People say many things about distance, like “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” or “The distance is nothing; it is only the first step that is difficult,” or “It is easy to be brave from a safe distance,” to name just a few.
For Theodore Roosevelt in February 1896, the distance from New York to Chicago was a welcome relief because it gave him an opportunity to be “the lion of the hour” after 10 grueling months of arduous and unpopular work as the New York Police Commissioner charged with enacting reform.
Theodore Roosevelt at his desk. From the Dickinson State University collection.
Roosevelt traveled to Chicago in February 1896 to give a speech for the Union League Club. The occasion was George Washington’s birthday. During his 36 hours there, he gave a total of seven speeches in what he described as “a tumultuous whirl in Chicago.” He was received enthusiastically and lauded for his work in New York.
“Chicago looks at me through the perspective of space which is almost as satisfactory as looking through the perspective of time; and, as she does not feel my rule, was loud in her denunciation of New York for not being grateful to me,” he wrote to his sister “Bye” (Anna Roosevelt Cowles) following his trip.
New York in the late 1800s was a hotbed of corruption run by Tammany Hall, a political organization that was founded in 1786 and grew in influence and power over the course of the next century and a half. Tammany Hall controlled politics, business, and government, relying on its popularity as a supporter of the common man, particularly the Irish immigrants. Under Tammany Hall, prostitution flourished, bars illegally remained open day and night, government positions were bought and sold, and police turned a blind eye as long as their pockets were lined.
In 1894, Tammany Hall candidate Nathan Straus was defeated in the mayoral race following public hearings that brought to light the political and moral corruption in the city and the state.
The new mayor, William L. Strong, appointed Theodore Roosevelt as police commissioner on May 6, 1895. Roosevelt was determined to reform the department, despite problematic relationships with colleagues, bad press, and an indifferent public.
In his letter, Roosevelt states that he believes his work as commissioner is more strenuous than that of the President himself, and that he has not had even the slightest support from the public, the press or the politicians.
“As a matter of fact public sentiment is apathetic and likes to talk about virtue in the abstract, but it does not want to retain the virtue if there is any trouble about it,” he writes.
People do resist change. And, like any reformer, TR felt the distance between himself and his fellow New Yorkers. Unlike his fellow New Yorkers, however, he did not resist change but instead embraced it. If it is easy to be brave from a safe distance, Roosevelt proved it is also possible to be brave up close. He was absolutely unafraid of Tammany Hall, unsympathetic to the corrupt and bold in his actions.
Still, on the day he wrote the letter to Bye, he was concerned about the possibility of a bill being introduced that would end his tenure as commissioner.
“However, I can afford to look at the result with a good deal of equanimity; they can’t put me out much before I have finished my year’s term of service; I will then have practically done the great bulk of our work, that is the re-organizing of the Department; we will leave the Force immeasurably improved compared to the Force we found; and with all the worry and hard work, I have heartily enjoyed it.”
In the end, TR did not lose his post but left it voluntarily to begin his duties as Assistant Secretary of the Navy on April 19, 1897. During his two years as Police Commissioner, he had worked diligently to create a modern and well organized Police Department, never backing down despite the opposition. While his reforms did not end corruption in New York, his contributions had a significant and long-lasting effect on the city and the state.
One could say he went the distance.
Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Anna Roosevelt Cowles, February 25, 1896, MS Am 1834 (498), Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.
Zacks, Richard. Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York. New York, 2012.
Jeffers, Paul H. Commissioner Roosevelt: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt and the New York City Police, 1895-1897. New York, 1994.