Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.XIV
Children Trust Him
“You should have seen their innocent little faces. They were so dainty and clean in their starched dresses, with their yellow braids straight down their backs. And they thanked me so sweetly for sharing the book with them that it was a hardship not to catch them up in one’s arms and hug them then and there.”
Some of the party told me of the reception that followed, and of the little fellow who squirmed and squirmed in the grasp of the President’s hand, twisting this way and that, in desperate search of something, until Mr. Roosevelt asked him whom he was looking for.
“The President,” gasped the lad, twisting harder to get away, for fear he would lose his chance. And then the look of amazed incredulity that came into his face when the man who still had him by the hand said that he was the President. He must have felt as I did when I first met King Christian in Copenhagen, and learned who the man in the blue overcoat was, with whom I had such a good time telling him all about my boyish ambitions and my father and home, while we climbed the stairs to the picture exhibition in the palace of Charlottenborg. The idea of a real king in an overcoat and a plain hat! I had had my doubts about whether he took off his crown when he went to bed at night.
That is the boy of it, I suppose; and they are all alike. If any, you would think the precocious youngster from the East-side Jewry would be excepted; but he is not. I have a fairly representative specimen in mind, who wrote home from his vacation in Maine, “Tom Reed has seen me twice.” But when at last the privilege was vouchsafed to President Roosevelt, speech and sense forsook our East-sider, and he stood and looked on, gaping, the fine oration he had committed to memory clean gone out of his head. He explained his break after the President was gone.
“Why,” he gasped, “he was just like any other plain-clothes man!”
A ribbon or sash, at least, with a few stars and crosses, a fellow might have expected. And, when you come to think of it, it is not so strange. Look at the general of the army in gala suit, and at the President, his commander-in-chief. Which makes me think again of Mr. Cleveland, who, when he was governor, togged out his staff in the most gorgeous clothes ever seen, and when heading it on his way to a public function, himself in plain black, was stopped by an underling, who took one glance at the procession and waved it back.
“The band goes the other way,” he said.
Long years after, Mr. Cleveland had not stopped laughing at the recollection of the look that sat upon the faces of the gold-laced company of distinguished citizens.
But I was thinking of President Roosevelt’s affection for children. It is just the experience of an unspoiled nature that reaches out for what is pure and natural. I remember that the day we were making the trip of the tenement-house sweat-shops together, we came, in one of the Italian flats, upon a little family scene. A little girl was going to confirmation, all dressed in white, with flowers and veil. She stood by her grandmother’s chair in the dingy room, a radiant vision, with reverently bowed head as the aged hand was laid in trembling benediction upon her brow. The Governor stopped on the threshold and surveyed the scene with kindling eyes.
“Sweet child,” he said, and learned her name and age from the parents, who received us with the hospitable courtesy of their people. “Tell them,” to the interpreter, “that I am glad I came in to see her, and that I believe she will be always as good and innocent as she is now, and a very great help to her mother and her venerable grandmother.” That time I did get a chance to tell them who it was that had come to the feast, so that it might add to the pleasure of the day for them. I just sneaked back and told them.
The children usually take to him, as he to them, in the same perfect good faith. We saw it in Mulberry Street, after he had gone, when two little tots came from over on the East Side asking for “the Commissioner,” that they might obtain justice. I can see them now: the older a little hunchback girl, with her poor shawl pinned over her head and the sober look of a child who has known want and pinching poverty at an age when she should have been at play, dragging her reluctant baby brother by the hand. His cheeks were tear-stained, and his little nose was bruised and bloody, and he was altogether an unhappy boy, in his rôle of “evidence,” under the scrutiny of the big policeman at the door. It was very plain that he would much rather not have been there. But the decrees of fate were no more merciless than his sister’s grasp on him as she marched him in and put the case to the policeman. They had come from Allen Street, then the Red Light District. Some doubtful “ladies” had moved into their tenement, she explained, and the other tenants had “made trouble” with the police. The “ladies,” locating the source of the trouble in their flat, had seized upon the child and “punched” his nose. They had even had to send for a doctor. She unrolled a bundle and showed a bottle of medicine in corroboration. Her brother had suffered and the household had been put to expense. Seeing which, she had collected her evidence and come straight to Police Headquarters to “see the Commissioner.” Having said it, she waited calmly for directions, sure that when she found the Commissioner they would get justice.
