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


The Fair Play Department

THE CITIZENS had picked Roosevelt because they needed a young man with fighting grit, a man with a name to trust, a Republican who was not afraid—of the machine for one thing. The machine took him because there was nothing else left for it to do, and it did that. The thing has happened since: evidence that there is life in our theory and practice of government. When such things cease to happen, popular government will not be much more than a name. The machine is useful—indeed, it is indispensable—as a thing to be run for a purpose. When the purpose becomes merely the running of the machine, however perfect that, the soul is gone out of it. And without a soul a man or a party is dead.

Something had occurred in New York fit almost to wake the dead. Henry George had been nominated for Mayor, and the world that owned houses and lands and stocks was in a panic. The town was going to be sacked, at the very least. And, in wild dread of the disaster that was coming, men forsook party, principles, everything, and threw themselves into the arms of Tammany, as babies run in fear of the bogy man and hide their heads in their mother’s lap. Nice mother, Tammany!—even with Abram S. Hewitt as its candidate. He lived to subscribe to that statement. I have sometimes wondered what the town thought of itself when it came to, and considered Henry George as he really was. I know what Roosevelt thought of it. He laughed, rather contemptuously, married, and went abroad, glad of his holiday.

But he had contributed something to that campaign that had life in it. Long years after it bore fruit; but at that time I suppose people shrugged their shoulders at it, and ran on to their haven of refuge. It was just two paragraphs in his letter of acceptance to the Committee of One Hundred, the briefest of that kind of documents I ever saw.

“The worst evils that affect our local government,” he wrote to R. Fulton Cutting and his colleagues (even the names sound as if it were yesterday, not nearly twenty years ago), “arise from and are the inevitable results of the mixing up of city affairs with the party politics of the Nation and of the State. The lines upon which National parties divide have no necessary connection with the business of the city;… such connection opens the way to countless schemes of public plunder and civic corruption. I very earnestly deprecate all attempts to introduce any class or caste feeling into the mayoralty contest. Laborers and capitalists alike are interested in having an honest and economical city government, and if elected I shall certainly strive to be the representative of all good citizens, paying heed to nothing whatever but the general well-being.”

He was not elected, as I said. We were not yet grown to that. Non-partisanship in municipal politics was a poet’s dream, nice but so unsubstantial. It came true all the same in time, and it will stay true when we have dozed off a few times more and been roused up with the Tammany nightmare astride of us. Maybe then my other dream will come true, too. It is my own, and I have never told even him of it; but I have seen stranger things happen. It is this, that Theodore Roosevelt shall sit in the City Hall in New York as Mayor of his own city, after he has done his work in Washington. That would be an object-lesson worth while, one we need and that would show all the world what democracy really means. I shall never be satisfied till I see it. That year I would write the last chapter of my “battle with the slum,” and in truth it would be over. For that which really makes the slum is not the foul tenement, not the pestilent alley, not the want and ignorance they stand for; but the other, the killing ignorance that sits in ease and plenty and knows not that it is the brother who suffers, and that, in one way or other, he must suffer with him unless he will suffer for him. Of that there must be an end. Roosevelt in the City Hall could mean only that.

Witness his plea in the letter I quoted: “Laborers and capitalists alike are interested.” Of course they are, or our country goes to the dogs. In that day we shall see it, all of us. He saw it always. When I hear any one say that Roosevelt is doing this, or saying that, for effect, I know I have to do with a man who does not read or reason; or he would have made out how straight has been his course from the beginning. What he said then to the electors of New York, he did as President when he appointed the Coal Strike Commission, when he blocked the way of illegal trust combinations, and when he killed the power of “pull” in the Police Department and kept the peace of the city. He said it again the other day in his Labor Day speech at Syracuse.

“They will say, most likely, that it is made up of platitudes,” he told me when he had finished it, referring to his newspaper critics; “and so I suppose it is. Only they need to be said just here and now.”

