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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
Chair legs were of no use in the larger context of the Assembly. Soon, to quote one newspaper, “all the hungry legislators were clamoring for their share of the pie,” and Roosevelt found himself wholly unable to push the bill any further. He received a humiliating second visit from the railroad lobbyists, who suggested that some “older and more experienced” assemblyman might succeed where he had failed. The bill was accordingly taken out of his hands; within two weeks it received the unanimous approval of the House and became law. Roosevelt was well aware that its passage had been bought, and there was little he could do but fume against “the supine indifference of the community to legislative wrongdoing.”
This bitter experience made Roosevelt act with unwonted caution when his services as a crusader were next called upon. Late in March, Isaac Hunt, who had been investigating the suspicious insolvency of a number of New York insurance companies, approached him with what seemed like evidence of judicial corruption at the highest level. The receivers of the companies, said Hunt, were milking them of hundreds of thousands of dollars in unwarranted fees and expenses. In every case, the order allowing such payments had been issued by State Supreme Court Justice T. R. Westbrook. Further investigation revealed that Westbrook’s son and cousin were employed by one of the receivers, and that at least $15,000 had already been paid to them. “We ought to pitch into this judge,” said Hunt.
Roosevelt was noncommittal, saying merely that it was “a serious matter” to undertake the impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice. Yet apparently the name “Westbrook” stirred something in his retentive memory. On December 27,1881, the New York Times had run a story on the acquisition of the giant Manhattan Elevated Railroad by Jay Gould, accusing him of a campaign to depress its stocks before purchase. From start to finish, Roosevelt recalled, the transaction had been presided over by this same Judge Westbrook.
A few days later “a thin, anemiclooking, energetic young man” visited the city desk of the New York Times and subjected the editor there to a barrage of questions about the Gould-Westbrook affair. He asked permission to examine documents in the Times morgue, and pored over them for hours. Still not satisfied, Roosevelt took the editor and the documents home to 6 West Fifty-seventh Street and continued his questioning there until three in the morning. The more he probed the sequence of events, the more suspicious he became of the cast of characters. About a year before, State Attorney General Hamilton Ward had sued the Manhattan Elevated as an illegal, fraudulent corporation, and then, reversing himself, merely accused it of insolvency. Judge Westbrook, while publicly agreeing with the former suit, had privately ruled in favor of the latter. Holding court in a variety of eccentric locales, including the attorney general’s bedroom at the Delavan House, he appointed receivers already on Jay Gould’s payroll. Finally, when the stock of the railroad had plummeted by 95 percent, Judge Westbrook suddenly declared the company solvent again, and handed it over to Gould. Most damning of all, in Roosevelt’s eyes, was an unpublished letter the judge had written the financier, with the remarkable sentence, “I am willing to go to the very verge of judicial discretion to protect your vast interests.”
Returning to Albany on March 28, Roosevelt told Hunt that he had decided on a resolution demanding the investigation, not only of Judge Westbrook, but of Attorney General Ward as well. “I’ll offer it tomorrow.”
When the familiar, piping call of “Mister Spee-kar!” disturbed the peace of the Assembly chamber the next day, most of Roosevelt’s colleagues assumed that he was rising, as usual, on some exasperating point of order or personal privilege. But the first few words of his resolution quickly shocked them into attention: ” Whereas , charges have been made from time to time by the public press against the late Attorney General, Hamilton Ward, and T. R. Westbrook, a Justice of the Supreme Court of this State, on account of their official conduct in relation to suits brought against the Manhattan Railway, and Whereas , these charges have, in the opinion of many persons, never been explained nor fairly refuted … therefore Resolved, That the Judiciary Committee be … empowered and directed to investigate their conduct … and report at the earliest day practicable to this Legislature.”
His words reverberated “like the bursting of a bombshell,” said Isaac Hunt forty years later, still awed by Roosevelt’s courage. But the echoes had scarcely died before a member of the Black Horse Cavalry rose to announce he would debate the resolution. This was a ploy for time, since the rules required that a debatable resolution be tabled, along with all other pending legislation, to remain in the general pile until somebody remembered to resurrect it. In the meantime, Roosevelt could doubtless be bullied or bribed.