Theodore Roosevelt (White)

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Theodore Roosevelt

by William Allen White
From McClure's Magazine/Volume 18, November 1901, pp. 40-47.


THEODORE ROOSEVELT.

By William Allen White,

Author of the character sketches, "Bryan," "Hanna," and "Croker," published in McClure's Magazine.

If Theodore Roosevelt had died before September, 1901, his name in the tables of Vice-Presidents of the United States, a hundred years hence, would probably mean no more than the names of Daniel D. Tompkins, Richard M. Johnson, George M. Dallas, and other obscure Vice-Presidents. In dictionaries of American literature, two inches of brevier type would record that he had written ten or a dozen books, and give a list of the positions he had filled. An infinitesimally small number of Americans of the next century, historians, and advanced students of the period of American development from 1870 to 1899 would have a look at Roosevelt's "Winning of the West," "American Ideals," "With the Rough Riders in Cuba," and in so much as the style of these writings reveals the man, they would know him as a frank-spoken, sturdy fellow, a hater of shams, and a friend of every one who gets things done and over with. No doubt American biography one hundred years from will contain scores of similar characters—fine enough, of course, but almost unknown and of limited influence.

Now all this hypothesis is set down here to raise the question as to whether or not there may be in the plan of things that guides the world some conservation of moral energy. Providence does not make a rugged virile, honest, cheerful, clear-minded man to waste him on little tasks in lonesome places. Great strength is made for hard work. To-day, Theodore Roosevelt, young, vigorous, and brave, is going to his life work rejoicing as a strong man to ran a race.

HIS AMBITION: TO SET AN EXAMPLE.[edit]

At seeing this man rise, not upon the ordinary rounds of political promotion, but from a State legislature to federal offices, from a State officer to the Presidency, the questions which arise in the mind are, how was he trained? whence his strength? how has he won? To answer them, it is first necessary to find the key-note of Roosevelt's character. That is his ambition. And his ambition—the one great, over-active purpose that, lying nearest to his heart, is the mainspring of his life—is to set an example before Americans, and especially before his young countrymen, showing what a man of the highest ideals, derived from good birth and liberal advantages, can accomplish in all honesty, without soiling his hands, for the betterment of our political life and the advancement of our political ideals. It is so unselfish and noble a motive in politics, that it has been neglected in the popular estimate of Roosevelt, and therefore many people have regarded him as a pugnacious, impetuous, honest, but eccentric young man, while others have looked upon him as a harum-scarum, "bronco-busting" lover of notoriety, a poser who liked a fight for its own sake, and had no regard for the amenities of political relationship. But not many of his partisans and opponents have seen that they had a rare species of man on their hands, One whose political training has not been along lines of diplomacy and combination and adroitness, nor along economic lines, save in his range of careful reading; but whose training has been rather moral than political. Yet nowadays he is mistaken for a politician, which essentially he is not. The American people generally classify their Congressmen and Governors and Presidents as politicians, and let it go at that. The American idea is that most politicians of all parties are bad, the worst ones generally being in the other party, and the good ones all dead or out of office. Americans believe that to get an office and enjoy it forever is the chief end of a politician's existence. Roosevelt has held offices more than half his life since his majority, and offices that have brought more labor and more enemies than glory or material reward. Only as Governor of New York and Vice-President was his official salary as much as he could make writing for magazines and publishing books.

HOW HE GOT HIS OFFICES.[edit]

And he did not get these offices because he was a good "mixer," to use the parlance of politics, or because he was a manipulator of men, or yet because he had "pull" or influence. He went from Harvard to the legislature with a distinct purpose to serve. He was reëlected because of his capacity to accomplish things. The world may love a lover, but it keeps its richest rewards for the man who, at the end of the day, has deeds done and no excuses to make. He was Civil-Service Commissioner because, knowing that the principles of civil-service reform are vital, he had the grit to determine that conditions should be shaped to that mold; he was made Police Commissioner of the city of New York at thirty~six, because Mayor Strong was looking for a brave, sensible man to take an unpopular task and not play politics in the office. The Assistant Secretaryship of the Navy, which he took in 1897, required much hard work with no glory. His training as a soldier in Cuba increased what his life in the West had already given him—his sympathy with men, the love of direct, individual action, and the comforting but hardly needed knowledge of his own personal bravery. Yet he sometimes tells his friends that until he was in his first battle he did not know whether he was going to bolt or not.

