It's not what you know, it's who you know-or is it?

Apr 19, 2013

Theodore Roosevelt was inundated with solicitations from friends and acquaintances asking him to appoint them, their sons, their brothers, or perhaps even their brothers’ friends to government positions during his administrations. How did he handle those asking for favors and sometimes downright handouts?

In the case of Joe Murray, Roosevelt clearly felt a deep obligation to his friend of more than twenty years. TR met Murray in the fall of 1880, when Roosevelt was fresh out of Harvard and joined the 21st District Republican Association. In his book, The Boys’ Life of Theodore Roosevelt, Hermann Hagedorn described Murray as “…fearless and clean and strong.”

Murray was a first-generation immigrant, having arrived in America at the age of three. When he and Roosevelt met, Murray held a position at the post office and was an active member of the Republican Association.  The two men immediately formed a mutual respect and esteem for each other and, according to Hagedorn, it was Murray who was behind TR’s nomination for Assembly by the 21st District Republican Association. TR was subsequently elected to the New York state legislature in November 1881.

Some twenty years later, with TR barely settled into his first term as president, Murray sought the help of his old friend. Murray hoped to be appointed Commissioner of Immigration which was, in TR’s estimation, the “second most important position around New York.” TR deferred Murray’s request, but committed himself to Murray’s cause.

On December 11, 1901, TR wrote to his brother-in-law Douglas Robinson, “I have to get Joe Murray something; there is no use talking!”

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Douglas Robinson

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Douglas Robinson, December 11, 1901, MS Am 1785.9 (3), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, 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.

The ensuing chain of correspondence between Douglas Robinson, Joe Murray and Theodore Roosevelt makes it clear that TR was determined to find Murray a position. However, he was not willing to simply hand Murray employment for which he was not fit, and TR did not think that Murray was fit to be Commissioner of Immigration.

“I intend to appoint him to some position, but I would be derelict to my duty if I appointed him to a position for which I did not think him entirely fit,” he wrote to Douglas Robinson on January 15, 1902.

In the letter, Roosevelt continued by expounding on the number of people who apply to him for government appointments and the weighty responsibility of placing the right person in the right position. He explained that in most cases, people apply for positions for which they are not qualified.

“I cannot give a position to anyone simply because he is a friend and I would like to do him a good turn,” he wrote.

Ultimately, Roosevelt did not appoint Murray to his desired position. He did, however, meet both his duty as President of the United States and his obligation to his old friend by appointing Murray Assistant Commissioner of Ellis Island.


Hagedorn, Hermann. The Boys' Life of Theodore Roosevelt. Harper & Brothers Publishers: New York, 1918.

Posted by Shanna Shervheim on Apr 19, 2013 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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