Biographies & Memoirs


The Moral Effect


POLITICAL REFORM and the Roosevelt name had already been joined in the public mind well before Theodore took up the cause in 1876. Brother Robert had in fact become one of New York’s more celebrated champions of reform, albeit in a style quite his own and as one of “the other” party. Having happily accepted Tammany backing in his bid for Congress in 1870, Robert had turned on the notorious William Tweed in dramatic fashion less than a year later, in September 1871, the summer CVS died. He had denounced Tweed and Tammany electioneering tactics in a fiery speech at a mass meeting at Cooper Union, saying at one point that anyone caught tampering with a ballot box deserved to be shot on sight. Afterward, he served on the famous Committee of Seventy in its assault on Tweed, and once Tweed fell, Robert was looked upon as one of those distinguished few gentlemen-Democrats, figures of wealth and position, of whom New Yorkers could be most proud. He was commonly mentioned in the same breath with such reform Democrats as Abram Hewitt and the present governor, Samuel Tilden. He held no office any longer, but with his writing and after-dinner speaking, he kept himself in the forefront. While Theodore went about his philanthropy in his quiet way, Robert called for government action to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. In angry letters to the New York papers, he warned of uprisings unless something was done. People were starving, he said. “Let us try some plan and convince the poor that we have the blood of civilized men in our veins.” He called for the city to mount a program of public works, to give men jobs on the city payroll building docks and paving streets; and he was immediately denounced as a well-meaning fool. (”Absolutely the only protectionwhich we can have against the dangerous tendency of laborers to crowd into large cities,” answered the Tribune, “is the sure punishment which nature brings, in want of work, suffering or starvation. If a workman is wise he will quit a city whenever he finds no employment, as he would quit a house infested with fatal disease.”)

Robert, too, of late, like Theodore, had been living in style, in a country house on Long Island, but at Sayville, on the South Shore, well separated from the other Roosevelts at Oyster Bay.

As it had taken Tweed to bestir the Democrat Robert into righteous wrath, so it took the scandalous Grant regime to inspire the Republican Theodore to join the great Republican reform crusade of 1876. The idea was to rescue the party from the hands of the professionals, which was no new idea in American politics certainly; nor did Theodore’s part call for any particular courage or personal sacrifice. Still, it was an experience of a kind he had not had before, and as with everything else he ever did, he entered wholeheartedly, certain the crusade was just, and thoroughly innocent, by all appearances, as to where it might be taking him. Brother Robert, from what may be seen in some of his private political correspondence, was seldom if ever innocent about anything, but now there were two Roosevelts having their say in their different ways. Theodore knew and admired the people leading the Republican reform movement; he enjoyed their company, enjoyed their obvious high regard for him. Mittie, it appears, thought little of such doings, but things seemed to follow very naturally, and before he knew it, Theodore was off to Cincinnati to his first convention.

At the head of the crusade were Senator Carl Schurz and George William Curtis, editor of Harper’s Weekly, two lifelong battlers for liberal reform—women’s rights, civil service reform—and true Lincoln Republicans, which was what Theodore liked to call himself. Curtis was the one Theodore knew best, a tidy, erudite man much in the Emerson mold, silver-haired and priestly. In his youth he had helped build Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond, and a novel he wrote in the 1850s, a satire on New York society calledThe Potiphar Papers, was high among Theodore’s favorite books. Curtis, above all, was a moralist. He had made a career of preaching the public—political—duty of “the educated class.” (”While good men sit at home, not knowing that there is anything to be done, not caring to know; cultivating a feeling that politics are tiresome and dirty, and politicians vulgar bullies and bravoes; half persuaded that a republic is the contemptible rule of a mob, and secretly longing for a splendid and vigorous despotism—then remember it is not a government mastered by ignorance, it is a government betrayed by intelligence.”) He was totally sincere, highly influential, and not without political ambition of his own; he saw in Theodore, as he later said, the living example of what he preached. Theodore Roosevelt “walked these streets the image and figure of the citizen which every American should hope to be,” he would say. They were never close friends. They knew each other at the Union League and the Century, saw each other socially, on occasion. “I knew,” said Curtis, “that we thought alike in all the great interests of society.”

