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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


Ruling by the Ten Commandments

THE CAMPAIGN was over and ended. The morning would break on Election Day. We were speeding homeward in the midnight hour on a special from the western end of the State, where the day had been spent in speech-making, a hurricane wind-up of a canvass that had taken the breath of the old-timers away. Was it the victory in the air, was it Sherman Bell, the rough-rider deputy sheriff from Cripple Creek, or what was it that had turned us all, young and old, into so many romping boys as the day drew toward its close? I can still see the venerable Ex-Governor and Minister to Spain Stewart L. Woodford, myself, and a third scapegrace, whose name I have forgotten, going through the streets of Dunkirk, arm in arm, breasting the crowds and yelling, “Yi! yi!” like a bunch of college boys on a lark, and again and again falling into the line that passed Mr. Roosevelt in the hotel lobby to shake hands, until he peered into our averted faces and drove us out with laughter. And I can see him holding his sides, while the audience in the Opera House yelled its approval of Sherman Bell’s offer to Dick Croker, who had called Roosevelt a “wild man”: “Who is this Dick Croker? I don’t know him. He don’t come from my State. Let him take thirty of his best men, I don’t care how well they ‘re heeled, and I will take my gang and we ’ll see who ’s boss. I ’ll shoot him so full of holes he won’t know himself from a honeycomb.” And then the wild enthusiasm in the square, where no one could hear a word of what was said for the cheering.

But now it was all over, and we were on the way home to add our own votes to the majority that would carry our Rough-Rider to Albany. We were discussing its probable size over our belated supper,—each according to his experience or enthusiasm. I remember his friendly nod and smile my way when I demanded a hundred thousand at least. He inclined to ten or fifteen thousand, as indeed proved quite near the mark; when there was a rap on the door, and in came the engineer, wiping his oily hands in his blouse, to shake hands and wish him luck. Roosevelt got up from the table, and I saw him redden with pleasure as he shook the honest hand and asked his name.

“Dewey,” said the engineer, and such a shout went up! It was an omen of victory, surely.

“Dewey,” said Roosevelt, “I would rather have you come here as you do to shake hands than have ten committees of distinguished citizens bring pledges of support”; and I knew he would. It is no empty form with him when he shakes hands with the engineer and the fireman of his train after a journey. He was ever genuinely fond of railroad men, of skilled mechanics of any kind, but especially of the men who harness the iron steed and drive it with steady eye and hand through the dangers of the night. They have something in common with him that makes them kin. The pilot of the Sylph that brought us through the raging storm in the Sound the other day was of that class. They sent word from the Navy-Yard to meet the President that on no account must he proceed down the Bay to Ellis Island. No boat could live there, ran the message. The President had the pilot come down and looked him over. He was a bronzed sea-dog, a man every inch of him.

“I have promised to go to Ellis Island; they are waiting for me. Can you get us there?”

The pilot wiped the salt spray from his face.

“It can’t be worse than we ’ve had,” he said.

“I’ll get you there.”

“Then go ahead,” said Mr. Roosevelt, and to me, “What do you think of him?”

“I would go with him anywhere,” said I.

“To look at him is to trust him.”

The President followed his retreating form up the ladder with a look that, had he seen it, must have made him take his ship through Hades itself had it been between us and Ellis Island. “So do I think,” he said. “They are a splendid lot of fellows.”

But I am sailing ahead of my time. We were on our train just now. We did n’t wake up, any of us, the next morning, till it rolled over the Hudson at Albany, and there lay the Capitol, with flags flying, in full sight. Just as I put up my curtain and saw it, Roosevelt opened the door of his room and bade us good-morning, and eleven throats sent up three rousing cheers for “the Governor.”

At night we shouted again by torch-light, and the whole big State shouted with us. Theodore Roosevelt was Governor, elected upon the pledge that he would rule by the Ten Commandments, in the city where, fifteen years before, the spoils politicians had spurned him for insisting upon doing the thing that was right rather than the thing that was expedient. Say now the world does not move! It strides with seven-league boots where only it has a man who dares to lead the way.

Not necessarily at a smooth or even gait. He knew what was before him, and as for the politicians, they were not appreciably nearer to the Ten Commandments than in the old days. They had not changed. They had fallen in behind Roosevelt because it was expedient, not because it was right. They had to win, and they could win only with him. And yet, when “Buck” Taylor in a burst of fervid frontier eloquence exhorted his audience to “Follow ma colonel! follow ma colonel! and he will lead you, as he led us, like lambs to the slaughter!” I think not unlikely there mingled with the cheers and the laughter the secret hope in the breasts of some that it might be so. It was but natural. They knew right well, the politicians did, how much they had to expect from him; it was but a lean two years they were looking forward to with Roosevelt as Governor. They might have comforted themselves in defeat by the thought that he was killed and out of the way at last. Who knows?

