Roosevelt the Reformer

Theodore Roosevelt as Civil Service Commissioner, 1889-1895
By RICHARD D. WHITE JR.

THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS

Copyright © 2003 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1361-6


Chapter One

1889 Arriving in Washington

ON A SPARKLING spring morning in 1889, Theodore Roosevelt hurried along the smoothly paved avenues of Washington, D.C. His pace was quick, and for most people it would be a run. As he walked, Roosevelt soaked up the color and fragrance of Washington in full bloom, a city even more enchanting after a weekend rainstorm carpeted the sidewalks with pungent locust blossoms. While a student at Harvard, Roosevelt once planned to become a biologist, and he never lost his fascination with nature's beauty. He especially had a love of trees, and could recall the Latin nomenclature of a Quercus alba shading a street corner or a Platinus occidentalis lining a boulevard. Washington charmed him, as some sixty-five thousand carefully tended trees added a green lushness to the city. Each avenue displayed its own unique foliage. Massachusetts Avenue had its lindens, New Hampshire Avenue its stately elms, and Connecticut Avenue flaunted sycamores most of the way but changed to sturdier pin oaks near the countryside.

In 1889 Washington had the trappings of a small southern city. With roughly 190,000 residents, the capital enjoyed a friendly mood and unhurried pace. This favored a young, energetic man like Roosevelt, who came to Washington to make his name. "In four-and-twenty hours he could know everybody; in two days everybody knew him." One English visitor spoke of an air "of comfort, of leisure, of space to spare, of stateliness you hardly expected in America. It looks the sort of place where nobody has to work for his living, or, at any rate, not hard." Office workers breakfasted between eight and nine, arrived at work about ten, at noon had a cup of coffee and a sandwich, and when government offices closed at four o'clock, went home to hearty dinners or dined at a restaurant. Washingtonians had their own concept of time. City merchants seldom delivered goods promptly or when promised. One northern visitor complained, "when they say noon in New York it generally means a little before; when they say noon in Washington, it means from one to four hours later." The times were still simple, an era when bicycles were a novelty, telephones a rarity, and phonographs an outright revelation.

Impressive government buildings dominated the Washington cityscape. Most visitors admired the capital's grand architecture, although a visiting Henry James complained at the time that the city was "over-weighted by a single Dome and overaccented by a single Shaft." On the west side of the White House stood the ornate State, War, and Navy Building, or as Henry Adams described it, "Mr. Mullett's architectural infant asylum." To the east loomed the Greek-columned Treasury, and just a couple of blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue stood the new granite Post Office, a massive Romanesque structure with an imposing Gothic clock tower. On this morning in May, Roosevelt headed for another of Washington's landmarks. As he approached Judiciary Square, a dozen blocks north of the White House, two large buildings caught his eye. At the north end of the square on G Street stood one of Washington's newest and most controversial structures. The Pension Building, just two years old, overwhelmed the viewer with its dazzling red brick facade, a dramatic departure from the traditional white sandstone of most government buildings. Many visitors winced at the brashness of the structure, which vaguely resembled an Italian Renaissance palace, and General Sherman once quipped that the only problem was that the building was fireproof. Most agreed, however, that the interior was magnificent, featuring a great hall fifteen stories high and flanked by eight colossal Corinthian columns. The great hall, capable of hosting twelve thousand partygoers, served as the site for every presidential inaugural ball since its completion, as it would for Roosevelt fifteen years in the future.

Standing at the south end of Judiciary Square was City Hall, the other dominant building to catch Roosevelt's eye. A dramatic contrast to the Pension Building, City Hall was one of Washington's oldest and more stately buildings, a classic white Grecian monolith with six Ionic columns topped with a graceful dome. Built in 1820, City Hall no longer served as the seat of local government but now housed an assortment of federal agencies, including Roosevelt's destination, the United States Civil Service Commission. For the commission's clerks, the temple-like City Hall offered a pleasant place to work, with large, quiet offices, high ceilings, and windows with relaxing views of lawns and trees. Across the street stood Harvey's, a popular restaurant where politicians and bureaucrats discussed the nation's affairs over plates covered with the cook's specialty, splendid fried oysters.

It was still early when Roosevelt bounded up the steps of City Hall and headed for the commission. The clerks working at their desks were surprised as he burst into the office. They looked up to see a young man about thirty, of average height and build, and dressed in Brooks Brothers finery. He had thick, blondish-brown hair parted near the middle, and a face "adorned by nature with a light moustache and artificially with a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses." Snapping blue eyes and a dazzling smile with its prominent white teeth were his most vivid features. 13 Roosevelt, in a distinctive high-pitched Dundreary drawl, announced with authority to no one in particular, "I am the new Civil Service Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt of New York. Have you a telephone? Call up the Ebbitt House. I have an engagement with Archbishop Ireland. Say that I will be there at ten o'clock."