"CONSULTING MR. PLATT."[edit]

It was as Governor of New York that Roosevelt, growing most rapidly, showed to the full his efficient integrity of purpose. There he had tests of his moral strength and of his capacity to get actual net results. He won the office in the whirlwind of enthusiasm that followed the Cuban War. Then Senator Platt lay in wait for him on the Jericho road. The "rough and tumble" that followed the meeting was good for the moral muscle, but rather severe on hide and hair of the contestants. As the Republican candidate for Governor of New York, he owed no political gratitude to Senator Platt, yet in an interview with the reporters, Roosevelt said, in so many words, that in making his appointments he "would consult Senator Platt." The common-sense explanation of this utterance did not occur to the politicians and the Pharisees. They concluded at once that Roosevelt had stultified himself, surrendered, sold out to Platt, and other equally preposterous things. The simple truth is that Platt being the head of the Republican organization in New York, a Republican governor who refused to consult him as the head of his party would disrupt the party, and naturally let in all manner of bad government after him. This is set down that the reader may appreciate the meaning of the qualifying word "efficient" when used with integrity of purpose. Roosevelt's critics failed to see that a man honest raid brave enough to say squarely to Platt's enemies that he would consult Platt, would make that consultation honorable and for the righteousness of his party always. There is a difference between "consulting Mr. Platt" and being controlled by him. Platt found this out. At these consultations Platt suggested the names of several bad men for high offices. Roosevelt refused to appoint them. Platt pleaded, blustered, threatened.

Roosevelt, who, in the most trying circumstances, is a gentleman before he is anything else under the sun, courteously yet finally, and doubtless with some emphasis, told Platt to name honest men or none. Platt named honest men. They were appointed. This is how Roosevelt "consulted Mr. Platt." There were other consultations. Platt desired the Governor's signature to what Roosevelt believed were bad laws. He didn't get it. He couldn't get it. Roosevelt wished the Franchise Tax Bill passed. Platt didn't. Platt schemed and intrigued. Roosevelt openly brought to bear the direct pressure of his influence. The Franchise Bill passed. It is a law. To pass it trained Roosevelt in the way he should go. He did not know it, but he was learning to be President. The consultations with Mr. Platt grew less and less frequent, though they were always frank, always free and fair. Roosevelt sought them. Platt grew tired of them. He then intrigued with Quay of Pennsylvania and some Westerners. and made Roosevelt Vice-President against his wish and will. That was not to praise, but to bury Roosevelt, whose career had been one of devotion to pure ideals and with little in it of politics, as Americans use the term. What sardonic irony there is in the twist of events! Theodore Roosevelt is President of the United States solely because of his unsullied integrity. And he was put there by his enemies who loathed the virtues that made him strong.

HIS COMMON SENSE.[edit]

Such is the outline history of Theodore Roosevelt. As a personality Roosevelt is a simple proposition Men who achieve greatly are always men of primitive instincts, who do their work in the most direct sort of way. There is no legerdemain about the best success; no conjuring, no devious and mysterious machinations. Roosevelt has succeeded in life because by the plainest method he has done in a thoroughly human, unflinching, and often humorous way, what he had conceived to be the right thing to do. It is not because he has aimed high that men trust him; it is that he always aimed to hit a mark worth hitting. Common sense is so common that few of us really use it, and when a man like Roosevelt comes along and will have nothing else for his mental food and moral drink but the ordinary wisdom of the race, men are appalled and ascribe many strange and amusing traits to him, which if human enough is nevertheless absurd. For Theodore Roosevelt the man, heavy. of weight, plain of face, who wrinkles his clothes an hour after he gets into them, who makes a speech as the Irishman plays the bagpipe, not by ear nor by note, but by main strength; who has turned his education, his book learning to his credit by a life of incessant action; a creature of strong emotions and of aggressive frankness that often offends; full of frailties and foibles, with a blind side of charity for friends—Theodore Roosevelt is much like the rest of us, and he knows it. That which has raised and glorified him is his unbending honesty. Honesty is not rare, but Roosevelt is so intensely what he is that his honesty becomes a burning flame.

