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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
For the next five weeks there was nothing substantial to be allied against. The deadlock over electing a Speaker seemed unresolvable. Roosevelt continued to vent his impatience with vitriolic diary entries and walks that ranged farther and farther out of Albany. He persuaded his new friend “Ike” to join him on one of these excursions. The long-legged lawyer came back so exhausted he “couldn’t speak hardly above a whisper,” and went straight to bed. When Roosevelt suggested another tramp, Hunt begged off. “One dose is sufficient for me.”
On the second weekend of the session, Roosevelt went to Boston to pick up “the little pink wife,” as he was wont to call her. They chose rooms together in a residential hotel on the corner of Eagle and State streets, just across the square from the Capitol. Isaac Hunt lodged there, too, and so saw much of both of them. “She was a very charming woman … tall, willowy-looking. I was very much taken with her.”
Some of the older members, meanwhile, had decided they were rather less taken with Roosevelt. As the deadlock dragged on, time hung heavy on their hands, and they began to treat him like “a boy in a strange school.” Chief among the bullies was “Big John” MacManus, the ex-prize fighter and Tammany lieutenant whom Roosevelt had so contemptuously characterized in his diary. One day MacManus proposed to toss “that damned dude” in a blanket, for reasons having vaguely to do with the Rooseveltian side-whiskers. Fortunately the dude got advance warning. His feelings, with Alice newly installed in Albany, may well be imagined. Marching straight up to MacManus, who towered over him like a giant, he hissed, “By God! MacManus, I hear you are going to toss me in a blanket. By God! If you try anything like that, I’ll kick you, I’ll bite you, I’ll kick you in the balls, I’ll do anything to you—you’d better leave me alone.” This astonishing speech had the desired effect.
There was a second ugly incident, which proved once and for all that Roosevelt was not to be trifled with. Sporting a cane, dogskin gloves, and the style of short pea jacket popularly known in England as a “bum-freezer,” he was walking along Washington Avenue with William O’Neil, another young assemblyman who had impressed him. They stopped at a saloon for refreshments, and were confronted by the tall figure of J.J. Costello, one of the Tammany members, and “a thorough-faced scoundrel” as far as Roosevelt was concerned. Some insult to do with the pea jacket (legend quotes it as “Won’t Mama’s boy catch cold?”) caused Roosevelt to flare up. “Teddy knocked him down,” recalled Hunt admiringly, “and he got up and he hit him again, and when he got up he hit him again, and he said, ‘Now you go over there and wash yourself. When you are in the presence of gentlemen, conduct yourself like a gentleman.’ ” He then disdainfully bought Costello a glass of beer, and made him drink it. “I’m not going to have an Irishman or anybody else insult me,” Roosevelt said later, still bristling.
Now that he and Alice were cosily settled in Albany “with our books and everything,” his impatience over the deadlock on electing a new Speaker dwindled. It occurred to him that, on the whole, the situation was politically profitable. Since only the infighting of Tammany Hall and regular Democrats prevented the election of a Speaker, nobody could blame the Republicans for holding up legislation. The longer the deadlock persisted, he reasoned, the better his party would look, and the more likely its chances of winning a majority in the next election. Soon he had an opportunity to present this view in the Assembly chamber. A well-meaning colleague was suggesting that the minority compromise with the majority, and so overwhelm the maverick vote of Tammany Hall. Roosevelt leaped up in silent protest, and the clerk, acting in lieu of a Speaker, recognized him for the first time.
Never has a future President made his maiden speech in surroundings as sumptuous as those framing Theodore Roosevelt on that afternoon of January 24,1882. Since its completion only three years before, the New York State Assembly chamber had been acclaimed as the most magnificent legislative hall in the world. “What a great thing to have done in this country!” John Hay had marveled, gazing up at the fabulous vaulted ceiling, a dizzy canopy of vermilion and blue and gold, cleft by ribs of soaring stone. Fifty feet above Roosevelt’s head, as he prepared to speak, hung a three-ton ring of granite, keystone of the largest groined arch ever built. Behind him, on the north wall, loomed a vast allegorical mural by William Morris Hunt. Its theme, The Flight of Evil Before Good, was of a kind to appeal to the young assemblyman.
Roosevelt’s words were, in contrast to this majestic auditorium, deliberately informal, even prosaic. He did not forget that his audience consisted largely of farmers, liquor sellers, bricklayers, butchers, tobacconists, pawnbrokers, compositors, and carpenters. His voice was thin and squeaky as he struggled against the chamber’s notorious acoustics, and a general hum of bored conversation.
“It has been said that if the Democrats do not organize the House speedily the Republicans will interfere and perfect the organization. I should very much doubt the expediency of doing this at present....”