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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
Certainly the young assemblyman did not lack for friendly warnings in the days that followed. His own uncle took him to lunch and condescendingly remarked that he had “done well” at Albany so far. It was a good thing to have dabbled in reform, but “now was the time to leave politics and identify … with the right kind of people.” Roosevelt asked if that meant he was to yield to “the ring” in public life. His uncle replied irritably that there would always be an “inner circle” of corporate executives, politicians, lawyers, and judges to “control others and obtain the real rewards.” Roosevelt, aware that he was aiming a youthful sling at just such a combination of Goliaths, never forgot that remark. “It was the first glimpse I had of that combination between business and politics which I was in after years so often to oppose.”
Then, on Wednesday, April 5, Roosevelt surprised the Assembly by demanding that debate on the Westbrook Resolution begin immediately. He made his motion less than half an hour before adjournment, at a time when most of the Black Horse Calvary had gone forth in search of Albany ale. “No! No!” shouted old Tom Alvord, as the House voted in favor. Having thus won the floor, Roosevelt launched into the first major speech of his career.
“Mr. Speaker, I have introduced these resolutions fully aware that it was an exceedingly important and serious task I was undertaking, and fully aware that it would need proofs to substantiate before I would have a right to ask the gentlemen of this House to pass these resolutions … I make them on specific charges....
“The men who were mainly concerned in this fraud are known throughout New York as men whose financial dishonesty is a matter of common notoriety. I make that statement deliberately; that the three or four wealthy stock gamblers who are interested in those roads were men who could barely be trusted in financial operations by any reputable businessman.”
Just in case anybody wondered who he was referring to, Roosevelt loudly identified Jay Gould and his associates by name, describing them as “sharks” and “swindlers.” The House, aghast at such blasphemy against the gods of capitalism, fell absolutely silent. The only sounds in the chamber were Roosevelt’s straining voice, and the rhythmic smack of right fist into left palm. “A suit was brought in May last, I think, by the Attorney General against the Manhattan Elevated Railroad … declaring the corporation to be illegal. Without any reason he suddenly discontinues this suit, and after two days brings another merely declaring that it was insolvent.... It was an absolute wrong against the interests of the people for the Attorney General to change his suits, and at the same time to allow any set of wealthy swindlers to escape the consequences of their misdeeds.”
So much for the executive branch of government. With barely a pause for breath, Roosevelt now turned his wrath on the judiciary. “Judge Westbrook’s share in the transaction did not come until about June 13, when the suit was brought before him. He then expressed in his opinion strongly and emphatically that it was a swindle from the beginning … [yet] the judge appointed as receivers two men, one of whom was the vice president of the Wabash Railroad, of which Jay Gould was president, and who was reputed to be Mr. Gould’s clerk; the other was one of Gould’s lawyers.... These two receivers ought never to have been appointed by any judge who cared for the purity of the office which he filled.
”… On the 21st of October the judge [again] declared, in a speech, that the corporation was a swindle—declared it emphatically, without any reserve. Four days later, he does not write, but telegraphs, an order allowing the road to go out of the hands of the receivers … into the hands of the swindlers.... The judge twice held court in Gould’s office … once in a private bedroom.... All his decisions were rendered in favor of a company which was not only insolvent, but was notoriously a fraud, and had been pronounced so by proper judicial authority.”
The great clock of the Assembly told Roosevelt that fifteen minutes still remained until adjournment. With luck, those few of his opponents who were present would be unable to fill that time with reasonable debate; if so, his resolution might be approved by the stunned and silent majority. Sensing that he had the votes already, Roosevelt wound up with a rather lame attempt to be humble. “It was a matter of great astonishment to me that during the three months that have elapsed [since] the Times’ exposé, an investigation has not been asked. I was aware that it ought to have been done by a man of more experience than myself, but as nobody else chose to demand it I certainly would, in the interest of the Commonwealth of New York.... I hope my resolution will prevail.”