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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 effect of this speech, said Isaac Hunt, was “powerful, wonderful.” Such brutally direct language, such courageous naming of names, had not been heard in Albany for decades. What was more, Roosevelt’s accusations were obviously based on solid research. If a vote had been held there and then, the resolution undoubtedly would have been approved. But Tom Alvord was already on his feet, displaying remarkable agility for a man of seventy years. With gnarled hands knotted on a cane, and his head swaying slowly from side to side, the ex-Speaker suggested that “the young man from New York” needed time to reflect and reconsider. How many bright legislative careers had been ruined, in this very chamber, by just such irresponsible allegations as these! Why, he himself, when young and foolish, had been tempted to do the same; fortunately, he had refrained. The characters of public men were “too precious” to be lightly assailed....
The grandfatherly voice droned on, while the minute hand of the clock crept inexorably toward twelve. At five minutes before the hour Roosevelt asked if the gentleman would “give way for a motion to extend the time.” Alvord’s reaction was savage. “No,” he shouted, “I will not give way! I want this thing over and give the members time to consider it!” He continued to maunder on; the clock chimed; the gavel dropped; Roosevelt’s resolution returned to the table. Alvord limped out in triumph. “That dude,” he snorted. “The damn fool, he would tread on his own balls just as quick as he would on his neighbor’s.”
That evening the caverns of the Delavan House hummed with discussion of Roosevelt’s speech, while reporters dashed off the news for the next day’s front pages. “Mr. Roosevelt’s charges,” wrote the Sun correspondent, “were made with a boldness that was almost startling.” George Spinney of the New York Times complimented him on his “most refreshing habit of calling men and things by their right names,” and predicted “a splendid career” for the young reformer. The World man, mindful of the fact that his newspaper was owned by Jay Gould, was openly contemptuous. “The son of Mr. Theodore Roosevelt ought to have learned, even at this early period of his life, the difference between a call for a legislative committee of investigation and a stump speech.”
Overnight, both Republican and Democratic machines whirred into silent, efficient action. A secret messenger from Tammany Hall came hurrying up on the late train; groups of veteran members worked out a strategy to block the “obnoxious resolution”; Jay Gould’s representatives in Albany began to lobby behind closed doors.
Next morning, Thursday, Roosevelt called for a vote to lift his resolution from the table, and was again outwitted on the floor. The Speaker, taking advantage of the fact that he had forgotten to say what kind of vote he wanted, merely suggested that members stand up and be counted. A sea of anonymous heads bobbed quickly up and down; the deputy clerk pretended to count them, recorded a couple of imaginary figures, and the Speaker announced the result: 54 to 50 against. “By Godfrey!” Roosevelt seethed. “I’ll get them on the record yet!”
He waited until much later in the day, when the House was drowsing over unimportant business. This time he demanded a name vote. Forced to identify themselves.the members voted 59 to 45 in favor of considering the resolution. Roosevelt was still short of the two-thirds majority he needed to launch an investigation of Westbrook and Ward, but time, and public opinion, was on his side. Tomorrow, Good Friday, was the beginning of the Easter recess; during the long weekend, newspapers would continue to discuss his “bombshell” resolution; and by the time the Assembly reconvened on Monday evening, members would have heard from their constituents.
The forces of corruption, meanwhile, were very anxious that Roosevelt’s constituents—the wealthiest and most respectable in the state—should hear something about him . Since the young man was maddeningly immune to coercion and bribery, they tried to blackmail him with sex. Walking home to 6 West Fifty-seventh Street one night, he was startled to see a woman slip and fall on the sidewalk in front of him. He summoned a cab, whereupon she tearfully begged him to accompany her home; but he grew suspicious, and refused. As he paid the cab driver, he took note of the address she gave, and immediately afterward dispatched a police detective to her house. The report came back that there had been “a whole lot of men waiting to spring on him.”