Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt

  • Edward P. Kohn
  • Basic Books
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Claude R. Marx
  • January 15, 2014

This account synthesizes the 26th president's career as an elected and appointed official in New York.

Scholars and journalists often depict Theodore Roosevelt as a statesman and rugged individualist whose character and world view were largely shaped by his time as a rancher and conservationist. That picture overlooks Roosevelt’s experience as an elected and appointed official in New York and his significant accomplishments in reforming the corrupt political climate there.

Those looking to learn more about that era are in luck. Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt is an account of Roosevelt’s New York career. Edward P. Kohn, an assistant professor of history at Bilkrent University in Turkey, doesn’t break much new ground but synthesizes a great deal of scholarly and popular literature.

He dismisses the influence of Roosevelt’s time as a rancher (mostly following the death of his mother and first wife) and chronicler of the western experience. He argues that Roosevelt’s writings helped shape public perceptions but didn’t influence him a great deal.

“The West did not ‘make’ Theodore Roosevelt, but Theodore Roosevelt surely helped make the West,” Kohn writes. That’s partially true but dismisses the fact that Roosevelt’s legacy as a conservationist is equally as important as his urban reforms.

Back at home, Roosevelt made his mark while a state assemblyman, member of the New York City Police Commission and as governor. In those jobs he displayed a missionary’s zeal to change things with the political skill to turn words into deeds. Kohn sees that work as the most important predictor of his eventual success as president.

“New York City shaped Theodore Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt helped to shape the city,” Kohn writes. “Roosevelt’s contact with the laboring poor of New York, unique among presidents until that time, profoundly shaped his ideas, which in turn would resonate throughout American history. Government responsibility and equality of opportunity for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens became hallmarks of Roosevelt’s thought, and ultimately, of the Progressive Era that he promoted.”

Roosevelt was born to a prominent and wealthy New York City family (their money came from banking and glass) and easily could have lived a sheltered existence providing largesse to anonymous recipients. That didn’t happen because his parents, especially his father, instilled in him a sense of noblesse oblige and the future president became fascinated by the political process at an early age.

Roosevelt was barely out of Harvard (where he had the chance to observe some of Boston’s urban reforms) when he waded into the shark tank of New York City politics and successfully ran for state assemblyman. His long walks throughout the city, coupled with his willingness to become acquainted with people from backgrounds dramatically different than his, triggered his desire to push hard for changes such as civil service reforms and increased assistance to the poor.

These successes propelled him up the ladder. As a police commissioner he helped reduce the bribery of police officers and made sure that those entrusted to enforce the law did so, including laws that mandated the closing of saloons on Sundays. Kohn notes, however, that the anti-saloon laws were often perceived as an effort by the city’s elites to regulate the behavior (often in the name of public health) of the working class.

“With the best of intentions, he had enforced a very unpopular law,” Kohn writes. “Saloons were not just places to get a beer, but also alternative communal spaces for men, organized around ethnicity or occupation. Saloons provided the workingman with many free things, not just a free lunch.”

Kohn, who previously wrote a book about Roosevelt’s time on the police commission, has seemingly read everything that has been written about the subject, both primary and secondary sources, as the bibliography indicates. As a result, his book is thorough and scholarly, though rather dry to read.

Given that Roosevelt is a larger-than-life (if somewhat overmythologized) figure, one would hope that the drama of the man would come across more. Sadly, it does not. Those looking for more lively accounts of this should read I Rose Like a Rocket by Paul Grondahl or Theodore Roosevelt the Citizen by Jacob Riis. The latter account is biased as Riis and Roosevelt were good friends and worked together on reform efforts.

Kohn also detracts from his narrative by his occasional bits of snarkyness. In describing the fondness of Roosevelt’s first wife, Alice, for the New York social scene, he writes that she was “bred for such a life — and perhaps not much more.” He also rehashes parts of Roosevelt’s life, such as his service in the Spanish-American War, that have been written about extensively elsewhere. He doesn’t break any new ground and one wonders if he was just trying to lengthen the book.

Roosevelt’s time in New York politics is crucial to understanding his career. Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt is an adequate account of that part of his life but not an especially compelling one.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who is writing a biography of William Howard Taft.


 

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