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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


Early Lessons in Politics

IN the year when President Garfield died, New York saw the unusual sight of two young “silk-stockings,” neither of whom had ever been in politics before, running for office in a popular election. One was the representative of vast inherited wealth, the other of the bluest of the old Knickerbocker blood: William Waldorf Astor and Theodore Roosevelt. One ran for Congress, pouring out money like water, contemptuously confident that so he could buy his way in. The newspapers reported his nightly progress from saloon to saloon, where “the boys” were thirstily waiting to whoop it up for him, and the size of “the wad” he left at each place, as with ill-suppressed disgust he fled to the next. The other, nominated for the State Legislature on an issue of clean streets and clean politics, though but a year out of college, made his canvass squarely upon that basis, and astounded old-time politicians by the fire he put into the staid residents of the brownstone district, who were little in the habit of bothering about elections. He, too, was started upon a round of the saloons, under management. At the first call the management and that end of the canvass gave out together. Thereafter he went it alone. He was elected, and twice re-elected to his seat, with ever-increasing majorities. Astor was beaten, and, in anger, quit the country. Today he lives abroad, a self-expatriated American. Theodore Roosevelt, who believes in the people, is President of the United States.

There was no need of my asking him how he came to go into politics, for how he could have helped it I cannot see; but I did. He thought awhile.

“I suppose for one thing ordinary, plain, every-day duty sent me there to begin with. But, more than that, I wanted to belong to the governing class, not to the governed. When I said that I wanted to go to the Republican Association, they told me that I would meet the groom and the saloon-keeper there; that politics were low, and that no gentleman bothered with them. ‘Then,’ said I, ‘if that is so, the groom and the saloon-keeper are the governing class and you confess weakness. You have all the chances, the education, the position, and you let them rule you. They must be better men;’ and I went.

“I joined the association, attended the meetings, and did my part in whatever was going. We did n’t always agree, and sometimes they voted me down and sometimes I had my way. They were a jolly enough lot and I had a good time. The grooms were there, some of them, and some of their employers, and we pulled together as men should if we are to make anything out of our country, and by and by we had an election.”

There had been a fight about the dirty streets. The people wanted a free hand given to Mayor Grace, but the machine opposed. The Assemblyman from Roosevelt’s district, the old Twenty-first, was in disgrace on that account. The Republican boss of the district, “Jake” Hess, was at odds with his lieutenants, “Joe” Murray and Major Bullard, and in making up the list of delegates to the Assembly Convention they outgeneraled him, naming fifteen of the twenty-five. Thus they had the nomination within their grasp, but they had no candidate. Roosevelt had taken an active part in opposing the machine man, and he and Murray had pulled together. There is something very characteristic of Theodore Roosevelt in this first political alliance as related by Murray. “When he found we were on the same side, he went to Ed Mitchell, who had been in the Legislature, and asked what kind of a man I was, and when he was told he gave me his confidence.” It is another of the simple secrets of his success in dealing with men: to make sure of them and then to trust them. Men rarely betray that kind of trust. Murray did not.

Presently he bethought himself of Theodore Roosevelt, who was fighting but didn’t yet quite know how. As a candidate he might bring out the vote which ordinarily in that silk-stocking district came to the polls only in a Presidential year. He asked him to run, but Roosevelt refused. It might look as if he had come there for his personal advantage. Murray reasoned with him, but he was firm. He suggested several candidates, and one after another they were turned down. Roosevelt had another batch. Murray promised to look them over.

“And if I can’t find one to suit, will you take it then?” he asked. Yes, he would do that, as a last resort.

“But I did n’t look for no other candidate when I had his promise,” says “Joe,” placidly, telling of it. “Good reason: I could n’t find any better, nor as good.”

“Joe” Murray is a politician, but that day he plotted well for his country.

Roosevelt was nominated and began the canvass at once. The boss himself took him around to the saloons that night, to meet “the people.” They began at Valentine Young’s place on Sixth Avenue. Mr. Hess treated and introduced the candidate. Mr. Young was happy. He hoped he was against high license; he, Young, hated it. Now, Roosevelt was attracted by high license and promptly said so and that he would favor it all he could. He gave his reasons. The argument became heated, the saloon-keeper personal. The boss looked on, stunned. He did not like that way of making votes.

