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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). An Autobiography. 1913.

III. Practical Politics

WHEN I left Harvard, I took up the study of law. If I had been sufficiently fortunate to come under Professor Thayer, of the Harvard Law School, it may well be that I would have realized that the lawyer can do a great work for justice and against legalism.

But, doubtless chiefly through my own fault, some of the teaching of the law books and of the classroom seemed to me to be against justice. The caveat emptor side of the law, like the caveat emptor side of business, seemed to me repellent; it did not make for social fair dealing. The “let the buyer beware” maxim, when translated into actual practice, whether in law or business, tends to translate itself further into the seller making his profit at the expense of the buyer, instead of by a bargain which shall be to the profit of both. It did not seem to me that the law was framed to discourage as it should sharp practice, and all other kinds of bargains except those which are fair and of benefit to both sides. I was young; there was much in the judgment which I then formed on this matter which I should now revise; but, then as now, many of the big corporation lawyers, to whom the ordinary members of the bar then as now looked up, held certain standards which were difficult to recognize as compatible with the idealism I suppose every high-minded young man is apt to feel. If I had been obliged to earn every cent I spent, I should have gone whole-heartedly into the business of making both ends meet, and should have taken up the law or any other respectable occupation—for I then held, and now hold, the belief that a man’s first duty is to pull his own weight and to take care of those dependent upon him; and I then believed, and now believe, that the greatest privilege and greatest duty for any man is to be happily married, and that no other form of success or service, for either man or woman, can be wisely accepted as a substitute or alternative. But it happened that I had been left enough money by my father not to make it necessary for me to think solely of earning bread for myself and my family. I had enough to get bread. What I had to do, if I wanted butter and jam, was to provide the butter and jam, but to count their cost as compared with other things. In other words, I made up my mind that, while I must earn money, I could afford to make earning money the secondary instead of the primary object of my career. If I had had no money at all, then my first duty would have been to earn it in any honest fashion. As I had some money I felt that my need for more money was to be treated as a secondary need, and that while it was my business to make more money where I legitimately and properly could, yet that it was also my business to treat other kinds of work as more important than money-making.

Almost immediately after leaving Harvard in 1880 I began to take an interest in politics. I did not then believe, and I do not now believe, that any man should ever attempt to make politics his only career. It is a dreadful misfortune for a man to grow to feel that his whole livelihood and whole happiness depend upon his staying in office. Such a feeling prevents him from being of real service to the people while in office, and always puts him under the heaviest strain of pressure to barter his convictions for the sake of holding office. A man should have some other occupation—I had several other occupations—to which he can resort if at any time he is thrown out of office, or if at any time he finds it necessary to choose a course which will probably result in his being thrown out, unless he is willing to stay in at cost to his conscience.

At that day, in 1880, a young man of my bringing up and convictions could join only the Republican party, and join it I accordingly did. It was no simple thing to join it then. That was long before the era of ballot reform and the control of primaries; long before the era when we realized that the Government must take official notice of the deeds and acts of party organizations. The party was still treated as a private corporation, and in each district the organization formed a kind of social and political club. A man had to be regularly proposed for and elected into this club, just as into any other club. As a friend of mine picturesquely phrased it, I “had to break into the organization with a jimmy.”

Under these circumstances there was some difficulty in joining the local organization, and considerable amusement and excitement to be obtained out of it after I had joined.

It was over thirty-three years ago that I thus became a member of the Twenty-first District Republican Association in the city of New York. The men I knew best were the men in the clubs of social pretension and the men of cultivated taste and easy life. When I began to make inquiries as to the whereabouts of the local Republican Association and the means of joining it, these men—and the big business men and lawyers also—laughed at me, and told me that politics were “low”; that the organizations were not controlled by “gentlemen”; that I would find them run by saloon-keepers, horse-car conductors, and the like, and not by men with any of whom I would come in contact outside; and, moreover, they assured me that the men I met would be rough and brutal and unpleasant to deal with. I answered that if this were so it merely meant that the people I knew did not belong to the governing class, and that the other people did—and that I intended to be one of the governing class; that if they proved too hard-bit for me I supposed I would have to quit, but that I certainly would not quit until I had made the effort and found out whether I really was too weak to hold my own in the rough and tumble.

The Republican Association of which I became a member held its meetings in Morton Hall, a large, barn-like room over a saloon. Its furniture was of the canonical kind: dingy benches, spittoons, a dais at one end with a table and chair and a stout pitcher for iced water, and on the walls pictures of General Grant, and of Levi P. Morton, to whose generosity we owed the room. We had regular meetings once or twice a month, and between times the place was treated, at least on certain nights, as a kind of club-room. I went around there often enough to have the men get accustomed to me and to have me get accustomed to them, so that we began to speak the same language, and so that each could begin to live down in the other’s mind what Bret Harte has called “the defective moral quality of being a stranger.” It is not often that a man can make opportunities for himself. But he can put himself in such shape that when or if the opportunities come he is ready to take advantage of them. This was what happened to me in connection with my experiences in Morton Hall. I soon became on good terms with a number of the ordinary “heelers” and even some of the minor leaders. The big leader was Jake Hess, who treated me with rather distant affability. There were prominent lawyers and business men who belonged, but they took little part in the actual meetings. What they did was done elsewhere. The running of the machine was left to Jake Hess and his captains of tens and of hundreds.

Among these lesser captains I soon struck up a friendship with Joe Murray, a friendship which is as strong now as it was thirty-three years ago. He had been born in Ireland, but brought to New York by his parents when he was three or four years old, and, as he expressed it, “raised as a barefooted boy on First Avenue.” When not eighteen he had enlisted in the Army of the Potomac and taken part in the campaign that closed the Civil War. Then he came back to First Avenue, and, being a fearless, powerful, energetic young fellow, careless and reckless, speedily grew to some prominence as leader of a gang. In that district, and at that time, politics was a rough business, and Tammany Hall held unquestioned sway. The district was overwhelmingly Democratic, and Joe and his friends were Democrats who on election day performed the usual gang work for the local Democratic leader, whose business it was to favor and reward them in return. This same local leader, like many other greater leaders, became puffed up by prosperity, and forgot the instruments through which he had achieved prosperity. After one election he showed a callous indifference to the hard work of the gang and complete disregard of his before-election promises. He counted upon the resentment wearing itself out, as usual, in threats and bluster.

But Joe Murray was not a man who forgot. He explained to his gang his purposes and the necessity of being quiet. Accordingly they waited for their revenge until the next election day. They then, as Joe expressed it, decided “to vote furdest away from the leader”—I am using the language of Joe’s youth—and the best way to do this was to vote the Republican ticket. In those days each party had a booth near the polling-place in each election district, where the party representative dispensed the party ballots. This had been a district in which, as a rule, very early in the day the Republican election leader had his hat knocked over his eyes and his booth kicked over and his ballots scattered; and then the size of the Democratic majority depended on an elastic appreciation of exactly how much was demanded from headquarters. But on this day things went differently. The gang, with a Roman sense of duty, took an active interest in seeing that the Republican was given his full rights. Moreover, they made the most energetic reprisals on their opponents, and as they were distinctly the tough and fighting element, justice came to her own with a whoop. Would-be repeaters were thrown out on their heads. Every person who could be cajoled or, I fear, intimidated, was given the Republican ticket, and the upshot was that at the end of the day a district which had never hitherto polled more than two or three per cent of its vote Republican broke about even between the two parties.

