FDR and ELEANOR ARRIVE IN ALBANY
He and Eleanor, now with four young children, rented a massive three story brownstone at 248 State Street in the shadow of the capital and later moved to 4 Elk Street, a mansion built by Martin Van Buren when he was Governor.
When the legislature met at the beginning of 1911, Roosevelt wasn’t in the Senate a week when he began challenging Tammany Hall, rallying around him some of the liberal elements of the party “whose sworn purpose was to eradicate the Tammany stamp….”20
Norman E. Mack, former Chairman of the Democratic National Convention, referring early to Roosevelt as a State Senator, observed:
“No sooner does he get to Albany and he just thumbs his nose at us…I tell you, he is a troublemaker.”21
The legislature convened on January 4th, 1911, with the Assembly led by 37 year old Alfred E. Smith, and the Senate by 33 year old Democrat Robert F. Wagner.
Smith and Wagner were vaulted into the leadership position partially as the result of the “great bridge scandal.” In 1910, when Republican Senator Jonathon Allds was elected majority leader, Senator Benn Conger disclosed that he and Allds, while in the Assembly in 1901, had taken bribes to sidetrack legislation to give local government more authority over bridge contracts. After six weeks of investigation, Allds and Conger resigned and disgusted voters turned out the Republicans that fall.
The first order of business was the election of a U.S. Senator thru the process that FDR had opposed during his 1910 campaign. Like Theodore Roosevelt when he first entered the legislature, FDR was itching for a fight.22 The issue for Franklin was “bossism:”
Charles F. Murphy, the astute Tammany chieftain, confidently expected to use the dominant Tammany block of votes to pay a political debt to a Buffalo magnate by electing William F. Sheehan, a smooth but corrupt political roué.
But Roosevelt, within two weeks of taking up his position, became the informal leader of twenty upstate Democratic insurgent legislators that blocked roll call after roll call for the election of Sheehan.
They met daily at the large house the Roosevelts had rented in Albany during the ten week insurrection. Franklin was known as “the Sheppard.”23 It became the home of the insurgents.
Eleanor recalled that “…these men arrived sometimes during the morning; went up to the Senate, cast their votes…and during the afternoon were back at our house for smoking and talk in the library.”24
Eventually, on the 64th ballot a compromise was reached. Roosevelt had established in his first weeks that he was someone to be reckoned with. When his name was called to vote, he struggled to make himself heard above the undercurrent of hisses:
“WE HAVE FOLLOWED THE DICTATES OF OUR CONSCIENCES AND HAVE DONE OUR DUTY AS WE SAW IT.”25
Two days after the vote, Roosevelt claimed victory:
“I just returned from a big fight. This fight was a free-for-all…. and many of the other side got good and battered…the battle ended in harmony and we have chosen a man for the people who will be dictated to by no one.”26
FDR continued to be a thorn in the side of Tammany Hall. He formed the Empire State Democracy, an organization founded for the avowed purpose of defeating the wishes of Tammany Hall delegates.” He asserted:
“From the ruins of the political machines we will reconstruct something more nearly conforming to a democratic conception of government.”27
The balance of the next two Roosevelt years was refreshing progressive. Tammany’s earlier bosses were crooked and colorful scoundrels of astonishing shamelessness, most notably William Tweed, who stole millions. But Smith, Wagner and to a large degree Murphy, while members of Tammany, were of a reform variety: financially honest, and passionately dedicated to the interests of New York’s immigrant communities. They were outstanding pioneers of reform.28
Roosevelt was one of the floor managers in the approval- of the Seveenth Amendment to the Constitution that approved the direct election of U.S. Senators. But he wasn’t always out front on other reform issues. He waffled at first about the right of woman to vote, but by 1912 supported it. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, on March 25, 1911, while Wagner and Smith championed a bill limiting woman’s and children’s working hours to fifty-four a week, Roosevelt was not a leader and did not attend the session where the decisive vote was taken. He did vote positively in absentia. Roosevelt generally opposed strikes and boycotts, believing such practices hindered production.29
Among Roosevelt’s keenest interests were agriculture and conservation, given his districts location. On the matter of conservation, not only did he confront Tammany directly, but he was able to reorient his party.30
He was Chairman of the Forrest, Fish and Game Committee and was dogged in his support for strengthening environmental regulations. Roosevelt transformed this docile committee into a ceaseless breeding ground of conservationist ideas and pushed through a modest reforestation bill.31
In 1912, a Presidential year, he ran for reelection, but contacted typhoid, which made him unable to run an active campaign. However, with the help of Louis McHenry Howe, a former New York Herald newspaper reported, Roosevelt won by larger majority than in 1910.
