Theodore Roosevelt & His Times by Harold HowlandA Chronicle of the Progressive Movement

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Theodore Roosevelt and His Times,
a Chronicle of the Progressive Movement

by Harold Howland





There is a line of Browning’s that should stand as epitaph for Theodore Roosevelt: “I WAS EVER A FIGHTER.” That was the essence of the man, that the keynote of his career. He met everything in life with a challenge. If it was righteous, he fought for it; if it was evil, he hurled the full weight of his finality against it. He never capitulated, never sidestepped, never fought foul. He carried the fight to the enemy.

His first fight was for health and bodily vigor. It began, at the age of nine. Physically he was a weakling, his thin and ill-developed body racked with asthma. But it was only the physical power that was wanting, never the intellectual or the spiritual. He owed to his father, the first Theodore, the wise counsel that launched him on his determined contest against ill health. On the third floor of the house on East Twentieth Street in New York where he was born, October 27, 1858, his father had constructed an outdoor gymnasium, fitted with all the usual paraphernalia. It was an impressive moment, Roosevelt used to say in later years, when his father first led him into that gymnasium and said to him, “Theodore, you have the brains, but brains are of comparatively little use without the body; you have got to make your body, and it lies with you to make it. It’s dull, hard work, but you can do it.” The boy knew that his father was right; and he set those white, powerful teeth of his and took up the drudgery of daily, monotonous exercise with bars and rings and weights. “I can see him now,” says his sister, “faithfully going through various exercises, at different times of the day, to broaden the chest narrowed by this terrible shortness of breath, to make the limbs and back strong, and able to bear the weight of what was coming to him later in life.”

All through his boyhood the young Theodore Roosevelt kept up his fight for strength. He was too delicate to attend school, and was taught by private tutors. He spent many of his summers, and sometimes some of the winter months, in the woods of Maine. These outings he thoroughly enjoyed, but it is certain that the main motive which sent him into the rough life of the woods to hunt and tramp, to paddle and row and swing an axe, was the obstinate determination to make himself physically fit.

His fight for bodily power went on through his college course at Harvard and during the years that he spent in ranch life in the West. He was always intensely interested in boxing, although he was never of anything like championship caliber in the ring. His first impulse to learn to defend himself with his hands had a characteristic birth.

During one of his periodical attacks of asthma he was sent alone to Moosehead Lake in Maine. On the stagecoach that took him the last stage of the journey he met two boys of about his own age. They quickly found, he says, in his “Autobiography”, that he was “a foreordained and predestined victim” for their rough teasing, and they “industriously proceeded to make life miserable” for their fellow traveler. At last young Roosevelt could endure their persecutions no loner, and tried to fight. Great was his discomfiture when he discovered that either of them alone could handle him “with easy contempt.” They hurt him little, but, what was doubtless far more humiliating, they prevented him from doing any damage whatever in return.

The experience taught the boy, better than any good advice could have done, that he must learn to defend himself. Since he had little natural prowess, he realized that he must supply its place by training. He secured his father’s approval for a course of boxing lessons, upon which he entered at once. He has described himself as a “painfully slow and awkward pupil,” who worked for two or three years before he made any perceptible progress.

In college Roosevelt kept at boxing practice. Even in those days no antagonist, no matter how much his superior, ever made him “quit.” In his ranching days, that training with his fists stood him in good stead. Those were still primitive days out in the Dakotas, though now, as Roosevelt has said, that land of the West has “‘gone, gone with the lost Atlantis,’ gone to the isle of ghosts and of strange dead memories.” A man needed to be able to take care of himself in that Wild West then. Roosevelt had many stirring experiences but only one that he called “serious trouble.”

He was out after lost horses and came to a primitive little hotel, consisting of a bar-room, a dining-room, a lean-to kitchen, and above a loft with fifteen or twenty beds in it. When he entered the bar-room late in the evening–it was a cold night and there was nowhere else to go–a would-be “bad man,” with a cocked revolver in each hand, was striding up and down the floor, talking with crude profanity. There were several bullet holes in the clock face, at which he had evidently been shooting. This bully greeted the newcomer as “Four Eyes,” in reference to his spectacles, and announced, “Four Eyes is going to treat.” Roosevelt joined in the laugh that followed and sat down behind the stove, thinking to escape notice. But the “bad man” followed him, and in spite of Roosevelt’s attempt to pass the matter over as a joke, stood over him, with a gun in each hand and using the foulest language. “He was foolish,” said Roosevelt, in describing the incident, “to stand so near, and moreover, his heels were closer together, so that his position was unstable.” When he repeated his demand that Four Eyes should treat, Roosevelt rose as if to comply. As he rose he struck quick and hard with his right fist just to the left side of the point of the jaw, and, as he straightened up hit with his left, and again with his right. The bully’s guns went off, whether intentionally or involuntarily no one ever knew. His head struck the corner of the bar as he fell, and he lay senseless. “When my assailant came to,” said Roosevelt, “he went down to the station and left on a freight.” It was eminently characteristic of Roosevelt that he tried his best to avoid trouble, but that, when he could not avoid it honorably, he took care to make it “serious trouble” for the other fellow.

Even after he became President, Roosevelt liked to box, until an accident, of which for many years only his intimate friends were aware, convinced him of the unwisdom of the game for a man of his age and optical disabilities. A young artillery captain, with whom he was boxing in the White House, cross-countered him on the left eye, and the blow broke the little blood-vessels. Ever afterward, the sight of that eye was dim; and, as he said, “if it had been the right eye I should have been entirely unable to shoot.” To “a mighty hunter before the Lord” like Theodore Roosevelt, such a result would have been a cardinal calamity.

By the time his experiences in the West were over, Roosevelt’s fight for health had achieved its purpose. Bill Sewall, the woodsman who had introduced the young Roosevelt to the life of the out-of-doors in Maine, and who afterward went out West with him to take up the cattle business, offers this testimony: “He went to Dakota a frail young man, suffering from asthma and stomach trouble. When he got back into the world again, he was as husky as almost any man I have ever seen who wasn’t dependent on his arms for his livelihood. He weighed one hundred and fifty pounds, and was clear bone, muscle, and grit.”

This battle won by the force of sheer determination, the young Roosevelt never ceased fighting. He knew that the man who neglects exercise and training, no matter how perfect his physical trim, is certain to “go back.” One day many years afterward on Twenty-third Street, on the way back from an Outlook editorial luncheon, I ran against his shoulder, as one often will with a companion on crowded city streets, and felt as if it were a massive oak tree into which I had bumped. Roosevelt the grown man of hardened physique was certainly a transformation from that “reed shaken with the wind” of his boyhood days.

