Teddy Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, and the nature of political courage

How two future Presidents from different parties came together in the late 1800’s to reform politics in New York, agreeing and disagreeing in turn based on their political goals and temperament, and the lessons that still ring true today in an era of out of control government.

In 1883, Albany was home to two future Presidents, Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican Teddy Roosevelt.  Cleveland was recently sworn in as Governor of the Empire State while Roosevelt was starting his second term in the State Legislature and emerging as the de facto leader of the Republican party in the state.  The two men were separated by a generation – Cleveland was 45 years old, Roosevelt was 24 – in addition to political parties, but both had earned a reputation as political outsiders and reformers with a penchant for doing business beyond the typical machine politics that dominated the era.  Their similarities, aside from a love of hunting, likely ended there.  Cleveland, the son of a long line of ministers, was over twice Roosevelt’s size and known to conduct careful, unflinching analysis of the issues before coming to an unshakeable conclusion.  Roosevelt, the son of a wealthy family of New York socialites, was dapper to the point of ridiculous and far more passionate and mercurial with far wider interests.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s William Hudson described Cleveland as the Immovable Object and Roosevelt as the Irresistible Force.  Cleveland’s secretary, Daniel S. Lamont noted, “I never see those two together that I’m not reminded of a great mastiff silently regarding a small terrier, snapping and barking at him.”  On March 2, Cleveland found himself in the uncomfortable position of considering a popular bill supported by Roosevelt, one passed by large margins in both State Houses that would reduce the fare for the Manhattan Elevated Railroad, an early mass transit system, from ten cents to five.  So enthusiastic was Roosevelt’s support, he remarked that he would have introduced the bill himself if another legislator had not beaten him to it, saying “the measure is one deserving of support of every legislator in the city.”

It is easy to understand why the bill was popular.  The Manhattan Elevated Railroad was owned by one of the richest men of the era, Jay Gould.  Gould is what we would now refer to as a “robber baron” and he was far from popular given his penchant for sharp business practices and willingness to funnel money to politicians to ensure his success.  Previously, he’d maneuvered his way into control of the Erie Railroad by issuing intentionally watered down stock, betraying his partners, and appointing the legendary political manipular Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall as a director of the railroad in exchange for favorable legislation.  One of the partners who was sold bad stock and betrayed was the equally rich Cornelius Vanderbilt.  As Gustavus Meyers, historian and muckraker put it, “The year 1868 proved a particularly busy one for Vanderbilt. He was engaged in a desperately-devious struggle with Gould. In vain did his agents and lobbyists pour out stacks of money to buy legislative votes enough to defeat the bill legalizing Gould’s fraudulent issue of stock. Members of the Legislature impassively took money from both parties. Gould personally appeared at Albany with a satchel containing $500,000 in greenbacks, which were rapidly distributed. One Senator, as was disclosed by an investigating committee, accepted $75,000 from Vanderbilt and then $100,000 from Gould, kept both sums, and voted with the dominant Gould forces.”  Gould wasn’t content to rest on these infamous laurels.  He proceeded to manipulate the gold market in collaboration with then President Ulysses S. Grant’s brother in law, Abel Corbin.  Together with James Fisk, they convinced the Grant Administration to stop purchasing gold, and then bought it themselves precipitating the Black Friday panic of September 24, 1869.  The stock market crashed by 20%, dozens of firms went bankrupt, and commodity prices collapsed, savaging the farm community across the country.