The average man sitting by the average grate fire in the average club hall in the United States would proclaim virtually the same opinion about civic morality and public honor that Roosevelt would proclaim. There would be amicable discussion, but few differences between them in spinning theories. But when the average man left his club for the caucus or convention, the legislature or the congress, he would accept things as they are, and thank God he is not as other men. Roosevelt has fought with all the force in his indomitable soul for things as they should be and can be. With unflinching courage he has been trying to do much that the common man has dreamed should be done.

THINGS HE HAS LEFT UNDONE.[edit]

Moreover, Roosevelt has started out to do several things that he has left undone. He is not infallible. Only sharing with most men the knowledge that the work should be done, he has attacked it valiantly. He has not known that his work was almost impossible, too great, until he tried to do it. Sometimes it was in the nature of these things that they could not be done. Sometimes, perhaps, it was because of his temperamental trend that the things of yesterday, now in the process of making, interest him less than the fresh, new problems. Fate, destiny,. a new duty, or the compelling bent of his eager mind has called him away time and again from the work he had on hand; but always, in every place where service has sent him, he has left the lasting influence of a fine man, honestly, earnestly laboring toward a clean, high, and ultimately accomplishable purpose. And that influence has been good. It has helped others. There was some success even in his failures; for nothing really fails that has heart and some brains in it. And so while Roosevelt has worked for a time as legislator, leaving that work unfinished; for a time as ranchman; as Civil-Service Commissioner; as Governor, quitting that part of his career with rough, ragged ends of things behind him, yet his life as a whole has been efficient; there is a definite consistent inspiration all through it. His character, and that is of supreme importance, has been builded solid and square. And the tools of his trade were the familiar utensils of every-day politics; for he has no genius for cunning, no stomach for intrigue, little or none of that stage presence which hypnotizes men and cords them up like wood. Whatever he has done worth doing has been done in the good old-fashioned way; giving men a chance to be honest, which captures nine men out of ten, and forcing the tenth to be honest by fear of punishment or hope of reward. Politicians generally reverse the game; but it will work both ways.

HIS PATIENCE BORN OF GRINDING.[edit]

Now with these directions for great achievement blown in the bottle, as it were, it seems no trick at all to do important things. But let the reader try it, even in a township or a school district, and what a bristling phalanx of unexpected difficulties confronts him! To conquer these difficulties Roosevelt has developed, probably slowly and with much travail, a kind of manly rudimentary tact, bred of merry frankness, elemental kindness, and a passionate patience. If his masterful courage is his gift from heaven, his patience is his genius born of hard grinding and doubtless sometimes humiliating, fruitless work. Yet he is not patient of speech. Perhaps his strongest personal characteristic is his passion for talking, and he often sputters unnecessary words like a Roman candle. But what Roosevelt has done in American politics, whether in Washington or New York City or Albany, he has done with something like the inexorable patient force of a glacier. If his critics may claim that he talks too much, his record is open to prove that he acts wisely. In his present office, where opportunity to talk is closed, his enemies—and he has many lusty ones—may resign themselves to meet the energy which Roosevelt once spent in effervescent and exhilarating language, now saved and turned to iron deeds.

WHY THE POLITICIANS CALL HIM ERRATIC.[edit]

And this brings us squarely up to the discussion of what Roosevelt's solemn foes are pleased to call his erratic nature. Politicians form a caste by themselves in this country. They commonly affect a caste dress which varies from the frock coat of Senator Bailey and his ponderous clan, to the checkered vest that gilds the voluminous abdomens of Tim Sullivan and the Tammany Brotherhood; and a certain habit of public speech—a guarded, polite, dull and dignified jargon that makes the angels weep. There is a set of draconic rules for the mien and manner of politicians. One must walk with a measured tread, or, if not, with a quick, alert gait as if sky-rocketing along to duty; the head must be carried so, the hat worn thus, the hands tucked into the proper places; and one must also look fierce and wise or else heavy, as if burdened with the cares of state, If one would stay in politics and neglect to dress the part, speak the lines, and wear the grease-paint of a masked countenance, if one would insist upon being a politician and a friend-loving, fun-loving. comfort-loving, freedom-loving, cant-hating fellow—Heaven help him, for there must be something wrong with him. He is erratic!