When Theodore Roosevelt left Harvard in 1880, he plunged promptly into a new fight–in the political arena. He had no need to earn his living; his father had left him enough money to take care of that. But he had no intention or desire to live a life of leisure. He always believed that the first duty of a man was to “pull his own weight in the boat”; and his irrepressible energy demanded an outlet in hard, constructive work. So he took to politics, and as a good Republican (“at that day” he said, “a young man of my bringing up and convictions, could only join the Republican party”) he knocked at the door of the Twenty-first District Republican Association in the city of New York. His friends among the New Yorkers of cultivated taste and comfortable life disapproved of his desire to enter this new environment. They told him that politics were “low”; that the political organizations were not run by “gentlemen,” and that he would find there saloonkeepers, horse-car conductors, and similar persons, whose methods he would find rough and coarse and unpleasant. Roosevelt merely replied that, if this were the case, it was those men and not his “silk-stocking” friends who constituted the governing class–and that he intended to be one of the governing class himself. If he could not hold his own with those who were really in practical politics, he supposed he would have to quit; but he did not intend to quit without making the experiment.

At every step in his career Theodore Roosevelt made friends. He made them not “unadvisedly or lightly” but with the directness, the warmth, and the permanence that were inseparable from the Roosevelt character. One such friend he acquired at this stage of his progress. In that District Association, from which his friends had warned him away, he found a young Irishman who had been a gang leader in the rough-and-tumble politics of the East Side. Driven by the winter wind of man’s ingratitude from Tammany Hall into the ranks of the opposite party, Joe Murray was at this time one of the lesser captains in “the Twenty-first” Roosevelt soon came to like him. He was “by nature as straight a man, as fearless, and as stanchly loyal,” said Roosevelt, “as any one whom I have ever met, a man to be trusted in any position demanding courage, integrity, and good faith.” The liking was returned by the eager and belligerent young Irishman, though he has confessed that he was first led to consider Roosevelt as a political ally from the point of view of his advantages as a vote-getter.

The year after Roosevelt joined “the governing class” in Morton Hall, “a large barn-like room over a saloon,” with furniture “of the canonical kind; dingy benches, spittoons, a dais at one end with a table and chair, and a stout pitcher for iced water, and on the walls pictures of General Grant, and of Levi P. Morton,” Joe Murray was engaged in a conflict with “the boss” and wanted a candidate of his own for the Assembly. He picked out Roosevelt, because he thought that with him he would be most likely to win. Win they did; the nomination was snatched away from the boss’s man, and election followed. The defeated boss good-humoredly turned in to help elect the young silk-stocking who had been the instrument of his discomfiture.


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.


The four years after the Cleveland-Blaine campaign were divided into two parts for Roosevelt by another political experience, which also resulted in defeat. He was nominated by the Republicans and a group of independents for Mayor of New York. His two opponents were Abram S. Hewitt, a business man of standing who had been inveigled, no one knows how, into lending respectability to the Tammany ticket in a critical moment, and Henry George, the father of the Single Tax doctrine, who had been nominated by a conference of some one hundred and seventy-five labor organizations. Roosevelt fought his best on a personal platform of “no class or caste” but “honest and economical government on behalf of the general wellbeing.” But the inevitable happened. Tammany slipped in between its divided enemies and made off with the victory.

The rest of the four years he spent partly in ranch life out in the Dakotas, partly in writing history and biography at home and in travel. The life on the ranch and in the hunting camps finished the business, so resolutely begun in the outdoor gymnasium on Twentieth Street, of developing a physical equipment adequate for any call he could make upon it. This sojourn on the plains gave him, too, an intimate knowledge of the frontier type of American. Theodore Roosevelt loved his fellow men. What is more, he was always interested in them, not abstractly and in the mass, but concretely and in the individual. He believed in them. He knew their strength and their virtues, and he rejoiced in them. He realized their weaknesses and their softnesses and fought them hard. It was all this that made him the thoroughgoing democrat that he was. “The average American,” I have heard him say a hundred times to all kinds of audiences,”is a pretty good fellow, and his wife is a still better fellow.” He not only enjoyed those years in the West to the full, but he profited by them as well. They broadened and deepened his knowledge of what the American people were and meant. They made vivid to him the value of the simple, robust virtues of self-reliance, courage, self-denial, tolerance, and justice. The influence of those hard-riding years was with him as a great asset to the end of his life.

In the Presidential campaign of 1888, Roosevelt was on the firing line again, fighting for the Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison. When Mr. Harrison was elected, he would have liked to put the young campaigner into the State Department. But Mr. Blaine, who became Secretary of State, did not care to have his plain-spoken opponent and critic under him. So the President offered Roosevelt the post of Civil Service Commissioner.

The spoils system had become habitual and traditional in American public life by sixty years of practice. It had received its first high sanction in the cynical words of a New York politician, “To the victor belong the spoils.” Politicians looked upon it as a normal accompaniment of their activities. The public looked upon it with indifference. But finally a group of irrepressible reformers succeeded in getting the camel’s nose under the flap of the tent. A law was passed establishing a Commission which was to introduce the merit system. But even then neither the politicians nor the public, nor the Commission itself, took the matter very seriously. The Commission was in the habit of carrying on its functions perfunctorily and unobtrusively. But nothing could be perfunctory where Roosevelt was. He would never permit things to be done–or left undone unobtrusively, when what was needed was to obtrude the matter forcibly on the public mind. He was a profound believer in the value of publicity.

When Roosevelt became Commissioner things began swiftly to happen. He had two firm convictions: that laws were made to be enforced, in the letter and in the spirit; and that the only thing worth while in the world was to get things done. He believed with a hot conviction in decency, honesty, and efficiency in public as in private life.

For six years he fought and infused his fellow Commissioners with some of his fighting spirit. They were good men but easy-going until the right leadership came along. The first effort of the Commission under the new leadership was to secure the genuine enforcement of the law. The backbone of the merit system was the competitive examination. This was not because such examinations are the infallible way to get good public servants, but because they are the best way that has yet been devised to keep out bad public servants, selected for private reasons having nothing to do with the public welfare. The effort to make these examinations and the subsequent appointments of real service to the nation rather than to the politicians naturally brought the Commission into conflict with many men of low ideals, both in Congress and without. Roosevelt found a number of men in Congress–like Senator Lodge, Senator Davis of Minnesota, Senator Platt of Connecticut, and Congressman (afterward President) McKinley–who were sincerely and vigorously opposed to the spoils system. But there were numbers of other Senators and Congressmen who hated the whole reform–everything connected with it and everybody who championed it. “Sometimes,” Roosevelt said of these men, “to use a legal phrase, their hatred was for cause, and sometimes it was peremptory–that is, sometimes the Commission interfered with their most efficient, and incidentally most corrupt and unscrupulous supporters, and at other times, where there was no such interference, a man nevertheless had an innate dislike of anything that tended to decency in government.”