* * *

Theodore Roosevelt's selection as civil service commissioner began roughly a year before he arrived in Washington. During the presidential election of 1888, Roosevelt, a loyal Republican, campaigned energetically for Benjamin Harrison. Theodore admired the incorruptible Harrison, a stodgy little former Civil War general, keen-minded lawyer, senator from Indiana, grandson of President William Henry Harrison, and "frigid Presbyterian deacon." Four years earlier, while fighting the nomination of James G. Blaine at the 1884 Chicago Republican convention, Roosevelt allied himself with Louis Michener, an Indiana power broker. Now, Michener managed Harrison's campaign and Roosevelt volunteered his services to the Republicans. Roosevelt appeared enthusiastic in a letter to his sister Anna in July 1888. "We have a first class ticket; Harrison is a clean, able man, with a good record as a soldier and a Senator," wrote Theodore. "I do'not [sic] like some points of our platform altogether; but on civil service reform, it is sound, while the Democratic platform is not. I suppose I shall be on the stump a short while this fall."

Roosevelt spent August and September of 1888 in the West hunting elk in Idaho's rugged Kootenai country. On October 6 he returned to his home at Oyster Bay, New York. On the next day, with his wife, Edith, at his side, Theodore boarded the Chicago Limited and headed west again for an exhausting twelve-day trip campaigning for Harrison. 19 Giving speeches in Chicago, Detroit, and St. Paul, Roosevelt praised the Republican platform that favored civil service reform and attacked the "thoroughly rotten" spoils system that rewarded political loyalty with government jobs. He was happy to be in the midst of a political campaign. "I always genuinely enjoy [politics] and act as target and marksman alternately with immense zest," he wrote his friend Cecil Spring-Rice after the election. "But it is a trifle wearing."

The election was close. In November, Harrison lost the popular vote to the incumbent, Grover Cleveland, but won the electoral college ballot and the presidency. Four months later, on March 4, 1889, President Harrison delivered his inaugural address while sheltered beneath an umbrella amid a cold downpour so heavy that it caused "ladies bangs to come out of curl and hang loose around their foreheads." Nearly half a million people braved the weather to watch, for the nation also celebrated the one-hundred-year anniversary of George Washington's taking the oath of office.

Roosevelt wanted a job in the new administration. Although outwardly hostile to the spoils system, he saw no irony in seeking an appointment from Harrison as a reward for his campaign efforts. Early in 1889, Congressmen Thomas Reed and Henry Cabot Lodge asked Harrison to appoint their friend Roosevelt as assistant secretary of state. To Roosevelt's chagrin, the new secretary of state was James G. Blaine, the man whose presidential nomination Roosevelt fought in 1884. Blaine refused to accept Theodore as his assistant. "I do somehow fear that my sleep [while vacationing] at Augusta or Bar Harbor would not quite be so easy and refreshing if so brilliant and aggressive a man had hold of the helm," Blaine explained to Lodge. "Matters are constantly occurring which require the most thoughtful concentration and the most stubborn inaction. Do you think that Mr. T. R.'s temperament would give guaranty of that course?" It is doubtful that Blaine seriously considered Roosevelt for the post, as at the time he was trying vainly to convince Harrison to appoint his son, Walker Blaine, as assistant secretary.

Undaunted by Blaine's refusal, Theodore pressed for an appointment in another bureau. By spring 1889, Harrison's advisers suggested that Roosevelt, as "persistent as a mosquito on a summer night," be appointed as one of three civil service commissioners. The commissionership offered only a minor post but one that might placate the irrepressible Theodore. Politically, placing Roosevelt at the commission appeared an ideal choice for Harrison. The new president at least nominally supported civil service reform, and a Roosevelt commissionership would satisfy the progressive side of the Republican Party, which favored an attack on the spoils system. Besides, a Roosevelt commissionership did not waste a more desirable political plum such as a departmental assistant secretaryship reserved for old-guard stalwarts.

Ideologically, Roosevelt suited the commissionership and its reform mission. The commission's primary function was to reform the federal bureaucracy by replacing an inefficient and often corrupt patronage system with a professional civil service based on merit, not politics. Despite his youth, Roosevelt was a well-seasoned reformer. Ten years before, as a student at Harvard, he supported many popular reform causes, including civil service reform. Shortly after graduation, Theodore joined a local Republican association in New York City and led a resolution favoring nonpartisan administration of the street-cleaning department. The resolution failed.

