Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt: NYC Police Commissioner
A new job in New York offered T.R. the chance he was looking for. Republican operatives tried to convince the increasingly popular T.R. to run again for mayor, but Edith, who was nursing their fourth child, talked him out of it. Worried that T.R. was letting his political future slip away and obviously aware of his unhappiness, Henry Cabot Lodge, another young Republican reformer and a friend of T.R.'s, convinced him to accept a job on the New York City Police Commission. The job, Lodge argued, was higher-profile than it looked: New York was the premier city of the world's rising industrial power. Fighting corruption there would make a direct, tangible difference. And the City, as T.R. knew, was just as much in need of a thorough cleaning-up as it had been in his father's day. Edith, guilty about having kept T.R. from running from mayor, encouraged him to listen to Lodge. T.R. finally gave in and, on 6 May 1895, moved to New York to take up his new post.
New York City offered T.R. a crucible in which to forge his American vision. When T.R. arrived, he brought with him the standard agenda you might expect out of a government bureaucrat: he wanted to eliminate corrupt officials to create a rational, merit-based system of hiring and promotion. He wanted to professionalize things. But it wasn't so much the goals that T.R. brought that made his time in New York so formative. Rather, it was that, in trying to accomplish those goals, T.R. was forced to confront the scope of New York's social problems more generally. He used to go on midnight tours of the city with the muckraking newspaperman Jacob Riis to check up on his officers and catch lazy cops. And he did catch lazy cops—lots of them. But in the process, he was forced to explore the entire Lower East Side of Manhattan, with its overcrowded tenements, its unsanitary conditions, and its oppressive labor practices. T.R. met exploited immigrants and toured unsafe factories. He witnessed firsthand the consequences of inadequate healthcare and pension coverage.
With his exposure to the real New York, T.R.'s understanding of the corruption of modern society began to evolve. In order to fix society, he began to realize, it would no longer be enough to restore its masculine spirit. What good was a masculine spirit when you lived in a cramped tenement without sanitation and worked at the mercy of your exploitive employer? No, if society was going to be truly restored, its institutions would need to be fixed as well. It wasn't enough to root out corruption in government offices or election commissions. Government, T.R. began to believe, would need to make sure that conditions like those that existed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan weren't allowed to happen.