They did need to. The Ten Commandments are platitudes, I expect; certainly they have been repeated often enough. And yet even the critics will hardly claim that we have had enough of them. I noticed, by the way, that they were dumb for once. Perhaps it occurred to them that it took a kind of courage to insist, as he did, on the elementary virtues in the dealings of man with man as the basis of all human fellowship, against which their shafts fell powerless. If so, it did more credit to their discernment than I expected ever to have to accord them.

Two years of travel and writing, of working at the desk and, in between, on the ranch, where the cowboys hailed him joyously; of hunting and play which most people would have called hard work; years during which his “Winning of the West” took shape and grew into his great work. Then, in the third, Washington and the Civil Service Commission.

I suppose there is scarcely one who knows anything of Theodore Roosevelt who has not got the fact of his being once a Civil Service Commissioner fixed in his mind. That was where the country got its eye upon him; and that, likewise, was where some good people grew the notion that he was a scrapper first, last, and all the time, with but little regard for whom he tackled, so long as he had him. There was some truth in that; we shall see how much. But as to civil service reform, I have sometimes wondered how many there were who knew as little what it really meant as I did until not so very long ago. How many went about with a more or less vague notion that it was some kind of a club to knock out spoils politics with, good for the purpose and necessary, but in the last analysis an alien kind of growth, of aristocratic tendency, to set men apart in classes. Instead of exactly the reverse, right down on the hard pan of the real and only democracy: every man on his merits; what he is, not what he has; what he can do, not what his pull can do for him. And do you know what first shocked me into finding out the truth? I have to own it, if it does make me blush for myself. It was when I saw a report Roosevelt had made on political blackmail in the New York Custom-House. That was what he called it, and it was meaner than the meanest, he added, because it hit hardest the employees who did n’t stand politically with the party in power and were afraid to say so lest they lose their places. Three per cent. of his salary, to a clerk just able to get along, might mean “the difference between having and not having a winter coat for himself, a warm dress for his wife, or a Christmas-tree for his children—a piece of cruel injustice and iniquity.” It was the Christmas-tree that settled it with me. The rest was bad, but I could n’t allow that. Not with my Danish pedigree of blessed Christmas trees reaching ’way back into the day of frocks and rag dolls, and my own children’s tree to remind me of it—never!

So I overcame my repugnance to schedules and tables and examinations, and got behind it all to an understanding of what it really meant. And there I found the true view of this champion of civil service reform as I might have expected; fighting the spoilsman, yes! dragging the sting from his kind of politics; hitting him blow after blow, and with the whole pack of politicians, I came near saying good and bad together, in front hitting back for very life. That was there, all of it. But this other was there too: the man who was determined that the fellow with no pull should have an even chance with his rival who came backed; that the farmer’s lad and the mechanic’s son who had no one to speak for them should have the same show in competing for the public service as the son of wealth and social prestige. That was really what civil service reform meant to Roosevelt. The other was good, but this was the kernel of it, and the kernel was sound. It was, as he said in his first Presidential message, “as democratic and American as the common-school system itself.”

And as for the country’s end of it: “This is my rule,” said he, speaking of it at the time: “if I am in such doubt about an applicant’s character and fitness for office as would lead me not to put my private affairs in his hands, then I shall not put public affairs in his hands.” Simple and plain enough, is it not?

For all that they called it a “first-class trouble job” and the wise, or those who thought they were wise, laughed in their sleeves when Roosevelt tackled it. For at last they had him where he would be killed off sure, this bumptious young man who had got in the way of the established order in everything. And they wished him luck. President Harrison was in the White House, well disposed, but not exactly a sympathetic court of appeals for a pleader like Roosevelt. In fact, he would have removed him within a year or two of his appointment for daring to lay down the law to a Cabinet officer, had it been expedient. It was not expedient; by that time Theodore Roosevelt had made his own court of appeals—the country and public opinion.