To Joe it had been merely an act of retribution in so far as it was not simply a spree. But the leaders at the Republican headquarters did not know this, and when they got over their paralyzed astonishment at the returns, they investigated to find out what it meant. Somebody told them that it represented the work of a young man named Joseph Murray. Accordingly they sent for him. The room in which they received him was doubtless some place like Morton Hall, and the men who received him were akin to those who had leadership in Morton Hall; but in Joe’s eyes they stood for a higher civilization, for opportunity, for generous recognition of successful effort—in short, for all the things that an eager young man desires. He was received and patted on the back by a man who was a great man to the world in which he lived. He was introduced to the audience as a young man whose achievement was such as to promise much for the future, and moreover he was given a place in the post-office—as I have said, this was long before the day of Civil Service Reform.

Now, to the wrong kind of man all this might have meant nothing at all. But in Joe Murray’s case it meant everything. He was by nature as straight a man, as fearless and as stanchly loyal, as any one whom I have ever met, a man to be trusted in any position demanding courage, integrity, and good faith. He did his duty in the public service, and became devotedly attached to the organization which he felt had given him his chance in life. When I knew him he was already making his way up; one of the proofs and evidences of which was that he owned a first-class racing trotter—“Alice Lane”—behind which he gave me more than one spin. During this first winter I grew to like Joe and his particular cronies. But I had no idea that they especially returned the liking, and in the first row we had in the organization (which arose over a movement, that I backed, to stand by a non-partisan method of street-cleaning) Joe and all his friends stood stiffly with the machine, and my side, the reform side, was left with only some half-dozen votes out of three or four hundred. I had expected no other outcome and took it good-humoredly, but without changing my attitude.

Next fall, as the elections drew near, Joe thought he would like to make a drive at Jake Hess, and after considerable planning decided that his best chance lay in the fight for the nomination to the Assembly, the lower house of the Legislature. He picked me as the candidate with whom he would be most likely to win; and win he did. It was not my fight, it was Joe’s; and it was to him that I owe my entry into politics. I had at that time neither the reputation nor the ability to have won the nomination for myself, and indeed never would have thought of trying for it.

Jake Hess was entirely good-humored about it. In spite of my being anti-machine, my relations with him had been friendly and human, and when he was beaten he turned in to help Joe elect me. At first they thought they would take me on a personal canvass through the saloons along Sixth Avenue. The canvass, however, did not last beyond the first saloon. I was introduced with proper solemnity to the saloon-keeper—a very important personage, for this was before the days when saloon-keepers became merely the mortgaged chattels of the brewers—and he began to cross-examine me, a little too much in the tone of one who was dealing with a suppliant for his favor. He said he expected that I would of course treat the liquor business fairly; to which I answered, none too cordially, that I hoped I should treat all interests fairly. He then said that he regarded the licenses as too high; to which I responded that I believed they were really not high enough, and that I should try to have them made higher. The conversation threatened to become stormy. Messrs. Murray and Hess, on some hastily improvised plea, took me out into the street, and then Joe explained to me that it was not worth my while staying in Sixth Avenue any longer, that I had better go right back to Fifth Avenue and attend to my friends there, and that he would look after my interests on Sixth Avenue. I was triumphantly elected.

Once before Joe had interfered in similar fashion and secured the nomination of an Assemblyman; and shortly after election he had grown to feel toward this Assemblyman that he must have fed on the meat which rendered Cæsar proud, as he became inaccessible to the ordinary mortals whose place of resort was Morton Hall. He eyed me warily for a short time to see if I was likely in this respect to follow in my predecessor’s footsteps. Finding that I did not, he and all my other friends and supporters assumed toward me the very pleasantest attitude that it was possible to assume. They did not ask me for a thing. They accepted as a matter of course the view that I was absolutely straight and was trying to do the best I could in the Legislature. They desired nothing except that I should make a success, and they supported me with hearty enthusiasm. I am a little at a loss to know quite how to express the quality in my relationship with Joe Murray and my other friends of this period which rendered that relationship so beneficial to me. When I went into politics at this time I was not conscious of going in with the set purpose to benefit other people, but of getting for myself a privilege to which I was entitled in common with other people. So it was in my relationship with these men. If there had lurked in the innermost recesses of my mind anywhere the thought that I was in some way a patron or a benefactor, or was doing something noble by taking part in politics, or that I expected the smallest consideration save what I could earn on my own merits, I am certain that somehow or other the existence of that feeling would have been known and resented. As a matter of fact, there was not the slightest temptation on my part to have any such feeling or any one of such feelings. I no more expected special consideration in politics than I would have expected it in the boxing ring. I wished to act squarely to others, and I wished to be able to show that I could hold my own as against others. The attitude of my new friends toward me was first one of polite reserve, and then that of friendly alliance. Afterwards I became admitted to comradeship, and then to leadership. I need hardly say how earnestly I believe that men should have a keen and lively sense of their obligations in politics, of their duty to help forward great causes, and to struggle for the betterment of conditions that are unjust to their fellows, the men and women who are less fortunate in life. But in addition to this feeling there must be a feeling of real fellowship with the other men and women engaged in the same task, fellowship of work, with fun to vary the work; for unless there is this feeling of fellowship, of common effort on an equal plane for a common end, it will be difficult to keep the relations wholesome and natural. To be patronized is as offensive as to be insulted. No one of us cares permanently to have some one else conscientiously striving to do him good; what we want is to work with that some one else for the good of both of us—any man will speedily find that other people can benefit him just as much as he can benefit them.

Neither Joe Murray nor I nor any of our associates at that time were alive to social and industrial needs which we now all of us recognize. But we then had very clearly before our minds the need of practically applying certain elemental virtues, the virtues of honesty and efficiency in politics, the virtue of efficiency side by side with honesty in private and public life alike, the virtues of consideration and fair dealing in business as between man and man, and especially as between the man who is an employer and the man who is an employee. On all fundamental questions Joe Murray and I thought alike. We never parted company excepting on the question of Civil Service Reform, where he sincerely felt that I showed doctrinaire affinities, that I sided with the pharisees. We got back again into close relations as soon as I became Police Commissioner under Mayor Strong, for Joe was then made Excise Commissioner, and was, I believe, the best Excise Commissioner the city of New York ever had. He is now a farmer, his boys have been through Columbia College, and he and I look at the questions, political, social, and industrial, which confront us in 1913 from practically the same standpoint, just as we once looked at the questions that confronted us in 1881.

There are many debts that I owe Joe Murray, and some for which he was only unconsciously responsible. I do not think that a man is fit to do good work in our American democracy unless he is able to have a genuine fellow-feeling for, understanding of, and sympathy with his fellow-Americans, whatever their creed or their birthplace, the section in which they live, or the work which they do, provided they possess the only kind of Americanism that really counts, the Americanism of the spirit. It was no small help to me, in the effort to make myself a good citizen and good American, that the political associate with whom I was on closest and most intimate terms during my early years was a man born in Ireland, by creed a Catholic, with Joe Murray’s upbringing; just as it helped me greatly at a later period to work for certain vitally necessary public needs with Arthur von Briesen, in whom the spirit of the “Acht-und-Vierziger” idealists was embodied; just as my whole life was influenced by my long association with Jacob Riis, whom I am tempted to call the best American I ever knew, although he was already a young man when he came hither from Denmark.