SYMBOLISM OF THE SLOUCH-HAT.[edit]

This is what ails Roosevelt. He doesn't make up for the part. When he was Police Commissioner of New York he bought a slouch hat, then the vogue. He liked it. It sat well on his head. No one noticed it, The fashion changed, he bought another. Men lifted their eyebrows but said nothing. He wore the same kind of hat in Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He was a young man, so he was not hanged for it. Men are always willing to give a young man a chance to live down an indiscretion. When elected Governor of New York, he still wore the hat of his earlier youth. "Ah," they said, "of course! naturally! affecting the wild and woolly! Can't get over the fact that he was a Rough Rider!" Also he greeted people genially; spoke ingenuously, and did many things not permitted by the laws of Draco—for example, he talked to a policeman of his acquaintance on Broadway, forsooth, or rode in a locomotive cab, certainly an inspiriting and harmless performance. After he was elected Vice-President he wore a gray sack-suit, a coat without tails or skirts, on informal occasions. Think of that! Of course, the men who hated him knew that he was stark mad. And when at state ceremonies he wore a high hat and a frock coat, they shrugged their shoulders and said he was getting swelled up as Vice-President.

HIS JOY IN LIFE.[edit]

If Roosevelt went hunting—a most natural, to some men, desirable pastime—the politicians at home he had offended by his humanity said: "Huh! how that fellow affects raw head and bloody bones." If he wrote a magazine article, they noted how he loves to advertise himself. If he wrote nothing, but remained at home chopping trees on his place at Oyster Bay, they said: "Oh, well, he's planning some sensational trick to catch the public eye." And all, gentle reader, because as an American citizen in politics Theodore Roosevelt refused to join the caste, because he preferred to live simply, without pomp or affectation, not as a bass-wood image, but as a young, well-bred, democratic family man, with an unrepressed joy of living; the "mere living." He prefaced one of his books with a great poet's expression of that joy, which underlies and permeates every one of Roosevelt's varied activities.

Oh, our manhood's prim0e vigor! No spirit feels waste,
Not a muscle is stopped in its playing nor sinew embraced.
Oh, the wild joys of living—the leaping from rock up to rock,
The strong rending of boughs from the fir-tree, the cool silver shock
Of the plunge in a pool's living water, the hunt of the bear . . .
How good is man's life, the mere living.
Browning.

Enjoyment of life is the powerful under tone of his whole career. Throwing himself whole-souled into his task, he enjoys the trials, disappointments, the stress of it along with the successes. To him it is all in the day's work and all good. The dominant note of his private conversation is his love of the fun of work, and the side he volunteers to give one is always the humorous side of what has happened to him. It is his hearty, keen sense of humor that makes him so sane. It is because of it that he keeps out of melodramatics and refuses to be a knight-errant in any cause.

He is a writer of books without the artistic temperament. Surely he loves to live the truth much more than to create it in literature. He has no vanity in his writing; style with him is simply the complete, forcible expression of an idea that he would make a fact or a true report of an act done. Little that he has written contains more than his public feelings. The depths of his nature, emotional and intellectual, have never taken literary form, no doubt because literature is not the best medium for a complete expression of this man of action. Even though he pours out his soul to acquaintances with an apparent abandon of all reserve, there are great depths in his nature which surface ripples do not reach. The world may never see them revealed unless future events mingle public business with the man's intimate private being on some powerfully dramatic occasion.

ESSENTIALLY A LEADER.[edit]

Roosevelt offends the politicians unspeakably by his bland refusal to be moved by popular clamor, The people and what they think on the spur of the moment interest Roosevelt profoundly, but these do not dominate his actions. He neither ignores, nor does he servilely follow the vox populi. It is a very important factor that he must weigh soberly and carefully in making up his mind, or revising and reconsidering his judgment. Roosevelt has expressed his attitude clearly in one of his own books. In his "Life of Benton he says:

"In truth Benton . . . became foolish and illogical when he began to talk of the bundle of vague abstractions which he knew collectively as the 'democratic principles.' Although not so bad as many of his school, he had yet gradually worked himself up to a belief that it 'was almost impious to pay anything but servile heed to the will of the majority;' and was quite unconscious that to surrender one's own manhood and judgment to the belief in the divine right of kings, was only one degree more ignoble and not a shadow more logical, and but little more defensible than blindly to deify a majority—not of the whole people, but merely of a small fraction consisting of those who happened to be of a certain sex, to have reached a certain age, to belong to a certain race, and to fulfil some other conditions. In fact, there is no natural or divine law in the matter at all; how a large portion of the population should be trusted with control of the government is a question of expediency merely. In any purely native American community manhood suffrage works infinitely better than any other system of government; and throughout our country at large, in spite of the large number of ignorant voters, it is probably preferable as it stands to any modification of it. But there is no more 'natural right' why a white man over twenty-one should vote than there is why a negro woman under eighteen should not. 'Civil rights' and 'personal freedom' are not terms that necessarily imply the right to vote. People make mistakes governing themselves exactly as they make mistakes governing others."

