5. CIVIL SERVICE COMMISSIONER
Everyday I went to the office...it was as to an entertainment. - member of the Civil Service Commission.
When the grandson of President William Henry Harrison won the Republican nomination for President of the United States, Roosevelt agreed to make campaign speeches attacking the Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland. Roosevelt, at age thirty, had just finished Volume I of The Winning of the West and needed something to do.
He served for four years as a Civil Service Commissioner under Benjamin Harrison and two under Grover Cleveland.
On his first day as Civil Service Commissioner Roosevelt rushed into his office in a high-speed blur. The scene was described by a fellow Civil Service Commissioner:
There stood an energetic, athletic appearing man...slightly above medium height, broad-shouldered, full-chested, and wearing a becoming brown mustache. Behind large-rimmed eye-glasses flashed blue-gray eyes...The dazzling smile with its strong white teeth is still a most vivid recollection.1
Roosevelt then appropriated the largest, most imposing office.
Devouring documents and asking questions, he mastered the job within days. He became a whirlwind of activity, dictating hundreds of letters and jotting down ideas as they hit him.
He kept everyone on their toes and still found time to write magazine articles to advance the cause of Civil Service Reform. One member of the commission said, Everyday I went to the office...it was as to an entertainment. I knew something was sure to turn up to make our work worthwhile with him there. He issued reports, investigated fraud, made speeches and held hearings. He brought the Civil Service Commission into the national limelight since his colorful way of doing things attracted reporters.2 It was said that Roosevelt wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset.
At the time the political party in power awarded government jobs to its friends and supporters. They were allowed to keep their jobs only as long as the party remained in power.
Roosevelt set two goals:
1) more efficient public service
2) withdrawal of the administrative offices from the spoils system.
Roosevelt introduced competitive examinations for applicants for government jobs.3
During my six years service as Commissioner the field of the merit system was extended at the expense of the spoils system so as to include several times the number of officers that had originally been included. Generally this was done by the introduction of competitive entrance exams, he wrote later.4
He expected to spend more time writing because he sensed the tenuous nature of politics. I am perfectly willing to be turned out - or legislated out - but while in I mean business, he said.5
When Kermit was born prematurely, Theodore left Washington for Oyster Bay. He read to Edith as she convalesced. Secretly he was worried about money. Could he afford to maintain two homes, one in Washington and the one at Sagamore Hill? If necessary, he must sell Sagamore Hill.6
Edith began to organize his finances and put him on an allowance.
Theodore and Edith rented a house at Jefferson Place. They had little money to entertain, but the most interesting people turned up there. Fifty-two-year-old Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, had them to his house along with their friends Cabot and Nannie Lodge, Cecil Spring-Rice, Clarence King, John La Farge, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Senator James Donald Cameron and his beautiful wife, Elizabeth. Theodore was hugely popular in Washington. There was a vital radiance about the man, a glowing unfeigned cordiality toward those he liked that was irresistible, said one friend.7
Tom Reid, Speaker of the House, was a Roosevelt fan. Well, I didnt know you were in love with Civil Service Reform, one colleague said to him. I dont like it straight, the Speaker replied, but mixed with a little Theodore Roosevelt, I like it well.8
Cleveland was elected President in 1894 and was the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms. He had been President from 1885-1889. Roosevelt had attacked Cleveland years before, calling him an enemy of Civil Service Reform. He felt it unlikely that Cleveland would ask him to remain in Washington. However, he did want to remain there and he had friends make inquiries about his chances of being re-appointed.
Mr. Cleveland wishes very much to see you, and I would suggest that you meet him as soon as possible. You might communicate with him directly in order to agree with him as to the when and where. Or, if you prefer to make the necessary arrangement through me, I am perfectly willing to serve as an intermediary and shall do so with pleasure.
I must confess that the tone of Mr. Clevelands invitation to you gratifies me exceedingly. It is a very good sign of his disposition...Your continuance in your position at Mr. Clevelands request would be a great event, and in itself a large program for the next four years.9
Cleveland asked him to stay on as Civil Service Commissioner. The outgoing Secretary of the Navy said to him, Well, my boy, you have been a thorn in our side during four years. I earnestly hope that you will remain to be a thorn in the side of the next Administration. Theodore was delighted by the compliment.10
He had almost finished the last two volumes of The Winning of the West. He decided to remain at the Civil Service Commission for a year or so, but said, I am all at sea as to what I shall do afterwards.11
Volume 2 of The Winning of the West came out. Reviewers praised his diligent research and forceful writing and it was considered a valuable historical work.12
His children helped distract him. They felt that he was just a large child and the most fun person they had ever met. Edith called him her oldest and rather worst child.13 The children expected him to play with them and feeling very flattered at being asked, he did.
In 1894 he was still working on The Winning of the West, Volumes III and IV. The Wilderness Hunter, one of his finest books, was published at this time.14
During his tenure as Civil Service Commissioner 26,000 jobs were placed under the merit system. New tests were made up for applicants. Women were put on the same level as men and more women were hired for government jobs. He got on a good footing with the reform wing of the Republican party. The force of his personality gave the Civil Service Commission clout.15
In 1894 he was asked to run for mayor of New York. He asked Edith what she thought he should do. She did not want him to give up a paying job for the insecurities of a political race. She asked him not to run.
He knew he could have won and later berated himself for turning down his one golden chance. He wrote Lodge:
The last four weeks, ever since I decided not to run, have been pretty bitter ones for me. I would literally have given my right arm to make the race, win or lose. It was the one golden chance, which never returns; and I had no illusions about ever having another opportunity; I knew it meant the definite abandonment of any hope of going on in the work and life for which I care more than any other. You may guess that these weeks have not been particularly pleasant ones...At the time, with Edith feeling as intensely as she did, I did not see how I could well go in; though I have grown to feel more and more that in this instance I should have gone counter to her wishes....the fault was mine, not Ediths; I should have realized that she could not see the matter as it really was, or realize my feelings. But it is one of the matters just as well dropped.16
Edith was distraught when she heard from his sister how he felt. This is a lesson that will last my life, never to give [my opinion] for it is utterly worthless when given, worse than that in this case for it has helped to spoil some years of a life which I would have given my own for, she wrote. He never should have married me and then he would have been free to make his own course.17
He was offered the Street Cleaning Commission of New York, which some of his family urged him to accept. Luckily he turned it down because it left him free to take the Police Commissionership. Cabot has felt that I was a brand snatched from the burning in the street cleaning matter, and has kept a close eye on all my movements, he told his sister.