the working classes as a whole has grown worse, though there are enormous bodies of them whose condition is certainly very bad. There are grave social dangers and evils to meet, but there are plenty of earnest men and women who devote their minds and energies to meeting them. With many very serious shortcomings and defects, the average New Yorker yet possesses courage, energy, business capacity, much generosity of a practical sort, and shrewd, humorous common sense. The greedy tyranny of the unscrupulous rich and the anarchic violence of the vicious and ignorant poor are ever threatening dangers; but though there is every reason why we should realize the gravity of the perils ahead of us, there is none why we should not face them with confident and resolute hope, if only each of us, according to the measure of his capacity, will with manly honesty and good faith do his full share of the all-important duties incident to American citizenship.