The light had failed in Washington, in the second term of Ulysses S. Grant. A country in the grip of hard times was confronted with thievery and fraud in nearly every department of the federal government, including the Presidents own staff. Scandal had followed scandal. A Secretary of the Navy had somehow profited by $300,000 beyond his apparent income. A giant Whiskey Ring had robbed the Treasury of an estimated $4 million. From Boston, Charles Francis Adams warned that unless strong action was taken the entire political system could collapse, and he was deadly serious as only an Adams could be.

When a Republican Reform Club was organized at the Union League at the start of the new year, Theodore joined at once and was soon looked to for leadership. In February, Adams’ son Professor Henry Adams of Harvard put out a call for a special conference of reformers, a very high-toned affair, he stressed, to be held in New York in advance of the national conventions. It was to be by invitation only, “for about 200 of the most weighty and reliable of our friends.” And when the conference got down to business at the Fifth Avenue Hotel the afternoon of May 15, Theodore was among those prominently mentioned to indicate how “weighty and reliable” a group it was. Others included Theodore Dwight Woolsey, former president of Yale, E. L. Godkin of The Nation,Frederick Law Olmsted, Brooks Adams, William Graham Sumner, Mark Hopkins, New York’s two most esteemed ancients, William Cullen Bryant and Peter Cooper, and the very young Henry Cabot Lodge of Boston, who, as secretary of the meeting, did most of the work. Nothing of consequence was accomplished—“Oh, they reenacted the moral law and the Ten Commandments for a platform, and have demanded an angel of light for President,” said a Tammany observer—nonetheless, it was as important a gathering of truly distinguished citizens as New York had seen in a long time, and if they took themselves a little too seriously as the “saving element” in politics, so too did many others. One out-of-town reporter, picking his way past the potted palms in the lobby of the hotel, observed for his readers, “Men whose names ring through the country and round the world were to be encountered at every step through the crowd, and upon every face not familiar was the plain stamp of intelligence and character.”

General Grant was himself the issue no longer, since by this time he had declined to run again. He wanted a third term, Grant said, no more than he had wanted a first and no one doubted that he meant it. What loomed now was an even more worrisome prospect, the candidacy of Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, a man of Theodore’s own generation, who was among the most fascinating, outrageous men of the era and the one Republican against whom every reformer could gladly join ranks. Conkling, a Stalwart (one steadfastly loyal to Grant), was considerably larger than life—tall, beautiful, enormously talented in the art of politics—and in the eyes of the “saving element,” evil incarnate. From the moment he let his presidential aspirations be known, there seemed to be a smell of brimstone in the air. Schurz, addressing the Fifth Avenue Conference, declared unequivocally that no machine politician could ever be the Republican standard-bearer, however brilliant he might be. And by the time he departed for the Republican National Convention, at the head of a sixty-man reform delegation, Theodore had instructions to “fight Conkling at all events.”

The essential, underlying corrupting force in public life, the evil of “practical” politics, the reformers insisted, was the party system and its sacrosanct creed of party loyalty. Public policy must be above party; the ideal candidate, as Henry Adams lectured young Lodge, was the man who cared nothing for party. And it was thus that the reformers were so ardently opposed to Conkling. Conkling was not a crook; his name had been linked with no scandals; nor had he any personal crudities of the kind associated with a reprobate like Tweed. What was so objectionable about Conkling was his utterly masterful, arrogant use of the very system they deplored. He was the ultimate professional. He loved power; he believed in power. He believed in “structure,” and for the keystone of his empire he had the Customhouse on Wall Street, the largest federal office outside Washington. His most valued lieutenant, Chester A. Arthur, was Collector of the Port of New York; all the Customhouse “boys” were his; and it was thus that he ruled the Republican Party in New York. In Washington, largely through his friendship with Grant, he had achieved a grip on patronage second to none. “Which one is Conkling?” visitors to the Senate gallery would ask, wishing to see the most powerful man in Washington City.