When I speak of politicians here, I am thinking of the spoilsmen who played the game for keeps. They ran the machine, and they took him, with their eyes open, to save it. And then we saw the curious sight of the good-government forces, his natural allies, who were largely what they were because of the example he had all along consistently set, sulking disconsolate because he, who had always been a loyal party man without ever surrendering his conscience to his partisanship, went with his party; instead of rejoicing, as they might well have done, that the party had been forced into making such a choice, that being the very end and aim and meaning of their political existence. They grumbled because he would “see the party bosses.” Of course he would—see anybody that could help him get things done; for he had certain definite ends of good government in view, and it was no more to his taste to pose on the solitary peak of abortive righteousness as Governor, than it had been as a legislator. Yes, he would see the bosses, and he went right up to the front door and told the newspaper men his business, though they tried to smuggle him in secretly by the back way, to save his feelings. His feelings were n’t hurt a bit. If he could make the machine work with him for good, he had killed two birds with one stone, for so it would be a more effective machine for party purposes as he saw them. As for its working him to its uses—the bosses knew better. The reformers did not. They sat and mourned, needlessly.

For him—I thought more than once in those days of a paragraph he had written about practical politics while he was yet a Civil Service Commissioner practising them with might and main. How much of prophecy there is in his writings, when you look back now! There would be obstacles, he wrote. “Let him make up his mind that he will have to face the violent opposition of the spoils politician, and also, too often, the unfair and ungenerous criticism of those who ought to know better.… Let him fight his way forward, paying only so much regard to both as is necessary to help him to win in spite of them. He may not, and indeed probably will not, accomplish nearly as much as he would like to, or as he thinks he ought to; but he will certainly accomplish something.” He settled down courageously to the fight that was his own prescription. And when it was over, this was the judgment passed upon his administration in the “Review of Reviews” by Dr. Albert Shaw, than whom there is no fairer, more clear-headed critic of public events in the country: “He found the State administration thoroughly political; he left it businesslike and efficient. He kept thrice over every promise that he made to the people in his canvass. Mr. Roosevelt so elevated and improved the whole tone of the State administration and so effectually educated his party and public opinion generally, that future governors will find easy what was before almost impossible.”

That was accomplishing something, surely. It worked all right, then. Had some of the solemn head-shakers known how he enjoyed it all, I fear that to the inconsistent charges of bowing down to the idol of party and of wrecking his party, that were flung at him in the same breath, there would have been added the killing one of levity, that was not used up against Abraham Lincoln. I have an amused recollection of one band of visiting statesmen that filed into the Executive Mansion with grave, portentous mien, just as the Governor and I stole down the kitchen stairs to the sub-cellar to visit with Kermit’s white rats, that were much better company. The Governor knew their names, their lineage, and all their “points,” which were many, according to Kermit. They were fully discussed before we returned to the upper world of stupid politics.

That is my opinion, anyway. I hate politics—I am thinking of the game again—and I am not going to bother with them here, if I can help it, which I suppose I can’t since the Governor of the Empire State must needs be in politics up to his neck if he would do his duty; that is, he must be concerned about the welfare of his people rather than about putting his backers into fat jobs and seeing that the “party is made solid” in every county. But then, they are different brands. Roosevelt had his own brand from the start. Long before, he had identified and carefully charted it, lest the party managers make a mistake. “Practical politics,” he wrote, “must not be construed to mean dirty politics. On the contrary, in the long run, the politics of fraud and treachery and foulness is unpractical politics, and the most practical of all politicians is the one who is clean and decent and upright. The party man who offers his allegiance to party as an excuse for blindly following his party, right or wrong, and who fails to try to make that party in any way better, commits a crime against the country.”

