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Kennedy and Roosevelt
The Uneasy Alliance
By Michael Beschloss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Michael Beschloss
All rights reserved.
CONTEST OF TRADITIONS
The eleven years between the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention were a time for rumination. Publicans, laborers, farmers, scholars, the proprietors of city gazettes, and other political thinkers pondered the form of government that would best promote the public interest. They debated the nature of the American character and how individual ambitions could be most wisely enlisted for the common good. The dialogue was shaped by two emerging views of human nature and public service.
One body of opinion saw an American blessed with a special capacity for rational thought — a New Man, in the phrase of Crèvecoeur. Private ambitions could be expected to give way to the public spirit. Businessmen would make transactions on the basis of community responsibility; in the political realm, issues would be resolved by reason; Americans would seek happiness not in the mere life of private advancement, but in the good life of Aristotle's commonwealth.
The other school of thought questioned this vision, citing instances of greed and selfishness during the century before Independence. It was misguided, they argued, to expect a merchant or politician to "quit the line which interest marks out for him" in the service of an amorphous public good. The survival of liberty could not depend on the willingness of citizens and statesmen to overcome their own ambitions. Government must be structured instead to derive strength from the pursuit of private interests. This conception was fortified in 1776 by the publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, with its famous argument that the citizen following personal interest "frequently promotes that of the society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it." Citizens would therefore serve the nation most faithfully by competing to the fullest; the engagement of factions would not only prevent a single group from gaining inordinate power but lead to business prosperity and the selection of the finest public servants and public laws.
The Founding period yielded little support for the visionary notion of the virtuous American. State legislatures were filling with men who, James Madison believed, were "without reading, experience, or principle." Journalists lamented the corruption that seemed to sprawl throughout the provinces. So dispirited was George Washington that he concluded in 1782, "It is not the public, but the private interest which influences the generality of mankind, nor can the Americans any longer boast an exception."
The pragmatic vision prevailed at Philadelphia. The new Constitution sought to promote the general welfare less through appeals for public-spirited behavior than by counteracting ambition with ambition. Nevertheless, unwritten law kept alive the more demanding ethic of citizenship. Preachers exhorted their flocks to heed the doctrine of community. Schoolmasters pursued their earnest business of moral education in a system of free schools. The language and literature of the early nineteenth century rang with the music of the commonweal.
The decade after the Civil War was a forcing house of change. Henry Adams, returning from abroad, was astonished by what he saw. Factory towns were springing up across the landscape, the frontier vanishing, immigrants arriving in legions. Strange, unlearned men like Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt mocked old Yankee notions of austerity and disinterested service, amassing and spending unprecedented fortunes. Cities, swelled with newcomers, elected unusual new figures to office — frank political operators who pledged not Good Government, but a good meal, a municipal job, or a barrel of coal.
A dialogue that had been primarily an intellectual disagreement among the elite took on the lines of a conflict between cultures. Embracing the visionary ethic were the old families and their allies, generally comfortable, Protestant, wary. Against them, a newer group was riding the pragmatic vision into power; largely immigrant, urban, Catholic, they were eager for opportunity and unashamed of competing strenuously. These groups were loose amalgamations, cross-cut by a score of other issues, yet their opposing views of public service stimulated conflicts that were vehement and long-lived.
Perhaps the most characteristic figure of the new epoch was the city boss. His political credo was not oriented toward abstract principle, but toward goals more immediate and palpable. "When a man works in politics," declared George Washington Plunkitt, the artful Tammany man, "he should get something out of it." What bosses like Patrick Kennedy of East Boston got out of politics was the joy of authority and the physical necessities for their constituents — clothing, food, housing, as well as a sympathetic ear, and sometimes, relief from the law. In the stark reality of the wards, national issues frequently meant little more than a distraction from the more serious matters of patronage and party regularity. By 1880, in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Boston, the newcomers outnumbered the old-stock Americans. The most formidable machines were in place.
The heirs to the visionary tradition, like James Roosevelt of Hyde Park, looked on all of this with dismay. But, believing politics had grown too soiled for gentlemen, most patricians remained aloof from the political arena, leaving the banner to be shouldered by a generation of reformers. Newspapermen bared the links between money and votes; cartoonists lampooned the city machines. E. L. Godkin, in the pages of The Nation, reproached American intellectuals for failing to teach civic duty to their brethren. Their ranks were diverse and their programs sometimes contradictory, but the reformers were united by their passion to restore the public-minded ideal to the national spirit.