Conflict with these men was inevitable. Sometimes their opposition took the form of trying to cut down the appropriation for the Commission.

Then the Commission, on Roosevelt’s suggestion, would try the effect of holding no examinations in the districts of the Senators or Congressmen who had voted against the appropriation. The response from the districts was instantaneous. Frantic appeals came to the Commission from aspirants for office. The reply would be suave and courteous. One can imagine Roosevelt dictating it with a glint in his eye and a snap of the jaw, and when it was typed, inserting a sting in the tail in the form of an interpolated sentence in his own vigorous and rugged script. Those added sentences, without which any typewritten Roosevelt letter might almost be declared to be a forgery, so uniformly did the impulse to add them seize him, were always the most interesting feature of a communication from him. The letter would inform the protesting one that unfortunately the appropriation had been cut, so that examinations could not be held in every district, and that obviously the Commission could not neglect the districts of those Congressmen who believed in the reform and therefore in the examinations. The logical next step for the hungry aspirant was to transfer the attack to his Congressman or Senator. In the long run, by this simple device of backfiring, which may well have been a reminiscence of prairie fire days in the West, the Commission obtained enough money to carry on.

There were other forms of attack tried by the spoils-loving legislators. One was investigation by a congressional committee. But the appearance of Roosevelt before such an investigating body invariably resulted in a “bully time” for him and a peculiarly disconcerting time for his opponents.

One of the Republican floor leaders in the House in those days was Congressman Grosvenor from Ohio. In an unwary moment Mr. Grosvenor attacked the Commission on the floor of the House in picturesque fashion. Roosevelt promptly asked that Mr. Grosvenor be invited to meet him before a congressional committee which was at that moment investigating the activities of the Commission. The Congressman did not accept the invitation until he heard that Roosevelt was leaving Washington for his ranch in the West. Then he notified the committee that he would be glad to meet Commissioner Roosevelt at one of its sessions. Roosevelt immediately postponed his journey and met him. Mr. Grosvenor, says Roosevelt in his Autobiography, “proved to be a person of happily treacherous memory, so that the simple expedient of arranging his statements in pairs was sufficient to reduce him to confusion.” He declared to the committee, for instance, that he did not want to repeal the Civil Service Law and had never said so. Roosevelt produced one of Mr. Grosvenor’s speeches in which he had said, “I will not only vote to strike out this provision, but I will vote to repeal the whole law.” Grosvenor declared that there was no inconsistency between these two statements. At another point in his testimony, he asserted that a certain applicant for office, who had, as he put it, been fraudulently credited to his congressional district, had never lived in that district or in Ohio, so far as he knew. Roosevelt brought forth a letter in which the Congressman himself had categorically stated that the man in question was not only a legal resident of his district but was actually living there then. He explained, says Roosevelt, “first, that he had not written the letter; second, that he had forgotten he had written the letter; and, third, that he was grossly deceived when he wrote it.” Grosvenor at length accused Roosevelt of a lack of humor in not appreciating that his statements were made “in a jesting way,” and declared that “a Congressman making a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives was perhaps in a little different position from a witness on the witness stand.” Finally he rose with dignity and, asserting his constitutional right not to be questioned elsewhere as to what he said on the floor of the House, withdrew, leaving Roosevelt and the Committee equally delighted with the opera bouffe in which he had played the leading part.

In the Roosevelt days the Commission carried on its work, as of course it should, without thought of party. It can be imagined how it made the “good” Republicans rage when one of the results of the impartial application system was to put into office from the Southern States a hundred or two Democrats. The critics of the Commission were equally non-partisan; there was no politics in spoilsmanship. The case of Mr. Grosvenor was matched by that of Senator Gorman of Maryland, the Democratic leader in the Senate. Mr. Gorman told upon the floor of the Senate the affecting story of “a bright young man from Baltimore,” a Sunday School scholar, well recommended by his pastor, who aspired to be a letter carrier. He appeared before the Commission for examination, and, according to Mr. Gorman, he was first asked to describe the shortest route from Baltimore to China. The “bright young man” replied brightly, according to Mr. Gorman, that he didn’t want to go from Baltimore to China, and therefore had never concerned himself about the choice of routes. He was then asked, according to Mr. Gorman, all about the steamship lines from America to Europe; then came questions in geology, and finally in chemistry. The Commission thereupon turned the bright young applicant down. The Senator’s speech was masterly. It must have made the spoilsmen chuckle and the friends of civil service reform squirm. It had neither of these effects on Roosevelt. It merely exploded him into action like a finger on a hair-trigger. First of all, he set about hunting down the facts. Facts were his favorite ammunition in a fight. They have such a powerful punch. A careful investigation of all the examination papers which the Commission had set revealed not a single question like those from which the “bright young man,” according to Mr. Gorman, had suffered. So Roosevelt wrote to the Senator asking for the name of the” bright young man.” There was no response. He also asked, in case Mr. Gorman did not care to reveal his identity, the date of the examination. Still no reply. Roosevelt offered to give to any representative whom Mr. Gorman would send to the Commission’s offices all the aid he could in discovering in the files any such questions. The offer was ignored. But the Senator expressed himself as so shocked at this doubting of the word of his brilliant protege that he was unable to answer the letter at all.

Roosevelt thereupon announced publicly that no such questions had ever been asked. Mr. Gorman was gravely injured by the whole incident. Later he declared in the Senate that he had received a “very impudent letter” from the young Commissioner, and that he had been “cruelly” called to account because he had tried to right a “great wrong” which the Commission had committed. Roosevelt’s retort was to tell the whole story publicly, closing with this delightful passage:

“High-minded, sensitive Mr. Gorman. Clinging, trustful Mr. Gorman. Nothing could shake his belief in the “bright young man.” Apparently he did not even try to find out his name–if he had a name; in fact, his name like everything else about him, remains to this day wrapped in the Stygian mantle of an abysmal mystery. Still less has Mr. Gorman tried to verify the statements made to him. It is enough for him that they were made. No harsh suspicion, no stern demand for evidence or proof, appeals to his artless and unspoiled soul. He believes whatever he is told, even when he has forgotten the name of the teller, or never knew it. It would indeed be difficult to find an instance of a more abiding confidence in human nature–even in anonymous human nature. And this is the end of the tale of the Arcadian Mr. Gorman and his elusive friend, the bright young man without a name.”