His second term was brief. He was made Chairman of the Agriculture Committee. In 1913 he introduced and passed a comprehensive series of bills with the aid of the State Grange and the head of the college of agriculture at Cornell University. The goal was to protect New York farmers from exploitation by commission merchants, to aid them in cooperative marketing, and to extend to them low-cost farm improvement loans.
Roosevelt had pledged his support to Wilson in 1911 and set himself at the head of a group of 150 reformers he called The New York Wilson Conference. When Wilson won, he immediately began dickering for a position in the Wilson Administration.
|He was offered the post of assistant secretary of the Navy, a post his cousin Teddy Roosevelt had held, and on March 4, 1913 he accepted it with enthusiasm at the age of 31.
Roosevelt’s tenure in the New York Senate was brief but overwhelmingly successful.32 He had fought Tammany and been a force for reform. He had served with great New York leaders like future Governor Al Smith and Senator Robert F. Wagner.
He and Eleanor became the greatest champions of social justice in the 20th century. And for 17 years after FDR’s death, she continued writing and speaking and prodding the conscience of America far into her eighth decade.
Before her death in 1962, her last political endorsement was of a young reformer running for the State Assembly – Ed Koch.48 years later, Ed Koch is once again leading an effort to change Albany.
100 years after Roosevelt ran for the State Senate, have we really advanced the quality of our legislature? Do we have current leaders that will rise to the heights of leadership that Roosevelt, Smith and Wagner did? Would the Roosevelts be pleased at the process we have made in the last 100 years?
Of course not. We have gone backwards. WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT? The NEW ROOSEVELT INITIATIVE is formed to change our image of Albany. Why shouldn’t New York, The Empire State, have the best, most innovative, honest legislature in the United States?
One thing is for sure: If we don’t focus on Albany and vastly improve the quality of those who represent us, we will never return New York to having a dynamic business environment, great paying jobs, and a State families don’t want to leave.
Download Lost Century
1Smith, Jean Edward: FDR: Random House Inc., 2007.
2La Cerra, Charles: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Tammany Hall of New York; University Press of America, 1997
3Freidel, Frank: Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Rendezvous With Destiny; Back Bay Books, 1990
4Brands, H.W.: Traitor to His Class;Anchor Books, 2008
5Coker, Jeffrey W.: Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Biography: Greenwood Press, 2005
6Black, Conrad: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom; Public Affairs, N.Y.,2003
7FDRL: The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
1Smith P. 65
2Smith, P. 64
4Friedel, P. 13
5Smith, P. 65
61 Public Papers and Address, P. 339
7FDRL, PPF 1009
8Black, P. 52 Letters to Anna Roosevelt
9Interview Edward E. Perkins, quoted in Morgan, FDR 112
10Poughkeepsie Eagle, October 7, 1910
11Speech at Hudson, NY, October 27, 1910
12Poughkeepsie News Press, October 22, 1910
13Ibid. October 27, 1910
15Quoted in Jon Margolis, “The Boss who out Daleys Daley,” The Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1976
16Theodore Roosevelt, Autobiography ; MacMillan, 1913) 1.
17Coker, P. 2.
18FDRL,PPF 2313, lettr of 7/3/35
19Ernest K. Lindley, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Career in Progressive Democracy ; Bobbs – Merrill, 1931; P. 78
20James Macgregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, (1956 ) P.56
21Walter Myers, “FDR vs. The Democratic Party” Esquire, March 1963. No. 59 p. 115F
22Smith, P. 71
23Edmund R. Terry, “The Insurgents at Albany” (The Independent 7/9/11) 538.
24Brands, P. 56.
25Saratoga Sun, April 1, 1911
26Geoffrey C. Ward, A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (Harpercollins, March,1992) 150-151.
27LaCerra; P. 46
28Smith, P. 54
30Coker, P. 21
31FDRL, Roosevelt State Senator Papers, FDR to D. Blagden 2/21/12
32Coker, P. 26