To this place had I come when I was asked to go over and tell the Young Men’s Christian Association on the West Side what the “battle with the slum” meant to my city. And I did, and when I had told them the story I showed them a picture of Theodore Roosevelt as the man who had done more hard and honest fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves, or do not know how, than any other man anywhere. And a man in the audience—there is always one of that kind in every audience—who could see in the President of the United States only the candidate of his party for the next term, wrote to me of partisanship and of bad taste, and of how he could not stand Roosevelt because as Governor he would “see Platt,” and did. I have his letter here before me, and my blood boils up in me whenever I look at it. Not because of the particular man and his letter. I have come across their like before. The thing that angers me is the travesty they make of the real non-partisanship with which we must win our fight for decency in the cities, because national politics in municipal elections are a mere cloak for corruption. How in the world am I to persuade my healthy-minded Democratic neighbor not to listen to Tammany’s blandishments when he has this wizened spectacle before him? He is a man with convictions, who understands men and the play of human forces in the world, and can appreciate Roosevelt for what he is and does, even if he disagrees with him; whereas the other never can. He can only “see Platt.” Verily, between the two, give me Platt. If he had horns and a spike-tail painted blue, and all the other parlor furnishings of the evil place, I think I should take my chances with him and a jolly old fight rather than with the shivering visions of my correspondent who is so mortally afraid of the appearance of evil that by no chance can he ever get time to do good.

See Platt! Governor Roosevelt saw no end of people during his two years’ term, and from some of them he learned something, and others learned something from him. The very first thing he did when he was in the Capitol at Albany was to ask the labor leaders to come up and see him. There were a lot of labor laws, so called, on the statute-books, designed to better the lot of the workingman in one way or another, and half of them were dead letters. Some of them had been passed in good faith, and had somehow stuck in the enforcement; and then there were others that were just fakes.

“These laws,” said the Governor to the labor leaders, “are your special concern. I want you to look them over with me and see if they are fair, and, if they are, that they be fairly enforced. We will have no dead-letter laws. If there is anything wrong that you know of, I want you to tell me of it. If we need more legislation, we will go to the legislature and ask for it. If we have enough, we will see to it that the laws we have are carried out, and the most made of them.”

And during two years there was no disagreement in that quarter that was not gotten over fairly. Sometimes the facts were in dispute. Then he went to those who were in position to make them plain and asked them to do it. On two or three occasions he made me the umpire between disputing organizations and the Factory Department, and I had again a near view of the extraordinary faculty of judging quickly and correctly which habit and severe training have developed in this man. Cases to which I gave weeks of steady endeavor to get at the truth, and then had to bring to him, still in doubt, he decided almost at a glance, piercing the husks with unerring thrust and dragging out the kernel that had eluded me. I remember particularly one such occasion when I sat on the edge of the bed in his room at the hotel—he had come down to New York to review a militia regiment—while he was shaving himself at the window. I had gone all over the case and told him of my perplexity, when he took it up, and between bubbles of soap he blew at me he made clear what had been dim before, until I marveled that I had not seen it.

There came at last an occasion when nobody could decide. It was the factory law again that was in question—the enforcement of it, that is to say. The claim was made that it was not enforced as it should be. The factory inspectors said they did their best. The registering alone of all the tenement-house workers, as the new law demanded, in a population of over two millions of souls with few enough of their tenements free from the stamp of the sweat-shop, was a big enough task to leave a margin for honest intentions even with poor results. But the Governor was not content to give his inspectors the benefit of the doubt. He wrote to me to get together two or three of the dissatisfied, a list of disputed houses, and the factory inspector of the district, and he would come down and see for himself.

“I think,” he wrote, “that perhaps, if I looked through the sweat-shops myself with the inspectors, as well as looked over their work, we might be in a condition to put things on a new basis, just as they were put on a new basis in the police department after you and I began our midnight tours.”

I shall not soon forget that trip we took together. It was on one of the hottest days of early summer, and it wore me completely out, though I was used to it. Him it only gave a better appetite for dinner. I had picked twenty five-story tenements, and we went through them from cellar to roof, examining every room and the people we found there. They were on purpose the worst tenements of the East Side, and they showed us the hardest phases of the factory inspector’s work, and where he fell short. The rules under which a tenement could be licensed for home work required: absolute cleanliness, that there should be no bed in the room where the work was done, no outsider employed, no contagious disease, and only one family living in the rooms. In one Italian tenement that had room for seventeen families I had found forty-three the winter before on midnight inspection; that is to say, three families in every three-room flat, instead of one, all cooking at the same stove. No doubt they were still there, but the daylight showed us only a few women and a lot of babies whom they claimed as theirs. The men were out, the larger children in the street.

The Governor went carefully through every room, observing its condition and noting the number of the license on the wall, if anything was wrong. Sometimes there was no license. Sometimes one had been issued and revoked, but the women were still at work. They listened to remonstrances unmoved.

“Vat for I go avay?” said one. “Vere I go den?”