I was elected to the Legislature in the fall of 1881, and found myself the youngest man in that body. I was reëlected the two following years. Like all young men and inexperienced members, I had considerable difficulty in teaching myself to speak. I profited much by the advice of a hard-headed old countryman—who was unconsciously paraphrasing the Duke of Wellington, who was himself doubtless paraphrasing somebody else. The advice ran: “Don’t speak until you are sure you have something to say, and know just what it is; then say it, and sit down.”

My first days in the Legislature were much like those of a boy in a strange school. My fellow-legislators and I eyed one another with mutual distrust. Each of us chose his seat, each began by following the lead of some veteran in the first routine matters, and then, in a week or two, we began to drift into groups according to our several affinities. The Legislature was Democratic. I was a Republican from the “silk stocking” district, the wealthiest district in New York, and I was put, as one of the minority members, on the Committee of Cities. It was a coveted position. I did not make any effort to get on, and, as far as I know, was put there merely because it was felt to be in accordance with the fitness of things.

A very short experience showed me that, as the Legislature was then constituted, the so-called party contests had no interest whatever for me. There was no real party division on most of the things that were of concern in State politics, both Republicans and Democrats being for and against them. My friendships were made, not with regard to party lines, but because I found, and my friends found, that we had the same convictions on questions of principle and questions of policy. The only difference was that there was a larger proportion of these men among the Republicans than among the Democrats, and that it was easier for me at the outset to scrape acquaintance, among the men who felt as I did, with the Republicans. They were for the most part from the country districts.

My closest friend for the three years I was there was Billy O’Neill, from the Adirondacks. He kept a small crossroads store. He was a young man, although a few years older than I was, and, like myself, had won his position without regard to the machine. He had thought he would like to be Assemblyman, so he had taken his buggy and had driven around Franklin County visiting everybody, had upset the local ring, and came to the Legislature as his own master. There is surely something in American traditions that does tend toward real democracy in spite of our faults and shortcomings. In most other countries two men of as different antecedents, ancestry, and surroundings as Billy O’Neill and I would have had far more difficulty in coming together. I came from the biggest city in America and from the wealthiest ward of that city, and he from a backwoods county where he kept a store at a crossroads. In all the unimportant things we seemed far apart. But in all the important things we were close together. We looked at all questions from substantially the same view-point, and we stood shoulder to shoulder in every legislative fight during those three years. He abhorred demagogy just as he abhorred corruption. He had thought much on political problems; he admired Alexander Hamilton as much as I did, being a strong believer in a powerful National government; and we both of us differed from Alexander Hamilton in being stout adherents of Abraham Lincoln’s views wherever the rights of the people were concerned. Any man who has met with success, if he will be frank with himself, must admit that there has been a big element of fortune in the success. Fortune favored me, whereas her hand was heavy against Billy O’Neill. All his life he had to strive hard to wring his bread from harsh surroundings and a reluctant fate; if fate had been but a little kinder, I believe he would have had a great political career; and he would have done good service for the country in any position in which he might have been put.

There were other Republicans, like Isaac Hunt and Jonas van Duzer and Walter Howe and Henry Sprague, who were among my close friends and allies; and a gigantic one-eyed veteran of the Civil War, a gallant General, Curtis from St. Lawrence County; and a capital fellow, whom afterwards, when Governor, I put on the bench, Kruse, from Cattaraugus County. Kruse was a German by birth; as far as I know, the only German from Cattaraugus County at that time; and, besides being a German, he was also a Prohibitionist. Among the Democrats were Hamden Robb and Thomas Newbold, and Tom Welch of Niagara, who did a great service in getting the State to set aside Niagara Falls Park—after a discouraging experience with the first Governor before whom we brought the bill, who listened with austere patience to our arguments in favor of the State establishing a park, and then conclusively answered us by the question, “But, gentlemen, why should we spend the people’s money when just as much water will run over the Falls without a park as with it?” Then there were a couple of members from New York and Brooklyn, Mike Costello and Pete Kelly.

Mike Costello had been elected as a Tammany man. He was as fearless as he was honest. He came from Ireland, and had accepted the Tammany Fourth of July orations as indicating the real attitude of that organization towards the rights of the people. A month or two in Albany converted him to a profound distrust of applied Tammany methods. He and I worked hand in hand with equal indifference to our local machines. His machine leaders warned him fairly that they would throw him out at the next election, which they did; but he possessed a seasoned-hickory toughness of ability to contend with adverse circumstances, and kept his head well above water. A better citizen does not exist; and our friendship has never faltered.

Peter Kelly’s fate was a tragedy. He was a bright, well-educated young fellow, an ardent believer in Henry George. At the beginning he and I failed to understand each other or to get on together, for our theories of government were radically opposed. After a couple of months spent in active contests with men whose theories had nothing whatever to do with their practices, Kelly and I found in our turn that it really did not make much difference what our abstract theories were on questions that were not before the Legislature, in view of the fact that on the actual matters before the Legislature, the most important of which involved questions of elementary morality, we were heartily at one. We began to vote together and act together, and by the end of the session found that in all practical matters that were up for action we thought together. Indeed, each of us was beginning to change his theories, so that even in theory we were coming closer together. He was ardent and generous; he was a young lawyer, with a wife and children, whose ambition had tempted him into politics, and who had been befriended by the local bosses under the belief that they could count upon him for anything they really wished. Unfortunately, what they really wished was often corrupt. Kelly defied them, fought the battles of the people with ardor and good faith, and when the bosses refused him a renomination, he appealed from them to the people. When we both came up for reëlection, I won easily in my district, where circumstances conspired to favor me; and Kelly, with exactly the same record that I had, except that it was more creditable because he took his stand against greater odds, was beaten in his district. Defeat to me would have meant merely chagrin; to Kelly it meant terrible material disaster. He had no money. Like every rigidly honest man, he had found that going into politics was expensive and that his salary as Assemblyman did not cover the financial outgo. He had lost his practice and he had incurred the ill will of the powerful, so that it was impossible at the moment to pick up his practice again; and the worry and disappointment affected him so much that shortly after election he was struck down by sickness. Just before Christmas some of us were informed that Kelly was in such financial straits that he and his family would be put out into the street before New Year. This was prevented by the action of some of his friends who had served with him in the Legislature, and he recovered, at least to a degree, and took up the practice of his profession. But he was a broken man. In the Legislature in which he served one of his fellow-Democrats from Brooklyn was the Speaker—Alfred C. Chapin, the leader and the foremost representative of the reform Democracy, whom Kelly zealously supported. A few years later Chapin, a very able man, was elected Mayor of Brooklyn on a reform Democratic ticket. Shortly after his election I was asked to speak at a meeting in a Brooklyn club at which various prominent citizens, including the Mayor, were present. I spoke on civic decency, and toward the close of my speech I sketched Kelly’s career for my audience, told them how he had stood up for the rights of the people of Brooklyn, and how the people had failed to stand up for him, and the way he had been punished, precisely because he had been a good citizen who acted as a good citizen should act. I ended by saying that the reform Democracy had now come into power, that Mr. Chapin was Mayor, and that I very earnestly hoped recognition would at last be given to Kelly for the fight he had waged at such bitter cost to himself. My words created some impression, and Mayor Chapin at once said that he would take care of Kelly and see that justice was done him. I went home that evening much pleased. In the morning, at breakfast, I received a brief note from Chapin in these words: “It was nine last evening when you finished speaking of what Kelly had done, and when I said that I would take care of him. At ten last night Kelly died.” He had been dying while I was making my speech, and he never knew that at last there was to be a tardy recognition of what he had done, a tardy justification for the sacrifices he had made. The man had fought, at heavy cost to himself and with entire disinterestedness, for popular rights; but no recognition for what he had done had come to him from the people, whose interest he had so manfully upheld.