Conkling’s scorn for all reformers was monumental, which naturally endeared him to the party professionals and made him all the easier for the reformers to hate. To him they were “the dilettanti” and beneath contempt. At his most charitable, he called them “leaders without followers.” More often, he scoffed at their “snivel service” reform, ridiculed their idealism. “When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel,” Conkling once observed, “he ignored the enormous possibilities of the word reform.” Curtis and his kind were “the men-milliners” of politics, the goody-goodies; their masculinity was questionable.

Conkling himself, the picture of conspicuous manhood, stood six feet three, and was solidly formed beneath his extravagant clothes. He had built himself up with hard exercise, boxing and horseback riding. A leader ought to look the part, he believed. He walked as though he owned the world, stomach in, his great chest swelled. A worshipful reporter said it was the walk of a prince, but Congressman James G. Blaine, a fellow Republican, called it his “grandiloquent swell, his majestic, super-eminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut,” words that had stunned the House and that Conkling would refuse ever to forgive or forget.

Women thought Conkling gorgeous, which he was. He carried a sun umbrella and favored bright bow ties, fawn-colored vests and trousers, English gaiters, and gleaming pointed shoes. His beard was the color of burnished copper and it too was pointed. His hair was a darker red, thick and wavy, and he combed it to produce a single Hyperion curl at the center of his forehead. The curl—everything—was done for effect. His voice was rich and beautifully modulated. His thrilling stump speeches, delivered without notes, were all carefully memorized in advance and rehearsed on long walks in the country. He was a detail man, like every great performer. Had he chosen a career on stage, it was commonly agreed, he would have been a sensation.

Even his private life had about it a kind of forbidden, theatrical glamour. Though a married man with children he had for years been carrying on an affair with a fellow senator’s wife, the beautiful, ambitious Kate Chase Sprague. It was the sort of thing that simply was not done, but that everybody knew about. The explanation sometimes heard was that he was too good-looking to be pure.

For a master politician Conkling was an odd combination. He had little humor, no patience with those he thought beneath him intellectually. He remained haughty and insufferably vain, anything but a man of the people. He deplored the use of tobacco and whiskey and said so. He disliked reporters and crowds; he hated ever to be touched. But his gift for leadership was surpassing and he had a mind approaching genius.

To Theodore virtually everything about him was repugnant, and the fact that Conkling was a man of education and polish, the son of an eminent upstate jurist and scholar, the fact that Conkling’s man “Chet” Arthur was regarded as a thorough gentleman, belonged to the Union League and the Century, made Conkling’s power and treachery seem the more hateful. Also, Conkling represented something new in Theodore’s experience. Mr. Greatheart had done battle with ignorance and poverty and the Giant Despair, with cruelty and crippling disease; he had waded into unpleasant, unsung work of the sort others shunned; but nowhere along the line does he appear ever to have faced an individual adversary, and certainly none like “the Lordly Roscoe.”

Probably he and Conkling had met each other in times past, perhaps even as early as the war when Conkling was a young congressman and Theodore was making his rounds on Capitol Hill lobbying for the Allotment Commission. In any event, the prospect of taking the field against the seemingly impregnable giant of New York politics cheered Theodore tremendously. As his friend Howard Potter once observed, this most “lovable,” “tenderest” of men had a decided instinct for a fight.


In hindsight it would become clear that Conkling never had a chance for the nomination at Cincinnati and many would wonder what all the fuss had been about. But only in hindsight. Conkling himself, as shrewd a political judge as any, thought his hour had arrived. Further, his candidacy was based on the kind of precept that any serious politician would take to heart: he could carry New York against all comers, including Governor Tilden, who seemed certain to be the Democratic nominee.

