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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
That Easter weekend, which saw admiring articles on Roosevelt’s Westbrook Resolution appear in newspapers from Montauk to Buffalo, was sufficient to make his name a household word across New York State. At a time of growing disenchantment with the Republican party (now widely believed to be controlled by men like Jay Gould) he leaped into the headlines, passionate and incorruptible, a defender of the people against the unholy alliance of politics, big business, and the bench. Particularly adoring were wealthy young liberals, such as his former classmates at Harvard and Columbia. “We hailed him as the dawn of a new era,” wrote Poultney Bigelow, “the man of good family once more in the political arena; the college-bred tribune superior to the temptations which beset meaner men. ‘Teddy,’ as we called him, was our ideal.”
When Roosevelt again moved to lift his resolution from the table, on April 12, public demand for an investigation of Westbrook and Ward was such that the Assembly voted 104 to 6 in its favor. Prominent among the holdouts were J. J. Costello and old Tom Alvord, the latter predicting darkly that certain “gentlemen who had gone after wool would come back shorn.” But Roosevelt, whatever the outcome of the investigation, had already scored a major political triumph. As the Judiciary Committee hearings got under way, his personality visibly expanded. The crudely fermenting energy of his early days in Albany sweetened into a bubbling joie de vivre that vented itself in exuberant slammings of doors, gallopings up stairs, and shouts of laughter, audible, according to George Spinney, at least four miles away. His hunger for knowledge on all subjects grew to the point that after every Rooseveltian breakfast, hotel waiters had to clear away piles of ravaged newspapers “as high as the table.” A reporter who sat nearby recalled that he read these newspapers at a speed “that would have excited the jealousy of the most rapid exchange editor.” Yet at the same time he kept up a “running conversation” with all and sundry. “Roosevelt saw everything, grasped the sense of everything, and formed an opinion on everything which he was eager to maintain at any risk.”
Like a child, said Isaac Hunt, the young assemblyman took on “new strength and new ideas … he would leave Albany Friday afternoon, and he would come back Monday night, and you could see changes that had happened to him.... He took on strength, just like that … such a superabundance of animal life was hardly ever condensed in a human [being].”
What “use” Roosevelt actually was to the world became a matter of some debate as the months went by. Not for nothing was he known as the “Cyclone Assemblyman,” being primarily a destructive force in the House. Indeed he seemed better at scattering the legislation of other men than whipping up any of his own. Although he continued to talk loudly of “moral duty,” his scruples, were usually economic. “Mr. Roosevelt … had been a watchdog over New York’s treasury,” the Tribune reported cautiously halfway through the session. Two months later, after one Rooseveltian measure (the Aldermanic Bill) finally achieved passage, the same newspaper was downright snide. “This is the only bill that Mr. Roosevelt has succeeded in passing through the Legislature; but as he has killed four score bills that would have taken money out of the treasury of New York, he is probably satisfied with his record.”
Particularly surprising, in view of Roosevelt’s later renown as the most labor-minded of Presidents, was his attitude toward social legislation. It was so harsh that even the loyal Hunt and O’Neil voted against him on occasion. For instance, he vigorously protested a proposal to fix the minimum wage for municipal laborers at two dollars a day. “Why, Mr. Speaker, this bill will impose an expenditure of thousands of dollars upon the City of New York!” He also fought against raising the inadequate salaries of firemen and policemen. When somebody suggested that such people should at least have parity with civil service workers who got more and lived less dangerously, his response was facetious. “Just because we cannot stop all the large leaks, that is no reason why we should open up all the little ones.” Only seven other members agreed with this argument, and the bill was passed overwhelmingly.
He even opposed a bill that sought to abolish the private manufacture of cigars in immigrant tenements—an abuse that turned slummy apartments into even slummier “factories.” But in this case Roosevelt proved he was not inflexible: a tour of some of the tenements involved revealed such horrors of dirt and overcrowding that he promptly came out in favor of the measure. “As a matter of practical common sense,” he afterward wrote, “I could not conscientiously vote for the continuation of the conditions which I saw.”