Theodore Roosevelt:
The Reformer

When Theodore Roosevelt was governor in 1900, the State Legislature passed legislation creating a state bureau of elections in New York City and a superintendent of elections to be appointed by Roosevelt.

In his autobiography, Roosevelt noted that the chief of the State Bureau of Elections was John McCullagh, "formerly in the [New York City] Police Department when I was police commissioner. The chief of police for the city was William F. Devery, one of the Tammany leaders, who represented in the Police Department all that I had warred against while commissioner." [As a reformer determined to clean up the Police Department, Roosevelt had spent a tumultuous two years as a New York City police commissioner. He held this post from May 1895 until April 1897, when he resigned to accept an appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy.]

"On November 4," Roosevelt continued, "Devery directed his subordinates in the Police Department to disregard the orders which McCullagh had given to his deputies, orders which were essential if we were to secure an honest election in the city. I had just returned from a Western campaign trip [as a vice-presidential candidate on the McKinley ticket] and was at Sagamore Hill [the Roosevelt family home on Long Island]. I had no direct power over Devery; but the mayor had; and I had power over the mayor. Accordingly, I at once wrote to the mayor of New York, to the sheriff of New York [County], and to the district attorney of New York County the following letters:

State of New York
Oyster Bay, November 5, 1900

To the Mayor of the City of New York.

Sir: My attention has been called to the official order issued by Chief of Police Devery, in which he directs his subordinates to disregard the Chief of the State Election Bureau, John McCullagh, and his deputies. Unless you have already taken steps to secure the recall of this order, it is necessary for me to point out that I shall be obliged to hold you responsible as the head of the city government for the action of the Chief of Police, if it should result in any breach of the peace and intimidation or any crime whatever against the election laws. The state and city authorities should work together. I will not fail to call to summary account either state or city authority in the event of either being guilty of intimidation or connivance at fraud or of failure to protect every legal voter in his rights. I therefore hereby notify you that in the event of any wrongdoing following upon the failure immediately to recall Chief Devery's order, or upon any action or inaction on the part of Chief Devery, I must necessarily call you to account.

 Yours, etc.,

 Theodore Roosevelt.

 

 

State of New York
Oyster Bay, November 5, 1900

To the Sheriff of the County of New York.

Sir: My attention has been called to the official order issued by Chief of Police Devery in which he directs his subordinates to disregard the chief of the State Election Bureau, John McCullagh, and his deputies.

It is your duty to assist in the orderly enforcement of the law, and I shall hold you strictly responsible for any breach of the public peace within your county, or for any failure on your part to do your full duty in connection with the election tomorrow.

Yours truly,

Theodore Roosevelt

                                                                                            ***

State of New York
Oyster Bay, November 5, 1900

To the District Attorney of the County of New York.

Sir: My attention has been called to the official order issued by Chief of Police Devery, in which he directs his subordinates to disregard the chief of the State Election Bureau, John McCullagh, and his deputies.

In view of this order, I call your attention to the fact that it is your duty to assist in the orderly enforcement of the law, and there must be no failure on your part to do your full duty in the matter.

Yours truly,

Theodore Roosevelt

                                                                                        ***

 

Roosevelt said the three letters "had the desired effect. The mayor promptly required Chief Devery to rescind the obnoxious order, which was promptly done. The sheriff also took prompt action. The district attorney refused to heed my letter, and assumed an attitude of defiance, and I removed him from office. On election day there was no clash between the city and state authorities; the election was orderly and honest" [emphasis added].

Eminent Roosevelt biographer, William H. Harbaugh, wrote of Roosevelt's stormy two years as New York City police commissioner: "As TR had foreseen at the start, he was unable to rid New York City of Corruption; and as he had not wholly foreseen, the leaders of his own party had actively opposed him. Only the moral support of the decent elements had prevented the machine from turning him out; only his extraordinary courage and self-esteem had kept him from resigning after three or four months in office. Yet he had compiled a peerless record. Never in the department's history had the law been so effectively and dramatically enforced; never had two years seen so many basic and sweeping reforms. When Roosevelt took office the price of a captaincy was said to have been $10,000; when he left office it was nothing."

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