Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Teddy Roosevelt and the Heat Wave of 1896

Jesus said, "truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Mark 9:41

My grandmother Gibbs had a fondness for the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin. She remembered them both as great presidents. Teddy was president while she was in her teens, and Franklin while she was a young mother struggling through the depression. She respected and admired the later Roosevelt for his leadership through the crises of the depression and World War II, but it was clear that Teddy was the one who had really captured her imagination. Teddy Roosevelt was to Gramma Gibbs what John Kennedy was to my generation.

My own appreciation of Teddy Roosevelt grew when I was researching the Social Gospel movement and read about his commitment to turn Christian concern for the neighbor into social policy. When Roosevelt ran for President in 1904, the Republican Party Platform contained a plank, written by Walter Rauschenbusch, calling for the establishment of Social Security. He was a champion of the underdog and a relentless foe of monopolies. Beyond that, he was deeply committed to the practical implications of Christian faith. It was not enough to believe the Gospel. The real test was in living it out.

In his book, Hot Time in the Old Town, Edward Kohn recounts an important episode in Teddy Roosevelt’s rise to national prominence. In August of 1896, a 10-day heat wave settled over New York City and killed nearly 1,500 people, most of them poor people crowded into tenements. Roosevelt, then a New York Police Commissioner, described it in a letter to his sister, Anna: "The heated term was the worst and most fatal we have ever known. The death-rate trebled until it approached the ratio of a cholera epidemic; the horses died by the hundreds, so that it was impossible to remove their carcasses, and they added a genuine flavor of pestilence, and we had to distribute hundred of tons of ice from the station-houses to the people of the poorer precincts."

The final statement, according to Kohn, is the critical one:

“we had to distribute hundred of tons of ice from the station-houses to the people of the poorer precincts."

The idea that the government should help the poor was not widely accepted at that time. Roosevelt, the Police Commissioner, did what no one else had thought to do. He had ice distributed to the poor. And he personally supervised the distribution. Then he went into the poorest districts to see how the ice was being used. He saw mothers and fathers chipping pieces of ice to wrap in scarves and handkerchiefs to hold on the heads of overheated children and infants. Few American presidents have had as much direct personal contact with the urban poor as Teddy Roosevelt.

Like the other Social Gospel reformers, Roosevelt believed that the true greatness of America should be moral, rather than economic or military.

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