Where there is no chance of statistical or mathematical measurement, it is very hard to tell just the degree to which conditions change from one period to another. This is peculiarly hard to do when we deal with such a matter as corruption. Personally I am inclined to think that in public life we are on the whole a little better and not a little worse than we were thirty years ago, when I was serving in the New York Legislature. I think the conditions are a little better in National, in State, and in municipal politics. Doubtless there are points in which they are worse, and there is an enormous amount that needs reformation. But it does seem to me as if, on the whole, things had slightly improved.

When I went into politics, New York City was under the control of Tammany, which was from time to time opposed by some other—and evanescent—city Democratic organization. The up-country Democrats had not yet fallen under Tammany sway, and were on the point of developing a big country political boss in the shape of David B. Hill. The Republican party was split into the Stalwart and Half-Breed factions. Accordingly neither party had one dominant boss, or one dominant machine, each being controlled by jarring and warring bosses and machines. The corruption was not what it had been in the days of Tweed, when outside individuals controlled the legislators like puppets. Nor was there any such centralization of the boss system as occurred later. Many of the members were under the control of local bosses or local machines. But the corrupt work was usually done through the members directly.

Of course I never had anything in the nature of legal proof of corruption, and the figures I am about to give are merely approximate. But three years’ experience convinced me, in the first place, that there were a great many thoroughly corrupt men in the Legislature, perhaps a third of the whole number; and, in the next place, that the honest men outnumbered the corrupt men, and that, if it were ever possible to get an issue of right and wrong put vividly and unmistakably before them in a way that would arrest their attention and that would arrest the attention of their constituents, we could count on the triumph of the right. The trouble was that in most cases the issue was confused. To read some kinds of literature one would come to the conclusion that the only corruption in legislative circles was in the form of bribery by corporations, and that the line was sharp between the honest man who was always voting against corporations and the dishonest man who was always bribed to vote for them. My experience was the direct contrary of this. For every one bill introduced (not passed) corruptly to favor a corporation, there were at least ten introduced (not passed, and in this case not intended to be passed) to blackmail corporations. The majority of the corrupt members would be found voting for the blackmailing bills if they were not paid, and would also be found voting in the interests of the corporation if they were paid. The blackmailing, or, as they were always called, the “strike” bills, could themselves be roughly divided into two categories: bills which it would have been proper to pass, and those that it would not have been proper to pass. Some of the bills aimed at corporations were utterly wild and improper; and of these a proportion might be introduced by honest and foolish zealots, whereas most of them were introduced by men who had not the slightest intention of passing them, but who wished to be paid not to pass them. The most profitable type of bill to the accomplished blackmailer, however, was a bill aimed at a real corporate abuse which the corporation, either from wickedness or folly, was unwilling to remedy. Of the measures introduced in the interest of corporations there were also some that were proper and some that were improper. The corrupt legislators, the “black horse cavalry,” as they were termed, would demand payment to vote as the corporations wished, no matter whether the bill was proper or improper. Sometimes, if the bill was a proper one, the corporation would have the virtue or the strength of mind to refuse to pay for its passage, and sometimes it would not.

A very slight consideration of the above state of affairs will show how difficult it was at times to keep the issue clear, for honest and dishonest men were continually found side by side voting now against and now for a corporation measure, the one set from proper and the other set from grossly improper motives. Of course part of the fault lay in the attitudes of outsiders. It was very early borne in upon me that almost equal harm was done by indiscriminate defense of, and indiscriminate attack on, corporations. It was hard to say whether the man who prided himself upon always antagonizing the corporations, or the man who, on the plea that he was a good conservative, always stood up for them, was the more mischievous agent of corruption and demoralization.

In one fight in the House over a bill as to which there was a bitter contest between two New York City street railway organizations, I saw lobbyists come down on the floor itself and draw venal men out into the lobbies with almost no pretense of concealing what they were doing. In another case in which the elevated railway corporation of New York City, against the protest of the Mayor and the other local authorities, rushed through a bill remitting over half their taxes, some of the members who voted for the measure probably thought it was right; but every corrupt man in the House voted with them; and the man must indeed have been stupid who thought that these votes were given disinterestedly.

The effective fight against this bill for the revision of the elevated railway taxes—perhaps the most openly crooked measure which during my time was pushed at Albany—was waged by Mike Costello and myself. We used to spend a good deal of time in industrious research into the various bills introduced, so as to find out what their authors really had in mind; this research, by the way, being highly unappreciated and much resented by the authors. In the course of his researches Mike had been puzzled by an unimportant bill, seemingly related to a Constitutional amendment, introduced by a local saloon-keeper, whose interests, as far as we knew, were wholly remote from the Constitution, or from any form of abstract legal betterment. However, the measure seemed harmless; we did not interfere; and it passed the House. Mike, however, followed its career in the Senate, and at the last moment, almost by accident, discovered that it had been “amended” by the simple process of striking out everything after the enacting clause and unobtrusively substituting the proposal to remit the elevated railway taxes! The authors of the change wished to avoid unseemly publicity; their hope was to slip the measure through the Legislature and have it instantly signed by the Governor, before any public attention was excited. In the Senate their plan worked to perfection. There was in the Senate no fighting leadership of the forces of decency; and for such leadership of the non-fighting type the representatives of corruption cared absolutely nothing. By bold and adroit management the substitution in the Senate was effected without opposition or comment. The bill (in reality, of course, an absolutely new and undebated bill) then came back to the House nominally as a merely amended measure, which, under the rules, was not open to debate unless the amendment was first by vote rejected. This was the great bill of the session for the lobby; and the lobby was keenly alive to the need of quick, wise action. No public attention whatever had so far been excited. Every measure was taken to secure immediate and silent action. A powerful leader, whom the beneficiaries of the bill trusted, a fearless and unscrupulous man, of much force and great knowledge of parliamentary law, was put in the chair. Costello and I were watched; and when for a moment we were out of the House, the bill was brought over from the Senate, and the clerk began to read it, all the black horse cavalry, in expectant mood, being in their seats. But Mike Costello, who was in the clerk’s room, happened to catch a few words of what was being read. In he rushed, despatched a messenger for me, and began a single-handed filibuster. The Speaker pro tem called him to order. Mike continued to speak and protest; the Speaker hammered him down; Mike continued his protests; the sergeant-at-arms was sent to arrest and remove him; and then I bounced in, and continued the protest, and refused to sit down or be silent. Amid wild confusion the amendment was declared adopted, and the bill was ordered engrossed and sent to the Governor. But we had carried our point. The next morning the whole press rang with what had happened; every detail of the bill, and every detail of the way it had been slipped through the Legislature, were made public. All the slow and cautious men in the House, who had been afraid of taking sides, now came forward in support of us. Another debate was held on the proposal to rescind the vote; the city authorities waked up to protest; the Governor refused to sign the bill. Two or three years later, after much litigation, the taxes were paid; in the newspapers it was stated that the amount was over $1,500,000. It was Mike Costello to whom primarily was due the fact that this sum was saved the public, and that the forces of corruption received a stinging rebuff. He did not expect recognition or reward for his services; and he got none. The public, if it knew of what he had done, promptly forgot it. The machine did not forget it, and turned him down at the next election.

