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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


Roosevelt as a Speaker and Writer

PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT speaks as he writes. That tells the story. He makes no pretense to being an orator. Critics sometimes say that his books are not “literature,” by which they apparently mean words strung together to sound well. They are not. But what he writes no one can misunderstand, and the style seems to the reader unimportant, though it is notably direct, terse and vigorous. When he speaks, there is not often much applause, and when there is, he often raises his hand with a warning gesture to stop it. Both his hearers and he are much too interested in the thing he says to pay great heed to the way her says it. But when it is over, his hearers go away, thinking. They know exactly what he meant, and, for the best of reasons—he did. I cannot think of a better prescription for speechmaking of the present day that is meant to convince. And no one ever winks when he speaks.

Another thing: he is all the time growing. The man who does not grow in the White House is not fit to be there. “A full-grown man who is growing still,” an Eastern newspaper that is not exactly a champion of Roosevelt called him after his Chamber of Commerce speech in New York. One of the brightest of the newspaper men who went with him on his long Western trip said to me, when they were back East: “I don’t think any sane man could be with him two weeks without getting to like him; but the thing that struck me on that trip was the way he grew; the way an idea grew in his mind day by day as he lived with it until it took its final shape in speech. Then it was like a knock-down blow.”

Then they express the man. Phrases like this: “It is the shots which hit that count,” and to the boys of his country: “Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard,” are Theodore Roosevelt all over. From time to time I have made notes from his writings and speeches. I am going to set down a few of the extracts here. Very likely they are not the ones that would appeal to many of my readers. They did to me; that was why I wrote them down. And Roosevelt is in them all, every one. Let the first one be the extract from his speech at the opening of the New York Chamber of Commerce, on November 11, 1902. It has been called “The Roosevelt Doctrine”:

“It is no easy matter to work out a system or rule of conduct, whether with or without the help of the lawgiver, which shall minimize that jarring and clashing of interests in the industrial world which causes so much individual irritation and suffering at the present day, and which at times threatens baleful consequences to large portions of the body politic. But the importance of the problem cannot be overestimated, and it deserves to receive the careful thought of all men. There should be no yielding to wrong; but there should most certainly be not only desire to do right, but a willingness each to try to understand the viewpoint of his fellow, with whom, for weal or for woe, his own fortunes are indissolubly bound.

“No patent remedy can be devised for the solution of these grave problems in the industrial world; but we may rest assured that they can be solved at all only if we bring to the solution certain old-time virtues, and if we strive to keep out of the solution some of the most familiar and most undesirable of the traits to which mankind has owed untold degradation and suffering throughout the ages. Arrogance, suspicion, brutal envy of the well-to-do, the hard refusal to consider the rights of others, the foolish refusal to consider the limits of beneficent action, the base appeal to the spirit of selfish greed, whether it take the form of plunder of the fortunate or of oppression of the unfortunate—from these and from all kindred vices this nation must be kept free if it is to remain in its present position in the forefront of the peoples of mankind.

“On the other hand, good will come, even out of the present evils, if we face them armed with the old homely virtues; if we show that we are fearless of soul, cool of head, and kindly of heart; if, without betraying the weakness that cringes before wrongdoing, we yet show by deeds and words our knowledge that in such a government as ours each of us must be in very truth his brother’s keeper.

“At a time when the growing complexity of our social and industrial life has rendered inevitable the intrusion of the state into spheres of work wherein it formerly took no part, and when there is also a growing tendency to demand the illegitimate and unwise transfer to the government of much of the work that should be done by private persons, singly or associated together, it is a pleasure to address a body whose members possess to an eminent degre the traditional American self-reliance of spirit which makes them scorn to ask from the government, whether of state or nation, anything but a fair field and no favor—who confide not in being helped by others, but in their own skill, energy, and business capacity to achieve success.

“The first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight; that he shall not be a mere passenger, but shall do his share in the work that each generation of us finds ready to hand; and, furthermore, that in doing his work he shall show, not only the capacity for sturdy self-help, but also self-respecting regard for the rights of others.”

Here are some observations of the President on national duties and expansion:

“Nations that expand and nations that do not expand may both ultimately go down, but the one leaves heirs and a glorious memory, and the other leaves neither.”

“We are strong men and we intend to do our duty.”

“We cannot sit huddled within our own borders and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond. Such a policy would defeat even its own ends; for as the nations grow to have ever wider and wider interests and are brought into closer and closer contact, if we are to hold our own in the struggle for naval and commercial supremacy, we must build up our power within our own borders.”

“We have but little room among our people for the timid, the irresolute and the idle; and it is no less true that there is scant room in the world at large for the nation with mighty thews that dares not to be great.”

“It is not possible ever to insure prosperity merely by law.”

“This government is not and never shall be a plutocracy. This government is not and never shall be ruled by a mob.”

“Woe to us all if ever as a people we grow to condone evil because it is successful.”

“The wilfully idle man, like the wilfully barren woman, has no place in a sane, healthy and vigorous community.”

“Success comes only to those who lead the life of endeavor.”

“Our interests are at bottom common; in the long run we go up or go down together.”

“No prosperity and no glory can save a nation that is rotten at heart.”

