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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 complex character and the extraordinary capacities of Theodore Roosevelt have attracted biographers and readers ever since his death sixty years ago. But according to Edmund Morris, Roosevelt’spre-presidential career has escaped the full scrutiny of historians. In an absorbing new biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris helps fill that gap. A Kenyan by birth, Morris is now an American citizen, and this is his first book. It will be published later this month by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. The following excerpt tells the story of the twenty-three-year-old Roosevelt, exploding onto the political stage in his first public role, as a newly elected Republican state assemblyman from New York.
Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Albany in seventeen-degree weather, late on the afternoon of Monday, January 2, 1882. His wife, Alice, had gone to Montreal with a party of friends and would not be joining him for another two weeks. They could look for lodgings then. In the meantime he checked into the Delavan House, a rambling old inn with whistly radiators, immediately opposite the railroad station. Apart from the fact that it was conveniently located, and boasted one of the few good restaurants in town, the Delavan was honeycombed with seedy private rooms, of the kind that politicians love to fill with smoke; hence it functioned as unofficial headquarters of both Republicans and Democrats during the legislative season.
The Assembly was not due to open until the following morning, but Roosevelt had been asked to attend a preliminary caucus of Republicans in the Capitol that evening, for the purpose of nominating their candidate for Speaker. He thus had only an hour or two to unpack, change, and walk up State Street to the Capitol.
To say that Theodore Roosevelt made a vivid first impression upon his colleagues would hardly be an exaggeration. From the moment that he appeared in the caucus room, there was a chorus of incredulous and delighted comment. Memories of his entrance, transcribed many years later, vary as to time and place, but all share the common image of a young man bursting through a door and pausing for an instant while all eyes were upon him- an actor’s trick that quickly became habitual. This gave his audience time to absorb the full brilliancy of his Savile Row clothes and furnishings. The recollections of one John Walsh may be taken as typical: “Suddenly our eyes, and those of everybody on the floor, became glued on a young man who was coming in through the door. His hair was parted in the center, and he had sideburns. He wore a single eye-glass, with a gold chain over his ear. He had on a cutaway coat with one button at the top, and the ends of its tails almost reached the tops of his shoes. He carried a gold-headed cane in one hand, a silk hat in the other, and he walked in the bent-over fashion that was the style with the young men of the day. His trousers were as tight as a tailor could make them, and he had a bellshaped bottom to cover his shoes. ‘Who’s the dude?’ I asked another member, while the same question was being put in a dozen different parts of the hall. ‘That’s Theodore Roosevelt of New York he answered.”
Notwithstanding this ready identification, the newcomer quickly became known as “Oscar Wilde,” after the famous literary fop who, coincidentally, had arrived in America earlier the same day. At twenty-three, Roosevelt was the youngest man in the Legislature, conspicuous not only for his boyishness but, according to a New York Sun reporter, for his “elastic movements, voluminous laughter, and wealth of mouth.” Other, more bitter epithets were to follow in the months ahead, as Roosevelt proved himself to be something of an angrily buzzing fly in the Republican ointment. “Young Squirt,” “Weakling,” “Punkin-Lily,” and “JaneDandy” were some of the milder ones. “He is just a damn fool,” growled old Tom Alvord, who had been Speaker of the House the day Roosevelt was born. Nominated again for Speaker that night, Alvord cynically assessed Republican strength in the House as “sixty and one-half members.”
Roosevelt had plenty of epithets of his own, and began to record them in a private legislative diary immediately after the January 2 caucus. At first they were merely superficial, revealing him to be as class conscious as his detractors, but as time went by, and the shabbiness of New York State politics dawned on him, his pen jabbed the paper with increasing fury.
“There are some twenty-five Irish Democrats in the House,” wrote the young Knickerbocker, “all either immigrants or the sons of emigrants [ sic ].... They are a stupid, sodden, vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brains and virtue.” Eight Tammany Hall Democrats, representing the machine element, drew his especial contempt, being “totally unable to speak with even an approximation to good grammar; not even one of them can string three intelligible sentences together to save his neck.” Roosevelt’s bête noire (and the feeling was cordially reciprocated) was “a gentleman named MacManus, a huge, fleshy, unutterably coarse and low brute, who was formerly a prize fighter, at present keeps a low drinking and dancing saloon, and is more than suspected of having begun his life as a pickpocket.”
