Roosevelt entered the New York state assembly in 1882, a 23-year-old Harvard graduate whose dandy image belied his sympathy with the growing progressive movement. Progressives spanned profession and social class; they were farmers and factory workers, philosophers and politicians, united by the goal of promoting the welfare of all by wiping out rampant corruption in business and politics. The Republican Party, particularly in New York, was plagued by scandal. Industrialists contributed heavily to the campaign coffers of influential—and easily influenced—Republican candidates, ensuring pro-business legislation that exploited workers and natural resources. Coupled with rapid industrialization, the sudden increase in urban poverty was becoming a large-scale crisis.
History professor Kirsten Swinth sums up the social and political climate of late 19th-century America:
The great railroad strike of 1877 triggered armed confrontation; the 1892 strike at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead, Pennsylvania, steel plant included a bloody battle; and just two years later, the strike at Pullman Palace Car Company brought army troops into a violent clash with workers on the streets of Chicago on the Fourth of July. In the same period, cyclical economic downturns spawned massive protests, including marches by millions of largely rural farmers drawn into the populist movement. Citizens even marched on Washington as workers unemployed in the depression of 1893-94 formed “industrial armies” to demand relief.
It wasn’t until Roosevelt visited the tenements of New York City and witnessed the deplorable living conditions first-hand that he understood how cleaning up corruption could go hand in hand with improving workers’ lives. His eyes newly opened to how the other half lived, the gentleman politician now saw that pay-for-play politics was leading to unregulated monopolies, exploitation of workers, and a widening gap between rich and poor. In a move that infuriated business-as-usual assemblymen and put Roosevelt on the New York political map, he fought to impeach a state justice who was involved in shady dealings with the tax-evading railroad tycoon Jay Gould.
His next major dust-up with non-reformists in his party came during the 1884 national convention, where he opposed the loyalist stalwart faction’s candidate, James Blaine. Blaine faced allegations of corruption in his dealings with railroad executives during his tenure as a Maine Congressman, and for reform-minded Republicans, his nomination was a final straw. Blaine’s opponents, the so-called mugwumps, broke with the party to support Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland. Perhaps considering his future political ambitions, Roosevelt remained a Republican committed to reform from within, despite his bitter disagreement with the stalwarts. The experience left him disillusioned, and he retired from public life to his ranch in the Dakota Territory for the next two years.
After Roosevelt’s return to the east coast in 1888, Republican president William Henry Harrison appointed him as head of the civil service commission. He worked against political patronage, establishing competency exams that weeded out the worst of the spoilsmen—those who bought government appointments with campaign contributions. When Democrat Grover Cleveland—with whom Roosevelt had successfully cooperated when Cleveland was governor of New York— succeeded Harrison in the presidency, he reappointed Roosevelt to the position. Party loyalists still had the best shot at choice political appointments, but now they had at least had prove that they were qualified.
For the young assemblyman who had grown up coddled and sickly in a well-to-do Manhattan family, Roosevelt never hesitate to take on the biggest, most powerful bullies, whether dishonest politicians or the crooked businessmen who often pulled their strings. Although he believed wholeheartedly in the Republican Party, he believed more strongly in doing what was right. In a letter to social critic and ally Jacob Riis, Roosevelt wrote, “I stood out for my own opinion, along. I took the best mugwump stand: my own conscience, my own judgment, were to decide in all things…. I looked the ground over and made up my mind that there were excellent people there, with honest opinions of the right, even though they differed from me. I turned in to help them, and they turned to and gave me a hand.”
PHOTO CREDIT: LOC LC-DIG-NCLC-04076
Standing up to Tammany Hall
The corrupt faction of the Democratic Party machine that controlled most of New York state politics was known as Tammany Hall, and in 1882 Roosevelt defeated Tammany’s candidate for state assembly handily. The political bosses were not about to let the young upstart get by without teaching him a lesson, so they sent one of their most intimidating thugs to confront him at the beginning of the legislative session. As historian Paul Grondahl writes in his biography I Rose Like a Rocket: The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt, the atmosphere in Albany was “part carnival, part college fraternity… The principles of prep school secret societies guide its old-boy network, clubby familiarity, oaths of loyalty, and rituals of initiation…” exactly the kind of secrecy and lack of transparency that Roosevelt fought against all of his political life.
Tammany wanted to humiliate Roosevelt—they planned to ambush the scrawny newcomer and roll him up in a rug, like hazing a freshman student by stuffing him in a locker. But Roosevelt got wind of the plan, and although he was dwarfed by Tammany’s henchman, he told him off in a string of threats and thwarted the plan. It was the first of many times the novice politician would not hesitate to stand up to political bullies.