Neither did Mr. Roosevelt. He sent “Jake” Hess home and quit the saloon canvass then and there. Instead he went among his neighbors and appealed to them. The “brownstone” vote came out. “Joe” Murray rubs his hands yet at the thought of it. Such a following he had not dreamed of in his wildest flights. Men worth millions solicited the votes of their coachmen and were glad to get them. Dean Van Amringe peddled tickets with the Columbia professors. Men became suddenly neighbors who had never spoken to one another before, and pulled together for the public good. Murray was charged with trading his candidate off for Astor for Congress; but the event vindicated him triumphantly. Roosevelt ran far ahead of the beaten candidate for Congress. He took his seat in the Legislature, the youngest member in it, just as he is now the youngest President.

He was not received with enthusiasm by the old wheel-horses, and the fact did credit to their discernment, if not to their public spirit. I doubt if they would have understood what was meant by this last. They were there on the good old plan—good so far always for the purpose it served—that was put in its plainest, most brutal form, years after, by the champion of spoilsmen forever: “I am in politics working for my own pocket all the time—same as you.” The sneer told of their weak spot. The man who has lost faith in man has lost his grip. He may not know it, but he has. I fancy they felt it at the coming of this young man who had taught the Commandments in Sunday-school because he believed in them. They laughed a little uneasily and guessed he would be good, if he were kept awhile.

Before half the season had passed he had justified their fears, if they had them. There was an elevated railroad ring that had been guilty of unblushing corruption involving the Attorney-General of the State and a Judge of the Supreme Court. The scandal was flagrant and foul. The people were aroused, petitioned respectfully but chafed angrily under the yawn with which their remonstrances were received in the Assembly. The legislators “referred” the petition and thought it dead. But they had forgotten Roosevelt.

He had been watching and wondering. To him an unsullied judiciary was the ground fabric of society. Here were charges of the most serious kind against a judge smothered unheard. He asked his elders on the Republican benches what was to be done about it. Nothing. Nothing? Then he would inquire publicly. They ran to him in alarm. Nothing but harm could come of it, to him and to the party. He must not; it was rank folly. The thing was loaded.

“It was,” wrote an unnamed writer in the “Saturday Evening Post,” whose story should be framed and hung in the Assembly Chamber as a chart for young legislators of good intentions but timid before sneers, “it was obviously the counsel of experienced wisdom. So far as the clearest judgment could see, it was not the moment for attack. Indeed, it looked as if attack would strengthen the hands of corruption by exposing the weakness of the opposition to it. Never did expediency put a temptation to conscience more insidiously.

“It was on April 6, 1882, that young Roosevelt took the floor in the Assembly and demanded that Judge Westbrook, of Newburg, be impeached. And for sheer moral courage that act is probably supreme in Roosevelt’s life thus far. He must have expected failure. Even his youth and idealism and ignorance of public affairs could not blind him to the apparently inevitable consequences. Yet he drew his sword and rushed apparently to destruction—alone, and at the very outset of his career, and in disregard of the pleadings of his closest friends and the plain dictates of political wisdom.

“That speech—the deciding act in Roosevelt’s career—is not remarkable for eloquence. But it is remarkable for fearless candor. He called thieves thieves regardless of their millions; he slashed savagely at the Judge and the Attorney-General; he told the plain, unvarnished truth as his indignant eyes saw it.

“When he finished, the veteran leader of the Republicans rose and with gently contemptuous raillery asked that the resolution to take up the charges be voted down. He said he wished to give young Mr. Roosevelt time to think about the wisdom of his course. ‘I,’ said he, ‘have seen many reputations in the State broken down by loose charges made in the Legislature.’ And presently the Assembly gave ‘young Mr. Roosevelt time to think’ by voting not to take up his ‘loose charges.’

“Ridicule, laughter, a ripple—apparently it was all over, except the consequences to the bumptious and dangerous young man which might flow from the cross set against his name in the black books of the ring.