He was hardly less severe on members of his own party. Ex-Speaker Alvord he instantly dismissed as “a bad old fellow … corrupt.” Another colleague was “smooth, oily, plausible and tricky”; yet another was “entirely unprincipled, with the same idea of Public Life and Civil Service that a vulture has of a dead sheep.” His contempt dwindled reciprocally according to the idealism and independence of the younger members—in other words, those most like himself. Although they could be counted on the fingers of one hand, Roosevelt instinctively sought them out. One in particular caught his eye: “a tall, thin, melancholy country lawyer from Jefferson, thoroughly upright and honest, and a man of some parts.”
The melancholy youth’s name was Isaac Hunt. He, too, was serving his first term in the Assembly. But the two freshmen did not get to meet for several days, owing to a strange state of political paralysis in the House. The situation was succinctly summarized in Roosevelt’s diary of January 3: “The Legislature has assembled in full force: 128 Assemblymen, containing 61 Republicans in their ranks, and 8 Tammany men among the 67 Democrats. Tammany thus holds the balance of power, and as the split between her and the regular Democracy is very bitter, a long deadlock is promised us.”
His forecast proved correct. The very first piece of business before the House—electing a new Speaker—was stalled by Tammany members, who refused to give their crucial block of votes to either of the major party nominees. Thus each candidate was kept just short of the sixty-four votes required to win. Clearly the holdouts hoped that one side or the other eventually would make a deal with them, and that the elected Speaker would reward Tammany with some plum committee jobs. Until then, with nobody in the Chair, there could be no parliamentary procedure, and hence no legislation.
For the first week in Albany, Roosevelt had nothing to do except trudge daily up State Street and answer the roll call in the Assembly chamber. Then, there being no further business, he would trudge back to the Delavan House and meditate on the “stupid and monotonous” work of politics. Albany was an unattractive place to be bored in: a little Dutch burg , rather the worse for industry, separated from New York by 145 miles of chilly river valley. Back home, in Manhattan, the social season was at its height, and Fifth Avenue was alive with the sounds of witty conversation and ballroom music. Here it was so quiet at night that the only sound in the streets was the clicking of telephone wires. There were, of course, several “disorderly houses” for the convenience of legislators, but such places revolted him. To vent his surplus energy, he went for long walks around town, but the local air was insalubrious, even to a man with healthy lungs. Depending on the vagaries of the breeze, his nostrils were saluted with the sour effluvia of twenty breweries, choking fumes from the Coal Tar and Dye Chemical Works, and brackish smells from the river. Only on rare occasions did chill, pure Canadian air find its way down from the north, bringing with it the piny scent of lumberyards.
Escaping to New York for his first weekend proved recuperative, and Roosevelt bounced back to Albany on Monday, January 9, in high good humor. There was another Republican caucus that night, and although it dealt with the less than fascinating subject of the appointment of Assembly clerks, Roosevelt conscientiously attended. This time he was in even greater sartorial splendor, having dined out beforehand. Isaac Hunt, the melancholy member from Jefferson County, was standing by the fireplace in the committee room when “in bolted Teddy … as if ejected from a catapult.”
Deliberately selecting the most prominent position in the room—directly in front of the chairman Roosevelt sat down, “grinned and giggled,” and pulled off his ulster. Underneath he was in full evening dress, with gold fob and chain. At the first opportunity he jumped to his feet and addressed the meeting in the affected drawl of Harvard and Fifth Avenue. “We almost shouted with laughter,” Hunt remembered, “to think that the most veritable representative of the New York dude had come to the Chamber.” But as Roosevelt continued to speak, “our attention was drawn upon what he had to say because there was a force in his remarks … it mollified somewhat his unusual appearance.”