The culprits themselves reacted with petulance. "What do I care about the law?" asked Commodore Vanderbilt. "Hain't I got the power?" Boss Tweed was defiant too. Confronted in 1871 with a complaint against him, he snapped, "What are you going to do about it?" So incongruent was reform with their aspirations, the boss and his disciples found the reformer almost an apparition. Political ideals like women's suffrage, temperance, Sunday laws, and Good Government found few points of reference in their thinking. They were perplexed by a politics not aimed for victory, in which the attainment of some overriding principle was more crucial than winning elections. They ridiculed the reformers and their patrons as "dog-ooders," self-appointed to change society against the will of its denizens.
The Roosevelts of Hyde Park
James Roosevelt was born in 1828 to a family securely anchored in the American past. The paterfamilias was Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt, who left Holland in the middle seventeenth century to establish a farm at New Amsterdam. Two Roosevelt lines came to settle at Oyster Bay, Long Island, and at Hyde Park on the Hudson, leading tranquil lives in commerce and farming.
James J. Roosevelt, of the Oyster Bay branch, startled his family by campaigning for the hero of the common man, Andrew Jackson, and then scandalized them by joining forces with Tammany Hall. Appreciating the young man's social and financial connections, the braves engineered Roosevelt's ascent to the New York assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives. Philip Hone, the diarist who lavishly admired others in the family, called this Roosevelt "the leader of the blackguards." The errant man was also branded a traitor to his class.
Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., better illustrated the family's political code. Born in 1831, he was remembered by a friend as one who "literally went about doing good," backing causes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to an immigrant welfare society called Miss Slattery's Night School for Little Italians. Roosevelt's nomination by President Hayes as customs collector for the port of New York caused a sensation; the city had long known the post as a wellspring of patronage and unsavory politics. The prospect of the Long Island philanthropist controlling the appointments appalled the men of the machine, and the bosses blocked the nomination.
Mindful perhaps of his father's frustrations, the younger Theodore Roosevelt entered politics not through his social position but through the front door of the Jake Hess Republican Club. Under the puzzled gaze of the men in derbies, he announced that he was ready to begin his political career. An ambitious Hess lieutenant saw the newcomer in pince-nez and three-piece suit as the lever with which to topple the boss. Teddy campaigned among the rich while the lieutenant turned out the votes of the poor. The palace coup succeeded and Roosevelt went to Albany. His political philosophy was germinal, limited mainly to replacing graft and dishonesty with an unspecified kind of right-minded behavior, but even this stance was so striking in the political culture of the eighties that T.R. attracted the admiration of many reformers: "He has a refreshing habit of calling men and things by their right names, and in these days of subserviency to the robber barons of the Street, it takes some courage in a public man to characterize them and their acts in fitting terms."
Although the Hyde Park Roosevelts were Democrats, more from tradition than forethought, James Roosevelt admired the political attainments of the Oyster Bay cousin. His father, Isaac Roosevelt, was a fearful man who studied medicine at Columbia, but refused to practice because he could not bear the sight of human pain. A demanding father, the doctor continually warned his son against the temptations of the city and the evils of idleness: "You know you were created for better things. We live for God — for the good of our fellow men — for duty — for usefulness."
After graduation from New York University, James embarked on a young man's tour of Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and a continent aflame with the revolutions of 1848. Roosevelt tradition held that James even donned a red shirt to march with Garibaldi's army, but this would have been an unsober act for an eminently sober young gentleman. He returned to attend Harvard Law School and accepted a place with a distinguished New York firm. Roosevelt married his second cousin, Rebecca Howland; they had a son, James Roosevelt Roosevelt, and took up residence on the Hudson. James commuted to the city to practice law, but he was more eager to raise superior horses and to make his farm pay.
He left the law within a year to try his hand at a variety of business propositions. Roosevelt founded a trust company, purchased Wisconsin real estate, ran paddle wheelers on Lake Champlain and Lake George. Three of his plunges might have made James Roosevelt one of the wealthiest men in America. He became a director of the Consolidation Coal Company, the nation's largest bituminous combination, which claimed a near-monopoly over the rich lodes of the Cumberlands; managed the Southern Railways Securities Company, which was drawing the railroads of the Southeast into an exclusive network; joined a partnership to dig a canal across Nicaragua. Each of these ambitious enterprises was ruined by a national recession. Such failures would have exasperated a titan like Vanderbilt, but James and his wife continued the annual cycle of calls on friends along the Hudson, excursions to New York City, summer voyages to Europe.
