Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden

A Foretaste of Politics

"Gentlemen, I demand his impeachment!"

The young member of the State Legislature from New York City was making one of his first speeches. It was not a long one, but it created a sensation.

Roosevelt was attacking the record of a prominent judge who, moreover, was a close friend of Jay Gould and of the powerful financial interests.

Roosevelt's entry into the Assembly, a short time before, had brought with it a shock to his ideals. He found the Legislature dominated by political rings who cared more for their own pockets than for the State's good. Some were brazen enough to say so. He found that whether Democrat or Republican (he himself was an ardent Republican) measures were not decided along party lines. "The interests"—that is, the moneyed corporations—wielded the lash, and the legislators fell in line.

"When you've been here a little longer, young man," a veteran told Roosevelt one day, "you'll learn that there's no politics in politics."

At another time, when he protested that a certain act was unconstitutional, the other member replied seriously, with a phrase that has since become proverbial:

"Oh, what's the Constitution between friends!"

The youthful legislator was naturally disheartened at these evidences of graft, and set himself from the first to oppose them. Of course, he got himself cordially disliked, but he went serenely on. The most important affair of the sort, and one which threatened to finish him politically, was the attack upon the judge already mentioned. This official had used his judicial office to further the schemes of Jay Gould and a group of speculators in a shady transaction. He had gone so far as to write them that he was "willing to go to the very verge of judicial discretion to serve your vast interests."

The scandal had become public property, and the newspapers demanded an investigation. The wary lawmakers at Albany side stepped it. They were not courting investigations of any sort. But Roosevelt, the impulsive newcomer, was not so canny. He tried to "start something." He made a brief but impassioned speech, one of the first of many he was to make in after life on the general theme of "honesty."

"We have a right to demand," he cried in closing, "that our judiciary shall be kept beyond reproach, and we have the 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 these of the public, they should be at least required to prove that the charges are untrue."

Although his resolution to investigate this powerful judge was lost, when first presented, Roosevelt set that hard jaw of his and brought it up at another session. It was defeated again. Meanwhile "the interests" sent their men to see him, and active lobbying was done in the halls of the Capitol. Some of the newspapers ridiculed him, while others applauded him. He began to be talked about from one end of the state to the other.

When he presented his resolution a third time, it carried almost unanimously; but the special committee appointed to "investigate" brought in a report "whitewashing" the judge, or, in other words, exonerating him.

Roosevelt had won a tactical victory which the other side had turned into defeat; but his re-nomination to the Legislature was inevitable.

Then an old friend of the family, a shrewd lawyer, invited the young lawmaker out to lunch one day, and undertook to give him some friendly advice. Roosevelt says:

"He explained that I had done well in the Legislature, that it was a good thing to have made the 'reform play,' that I had shown that I possessed ability such as would make me useful in the right kind of office or business concern; but that I must not overplay my hand."

Young Roosevelt listened respectfully, but when he returned to Albany he went right on fighting! Apparently he was cutting himself off from any chance of a future career, either in business or in politics. As it turned out, however, he found himself the acknowledged leader of the reform movement, and the floor leader of his party.

This was the time when Grover Cleveland, then a newcomer also into state politics, was serving as Governor. Although of a different political faith, the two men speedily found each other kindred spirits, and young Roosevelt threw himself wholeheartedly into the support of the new executive's reform measures.

Thomas Nast, one of the first and most famous of our cartoonists, drew a picture at this time, which was published in Harper's Weekly, in 1884. It depicts Roosevelt standing opposite to Cleveland, who is signing a reform bill they have successfully enacted into law. It is one of the earliest cartoon likenesses of Roosevelt.

Several of these reform measures dealt with living conditions in New York City, such as the overcrowding of tenements, sweat-shop work, and the like. Necessarily, someone's corns were trodden upon, and loud were the howls on the part of "the interests." But the reformers went right ahead.

Then in the midst of this public work, Roosevelt suffered from a terrible double blow.

His wife, whom he had idolized, suddenly died, leaving him an infant daughter. Upon the same day his mother also breathed her last.

These two were the dearest beings upon earth to him. Ever since his father's death he had been more than usually devoted to his mother, whom he often addressed in his letters as "Motherling." Now in a moment she and his young wife were both lost to him.

For a brief time he seemed as one stunned. Then resolutely pulling himself together, he went back to Albany.

"It was a grim and cruel fate," he wrote to Bill Sewall; "but I have never believed it did any good to flinch or yield, for any blow, nor does it lighten the blow to cease from working."

In the same year, however, came another sorrow—this time political. He had been made a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago. It was the memorable year, 1884, when James G. Blaine was nominated for President, and for a time seemed an easy winner. But the Democrats had pitted against him Grover Cleveland, the reform Governor of New York, and in the closest of elections Cleveland won.

Roosevelt, as a delegate to the convention, had opposed the nomination of Blaine, but unlike many other Republicans he did not "bolt his ticket"—even for Cleveland, whom he greatly admired. His stand made no friends in either camp. The "bolting" Republicans accused him of trying to "keep solid with the machine," while the Blaine camp called him "lukewarm." Even the Democrats taunted him with being more a "party man" than the reformer he had posed to be.

Sick in mind and body (for his old enemy, asthma, had been troubling him of late), disgusted with the whole field of politics, and literally a man without a home, Roosevelt determined to "chuck it all." He had for many years longed to visit the West. Now he decided to make his home there. It was one of the turning points in his adventurous career.