Roosevelt was about to sit down again when he caught sight of Hunt by the fireplace. Instantly he made his way over to him. Hunt, too, as it happened, was rather overdressed; he was sensitive about his rural background, and had invested in a custom-made Prince Albert coat by way of disguise. He might as well have saved his money. “You,” shrilled Roosevelt triumphantly, “are from the country!” Hunt had no chance to recover from this sally (apparently intended as a compliment), and Roosevelt, without pausing for breath, began to interrogate him on provincial politics. For the rest of that evening he pumped Hunt dry of “all the details of how we got along, how we managed our affairs, and how we ran caucuses, and how we got our conventions, and how we did everything in the country.” Roosevelt’s usual practice, after such an interview, was to discard his victim like a well-sucked orange, but something about the young lawyer appealed to him. Hunt, in turn, was charmed, and at the end of the caucus the two assemblymen parted “fast friends.” Roosevelt had recruited his first legislative ally.
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....”
A newspaperman was struck by Roosevelt’s “novel way of inflating his lungs.” Between phrases he would open his mouth in a convulsive gasp, dragging the air in by main force. Clearly his asthma was troubling him. At times the slight stammer that friends had noticed at Harvard intruded, and his teeth would knock together as the words fought their way out. “He spoke as if he had an impediment in his speech,” said Hunt. “He would open his mouth and run out his tongue … but what he said was all right.”
Roosevelt continued, “As things are today in New York there are two branches of Jeffersonian Democrats.... Neither of these alone can carry the State against the Republicans.... I do not think they can fairly expect us to join with either section. This is purely a struggle between themselves, and it should be allowed to continue as long as they please. We have no interest in helping one section against the other; combined they have the majority and let them make all they can out of it!” At this, there were some scattered bursts of applause, and Roosevelt began to relax. “While in New York I talked with several gentlemen who have large commercial interests at stake, and they do not seem to care whether the deadlock is broken or not. In fact they seem rather relieved! And if we do no business till Februray 15th, I think the voters of the State will worry along through without it.”
Having said his piece, he abruptly sat down, and was inundated with “many hearty congratulations from the older members.” Among these, to his intense amusement, were several representatives of Tammany Hall, who apparently thought he had been speaking on their behalf. That night the Evening Post reported that he had made “a very favorable impression,” an opinion that Roosevelt himself modestly shared. He was less nattered with the Sun ’s characterization of him next morning as “a blond young man with eyeglasses, English sidewhiskers, and a Dundreary drawl.” The paper noted sarcastically that Roosevelt’s “maiden effort as an orator” had been applauded by his political opponents; there was a reference to his “quaint” pronunciation of the words “r-a-w-t-h-e-r r-e-l-i-e-v-e-d.”
Nevertheless the speech was successful. Roosevelt’s advice was accepted by his party, and the deadlock continued.
Early in February the Tammany holdouts finally gave in, and Charles Patterson, Democratic candidate for Speaker, was elected. Announcing his committees on February 14, Patterson awarded Roosevelt a coveted position, on the Cities Committee. “Just where I wished to be,” the young Republican exulted. He was not charmed, however, with his mostly Democratic companions on the committee, one of whom was Big John MacManus. “Altogether the Committee is just about as bad as it could possibly be,” he decided, with the wisdom of his twenty-three years. “Most of the members are positively corrupt, and the others are really singularly incompetent.”
Roosevelt lost no time in making his presence felt on the floor of the House. Within forty-eight hours of his committee appointment he had introduced four bills: one to purify New York’s water supply, another to purify its election of aldermen, a third to cancel all stocks and bonds in the city’s “sinking fund,” and a fourth to lighten the judicial burden on the court of appeals. The fact that only one of these—the Aldermanic Bill—ever achieved passage, and in a severely modified form, did not discourage him: he obviously wanted to create the image of a knight in shining armor opposing the Black Horse Cavalry, his term for machine politicians.