Contrary to the general belief, Roosevelt was never President of the Civil Service Commission, though I am strongly inclined to think that where he sat was the head of the table. Until he came the Board had been in hard luck. Unpopular everywhere, it had tried the ostrich game of hiding its head, hoping so to escape observation and the onset of its enemies. Things took a sudden turn with Roosevelt in the Board. He was there to do a work he thoroughly believed in, that was one thing. In the Legislature of New York he had forced through a civil service law that was substantially the same as he was here set to enforce; hence he knew. And when a man knows a thing and believes in it, and it is the right thing to do anyway, truly “thrice armed is he.” The enemies of the cause found it out quickly. For every time they struck, the Commission hit back twice. Nor was the new Commissioner very particular where he hit, so long as the blow told. “The spectacle,” wrote Edward Cary in reviewing his work when it was done, “of a man holding a minor and rather nondescript office, politically unimportant, taking a Cabinet officer by the neck and exposing him to the amused contempt of all honest Americans, was what the late Horace Greeley would have called ‘mighty interesting.’ It was also very instructive.”

It was that. The whole country took an interest in the show. Politics woke right up and got the ear of the White House. Mr. Roosevelt respectfully but firmly refused to back down. He was doing his sworn duty in enforcing the law. That was what he was there for. He urged his reform measures once, twice, three times, then went to the people, telling them all about it. The measures went through. Surveying the clamoring crowd that railed at him and his work, he flung this challenge to them in an address in the Madison Street Theater in Chicago in March, 1890, the year after he was appointed:

“Every ward heeler who now ekes out a miserable existence at the expense of office-holders and candidates is opposed to our policy, and we are proud to acknowledge it. Every politician who sees nothing but reward of office in the success of a party or a principle is opposed to us, and we are not sorry for it.… We propose to keep a man in office as long as he serves the public faithfully and courteously.… We propose that no incumbent shall be dismissed from the service unless he proves untrustworthy or incompetent, and that no one not specially qualified for the duties of the position shall be appointed. These two statements we consider eminently practical and American in principle.”

Again, a year later, when the well-worn lies that still pass current in certain newspapers had got into the Senate, this was his answer:

“One of the chief false accusations which are thrown at the Commission is that we test applicants by puzzling questions. There is a certain order of intellect—sometimes an order of Senatorial intellect—which thinks it funny to state that a first-class young man, thoroughly qualified in every respect, has been rejected for the position of letter-carrier because he was unable to tell the distance from Hong Kong to the mouth of the Yangtsekiang, or answer questions of similar nature.

“I now go through a rather dreary, monotonous illustration of how this idea becomes current. A Senator, for instance, makes statements of that character. I then write to him, and ask him his foundation for such an assertion. Presumably, he never receives my letter, for he never answers it. I write him again, with no better results. I then publish a contradiction in the newspapers. Then some enterprising correspondent interviews him, and he states the question is true, but it is below his dignity to reply to Mr. Roosevelt. As a matter of fact, he either does know or ought to know that no such question has ever been asked.”

I wonder now, does any one of the editors who loudly wail over the “weak surrender” of the President, these days, to malign forces of their imagination, really believe that of the man who single-handed bade defiance to the whole executive force of the Government, when the knowledge that he was right was his only weapon; or is it just buncombe like the Senator’s dignity?

And yet, on the other hand, when he had to do with a different element, honest but not yet persuaded, note the change from blow to argument. I quote from a speech he made to a club of business men in the thick of the fight:

“We hear much of the question whether the Government should take control of the telegraph lines and railways of the country. Before that question can be so much as discussed, it ought to be definitely settled that, if the Government takes control of either telegraph line or railway, it must do it to manage it purely as a business undertaking, and must manage it with a service wholly unconnected with politics. I should like to call the special attention of the gentlemen in bodies interested in increasing the sphere of State action—interested in giving the State control more and more over railways, over telegraph lines, and over other things of the sort—to the fact that the condition precedent upon success is to establish an absolutely non-partisan governmental system. When that point is once settled, we can discuss the advisability of doing what these gentlemen wish, but not before.”

