Theodore Roosevelt
The Conservationist

By David P. Brown

On a frigid New Year’s Eve in 1898, the still of the night on Albany’s Eagle Street was disturbed by the sound of shattering glass. None of the residents apparently heard the noise, not even those asleep in the house where the rear window was broken -- the Executive Mansion.

The Governor-elect, returning from a pre-inaugural party, did not have a key. The staff had retired so Teddy Roosevelt, a resourceful man of action, smashed the window to let himself into his new home. Neither staff nor his wife, bedridden with the flu, were awakened.

Although that incident did not arouse Albany, Roosevelt’s experience in the capital certainly made an impression.

From his exploits as a young, boisterous Assemblyman to a highly visible term as New York’s 36th governor, Roosevelt demonstrated in Albany the personal and political drive which made him one of America’s most popular public figures and the youngest president of the United States.

Almost a century later, a new Republican governor is taking office in Albany, one who finds in Roosevelt a political hero. Pataki’s son, Teddy, 12, is named after Roosevelt and a picture of the former president hangs on the wall of the Pataki’s office.

Teddy Roosevelt’s persona -- rugged individualist, family man, political progressive, world leader, lover of the outdoors, inspiring reformer, conservationist -- was shaped by his early years in Albany. And state government in Albany in the late 19th Century was affected by the exuberant young Republican.

As a freshman assemblyman in 1882, the dapper, 23-year-old, Roosevelt created a stir on his first day in Albany. "The Cyclone Assemblyman," as one biographer called him, marched from the Delavan House into the pre-dawn, 17-degree weather with no topcoat, briskly climbed the snow-encrusted State Street hill, then bounded up the steps of the Capitol to a GOP caucus. John Walsh, an assemblymen at the caucus, recalled the entrance:

"Suddenly our eyes, and those of everybody on the floor, became glued on a young man who was coming in through the door. His hair was parted in the center and he had sideburns. He wore a single eye-glass, with a gold chain over his ear. He had on a cutaway coat and the ends of its tails almost reached the tops of his shoes. He carried a gold-headed cane in one hand, a silk hat in the other.

"`Who’s the dude,’ I asked another member , while the same question was being put in a dozen different parts of the hall.

"` That’s Theodore Roosevelt of New York,’ he answered."

Bored by tedious legislative work, Roosevelt kept a private diary in which he called certain Democrats a "stupid, sodden vicious lot, most of them equally deficient in brains and virtue." He was particularly contemptuous of Tammany Hall Democrats from New York City, who, in his words, were "totally unable to speak with even an approximation of good grammar."

Tammany Democrats were not fond of Roosevelt, either. One incident showed how this enmity went beyond the Capitol.

Around the Delavan House (the Albany home of many legislators; it burned down in 1894), Roosevelt was known for his enthusiastic hikes into the countryside. One day, dressed for hiking in a short English pea jacket and a walking stick, he travelled out Washington Avenue. Stopping at a saloon for refreshment, he was confronted by several "Tammany toughs," including John Costello, "a thorough faced scoundrel," as Roosevelt described him.

They ribbed "the dude" about his attire, saying "Won’t mama’s boy catch cold.?" A boxer at Harvard, Roosevelt quietly put away his glasses and proceeded to knock down Costello and one of his cronies. He bought them a drink and admonished them "when you are in the presence of a gentleman, conduct yourselves like gentlemen." The altercation became the talk of the Delavan House that evening.

Later that session, Roosevelt brought his bride from Boston and relocated to a residential hotel at the corner of State and Eagle streets. In the Assembly, he was becoming known for his interruptions of proceedings with the high-pitched cry, "Mistah Speak-ah! Mistah Speak-ah!"

Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Henry Pringle wrote that "Until March 1882, Roosevelt was known at Albany chiefly because of his eccentricities."

However, on March 30, 1882, front page newspaper articles described his resolution before the Assembly charging a former attorney general and a former state Supreme Court justice with misconduct related to the acquisition of the Manhattan Railway.

Pringle noted that Roosevelt’s speech "was received in silence." A senior Republican, Thomas Alvord, suggested the resolution be delayed "so that the Honorable Gentleman from the Twenty-first (Roosevelt’s assembly district) would have opportunity to ponder the wisdom of his action." Newspaper coverage of the scandal catapulted Roosevelt into the public eye.

During Roosevelt’s three one-year terms in the Assembly he successfully battled with the Republican machine led by "Boss" Platt (U.S. Senator Thomas Platt) and teamed up with Democratic Gov. Grover Cleveland -- who also would move from the statehouse in Albany to the White House in Washington -- to pass Civil Service reform legislation.