As such, he attracted to his banner a tiny group of independent freshman Republicans, like Isaac Hunt and “Billy” O’Neil, who shared his crusading instincts but lacked his flamboyance. The group’s efforts were given wide coverage by George Spinney, legislative correspondent of the New York Times, the first of many thousands of journalists to discover that Roosevelt made marvelous copy. The young reformers supplied their leader with research into suspicious legislation, advised him on correct parliamentary procedure (never his strong point), and attempted to suppress his more embarrassing displays of righteousness. Roosevelt’s ebullience was amusingly recalled forty years later by Hunt, in an interview with the worshipful Roosevelt biographer, Hermann Hagedorn:
HAGEDORN: He was cool, was he?
HUNT: No, he was just like a Jack coming out of the box; there wasn’t anything cool about him. He yelled and pounded his desk, and when they attacked him, he would fire back with all the venom imaginary. In those days he had no discretion at all. He was the most indiscreet guy I ever met. … Billy O’Neil and I used to sit on his coat-tails. Billy O’Neil would say to him, “What do you want to do that for, you damn fool, you will ruin yourself and everybody else!”
HAGEDORN: … He must have been an entertaining person to have around.
HUNT: He was a perfect nuisance in that House, sir!
Roosevelt’s behavior on the floor, to say nothing of his high voice and Harvard accent, exasperated the more dignified members of his party. When wishing to obtain the attention of the Chair, he would pipe, “Mister Spee-kar! Mister Spee-kar!” and lean so far across his desk as to be in danger of falling over it. Should Patterson affect not to hear, he would march down the aisle with “menacing forefinger” and continue yelling, “Mister Spee-kar!”—for forty minutes, if necessary—until he was recognized.
By the third week of the session proper—his eighth in Albany—Roosevelt had put on a considerable amount of political weight. Actually this weight was an illusion, caused by the delicate balance of power in the House; but he did not hesitate to throw it around. On February 21 he again rose to protest a suggested deal with the opposite side, confident “that enough Independent Republicans would act with me to insure the defeat of the scheme by ‘bolting’ if necessary.” His senior colleagues were aware of this, and the matter was hastily referred to a party caucus that evening. For the next eight hours Roosevelt was beseiged by deputations promising him rich rewards if he would withdraw his objections. “I politely but sweetly and firmly declined.”
At the caucus a machine Republican spoke eloquently on behalf of the deal. It involved an alliance with the Tammany members (breathing vengeance, now, upon the regular Democrats for denying them committee seats) to take away the Speaker’s power of appointment. But this Roosevelt considered to be constitutionally irresponsible and politically demeaning. “As no one seemed disposed to take up the cudgels, I responded, and pitched into him mercilessly and we had rather a fiery dialogue.” Again the young man was successful: his objections were upheld by a narrow vote.
Next morning Roosevelt woke to find himself, if not famous, at least the hero of some liberal newspapers. “Rarely in the history of legislation here,” declared the New York Herald, “has the moral force of individual honor and political honesty been more forcibly displayed.” Privately Roosevelt could take pride in the fact that he had managed to impose his will on his party, without embarrassing it on the floor of the House. “I hate to bolt if I can help it,” he informed his diary.
The tempo of legislation picked up, and the young reformer became aware of the full extent of corruption in New York State politics. About a third of the entire Legislature was venal, Roosevelt calculated. He was shocked to see members of the Black Horse Cavalry openly trading in the lobbies with corporate backers, and he paid particular attention to the bills they were bribed to sponsor—bills worded so ambiguously as to deceive well-meaning legislators.
But for every such bill there were at least ten whose corruptive power was all but impossible to monitor in advance. These “strike” bills were introduced to restrict, not favor, corporations. They seemed to be in the public interest, and redounded greatly to the credit of their sponsors—who, as Roosevelt succinctly put it, “had not the slightest intention of passing them, but who wished to be paid not to pass them.” In other words blackmail, not bribery, was the principal form of corruption in the Assembly.
