Home  »  Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography  »  VIII. The New York Governorship. Appendix B: The Political Situation in 1900

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). An Autobiography. 1913.

VIII. The New York Governorship. Appendix B: The Political Situation in 1900

My general scheme of action as Governor was given in a letter I wrote one of my supporters among the independent district organization leaders, Norton Goddard, on April 16, 1900. It runs in part as follows: “Nobody can tell, and least of all the machine itself, whether the machine intends to renominate me next fall or not. If for some reason I should be weak, whether on account of faults or virtues, doubtless the machine will throw me over, and I think I am not uncharitable when I say they would feel no acute grief at so doing. It would be very strange if they did feel such grief. If, for instance, we had strikes which led to riots, I would of course be obliged to preserve order and stop the riots. Decent citizens would demand that I should do it, and in any event I should do it wholly without regard to their demands. But, once it was done, they would forget all about it, while a great many laboring men, honest but ignorant and prejudiced, would bear a grudge against me for doing it. This might put me out of the running as a candidate. Again, the big corporations undoubtedly want to beat me. They prefer the chance of being blackmailed to the certainty that they will not be allowed any more than their due. Of course they will try to beat me on some entirely different issue, and, as they are very able and very unscrupulous, nobody can tell that they won’t succeed.… I have been trying to stay in with the organization. I did not do it with the idea that they would renominate me. I did it with the idea of getting things done, and in that I have been absolutely successful. Whether Senator Platt and Mr. Odell endeavor to beat me, or do beat me, for the renomination next fall, is of very small importance compared to the fact that for my two years I have been able to make a Republican majority in the Legislature do good and decent work and have prevented any split within the party. The task was one of great difficulty, because, on the one hand, I had to keep clearly before me the fact that it was better to have a split than to permit bad work to be done, and, on the other hand, the fact that to have that split would absolutely prevent all good work. The result has been that I have avoided a split and that as a net result of my two years and the two sessions of the Legislature, there has been an enormous improvement in the administration of the Government, and there has also been a great advance in legislation.”

To show my reading of the situation at the time I quote from a letter of mine to Joseph B. Bishop, then editor of the Commercial Advertiser, with whom towards the end of my term I had grown into very close relations, and who, together with two other old friends, Albert Shaw, of the Review of Reviews, and Silas McBee, now editor of the Constructive Quarterly, knew the inside of every movement, so far as I knew it myself. The letter, which is dated April 11, 1900, runs in part as follows: “The dangerous element as far as I am concerned comes from the corporations. The [naming certain men] crowd and those like them have been greatly exasperated by the franchise tax. They would like to get me out of politics for good, but at the moment they think the best thing to do is to put me into the Vice-Presidency. Naturally I will not be opposed openly on the ground of the corporations’ grievance; but every kind of false statement will continually be made, and men like [naming the editors of certain newspapers] will attack me, not as the enemy of corporations, but as their tool! There is no question whatever that if the leaders can they will upset me.”

One position which as Governor (and as President) I consistently took, seems to me to represent what ought to be a fundamental principle in American legislative work. I steadfastly refused to advocate any law, no matter how admirable in theory, if there was good reason to believe that in practice it would not be executed. I have always sympathized with the view set forth by Pelatiah Webster in 1783—quoted by Hannis Taylor in his Genesis of the Supreme Court—“Laws or ordinances of any kind (especially of august bodies of high dignity and consequence) which fail of execution, are much worse than none. They weaken the government, expose it to contempt, destroy the confidence of all men, native and foreigners, in it, and expose both aggregate bodies and individuals who have placed confidence in it to many ruinous disappointments which they would have escaped had no such law or ordinance been made.” This principle, by the way, not only applies to an internal law which cannot be executed; it applies even more to international action, such as a universal arbitration treaty which cannot and will not be kept; and most of all it applies to proposals to make such universal arbitration treaties at the very time that we are not keeping our solemn promise to execute limited arbitration treaties which we have already made. A general arbitration treaty is merely a promise; it represents merely a debt of honorable obligation; and nothing is more discreditable, for a nation or an individual, than to cover up the repudiation of a debt which can be and ought to be paid, by recklessly promising to incur a new and insecure debt which no wise man for one moment supposes ever will be paid.