Chronicles of America 

Fighting and Breakfasting With Platt

From the New York Police Department Roosevelt was called by President McKinley to Washington in 1897, to become Assistant Secretary of the Navy. After a year there--the story of which belongs elsewhere in this volume--he resigned to go to Cuba as Lieutenant-Colonel of the Rough Riders. He was just as prominent in that war for liberty and justice as the dimensions of the conflict permitted. He was accustomed in after years to say with deprecating humor, when talking to veterans of the Civil War, "It wasn't much of a war, but it was all the war we had." It made him Governor of New York.

When he landed with his regiment at Montauk Point from Cuba, he was met by two delegations. One consisted of friends from his own State who were political independents; the other came from the head of the Republican political machine.

Both wanted him as a candidate for Governor. The independents were anxious to have him make a campaign against the Old Guard of both the standard parties, fighting Richard Croker, the cynical Tammany boss, on the one side, and Thomas C. Platt, the "easy boss" of the Republicans, on the other. Tom Platt did not want him at all. But he did want to win the election, and he knew that he must have something superlatively fine to offer, if he was to have any hope of carrying the discredited Republican party to victory. So he swallowed whatever antipathy he may have had and offered the nomination to Roosevelt. This was before the days when the direct primary gave the plain voters an opportunity to upset the calculations of a political boss.

Senator Platt's emissary, Lemuel Ely Quigg, in a two hours' conversation in the tent at Montauk, asked some straight-from-the-shoulder questions. The answers he received were just as unequivocal. Mr. Quigg wanted a plain statement as to whether or not Roosevelt wanted the nomination. He wanted to know what Roosevelt's attitude would be toward the organization in the event of his election, whether or not he would "make war" on Mr. Platt and his friends, or whether he would confer with them and give fair consideration to their point of view as to party policy and public interest. In short, he wanted a frank definition of Roosevelt's attitude towards existing party conditions. He got precisely that. Here it is, in Roosevelt's own words:

"I replied that I should like to be nominated, and if nominated would promise to throw myself into the campaign with all possible energy. I said that I should not make war on Mr. Platt or anybody else if war could be avoided; that what I wanted was to be Governor and not a faction leader; that I certainly would confer with the organization men, as with everybody else who seemed to me to have knowledge of and interest in public affairs, and that as to Mr. Platt and the organization leaders, I would do so in the sincere hope that there might always result harmony of opinion and purpose; but that while I would try to get on well with the organization, the organization must with equal sincerity strive to do what I regarded as essential for the public good; and that in every case, after full consideration of what everybody had to say who might possess real knowledge of the matter, I should have to act finally as my own judgment and conscience dictated and administer the State government as I thought it ought to be administered . . . . I told him to tell the Senator that while I would talk freely with him, and had no intention of becoming a factional leader with a personal organization, yet I must have direct personal relations with everybody, and get their views at first hand whenever I so desired, because I could not have one man speaking for all.1

This was straight Roosevelt talk. It was probably the first time that the "easy boss" had received such a response to his overtures. History does not record how he liked it; but at least he accepted it. Subsequent events suggest that he was either unwilling to believe or incapable of understanding that the Colonel of the Rough Riders meant precisely what he said. But Platt found out his mistake. He was not the first or the last politician to have that experience.

So Roosevelt was nominated, made a gruelling campaign, was elected by a small but sufficient majority, in a year when any other Republican candidate would probably have been "snowed under," and became Governor seventeen years after he entered public life. He was now forty years old.

The governorship of Theodore Roosevelt was marked by a deal of fine constructive legislation and administration. But it was even more notable for the new standard which it set for the relationship in which the executive of a great State should stand to his office, to the public welfare, to private interests, and to the leaders of his party. Before Roosevelt's election there was need for a revision of the standard. In those days it was accepted as a matter of course, at least in practice, that the party boss was the overlord of the constitutional representatives of the people. Appointments were made primarily for the good of the party and only incidentally in the public interest. The welfare of the party was closely bound up with the profit of special interests, such as public service corporations and insurance companies. The prevalent condition of affairs was shrewdly summed up in a satiric paraphrase of Lincoln's conception of the American ideal: "Government of the people, by the bosses, for the special interests." The interests naturally repaid this zealous care for their well-being by contributions to the party funds.