Roosevelt was confronted with a prime example of such legislation early in March. Representatives of the Manhattan Elevated Railroad asked him to sponsor a bill granting their corporation monopolistic control over the construction of terminal facilities in New York City. Since the sums involved in such construction were huge, the lobbyists said they were “well aware that it was the kind of bill that lent itself to blackmail,” and looked to Roosevelt to ensure that it was voted upon honestly. The young assemblyman scrutinized it carefully. He found that the bill was “an absolute necessity” and agreed to sponsor it, on condition that “nothing improper” was done on its behalf.
No sooner had the bill come up before the Cities Committee, of which Roosevelt was then acting chairman, than corrupt members, scenting the spoils of blackmail, combined to delay its progress. Exasperated, Roosevelt decided to force it through. Since the spoilsmen included Big John MacManus and J.J. Costello, he was aware that something more than parliamentary skill might be required. “There was a broken chair in the room, and I got a leg of it loose and put it down beside me where it was not visible, but where I might get at it in a hurry if necessary. I moved that the bill be reported favorably. This was voted down without debate by the ‘combine’some of whom kept a wooden stolidity of look, while others leered at me with sneering insolence. I then moved that it be reported unfavorably, and again the motion was voted down by the same majority and in the same fashion. I then put the bill in my pocket and announced that I would report it anyhow. This almost precipitated a riot, especially when I explained … that I suspected that the men holding up all report of the bill were holding it up for purposes of blackmail. The riot did not come off; partly, I think, because the opportune production of the chair-leg had a sedative effect, and partly owing to wise counsels from one or two of my opponents.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
The Judiciary Committee did not conclude its investigation of Westbrook and Ward until May 30,1882, a few days before the legislative session ended. Although the committee’s reports were not due to be made public until noon on May 31, rumors began to circulate, in the small hours of the morning, that the majority was prepared to recommend impeachment. Roosevelt and Hunt took a straw poll of their colleagues around 3:00 A.M. , which indicated that the Assembly would accept this recommendation; yet even at so late an hour, “mysterious influences” were working against them. There was a frantic burst of last-minute bribery, and, one assemblyman later recalled, three pivotal members of the committee agreed to withdraw their signatures from the majority report, to the tune of $2,500 each. (One later estimate put Jay Gould’s total expenses during the Westbrook affair at “a cool million dollars.”) Thus, in the nine hours preceding the committee’s reports to the House, its majority for impeachment was changed to a majority against. The chairman conceded that Judge Westbrook had occasionally been “indiscreet and unwise,” but said that he was merely guilty of “excessive zeal” in trying to save the Manhattan Elevated from destruction.
During the reading of this report, Roosevelt twisted and turned in impotent wrath. At the first opportunity he jumped to his feet and urged the House not to accept it. Observers were impressed to note that he kept his temper well in check, speaking slowly and clearly in a trembling voice; but his choice of words was vituperative. “You cannot by your votes clear the Judge… you cannot cleanse the leper. Beware lest you taint yourself with his leprosy!” During the long and dramatic debate that followed, he lost control of himself only once, when a speaker referred to him as “the reputed father” of the Westbrook Resolution. “Does the gentleman mean to say,” yelled Roosevelt, “that the resolution is a bastard?” His anger was to no avail, and the House accepted the committee’s findings by a vote of 77 to 35.
Two days later, on June 2, what a New York Times reporter labeled “the most corrupt Assembly since the days of Boss Tweed” went out of existence. Roosevelt took a rueful farewell of Isaac Hunt, Billy O’Neil, and his other legislative friends, and caught the 7:00 P.M. train to New York, where Alice had already preceded him. Interviewed at Grand Central, he agreed that the session had been a bad one for the Republican party. “There seem to have been no leaders ,” he said thoughtfully.
Reviewing the session at leisure that summer, Roosevelt had little to regret, and much to look forward to. True, Westbrook and Ward had slipped through his fingers at the last moment, but their “coarse moral fiber” had been exposed, and his political reputation made. Republican newspapers were loud in his praise, and at least one national magazine, Harper’s, had congratulated him on “public service worthy of high commendation.” Less than two years out of college, still five months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, he was already a powerful man. “fr