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


Theodore Roosevelt’s Father

ON the rocky point of Lake Wahwaskesh, across from where I have been idling in my canoe all morning, angling for bass, there stood once a giant pine, a real monarch of the forest. The winter storms laid it low, and its skeleton branches harass the inlet, reaching half-way across. Perched on the nearest one, a choleric red squirrel has been scolding me quite half an hour for intruding where I am not wanted. But its abuse is wasted; my thoughts were far away. From among the roots of the fallen tree a sturdy young pine has sprung, straight and shapely, fair to look at. The sight of the two, the dead and the living, made me think of two at home who loved the wildwood well. Father and son, they bore but one name, known to us all—Theodore Roosevelt. There came to my mind the pronunciamento of some one which I had read in a New York newspaper, that Theodore Roosevelt’s day was soon spent, and other less recent deliverances to the same effect. And it occurred to me that these good people had probably never heard the story of the other Theodore, the Governor’s father, or else had forgotten it. So, for the benefit of the prophetic souls who are always shaking their heads at the son, predicting that he will not last, I tell the story here again. They will have no trouble in making out the bearing of it on their pet concern. And they will note that the father “lasted” well, which was giving the community in which he lived a character to be proud of. He did more. “He grew on us continually,” said one who had known him well, “until we wondered with a kind of awe for what great purpose he had been put among us.” The people “resolved” at his untimely death that it “involved a loss of moral power and executive efficiency which no community can well spare.”

Theodore Roosevelt was a glass importer in Maiden Lane, having taken over the business after his father, Cornelius. The Roosevelts had always borne an honored name in New York. Two of the sons of Jacob Roosevelt, who in the early part of the last century bought land “in the swamp near the cripple bush” and had the street that still bears the family name cut through, were Aldermen when the office meant something. Isaac Roosevelt sat in the Constitutional Convention with Alexander Hamilton. He had been the right-hand man of Governor Moore in organizing the New York hospital corporation, and President of the Board of Governors. Organizers they ever were, doers of things, and patriots to a man. It was a Roosevelt who started the first bank in New York and was its first president. Theodore came honestly by the powers which he turned to such account for his city when it needed him. He had in him the splendid physical endurance, the love of a fight in the cause of right, and the clear head of his Dutch ancestors, plus the profound devotion that “held himself and all he had at the service of humanity.” With such an equipment a college education matters little. Theodore’s father thought it might spoil his boys, and took no chances. But exclusion of college did not mean to them loss of culture. That was their birthright.

The war came, with its challenge to the youth of the land. I fancy that Theodore Roosevelt fought and won a harder fight in staying home than many a one who went. There were reasons why he should stay, good reasons, and he stayed. But if he could not fight for his country, he could at least back up those who did. He set himself at once to develop practical plans of serving them. He helped raise and equip regiments that went out—the first colored one among them; he joined in organizing the Union League Club, the strong patriotic center of that day; he worked with the Loyal Publication Society, which was doing a great educational work at a time when there was much ignorance as to the large issues of the conflict; he had a hand in the organization of the sanitary commission that saw to the comfort of the soldiers in the field. And when he had made sure that they were well fed and cared for, he turned his attention to those they had left behind. It was then he did the work for which he and his colleagues received the thanks of the Legislature of the State in joint session, much to its own credit.

Many of the soldiers’ families were suffering for bread, while they wasted it by the cart-load in the army. The Government paid millions each month to the men, only to see the money squandered in riotous living at the sutlers’tents. Very little of it, if any, ever reached home. There were enough to offer to start it out, but the chances were greatly against its getting there. The sutler who sold forbidden rum in hollow loaves or imitation Bibles was not one to stop at a little plain robbery. The money was lost or wasted, the families starved, and the morale of the army suffered. Mr. Roosevelt drafted a bill to establish “allotment commissions,” and took it to Washington. It was a plain measure authorizing commissioners appointed for each State to receive such a proportion of the soldier’s pay as he wished to send home, and to forward it without cost or risk to him. He simply gave notice how much he wanted the wife to have, for instance; the general Government handed the amount to them, and they saw that she got it. But it was not plain sailing to get the bill passed. The men who were robbing the soldier denounced it as a swindle. Congressmen rated it a “bankers’ job,” unable to understand why any one should urge a bill at much personal inconvenience when “there was nothing in it” for him. The bill provided for unsalaried commissioners. But Mr. Roosevelt persisted. In the end, after three months of hard work, he got his bill through. President Lincoln, who understood, appointed Theodore Roosevelt, William E. Dodge, and Theodore B. Bronson the commissioners from New York. They went to work at once.