Single-handed, I said. At least we heard from him only in those days. But afterward there came to join him on the Commission a Kentuckian, an old Confederate veteran, a Democrat, and withal as fine a fellow as ever drew breath—John R. Procter—and the two struck hands in a friendship that was for life.

“Every day,” said Mr. Procter as we lay in the grass up in the Berkshires last summer and looked out over the peaceful valley, “every day I went to the office as to an entertainment. I knew something was sure to turn up to make our work worth while, with him there. When he went away, I had heart in it no longer.”

The thing that turned up at regular intervals was an investigation by Congress. Some-times it was charges of one kind or another; sometimes the weapon was ridicule; always at the bottom the purpose was the same: to get rid of this impudent thing that was interposing itself between the legislator and the patronage that had been to him the sinews of war till then, costly sinews as he often enough had found out, but still the only ones he knew how to use. Mr. Roosevelt met every attack with his unvarying policy of candor; blow for blow where that was needed; at other times with tact so finished, a shrewdness of diplomacy at which the enemy stared in helpless rage. For the country was visibly falling in behind this wholesome, good-humored fighter. I remember yet with amusement the “withering charge,” as he called it, which one of the Washington papers brought against him. It published one of his letters in facsimile and asked scornfully if this man could pass an examination in penmanship for the desk of a third-rate clerk in his own office; yet he sat in judgment on the handwriting of aspirants. Now, I have always thought Mr. Roosevelt’s handwriting fine. It is n’t ornate. Indeed, it might be called very plain, extra plain, if you like. But his character is all over it: a child could read it. There can never be any doubt as to what he means, and that, it seems to me, is what you want of a man’s writing. Here is a line of it now which I quoted before, still lying on my table. Squeezed in between lines of typewriting it is not a fair sample, but take it as it is:

  • I haven’t heard a word about it from my superior officers, who have the complete say-so.
  • However, Roosevelt made no bones about it. He owned up that he could n’t pass for a clerk-ship, which was well, he said, for he would have made but a poor clerk, while he thought he could make a good Commissioner. “And,” he added, “there it is. Under our system of civil service examinations I could n’t get in, whereas under the old spoils system you advocate I would have had pull enough to get the appointment to the clerkship I was n’t fit for. Don’t you see?”

    I presume the editor saw, for nothing more was said about it.

    In the hottest of the fighting, Mr. Roosevelt executed a flank movement of such consummate strategic skill and shrewdness that it fairly won him the battle. He ordered examinations for department positions at Washington to be held in the States, not at the Capital. When the successful candidates came to take the places they had won—when Congressman Smith met a young fellow from his county whom he knew in Washington, holding office under an administration hostile in politics as he knew, a great light dawned upon him. He felt the fetters of patronage, that had proved a heavier and heavier burden to him, falling from his own limbs, and from among the Congressmen who had hotly opposed Roosevelt came some of the warmest advocates of the new salvation. The policy of fairness, of perfect openness, had won. But it was a fight, sure enough. Mr. Roosevelt’s literary labors in the cause alone were immense. Besides the six annual reports of the Commission during his incumbency—the sixth to the eleventh, inclusive—which were written largely by him, his essays and papers in defense of the reform covered a range that would give a clerk, I was told at the Congressional Library, a good week’s work if he were to make anything like a complete list of them.