He showed the same diffidence to politics. If politics for James Roosevelt's contemporaries was "pollution," summoning images of Tammany Hall and the spoilsmen of Washington, he looked on the office-seekers and ward leaders with more amusement than indignation. Yet James's conception of political life was hardly the ebullient enterprise of the Irish bosses downriver at Poughkeepsie. It meant instead the standard of community stewardship set by the early Hudson patroons, of meeting local obligations and setting an example. Roosevelt served as vestryman and warden of the Hyde Park Episcopal church, village supervisor, trustee of school and hospital, discharging his responsibilities with an imperious if kindly air.
"Integrity of work and deed is the very cornerstone of all business transactions," James reminded villagers in a lecture to the St. James's Guild of Hyde Park, the text of which has come to light after more than a century. "No man successed in any undertaking who is dishonest — the store-keeper who gives short weight, short measure or sands his sugar, the mechanic who charges for material not given his employer, the laborer who does not fairly and honestly give his time, all are dishonest and sooner or later will be found out and will not succeed in their work."
What was the prevailing sin of the day? Extravagance! Roosevelt asked his audience to remember their childhoods, when people lived within their means. "No man has any business to live in a style which his income cannot support or to mortgage his earnings of next week or of next year in order to live luxuriously today. The whole system of debt is wrong, when we anticipate or forestall the future." The townspeople should all set aside ten cents a day. "Try it — begin tomorrow. ... The curtailment of any selfish enjoyment will do it, a cigar, a paper of tobacco, a glass of beer daily. ... Accumulation of money has become the great desire and passion of the age. Do not save and hoard for the mere sake of saving and hoarding. But I do say aim at accumulating a sufficiency....
"Work is full of pleasure and materials for self improvement, it is the strongly marked feature of the American people. ... There is not so much to luck as some people profess to believe. Indeed most people fail, because they do not deserve to succeed." Still, the race was not always won by the swift or the strong. James invited his listeners to "go with me to the Tenement houses of New York or London or Paris, many of them containing more people than this whole village." He had once climbed down a ladder "several feet below the sewage and gas pipes" to visit a dwelling beneath a London street. "These homes possess no window and the only way in which light and ventilation can be conveyed to the wretched inhabitants below is through a hole in the pavement." There he saw "half a dozen people nearly nude and hideously dirty children — a man writing by the flame of a tallow candle — a women lying ill abed. ..." Even worse was the day when "there is no work — nothing laid by — nothing saved — and standing in the corner is that terrible skeleton — starvation." Were there three more fearful words in the English language than "I am starving"?
"Here is work for every man, woman, and child in this audience tonight. The poorest man, the daily worker, the obscurest individual, shares the gift and the blessing for doing good. It is not necessary that men should be rich to be helpful to others, money may help, but money does not do all. It requires honest purpose, honest self-devotion, and hard work. Help the poor, the widow, the orphan, help the sick, the fallen man or woman, for the sake of our common humanity, help all who are suffering. Work ... for your daily support, work for your wives and children, work for fame and honor, work for your Lord and Master."
Rebecca Howland Roosevelt died in 1876. Four years later the widower met the winsome daughter of a fellow clubman at a dinner given by Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. "Did you notice how James Roosevelt kept looking at Sallie Delano?" the hostess asked her daughter. James Roosevelt and Sara Delano were married in October 1880.
That fall a delegation of Democrats, seeking a candidate who would cover his own expenses, offered Roosevelt their congressional nomination. He declined. James knew that the cause of a Democrat was nearly hopeless in Dutchess County, but it is doubtful that he would have accepted even if assured of victory. Two years thereafter, his new wife proudly reported in her diary, "James went to Hudson to a Democratic convention to prevent their nominating him."
The Kennedys of East Boston
Little such reluctance held back Patrick Kennedy. The ward boss customarily departed early from the colonial house on the finest street in East Boston. His neighbors included a congressman, an alderman, the consul of the imperial Russian czar; but on the sidewalk, men and women waited under horse chestnuts to bring him their problems. They knew they could depend on Pat to help. In the evenings the big house on Webster Street brimmed with talk of parish, politics, and Ireland. The Boston Democracy of the 1880s was an array of political fiefs, as fragmented and combative as feudal Ireland. Patrick Kennedy ruled his small kingdom so surely that he earned the affectionate style of "mayor of East Boston."
Excerpted from Kennedy and Roosevelt by Michael Beschloss. Copyright © 1980 Michael Beschloss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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