American Boys' Life of Theodore Roosevelt/Chapter 4
The career of an assemblyman is not generally an interesting one, but Mr. Roosevelt managed to extract not a little pleasure and also some profit from it. The experience was just what he needed to fit himself for the larger positions he was, later on, to occupy.
One happening is of peculiar interest to note. While Theodore Roosevelt was a member of the Assembly, Grover Cleveland became governor of the state. Mr. Cleveland was a Democrat, while Mr. Roosevelt was a Republican, yet the two future Presidents of the United States became warm friends,—a friendship that has endured to the present day.
It is said that the friendship started in rather a peculiar manner. There was at the time a measure before the Assembly to reduce the fare of the elevated roads in New York City from ten cents to five cents. After a great deal of talking, the bill passed the Assembly and then the Senate, and went to the governor for his signature. Much to the surprise of the general public Governor Cleveland vetoed the bill, stating that when the capitalists had built the elevated roads they had understood that the fare was to be ten cents, and that it was not right to deprive them of their profits. At once those who wanted the measure to become a law decided to pass it over the governor's head. When this attempt was made, Theodore Roosevelt got up boldly and said he could not again vote for the bill—that he was satisfied that Governor Cleveland's view of the matter was correct.
"These people would not have put their money in the elevated railroads had they not been assured that the fare was to be ten cents," said he. "We are under obligation to them, and we must keep our promises." And so the bill fell through. It was not in itself right that the fare should be ten cents, and it has long since been reduced to five cents, but it shows that Theodore Roosevelt was bound to do what was right and just, according to the dictates of his own conscience, and this won for him many friends, even among those who had opposed him politically.
In a work of this kind, intended mainly for the use of young people, it is not necessary to do more than glance at the work which Theodore Roosevelt accomplished while a member of the New York Assembly.
He made a close study of the various political offices of New York County and discovered that many office-holders were drawing large sums of money in the shape of fees for which they were doing hardly any work. This he considered unfair, and by dint of hard labor helped to pass a law placing such offices on the salary list, making a saving to the county of probably half a million dollars a year.
One of the best things done by Theodore Roosevelt at that time was the support given by him to a civil service law for the state. Up to that time office-holding was largely in the hands of the party which happened to be in power.
"This is all wrong," said the young assemblyman. "A clerk or anybody else doing his duty faithfully should not be thrown out as soon as there is a political change." The new law was passed, and this was the beginning of what is commonly called the merit system, whereby a large number of those who work for the state are judged solely by their capabilities and not by their political beliefs. This system has since been extended to other states and also to office-holding under the national government.
Another important measure pushed through the Assembly by Theodore Roosevelt was what was known as the Edson Charter for New York City, giving to the mayor certain rights which in the past had rested in the board of aldermen. This measure was defeated during Roosevelt's second term of office, but in 1884 he pressed it with such force that it overcame all opposition and became a law. Many have considered this victory his very best work.
By those who knew him at this time he is described as having almost a boyish figure, frank face, clear, penetrating eyes, and a smile of good-natured friendship and dry humor. When he talked it was with an earnestness that could not be mistaken. By those who were especially bitter against him he was sometimes called a dude and a silk stocking, but to these insinuations he paid no attention, and after the encounter at the Delavan House his opponents were decidedly more careful as to how they addressed him.
"Take him all the way through he was generally even tempered," one has said who met him at that time. "But occasionally there was a flash from his eye that made his opponent draw back in quick order. He would stand a good deal, but there were some things he wouldn't take, and they knew it. One thing is certain, after he was in the Assembly for a few months everybody knew perfectly that to come to him with any bill that was the least bit shady was a waste of time and effort. Roosevelt wouldn't stand for it a minute."
In those days Theodore Roosevelt did not give up his habits of athletic exercise, and nearly every day he could be seen taking long walks in the country around Albany. In the meantime his "Naval War of 1812" was well under way, but he could spare only a few hours occasionally to complete his manuscript.
His married life had thus far been a happy one, and its joy was greatly increased by the birth of his daughter Alice. As will be seen later, Mr. Roosevelt is what is called a family man, and he took great comfort in this new addition to his little household. But his happiness was short-lived, for in 1884, when the daughter was but a baby, the beloved wife died, and the little one had to be given over to the care of the grandparents in Boston. Not many months later Mr. Roosevelt's mother died also, heaping additional sorrow upon his head.
With the conclusion of his third term in the Assembly Theodore Roosevelt's work as a member of that body came to an end. If he had made some enemies, he had made more friends, and he was known as an ardent supporter of reform in all branches of politics. In recognition of his ability he was chosen as a delegate-at-large to the Republican convention brought together to nominate a candidate to succeed President Arthur.
At that time James G. Blaine from Maine had served many years in the United States Senate, and it was thought that he would surely be both nominated and elected. But many were opposed to Blaine, thinking he would not support such reform measures as they wished to see advanced, and among this number was Theodore Roosevelt.
"We must nominate Mr. Edmunds," said the young delegate-at-large, and did his best for the gentleman in question.
"It cannot be done," said another delegate.
The convention met at Exposition Hall in Chicago, and Mr. Roosevelt was placed on the Committee on Resolutions. It was a stormy convention, and ballot after ballot had to be taken before a nomination could be secured. Blaine led from the start, with Senator Edmunds a fairly close second.
"If Blaine is nominated, he will be defeated," said more than one.
At last came the deciding vote, and James G. Blaine was put up at the head of the ticket, with John A. Logan for Vice-President.
At once Blaine clubs were organized all over the country, and the Republican party did all in its power to elect its candidate. He was called the Plumed Knight, and many political clubs wore plumes in his honor when on parade. In the meantime the Democrats had nominated Grover Cleveland.
The fight was exceedingly bitter up to the very evening of election day. When the votes were counted, it was found that Blaine had been defeated by a large majority, and that Grover Cleveland, Roosevelt's old friend, had won the highest gift in the hands of the nation.
His work at the convention in Chicago was Theodore Roosevelt's first entrance into national affairs, and his speeches on that occasion will not be readily forgotten. It was here that he came into contact with William McKinley, with whom, sixteen years later, he was to run on the same ticket. The records of that convention show that on one occasion McKinley spoke directly after Roosevelt. Thus were these two drawn together at that early day without knowing or dreaming that one was to succeed the other to the Presidency.
But though Theodore Roosevelt was disappointed over the nomination made at Chicago, he did not desert his party. Instead he did all he could to lead them to victory, until the death of his mother caused him to withdraw temporarily from public affairs.