It was midwinter. During the first three months of 1862 they traveled from camp to camp, visiting the eighty regiments New York had in the field, and putting the matter to them personally. In the saddle often all day, they stood afterward in the cold and mud sometimes half the night, explaining and persuading, bearing insults and sneers from many of those they wished to benefit. The story of that winter’s campaign is a human document recommended to the perusal of the pessimists and the head-shakers of any day. They had soon to give up the plea that they received no pay for their services, “because it aroused only suspicion.” But they did not quit on that account. There was this thing to be done, by such means as they could. They learned, when any one asked how they benefited by it, to tell them that it was none of their business. “The money does not come out of your pocket; if we are satisfied, what is it to you?” They won their fight, as they were bound to, saved thousands of homes, and raised the tone of the army, in spite of snubs and predictions of failure. Even their own city sent rival commissioners into the field at one time, discrediting their work and their motives.

Other States heard of the great things done in New York, and followed suit. Great good resulted. In New York alone the amount saved to those in dire need of it ran up in the millions. It is recorded of Theodore Roosevelt that through it all he never lost his temper or his sunny belief in his fellow-men whom he had set out to serve. Conscious zeal did not sour him. It is easy to believe the statement that it was he who, with a friend, persuaded President Lincoln to replace Simon Cameron with Stanton in the War Department. That lonely man had few enough of his kind about him. At a time when the camps were gloomy and the outlook dark, it was Roosevelt who got up the—I came near saying the round-robin to his countrymen; it is not always an easy thing to keep the two Theodores apart. But that was not what was wanted at that time; it was a message of cheer from home, and it came in the shape of a giant Thanksgiving dinner sent from the North to the Army of the Potomac. Veterans remember it well, and how it revived flagging spirits and put heart into things, though grumblers were not wanting to dub it fantastical. Mr. Roosevelt got that up. He collected the funds, and, with his marvelous faculty for getting things done, made it the rousing success it was. Perhaps it is not a great thing to give a dinner; but just then it was the one thing to be done, and he did it. Then, when the fight was over, he had a hand in organizing the Protective War Claims Association, which collected the dues of crippled veterans and of the families of the dead without charge, and saved them from the fangs of the sharks. It was at Mr. Roosevelt’s house that the Soldiers’ Employment Bureau was organized, which did so much toward absorbing into the population again the vast army of men who were in danger of becoming dependent, and helped them preserve their self-respect.

That issue was not so easily met, however. The heritage of a great war was upon the land. The community was being rapidly pauperized. Vast sums of money were wasted on ill-considered charity. Fraud was rampant. Mr. Roosevelt set about weeding it out by organizing the city’s charities. We find him laboring as a member of a “committee of nine,” with Protestants, Jews, and roman Catholics, to ferret out and arraign the institutions “existing only to furnish lazy managers with a living.” He became the Vice-President of the State Charities’ Aid Association, a member of the Board of United Charities, and finally the head of the State Board of Charities, for the creation of which he had long striven. Wherever there was a break to be repaired, a leak to be stopped, there he was. He founded a hospital and dispensary for the treatment of hopeless spine and hip diseases. He pleaded, even on his death-bed, for rational treatment of the unhappy lunatics in the city’s hospitals; for a farm where the boys in the House of Refuge might be fitted for healthy country life; for responsible management of the State’s Orphan Asylums, for decent care of vagrants, for improved tenements. In all he did he was sensibly practical and wholesomely persistent. When he knew a thing to be right, it had to be done, and usually was done. With all that, he knew how to allow for differences of opinion in others who were as honest as he. Those who were not, expected no quarter and got none.

Mr. Roosevelt’s good sense showed him early that the problem of pauperism with which he was battling could not be run down. It had to be headed off if the fight was to be won. So he became Charles Loring Brace’s most energetic backer in his fight for the children. He was a trustee of the Children’s Aid Society, and never in all the years missed a Sunday evening with the boys in the Eighteenth Street lodging-house which was his particular charge. He knew them by name, and was their friend and adviser. And they loved him. When he lay dying, they bought rosebuds with their spare pennies and sent them to his house. Many a time he had come from the country with armfuls of flowers for them. The little lame Italian girl for whom he had bought crutches wrote him with infinite toil a tear-stained note to please get well and come and see her. His sympathy with poverty and suffering was instinctive and instant. One day of the seven he gave, however driven at the office, to personal work among the poor, visiting them at their homes. It was not a penance with him, but, he used to say, one of his chief blessings.

He was rich and gave liberally, but always with sense. He was a reformer of charity methods, as of bad political methods in his own fold. For that cause he was rejected by a Republican Senate, at the instance of Roscoe Conkling, when President Hayes appointed him Collector of the Port. Mr. Roosevelt had accepted with the statement that he would administer the office for the benefit, not of the party, but of the whole people. That meant the retirement of the Custom-House influence in politics, and civil service reform, for which the time was not ripe. It was left to his son to carry out, as was so much else he had at heart. So far as I know, that was the elder Roosevelt’s only appearance in politics, as politicians understand the term. Always a Republican, he had gone to the Cincinnati Convention, which nominated Mr. Hayes, as a representative of the Reform League.