    There never yet was a perfect law, and the civil service law was no exception. It did not put saints in office. It gave men a fair show, helped kill political blackmail, and kept some scoundrels out. Sometimes, too, it kept the best man out; for no system of examination can be devised to make sure he gets in. Roosevelt was never a stickler for the letter of anything. I know that perhaps better than anybody. If I were to tell how many times we have sat down together to devise a way of getting through the formal husk, even at the risk of bruising it some, to get at the kernel, the spirit of justice that is the soul of every law, however undeveloped, I might frighten some good people needlessly. I think likely it was the recognition of this quality in the man, the entire absence of pedantry in his advocacy of the reform, that won the people over to him as much as anything. Some good stories are told about that, but perhaps one he told himself of his experience as a regimental commander in the Spanish war sheds more light on that side of him than anything else. He had a man in his regiment, a child of the frontier, in whom dwelt the soul of a soldier—in war, not in peace. By no process of reasoning or discipline could he be persuaded to obey the camp regulations, while the regiment lay at San Antonio, and at last he was court-martialed, sentenced to six months’ imprisonment—a technical sentence, for there was no jail to put him in. The prison was another Rough-Rider following him around with a rifle to keep him in bounds. Then came the call to Cuba, and the Colonel planned to leave him behind as useless baggage. When the man heard of it, his soul was stirred to its depths. He came and pleaded as a child to be taken along. He would always be good; never again could he show up in Kansas if the regiment went to the war without him. At sight of his real agony Mr. Roosevelt’s heart relented.

    “All right,” he said. “You deserve to be shot as much as anybody. You shall go.” And he went, flowing over with gratitude, to prove himself in the field as good a man as his prison of yore who fought beside him.

    Then came the mustering out. When the last man was checked off and accounted for, the War Department official, quartermaster or general or something, fumbled with his papers.

    “Where is the prisoner?” he asked.

    “The prisoner?” echoed Colonel Roosevelt; “what prisoner?”

    “Why, the man who got six months at a court-martial.”

    “Oh, he! He is all right. I remitted his sentence.”

    The official looked the Colonel over curiously.

    “You remitted his sentence,” he said. “Sentenced by a court-martial, approved by the commanding general, you remitted his sentence. Well, you’ve got nerve.”

    Perhaps the Civil Service Commissioner’s “nerve” had something to do with winning his fight. I like to think it had. With that added, one could almost feel like hugging civil service reform.

    One phase of this “Six Years’ War” I cannot pass by, since it may serve as a chart to some inquiring minds much troubled to find out where the President will stand in matters of recent notoriety. They may give up their still-hunt for information and assume with perfect confidence that he will stand where he always has stood, on the square platform of fair dealing between man and man. Here is the letter that made me think of it. It was written to the Chairman of the Committee on Reform in the Civil Service of the Fifty-third Congress, in the spring of 1894, the year before he left the Commission:

  • Congressman Williams, of Mississippi, attacked the Commission in substance because under the Commission white men and men of color are treated with exact impartiality. As to this, I have to say that so long as the present Commissioners continue their official existence they will not make, and, so far as in their power lies, will refuse to allow others to make, any discrimination whatsoever for or against any man because of his color, any more than because of his politics or religion. We do equal and exact justice to all, and I challenge Mr. Williams or any one else to show a single instance where the Commission has failed to do this. Mr. Williams specified the Railway Mail Service in Missouri as being one in which negroes are employed. The books of the Railway Mail Service for the division including South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi were shown me yesterday, and according to these books about three-fourths of the employees are white and one-fourth colored. Under the last administration it was made a reproach to us that we did full and entire justice to the Southern Democrats, and that through our examinations many hundreds of them entered the classified service, although under a Republican administration. Exactly in the same way, it is now made a reproach to us that under our examinations honest and capable colored men are given an even chance with honest and capable white men. I esteem this reproach a high compliment to the Commission, for it is an admission that the Commission has rigidly done its duty as required by law without regard to politics or religion and without regard to color.
    Very respectfully,
  • “You cannot change him unless you convince him,” said Mr. Procter to me, as we got up to go down into the valley, whence the gray evening shadows were reaching up toward us. If you think you can convince Theodore Roosevelt that a square deal is not the right thing, you can look for a change in him when he has taken a stand on a moral question; else you need n’t trouble.