As a matter of policy, Conkling never attended national conventions and he refused now to break that rule. He sent Chester Arthur to work in his behalf and to nobody’s surprise the official New York delegation, largest of all the state delegations, went “solid for Conkling,” with the single exception of George William Curtis. A Pennsylvania delegate, seeing the Conkling people file into their hotel, remarked that it was a mystery to him “where the Customhouse got bail for all those fellows.” In fairness it ought also to be noted that The New York Times and the Sun, both openly admiring of Conkling’s candidacy, were impressed most by the perfect decorum and obvious “quality” of the Conkling people. “It is conceded [said the Sun] that the men who are here urging the claims of ’the noble statesman from Oneida’ are the best dressed, the best-looking, and the best behaved of any of the outside deputations ...” The total number of Conkling “shouters” on hand was estimated at fifteen hundred.

Theodore and the New York Reform Club reached Cincinnati on June 10 and stretched their banner across the front of the Gibson House. They had agreed upon a candidate, Benjamin H. Bristow of Kentucky, Grant’s former Secretary of the Treasury, a man of impeccable record who had been responsible for uncovering the Whiskey Ring. Bristow clubs had cropped up around the country and the one in Cincinnati numbered three thousand people or more. So for the first few days things looked somewhat promising.

You would never recognize your father in his new guise,” Theodore wrote enthusiastically to Bamie. He was doing all in his power to “work conversions,” discovering how it felt to be a “colporteur,” and not without results. “I have really brought one very important man to think with me and his action will be productive of much good. Several more are helpful and I fully appreciate how desirable and indeed necessary for the moral effect it was that we [the Reform Club] should come.” Richard H. Dana and James Russell Lowell of Cambridge were “perhaps the pleasantest additions” to his list of new friends, but then the number of friends already made was “legion.”

According to other accounts, he and his club worked “day and night” against Conkling and there is reason to believe Theodore was paying a large part of the club’s expenses while in Cincinnati. Temperatures were in the nineties, their hotel rooms “stewing hot,” as Lowell said. Lowell and others complained of the dirt and grime in the air. But nothing seemed to bother Theodore.

The leading contender for the nomination, as he explained to Bamie, was James G. Blaine, Conkling’s old nemesis. Blaine was an entirely different kind of man from Conkling—warm, captivating, a “magnetic” personality—yet no less the professional politician and scarcely less objectionable to Theodore and his fellow crusaders. Further, in light of events now only weeks old, it appeared Blaine was not exactly incorruptible. The sensation of the Mulligan letters had burst upon Washington. A Boston bookkeeper named Mulligan had produced letters in Blaine’s hand indicating that Blaine had once used his position as Speaker of the House to profit secretly in the sale of some western railroad bonds. On June 5, only nine days before the convention was to open, Blaine denied everything in an emotional speech before the House, and to the great rank and file of the Republican Party, and especially among Westerners, he stood vindicated; he was “Blaine of Maine,” the most exciting man in public life.

Strolling with Carl Schurz in Lafayette Square, just before Schurz left Washington for the convention, Blaine threw an arm about Schurz’s shoulder and said, “Carl, you won’t oppose me, will you?” But Schurz had no intention of supporting Blaine, whatever happened, nor did any of his followers. Some, in fact, like James Russell Lowell, had come to Cincinnati for the express purpose of stopping Blaine.

All the same, after less than twenty-four hours in Cincinnati, Theodore was sure Blaine stood far in the lead, a view he modified only somewhat with the news from Washington on Sunday, June 11, that Blaine had collapsed on his way to church and remained in a coma. A rumor swept the hotels that Blaine was dead and so the Conkling threat seemed greater than ever.

It was the following night, Monday, June 12, that Theodore made a speech from a balcony at the Gibson House. A band hired by the Reform Club “tendered a serenade” from the street below, where a large, friendly crowd had gathered. It was the first such speech he had ever made, and taking his instructions to fight Conkling quite to heart, he delivered the most vivid, biting attack on Conkling of the entire week, enjoying every moment—the whole noisy, torchlight spectacle, the excitement and approval in the faces below. It was “altogether like a scene from one of those electioneering Irish rows,” he told Bamie happily, “but all perfectly good [and] natural.”