And they did get it, though Roosevelt was no longer there. It was for him they had come. Nothing that happened in all that time showed better how deep was the mark he left. It was his legacy to Mulberry Street that the children should come there seeking justice, and their faith was not to be put to shame.
In those days he would sometimes slip away with me from Headquarters for an hour with the little Italians in the Sullivan Street Industrial School, or some other work of the Children’s Aid Society, in which his father had borne a strong hand. It was after the first McKinley election that we surprised Miss Satterie’s school (in Sullivan Street) at their Christmas-tree. They were singing “Children of the Heavenly King,” and the teacher, with the pride in her pupils that goeth before a fall, according to the proverb, held up the singing without warning, and asked:
“Children, who is this heavenly King?”
It was not a fair question, with a small battalion of pink-robed dolls nodding from the branches of the tree, and ice-cream being brought in in pails. Heaven enough in Sullivan Street for them just then. There was a dead silence that was becoming painful when a little brown fist shot up from a rear bench.
“Well, Vito!” said the teacher, relieved, “who is he?”
“McKinley,” piped the youngster. He had not forgotten the fireworks and the flags and the brass bands. Could anything be grander? And all in honor of McKinley. What better proof that he must be the King—of Sullivan Street anyway, where heaven had just found lodgment?
When Roosevelt had been elected governor, we went over together for the last time; for it was getting to be hard for him to go around without gathering a crowd, and I saw that he did not like it. In one of his letters not long ago he spoke of the old days, and our expeditions, and of how he wished we could do again what we did then, for he had ever a great desire to get close to the real life of the people. It was a natural sympathy for his honest but poorer neighbor, for whom he had battled ever since life meant more to him than play. His errand being one of friendly interest, and not of mere curiosity, there was never any danger of his seeming to patronize by his presence, though, if he thought he detected the signs of it, he quickly took himself out of the way. With the children there was, of course, never any peril of that, and they were chums together without long introduction. “I suppose we could not even go among them nowadays without their having to call out the police reserves,” he complained in his letter. Though he was followed by a cheering crowd on our last visit to the Sullivan Street School, it had not yet quite come to that. He pulled his coat collar up about his face, and we escaped around the corner.
The big brown eyes of the little lads grew bigger and darker yet that day as he told them of his regiment, and of his Italian bugler who blew his trumpet in their first fight, telling the Rough-Riders to advance under cover, or to charge, until a Spanish bullet clipped off the two middle fingers of the hand that held the bugle. Then he went and had it dressed and came back and helped carry in the wounded, all through the rest of the fight, with his damaged hand. He told them of his standard-bearer who carried the flag right through a storm of bullets that tore it to shreds; of how his men were such good fighters that they never gave back an inch, though a fourth of them all were either killed or wounded; and yet no sooner was the fighting over than they all gave half of their hardtack to the starving women and children who came out of Santiago. And he showed them that true manhood and tenderness toward the weak go always together, and that the boy who was good to his mother and sister and little brother, decent and clean in his life, would grow up to be the best American citizen, who would always be there when he was wanted. They almost forgot to applaud when he stopped, so breathlessly had they hung upon every word. But they made good their omission. Talk about rousing the military spirit which some of my good friends so dread—I think he kindled something that day in those little hearts, whom, unthinking, we had passed by, that will tell for our country in years to come. I should not be afraid of rousing any amount of the fighting spirit that is bound to battle for the weak and the defenseless and the right. And that is the kind he stirs wherever he goes.