One of the stand-by “strikes” was a bill for reducing the elevated railway fare, which at that time was ten cents, to five cents. In one Legislature the men responsible for the introduction of the bill suffered such an extraordinary change of heart that when the bill came up—being pushed by zealous radicals who really were honest—the introducers actually voted against it! A number of us who had been very doubtful about the principle of the bill voted for it simply because we were convinced that money was being used to stop it, and we hated to seem to side with the corruptionists. Then there came a wave of popular feeling in its favor, the bill was reintroduced at the next session, the railways very wisely decided that they would simply fight it on its merits, and the entire black horse cavalry contingent, together with all the former friends of the measure, voted against it. Some of us, who in our anger at the methods formerly resorted to for killing the bill had voted for it the previous year, with much heart-searching again voted for it, as I now think unwisely; and the bill was vetoed by the then Governor, Grover Cleveland. I believe the veto was proper, and those who felt as I did supported the veto; for although it was entirely right that the fare should be reduced to five cents, which was soon afterwards done, the method was unwise, and would have set a mischievous precedent.

An instance of an opposite kind occurred in connection with a great railway corporation which wished to increase its terminal facilities in one of our great cities. The representatives of the railway brought the bill to me and asked me to look into it, saying that they were well aware that it was the kind of bill that lent itself to blackmail, and that they wished to get it through on its merits, and invited the most careful examination. I looked carefully into it, found that the municipal authorities and the property-owners whose property was to be taken favored it, and also found that it was an absolute necessity from the standpoint of the city no less than from the standpoint of the railway. So I said I would take charge of it if I had guarantees that no money should be used and nothing improper done in order to push it. This was agreed to. I was then acting as chairman of the committee before which the bill went.

A very brief experience proved what I had already been practically sure of, that there was a secret combination of the majority of the committee on a crooked basis. On one pretext or another the crooked members of the committee held the bill up, refusing to report it either favorably or unfavorably. There were one or two members of the committee who were pretty rough characters, and when I decided to force matters I was not sure that we would not have trouble. 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, in answer to statements that my conduct would be exposed on the floor of the Legislature, that in that case I should give the Legislature the reasons why 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.

Accordingly I got the bill reported to the Legislature and put on the calendar. But here it came to a dead halt. I think this was chiefly because most of the newspapers which noticed the matter at all treated it in such a cynical spirit as to encourage the men who wished to blackmail. These papers reported the introduction of the bill, and said that “all the hungry legislators were clamoring for their share of the pie”; and they accepted as certain the fact that there was going to be a division of “pie.” This succeeded in frightening honest men, and also in relieving the rogues; the former were afraid they would be suspected of receiving money if they voted for the bill, and the latter were given a shield behind which to stand until they were paid. I was wholly unable to move the bill forward in the Legislature, and finally a representative of the railway told me that he thought he would like to take the bill out of my hands, that I did not seem able to get it through, and that perhaps some “older and more experienced” leader could be more successful. I was pretty certain what this meant, but of course I had no kind of proof, and moreover I was not in a position to say that I could promise success. Accordingly, the bill was given into the charge of a veteran, whom I believe to have been a personally honest man, but who was not inquisitive about the motives influencing his colleagues. This gentleman, who went by a nickname which I shall incorrectly call “the bald eagle of Weehawken,” was efficient and knew his job. After a couple of weeks a motion to put the bill through was made by “the bald eagle”; the “black horse cavalry,” whose feelings had undergone a complete change in the intervening time, voted unanimously for it, in company with all the decent members; and that was the end. Now here was a bit of work in the interest of a corporation and in the interest of a community, which the corporation at first tried honestly to have put through on its merits. The blame for the failure lay primarily in the supine indifference of the community to legislative wrong-doing, so long as only the corporations were blackmailed.

Except as above mentioned, I was not brought in contact with big business, save in the effort to impeach a certain judge. This judge had been used as an instrument in their business by certain of the men connected with the elevated railways and other great corporations at that time. We got hold of his correspondence with one of these men, and it showed a shocking willingness to use the judicial office in any way that one of the kings of finance of that day desired. He had actually held court in one of that financier’s rooms. One expression in one of the judge’s letters to this financier I shall always remember: “I am willing to go to the very verge of judicial discretion to serve your vast interests.” The curious thing was that I was by no means certain that the judge himself was corrupt. He may have been; but I am inclined to think that, aside from his being a man of coarse moral fiber, the trouble lay chiefly in the fact that he had a genuine—if I had not so often seen it, I would say a wholly inexplicable—reverence for the possessor of a great fortune as such. He sincerely believed that business was the end of existence, and that judge and legislator alike should do whatever was necessary to favor it; and the bigger the business the more he desired to favor it. Big business of the kind that is allied with politics thoroughly appreciated the usefulness of such a judge, and every effort was strained to protect him. We fought hard—by “we” I mean some thirty or forty legislators, both Republicans and Democrats—but the “black horse cavalry,” and the timid good men, and the dull conservative men, were all against us; and the vote in the Legislature was heavily against impeachment. The minority of the committee that investigated him, with Chapin at its head, recommended impeachment; the argument for impeachment before the committee was made by Francis Lynde Stetson.

It was my first experience of the kind. Various men whom I had known well socially and had been taught to look up to, prominent business men and lawyers, acted in a way which not only astounded me, but which I was quite unable to reconcile with the theories I had formed as to their high standing—I was little more than a year out of college at the time. Generally, as has been always the case since, they were careful to avoid any direct conversation with me on a concrete case of what we now call “privilege” in business and in politics, that is, of the alliance between business and politics which represents improper favors rendered to some men in return for improper conduct on the part of others being ignored or permitted.

One member of a prominent law firm, an old family friend, did, however, take me out to lunch one day, evidently for the purpose of seeing just what it was that I wished and intended to do. I believe he had a genuine personal liking for me. 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 law office or business concern; but that I must not overplay my hand; that I had gone far enough, and that now was the time to leave politics and identify myself with the right kind of people, the people who would always in the long run control others and obtain the real rewards which were worth having. I asked him if that meant that I was to yield to the ring in politics. He answered somewhat impatiently that I was entirely mistaken (as in fact I was) about there being merely a political ring, of the kind of which the papers were fond of talking; that the “ring,” if it could be called such—that is, the inner circle—included certain big business men, and the politicians, lawyers, and judges who were in alliance with and to a certain extent dependent upon them, and that the successful man had to win his success by the backing of the same forces, whether in law, business, or politics.

