The applause died down as the woman rose from her seat in the large gymnasium. “Mr. Roosevelt,” she said in a loud voice, “do you believe that women should vote?” She ignored the disapproving looks from the audience.
An anxious hush came over the crowd. All eyes fixed on the cantankerous, ebullient, and unpredictable Theodore Roosevelt. Would he answer the question or skirt the issue? Newspapers carried rumors of his support for universal suffrage but he had yet to utter, “I do,” in public and join with the cause.
William R. George was standing in the back of the room, looking annoyed. “What,” he wondered, “was that woman thinking?” There hadn’t been anything in the speech that touched on voting rights. The remarks were directed to the youth in the audience. Youngsters, after all, were the sole reason for Roosevelt’s appearance that afternoon.
It was November 3, 1911. The ex-president had come to Freeville, New York to tour the George Junior Republic, a community for wayward boys and girls founded by George. The place had seen a lot of attention from reform-minded educators and law enforcement officials interested in its unique approach for transforming unruly adolescents into contributing adults.
Roosevelt had been told this tiny “commonwealth” – that’s how George referred to it – was run, soup-to-nuts, by the youngsters who lived there. He’d come to see for himself how it worked. An assistant editor for The Outlook magazine, he wanted a good story.
George was eager to have Roosevelt endorse his work. The man was still wildly popular with the general public. An article that lauded George’s Junior Republic would go a long way in attracting much-needed financial support for the “non institution” institution. But, if the situation with the militant suffragist erupted into a testy, verbal confrontation, the visit could be a fiasco.
Of course, he wasn’t surprised that several women activists had shown up to hear the speech. New York’s State Suffrage Association was holding a convention that day in Ithaca, a mere ten miles from Freeville. The ladies had come on a mission, eager for a commitment from Roosevelt.
New York City – 1895
William R. George and Teddy Roosevelt first met in New York City on a warm spring afternoon in 1895. George was a self-made social worker, highly regarded for his work with gangs in the city’s worst slums. Roosevelt was a city police commissioner, a rising political star with a reputation for government reform. Jacob Riis, a mutual friend, introduced the men to each other in Roosevelt’s office at the Mulberry Street Police Station.
A journalist and social reformer, Riis had come to public attention with the release of his book, How the Other Half Lives. The work took readers on a titillating journey through the stinking alleyways and rat-infested tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was classic exposé reporting that lured energetic crusaders like Roosevelt into city administration and encouraged the efforts of juvenile reformers like George.
Riis, on his way to an appointment with Roosevelt, had spied George out for a stroll, and stopped to chat. George, in an animated tone, talked about a concept he’d been working on for a year: a community – modeled on the democratic ideals and free market principles that had made America great – run by kids. It was a simple but radical idea.
George was convinced wayward youth could be influenced into right behavior given the right circumstances. For the past five years, he’d put that belief into action by hauling unruly boys and girls from hellish neighborhoods like Five Points – along with willing volunteers – for a two-week summer camp that he ran in the small village of Freeville.
In the summer of 1894, he had an epiphany about circumstances and behavior. “What I saw,” George told Riis, “is that as soon as the boys and girls had acquired property as the reward of their labor, they had suggested laws for the protection of such property. These laws they had enforced and obeyed with zeal previously unknown.”
When George finished, Riis insisted that he come to the meeting with Roosevelt who had a special interest in juvenile justice. George described again his idea of a year-round “junior republic,” run by youths. With his characteristic enthusiasm, Commissioner Roosevelt brought his hand down on George’s shoulder with a resounding whack, and exclaimed, “By George, I know it will work!” George smiled at this bit of quick wit.
Riis added, in his concise lingo, “I believe that idea has elements of
Freeville – 1900
When George and Roosevelt saw each other again in October of 1900, the Junior Republic was well established, living up to its motto of “Nothing Without Labor,” and applying the principles of self-governance. The young residents ran their own store, bank and bakery. They managed the financial system, made the laws, ran a court system and staffed a jail.
Roosevelt had kept tabs on George’s work but had never paid a visit to see the Junior Republic in person. Elected Governor of New York in 1898, he was tapped to be the Republican candidate for vice president in 1900. On his way to a political appearance in Ithaca, he finally got to Freeville. It was a brief visit, but long enough for his purposes.
Against the wishes of his aides, he directed his campaign train to make an unscheduled stop. From the train platform, he boomed a message directly to the young people in the crowd. “In this splendid Republic of yours, you are doing the very things that I am trying to uphold – the dignity of labor, the principles of right and wrong – and the splendid energetic way in which you set about it has won my respect and esteem.” It would be more than a decade before he returned.
A Last Meeting
When Roosevelt arrived again in Freeville, he had carved out the time for a proper visit with George and his charges. From his perspective, the time had been well spent, at least until this confrontation in the gym. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw George step forward ready to break the tense silence and take the discussion in a different direction, but Roosevelt got ahead of him.
“I believe in (a) woman’s rights,” he declared as everyone held their breath, “but I believe infinitely more in (a) woman’s duties.” It was a clever, arrogant answer but once the clapping subsided, everyone realized they still had no idea of his position on the issue – just as Roosevelt intended.
Meeting over, Roosevelt shrugged into his overcoat then turned to one of his young escorts for the day, Mamie Unsworth. “Miss Unsworth,” he began in a low, conspiring voice, “between you and me, those women little realize how much I favor women’s suffrage.” Seventeen year-old Mamie was the first – and only – woman that day to hear these magic words. Roosevelt continued his tour. The matter wasn’t mentioned again.
Roosevelt’s editorial, “The Junior Republic,” appeared in The Outlook’s January 20, 1912 edition. There was nothing in it about the suffragist, but he noted, “The boys and girls all vote (woman suffrage is accepted in the real democracy of the Junior Republic), and they are responsible for every law and rule and for carrying out every law and rule.”
In late summer, the irascible Mr. Roosevelt ran again for president, this time on the Progressive Party ticket. He was a vigorous champion for universal suffrage. His position didn’t surprise William George or Mamie Unsworth.
Roosevelt lost in the general election to Woodrow Wilson. He never returned to Freeville.
by Jan Bridgeford-Smith