Cleveland, the two-term president of the United States, reflected in 1909: "Roosevelt is the most perfectly equipped and the most effective politician thus far seen in the Presidency. Jackson, Jefferson and Van Buren were not comparable with him in this respect. When I was governor, he was still a very young man and only a member of the Assembly; but it was clear to me, even thus early, that he was looking to a public career, that he was studying political conditions with a care that I had never known any man to show, and that he was firmly convinced that he would some day reach prominence."

As chairman of a committee to investigate New York City government, his reform reputation grew in 1884. However, February of that year was a particularly bitter month for Roosevelt. While on the Assembly floor, he received two telegrams. The first announced his daughter’s birth in New York City; the second, the impending death of his mother and wife’s weak condition. He rushed to New York and the following day both his mother and wife died.

In his diary for February 14, 1884, Roosevelt drew a large cross and wrote "the light has gone out of my life." He finished his term in Albany, then headed West.

Two years later, he returned east to run unsuccessfully for mayor of New York and to remarry. He yearned for public life, taking on positions as U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, Police Commissioner of New York City and Assistant Secretary of the Navy. When the Spanish-American War erupted and he became a lieutenant colonel in charge of "the Rough Riders."

It was on his adventures in Cuba as leader of the Rough Riders that Colonel Roosevelt rode back into New York politics, returning to Albany as governor in 1898.

On inauguration day -- following his breaking into the Executive Mansion the previous evening -- Roosevelt proudly walked over Eagle Street escorted by a military band unable to play the brass instruments because of the sub-zero temperature. Only an eerie drumbeat sounded as he marched to the new Capitol, the first governor to occupy the completed building.

"It was," as biographer Edmund Morris noted, "as if the whole twenty-two-million dollar structure had been built just for him."

In the Assembly Chamber, where he once was derided as an eccentric "dude," Roosevelt was received as a hero by Republicans and Democrats alike. No one imagined this new governor would become, in a little more than two years, president of the United States.

Governor Roosevelt prided himself on passing Civil Service reform legislation and advancing labor reforms. Among his greatest criticizisms was his decision to send a woman to the electric chair for the first time in New York State (Martha Place of Brooklyn, convicted of killing her stepdaughter with an axe).

His administration was highlighted by constant battles over reforms with "Boss" Platt of his own Republican party. Reportedly, Platt had a role in having Roosevelt nominated for vice president to get him out of Albany.

Both Roosevelt and his second wife, Edith, were socially active in Albany, at the Executive Mansion and beyond. Edith was a member of the Friday Morning Club, a group of intellectual young women who got together to read their papers on topics of the day.

For gala parties at the Mansion, the Roosevelt children (Theodore Jr., Ethel, Alice, Quentin, Kermit and Archie) often would watch from the top of the stairs. During one event, they slipped outside in their pajamas and were found, by arriving guests, as they played in the snow on the front lawn. At another party, the children put a purple billiard ball in the bowl of plums. Reportedly, one guest tried to bite into it and nearly cracked a tooth.

The children’s pets did not go without notice. When Edith was hosting a fashionable crowd for lunch, an unpleasant odor from the basement was traced to accumulated winter droppings of pet rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters in cellar.

Their guinea pigs were named for real people, such as Bishop Doane (after Albany’s Episcopal Bishop) and Admiral Dewey. One day Archie burst in on a business meeting with the Governor, exclaiming, "Father. Father. Bishop Doane has had twins!"

The Governor was fond of romping around the house with his children. When, Gifford Pinchot, chief forester of the United States, came to Albany, he arrived while the Mansion was "under ferocious attach from a band of invisible Indians, and the Governor of the Empire State was helping a houseful of children to escape by lowering them out a second story window on a rope."

During that visit, Pinchot and Roosevelt put on boxing gloves and sparred in the mansion’s gymnasium before getting down to serious talks on forestry issues.

Rather than seek another term as governor, Roosevelt ran for Vice President on the McKinley ticket. His popularity was evident in the Republican victory. The following September, President McKinley was shot by an assassin in Buffalo. Roosevelt, after visiting McKinley and being assured he would recuperate, joined his family in the Adirondack Mountains.

On Friday September 13, a courier from Albany was dispatched to find the vice president, who was mountain climbing near Mount Tawahus, to tell him McKinley was about to die and that he, Theodore Roosevelt, was to become, at age 42, president of the United States.

 

(David P. Brown, president of Sawchuk, Brown Associates, is a former newspaper editor who has written about local history for a number of publications).

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