Platt was one of the most nearly absolute party bosses that the American system of machine politics has produced. In spite of the fair warning which he had already received, both directly from Roosevelt's own words, and indirectly from his whole previous career, he was apparently surprised and unquestionably annoyed when he found that he was not to be the new Governor's master. The trouble began before Roosevelt took office. At a conference one day Platt asked Roosevelt if there were any members of the Assembly whom he would like to have assigned to special committees. Roosevelt was surprised at the question, as he had not known that the Speaker of the Assembly, who appoints the committees, had yet been agreed upon by the Assemblymen-elect. He expressed his surprise. But Mr. Platt enlightened him, saying, "Of course, whoever we choose as Speaker will agree beforehand to make the appointments we wish." Roosevelt has recorded the mental note which he thereupon made, that if they tried the same process with the Governor-elect they would find themselves mistaken. In a few days they did try it--and discovered their mistake.

Platt asked Roosevelt to come to see him. The Senator being an old and physically feeble man, Roosevelt went. Platt handed him a telegram from a certain man, accepting with pleasure his appointment as Superintendent of Public Works. This was one of the most important appointive offices in the State Administration. It was especially so at this time in view of the scandals which had arisen under the previous Administration over the Erie Canal, the most important responsibility of this department. Now, the man whom the boss had picked out was an excellent fellow, whom Roosevelt liked and whom, incidentally, he later appointed to an office which he filled in admirable fashion. But Roosevelt had no intention of having any one but himself select the members of his Administration. He said so frankly and simply. The Senator raged. He was unaccustomed to such independence of spirit. Roosevelt was courteous but firm. The irresistible force had met the immovable obstacle--and the force capitulated. The telegraphic acceptance was not accepted. The appointment was not made.

Mr. Platt was a wise man, even if he was arrogant. He knew when he had met one whom he could not drive. So he did not break with the new Governor. Roosevelt was wise, too, although he was honest. So he did not break with the "easy boss." His failure to do so was a disappointment to his impractical friends and supporters, who were more concerned with theoretical goodness than with achievement.

Roosevelt worked with Platt and the party machine whenever he could. He fought only when he must. When he fought, he won. In Senator Platt's "Autobiography", the old boss paid this tribute to the young fighter whom he had made Governor: "Roosevelt had from the first agreed that he would consult me on all questions of appointments, Legislature or party policy. He religiously fulfilled this pledge, although he frequently did just what he pleased."

One of the things that particularly grieved the theoretical idealists and the chronic objectors was the fact that Roosevelt used on occasion to take breakfast with Senator Platt. They did not seem to think it possible that a Governor could accept the hospitality of a boss without taking orders from him. But Mr. Platt knew better, if they did not. He was never under any illusions as to the extent of his influence with Roosevelt. It vanished precisely at the point where the selfish interests of the party and the wishes of the boss collided with the public welfare. The facts about the famous breakfasts are plain enough. The Governor was in Albany, the Senator in Washington. Both found it easy to get to New York on Saturday. It was natural that they should from time to time have matters to discuss for both were leaders in their party. Mr. Platt was a feeble man, who found it difficult to get about. Roosevelt was a chivalrous man, who believed that courtesy and consideration were due to age and weakness. In addition, he liked to make every minute count. So he used to go, frankly and openly, to the Senator's hotel for breakfast. He was not one of that class which he has described as composed of "solemn reformers of the tom-fool variety, who, according to their custom, paid attention to the name and not the thing." He cared only for the reality; the appearance mattered little to him.