Even so near the beginning of his career, Roosevelt showed himself perfectly fearless in attack. He would as soon enter the lists against a Senator as a Congressman, as soon challenge a Cabinet member as either. He did not even hesitate to make it uncomfortable for the President to whom he owed his continuance in office. His only concern was for the honor of the public service which he was in office to defend.

One day he appeared at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Civil Service Reform Association. George William Curtis was presiding, and Roosevelt’s old friend, George Haven Putnam, who tells the story, was also present. Roosevelt began by hurling a solemn but hearty imprecation at the head of the Postmaster General. He went on to explain that his explosive wrath was due to the fact that that particular gentleman was the most pernicious of all the enemies of the merit system. It was one of the functions of the Civil Service Commission, as Roosevelt saw it, to put a stop to improper political activities by Federal employees. Such activities were among the things that the Civil Service law was intended to prevent. They strengthened the hands of the political machines and the bosses, and at the same time weakened the efficiency of the service. Roosevelt had from time to time reported to the Postmaster General what some of the Post Office employees were doing in political ways to the detriment of the service. His account of what happened was this:

“I placed before the Postmaster-General sworn statements in regard to these political activities and the only reply I could secure was, ‘This is all second-hand evidence.’ Then I went up to Baltimore at the invitation of our good friend, a member of the National Committee, Charles J. Bonaparte. Bonaparte said that he could bring me into direct touch with some of the matters complained about. He took me to the primary meetings with some associate who knew by name the carriers and the customs officials. I was able to see going on the work of political assessments, and I heard the instructions given to the carriers and others in regard to the moneys that they were to collect. I got the names of some of these men recorded in my memorandum book. I then went back to Washington, swore myself in as a witness before myself as Commissioner, and sent the sworn statement to the Postmaster-General with the word, “This at least is firsthand evidence.” I still got no reply, and after waiting a few days, I put the whole material before the President with a report. This report has been pigeonholed by the President, and I have now come to New York to see what can be done to get the evidence before the public. You will understand that the head of a department, having made a report to the President, can do nothing further with the material until the President permits.”

Roosevelt went back to Washington with the sage advice to ask the Civil Service Committee of the House to call upon him to give evidence in regard to the working of the Civil Service Act. He could then get into the record his first-hand evidence as well as a general statement of the bad practices which were going on. This evidence, when printed as a report of the congressional committee, could be circulated by the Association. Roosevelt bettered the advice by asking to have the Postmaster General called before the committee at the same time as himself. This was done, but that timid politician replied to the Chairman of the committee that “he would hold himself at the service of the Committee for any date on which Mr. Roosevelt was not to be present.” The politicians with uneasy consciences were getting a little wary about face-to-face encounters with the young fighter. Nevertheless Roosevelt’s testimony was given and circulated broadcast, as Major Putnam writes, “much to the dissatisfaction of the Postmaster General and probably of the President.”

The six years which Roosevelt spent on the Civil Service Commission were for him years of splendid training in the methods and practices of political life. What he learned then stood him in good stead when he came to the Presidency. Those years of Roosevelt’s gave an impetus to the cause of civil reform which far surpassed anything it had received until his time. Indeed, it is probably not unfair to say that it has received no greater impulse since.


In 1895, at the age of thirty-six, Roosevelt was asked by Mayor Strong of New York City, who had just been elected on an anti-Tammany ticket, to become a member of his Administration. Mayor Strong wanted him for Street Cleaning Commissioner. Roosevelt definitely refused that office, on the ground that he had no special fitness for it, but accepted readily the Mayor’s subsequent proposal that he should become President of the Police Commission, knowing that there was a job that he could do.

There was plenty of work to be done in the Police Department. The conditions under which it must be done were dishearteningly unfavorable. In the first place, the whole scheme of things was wrong. The Police Department was governed by one of those bi-partisan commissions which well-meaning theorists are wont sometimes to set up when they think that the important thing in government is to have things arranged so that nobody can do anything harmful. The result often is that nobody can do anything at all. There were four Commissioners, two supposed to belong to one party and two to the other. There was also a Chief of Police, appointed by the Commission, who could not be removed without a trial subject to review by the courts. The scheme put a premium on intriguing and obstruction. It was far inferior to the present plan of a single Commissioner with full power, subject only to the Mayor who appoints him.

But there is an interesting lesson to be learned from a comparison between the New York Police Department as it is today and as it was twenty-five years ago. Then the scheme of organization was thoroughly bad–and the department was at its high-water mark of honest and effective activity. Now the scheme of organization is excellent–but the less said about the way it works the better. The answer to the riddle is this: today the New York police force is headed by Tammany; the name of the particular Tammany man who is Commissioner does not matter. In those days the head was Roosevelt.

There were many good men on the force then as now. What Roosevelt said of the men of his time is as true today: “There are no better men anywhere than the men of the New York police force; and when they go bad it is because the system is wrong, and because they are not given the chance to do the good work they can do and would rather do.” The first fight that Roosevelt found on his hands was to keep politics and every kind of favoritism absolutely out of the force. During his six years as Civil Service Commissioner he had learned much about the way to get good men into the public service. He was now able to put his own theories into practice. His method was utterly simple and incontestably right. “As far as was humanly possible, the appointments and promotions were made without regard to any question except the fitness of the man and the needs of the service.” That was all. “We paid,” he said, “not the slightest attention to a man’s politics or creed, or where he was born, so long as he was an American citizen.” But it was not easy to convince either the politicians or the public that the Commission really meant what it said. In view of the long record of unblushing corruption in connection with every activity in the Police Department, and of the existence, which was a matter of common knowledge, of a regular tariff for appointments and promotions, it is little wonder that the news that every one on, or desiring to get on, the force would have a square deal was received with scepticism. But such was the fact. Roosevelt brought the whole situation out into the open, gave the widest possible publicity to what the Commission was doing, and went hotly after any intimation of corruption.