“It was a disheartening defeat—almost all of his own party voted against him; the most earnest of those who ventured to support him were Democrats; perhaps half of those who voted with him did so merely because their votes were not needed to beat him.

“That night the young man was once more urged to be ‘sensible,’ to ‘have regard to his future usefulness,’ to ‘cease injuring the party.’ He snapped his teeth together and defied the party leaders. And the next day he again rose and again lifted his puny voice and his puny hand against smiling, contemptuous corruption. Day after day he persevered on the floor of the Assembly, in interviews for the press; a few newspapers here and there joined him; Assemblymen all over the State began to hear from their constituents. Within a week his name was known from Buffalo to Montauk Point, and everywhere the people were applauding him. On the eighth day of his bold, smashing attack the resolution to take up the charges was again voted upon at his demand. And the Assemblymen, with the eyes of the whole people upon them, did not dare longer to keep themselves on record as defenders of a judge who feared to demand an investigation. The opposition collapsed. Roosevelt won by 104 to 6.”

In the end the corruptionists escaped. The committee made a whitewashing report. But the testimony was damning and more than vindicated the attack. A victory had been won; open corruption had been driven to the wall. Roosevelt had met his party on a moral issue and had forced it over on the side of right. He had achieved backing. Out of that fight came the phrase “the wealthy criminal class” that ran through the country. In his essay on “true American ideals” he identifies it with “the conscienceless stock speculator who acquires wealth by swindling his fellows, by debauching judges and legislatures,” and his kind. “There is not,” he exclaims, “in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune, and putting his fortune only to the basest uses—whether these uses be to speculate in stocks and wreck railroads himself, or to allow his son to lead a life of foolish and expensive idleness and gross debauchery, or to purchase some scoundrel of high social position, foreign or native, for his daughter.”

“Young Mr. Roosevelt” went into the next Legislature re-elected with a big majority in a year that saw his party go down in defeat all along the line, as its leader on the floor of the house. At twenty-four he was proposed for Speaker. Then came his real test. Long after, he told me of it.

“I suppose,” he said, “that my head was swelled. It would not be strange if it was. I stood out for my own opinion, alone. I took the best mugwump stand: my own conscience, my own judgment, were to decide in all things. I would listen to no argument, no advice. I took the isolated peak on every issue, and my people left me. When I looked around, before the session was well under way, I found myself alone. I was absolutely deserted. The people did n’t understand. The men from Erie, from Suffolk, from anywhere, would not work with me. ‘He won’t listen to anybody,’ they said, and I would not. My isolated peak had become a valley; every bit of influence I had was gone. The things I wanted to do I was powerless to accomplish. What did I do? I looked the ground over and made up my mind that there were several other excellent people there, with honest opinions of the right, even though they differed from me. I turned in to help them, and they turned to and gave me a hand. And so we were able to get things done. We did not agree in all things, but we did in some, and those we pulled at together. That was my first lesson in real politics. It is just this: if you are cast on a desert island with only a screw-driver, a hatchet, and a chisel to make a boat with, why, go make the best one you can. It would be better if you had a saw, but you have n’t. So with men. Here is my friend in Congress who is a good man, a strong man, but cannot be made to believe in some things which I trust. It is too bad that he does n’t look at it as I do, but he does not, and we have to work together as we can. There is a point, of course, where a man must take the isolated peak and break with it all for clear principle, but until it comes he must work, if he would be of use, with men as they are. As long as the good in them overbalances the evil, let him work with that for the best that can be got.”

One can hardly turn a page of his writings even to this day without coming upon evidence that he has never forgotten the lesson of the isolated peak.