Here is refreshing, almost aggressive, candor. Politicians have much to say about the voice of the people, as if it was the one ever safe guide, but the makers of our country, Washington and Lincoln; were essentially leaders, and not followers of public opinion. Is not the highest privilege of friendship the giving to a friend the best of one's conscience and judgment ? The people will not call Roosevelt to act, no matter how loudly they clamor, unless their wisdom is confirmed by his own conscience and judgment. The unyielding Dutch in him is too big, and his training, his character, and all his traditions are against securing popularity at the price of his conscience.

KNOWS EVIL MEN, NOT EVIL.[edit]

Working life in this imperfect world is hardly a Sunday-school picnic. In it evil men form, let us say, a fair working minority, and he who ignores them does not get his day's good work done. While Roosevelt has had relations with evil men, he has never compromised with evil. And here concerning President Roosevelt's attitude to politicians, good and bad, it can safely be said that, as the past is an index to the future, be will treat all alike, with all fairness and courtesy, carrying no grudges. Revenge is not sweet to him. His slate is clean, and there is no doubt that Senators Platt and Quay can come to the President on honest business as easily as his best friends; no doubt, since they have met him before, they will not approach him with any other kind.

HIS PRESENT PROBLEM.[edit]

So Such for the man and the material in hand. What is his problem now? It is easily said that one will follow a policy laid down by a predecessor, but could ever a man finish another man's work and not make the end his own? The personal element which is so strong in Roosevelt will mold his work, even though conditions remain as they are when he began it. And conditions which have changed so entirely since 1897 will not stop stock-still until 1905. Conditions are bound to make new problems and new policies, and the personality of Roosevelt, virile, aspiring—in the best sense—and true, will help shape and solve them.

At Minneapolis, where Vice-President Roosevelt made his last public address—and the first of much importance since the late campaign closed—he had something to say about the State control of combinations of capital commonly called trusts. What he said has more than academic interest. Roosevelt is of the sort who, while he loves a joke hugely, never talks politics in a Piekwickian sense. When be spoke about controlling capital in combination by national legislation, it was out of a full heart.

HOW PROFOUNDLY HE STUDIES PUBLIC QUESTIONS.[edit]

While to predict what a man will do or will not do is as dangerous as for a man to predict what he will do himself, certain trends of character—like streams of moving humanity in a city street, all helter skelter till seen in perspective, when they assume direction and unvarying tendency—certain trends of character are so marked that it is almost safe to assume, if not to prophesy, that he who holds them will follow them through whatever stress of circumstances he may come. All his life, for instance, Roosevelt has paid attention to detail, to little things. He has worked hard for small results, which he believed to be actual and necessary. Nothing can check this tendency in him. For instance, if some one should call his attention to the annoyance homecoming Americans suffer at the New York Custom-House, he would change it if it was wise to change it. If he should be shown that an architect was blackmailing a contractor on a public building he would turn aside from any big work he was engaged upon to punish that architect. If be found loafers on the public pay-roll, they would have, to get off, no matter who put them there. If a senator, friend or enemy, will have easy access to the White House on business of the patronage, any constituent of that senator, however humble, will find the White House door swing as easily for him to show the President that a candidate for public office is dishonest. And when Roosevelt has found a candidate is unfit for an office he will not be appointed, even though the entire Senate of the United States demands it. The system of letting senators and representatives take the responsibility of naming unworthy and dishonest men, will not be established under the Roosevelt administration. Roosevelt will not shrink from the full blame for his appointments.