Sometimes, when I speak of the children of the poor, some one says to me,—once it was the great master of a famous school,—“Yes, they have their hardships; but God help the children of the rich who have none!” And he is right. In his life Theodore Roosevelt furnishes the precise antidote for the idleness and the selfishness that threaten to eat the heart out of theirs. His published writings fairly run over, from the earliest day, with the gospel of work, and surely he has practised what he preaches as few have. “Theodore Roosevelt, a bright precocious boy, aged twelve,” wrote a distinguished New York physician of him, in his “case-book,” thirty-odd years ago; and added to his partner, “He ought to make his mark in the world but for the difficulty that he has a rich father”; so he told me after Roosevelt had become Governor. It was a difficulty,—is with too many to-day. It is not Roosevelt’s least merit that he has shown to those how to overcome it. But I own that my heart turns to him as the champion of his poorer brother, ever eager and ready to give him a helping hand. When I read, in the accounts of his journey in the West, of the crowd that besieged his train, and how he picked out a little crippled child in it, and took it up in his arms, then I knew him as I have seen him over and over again, and as I love him best. I knew him then for the son of his big-hearted father, to whom wrong and suffering of any kind, anywhere, appealed with such an irresistible claim that in his brief lifetime he became the greatest of moral forces in my city.
Then I see him as he stood that day on the car platform at Greenport, shaking hands with the school children that came swarming down just as the train was going to pull out. I see him spy the forlorn little girl in the threadbare coat, last among them all, who had given up in dumb despair, for how should she ever reach her hero through that struggling crowd, with the engineer even then tooting the signal to start? And I see him leap from the platform and dive into the surging tide like a strong swimmer striking from the shore, make a way through the shouting mob of youngsters clear to where she was on the outskirts looking on hopelessly, seize and shake her hand as if his very heart were in his, and then catch the moving train on a run, while she looked after it, her pale, tear-stained face one big, happy smile. That was Roosevelt, every inch of him, and don’t you like him, too?
People laugh a little, sometimes, and poke fun at his “race suicide,” but to him the children mean home, family, the joy of the young years, and the citizenship of to-morrow, all in one. And I do not think we have yet made out to the full what the ideal of home, held as he holds it, means to us all in a man whose life is avowedly given to public affairs, and whose way has led him clear to the top. After all, we sum up in the one word all that is worth working for and fighting for. With that gone, what were left? But it has seemed in this generation as if every influence, especially in our big cities, were hostile to the home, and that was one reason why I hailed the coming of this plain man of old-time ideals into our people’s life, and wanted him to be as close to it as he could get. His enemies never understood either the one or the other. I remember when in the Police Department they had him shadowed at night, thinking to catch him “off his guard.” He flushed angrily when he heard it.
“What!” he cried, “going home to my babies?.”
But his anger died in a sad little laugh of pity and contempt. That was their way. They could not understand. And to-day he is the beloved Chief of the Nation; and where are they?
When he came home, his first errand, when the children were little, was always to the nursery. Nowadays they are big enough to run to meet him—and they do, with a rush. I came home with him one day when he was in the Navy Department, and he tempted me to go up with him to see the babies.
“But not to play bear,” said Mrs. Roosevelt, warningly; “the baby is being put to sleep.”
No, he would not play bear, he promised, and we went up. But it is hard not to play bear when the baby squirms out of the nurse’s arms and growls and claws at you like a veritable little cub; and in five minutes Mrs. Roosevelt, coming to investigate the cause of the noise in the nursery, opened the door upon the wildest kind of a circus, with the baby screaming his delight. I can recall nothing more amusing than that tableau, with the silent shape upon the threshold striving hard to put on a look of great sternness, and him, meekly apologetic, on the floor with the baby, explaining, “Well, Edith, it was this way—” We never found out which way it was, for the humor of the situation was too much for us,—and the baby was thoroughly awake by that time, anyway. I say I can think of nothing funnier, unless it be Kermit taking his pet rat out of his pocket at the breakfast-table in the White House, and letting it hop across for my inspection. It was a kangaroo-rat, and it nibbled very daintily the piece of sugar the President gave it. But it was something new to me then. I have heard of all sorts of things in a boy’s pocket,—fish-hooks and nails and bits of colored glass. But a live rat, never!
Kermit was along, last summer, when the President and Mrs. Roosevelt went down in the Sylph to Twin Island, to visit the summer home of my people in Henry Street. He is n’t a bit awed by the Presidency.
“U-ugh!” he said, with a look of comic concern, as the President leaped into the launch, “something heavy went over then.”