It was an intensely practical question with them, but so it was and is with us all; for from those forsaken tenements, where the home is wrecked hopelessly by ill-paid work that barely puts a dry crust into the mouths of the children, stalks the specter of diphtheria, of scarlet fever, and of consumption forth over the city and the land, sometimes basted in the lining of the coat or the dress that was bought at the fashionable Broadway counter, proving us neighbors in very truth, though we deny the kinship. Roosevelt understood. His investigations as an assemblyman into the cigarmakers’ tenement-house conditions, and, later, as a member of the Board of Health, had put him in possession of the facts. He did not mince matters with the factory inspector when, after our completed tour, we went to his office late in the afternoon. There was improvement, he said, but not enough.

“I do not think you quite understand,” he said, “what I mean by enforcing a law. I don’t want it made as easy as possible for the manufacturer. I want you to refuse to license anybody in a tenement that does not come up to the top notch of your own requirements. Make the owners of tenements understand that old, badly built, uncleanly houses shall not be used for manufacturing in any shape, and that licenses will be granted only in houses fulfilling rigidly the requirements of cleanliness and proper construction. Put the bad tenement at a disadvantage as against the well-constructed and well-kept house, and make the house-owner as well as the manufacturer understand it.”

We heard the echoes of that day’s work in the Governor’s emergency message to the legislature the following winter, calling upon it to pass the Tenement House Commission Bill. He summoned “the general sentiment for decent and cleanly living and for fair play to all our citizens” to oppose the mercenary hostility of the slum landlord. And the legislature heard, and the bill became law, to the untold relief of the people. That was a sample of the practical politics in the interest of which he was willing to “see” the party managers, if it was needed. And it usually ended with their seeing things as he did.

It seemed fair and just to the Governor that corporations with valuable franchises should be taxed on these, since they were much more valuable property than their real estate. It was one way, to his mind, of avoiding crank legislation designed merely to “hit money.” The party managers disagreed. The Governor had thought it all out; to him it was just, even expedient as a party measure. He invited the corporation people to come and see him about it, that they might talk it over. They did n’t; they conspired with the party managers to bury the bill in committee in the legislature. When the Governor sent an emergency message to wake it, they tore it up. The next morning another message was laid upon the Speaker’s desk.

“I learn,” it read, “that the emergency message which I sent last evening to the Assembly on behalf of the Franchise Tax Bill has not been read. I therefore send hereby another. I need not impress upon the Assembly the need of passing this bill at once.… It establishes the principle that hereafter corporations holding franchises from the public shall pay their just share of the public burden.”

The bill was passed. The party managers “saw.” The corporations did, too, and asked to be heard. They were heard. The law was amended at an extra session, but the principle stood unaltered. Since then the Court of Appeals has declared it constitutional and good, and not only the State of New York, but the whole country thanks Governor Roosevelt for a piece of legislation that makes for the permanent peace of our land. There can never be other basis for that than the absolute assurance that all men, rich and poor, are equal before the law. Trouble is sure to come, sooner or later, where money can buy special privilege. The marvel is that those who have the money to buy, cannot half the time see it.

I am tempted to tell the story of how Roosevelt appointed the successor of Louis F. Payn, Superintendent of Insurance, and made one more mortal enemy. That was one of the times he “saw” Senator Platt, whose lifelong political friend Payn was. But what would be the use? None to my correspondent who knows it all, yet does not understand. All the rest of us have it by heart. And it would be politics, which I said I would eschew. It was politics for fair, for all the power of the machine, all of it and more, was opposed to the Governor in his determination to displace this man. But Roosevelt was right, and he won. Let that be the record. When he was gone from Albany the oldest lobbyist, starved though he was, had to own that Roosevelt fought fair, always in the open. His recourse was to the people, and that was how he won,—even in the matter of the civil service bill, in which he trod hard on the toes of the politicians. We had a law, but they had succeeded in “taking the starch out of it.” Roosevelt put it back. I think no man living but he could have done it. But they realized that they could not face him before the people on that, of all issues. And to-day my State has a civil service law that is as good as it can well be made, and we are so much better off.

I never liked Albany before, but I grew to be quite fond of the queer old Dutch city on the Hudson in those two years. It is not so far away but that I could run up after office hours and have a good long talk with the Governor before the midnight train carried me back home. Sometimes it was serious business only that carried me up there. I am thinking just now of the execution of Mrs. Place, who had murdered her stepdaughter and tried to brain her husband. It was a very wicked murder, but there was something about the execution of a woman that stirred the feelings of a lot of people, myself included. Perhaps it was largely a survival of the day of public hangings, which is happily past. But, more than that, I had a notion that it would hurt his career. I think I told of it in “The Making of an American” when it was all long over. I certainly did not tell him. I knew better. But I argued all through a long evening into the midnight hour, until I had to grab my hat and run for the train, that he should not permit it. I argued myself to an absolute stand-still, for I remember his saying at last impatiently:

“If it had only been a man she killed—but another woman!” and I, exasperated and illogical: “Anyway, you are obliged to admit that she tried hard enough to kill a man.”