The tom-fool reformers who criticized Roosevelt for meeting Platt at breakfast were not even good observers. If they had been, they would have realized that when Roosevelt breakfasted with Platt, it generally meant that he was trying to reconcile the Senator to something he was going to do which the worthy boss did not like. For instance, Roosevelt once wrote to Platt, who was trying to get him to promote a certain judge over the head of another judge: "There is a strong feeling among the judges and the leading members of the bar that Judge Y ought not to have Judge X jumped over his head, and I do not see my way clear to doing it. I am inclined to think that the solution I mentioned to you is the solution I shall have to adopt. Remember the breakfast at Douglas Robinson's at 8:30." It is probable that the Governor enjoyed that breakfast more than did the Senator. So it usually was with the famous breakfasts. "A series of breakfasts was always the prelude to some active warfare."

For Roosevelt and Platt still had their pitched battles. The most epic of them all was fought over the reappointment of the State Superintendent of Insurance. The incumbent was Louis F. Payn, a veteran petty boss from a country district and one of Platt's right-hand men. Roosevelt discovered that Payn had been involved in compromising relations with certain financiers in New York with whom he "did not deem it expedient that the Superintendent of Insurance, while such, should have any intimate and money-making relations." The Governor therefore decided not to reappoint him. Platt issued an ultimatum that Payn must be reappointed or he would fight. He pointed out that in case of a fight Payn would stay in anyway, since the consent of the State Senate was necessary not only to appoint a man to office but to remove him from office. The Governor replied cheerfully that he had made up his mind and that Payn would not be retained. If he could not get his successor confirmed, he would make the appointment as soon as the Legislature adjourned, and the appointment would stand at least until the Legislature met again. Platt declared in turn that Payn would be reinstated as soon as the Legislature reconvened. Roosevelt admitted the possibility, but assured his opponent that the process would be repeated as soon as that session came to an end. He added his conviction that, while he might have an uncomfortable time himself, he would guarantee that his opponents would be made more uncomfortable still. Thus the matter stood in the weeks before final action could be taken. Platt was sure that Roosevelt must yield. But once more he did not know his man. It is curious how long it takes feudal overlords to get the measure of a fearless free man.

The political power which the boss wielded was reinforced by pressure from big business interests in New York. Officials of the large insurance companies adopted resolutions asking for Payn's reappointment. But some of them privately and hastily assured the Governor that these resolutions were for public consumption only, and that they would be delighted to have Payn superseded. Roosevelt strove to make it clear again and again that he was not fighting the organization as such, and announced his readiness to appoint any one of several men who were good organization men--only he would not retain Lou Payn nor appoint any man of his type. The matter moved along to the final scene, which took place at the Union League Club in New York.

Mr. Platt's chief lieutenant asked for a meeting with the Governor. The request was granted. The emissary went over the ground thoroughly. He declared that Platt would never yield. He explained that he was certain to win the fight, and that he wished to save Roosevelt from such a lamentable disaster as the end of his political career. Roosevelt again explained at length his position. After half an hour he rose to go. The "subsequent proceedings" he described as follows:

"My visitor repeated that I had this last chance, and that ruin was ahead of me if I refused it; whereas, if I accepted, everything would be made easy. I shook my head and answered, 'There is nothing to add to what I have already said.' He responded, 'You have made up your mind?' and I said, 'I have." He then said, 'You know it means your ruin?' and I answered, 'Well, we will see about that,' and walked toward the door. He said, 'You understand, the fight will begin tomorrow and will be carried on to the bitter end.' I said, 'Yes,' and added, as I reached the door, 'Good night.' Then, as the door opened my opponent, or visitor, whichever one chooses to call him, whose face was as impassive and as inscrutable as that of Mr. John Hamlin in a poker game, said: 'Hold on! We accept. Send in so-and-so (the man I had named). The Senator is very sorry, but he will make no further opposition!" I never saw a bluff carried more resolutely through to the final limit."2

One other Homeric fight with the machine was Roosevelt's portion during his Governorship. This time it was not directly with the boss himself but with the boss's liegemen in the Legislature. But the kernel of the whole matter was the same--the selfish interests of big corporations against the public good.

