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The Cyclone Assemblyman
When Theodore Roosevelt—Harvard-educated, dandified, and just twenty-three—arrived in Albany as an assemblyman in 1882, the oldpols dismissed him as a “Punkin-Lily,”and worse. They were in for a shock.
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
The complex character and the extraordinary capacities of Theodore Roosevelt have attracted biographers and readers ever since his death sixty years ago. But according to Edmund Morris, Roosevelt’spre-presidential career has escaped the full scrutiny of historians. In an absorbing new biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris helps fill that gap. A Kenyan by birth, Morris is now an American citizen, and this is his first book. It will be published later this month by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. The following excerpt tells the story of the twenty-three-year-old Roosevelt, exploding onto the political stage in his first public role, as a newly elected Republican state assemblyman from New York.
Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Albany in seventeen-degree weather, late on the afternoon of Monday, January 2, 1882. His wife, Alice, had gone to Montreal with a party of friends and would not be joining him for another two weeks. They could look for lodgings then. In the meantime he checked into the Delavan House, a rambling old inn with whistly radiators, immediately opposite the railroad station. Apart from the fact that it was conveniently located, and boasted one of the few good restaurants in town, the Delavan was honeycombed with seedy private rooms, of the kind that politicians love to fill with smoke; hence it functioned as unofficial headquarters of both Republicans and Democrats during the legislative season.
The Assembly was not due to open until the following morning, but Roosevelt had been asked to attend a preliminary caucus of Republicans in the Capitol that evening, for the purpose of nominating their candidate for Speaker. He thus had only an hour or two to unpack, change, and walk up State Street to the Capitol.
To say that Theodore Roosevelt made a vivid first impression upon his colleagues would hardly be an exaggeration. From the moment that he appeared in the caucus room, there was a chorus of incredulous and delighted comment. Memories of his entrance, transcribed many years later, vary as to time and place, but all share the common image of a young man bursting through a door and pausing for an instant while all eyes were upon him- an actor’s trick that quickly became habitual. This gave his audience time to absorb the full brilliancy of his Savile Row clothes and furnishings. The recollections of one John Walsh may be taken as typical: “Suddenly our eyes, and those of everybody on the floor, became glued on a young man who was coming in through the door. His hair was parted in the center, and he had sideburns. He wore a single eye-glass, with a gold chain over his ear. He had on a cutaway coat with one button at the top, and the ends of its tails almost reached the tops of his shoes. He carried a gold-headed cane in one hand, a silk hat in the other, and he walked in the bent-over fashion that was the style with the young men of the day. His trousers were as tight as a tailor could make them, and he had a bellshaped bottom to cover his shoes. ‘Who’s the dude?’ I asked another member, while the same question was being put in a dozen different parts of the hall. ‘That’s Theodore Roosevelt of New York he answered.”
Notwithstanding this ready identification, the newcomer quickly became known as “Oscar Wilde,” after the famous literary fop who, coincidentally, had arrived in America earlier the same day. At twenty-three, Roosevelt was the youngest man in the Legislature, conspicuous not only for his boyishness but, according to a New York Sun reporter, for his “elastic movements, voluminous laughter, and wealth of mouth.” Other, more bitter epithets were to follow in the months ahead, as Roosevelt proved himself to be something of an angrily buzzing fly in the Republican ointment. “Young Squirt,” “Weakling,” “Punkin-Lily,” and “JaneDandy” were some of the milder ones. “He is just a damn fool,” growled old Tom Alvord, who had been Speaker of the House the day Roosevelt was born. Nominated again for Speaker that night, Alvord cynically assessed Republican strength in the House as “sixty and one-half members.”
Roosevelt had plenty of epithets of his own, and began to record them in a private legislative diary immediately after the January 2 caucus. At first they were merely superficial, revealing him to be as class conscious as his detractors, but as time went by, and the shabbiness of New York State politics dawned on him, his pen jabbed the paper with increasing fury.
“There are some twenty-five Irish Democrats in the House,” wrote the young Knickerbocker, “all either immigrants or the sons of emigrants [ sic ].... They are a stupid, sodden, vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brains and virtue.” Eight Tammany Hall Democrats, representing the machine element, drew his especial contempt, being “totally unable to speak with even an approximation to good grammar; not even one of them can string three intelligible sentences together to save his neck.” Roosevelt’s bête noire (and the feeling was cordially reciprocated) was “a gentleman named MacManus, a huge, fleshy, unutterably coarse and low brute, who was formerly a prize fighter, at present keeps a low drinking and dancing saloon, and is more than suspected of having begun his life as a pickpocket.”