One secret of his success here as everywhere else was that he did things himself. He knew things of his own knowledge. One evening he went down to the Bowery to speak at a branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. There he met a young Jew, named Raphael, who had recently displayed unusual courage and physical prowess in rescuing women and children from a burning building. Roosevelt suggested that he try the examination for entrance to the force. Young Raphael did so, was successful, and became a policeman of the best type. He and his family, said Roosevelt, “have been close friends of mine ever since.” Another comment which he added is delicious and illuminating: “To show our community of feeling and our grasp of the facts of life, I may mention that we were almost the only men in the Police Department who picked Fitzsimmons as a winner against Corbett.” There is doubtless much in this little incident shocking to the susceptibilities of many who would consider themselves among the “best” people. But Roosevelt would care little for that. He was a real democrat; and to his great soul there was nothing either incongruous or undesirable in having–and in admitting that he had–close friends in an East Side Jewish family just over from Russia. He believed, too, in “the strenuous life,” in boxing and in prize fighting when it was clean. He could meet a subordinate as man to man on the basis of such a personal matter as their respective judgment of two prize fighters, without relaxing in the slightest degree their official relations. He was a man of realities, who knew how to preserve the real distinctions of life without insisting on the artificial ones.

One of the best allies that Roosevelt had was Jacob A. Riis, that extraordinary man with the heart of a child, the courage of a lion, and the spirit of a crusader, who came from Denmark as an immigrant, tramped the streets of New York and the country roads without a place to lay his head, became one of the best police reporters New York ever knew, and grew to be a flaming force for righteousness in the city of his adoption. His book, “How the Other Half Lives”, did more to clean up the worst slums of the city than any other single thing. When the book appeared, Roosevelt went to Mr. Riis’s office, found him out, and left a card which said simply, “I have read your book. I have come down to help.” When Roosevelt became Police Commissioner, Riis was in the Tribune Police Bureau in Mulberry Street, opposite Police Headquarters, already a well valued friend. Roosevelt took him for guide, and together they tramped about the dark spots of the city in the night hours when the underworld slips its mask and bares its arm to strike. Roosevelt had to know for himself. He considered that he had two duties as Police Commissioner: one to make the police force an honest and effective public servant; the other to use his position “to help in making the city a better place in which to live and work for those to whom the conditions of life and labor were hardest.” These night wanderings of “Haroun al Roosevelt,” as some one successfully ticketed him in allusion to the great Caliph’s similar expeditions, were powerful aids to the tightening up of discipline and to the encouragement of good work by patrolmen and roundsmen. The unfaithful or the easy-going man on the beat, who allowed himself to be beguiled by the warmth and cheer of a saloon back-room, or to wander away from his duty for his own purposes, was likely to be confronted by the black slouch hat and the gleaming spectacles of a tough-set figure that he knew as the embodiment of relentless justice. But the faithful knew no less surely that he was their best friend and champion.

In the old days of “the system,” not only appointment to the force and promotion, but recognition of exceptional achievement went by favor. The policeman who risked his life in the pursuit of duty and accomplished some big thing against great odds could not be sure of the reward to which he was entitled unless he had political pull. It was even the rule in the Department that the officer who spoiled his uniform in rescuing man, woman, or child from the waters of the river must get a new one at his own expense. “The system” knew neither justice nor fair play. It knew nothing but the cynical phrase of Richard Croker, Tammany Hall’s famous boss, “my own pocket all the time.” But Roosevelt changed all that. He had not been in Mulberry Street a month before that despicable rule about the uniform was blotted out. His whole term of office on the Police Board was marked by acts of recognition of bravery and faithful service. Many times he had to dig the facts out for himself or ran upon them by accident. There was no practice in the Department of recording the good work done by the men on the force so that whoever would might read.

Roosevelt enjoyed this part of his task heartily. He believed vigorously in courage, hardihood, and daring. What is more, he believed with his whole soul in men. It filled him with pure joy when he discovered a man of the true stalwart breed who held his own life as nothing when his duty was at stake.

During his two years’ service, he and his fellow Commissioners singled out more than a hundred men for special mention because of some feat of heroism. Two cases which he describes in his “Autobiography” are typical of the rest. One was that of an old fellow, a veteran of the Civil War, who was a roundsman. Roosevelt noticed one day that he had saved a woman from drowning and called him before him to investigate the matter. The veteran officer was not a little nervous and agitated as he produced his record. He had grown gray in the service and had performed feat after feat of heroism; but his complete lack of political backing had kept him from further promotion. In twenty-two years on the force he had saved some twenty-five persons from drowning, to say nothing of rescuing several from burning buildings. Twice Congress had passed special acts to permit the Secretary of the Treasury to give him a medal for distinguished gallantry in saving life. He had received other medals from the Life Saving Society and from the Police Department itself. The one thing that he could not achieve was adequate promotion, although his record was spotless. When Roosevelt’s attention was attracted to him, he received his promotion then and there. “It may be worth mentioning,” says Roosevelt, “that he kept on saving life after he was given his sergeantcy.”

The other case was that of a patrolman who seemed to have fallen into the habit of catching burglars. Roosevelt noticed that he caught two in successive weeks, the second time under unusual conditions. The policeman saw the burglar emerging from a house soon after midnight and gave chase. The fugitive ran toward Park Avenue. The New York Central Railroad runs under that avenue, and there is a succession of openings in the top of the tunnel. The burglar took a desperate chance by dropping through one of the openings, at the imminent risk of breaking his neck. “Now the burglar,” says Roosevelt, “was running for his liberty, and it was the part of wisdom for him to imperil life and limb; but the policeman was merely doing his duty, and nobody could have blamed him for not taking the jump. However, he jumped; and in this particular case the hand of the Lord was heavy upon the unrighteous. The burglar had the breath knocked out of him, and the ‘cop’ didn’t. When his victim could walk, the officer trotted him around to the station house.” When Roosevelt had discovered that the patrolman’s record showed him to be sober, trustworthy, and strictly attentive to duty, he secured his promotion at once.

So the Police Commission, during those two years, under the driving force of Roosevelt’s example and spirit, went about the regeneration of the force whose former proud title of “The Finest” had been besmirched by those who should have been its champions and defenders. Politics, favoritism, and corruption were knocked out of the department with all the thoroughness that the absurd bipartisan scheme of administration would permit.

The most spectacular fight of all was against the illegal operations of the saloons. The excise law forbade the sale of liquor on Sunday. But the police, under orders from “higher up,” enforced the law with discretion. The saloons which paid blackmail, or which enjoyed the protection of some powerful Tammany chieftain, sold liquor on Sunday with impunity. Only those whose owners were recalcitrant or without influence were compelled to obey the law.

