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Theodore Roosevelt's Moral Heroism

( Originally Published 1902 )

WHEN Theodore Roosevelt was President of the Board of Police Commissioners of New York City, and first began the rigid enforcement of the law closing the saloons on Sunday and at illegal hours, I preached a sermon in Park Avenue M. E. Church, of New York, of which I was the pastor, suggesting that it ought not to be considered a heroic thing for a public officer to do his duty in accordance with the oath which he had taken, and the salary which he received ; but that vice was so dominant, and the sale of law so open and notorious, that it was considered a rash and foolish thing by one class, and a singularly heroic thing by another, for the head of the Police Department to dare to perform his sworn duty. I called earnestly upon the people to stand by the man for whom the good citizens had been long waiting, and help him to the success which his conscience and bravery deserved. I had never met Commissioner Roosevelt; I saw him in the New York delegation in the National Republican Convention at Chicago, which nominated Mr. Blaine and General Logan—he was a bright young man, fresh from Harvard, and attracted considerable attention at that early day. But on Monday, about noon, I went down to the office of the Police Commissioner and introduced myself to the president. Mr. Roosevelt said to me: " I read in the newspaper, this morning, what you said in your pulpit yesterday, and thank you very much for the good advice you gave to the people. I did not make the law; I have been appointed to enforce it, and intend to do so." I said to him: " I am a very humble factor in this great city, but I want to stand up, and be counted in this conflict. I have come down this morning to tell you that I will stand by you in your work till the last hour of the last day. Whenever you shoot your big cannon at the enemy, I will fire off my small calibered pistol." The Commissioner said : " I thank you very much, and the more because such offers of sympathy and assistance are so rare. There are a hundred letters and telegrams lying on that table, telling me that I have injured the party and ruined myself politically by my course ; and you are almost the only man, thus far, who has commended me." And then pausing, and speaking more seriously, he said : " Well, even if you had not come, and no one were to commend my course, there is a voice above my conscience, which speaks very plainly to me, and which I intend to obey at whatever cost." I said to him : " Most of the best people of the city and of the State will be with you in this conflict; you are bound to have terrific opposition ; in the long run, your step will not be an unpopular one." Sure enough, when the people came to select a Governor for the Empire State, the fact that Colonel Roosevelt was a hero of the Spanish-American War was taken into account, but they also favored him because of his moral courage in fighting the wrong.

In many cities, small and large, there is the same insolence of vice, and same sale of law ; people of moral courage are required to stand up and rebuke and resist crime, and maintain law and order in the community. In the short run, moral heroism may not be popular, but in the long run it will be. But whether it be popular or unpopular, the right is to be done, because it is right.

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