HE WILL KEEP HIS PARTY TOGETHER.[edit]

Yet he will strenuously endeavor to maintain a united party, and to do the great things in national legislation. He will use his old weapons of common-sense dealing with men, and the display of force when required. Moreover, he may have the use of some new weapons, for he is growing. McKinley went to Buffalo with his mind full of a great policy—the policy of international reciprocity. There were many treaties—mostly commercial treaties—on the block when McKinley laid down the work. To adopt these treaties which affect the industrial conditions of the country almost as seriously as an entirely new tariff bill, will require the masterful imperturbability and velvety adroitness which McKinley used so skillfully. Roosevelt may have to learn this art of fencing. If he tries to learn it he will learn it well despite his training. If he believes it wise for the treaties which McKinley had in mind and hand when he made his Buffalo speech to become laws, with all Roosevelt's will—which is steel—he will work to become master mechanic in the trade that shall weld them into laws, though it shall take years of patience. But there will be no smut of the political furnace on his hands or his heart when he has learned his trade.

When Roosevelt said that he would follow McKinley's policy, it is foolish to presume that Roosevelt meant to give a servile imitation of McKinley. The new President will accept the McKinley legacy of unfinished work, but every unsolved problem will have to pass muster at the court of Roosevelt's personal conviction, and in forming this conviction the new President will show an almost unknown side of his character to the country.

HIS PAINSTAKING STUDY OF GREAT PROBLEMS.[edit]

To the politicians Roosevelt is a man of notions. They think he has—as reformers always have—a set of ready-made ironclad opinions. They fear he is going to put this imagined job lot of economic and industrial views into policies. They fancy that these notions, opinions, views, convictions—or what not—are different from anything else on the earth, and so there are secret forebodings in the breasts of the faithful. They are entirely unnecessary. Roosevelt has not the Prince-Albert-and-white-necktie intellect. The fourth-rate patter that the average politician in Congress learns about the tariff, about the money question, about the so-called trusts, has never filled Roosevelt's head. What he has read and considered along economic lines has been the presentations and conclusions of first-class men whose names are unknown to most of the gentlemen who form policies and believe they are thinking profoundly in the national legislature. Roosevelt will grind. Some people have expressed the fear that Roosevelt is dangerous in the presidency because he will have to undertake tasks new to him, and for which he is not prepared. These doubtless miss one of the essential points of this unclassified man. He has always attacked problems about which he knew nothing beforehand, and has solved them. It was so in the Police Commission. It was so in the Navy Department. 1t was eminently so in the Governorship of New York. But in every crisis he has asked for help, has sought from first-class intellects their best wisdom, from experts in each line of knowledge their soberest advice, from practical men their soundest judgment. It is only when his mind was made up after a painstaking exhaustive study of the question that he has reached a conviction and followed it with unswerving fidelity. This he is sure to do as President of the United States. He will ask advice from the best men in the country. He will form his opinions conscientiously. They may not always be the traditional opinions held by the politicians of the high caste, but he will hold to them and trust to the common sense of the people ultimately to back him up. Whether these opinions become laws immediately or during his official term is not essential to Roosevelt. It is only essential to him that his theories shall be sound and worthy, and that by standing for them he may bring his countrymen to think seriously, honestly, and nobly of public affairs. That is the moving principle, the mastering ambition of his life. The Presidency is but an incident—an important incident, because it gives him a scythe which cuts a wide.swath; but, after all, only an incident.

Roosevelt brings to this high office an erudition ripened by a practical grapple with life; a political sagacity which has been at daily gymnastic exercise for twenty years in every manner of public contest. He is fit. His public virtue is as certain as his private virtue. He has no double standard of morals. The strong moral purpose which has moved him at all times, which has strengthened him in other crises, now dominates his life.

NO LONGER A "YOUNG MAN."[edit]

He is on the threshold of his life work, so full of the high faith that if his feet stumble, as human feet are prone to do, no man may gainsay the purpose that guided them. During the three sad, dumb minutes following Roosevelt's repeated oath to the Presidential office, youth, which he has clung to so fondly, left him, and maturity came. And with it came the sympathy of the people moved by the pathos of youth's passing and the falling of a crushing weight of duty. But youth left her good cheer with him and all of her joy of life. He still retains that unconquerable soul of his; so that, come what may, good fortune or ill, he stands ready with a will to "take what he conceives to be God's part; to do his evident work, stand up for good and destroy evil, and coöperate with the whole scheme here."