Now a goodly proportion of the population of New York, as of any great city, objects strenuously to having its personal habits interfered with by the community. This is just as true now in the days of prohibition as it was then in the days of “Sunday closing.” So when Roosevelt came into office with the simple, straightforward conviction that laws on the statute books were intended to be enforced and proceeded to close all the saloons on Sunday, the result was inevitable. The professional politicians foamed at the mouth. The yellow press shrieked and lied. The saloon-keepers and the sharers of their illicit profits wriggled and squirmed. But the saloons were closed. The law was enforced without fear or favor. The Sunday sale of liquor disappeared from the city, until a complaisant judge, ruling upon the provision of the law which permitted drink to be sold with a meal, decreed that one pretzel, even when accompanied by seventeen beers, made a “meal.” No amount of honesty and fearlessness in the enforcement of the law could prevail against such judicial aid and comfort to the cause of nullification. The main purpose of Roosevelt’s fight for Sunday closing, the stopping of blackmail, was, however, achieved. A standard of law enforcement was set which shows what can be done even with an unpopular law, and in New York City itself, if the will to deal honestly and without cowardice is there.

So the young man who was “ever a fighter” went on his way, fighting evil to the death wherever he found it, achieving results, making friends eagerly and enemies blithely, learning, broadening, growing. Already he had made a distinct impression upon his times.


>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.*

*Autobiography (Scribner), pp. 271-72.

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.”*

* Autobiography (Scribner), pp. 293-94.

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.” *

* Roosevelt, “Autobiography” (Scribner), p. 299.

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.”*

*Roosevelt, Autobiography (Scribner), p. 300.

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.”


There was chance in Theodore Roosevelt’s coming into the Presidency as he did, but there was irony as well. An evil chance dropped William McKinley before an assassin’s bullet; but there was a fitting irony in the fact that the man who must step into his place had been put where he was in large measure by the very men who would least like to see him become President.

The Republican convention of 1900 was a singularly unanimous body. President McKinley was renominated without a murmur of dissent. But there was no Vice-President to renominate, as Mr. Hobart had died in office. There was no logical candidate for the second place on the ticket. Senator Platt, however, had a man whom he wanted to get rid of, since Governor Roosevelt had made himself persona non grata alike to the machine politicians of his State and to the corporations allied with them. The Governor, however, did not propose to be disposed of so easily. His reasons were characteristic. He wrote thus to Senator Platt about the matter:

“I can’t help feeling more and more that the VicePresidency is not an office in which I could do anything and not an office in which a man who is still vigorous and not past middle life has much chance of doing anything . . . . Now, I should like to be Governor for another term, especially if we are able to take hold of the canals in serious shape. But, as Vice-President, I don’t see there is anything I can do. I would be simply a presiding officer, and that I should find a bore.”

Now Mr. Platt knew that nothing but “sidetracking” could stop another nomination of Roosevelt for the Governorship, and this Rough Rider was a thorn in his flesh. So he went on his subterranean way to have him nominated for the most innocuous political berth in the gift of the American people. He secured the cooperation of Senator Quay of Pennsylvania and another boss or two of the same indelible stripe; but all their political strength would not have accomplished the desired result without assistance from quite a different source. Roosevelt had already achieved great popularity in the Middle and the Far West for the very reasons which made Mr. Platt want him out of the way. So, while the New York boss and his acquiescent delegates were stopped from presenting his name to the convention by Roosevelt’s assurance that he would fight a l’outrance any movement from his own State to nominate him, other delegates took matters into their own hands and the nomination was finally made unanimously.

Roosevelt gave great strength to the Republican ticket in the campaign which followed. William Jennings Bryan was again the Democratic candidate, but the “paramount issue” of his campaign had changed since four years before from free silver to anti-imperialism. President McKinley, according to his custom, made no active campaign; but Bryan and Roosevelt competed with each other in whirlwind speaking tours from one end of the country to the other. The war-cry of the Republicans was the “full dinner pail”; the keynote of Bryan’s bid for popular support was opposition to the Republican policy of expansion and criticism of Republican tendencies toward plutocratic control. The success of the Republican ticket was overwhelming; McKinley and Roosevelt received nearly twice as many electoral votes as Bryan and Stevenson.

When President McKinley was shot at Buffalo six months after his second term began, it looked for a time as though he would recover. So Roosevelt, after an immediate visit to Buffalo, went to join his family in the Adirondacks. The news of the President’s impending death found him out in the wilderness on the top of Mount Tahawus, not far from the tiny Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, the source of the Hudson River. A ten-mile dash down the mountain trail, in the course of which he outstripped all his companions but one; a wild forty-mile drive through the night to the railroad, the new President and his single companion changing the horses two or three times with their own hands; a fast journey by special train across the State–and on the evening of September 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office as the twenty-sixth President of the United States.

Before taking the oath, Roosevelt announced that it would be his aim “to continue absolutely unbroken the policy of President McKinley for the peace, prosperity, and honor of our beloved country.” He immediately asked every member of the late President’s Cabinet to continue in office. The Cabinet was an excellent one, and Mr. Roosevelt found it necessary to make no other changes than those that came in the ordinary course of events. The policies were not altered in broad general outline, for Roosevelt was as stalwart a Republican as McKinley himself, and was as firmly convinced of the soundness of the fundamentals of the Republican doctrine.

But the fears of some of his friends that Roosevelt would seem, if he carried out his purpose of continuity, “a pale copy of McKinley” were not justified in the event. They should have known better. A copy of any one Roosevelt could neither be nor seem, and “pale” was the last epithet to be applied to him with justice. It could not be long before the difference in the two Administrations would appear in unmistakable terms. The one which had just passed was first of all a party Administration and secondly a McKinley Administration. The one which followed was first, last, and all the time a Roosevelt Administration. “Where Macgregor sits, there is the head of the table.” Not because Roosevelt consciously willed it so, but because the force and power and magnetism of his vigorous mind and personality inevitably made it so. McKinley had been a great harmonizer. “He oiled the machinery of government with loving and imperturbable patience,” said an observer of his time, “and the wheels ran with an ease unknown since Washington’s first term of office.” It had been a constant reproach of the critics of the former President that “his ear was always to the ground.” But he kept it there because it was his sincere conviction that it belonged there, ready to apprize him of the vibrations of the popular will. Roosevelt was the born leader with an innate instinct of command. He did not scorn or flout the popular will; he had too confirmed a conviction of the sovereign right of the people to rule for that. But he did not wait pusillanimously for the popular mind to make itself up; he had too high a conception of the duty of leadership for that. He esteemed it his peculiar function as the man entrusted by a great people with the headship of their common affairs–to lead the popular mind, to educate it, to inspire it, sometimes to run before it in action, serene in the confidence that tardy popular judgment would confirm the rightness of the deed.