That was the day the children of the East Side will remember to the last day of their lives. They absolutely deserted their dinner when word was brought that the Sylph had hove to outside the rocks, and with a wild rush made for the shore, where they stood and waved their flags and shouted their welcome. “Three cheers for the red, white, and blue!” And his foot had hardly touched the shore before there were from six to a dozen youngsters hanging to each hand, and plying him with questions as they danced up the jungle-path to the house, every one trying to look into his face while they skipped and talked, so that at least half of them were walking backward on the toes of those next to them all the while. No fear of patronizing there. They were chums on the minute. If anything, they did the patronizing, the while their mothers were escorting Mrs. Roosevelt with simple dignity, proud of their guest, and touched in their innermost hearts by her coming among them.
“Was that your ship what was all lit up out there last night?” I heard one of the youngsters ask the President; and another, who had hold of the skirt of his coat, took in the island with one wide sweep of his unclaimed hand: “Ain’t it bully?”
And it was. Not a sign “Keep off the grass” on the whole island; free license to roam where they pleased, to wade and to fish and to gather posies, or to sit on the rocks and sing. The visitors went from the woods to the house, saw the big bedrooms,—so big that when the trees outside waved their branches in the patch of moonlight on the floor, the children at first huddled together, frightened, in a corner. They felt as if they were outside in a strange country. The whole tenement flat in the stony street could easily have been packed into one of those rooms. They saw them eat and play and skip about in happiness such as their life had been stranger to before,—these children of few opportunities; and the President turned to me with a joyous little laugh:
“Oh, Jacob! what monument to man is there of stone or bronze that equals that of the happiness of these children and mothers?”
That was a great day, indeed. Twin Island, the home of wealth and fashion till the city made a park alongshore and gave us the use of the deserted mansion, never saw its like.
The Christmas bells are ringing as I write this, and they take me back to that holiday season, half a dozen years ago, when I was mistaken for Mr. Roosevelt with startling results. It happened once or twice, when he was Police Commissioner, that people made that mistake. They could not have been very discerning; but, whether or no, it did me no harm. I was glad of the compliment. This time I had gone to see the newsboys in the Duane Street lodging-house get their Christmas dinner. There were six or seven hundred of them, and as they marched past to the long tables where the plates of roast turkey stood in expectant rows, with a whole little mince-pie at each plate, the little shavers were last in the line. They were just as brimful of mischief as they could be,—that was easy to see. The superintendent pulled my sleeve as they went by, with a “Watch out now and you ’ll see some fun.” What he meant I did n’t know then. I saw only a swift movement of their hands as they went by the table,—too swift for me to follow. I found out when they sat down and eight grimy little hands shot up and eight aggrieved little voices piped:
“Mister, I ain’t got no pie!”
“What!” said the superintendent, with another wink to me; “no pie! There must be; I put it there myself. Let ’s see about that.”
And he went over and tapped the first and the smallest of the lads on the stomach, where his shirt bulged.
“What ’s that?” he said, feeling of the bulge.
“Me pie,” said the lad, unabashed. “I wuz afeard it w’d get stole on me, and so I—”
They had “swiped” the pies in passing.
“Never mind,” said the superintendent,— “never mind, we ’ll forgive and forget. It ’s Christmas! Go ahead, boys, and eat.” And six hundred pairs of knives and forks flashed, and six hundred pairs of jaws and six hundred tongues wagged all at once, until you could n’t hear yourself think.
But one of the lads, who had not taken his eyes from me, suddenly saw a light. He pointed his knife straight at me and piped out so that they all heard it:
“I know you! I seen yer pitcher in the papers. You ’re a P’lice Commissioner. You ’re—you ’re—Teddy Roosevelt!”
If a bomb had fallen into the meeting, I doubt if the effect would have been greater. A silence fell, so deep that you would have heard a pin drop—where, a moment before, the noise of a dray going over the pavement would have been drowned in the din. Glancing down the table where the little shavers sat, I saw a stealthy movement under cover, and the eight stolen pies appeared with a common accord over the edge and were replaced as suddenly as they had gone!
He laughed, when I told him of it, as I had seldom seen him laugh, and said it was a great compliment. And so it was: it was evidence of the respect he was held in as Police Commissioner. Twin Island told the other end of the story, and it was even better.