In short, Gould was an easy target for politicians to channel populist anger, especially when the citizen’s of New York City would see an immediate benefit from a halving of the fare.  Cleveland himself was no fan of Gould, having fought Tammany Hall before and immediately after his election, as he would throughout his future Presidency.  He was, however, steadfast in his belief that government should be limited by the Constitutional order and held to the highest principles of fairness.  In this case, he concluded that the State of New York had entered into a contract with Gould to provide the rail service at ten cents per fare.  He reasoned that the state could not in good conscience arbitrarily rewrite that contract simply because Gould was making more money than politicians believed reasonable.  Article I of the State Constitution specifically prohibited the passage of any “law impairing the obligation of contracts.”  If anyone was at fault, it was New York itself, not Gould.  Cleveland felt he had no choice except to veto the bill, noting that the state must “not only be strictly just, but scrupulously fair.”  Attempts at mass transit in New York had failed in the past and that the legislature had recognized the need for external financing, but capital “was timid and hesitated to enter a new field full of risks and dangers.  By promising liberal fares…capitalists were induced to invest their money in the enterprise, and rapid transit but lately become an accomplished fact…It is manifestly important that invested capital should be protected and that its necessity and usefulness in the development of enterprises valuable to the people should be recognized by conservative conduct on the part of the state government.”  Cleveland was under no illusions this would be a popular position either with the public or his fellow politicians.  He is said to have muttered to himself, “By tomorrow at this time I shall be the most unpopular man in the state of New York” and “Grover Cleveland, you’ve done this business to yourself tonight.”

Something incredible happened the next day, however:  Rather than maligning Cleveland for siding against the public, this rare profile in courage for a politician in an era dominated by wheeling and dealing turned him into an instant hero with the press.  The question became whether or not the state legislature would attempt to override the veto.  Roosevelt, in particular, was not known to change his mind on matters he considered important, nor was his passionate disposition prone to keeping him silent.  Even at such a young age, he’d developed a reputation as a “fighting cock” and a general thorn in the side of the legislature.  A friend described him as “a perfect nuisance.”  Roosevelt was driven by boundless energy, almost inhuman in his ability to stay in motion whether he was tracking a bison in the Dakotas are engaged in political debate.  He would quite literally jump from his chair dozens of times in a single session, running up and down the corridors of the chamber, demanding to be heard with cries of “Mr. Speaker!  Mr. Speaker!”  He’d also been known to threaten a fellow representative in the heat of the moment, and had engaged in a fisticuff or two.  How he might react to Cleveland’s veto was anyone’s guess, but few likely thought he would be the first to speak up in full throated support of the decision, describing his previous position on the bill as shameful.  “I have to say with shame that when I voted for this bill I did not act as I think I ought to have acted.”  He confessed to have let his hatred of the “infernal thieves” who run the railroad outrun his own judgment.  Were it up to him, he’d arrest Gould and all of his associates.  “They are common thieves…they belong to that most dangerous of all classes, the wealthy criminal class,” but “it is not a question of doing right to them.”  He continued, “We have heard a great deal about people demanding passage of this bill.  Now anything the people demand that is right it is most clearly and emphatically the duty of this Legislature to do; but we should never yield to what they demand if it is wrong…I would rather go out of politics having the feeling that I had done what was right than stay in the with approval of all men, knowing in my heart that I have acted as I ought not to.”

Roosevelt, however, felt quite differently in a similar situation barely a year later.  The young politician had recently defeated his own party’s political machine, crushing a former adversary who had denied him the position of Speaker of the New York State House the year before, and was voted a delegate for the upcoming Republican National Convention when he learned that Cleveland planned to veto a slate of favored government reform bills that he had put forwarded and shepherded to passage.  After exclaiming to a reporter, “He mustn’t do that!  I can’t have that!  I won’t let him do it!  I’ll go up and see him at once,” Roosevelt headed straight to the governor’s office to demand he pass the bill, but the Unmovable Object lived up to his nickname.  This time his objections were technical in nature:  He supported the bills’ objectives and were he given clean pieces of legislation, he would’ve gladly signed them into law.  Instead, the bills before him were an absolute mess, disagreeing with themselves in parts.  The Tenure of Office Act, for example, specified two different terms for the same position, either four years or one year and eleven months depending on the section of the bill.  There were also an array of incomprehensible sentences, where a word or two would change the whole meaning, and likely end up in the Courts for further interpretation beyond the control of the legislature or the executive.  Roosevelt declared that it was too late to worry about details like this and Cleveland should sign the bills on “principle” alone.  “You must not veto those bills.  You cannot.  You shall not…I won’t have it.”  Cleveland would not be moved, however, raising his massive fist in the air and thunderously slamming it down on his desk as was his habit.  “Mr. Roosevelt, I am going to veto those bills.”  Incredibly, Roosevelt appears to have been cowed by the larger man, taking a seat, declaring it an “outrage,” but quickly exiting the office after Cleveland more calmly returned to his work.