By the end of Roosevelt’s first Administration two of the three groups that had taken a hand in choosing him for the Vice-Presidency were thoroughly sick of their bargain. The machine politicians and the great corporations found that their cunning plan to stifle with the wet blanket of that depressing office the fires of his moral earnestness and pugnacious honesty had overreached itself. Fate had freed him and, once freed, he was neither to hold nor to bind. It was less than two years before Wall Street was convinced that he was “unsafe,” and sadly shook its head over his “impetuosity.” When Wall Street stamps a man “unsafe,” the last word in condemnation has been said. It was an even shorter time before the politicians found him unsatisfactory. “The breach between Mr. Roosevelt and the politicians was, however, inevitable. His rigid insistence upon the maintenance and the extension of the merit system alone assured the discontent which precedes dislike,” wrote another observer. “The era of patronage mongering in the petty offices ceased suddenly, and the spoilsmen had the right to say that in this respect the policy of McKinley had not been followed.” It was true. When Roosevelt became President the civil service was thoroughly demoralized. Senators and Congressmen, by tacit agreement with the executive, used the appointing power for the payment of political debts, the reward of party services, the strengthening of their personal “fences.” But within three months it was possible to say with absolute truth that “a marvelous change has already been wrought in the morale of the civil service.” At the end of Roosevelt’s first term an unusually acute and informed foreign journalist was moved to write, “No President has so persistently eliminated politics from his nominations, none has been more unbending in making efficiency his sole test.”

There was the kernel of the whole matter: the President’s insistence upon efficiency. Roosevelt, however, did not snatch rudely away from the Congressmen and Senators the appointing power which his predecessors had allowed them gradually to usurp. He continued to consult each member of the Congress upon appointments in that member’s State or district and merely demanded that the men recommended for office should be honest, capable, and fitted for the places they were to fill.

President Roosevelt was not only ready and glad to consult with Senators but he sought and often took the advice of party leaders outside of Congress, and even took into consideration the opinions of bosses. In New York, for instance, the two Republican leaders, Governor Odell and Senator Platt, were sometimes in accord and sometimes in disagreement, but each was always desirous of being consulted. A letter written by Roosevelt in the middle of his first term to a friendly Congressman well illustrates his theory and practice in such cases:

“I want to work with Platt. I want to work with Odell. I want to support both and take the advice of both. But, of course, ultimately I must be the judge as to acting on the advice given. When, as in the case of the judgeship, I am convinced that the advice of both is wrong, I shall act as I did when I appointed Holt. When I can find a friend of Odell’s like Cooley, who is thoroughly fit for the position I desire to fill, it gives me the greatest pleasure to appoint him. When Platt proposes to me a man like Hamilton Fish, it is equally a pleasure to appoint him.”

This high-minded and common-sense course did not, however, seem to please the politicians, for dyed-in-the-wool politicians are curious persons to whom half a loaf is no consolation whatever, even when the other half of the loaf is to go to the people–without whom there would be no policies at all. Strangely enough, Roosevelt’s policy was equally displeasing to those of the doctrinaire reformer type, to whom there is no word in the language more distasteful than “politician,” unless it be the word “practical.” But there was one class to whom the results of this common-sense brand of political action were eminently satisfactory, and this class made up the third group that had a part in the selection of Theodore Roosevelt for the Vice-Presidency. The plain people, especially in the more westerly portions of the country, were increasingly delighted with the honesty, the virility, and the effectiveness of the Roosevelt Administration. Just before the convention which was to nominate Roosevelt for the Presidency to succeed himself, an editorial writer expressed the fact thus: “The people at large are not oblivious of the fact that, while others are talking and carping, Mr. Roosevelt is carrying on in the White House a persistent and never-ending moral struggle with every powerful selfish and exploiting interest in the country.”

Oblivious of it? They were acutely conscious of it. They approved of it with heartiness. They liked it so well that, when the time came to nominate and elect another President, they swept aside with a mighty rush not only the scruples and antagonisms of the Republican politicians and the “special interests” but party lines as well, and chose Roosevelt with a unanimous voice in the convention and a majority of two and a half million votes at the polls.

As President, Theodore Roosevelt achieved many concrete results. But his greatest contribution to the forward movement of the times was in the rousing of the public conscience, the strengthening of the nation’s moral purpose, and the erecting of a new standard of public service in the management of the nation’s affairs. It was no little thing that when Roosevelt was ready to hand over to another the responsibilities of his high office, James Bryce, America’s best friend and keenest student from across the seas, was able to say that in a long life, during which he had studied intimately the government of many different countries, he had never in any country seen a more eager, high-minded, and efficient set of public servants, men more useful and more creditable to their country, than the men then doing the work of the American Government in Washington and in the field.


During the times of Roosevelt, the American people were profoundly concerned with the trust problem. So was Roosevelt himself. In this important field of the relations between “big business” and the people he had a perfectly definite point of view, though he did not have a cut and dried programme. He was always more interested in a point of view than in a programme, for he realized that the one is lasting, the other shifting. He knew that if you stand on sound footing and look at a subject from the true angle, you may safely modify your plan of action as often and as rapidly as may be necessary to fit changing conditions. But if your footing is insecure or your angle of vision distorted, the most attractive programme in the world may come to ignominious disaster.

There were, broadly speaking, three attitudes toward the trust problem which were strongly held by different groups in the United States. At one extreme was the threatening growl of big business, “Let us alone!” At the other pole was the shrill outcry of William Jennings Bryan and his fellow exhorters, “Smash the trusts!” In the golden middle ground was the vigorous demand of Roosevelt for a “square deal.”