This conversation not only interested me, but made such an impression that I always remembered it, for it was the first glimpse I had of that combination between business and politics which I was in after years so often to oppose. In the America of that day, and especially among the people whom I knew, the successful business man was regarded by everybody as preëminently the good citizen. The orthodox books on political economy, not only in America but in England, were written for his especial glorification. The tangible rewards came to him, the admiration of his fellow-citizens of the respectable type was apt to be his, and the severe newspaper moralists who were never tired of denouncing politicians and political methods were wont to hold up “business methods” as the ideal which we were to strive to introduce into political life. Herbert Croly, in “The Promise of American Life,” has set forth the reasons why our individualistic democracy—which taught that each man was to rely exclusively on himself, was in no way to be interfered with by others, and was to devote himself to his own personal welfare—necessarily produced the type of business man who sincerely believed, as did the rest of the community, that the individual who amassed a big fortune was the man who was the best and most typical American.

In the Legislature the problems with which I dealt were mainly problems of honesty and decency and of legislative and administrative efficiency. They represented the effort, the wise, the vitally necessary effort, to get efficient and honest government. But as yet I understood little of the effort which was already beginning, for the most part under very bad leadership, to secure a more genuine social and industrial justice. Nor was I especially to blame for this. The good citizens I then knew best, even when themselves men of limited means—men like my colleague Billy O’Neill, and my backwoods friends Sewall and Dow—were no more awake than I was to the changing needs the changing times were bringing. Their outlook was as narrow as my own, and, within its limits, as fundamentally sound.

I wish to dwell on the soundness of our outlook on life, even though as yet it was not broad enough. We were no respecters of persons. Where our vision was developed to a degree that enabled us to see crookedness, we opposed it whether in great or small. As a matter of fact, we found that it needed much more courage to stand up openly against labor men when they were wrong than against capitalists when they were wrong. The sins against labor are usually committed, and the improper services to capitalists are usually rendered, behind closed doors. Very often the man with the moral courage to speak in the open against labor when it is wrong is the only man anxious to do effective work for labor when labor is right.

The only kinds of courage and honesty which are permanently useful to good institutions anywhere are those shown by men who decide all cases with impartial justice on grounds of conduct and not on grounds of class. We found that in the long run the men who in public blatantly insisted that labor was never wrong were the very men who in private could not be trusted to stand for labor when it was right. We grew heartily to distrust the reformer who never denounced wickedness unless it was embodied in a rich man. Human nature does not change; and that type of “reformer” is as noxious now as he ever was. The loud-mouthed upholder of popular rights who attacks wickedness only when it is allied with wealth, and who never publicly assails any misdeed, no matter how flagrant, if committed nominally in the interest of labor, has either a warped mind or a tainted soul, and should be trusted by no honest man. It was largely the indignant and contemptuous dislike aroused in our minds by the demagogues of this class which then prevented those of us whose instincts at bottom were sound from going as far as we ought to have gone along the lines of governmental control of corporations and governmental interference on behalf of labor.

I did, however, have one exceedingly useful experience. A bill was introduced by the Cigar-Makers’ Union to prohibit the manufacture of cigars in tenement-houses. I was appointed one of a committee of three to investigate conditions in the tenement-houses and see if legislation should be had. Of my two colleagues on the committee, one took no interest in the measure and privately said he did not think it was right, but that he had to vote for it because the labor unions were strong in his district and he was pledged to support the bill. The other, a sporting Tammany man who afterwards abandoned politics for the race-track, was a very good fellow. He told me frankly that he had to be against the bill because certain interests which were all-powerful and with which he had dealings required him to be against it, but that I was a free agent, and that if I would look into the matter he believed I would favor the legislation. As a matter of fact, I had supposed I would be against the legislation, and I rather think that I was put on the committee with that idea, for the respectable people I knew were against it; it was contrary to the principles of political economy of the laissez faire kind; and the business men who spoke to me about it shook their heads and said that it was designed to prevent a man doing as he wished and as he had a right to do with what was his own.

However, my first visits to the tenement-house districts in question made me feel that, whatever the theories might be, as a matter of practical common sense I could not conscientiously vote for the continuance of the conditions which I saw. These conditions rendered it impossible for the families of the tenement-house workers to live so that the children might grow up fitted for the exacting duties of American citizenship. I visited the tenement-houses once with my colleagues of the committee, once with some of the labor union representatives, and once or twice by myself. In a few of the tenement-houses there were suites of rooms ample in number where the work on the tobacco was done in rooms not occupied for cooking or sleeping or living. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, there were one, two, or three room apartments, and the work of manufacturing the tobacco by men, women, and children went on day and night in the eating, living, and sleeping rooms—sometimes in one room. I have always remembered one room in which two families were living. On my inquiry as to who the third adult male was I was told that he was a boarder with one of the families. There were several children, three men, and two women in this room. The tobacco was stowed about everywhere, alongside the foul bedding, and in a corner where there were scraps of food. The men, women, and children in this room worked by day and far on into the evening, and they slept and ate there. They were Bohemians, unable to speak English, except that one of the children knew enough to act as interpreter.

Instead of opposing the bill I ardently championed it. It was a poorly drawn measure, and the Governor, Grover Cleveland, was at first doubtful about signing it. The Cigar-makers’ Union then asked me to appear before the Governor and argue for it. I accordingly did so, acting as spokesman for the battered, undersized foreigners who represented the Union and the workers. The Governor signed the bill. Afterwards this tenement-house cigar legislation was declared invalid by the Court of Appeals in the Jacobs decision. Jacobs was one of the rare tenement-house manufacturers of cigars who occupied quite a suite of rooms, so that in his case the living conditions were altogether exceptional. What the reason was which influenced those bringing the suit to select the exceptional instead of the average worker I do not know; of course such action was precisely the action which those most interested in having the law broken down were anxious to see taken. The Court of Appeals declared the law unconstitutional, and in their decision the judges reprobated the law as an assault upon the “hallowed” influences of “home.” It was this case which first waked me to a dim and partial understanding of the fact that the courts were not necessarily the best judges of what should be done to better social and industrial conditions. The judges who rendered this decision were well-meaning men. They knew nothing whatever of tenement-house conditions; they knew nothing whatever of the needs, or of the life and labor, of three-fourths of their fellow-citizens in great cities. They knew legalism, but not life. Their choice of the words “hallowed” and “home,” as applicable to the revolting conditions attending the manufacture of cigars in tenement-houses, showed that they had no idea what it was that they were deciding. Imagine the “hallowed” associations of a “home” consisting of one room where two families, one of them with a boarder, live, eat, and work! This decision completely blocked tenement-house reform legislation in New York for a score of years, and hampers it to this day. It was one of the most serious setbacks which the cause of industrial and social progress and reform ever received.

I had been brought up to hold the courts in especial reverence. The people with whom I was most intimate were apt to praise the courts for just such decisions as this, and to speak of them as bulwarks against disorder and barriers against demagogic legislation. These were the same people with whom the judges who rendered these decisions were apt to foregather at social clubs, or dinners, or in private life. Very naturally they all tended to look at things from the same standpoint. Of course it took more than one experience such as this Tenement Cigar Case to shake me out of the attitude in which I was brought up. But various decisions, not only of the New York court but of certain other State courts and even of the United States Supreme Court, during the quarter of a century following the passage of this tenement-house legislation, did at last thoroughly wake me to the actual fact. I grew to realize that all that Abraham Lincoln had said about the Dred Scott decision could be said with equal truth and justice about the numerous decisions which in our own day were erected as bars across the path of social reform, and which brought to naught so much of the effort to secure justice and fair dealing for workingmen and workingwomen, and for plain citizens generally.