The real things of life were getting their grip on him more and more. The old laissez faire doctrine that would let bad enough alone because it was the easiest way still pervaded the teaching of his college days, as applied to social questions. The day of the Settlement had not yet come; but his father had been a whole social settlement and a charity organization society combined in his own person, and the son was not content with the bookish view of affairs that so intimately concerned the welfare of the republic to which he led back all things. The bitter cry of the virtually enslaved tenement cigarmakers had reached Albany, and Roosevelt went to their rescue at once. He was not satisfied with hearsay evidence, but went through the tenements and saw for himself. The conditions he found made a profound impression upon him. They were afterward, when I wrote “How the Other Half Lives,” an introduction to him and a bond of sympathy between us. He told the Legislature what he had seen, and a bill was passed to stop the evil, but it was declared unconstitutional in the courts. The time was not yet ripe for many things in which he was afterward to bear a hand. A dozen years later, as Health Commissioner, he helped destroy some of the very tenements in which at that earlier day industrial slavery in its worst form was intrenched too strongly to be dislodged by law. The world “do move,” with honest hands to help it.

It was so with the investigation of the city departments he headed. There was enough to investigate, but we had not yet grown a conscience robust enough to make the facts tell. Parkhurst had first to prepare the ground. The committee sat for a couple of weeks, perhaps three, at the old Metropolitan Hotel, and it was there I first met Theodore Roosevelt, when the police officials were on the stand. I remember distinctly but one incident of that inquiry. It was when lawyer George Bliss, who could be very cutting when it suited his purpose, made an impertinent remark, as counsel for the Police Commissioners. I can see “young” Mr. Roosevelt yet, leaning across the table with the look upon his face that always compelled attention, and saying with pointed politeness: “Of course you do not mean that, Mr. Bliss; for if you did we should have to have you put out in the street.” Mr. Bliss did not mean it.

It was at that session, too, I think, that he struck his first blow for the civil service reform which his father contended for when it had few friends; for which cause the Republican machine rejected his nomination for Collector of the Port of New York. I know how it delighted the son’s heart to carry on his father’s work then and when afterward as Governor he clinched it in the best civil service law the State has ever had. But, more than that, he saw that this was one of the positions to be rushed if the enemy were to be beaten out.

Another was the power of confirmation the Aldermen had over the Mayor’s appointments in New York. Thus even the best administration would be helpless with a majority of Tammany members on the Board of Aldermen. Such a thing as the election of a reform Board of Aldermen was then unthinkable. He wrested that power from them and gave it to the Mayor, and, in doing it, all unconsciously paved the way for himself to the office in which, under Mayor Strong, he leaped into National importance. There are many striking coincidences of the kind in Theodore Roosevelt’s career. I have noticed that they are to be found in the life of every man who goes straight ahead and does what he knows is right, taking the best counsel he can and learning from life as it shapes itself under his touch. All the time he is laying out grappling-hooks, without knowing it, for the opportunity that comes only to the one who can profit by it, and, when it passes, he lays hold of it quite naturally. It is only another way of putting Roosevelt’s philosophy that things happen to those who are in the way of it. It is the idlers who prate of chance and luck. Luck is lassoed by the masterful man, by the man who knows and who can. And it is well that it is so, or we should be in a pretty mess.

I have spoken at considerable length about Theodore Roosevelt’s early legislative experience because I am concerned about showing how he grew to what he is. Men do not jump up in a night like mushrooms, some good credulous people to the contrary notwithstanding, or shoot up like rockets. If they do, they are apt to come down like sticks. At least Mr. Roosevelt stays up a long time, they will have to admit. I have heard of him being “discovered” by politicians as Civil Service Commissioner, as Police Commissioner, as fitter-out of the navy for the Spanish fight, as Rough-Rider—almost as often as he has been ruined by his vagaries which no one could survive; and I have about made up my mind that politicians are the most credulous of beings, instead of the reverse. The fact is that he is a perfectly logical product of a certain course of conduct deliberately entered upon and faithfully adhered to all through life, as all of us are who have any character worth mentioning. For that is what character means, that a man will do so and so as occasions arise demanding action. Now here is a case in point. When President Roosevelt speaks nowadays about the necessity of dropping all race and creed distinctions, if we want to be good Americans, some one on the outskirts of the crowd winks his left eye and says “politics.” When he promoted a Jew in the Police Department or in his regiment, it was politics, politics. Well, this incident I am going to tell you about he had himself forgotten. When I asked him about it, he recalled it slowly and with difficulty, for it happened in the days before he had entered the Legislature. I had it from a friend of his, the head of one of our great institutions of learning, who was present at the time.