In those days corporations were by common practice privileged creatures. They were accustomed to special treatment from legislatures and administrations. But when Roosevelt was elected Governor, he was determined that no corporation should get a valuable privilege from the State without paying for it. Before long he had become convinced that they ought also to pay for those which they already had, free gifts of the State in those purblind days when corporations were young and coddled. He proposed that public service corporations doing business on franchises granted by the State and by municipalities should be taxed upon the value of the privileges they enjoyed. The corporations naturally enough did not like the proposal. But it was made in no spirit or tone of antagonism to business or of demagogic outcry against those who were prosperous. All that the Governor demanded was a square deal. In his message to the Legislature, he wrote as follows:

"There is evident injustice in the light taxation of corporations. I have not the slightest sympathy with the outcry against corporations as such, or against prosperous men of business. Most of the great material works by which the entire country benefits have been due to the action of individual men, or of aggregates of men, who made money for themselves by doing that which was in the interest of the people as a whole. From an armor plant to a street railway, no work which is really beneficial to the public can be performed to the best advantage of the public save by men of such business capacity that they will not do the work unless they themselves receive ample reward for doing it. The effort to deprive them of an ample reward merely means that they will turn their energies in some other direction; and the public will be just so much the loser . . . . But while I freely admit all this, it yet remains true that a corporation which derives its powers from the State should pay to the State a just percentage of its earnings as a return for the privileges it enjoys."

This was quietly reasonable and uninflammatory doctrine. But the corporations would have none of it. The Republican machine, which had a majority in the Legislature, promptly repudiated it as well. The campaign contributions from the corporations were too precious to be jeopardized by legislation which the corporations did not want. The Governor argued, pleasantly and cheerfully. The organization balked sullenly. The corporations grinned knowingly. They had plenty of money with which to kill the bill, but they did not need to use it. The machine was working smoothly in their behalf. The bill was introduced and referred to a committee, and there it lay. No amount of argument and persuasion that the Governor could bring to bear availed to bring the bill out of hiding. So he sent in a special message, on almost the last day of the session. According to the rules of the New York Assembly, when the Governor sends in a special message on a given measure, the bill must be reported out and given consideration. But the machine was dazzled with its own arrogance. The Speaker would not have the message read. Some one actually tore it up.

This was more than a crime--it was a blunder. The wise ones in the organization realized it. They had no desire to have the Governor appeal to the people with his torn message in his hand. Roosevelt saw the error too, and laughed happily. He wrote another message and sent it over with the curt statement that, if it were not read forthwith, he would come over and read it himself. They knew that he would! So the Speaker read the message, and the bill was reported and hastily passed on the last day of the session.

Then the complacent corporations woke up. They had trusted the machine too far. What was more, they had underestimated the Governor's striking power. Now they came to him, hat in hand, and suggested some fault in the bill. He agreed with them. They asked if he would not call a special session to amend the bill. Again he agreed. The session was called, and the amendments were proposed. In addition, however, certain amendments that would have frustrated the whole purpose of the bill were suggested. The organization, still at its old tricks, tried to get back into its possession the bill already passed. But the Governor was not easily caught napping. He knew as well as they did that possession of the bill gave him the whip hand. He served notice that the second bill would contain precisely the amendments agreed upon and no others. Otherwise he would sign the first bill and let it become law, with all its imperfections on its head. Once more the organization and the corporations emulated Davy Crockett's coon and begged him not to shoot, for they would come down. The amended bill was passed and became law. But there was an epilogue to this little drama. The corporations proceeded to attack the constitutionality of the law on the ground of the very amendment for which they had so clamorously pleaded. But they failed. The Supreme Court of the United States, after Roosevelt had become President, affirmed the constitutionality of the law.

