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13 January, 2012
Chapter III: In Politics
by Pearson, Edmund Lester
|When he graduated from college Roosevelt was no longer in poor
health. His boxing and exercise in the gymnasium, and still more
his outdoor expeditions, and hunting trips in Maine, had made a
well man of him. He was yet to achieve strength and muscle, and
his life in the West was to give him the chance to do that.
His father died while he was in college and he was left, not rich,
but so well off that he might have lived merely amusing himself.
He might have spent his days in playing polo, hunting and
collecting specimens of animals. What he did during his life, in
adding to men's knowledge of the habits of animals, would have
gained him an honorable place in the history of American science,
if he had done nothing else. So with his writing of books. He
earned the respect of literary men, and left a longer list of
books to his credit than do most authors, and on a greater variety
of subjects. But he was to do other and still more important work
than either of these things.
He believed in and quoted from one of the noblest poems ever
written by any man,--Tennyson's "Ulysses." And in this poem are
lines which formed the text for Roosevelt's life:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life.
This was the doctrine of "the strenuous life" which he preached,--
and practiced. It was to perform the hard necessary work of the
world, not to sit back and criticize. It was to do disagreeable
work if it had to be done, not to pick out the soft jobs. It was
to be afraid neither of the man who fights with his fists or with
a rifle, nor of the man who fights with a sneering tongue or a
To go into New York politics from 1880-1882 was, for a young man
of Roosevelt's place in life, just out of college, what most of
his friends and associates called "simply crazy." That young men
of good education no longer think it a crazy thing to do, but an
honorable and important one, is due to Theodore Roosevelt more
than to any other one man.
As he sat on the window-seat of his friend's room in Holworthy
Hall, that day, and said he was going to try to help the cause of
better government in New York, Mr. Thayer looked at him and
wondered if he were "the real thing." Thirty-nine years later Mr.
Thayer looked back over the career of his college mate, and knew
that he had talked that day with one of the great men of our
Republic, with one who, as another of his college friends says,
was never a "politician" in the bad sense, but was always trying
to advance the cause of better government
The reason why it seemed to many good people a crazy thing to go
into politics was that the work was hard and disagreeable much of
the time. Politics were in the hands of saloon-keepers, toughs,
drivers of street cars and other "low" people, as they put it. The
nice folk liked to sit at home, sigh, and say: "Politics are
rotten." Then they wondered why politics did not instantly become
pure. They demanded "reform" in politics, as Roosevelt said, as if
reform were something which could be handed round like slices of
cake. Their way of getting reform, if they tried any way at all,
was to write letters to the newspapers, complaining about the
"crooked politicians," and they always chose the newspapers which
those politicians never read and cared nothing about.
If any decent man did go into politics, hoping to do some good,
these same critics lamented loudly, and presently announced their
belief that he, too, had become crooked. If it were said that he
had been seen with a politician they disliked, or that he ate a
meal in company with one, they were sure he had gone wrong. They
seemed to think that a reformer could go among other officeholders
and do great work, if he would only begin by cutting all his
associates dead, and refusing to speak to them.
It was a fortunate day for America when Theodore Roosevelt joined
the Twenty-first District Republican Club, and later when he ran
for the New York State Assembly from the same district. He was
elected in November, 1881. This was his beginning in politics.
In the Assembly at Albany, he presently made discoveries. He
learned something about the crooked politicians whom the stay-at-
home reformers had denounced from afar. He found that the Assembly
had in it many good men, a larger number who were neither good nor
bad, but went one way or another just as things happened to
influence them at the moment. Finally, there were some bad men
indeed. He found that the bad men were not always the poor, the
uneducated, the men who had been brought up in rough homes,
lacking in refinement. On the contrary, he found some extremely
honest and useful men who had had exactly such unfavorable
Also, he soon discovered that there were, in and out of politics,
some men of wealth, of education, men who boasted that they
belonged to the "best families," who were willing to be crooked,
or to profit from other men's crooked actions. He soon announced
this discovery, which naturally made such men furious with him.
They pursued him with their hatred all his life. Some people
really think that great wealth makes crime respectable, and if it
is pointed out to a wealthy but dishonest man, that he is merely a
common thief, and if in addition, the fact is proved to
everybody's satisfaction, his anger is noticeable.
Along with his serious work in the Assembly, Roosevelt found that
there was a great deal of fun in listening to the debates on the
floor, or the hearings in committees. One story, which he tells,
is of two Irish Assemblymen, both of whom wished to be leader of
the minority. One, he calls the "Colonel," the other, the "Judge."
There was a question being discussed of money for the Catholic
Protectory, and somebody said that the bill was
"unconstitutional." Mr. Roosevelt writes:
The Judge, who knew nothing--of the constitution, except that it
was continually being quoted against all of his favorite projects,
fidgetted about for some time, and at last jumped up to know if he
might ask the gentleman a question. The latter said "Yes," and the
Judge went on, "I'd like to know if the gintleman has ever
personally seen the Catholic Protectoree?" "No, I haven't," said
his astonished opponent. "Then, phwat do you mane by talking about
its being unconstitootional? It's no more unconstitootional than
you are!" Then turning to the house with slow and withering
sarcasm, he added, "The throuble wid the gintleman is that he
okkipies what lawyers would call a kind of a quasi-position upon
this bill," and sat down amid the applause of his followers.
