Theodore Roosevelt as New York City Police Commissioner

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  • 0:03 Tough on Crime
  • 0:38 Background
  • 1:44 Roosevelt and New York
  • 3:59 Roosevelt's Impact as…
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Theodore Roosevelt is one of America's most famous presidents, remembered for his reform-minded policies. However, in this lesson, we're going to look at Roosevelt's life before the presidency and see how his future policies were shaped by past experiences.

Tough on Crime

When Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1901, he was America's reform politician. He was tough on crime, he was tough on corruption, and he was tough on moral vices. That reputation immortalized his legacy, but to understand it, we need to understand where it came from. Before he was president, Theodore Roosevelt gained firsthand experiences with crime and corruption as the police commissioner of New York City. Lasting only two years in the job, cleaning up New York's crime proved to be one of the only challenges too tough for even Theodore Roosevelt.


First, we need to appreciate the world in which Theodore Roosevelt was living. He was appointed police commissioner in 1895 at the age of 35. At the time, the United States was nearing the end of an era called the Gilded Age, an era characterized by rapid industrialization and massive wealth but also rampant crime, corruption, and poverty. Police and politicians alike lived off of bribes and granted favors to those who funded them, and New York City was the pinnacle of this type of behavior.

In the late 19th century, New York City was a haven of vice, from liquor to gambling to prostitution. It was all there. At the center of this was a political institution known as Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was the Democratic Party's headquarters of the city and remained untouchable throughout the Gilded Age through corruption, patronage, and political favors. However, the people of New York were growing tired of all the corruption. The Democrats were finally voted out of various positions across the city, and progressive, Republican reformers were elected to clean up the mess. Theodore Roosevelt was one of them.

Roosevelt and New York

Roosevelt was fervent in his moral convictions. He believed that corruption was wrong, crime was wrong, and moral vices were wrong. His biographers describe his attitude as being strictly black-and-white: either it was legal and moral, or it was illegal and immoral. He was going to rid the city of immorality.

At first, it seemed as if Roosevelt would be fairly successful. He went after corrupt police chiefs and captains, and the city praised him for it. He was tough, unwavering, and resolute in his determination to rid law enforcement of corruption. In fact, some of the city's most powerful and corrupt police captains saw the end of their careers under Roosevelt.

However, those same traits that made Commission Roosevelt seem tough on corruption also made him seem overbearing. It wasn't just the police that Roosevelt wanted to fix; it was the entire city. For Roosevelt, this meant that every law had to be obeyed to the tee. In fact, he even went so far as to ensure that the police department was following strict regulations on how they disposed of their banana peels. He called for three police captains, scolded them, and then read the ordinance about proper fruit disposal to them. The New York Times labeled it as Roosevelt's ''War on the Banana Skin.''

What really cost Commissioner Roosevelt his popularity, however, was a war on something even more popular than bananas: liquor. The city's ordinances banned the sale of alcohol on Sundays, but New Yorkers rarely (if ever) followed that policy. The city was the center of vice, and liquor sales were amongst the only things to truly survive economic recessions of the Gilded Age, including a big one in 1893.

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