It was at the Federal Club, a young Republican club started to back up the older organization and since merged with it. A young Jew had been proposed for membership. He was of good family, personally unobjectionable, had no enemies in the club. Yet it was proposed deliberately to blackball him. There was no pretense about it; it was a perfectly bald issue of Gentile against Jew in a club where it was easy to keep him out, at least so they thought—till Roosevelt heard of it at the meeting. Then and there he got up and said what he thought of it. It was not complimentary to the conspirators. They were there as Republicans, as American citizens, he said, to work together for better things on the basis of being decent. The proposition to exclude a man because he was a Jew was not decent. For him, the minute race and creed were brought into the club, he would quit, and at once.

“He flayed them as I never heard a body of men flayed in my life,” said my informant. “Roosevelt was pale with anger. The club sat perfectly still under the lashing. When he sat down amid profound silence, the vote was taken. There were no black balls. The Jew never knew how narrowly he missed getting in.” He had a chance to vote for Roosevelt three times for the Legislature in settlement of the account he did not know he owed, and I hope he did.

When Mr. Roosevelt’s third term was out, he had earned a seat in the National council of his party. He went to Chicago in 1884 as a delegate to the convention which nominated Blaine. He was strongly in opposition, and fought hard to prevent the nomination. The outcome was a sore thrust to him. Some of his associates never forgave him that he did not bolt with them and stay out. Roosevelt came back from the far West, where he had gone to wear off his disappointment, and went into the fight with his party. His training was bearing fruit. “At times,” I read in one of his essays, “a man must cut loose from his associates and stand for a great cause; but the necessity for such action is almost as rare as the necessity for a revolution.” He did not join in the revolution; the time had not come, in his judgment, to take the isolated peak.

There came to me just now a letter from one of his classmates in college who has heard that I am writing about Mr. Roosevelt. He was one of those who revolted, but I shall set his testimony down here as quite as good an explanation of Theodore Roosevelt’s course as Mr. Roosevelt could furnish himself.

“He was,” he writes, speaking of his college friend, “next to my own father, the purest-minded man I ever knew.… He was free from any tinge of self-seeking. Indeed, he was free, as I knew him, from self-consciousness. What he said and did was simply the unstudied expression of his true self.… Although I very rarely see him, I have naturally followed his career with close interest. I am convinced that the few of his acts that I find it hard to condone (e.g., his advocacy of Mr. Blaine’s election to the Presidency, and his own acceptance of nomination for the Vice-Presidency) are explained by the fact that he has from the start been a party man, not merely a believer in party government and a faithful party member, but a devout believer, apparently, in the dogma that the success of his party is essential to the welfare of the country.”

At that convention George William Curtis was also a delegate from New York. In a newspaper I picked up the other day were some reminiscences of the great fight by a newspaper man who was there. He told of meeting the famous Easy Chair at luncheon when the strife was fiercest. He expressed some surprise at the youth of Mr. Roosevelt, of whom the West then knew little. What followed sounds so like prophecy that I quote it here. The reporter wrote it down from memory that night, so he says, and by accident came across his notes, hence the item:

  • Mr. Curtis moved his chair back from the table, threw his napkin beside his plate, and was silent for a few seconds. Then he said, in his quiet, modulated tones:
  • “You ’ll know more, sir, later; a deal more, or I am much in error. Young? Why, he is just out of school almost, yet he is a force to be reckoned with in New York. Later the Nation will be criticising or praising him. While respectful to the gray hairs and experience of his elders, none of them can move him an iota from convictions as to men and measures once formed and rooted. He has integrity, courage, fair scholarship, a love for public life, a comfortable amount of money, honorable descent, the good word of the honest. He will not truckle nor cringe, he seems to court opposition to the point of being somewhat pugnacious. His political life will probably be a turbulent one, but he will be a figure, not a figurehead, in future development—or, if not, it will be because he gives up politics altogether.”
  • Such a verdict from such a man upon three years of the strife and sweat of very practical politics I should have thought worth all it cost, and I know so does Mr. Roosevelt.