The spectacular events of Roosevelt's governorship were incidents in this conflict between two political philosophies, the one held by Platt and his tribe, the other by Roosevelt. Extracts from two letters exchanged by the Senator and the Governor bring the contrast between these philosophies into clear relief. Platt wrote as follows:

"When the subject of your nomination was under consideration, there was one matter that gave me real anxiety . . . . I had heard from a good many sources that you were a little loose on the relations of capital and labor, on trusts and combinations, and, indeed, on those numerous questions which have recently arisen in politics affecting the security of earnings and the right of a man to run his business in his own way, with due respect, of course, to the Ten Commandments and the Penal Code. Or, to get at it even more clearly, I understood from a number of business men, and among them many of your own personal friends, that you entertained various altruistic ideas, all very well in their way, but which before they could safely be put into law needed very profound consideration." 3

Roosevelt replied that he had known very well that the Senator had just these feelings about him, and then proceeded to set forth his own view of the matter. With his usual almost uncanny wisdom in human relations, he based his argument on party expediency, which he knew Platt would comprehend, rather than on abstract considerations of right and wrong, in which realm the boss would be sure to feel rather at sea. He wrote thus:

"I know that when parties divide on such issues [as Bryanism] the tendency is to force everybody into one of two camps, and to throw out entirely men like myself, who are as strongly opposed to Populism in every stage as the greatest representative of corporate wealth but who also feel strongly that many of these representatives of enormous corporate wealth have themselves been responsible for a portion of the conditions against which Bryanism is in ignorant revolt. I do not believe that it is wise or safe for us as a party to take refuge in mere negation and to say that there are no evils to be corrected. It seems to me that our attitude should be one of correcting the evils and thereby showing that whereas the Populists, Socialists, and others do not correct the evils at all, or else do so at the expense of producing others in aggravated form, on the contrary we Republicans hold the just balance and set ourselves as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other."4

This was the fight that Roosevelt was waging in every hour of his political career. It was a middle-of-the-road fight, not because of any timidity or slack-fibered thinking which prevented a committal to one extreme or the other, but because of a stern conviction that in the golden middle course was to be found truth and the right. It was an inevitable consequence that first one side and then the other--and sometimes both at once--should attack him as a champion of the other. It became a commonplace of his experience to be inveighed against by reformers as a reactionary and to be assailed by conservatives as a radical. But this paradoxical experience did not disturb him at all. He was concerned only to have the testimony of his own mind and conscience that he was right.

The contests which he had as Governor were spectacular and exhilarating; but they did not fill all the hours of his working days. A tremendous amount of spade work was actually accomplished. For example, he brought about the reenactment of the Civil Service Law, which under his predecessor had been repealed, and put through a mass of labor legislation for the betterment of conditions under which the workers carried on their daily lives. This legislation included laws to increase the number of factory inspectors, to create a tenement-house commission, to regulate sweatshop labor, to make the eight-hour and prevailing rate of wages law effective, to compel railways to equip freight trains with air brakes, to regulate the working hours of women, to protect women and children from dangerous machinery, to enforce good scaffolding provisions for workmen on buildings, to provide seats for the use of waitresses in hotels and restaurants, to reduce the hours of labor for drug-store clerks, to provide for the registration of laborers for municipal employment. He worked hard to secure an employers' liability law, but the time for this was not yet come.

Many of these reforms are now matters of course that no employer would think of attempting to eliminate. But they were new ideas then; and it took vision and courage to fight for them.

Roosevelt would have been glad to be elected Governor for a second term. But destiny, working through curious instruments, would not have it so. He left behind him in the Empire State, not only a splendid record of concrete achievement but something more than that. Jacob Riis has told how, some time after, an old State official at Albany, who had seen many Governors come and go, revealed this intangible something. Mr. Riis had said to him that he did not care much for Albany since Roosevelt had gone, and his friend replied: "Yes, we think so, many of us. The place seemed dreary when he was gone. But I know now that he left something behind that was worth our losing him to get. This past winter, for the first time, I heard the question spring up spontaneously, as it seemed, when a measure was up in the Legislature 'Is it right?' Not 'Is it expedient?' not 'How is it going to help me?' not 'What is it worth to the party?' Not any of these, but 'Is it right?' That is Roosevelt's legacy to Albany. And it was worth his coming and his going to have that."

  1. Roosevelt, Autobiography (Scribner), p. 271-72.
  2. Roosevelt, Autobiography (Scribner), p. 293-94.
  3. Roosevelt, Autobiography (Scribner), p. 299.
  4. Roosevelt, Autobiography (Scribner), p. 300.