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Roosevelt Recognizes Attributes of “brave and honorable” Legislator in Battle over the Reorganization of the NYPD (SOLD)
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Just ten days into his impactful two-year stint as President of the Board of Police Commissioners, Roosevelt attempts to shape the complex debate over competing reform proposals in the state legislature. In part due to Roosevelt’s advocacy, and veteran upstate legislator D.A. Ainsworth’s reversal of positions, the “Supplemental Re-Organization Bill,” granting autocratic powers to longtime Police Chief Thomas Byrnes, was defeated. “Only a brave and honorable man will frankly and openly revise his action, when he receives trustworthy information that the measure is not what it seemed to him to be…

THEODORE ROOSEVELT. Typed Letter Signed, May 16, 1895, as New York City Police Commissioner, to Hon. D. A. Ainsworth. 1 p.

Inventory #21878       SOLD — please inquire about other items

Complete Transcript

                                                            New York, May 16th. 1895.

Hon. D.A. Ainsworth,

Assembly Chamber,

Albany, New York.

My dear Sir:-

Permit me to thank you for the very honorable and manly way in which you have acted about the so-called ‘Supplemental Re-organization Bill’.  Any man may, on insufficient knowledge, support a measure, which on fuller information he deems unwise.  But, only a brave and honorable man will frankly and openly revise his action, when he receives trustworthy information that the measure is not what it seemed to him to be.  If we had for our good fortune possessed more men like yourself in the legislature, the task of the officials, to whom is entrusted the burden of reorganizing the Police Department, would be infinitely easier.

Believe me with great respect,

            Very sincerely yours,

            Theodore Roosevelt

Historical Background

Republican Mayor William Strong was motivated to reorganize the New York Police Department because the Lexow Committee (of the state legislature) had revealed endemic inefficiency, corruption, and incompetence. The outrage of cops taking hush money from brothels and saloons filtered into the press, feeding the momentum for reform. Journalists and reformers saw the tentacles of Tammany Hall, New York City’s Democratic machine, propping up the corrupt force. In April, 1895, Strong appointed three new members to the bipartisan, four-man Board of Police Commissioners, including Roosevelt. “The Police Department is the only department that has been shown conclusively to be rotten,” Mayor Strong proclaimed. “The City … has no use for anyone on the Board who is not ready to take a hand in its reorganization.”

The decision to accept Strong’s offer was not easy. Roosevelt, who was then a Civil Service Commissioner in Washington, serving under Democratic President Grover Cleveland, declined Strong’s earlier offer to become Street Cleaning Commissioner. But Roosevelt saw the possibility both to accomplish Progressive reforms in the nation’s largest city, and to personally advance in the Republican Party. On April 21, he wrote his sister, Anna, “I have seen the President, and resigned; and unless something unforeseen happens I shall go on to New York to take office in a week or two. We feel very melancholy at leaving here, where we have passed six such very happy years: but I feel very sure I am right in going back to my own city…”

Roosevelt assumed office on May 6, 1895, and immediately confronted a political maelstrom in the city, and in the state legislature, over the N.Y.P.D. Roosevelt was strongly in favor of reform, but he did not favor reform simply for its own sake. In particular, he feared that, having just been appointed to the Board of Police Commissioners, one piece of legislation would make him irrelevant. According to historian Elting Morrison, “the Ainsworth Bill, or Supplemental Police Bill, changed the title of Chief of Police to Superintendent of Police and greatly increased the power of the office. Designed to improve efficiency and discipline, the bill gave the superintendent complete authority to try all cases of charges against members of the force. Removable only if proved inefficient, the superintendent was given virtually independent authority. Chief of Police Byrnes was an ardent supporter of the measure. The commissioners, however, led by Roosevelt, voiced their unanimous disapproval. Largely on their recommendation, Mayor Strong vetoed the bill, which was not passed over his veto.”

It appears from this heretofore unpublished letter to Ainsworth that the veteran legislator was in contact with Roosevelt at this time, and that Roosevelt convinced him to personally change his course. All police reform legislation then stalled. A day before this letter, on May 15, Roosevelt told the New-York Times that he lamented the failure of the Police Reorganization Bill, which would have given the Board of Commissioners power to remove officers peremptorily. “The Police Board should have the power to make or unmake men, to dismiss them at will. Without recourse to the courts. But without this power we will do the best we can…”

Roosevelt continued to collaborate with allies in the state legislature on various reform proposals. In particular, Roosevelt wanted the Board to have the power to remove corrupt cops, whereas opponents sought to allow officers the right to appeal such decisions. To his sister, writing on June 2, 1895, Roosevelt characterized his work as “absorbingly interesting; but I have never worked harder than in the last four weeks.”

Commissioner Roosevelt quickly became the most powerful member of the Board, and was voted its president. He is famous for walking the night beat through Mulberry Bend and other tenement slums with journalist Jacob Riis, and closed down the police-run poor houses in which Riis had lived as a boy. Employing the oversight powers of the Board, Roosevelt cashiered corrupt officers and forced Police Chief Byrnes into an early retirement, promoting Peter Conlin (a Civil War veteran of the Irish Brigade) Acting Chief. The ambitious Roosevelt resigned from the Board in April, 1897, accepting the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in newly elected Republican President William McKinley’s administration.

Danforth E. Ainsworth was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1886 to 89, and 1893 to 95.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), a fervent nationalist, environmentalist, and reformer. He was the Republican leader of the New York Legislature in 1884 and president of the New York Police Board (1895-1897), where he fought administrative corruption. Roosevelt organized and led a regiment, “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders,” in the Spanish-American War. He used his newfound celebrity to win election as governor of New York (1898-1900) and then rose to the vice presidency under William McKinley. In 1901, he became president upon the assassination of McKinley, and was elected on his own in 1904. He insisted on a strong navy, civil service reform, national conservation, and federal regulation of trusts, monopolies, and meatpackers. Roosevelt declined to run again in 1908, instead throwing his support behind William Howard Taft, but he decided to run as a third-party candidate against Taft in 1912 because he was disappointed in his successor’s performance. The split in the Republican Party enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win in 1912. Though he was mentioned as a candidate in 1916, Roosevelt retired from politics, but was a strong advocate of entering World War I on the side of Britain and France.


Grondel, Paul. I Rose Like a Rocket: The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt. New York:

Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Jeffers, H. Paul. Commissioner Roosevelt: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt and the New York City

Police, 1895-1897 (New York, 1994).

Morison, Elting E. The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. 1: The Years of Preparation,

1868- 1898 (Cambridge, Ma., 1951), pp. 435-452.

New-York Times, May 15, 1895.

Whalen, Bernard and David Doorey. “The Birth of the NYPD.” The Chief of Police, March/April