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26 June, 2013
Theodore Roosevelt
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 sarcastic pen.

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 beginnings.

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. 93.]

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 gavel, and--

"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 education.

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