In his first message to Congress, the President set forth his point of view with frankness and clarity. His comprehensive discussion of the matter may be summarized thus: The tremendous and highly complex industrial development which went on with great rapidity during the latter half of the nineteenth century produced serious social problems. The old laws and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law were once quite sufficient to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Since the industrial changes which have so enormously increased the productive power of mankind, these regulations are no longer sufficient. The process of the creation of great corporate fortunes has aroused much antagonism; but much of this, antagonism has been without warrant. There have been, it is true, abuses connected with the accumulation of wealth; yet no fortune can be accumulated in legitimate business except by conferring immense incidental benefits upon others. The men who have driven the great railways across the continent, who have built up commerce and developed manufactures, have on the whole done great good to the people at large. Without such men the material development of which Americans are so justly proud never could have taken place. They should therefore recognize the immense importance of this material development by leaving as unhampered as is compatible with the public good the strong men upon whom the success of business inevitably rests. It cannot too often be pointed out that to strike with ignorant violence at the interests of one set of men almost inevitably endangers the interests of all. The fundamental rule in American national life is that, on the whole and in the long run, we shall all go up or down together. Many of those who have made it their vocation to denounce the great industrial combinations appeal especially to the primitive instincts of hatred and fear. These are precisely the two emotions which unfit men for cool and steady judgment. The whole history of the world shows that legislation, in facing new industrial conditions, will generally be both unwise and ineffective unless it is undertaken only after calm inquiry and with sober self-restraint.

This is one side of the picture as it was presented by the President in his message to Congress. It was characteristic that this aspect should be put first, for Roosevelt always insisted upon doing justice to the other side before he demanded justice for his own. But he then proceeded to set forth the other side with equal vigor: There is a widespread conviction in the minds of the American people that the great corporations are in certain of their features and tendencies hurtful to the general welfare. It is true that real and grave evils have arisen, one of the chief of them being overcapitalization, with its many baleful consequences. This state of affairs demands that combination and concentration in business should be, not prohibited, but supervised and controlled. Corporations engaged in interstate commerce should be regulated if they are found to exercise a license working to the public injury. The first essential in determining how to deal with the great industrial combinations is knowledge of the facts. This is to be obtained only through publicity, which is the one sure remedy we can now invoke before it can be determined what further remedies are needed. Corporations should be subject to proper governmental supervision, and full and accurate information as to their operations should be made public at regular intervals. The nation should assume powers of supervision and regulation over all corporations doing an interstate business. This is especially true where the corporation derives a portion of its wealth from the existence of some monopolistic element or tendency in its business. The Federal Government should regulate the activities of corporations doing an interstate business, just as it regulates the activities of national banks, and, through the Interstate Commerce Commission, the operations of the railroads.

Roosevelt was destined, however, not to achieve the full measure of national control of corporations that he desired. The elements opposed to his view were too powerful. There was a fortuitous involuntary partnership though it was not admitted and was even violently denied between the advocates of “Let us alone!” and of “Smash the trusts!” against the champion of the middle way. In his “Autobiography” Roosevelt has described this situation:

“One of the main troubles was the fact that the men who saw the evils and who tried to remedy them attempted to work in two wholly different ways, and the great majority of them in a way that offered little promise of real betterment. They tried (by the Sherman law method) to bolster up an individualism already proved to be both futile and mischievous; to remedy by more individualism the concentration that was the inevitable result of the already existing individualism. They saw the evil done by the big combinations, and sought to remedy it by destroying them and restoring the country to the economic conditions of the middle of the nineteenth century. This was a hopeless effort, and those who went into it, although they regarded themselves as radical progressives, really represented a form of sincere rural toryism. They confounded monopolies with big business combinations, and in the effort to prohibit both alike, instead of where possible prohibiting one and drastically controlling the other, they succeeded merely in preventing any effective control of either.

“On the other hand, a few men recognized that corporations and combinations had become indispensable in the business world, that it was folly to try to prohibit them, but that it was also folly to leave them without thoroughgoing control. These men realized that the doctrine of the old laissez faire economists, of the believers in unlimited competition, unlimited individualism, were, in the actual state of affairs, false and mischievous. They realized that the Government must now interfere to protect labor, to subordinate the big corporation to the public welfare, and to shackle cunning and fraud exactly as centuries before it had interfered to shackle the physical force which does wrong by violence. The big reactionaries of the business world and their allies and instruments among politicians and newspaper editors took advantage of this division of opinion, and especially of the fact that most of their opponents were on the wrong path; and fought to keep matters absolutely unchanged. These men demanded for themselves an immunity from government control which, if granted, would have been as wicked and as foolish as immunity to the barons of the twelfth century. Many of them were evil men. Many others were just as good men as were some of these same barons; but they were as utterly unable as any medieval castle-owner to understand what the public interest really was. There have been aristocracies which have played a great and beneficent part at stages in the growth of mankind; but we had come to a stage where for our people what was needed was a real democracy; and of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.”*

* Autobiography (Scribner), pp. 424-25.

When Roosevelt became President, there were three directions in which energy needed to be applied to the solution of the trust problem: in the more vigorous enforcement of the laws already on the statute books; in the enactment of necessary new laws on various phases of the subject; and in the arousing of an intelligent and militant public opinion in relation to the whole question. To each of these purposes the new President applied himself with characteristic vigor.

The Sherman Anti-Trust law, which had already been on the Federal statute books for eleven years, forbade “combinations in restraint of trade” in the field of interstate commerce. During three administrations, eighteen actions had been brought by the Government for its enforcement. At the opening of the twentieth century it was a grave question whether the Sherman law was of any real efficacy in preventing the evils that arose from unregulated combination in business. A decision of the United States Supreme Court, rendered in 1895 in the so-called Knight case, against the American Sugar Refining Company, had, in the general belief, taken the teeth out of the Sherman law. In the words of Mr. Taft, “The effect of the decision in the Knight case upon the popular mind, and indeed upon Congress as well, was to discourage hope that the statute could be used to accomplish its manifest purpose and curb the great industrial trusts which, by the acquisition of all or a large percentage of the plants engaged in the manufacture of a commodity, by the dismantling of some and regulating the output of others, were making every effort to restrict production, control prices, and monopolize the business.” It was obviously necessary that the Sherman act, unless it were to pass into innocuous desuetude, should have the original vigor intended by Congress restored to it by a new interpretation of the law on the part of the Supreme Court. Fortunately an opportunity for such a change presented itself with promptness. A small group of powerful financiers had arranged to take control of practically the entire system of railways in the Northwest, “possibly,” Roosevelt has said, “as the first step toward controlling the entire railway system of the country.” They had brought this about by organizing the Northern Securities Company to hold the majority of the stock of two competing railways, the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific. At the direction of President Roosevelt, suit was brought by the Government to prevent the merger. The defendants relied for protection upon the immunity afforded by the decision in the Knight case. But the Supreme Court now took more advanced ground, decreed that the Northern Securities Company was an illegal combination, and ordered its dissolution.