    President Cleveland was in office by that time, and the Democratic party was in. But Roosevelt stayed as Civil Service Commissioner, and abated not one jot of his zeal. I do not know what compact was made between the two men, but I can guess from what I knew of them both. An incident of the White House shows what kind of regard grew up between them as they came to know one another. It was the day President McKinley was buried. President Roosevelt had come in alone. Among the mourners he saw Mr. Cleveland. Now, the etiquette of the White House, which is in its way as rigid as that of any court in Europe, requires that the President shall be sought out; he is not to go to any one. But Mr. Roosevelt waved it all aside with one impulsive gesture as he went straight to Mr. Cleveland and took his hand. An official who stood next to them, and who told me, heard him say:

    “It will always be a source of pride and pleasure to me to have served under President Cleveland.” Mr. Cleveland shook hands, mute with emotion.

    I learned afterward that among all the countless messages of sympathy and cheer that came to him in those hard days, the one of them all he prized highest and that touched him most deeply was from Grover Cleveland.

    The Six Years’ War was nearly over when the summons came to him to take the helm in the Police Department in New York City, the then storm-center in the fight for civic regeneration. He and his colleague, Mr. Procter, had their first and only falling out over his choice to go into the new fight. They quarreled over it until Roosevelt put his arm over the other’s shoulder and said: “Old friend! I have made up my mind that it is right for me to go.”

    Mr. Procter shook him off almost roughly, and got up from the table. “All right,” he said, “go! You always would have your way, and I suppose you are right, blank it and blank blank it!” and the grizzled old veteran went out and wept like a child.

    The outcome of it all? Figures convey no idea of it. To say that he found 14,000 government officers under the civil service rules, and left 40,000, does not tell the story; not even in its own poor way, for there are 125,000 now, and when the ransomed number 200,000 it will still be Roosevelt’s work. President Cleveland put it more nearly right in his letter to Mr. Roosevelt regretfully accepting his resignation.

    “You are certainly to be congratulated,” he wrote, “upon the extent and permanency of civil service reform methods which you have so substantially aided in bringing about. The struggle for its firm establishment and recognition is past. Its faithful application and reasonable expansion remain, subjects of deep interest to all who really desire the best attainable public service.”

    That was what the country got out of it. The fight was won—wait, let me put that a little less strongly: the way to the victory is cleared. Just now, as I was writing that sentence, a man, an old friend, a teacher in Israel, came into my office and to him I read what I had just written. “That’s right,” he said; “I came in to ask you if you would n’t help a young man who wants to get into the public employment. He is a fine fellow, has got all the qualifications. All he needs is influence to get him a place. Without influence you cannot do anything.”

    The fight will be over the day the American people get that notion out of their heads, not before. They can drop it now, for it is all that really is left. Roosevelt won them the right to do that. He won his father’s fight that he had made his own. I know how much that meant to him.

    The country got more out of it: it got a man to whom great tasks and great opportunities were to come with the years, trained in the school of all schools to perfect skill in dealing with men, in making out their motives and their worth as fighting units. The devious paths of diplomacy have no such training-school for leadership as he found in Washington fighting for a great principle, touching elbows every day with men from all over the country, with the leaders in thought and action, in politics, in every phase of public life. He went there, a fearless battler for the right, and came away with all his ideals bright and unsullied. It was in the Civil Service Commission’s office the cunning was fashioned which, without giving offense, put the Kishineff petition into the hands of the Czar and his Ministers before they had time to say they would not receive it, and gave notice to the Muscovite world that there was a moral sense across the sea to be reckoned with; of which fact it took due notice.

    Still more did the country get out of that Six Years’ War: from end to end of the land the men with ideals, young and old, the men and women who would help their fellows, help their cities, took heart from his example and his victory. Perhaps that was the greatest gain, the one that went farthest. It endures to this day. Wherever he fights, men fall in behind and fight on with new hope; they know they can win if they keep it up. And they will, let them be sure of it. All the little defeats are just to test their grit. It is a question of grit, that is all.