Some of the wickedness and inefficiency in public life was then displayed in simpler fashion than would probably now be the case. Once or twice I was a member of committees which looked into gross and widely ramifying governmental abuses. On the whole, the most important part I played was in the third Legislature in which I served, when I acted as chairman of a committee which investigated various phases of New York City official life.

The most important of the reform measures our committee recommended was the bill taking away from the Aldermen their power of confirmation over the Mayor’s appointments. We found that it was possible to get citizens interested in the character and capacity of the head of the city, so that they would exercise some intelligent interest in his conduct and qualifications. But we found that as a matter of fact it was impossible to get them interested in the Aldermen and other subordinate officers. In actual practice the Aldermen were merely the creatures of the local ward bosses or of the big municipal bosses, and where they controlled the appointments the citizens at large had no chance whatever to make their will felt. Accordingly we fought for the principle, which I believe to be of universal application, that what is needed in our popular government is to give plenty of power to a few officials, and to make these few officials genuinely and readily responsible to the people for the exercise of that power. Taking away the confirming power of the Board of Aldermen did not give the citizens of New York good government. We knew that if they chose to elect the wrong kind of Mayor they would have bad government, no matter what the form of the law was. But we did secure to them the chance to get good government if they desired, and this was impossible as long as the old system remained. The change was fought in the way in which all similar changes always are fought. The corrupt and interested politicians were against it, and the battle-cries they used, which rallied to them most of the unthinking conservatives, were that we were changing the old constitutional system, that we were defacing the monuments of the wisdom of the founders of the government, that we were destroying that distinction between legislative and executive power which was the bulwark of our liberties, and that we were violent and unscrupulous radicals with no reverence for the past.

Of course the investigations, disclosures, and proceedings of the investigating committee of which I was chairman brought me into bitter personal conflict with very powerful financiers, very powerful politicians, and with certain newspapers which these financiers and politicians controlled. A number of able and unscrupulous men were fighting, some for their financial lives, and others to keep out of unpleasantly close neighborhood to State’s prison. This meant that there were blows to be taken as well as given. In such political struggles, those who went in for the kind of thing that I did speedily excited animosities among strong and cunning men who would stop at little to gratify their animosity. Any man engaged in this particular type of militant and practical reform movement was soon made to feel that he had better not undertake to push matters home unless his own character was unassailable. On one of the investigating committees on which I served there was a countryman, a very able man, who, when he reached New York City, felt as certain Americans do when they go to Paris—that the moral restraints of his native place no longer applied. With all his ability, he was not shrewd enough to realize that the Police Department was having him as well as the rest of us carefully shadowed. He was caught red-handed by a plain-clothes man doing what he had no business to do; and from that time on he dared not act save as those who held his secret permitted him to act. Thenceforth those officials who stood behind the Police Department had one man on the committee on whom they could count. I never saw terror more ghastly on a strong man’s face than on the face of this man on one or two occasions when he feared that events in the committee might take such a course as to force him into a position where his colleagues would expose him even if the city officials did not. However, he escaped, for we were never able to get the kind of proof which would warrant our asking for the action in which this man could not have joined.

Traps were set for more than one of us, and if we had walked into these traps our public careers would have ended, at least so far as following them under the conditions which alone make it worth while to be in public life at all. A man can of course hold public office, and many a man does hold public office, and lead a public career of a sort, even if there are other men who possess secrets about him which he cannot afford to have divulged. But no man can lead a public career really worth leading, no man can act with rugged independence in serious crises, nor strike at great abuses, nor afford to make powerful and unscrupulous foes, if he is himself vulnerable in his private character. Nor will clean conduct by itself enable a man to render good service. I have always been fond of Josh Billings’s remark that “it is much easier to be a harmless dove than a wise serpent.” There are plenty of decent legislators, and plenty of able legislators; but the blamelessness and the fighting edge are not always combined. Both qualities are necessary for the man who is to wage active battle against the powers that prey. He must be clean of life, so that he can laugh when his public or his private record is searched; and yet being clean of life will not avail him if he is either foolish or timid. He must walk warily and fearlessly, and while he should never brawl if he can avoid it, he must be ready to hit hard if the need arises. Let him remember, by the way, that the unforgivable crime is soft hitting. Do not hit at all if it can be avoided; but never hit softly.

Like most young men in politics, I went through various oscillations of feeling before I “found myself.” At one period I became so impressed with the virtue of complete independence that I proceeded to act on each case purely as I personally viewed it, without paying any heed to the principles and prejudices of others. The result was that I speedily and deservedly lost all power of accomplishing anything at all; and I thereby learned the invaluable lesson that in the practical activities of life no man can render the highest service unless he can act in combination with his fellows, which means a certain amount of give-and-take between him and them. Again, I at one period began to believe that I had a future before me, and that it behooved me to be very far-sighted and scan each action carefully with a view to its possible effect on that future. This speedily made me useless to the public and an object of aversion to myself; and I then made up my mind that I would try not to think of the future at all, but would proceed on the assumption that each office I held would be the last I ever should hold, and that I would confine myself to trying to do my work as well as possible while I held that office. I found that for me personally this was the only way in which I could either enjoy myself or render good service to the country, and I never afterwards deviated from this plan.

As regards political advancement the bosses could of course do a good deal. At that time the warring Stalwart and Half-Breed factions of the Republican party were supporting respectively President Arthur and Senator Miller. Neither side cared for me. The first year in the Legislature I rose to a position of leadership, so that in the second year, when the Republicans were in a minority, I received the minority nomination for Speaker, although I was still the youngest man in the House, being twenty-four years old. The third year the Republicans carried the Legislature, and the bosses at once took a hand in the Speakership contest. I made a stout fight for the nomination, but the bosses of the two factions, the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, combined and I was beaten. I was much chagrined for the moment. But the fact that I had fought hard and efficiently, even though defeated, and that I had made the fight single-handed, with no machine back of me, assured my standing as floor leader. My defeat in the end materially strengthened my position, and enabled me to accomplish far more than I could have accomplished as Speaker. As so often, I found that the titular position was of no consequence; what counted was the combination of the opportunity with the ability to accomplish results. The achievement was the all-important thing; the position, whether titularly high or low, was of consequence only in so far as it widened the chance for achievement. After the session closed four of us who looked at politics from the same standpoint and were known as Independent or Anti-Machine Republicans were sent by the State Convention as delegates-at-large to the Republican National Convention of 1884, where I advocated, as vigorously as I knew how, the nomination of Senator George F. Edmunds. Mr. Edmunds was defeated and Mr. Blaine nominated. Mr. Blaine was clearly the choice of the rank and file of the party; his nomination was won in fair and aboveboard fashion, because the rank and file of the party stood back of him; and I supported him to the best of my ability in the ensuing campaign.

The Speakership contest enlightened me as regards more things than the attitude of the bosses. I had already had some exasperating experiences with the “silk stocking” reformer type, as Abraham Lincoln called it, the gentlemen who were very nice, very refined, who shook their heads over political corruption and discussed it in drawing-rooms and parlors, but who were wholly unable to grapple with real men in real life. They were apt vociferously to demand “reform” as if it were some concrete substance, like cake, which could be handed out at will, in tangible masses, if only the demand were urgent enough. These parlor reformers made up for inefficiency in action by zeal in criticising; and they delighted in criticising the men who really were doing the things which they said ought to be done, but which they lacked the sinewy power to do. They often upheld ideals which were not merely impossible but highly undesirable, and thereby played into the hands of the very politicians to whom they professed to be most hostile. Moreover, if they believed that their own interests, individually or as a class, were jeoparded, they were apt to show no higher standards than did the men they usually denounced.