“Mr. Roosevelt of New York, a Bristow man, got the floor of the balcony,” wrote a local reporter, “and made such a strong hit at Conkling that a convenient [Conkling] band put him down.” With the music blaring below, Theodore simply paused, waited his turn, then when the band stopped, he told the crowd it had just been treated to a perfect demonstration of how the forces of political corruption sought always to drown out every honest expression of respectable opinion. “The crowd cheered violently,” he reported to Bamie. “We were all in perfect harmony . . .”

We have no text of his speech, which is a shame, but it was the conviction and vigor with which he spoke, more than any one thing he said, that had the greatest force. Such was the force of the speech, in fact, that it earned him the everlasting enmity of the man at whom it was directed. The absent Conkling, upon learning what had been said, was not to forget or to forgive him, any more than he had James G. Blaine.


The actual convention got under way at noon Wednesday, June 14, inside the giant wooden Exposition Hall, and that afternoon George William Curtis, the only official reform delegate from New York, berated the “odious” Conkling machine as a menace to “the very system of our Government.” The one memorable oration of the convention, however, was delivered the next day—Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll’s famous nominating speech for Blaine, which, with its impassioned portrayal of the “plumed knight” of the party, sent delegates and spectators into paroxysms of approval and very nearly put Blaine over. Blaine’s recovery from his mysterious attack had been confirmed, and had the balloting begun after Ingersoll finished, Blaine almost certainly would have been the nominee. But it was turning dark outside and the gas lighting in the hall was said to be unsafe, so the vote was put off another day.

As it was, neither Blaine nor Conkling nor Bristow was chosen. A compromise candidate, the dark-horse governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, uninspiring but respectable, won on the seventh ballot. The party professionals at once lined up behind the nominee. (”How is New York?” a Hayes delegate is said to have asked Conkling’s man Arthur. “All right,” was the answer, “all the time for Hayes.”) And among the reformers the outlook was equally cheery, if not ecstatic, the Hayes people having convinced Schurz and Curtis that “the Governor” was one of them.

For his part Theodore came home from Cincinnati thoroughly satisfied. Conkling had been stopped and he himself had had the grandest kind of time. He felt, he told a reporter, like the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea, so thankful was he for the narrow escape from the disaster of a Conkling nomination.

By the time summer rolled around and the Democrats had proclaimed Governor Tilden their nominee, Theodore was once more immersed in life at Oyster Bay and probably as much at peace with himself and his prospects as he was ever to be. Ellie was home from Texas and thriving by all appearances. Teedie had been accepted at Harvard and would start in the fall. A letter he wrote to Bamie, who was with friends of Maine, provides one of the best pictures we have of the summer life that had become so dear to him, and the setting in which the family was to remember him best.

Oyster Bay

August 9, ’76


I actually have a few minutes to myself by refusing sail with Elliott. Annie Gracie has gone with him, your mother is preparing for the Reading Class, Conie is at her lesson and Theodore out shooting specimens. I took answers to the Smiths at Laurelton this morning on my ride, accepting for a hop for the boys’ account. The ride was lovely. The morning delightful, and I did enjoy the woods intensely. I have just paid George his wages and parted with him so you will scarce recognize the family below stairs when you return. The cause of the suddenness of his departure is the appearance of a jealous wife to whom the servants have described in glowing terms his intimacy with Sophie, but I had already dismissed him to go as soon as I could find a good man. Davis will now be above until I find one.

Your mother is learning to swim and our baths are becoming the feature of the day, all else gives way to them. The competition between your mother and Aunt Annie runs high, your aunt is a little in advance. Conie and [Cousin] Leontine dive from Ellie’s boat after swimming out to it. The summer is passing delightfully away and my only regret is the rapidity with which it is going. Theodore’s departure for Cambridge is one of the straws that show that the time is approaching when the birds will leave their nest and I am very glad for them all to have such pleasant memories connected with this summer. Our pleasures tie us all so much together . . .

He was worlds away from politics, one might gather, and perfectly contented to have it so. But then late in September, in a letter to Teedie, who had departed for college, he mentions how a crowd of Oyster Bay Republicans came out from the village that evening to serenade him. He would have liked very much to make them a “Hayes speech,” he said, but Mittie locked the front door.

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