“Reform Without Bloodshed”

April 19, 1884

Thomas Nast

“Reform Without Bloodshed”

Gubernatorial Administration, Grover Cleveland (NY); New York City, Government/Politics; New York State, Government/Politics;

Cleveland, Grover; Roosevelt, Theodore;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Governor Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt at Their Good Work.

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast pictures two future presidents working together for reform in New York. 

In November 1881, 23-year-old Theodore Roosevelt was elected as a Republican to the New York State Assembly (lower house) to represent Manhattan's 21st (or "brownstone") district.  Although he was the legislature's youngest member, he worked quickly and diligently to make an impact.  As a member of the Committee on Cities, Roosevelt introduced four bills within the first 48 hours of the legislative session:  water purification, aldermanic election reform, finance reform for New York City, and judicial reform.  Despite passage of only a significantly modified version of the aldermanic bill, his efforts gained him the leadership of an informal group of reform Republicans who were independent of machine politics.  The New York Times legislative correspondent, George Spinney, also discovered that Roosevelt made good copy, and other journalists soon followed his lead.

In the fall 1882 elections, the Democrats won control of both houses of the state legislature and elected Grover Cleveland governor by a landslide.  Cleveland's tenure as sheriff and then mayor of Buffalo had earned him a reputation as a reformer.  As sheriff in the early 1870s, he cracked down on police corruption, and when elected mayor in 1881, he acquired the nickname "veto mayor" for consistently blocking bloated municipal contracts and spending projects. Cleveland improved Buffalo's sewer system and worked tirelessly to ensure that the city was run on efficient business principles.

Roosevelt was reelected as state assemblyman by a two-to-one margin in the 1882 elections, and nominated on January 1, 1883, to stand as the Republican candidate for assembly speaker.  Although he lost to the nominee of the majority Democrats, Roosevelt served as minority leader.  Despite serious differences in political philosophy, Roosevelt and Cleveland were both committed to honest, efficient government.  To that end, Roosevelt introduced into the new legislative session a civil service reform bill modeled after the Pendleton Act passed by Congress in January 1883.  Cleveland privately discussed strategy with Roosevelt and publicly endorsed the bill, which passed both houses and was signed into law in May 1883.

In the fall 1883 elections, Republicans regained control of both houses of the state legislature.  In January 1884, Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination for speaker to a party regular, but was recompensed with the chairmanship of the Cities Committee.  Aiming to break the power of the party machines in New York City, Roosevelt introduced three bills:  one to raise liquor license fees considerably (which failed); one to curtail the borrowing power of New York City's government (which passed); and one to increase the authority and accountability of the mayor.  

The latter measure, the Reform Charter Bill, was considered the most important because it attempted to undermine the power of the machine-controlled board of aldermen and enhance the possibility of electing a reform mayor.  Cleveland backed the bill, further alienating himself from the Democratic machine of Tammany Hall.  Roosevelt's floor speech on the bill earned him laudatory headlines in the New York City dailies:  

 New York World:  "Roosevelt on a Rampage:  Whacking the Heads off Republican Office-Holders in This City"

New York Sun:  "Mr. Roosevelt's Hard Hits:  Making a Lively Onslaught on New York's Aldermen"

New York Herald:  "Tammany Defeated:  Mr. Roosevelt's Brilliant Assault on Corruption."  

The Charter Reform Bill thereafter became known as "The Roosevelt Bill" and soon passed both legislative houses.  In this cartoon, Governor Cleveland signs into law the charter and finance reform bills which Roosevelt holds.  

In the midst of his political triumph, however, tragedy struck in Roosevelt's private life.  In February 1884, his first wife, Alice, and his mother, Mittie, died within hours of each other.  He did not seek reelection that year (but would be elected governor of New York in 1898).  Cleveland went on to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1884 and become the first Democrat elected president since before the Civil War.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast and Harper's Weekly editor George William Curtis bolted the Republican party after its national convention nominated James Blaine for president, and endorsed Cleveland. Even before the party conventions, though, Nast (as evidenced here) and Curtis praised Cleveland's reform efforts.  Although Roosevelt was unhappy with Blaine's nomination and respectful of Cleveland's character and accomplishments, the assemblyman remained loyal to the Republican party in 1884.

The theme articulated in the cartoon's caption, "Reform Without Bloodshed," is reinforced by contrasting documents in the foreground: a "Law and Order" book (left) for New York’s reformed government and a newspaper (right) reporting riots against Cincinnati’s unreformed government.  On March 28, 1884, a Cincinnati jury delivered a verdict of manslaughter and a 20-year prison sentence to a horse-stable owner accused of killing two employees.  Thousands of city residents gathered at a mass meeting to demand execution of the prisoner.  When the sheriff refused to release the convict, a riot ensued which took the police and National Guard nearly two days to suppress.  Before it was over, the courthouse and law library were ransacked, then destroyed by fire.  The National Guard captain and a police officer were killed in the battle.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Reform Without Bloodshed”
July 14, 2024

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