After I got back home he sent me a letter which I may not print here. But I shall hand it down to my children, and they will keep it as one of the precious possessions of their father, long after I have ceased to live and write. One sentence in it I have no right to withhold, for it turns the light on his character and way of thinking as few things do:

“Whatever I do, old friend, believe it will be because after painful groping I see my duty in some given path.”

So it was always with him. His duty was made clear when the commission of experts he had appointed reported that Mrs. Place was as sane and responsible as any of them, and public clamor had no power to move him from it.

I like to set over against her case another in which my argument prevailed, for it shows the man’s heart, which he had often no little trouble to hide under the sternness imposed by duty. I knew the soreness of it then by the joy I saw it gave him to make people happy. Policeman Hannigan had been sent to Sing Sing for shooting a boy who was playing football in the street on Thanksgiving Day. He ran, and the policeman, who had been sent with special orders to clear the ball-players out of the block, where they had been breaking windows, ran after him. In the excitement of the chase he fired his pistol, and the bullet struck and slightly wounded the boy in the leg. The policeman was “broken” and sent to the penitentiary, and of the incident we made a mighty lever in the fight for playgrounds where the boys might play without breaking either windows or laws. And then I thought of the policeman in the prison, a young man with a wife and children and a clean record till then, and I asked the Governor to pardon him. Of course he had not meant to shoot; he was carried away, and now he had been punished enough. I have preserved the Governor’s answer that came by next day’s mail. It was written on the last day of the year 1899:

  • “Happy New Year to you and yours, and as a New Year’s gift take the pardon of the policeman Hannigan. The papers were forwarded to the prison this morning.
  • “Ever yours,
  • And so one man who that day was without hope started fair with the new year.

    I wish I might go on and write indefinitely of those days and what they were to me: Of that dinner-party to some foreign visitors into which I, taking tea peacefully with Mrs. Roosevelt and the children, was suddenly catapulted by the announcement that through an unexpected arrival there would be thirteen at the table, a fact which would be sure to make some one of the guests uncomfortable, and at which the Governor kept poking quiet fun at me across the table, until I warned him with a look that I might even betray his perfidy, if he kept it up. Of how I kept admiring the Executive Mansion because Cleveland had lived in it, till he took me to the Capitol and showed me there the pictures of all his predecessors except Cleveland, who was stingy, he said, and wouldn’t give the State his. Whereat I rebelled loudly, maintaining that it was modesty. Of the mighty argument that ensued,— a mock argument, for in my soul I knew that he thought as much of Cleveland as did I. Of these things I would like to tell, for they make the picture of the man to me, and perhaps I can smuggle it in later. But here, I suppose, I ought to remember the Governor, and therefore I shall not do as I would otherwise.

    When I look back now to the day when he stood in the Assembly Chamber, with the oath of office fresh upon his lips, and spoke to his people, there comes to me this sentence from his speech: “It is not given to any man, nor to any set of men, to see with absolutely clear vision into the future. All that can be done is to face the facts as we find them, to meet each difficulty in practical fashion, and to strive steadily for the betterment both of our civil and social conditions.”

    Truly, if ever man kept a pledge, he kept that. He nursed no ambitions; he built up no machine of his own. He was there to do his duty as it was given to him to see it, and he strove steadily for the betterment of all he touched as Governor of the State that was his by birth and long ancestry, even as his father had striven in his day and in his sphere. He made enemies—God help the poor man who has none; but he kept his friends. When he was gone, a long while after, my way led me to Albany again. I had not cared much for it since he went. And I said so to a friend, an old State official who had seen many governors come and go. He laid his hand upon my arm.

    “Yes,” said he, “we think so, many of us. The place seemed dreary when he was gone. But I know now that he left something behind that was worth our losing him to get. This past winter, for the first time, I heard the question spring up spontaneously, as it seemed, when a measure was up in the legislature: ‘Is it right?’ Not ‘Is it expedient?’ not ‘How is it going to help me?’ not ‘What is it worth to the party?’ Not any of these, but ‘Is it right?’ That is Roosevelt’s legacy to Albany. And it was worth his coming and his going to have that.”

    So that was what we got out of his term as Governor—all of us, for the legacy is to the whole land, not only to my own State. As for him, all unconscious of it, he had been learning to be President, the while he taught us Henry Clay’s lesson that there is one thing that is even better than to be President,—namely, to be right.