His rival, the Colonel, felt he had gained altogether too much
glory from the encounter, and after the nonplussed countryman had
taken his seat, he stalked solemnly over to the desk of the elated
Judge, looked at him majestically for a moment, and said, "You'll
excuse my mentioning, sorr, that the gintleman who has just sat
down knows more law in a wake than you do in a month; and more
than that, Mike Shaunnessy, phwat do you mane by quotin' Latin on
the flure of this House, when you don't know the alpha and omayga of
the language!" and back he walked, leaving the Judge in
humiliated submission behind him. [Footnote: "American Ideals," p.
Another story also relates to the "Colonel." He was presiding at a
committee meeting, in an extremely dignified and severe state of
mind. He usually came to the meetings in this mood, as a result of
having visited the bar, and taken a number of rye whiskies. The
meeting was addressed by "a great, burly man ... who bellowed as
if he had been a bull of Bashan."
The Colonel, by this time pretty far gone, eyed him malevolently,
swaying to and fro in his chair. However, the first effect of the
fellow's oratory was soothing rather than otherwise, and produced
the unexpected result of sending the chairman fast asleep bolt
upright. But in a minute or two, as the man warmed up to his work,
he gave a peculiar resonant howl which waked the Colonel up. The
latter came to himself with a jerk, looked fixedly at the
audience, caught sight of the speaker, remembered having seen him
before, forgot that he had been asleep, and concluded that it must
have been on some previous day. Hammer, hammer, hammer, went the
"I've seen you before, sir!"
"You have not," said the man.
"Don't tell me I lie, sir!" responded the Colonel, with sudden
ferocity. "You've addressed this committee on a previous day!"
"I've never--" began the man; but the Colonel broke in again:
"Sit down, sir! The dignity of the chair must be preserved! No man
shall speak to this committee twice. The committee stands
adjourned." And with that he stalked majestically out of the room,
leaving the committee and the delegation to gaze sheepishly into
each other's faces. [Footnote: "American Ideals," p. 96.]
There was in the Assembly a man whom Mr. Roosevelt calls "Brogan."
He looked like a serious elderly frog. I never heard him speak
more than once. It was before the Legislature was organized, or
had adopted any rules; and each day the only business was for the
clerk to call the roll. One day Brogan suddenly rose, and the
following dialogue occurred:
Brogan. Misther Clu-r-r-k!
The Clerk. The gentleman from New York.
Brogan. I rise to a point of ordher under the rules!
The Clerk. There are no rules.
Brogan. Thin I object to them.
The Clerk. There are no rules to object to.
Brogan. Oh! (nonplussed; but immediately recovering himself.) Thin
I move that they be amended until there ar-r-re! [Footnote:
"Autobiography," p 99.]
Roosevelt was three times elected to the Assembly. He took an
interest in laws to reform the Primaries and the Civil Service,
and he demanded that a certain corrupt judge be removed. This
astonished the Assembly, for the judge had powerful and rich
friends. His own party advised the twenty-three years old
Assemblyman to sit down and shut his mouth. The judge might be
corrupt, as it was charged, but it was "wiser" to keep still about
it. Roosevelt, they said, was "rash" and "hot-headed" to make
trouble. And they refused to hear him.
But he got up next day, and the next, and the next after that, and
demanded that the dishonest judge be investigated. And on the
eighth day, his motion was carried by a vote of 104 to 6. The
politicians saw to it that the judge escaped, but it was shown
that Roosevelt's charges were true ones. And New York State found
that she had an Assemblyman with a back-bone.
Roosevelt carried some bills for the cause of better government
through the Assembly and they were signed by a courageous and
honest Governor, named Grover Cleveland. Thomas Nast, America's
great cartoonist of those days, drew a cartoon of the two men
together. Cleveland was forty-four and Roosevelt was twenty-three.
One of the most important events while he was in the Assembly
arose from a bill to regulate the manufacture of cigars in New
York City. He had found that cigars were often made under the most
unhealthy surroundings in the single living room of a family in a
tenement. In one house which he investigated himself, there were
two families, and a boarder, all living in one room, while one or
more of the men carried on the manufacture of cigars in the same
room. Everything about the place was filthy, and both for the
health of the families and of the possible users of the cigars, it
was necessary to have this state of affairs ended.
He advocated a bill which passed, and was signed by Governor
Cleveland, forbidding such manufacture. So far, so good; but there
were persons who found that the law was against their interests.
They succeeded in getting the Court of Appeals to set the law
aside, and in their decision the judges said the law was an
assault upon the "hallowed associations" of the home!
This made Roosevelt wake to the fact that courts were not always
the best judges of the living conditions of classes of people with
whom they had no contact They knew the law; they did not know
life. The decision blocked tenement house reform in New York for
twenty years, and was one more item in Roosevelt's political