Between 1881 and 1884, Roosevelt served three terms as the youngest legislator in the New York State Assembly, where he championed a series of reform bills attacking corruption and professionalizing New York State government. During his second term in Albany, Theodore joined forces with then-governor Grover Cleveland to pass a bill making New York the first state to replace its patronage system with a merit-based civil service. Roosevelt and his reform allies also enacted legislation requiring merit systems for the twenty-three New York cities with populations of twenty thousand or more. While running unsuccessfully for mayor of New York in 1886, he campaigned on a reform ticket that promised to clean up the city's corrupt patronage system.

Roosevelt expressed a serious interest in the civil service job as early as April 1888, writing to Lodge that he hoped "the President will appoint good Civil Service Commissioners." At first Roosevelt was optimistic about the new president's resolve for civil service reform. In his inaugural speech, Harrison promised that his administration would "enforce the civil service law fully and without evasion" and personally vowed "to do something more to advance the reform." As a senator in 1883, "Little Ben" mildly supported civil service reform and voted for the Pendleton Act, although he believed a government employee should be allowed to make unrestricted contributions to political campaigns.

Roosevelt was not reluctant to offer advice to the president-elect. "You will doubtless have forgotten me; I think that any New Yorker can tell you who I am," Roosevelt wrote Harrison soon after the election. Theodore complained that appointing New York political boss Thomas Platt to a cabinet post would have "a very unfortunate effect on our politics here" and stated that "honest politics and a clean, non-partisan civil service can only come from Republican men." In the next month Roosevelt noted that the new president's commitment proved not as strong as the campaign rhetoric suggested. Roosevelt wrote Harrison to object to his earliest appointments that, in Roosevelt's eyes, smacked of spoils politics at its worst. In the New York City post office, Harrison replaced Postmaster Henry Pearson, to Roosevelt an honest and efficient official, with the spoils politician and machine loyalist, Cornelius Van Cott. The new president also replaced Silas Burt as surveyor of the Port of New York and Leverett Saltonstall as collector of customs in Boston. Roosevelt wrote Harrison twice to protest Van Cott's appointment, but the new president never responded. Theodore complained to Lodge soon after writing his second letter to the president. "I learn that Harrison thinks of making an ordinary ward politician, Van Cott, a Platt henchman, postmaster; a horrible contrast to Pearson," wrote Theodore. "It would be an awful black eye to the party here; a criminal blunder. Platt seems to have a ring in the President's nose as regards New York ... curse patronage."

While Roosevelt's complaints brought no action, they must not have angered the president. In April 1889, Lodge called on the president's secretary, Elijah Halford, and urged that Theodore be appointed commissioner. Later that day, Halford and the president took a walk after finishing their office work and Halford suggested the Roosevelt appointment. After mulling over the idea for a few days, Harrison had Halford wire Roosevelt to come to Washington. Shortly thereafter, Roosevelt took the train south from Oyster Bay and, on May 7, met with Harrison in the White House. The young New Yorker apparently impressed the president. A decade later, when Roosevelt served as New York governor and was rumored to be a candidate for vice president, Harrison recalled that "the only trouble I ever had with managing [Roosevelt] was he wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset." When Harrison offered the commissionership, Roosevelt promptly accepted. The next day he wrote a friend, Baltimore reformist Charles Bonaparte, "I hated to take the place, but I hardly thought I ought to refuse. I was a good deal surprised at the offer."

* * *

President Harrison would not have appointed Roosevelt civil service commissioner without the political maneuvering of Henry Cabot Lodge. Theodore relied heavily on the advice of Cabot, who over the years became "the most loyal friend that ever breathed." Tall and spare, Lodge dressed impeccably and wore "his close-fitting suits with the trouser pockets foppishly cut on the horizontal." He was "English to the last fiber of his thought." With a spike of a beard underscoring his angular face, Lodge seemed unbearably superior and fastidious, cold and calculating. But the Boston aristocrat also was fiercely loyal to his friends. Theodore and Cabot began their close relationship during the 1884 Republican convention when they fought Blaine's presidential nomination, then refused to break from the party with the radical Mug-wumps and supported Blaine. Liberal reformers attacked Roosevelt and Lodge for standing behind their party, describing them as immature delegates who "pouted and sulked like whipped schoolboys." According to Roosevelt, "from that time on [Cabot] was my closest friend, personally, politically, and in every other way, and occupied toward me a relation that no other man has ever occupied or ever will occupy."

The two men differed in significant ways. Eight years older than Theodore, Lodge held wide-ranging interests and, while more intellectually agile and polished than Roosevelt, lacked his friend's breadth, flexibility, and charisma. Like Theodore, he loved history and literature, long walks, horses, and Harvard. In public both men appeared humorless, but their correspondence to each other often revealed wit and whimsy. In many ways, Lodge became the big brother Theodore never had. An outspoken supporter of civil service reform, Lodge also shrewdly took advantage of his patronage privileges when politics demanded.

(Continues...)



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