« PreviousContinue »
in every essential act Roosevelt's public life from that day till his death was the unfolding of the principles of justice, truth, right, mercy, love and a courageous warfare against wrong, which he laid down as a chart in his speech that night.
Politics in New York have always been corrupt enough, but they were singularly so when young Roosevelt entered the fight for the Legislature. Not only the conventions of Tammany Hall, but of the Republicans as well, were held over saloons, and the saloonkeepers, as a rule, were the political bosses and very often political candidates. Young Roosevelt was told by his rich neighbors that politics were so rotten that he could not afford to spoil himself in a political canvass; that the Republican leaders were saloonkeepers, street car drivers and the like; and his reply was, "If you men of education, culture, wealth and religious professions have no more interest in your own government than to let such men rule you, you deserve to be misruled and are largely responsible before God and man for the corruption of the city politics."
The leaders took the young candidate into the saloon neighborhood of the East Side to confer with the boys. Valentine Young, a saloonkeeper, said, "Mr. Roosevelt, if you are elected, we liquor dealers will expect you to do fairly by us." He answered promptly, "If I am elected, I expect to deal fairly with all my constituents." The man said, "Our license is too high, and we expect if you are elected that you will reduce it considerably." He said, "My friend, your license is far too low, and if I am elected you may expect me to use my influence in raising it." Jake Hess and Joe Murray drew him one side and told him he had better go back on Fifth Avenue and take care of the
rich crowd up there. He did stir the highbrows in the millionaire district. The richest men in the city turned out and canvassed for him; his sister, Mrs. Douglas Robinson, folded ballots for him; her husband paid $2.00 for a table on which were placed campaign literature and ballots. Dean Van Amrige of Columbia headed a band of college students who worked like beavers until the poles were closed. Young Roosevelt was elected and took his seat as the youngest member of the Legislature, as he was later the youngest President of the United States.
Elected as a Republican, he was a member of the minority in the Assembly and unknown politically. His first speech, however, made a sensation. His opportunity came when a fellow Assemblyman made a speech in which he dealt with many historical facts. Roosevelt's speech, although impromptu, showed such knowledge of these facts and such a grasp of the subject that he was widely complimented by opponents and supporters. His rise in rank in the Assembly was startlingly rapid. The second year of his membership he was the Republican candidate for Speaker. It was a Democratic house, but the honor was, nevertheless, a great one for a young man, and on its account he was made floor leader. In his third year as an Assemblyman he was put at the head of the important Committee of Cities, having proved his thorough knowledge of municipal affairs.
During his term in the Legislature, he interested himself in tenement house reform. His father had been the champion of the poor people of the East Side, especially the neglected children of that district. He himself knew the uncomfortable and unhealthy tenement houses that existed in such large numbers. As an Assemblyman, he went down into those dis
tricts and saw what was necessary and introduced a bill, which was passed, but which was declared by the courts to be unconstitutional. He had the privilege afterward, however, while a member of the health board and police commissioner of New York, to effect many of the reforms which he had proposed while he was a member of the Assembly.
As the chairman of the important committee on cities he instituted an investigation of the municipal administration of New York, which was called the "Roosevelt Committee." In that investigation one of the officers on the witness stand could not remember whether the expenses in the campaign were over or under fifty thousand dollars. A little item like that had entirely escaped his memory. Another officer admitted that he made legally eighty thousand dollars a year. Assemblyman Roosevelt introduced measures which put a stop to all of these excessively high salaries and made uncomfortable the use of such slush funds in political campaigns by either party.
One of the great sources of evil in New York City was the power of confirmation the Board of Aldermen had over the Mayor's appointments, rendering a good Mayor who wanted to do right, powerless in the hands of a Tammany Board of Aldermen, which seemed to continue from year to year. Assemblyman Roosevelt secured the passage of a bill that stopped that source of evil.
Young Roosevelt was re-elected to the Legislature of 1883 and re-elected again to that of 1884. During these three years he was consistent with himself, and with the Roosevelt of history, in fighting fearlessly every wrong, at whatever cost, and in maintaining everything he considered to be right.
Perhaps the most spectacular event during his three
years in the Legislature was his fight for the impeachment of a prominent judge. One of the corrupt combinations which had largely controlled the Legislature under both parties, backed an attempt of one of the elevated railroads to rob the State through vile legislation. They were aided not only by certain members of the Legislature, but by Republican and Democratic leaders. And the judiciary was also involved in the charges of corruption. A prosecuting attorney and a corrupt Supreme Court judge were under deep suspicion. Young Roosevelt, feeling sure that the judge was in criminal complicity with the thieves, fought him desperately and demanded his impeachment. His charges were made with a boldness that was almost startling. The members gave the closest attention and he went through without interruption. "We have a right," cried Roosevelt, in closing, "to demand that our judiciary shall be kept beyond reproach, and we have a right to demand that, if we find men acting so that there is not only a suspicion, but almost a certainty, that they have had dealings with men whose interests were in conflict with those of the public, they should be at least required to prove that the charges are untrue."
Meanwhile, "mysterious" influences were at work to cover up the scandal. A messenger from John Kelly, a boss of Tammany Hall, hurried to Albany. Agents "from wealthy stock gamblers" whom Roosevelt had openly denounced as "swindlers" appeared in the lobby of the Capitol. Roosevelt himself was urged, not only by his enemies, but by his friends, not to press the hopeless contest. They pointed out to him that, with "the interests" against him, he could never in the world secure the passage of the resolu
tion. They made clear to him that he was ruining his promising career.
He had friends, moreover, who played the game of his enemies. There was a prominent lawyer, for instance, an old family friend, who took him out to lunch one day. "You've done well in the Legislature, Theodore," he remarked. "It's a good thing to make a 'reform play.' It attracts attention. You've shown that you possess ability of the sort that will make you useful in a large law office or business. But if I were you I don't think I'd overplay my hand." "Eh?" interrupted Roosevelt. "You've gone far enough," the lawyer went on calmly. "Now it's time for you to leave politics and identify yourself with the right kind of people." "The right kind-" "The people who control others and in the long run always will control others and get the only rewards that are worth having." "You mean to say," cried Roosevelt hotly, "that you want me to give in to the 'ring'?”
The old man answered impatiently: "You're talking like a newspaper. You're entirely mistaken if you think there is a 'ring', made up of a few corrupt politicians, who control the government. Those men have only limited power. The actual power is in the hands of a certain inner circle of big business men. The big politicians, lawyers, judges, are in alliance with them and, in a sense, dependent on them. No young man can succeed in law, business or politics who hasn't the backing of those forces. That is as it should be. For it is merely the recognition that business is supremely important and that everything else must bow to it.”
Theodore Roosevelt had never before come in contact with that point of view, and it gave him a shock. It threw a vivid light backward on the impeachment