The two men would go on to champion real reforms for the country and their respective parties, but would be frostier in their relations in the future.  Cleveland himself would win the Presidency later that year with Roosevelt actively campaigning against him though he personally disliked the Republican candidate, Daniel Blaine, and did everything possible to prevent his nomination at the convention.  Roosevelt himself would not sit in the Oval Office for another 17 years after President William McKinley was assassinated.  Cleveland had been pleased that his old Democrat adversary William Jennings Bryant lost the election of 1900, though he was skeptical of McKinley’s imperial streak even as he liked him personally.  He delivered a memoriam for him at Princeton University, telling the students, “Here was a most distinguished man, a great man, a useful man – who became distinguished, great, and useful because he had, and retained unimpaired qualities of the heart which I fear university students sometimes feel like keeping in the background or abandoning.”  Cleveland also offered kind words to Roosevelt, who took office as the youngest President in history.  We do not know what was said between the two, but years later Roosevelt himself described it to the widowed Mrs. Cleveland, claiming it was “as if a senior had patted a freshmen on the shoulder and assured him of his success.”  In one of history’s more delicious ironies, the Democrats would attempt to recruit Cleveland once again to run against Roosevelt in 1904.

Over a century later, there are still lessons to be learned from both the agreements and disagreements between these two future Presidents.  First and foremost, courage is often in the eye of the beholder.  Both men were outliers in their own party at the time and committed reformers, horrified by how their state and country had descended into machine politics and outright bribes.  At times, each was a profile in political courage, even when they disagreed with one another.  The question, of course, is how to achieve meaningful reform when segments of your own party are vehemently against it.  Cleveland believed the process mattered as much as anything else:  Legislation had to be Constitutional, clean, and fair above all other considerations.  Roosevelt was more practical at times, willing to accept less than the ideal to advance his goals on “principle.”  Neither was right or wrong depending on the context.  Politics can be a dirty business and each made deals they would have preferred not to at times.  Principle is good, but too much can lead to disaster as Cleveland himself would learn by the end of his terrible second term when he watched compromise turn into disaster while attempting to reform the tariff system.  Second, both Cleveland and Roosevelt built coalitions around important issues that transcended the traditional party structure, even as they ultimately worked within it, sometimes while detesting it.  Today, there is little doubt that our government is in need of massive reform, something on a scale far larger than either faced in the 1880s.  This reform is not likely to come from entrenched interests, as it certainly didn’t back then.  Machine politics is alive and well in modern America, simply in a different, perhaps even more insidious form where the machine is the government itself and the payouts to politicians and their cronies come from the taxpayers themselves.

Reform will only come when people from both sides of the ideological spectrum come together outside of traditional party structures to enforce their will on the parties themselves, the same as Cleveland and Roosevelt, even when they disagreed.  This “coming together” need not be on a specific policy.  Indeed, in a polarized country that is unlikely to happen, but policy agreement is not what is needed most at this point.  The biggest issues facing the country go beyond the technical details of a specific tax rate or the optimal minimum wage.  We are a country at war with its vision of itself.  The battle is not the same as it was in their day when everyone gave lip service to American greatness while fleecing the government for their own ends, but the similarities are striking nonetheless.  The reform measures both men sought were largely around the operation of the government – who to hire, how to fire them, etc. – as well as the principles of a limited government only empowered to accomplish certain things.  The questions facing us today are both different and the same.  Are we the aspiring Shining City on a Hill that the Founders and most of our leaders throughout history believedDo we support the natural rights of our fellow citizens even when they are inconvenientDo we demand a government that operates according to the limitations and processes established by our Founding documents and centuries of custom?  Agreement on these and similar principles should not be difficult to achieve.  Rarely does the average person disagree on such basic things as the right of their neighbor to speak their mind or that Congress should vote on a clear, coherent budget proposed in public.  It is only the entrenched interests that disagree, and only for their benefit.  This is as it was in both Cleveland’s and Roosevelt’s day, and if such disparate men could work together to defeat these interests, so can we.  All that’s needed is the courage to stand against the system and earn the respect of fair minded people on the other side of the spectrum.  If only someone would try.


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