Church, Mission, and Sunday-school had in him a stanch supporter. He was a constant contributor with counsel and purse to the work of the Young Men’s Christian Association. I like to think that the key to all he was and did is in the answer he gave his pastor when once the latter said that he liked his name Theodore, with its meaning, “a gift of God.” “Why may we not,” replied Mr. Roosevelt, “change it about a bit and make it ‘a gift to God’?” No man could have said it unless he meant just that. And, meaning it, his life must be exactly what it was.

This is the picture we get of him: a man of untiring energy, of prodigious industry, the most valiant fighter in his day for the right, and the winner of his fights. Mr. Brace said of him that it would be difficult to mention any good thing attempted in New York in twenty years in which he did not have a hand. With it all he enjoyed life as few, and with cause; he never neglected a duty. He drove a four-in-hand in the Park, sailed a boat, loved the woods, shared in every athletic sport, and was the life and soul of every company. At forty-six he was as strong and active as at sixteen, his youthful ideals as undimmed. I have had to suffer many taunts in my days on account of my hero of fiction, John Halifax, from those who never found a man so good. I have been happier than they, it seems. But perhaps they did not know him when they saw him. Some of them must have known Theodore Roosevelt, and he was just such a one. He would go to a meeting of dignified citizens to discuss the gravest concerns of the city or of finance, with a sick kitten in his coat-pocket, which he had picked up in the street and was piloting to some safe harbor. His home life was what you might expect of such a man. His children worshiped him. A score of times I have heard his son sigh, when, as Governor or Police Commissioner, he had accomplished something for which his father had striven and paved the way, “How I wish father were here and could see it!” His testimony of filial love completes the picture. “Father was,” he said to me, “the finest man I ever knew, and the happiest.”

His power of endurance was as extraordinary as his industry. In the last winter of his life, when he was struggling with a mortal disease, his daily routine was to rise at 8:30, and after the morning visit to his mother, which he never on any account omitted, to work at the office till six. The evening was for his own and for his friends until eleven o’clock, after which he usually worked at his desk until 1 or 2 A.M. Several years before, he had had to give up his father’s business to attend to the many private trusts that sought him as his influence grew in the community. A hundred public interests demanded his aid besides. He helped to organize the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural Sciences, and kept a directing hand upon them up to his death. When mismanagement of the American department at the Vienna Exhibition caused scandal and the retirement of the directors, it was Mr. Roosevelt who straightened out things. Were funds to be raised for a charity, he was ever first in demand. His championship of any cause was proof enough that it was good. His sunny temper won everybody over. “I never saw him come into my office,” said a friend about him, “but I instinctively took down my check-book.” He surrendered at sight.

The news of his death, on February 9, 1878, came home to thousands with a sense of personal bereavement. Though he was but a private citizen, flags flew at half-mast all over the city. Rich and poor followed him to the grave, and the children whose friend he had been wept over him. In the reports of the meetings held in his memory one catches the echo of a nature rarely blending sweetness with strength. They speak of his stanch integrity and devotion to principle; his unhesitating denunciation of wrong in every form; his chivalric championship of the weak and oppressed wherever found; his scorn of meanness; his generosity that knew no limit of sacrifice; his truth and tenderness; his careful, sound judgment; his unselfishness, and his bright, sunny nature that won all hearts. The Union League Club resolved “that his life was a stirring summons to the men of wealth, of culture, and of leisure in the community, to a more active participation in public affairs” as a means of saving the State.

Four years later his son Theodore was elected to the Assembly, and entered upon the career of public service which, by his exercise of the qualities that made his father beloved, set him in the Governor’s Chair of his State. Other monument the people have never built to the memory of the first Theodore; but I fancy that they could have chosen none that would have pleased him more; and I am quite sure that he is here to see it.

This is the Story, not of a people in its age-long struggle for righteousness, but of a single citizen who died before he had attained to his forty-eighth year, and it is the material out of which real civic greatness is made. I know of none in all the world that lasts better, prophets of evil and pessimists generally to the contrary notwithstanding. I have been at some pains to tell it to this generation, out of charity to the prophets aforesaid. Let them compare now the son’s life as they know it, as we all know it, with the father’s, point for point, deed for deed, and tell us what they think of it. The truth, mind; for that, with knowledge of what has been, is, after all, the proper basis for prophecy as to what is to be. Or else let them come squarely out and declare that they have lived in vain, that ours is a worse country, every way, than it was twenty years ago, and not fit for a decent man to live in. That is the alternative, as they will see—unless, indeed, they prefer to do as the squirrel does, just sit and scold.