Chronicles of America 

In the New York Assembly

Roosevelt was twice reelected to the Assembly, the second time in 1883, a year when a Republican success was an outstanding exception to the general course of events in the State. His career at Albany was marked by a series of fights for decency and honesty. Each new contest showed him a fearless antagonist, a hard hitter, and a man of practical common sense and growing political wisdom. Those were the days of the famous "black horse cavalry" in the New York Legislature--a group of men whose votes could always be counted on by the special interests and those corporations whose managers proceeded on the theory that the way to get the legislation they wanted, or to block the legislation they did not want, was to buy the necessary votes. Perhaps one-third of the members of the Legislature, according to Roosevelt's estimate, were purchasable. Others were timid. Others again were either stupid or honestly so convinced of the importance of "business" to the general welfare that they were blind to corporate faults. But Theodore Roosevelt was neither purchasable, nor timid, nor unable to distinguish between the legitimate requirements of business and its unjustifiable demands. He developed as a natural leader of the honest opposition to the "black horse cavalry."

The situation was complicated by what were known as "strike bills." These were bills which, if passed, might or might not have been in the public interest, but would certainly have been highly embarrassing to the private interests involved. The purpose of their introduction was, of course, to compel the corporations to pay bribes to ensure their defeat. Roosevelt had one interesting and illuminating experience with the "black horse cavalry." He was Chairman of the Committee on Cities. The representatives of one of the great railways brought to him a bill to permit the extension of its terminal facilities in one of the big cities of the State, and asked him to take charge of it. Roosevelt looked into the proposed bill and found that it was a measure that ought to be passed quite as much in the public interest as is the interest of the railroad. He agreed to stand sponsor for the bill, provided he were assured that no money would be used to push it. The assurance was given. When the bill came before his committee for consideration, Roosevelt found that he could not get it reported out either favorably or unfavorably. So he decided to force matters. In accordance with his life-long practice, he went into the decisive committee meeting perfectly sure what he was going to do, and otherwise fully prepared.

There was a broken chair in the room, and when he took his seat a leg of that chair was unobtrusively ready to his hand. He moved that the bill be reported favorably.

The gang, without debate, voted "No." He moved that it be reported unfavorably. Again the gang voted "No." Then he put the bill in his pocket and announced that he proposed to report it anyhow. There was almost a riot. He was warned that his conduct would be exposed on the floor of the Assembly. He replied that in that case he would explain publicly in the Assembly the reasons which made him believe that the rest of the committee were trying, from motives of blackmail, to prevent any report of the bill. The bill was reported without further protest, and the threatened riot did not come off, partly, said Roosevelt, "because of the opportune production of the chair-leg." But the young fighter found that he was no farther along: the bill slumbered soundly on the calendar, and nothing that he could do availed to secure consideration of it. At last the representative of the railroad suggested that some older and more experienced leader might be able to get the bill passed where he had failed. Roosevelt could do nothing but assent. The bill was put in charge of an "old Parliamentary hand," and after a decent lapse of time, went through without opposition. The complete change of heart on the part of the black horsemen under the new leadership was vastly significant. Nothing could be proved; but much could be surmised.

Another incident of Roosevelt's legislative career reveals the bull-dog tenacity of the man. Evidence had been procured that a State judge had been guilty of improper, if not of corrupt, relations with certain corporate interests. This judge had held court in a room of one of the "big business" leaders of that time. He had written in a letter to this financier, "I am willing to go to the very verge of judicial discretion to serve your vast interests." There was strong evidence that he had not stopped at the verge. The blood of the young Roosevelt boiled at the thought of this stain on the judicial ermine. His party elders sought patronizingly to reassure him; but he would have none of it. He rose in the Assembly and demanded the impeachment of the unworthy judge. With perfect candor and the naked vigor that in the years to come was to become known the world around he said precisely what he meant. Under the genial sardonic advice of the veteran Republican leader, who "wished to give young Mr. Roosevelt time to think about the wisdom of his course," the Assembly voted not to take up his "loose charges." It looked like ignominious defeat. But the next day the young firebrand was back to the attack again, and the next day, and the next. For eight days he kept up the fight; each day the reputation of this contest for a forlorn hope grew and spread throughout the State. On the eighth day he demanded that the resolution be voted on again, and the opposition collapsed. Only six votes were cast against his motion. It is true that the investigation ended in a coat of whitewash. But the evidence was so strong that no one could be in doubt that it WAS whitewash. The young legislator, whose party mentors had seen before him nothing but a ruined career, had won a smashing moral victory.

Roosevelt was not only a fighter from his first day in public life to the last, but he was a fighter always against the same evils. Two incidents more than a quarter of a century apart illustrate this fact. A bill was introduced in the Assembly in those earlier days to prohibit the manufacture of cigars in tenement houses in New York City. It was proposed by the Cigar-Makers' Union. Roosevelt was appointed one of a committee of three to investigate the subject. Of the other two members, one did not believe in the bill but confessed privately that he must support it because the labor unions were strong in his district. The other, with equal frankness, confessed that he had to oppose the bill because certain interests who had a strong hold upon him disapproved it, but declared his belief that if Roosevelt would look into the matter he would find that the proposed legislation was good. Politics, and politicians, were like that in those days--as perhaps they still are in these. The young aristocrat, who was fast becoming a stalwart and aggressive democrat, expected to find himself against the bill; for, as he has said, the "respectable people" and the "business men" whom he knew did not believe in such intrusions upon the right even of workingmen to do what they would with their own. The laissez faire doctrine of economic life was good form in those days.