One of their shibboleths was that the office should seek the man and not the man the office. This is entirely true of certain offices at certain times. It is entirely untrue when the circumstances are different. It would have been unnecessary and undesirable for Washington to have sought the Presidency. But if Abraham Lincoln had not sought the Presidency he never would have been nominated. The objection in such a case as this lies not to seeking the office, but to seeking it in any but an honorable and proper manner. The effect of the shibboleth in question is usually merely to put a premium on hypocrisy, and therefore to favor the creature who is willing to rise by hypocrisy. When I ran for Speaker, the whole body of machine politicians was against me, and my only chance lay in arousing the people in the different districts. To do this I had to visit the districts, put the case fairly before the men whom I saw, and make them understand that I was really making a fight and would stay in the fight to the end. Yet there were reformers who shook their heads and deplored my “activity” in the canvass. Of course the one thing which corrupt machine politicians most desire is to have decent men frown on the activity, that is, on the efficiency, of the honest man who genuinely wishes to reform politics.

If efficiency is left solely to bad men, and if virtue is confined solely to inefficient men, the result cannot be happy. When I entered politics there were, as there always had been—and as there always will be—any number of bad men in politics who were thoroughly efficient, and any number of good men who would like to have done lofty things in politics but who were thoroughly inefficient. If I wished to accomplish anything for the country, my business was to combine decency and efficiency; to be a thoroughly practical man of high ideals who did his best to reduce those ideals to actual practice. This was my ideal, and to the best of my ability I strove to live up to it.

To a young man, life in the New York Legislature was always interesting and often entertaining. There was always a struggle of some kind on hand. Sometimes it was on a naked question of right and wrong. Sometimes it was on a question of real constructive statesmanship. Moreover, there were all kinds of humorous incidents, the humor being usually of the unconscious kind. In one session of the Legislature the New York City Democratic representatives were split into two camps, and there were two rivals for leadership. One of these was a thoroughly good-hearted, happy-go-lucky person who was afterwards for several years in Congress. He had been a local magistrate and was called Judge. Generally he and I were friendly, but occasionally I did something that irritated him. He was always willing to vote for any other member’s bill himself, and he regarded it as narrow-minded for any one to oppose one of his bills, especially if the opposition was upon the ground that it was unconstitutional—for his views of the Constitution were so excessively liberal as to make even me feel as if I belonged to the straitest sect of strict constructionists. On one occasion he had a bill to appropriate money, with obvious impropriety, for the relief of some miscreant whom he styled “one of the honest yeomanry of the State.” When I explained to him that it was clearly unconstitutional, he answered, “Me friend, the Constitution don’t touch little things like that,” and then added, with an ingratiating smile, “Anyhow, I’d never allow the Constitution to come between friends.” At the time I was looking over the proofs of Mr. Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” and I told him the incident. He put it into the first edition of the “Commonwealth”; whether it is in the last edition or not, I cannot say.

On another occasion the same gentleman came to an issue with me in a debate, and wound up his speech by explaining that I occupied what “lawyers would call a quasiposition on the bill.” His rival was a man of totally different type, a man of great natural dignity, also born in Ireland. He had served with gallantry in the Civil War. After the close of the war he organized an expedition to conquer Canada. The expedition, however, got so drunk before reaching Albany that it was there incarcerated in jail, whereupon its leader abandoned it and went into New York politics instead. He was a man of influence, and later occupied in the Police Department the same position as Commissioner which I myself at one time occupied. He felt that his rival had gained too much glory at my expense, and, walking over with ceremonious solemnity to where the said rival was sitting close beside me, he said to him: “I would like you to know, Mr. Cameron [Cameron, of course, was not the real name], that Mr. Roosevelt knows more law in a wake than you do in a month; and, more than that, Michael Cameron, what do you mane by quoting Latin on the floor of this House when you don’t know the alpha and omayga of the language?”

There was in the Legislature, during the deadlock above mentioned, a man whom I will call 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!

The deadlock was tedious; and we hailed with joy such enlivening incidents as the above.

During my three years’ service in the Legislature I worked on a very simple philosophy of government. It was that personal character and initiative are the prime requisites in political and social life. It was not only a good but an absolutely indispensable theory as far as it went; but it was defective in that it did not sufficiently allow for the need of collective action. I shall never forget the men with whom I worked hand in hand in these legislative struggles, not only my fellow-legislators, but some of the newspaper reporters, such as Spinney and Cunningham; and then in addition the men in the various districts who helped us. We had made up our minds that we must not fight fire with fire, that on the contrary the way to win out was to equal our foes in practical efficiency and yet to stand at the opposite plane from them in applied morality.

It was not always easy to keep the just middle, especially when it happened that on one side there were corrupt and unscrupulous demagogues, and on the other side corrupt and unscrupulous reactionaries. Our effort was to hold the scales even between both. We tried to stand with the cause of righteousness even though its advocates were anything but righteous. We endeavored to cut out the abuses of property, even though good men of property were misled into upholding those abuses. We refused to be frightened into sanctioning improper assaults upon property, although we knew that the champions of property themselves did things that were wicked and corrupt. We were as yet by no means as thoroughly awake as we ought to have been to the need of controlling big business and to the damage done by the combination of politics with big business. In this matter I was not behind the rest of my friends; indeed, I was ahead of them, for no serious leader in political life then appreciated the prime need of grappling with these questions. One partial reason—not an excuse or a justification, but a partial reason—for my slowness in grasping the importance of action in these matters was the corrupt and unattractive nature of so many of the men who championed popular reforms, their insincerity, and the folly of so many of the actions which they advocated. Even at that date I had neither sympathy with nor admiration for the man who was merely a money king, and I did not regard the “money touch,” when divorced from other qualities, as entitling a man to either respect or consideration. As recited above, we did on more than one occasion fight battles, in which we neither took nor gave quarter, against the most prominent and powerful financiers and financial interests of the day. But most of the fights in which we were engaged were for pure honesty and decency, and they were more apt to be against that form of corruption which found its expression in demagogy than against that form of corruption which defended or advocated privilege. Fundamentally, our fight was part of the eternal war against the Powers that Prey; and we cared not a whit in what rank of life these powers were found.

To play the demagogue for purposes of self-interest is a cardinal sin against the people in a democracy, exactly as to play the courtier for such purposes is a cardinal sin against the people under other forms of government. A man who stays long in our American political life, if he has in his soul the generous desire to do effective service for great causes, inevitably grows to regard himself merely as one of many instruments, all of which it may be necessary to use, one at one time, one at another, in achieving the triumph of those causes; and whenever the usefulness of any one has been exhausted, it is to be thrown aside. If such a man is wise, he will gladly do the thing that is next, when the time and the need come together, without asking what the future holds for him. Let the half-god play his part well and manfully, and then be content to draw aside when the god appears. Nor should he feel vain regrets that to another it is given to render greater services and reap a greater reward. Let it be enough for him that he too has served, and that by doing well he has prepared the way for the other man who can do better.