But the only member of that committee that approached the question with an open mind found that his first impressions were wrong. He went down into the tenement houses to see for himself. He found cigars being made under conditions that were appalling. For example, he discovered an apartment of one room in which three men, two women, and several children--the members of two families and a male boarder--ate, slept, lived, and made cigars. "The tobacco was stowed about everywhere, alongside the foul bedding, and in a corner where there were scraps of food." These conditions were not exceptional; they were only a little worse than was usual.

Roosevelt did not oppose the bill; he fought for it and it passed. Then he appeared before Governor Cleveland to argue for it on behalf of the Cigar-Makers' Union. The Governor hesitated, but finally signed it. The Court of Appeals declared it unconstitutional, in a smug and well-fed decision, which spoke unctuously of the "hallowed" influences of the "home." It was a wicked decision, because it was purely academic, and was removed as far as the fixed stars from the actual facts of life. But it had one good result. It began the making of Theodore Roosevelt into a champion of social justice, for, as he himself said, it was this case which first waked him "to a dim and partial understanding of the fact that the courts were not necessarily the best judges of what should be done to better social and industrial conditions."

When, a quarter, of a century later, Roosevelt left the Presidency and became Contributing Editor of The Outlook, almost his first contribution to that journal was entitled "A Judicial Experience." It told the story of this law and its annullment by the court. Mr. William Travers Jerome wrote a letter to The Outlook, taking Roosevelt sharply to task for his criticism of the court. It fell to the happy lot of the writer as a cub editor to reply editorially to Mr. Jerome. I did so with gusto and with particularity. As Mr. Roosevelt left the office on his way to the steamer that was to take him to Africa to hunt non-political big game, he said to me, who had seen him only once before: "That was bully. You have done just what my Cabinet members used to do for me in Washington. When a question rose that demanded action, I used to act. Then I would tell Root or Taft to find out and tell me why what I had done was legal and justified. Well done, coworker." Is it any wonder that Theodore Roosevelt had made in that moment another ardent supporter?

Those first years in the political arena were not only a fighting time, they were a formative time. The young Roosevelt had to discover a philosophy of political action which would satisfy him. He speedily found one that suited his temperament and his keen sense of reality. He found no reason to depart from it to the day of his death. Long afterward he told his good friend Jacob Riis how he arrived at it. This was the way of it:

"I suppose 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 didn'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 haven'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 doesn'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."

From the moment that he had learned this valuable lesson--and Roosevelt never needed to learn a lesson twice--he had his course in public life marked out before him. He believed ardently in getting things done. He was no theoretical reformer. He would never take the wrong road; but, if he could not go as far as he wanted to along the right road, he would go as far as he could, and bide his time for the rest. He would not compromise a hair's breadth on a principle; he would compromise cheerfully on a method which did not mean surrender of the principle. He perceived that there were in political life many bad men who were thoroughly efficient and many good men who would have liked to accomplish high results but who were thoroughly inefficient. He realized that if he wished to accomplish anything for the country his business was to combine decency and efficiency; to be a thoroughly practical man of high ideals who did his best to reduce those ideals to actual practice. This was the choice that he made in those first days, the companionable road of practical idealism rather than the isolated peak of idealistic ineffectiveness.

A hard test of his political philosophy came in 1884 just after he had left the Legislature. He was selected as one of the four delegates at large from New York to the Republican National Convention. There he advocated vigorously the nomination of Senator George F. Edmunds for the Presidency. But the more popular candidate with the delegates was James G. Blaine. Roosevelt did not believe in Blaine, who was a politician of the professional type and who had a reputation that was not immaculate. The better element among the delegates fought hard against Blaine's nomination, with Roosevelt wherever the blows were shrewdest. But their efforts were of no avail. Too many party hacks had come to the Convention, determined to nominate Blaine, and they put the slate through with a whoop.

Then, every Republican in active politics who was anything but a rubber stamp politician had a difficult problem to face. Should he support Blaine, in whom he could have no confidence and for whom he could have no respect, or should he "bolt"? A large group decided to bolt. They organized the Mugwump party--the epithet was flung at them with no friendly intent by Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun, but they made of it an honorable title--under the leadership of George William Curtis and Carl Schurz. Their announced purpose was to defeat the Republicans, from whose ranks they had seceded, and in this attempt they were successful.

Roosevelt, however, made the opposite decision. Indeed, he had made the decision before he entered the Convention. It was characteristic of him not to wait until the choice was upon him but to look ahead and make up his mind just which course he would take if and when a certain contingency arose. I remember that once in the later days at Oyster Bay he said to me, "They say I am impulsive. It isn't true. The fact is that on all the important things that may come up for decision in my life, I have thought the thing out in advance and know what I will do. So when the moment comes, I don't have to stop to work it out then. My decision is already made. I have only to put it into action. It looks like impulsiveness. It is nothing of the sort."

So, in 1884, when Roosevelt met his first problem in national politics, he already knew what he would do. He would support Blaine, for he was a party man. The decision wounded many of his friends. But it was the natural result of his political philosophy. He believed in political parties as instruments for securing the translation into action of the popular will. He perceived that the party system, as distinguished from the group system of the continental peoples, was the Anglo-Saxon, the American way of doing things. He wanted to get things done. There was only one thing that he valued more than achievement and that was the right. Therefore, until it became a clean issue between right and wrong, he would stick to the instrument which seemed to him the most efficient for getting things done. So he stuck to his party, in spite of his distaste for its candidate, and saw it go down in defeat.

Roosevelt never changed his mind about this important matter. He was a party man to the end. In 1912 he left his old party on what he believed to be--and what was--a naked moral issue. But he did not become an independent. He created a new party.