“Ultimately no nation can be great unless its greatness is laid on foundations of righteousness and decency. We cannot do great deeds as a nation unless we are willing to do the small things that make up the sum of greatness, unless we believe in energy and thrift, unless we believe that we have more to do than to simply accomplish material prosperity; unless, in short, we do our full duty as private citizens, interested alike in the honor of the state.”

“A nation’s greatness lies in its possibility of achievement in the present, and nothing helps it more than consciousness of achievement in the past.”

“Boasting and blustering are as objectionable among nations as among individuals, and the public men of a great nation owe it to their sense of national self-respect to speak courteously of foreign powers, just as a brave and self-respecting man treats all around him courteously.”

The famous phrase, “the strenuous life,” is from his speech to the Hamilton Club, in Chicago, in 1899. This was the sentence in which it occurred:

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardships, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

On practical politics and Christian citizenship he has this to say:

“I am a loyal party man, but I believe very firmly that I can best render aid to my party by doing all that in me lies to make that party responsive to the needs of the state, responsive to the needs of the people, and just so far as I work along those lines I have the right to challenge the support of every decent man, no matter what his party may be.”

“I despise a man who surrenders his conscience to a multitude as much as I do the one who surrenders it to one man.”

“If we wish to do good work for our country we must be unselfish, disinterested, sincerely desirous of the well-being of the commonwealth, and capable of devoted adherence to a lofty ideal; but in addition we must be vigorous in mind and body, able to hold our own in rough conflict with our fellows, able to suffer punishment without flinching, and, at need, to repay it in kind with full interest.”

“You can’t govern yourselves by sitting in your studies and thinking how good you are. You’ve got to fight all you know how, and you’ll find a lot of able men willing to fight you.”

“A man must go into practical politics in order to make his influence felt. Practical politics must not be construed to mean dirty politics. On the contrary, in the long run the politics of fraud and treachery and foulness is unpractical politics, and the most practical of all politicians is the politician who is clean and decent and upright.”

“The actual advance must be made in the field of practical politics, among the men who are sometimes rough and coarse, who sometimes have lower ideals than they should, but who are capable, masterful and efficient.”

“No one of us can make the world move on very far, but it moves at all only when each one of a very large number does his duty.”

“Clean politics is simply one form of applied good citizenship.”

“A man should be no more excused for lying on the stump than for lying off the stump.”

“It is a good thing to appeal to citizens to work for good government because it will better their state materially; but it is a far better thing to appeal to them to work for good government because it is right in itself to do so.”

“Morally, a pound of construction is worth a ton of destruction.”

ON EXPEDIENCY: “No man is justified in doing evil on the ground of expediency. He is bound to do all the good possible. Yet he must consider the question of expediency, in order that he may do all the good possible, for otherwise he will do none. As soon as a politician gets to the point of thinking that to be ‘practical’ he has got to be base, he has become a noxious member of the body politic. That species of practicability eats into the moral sense of the people like a cancer, and he who practices it can no more be excused than an editor who debauches public decency in order to sell his paper.”

ON CYNICISM: “Cynicism in public life is a curse, and when a man has lost the power of enthusiasm for righteousness it will be better for him and the country if he abandons public life.”

ON LABOR (from the President’s Labor Day speech at Syracuse, 1903): “No man needs sympathy because he has to work, because he has a burden to carry. Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

“We can keep our government on a sane and healthy basis, we can make and keep our social system what it should be, only on condition of judging each man, not as a member of a class, but on his worth as a man. It is an infamous thing in our American life, and fundamentally treacherous to our institutions, to apply to any man any test save that of his personal worth, or to draw between two sets of men any distinction save the distinction of conduct, the distinction that marks off those who do well and wisely from those who do ill and foolishly. There are good citizens and bad citizens in every class, as in every locality, and the attitude of decent people toward great public and social questions should be determined, not by the accidental questions of employment of locality, but by those deep-set principles which represent the innermost souls of men.”

“The average American knows not only that he himself intends to do about what is right, but that his average fellow-countryman has the same intention and the same power to make his intention effective. He knows, whether he be business man, professional man, farmer, mechanic, employer or wage-worker, that the welfare of each of these men is bound up with the welfare of all the others; that each is neighbor to the other, is actuated by the same hopes and fears, has fundamentally the same ideals, and that all alike have much the same virtues and the same faults.

“Our average fellow-citizen is a sane and healthy man, who believes in decency and has a wholesome mind.”

ON CORPORATIONS (in speech to the City Club, New York, when he was Governor): “I hope no party will make a direct move against corporations.… Make the man who says he is for the corporation see to it that he doesn’t give those corporations undue protection, and let the man who is against corporative wealth remember that he has no right to pillage a corporate treasury.”

From the President’s Message, January, 1904: “Every man must be guaranteed his liberty and his right to do as he likes with his property or his labor, so long as he does not infringe the rights of others. No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man’s permission when we require him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right, not asked as a favor.”

ON IMMIGRATION: “We cannot have too much immigration of the right kind, and we should have none at all of the wrong kind. The need is to devise some system by which undesirable immigrants shall be kept out entirely, while desirable immigrants are properly distributed throughout the country.”

ON BRIBERY: “There can be no crime more serious than bribery. Other offences violate one law, while corruption strikes at the foundation of all law. The stain lies in toleration, not in correction.”

ON FELLOWSHIP (in address to New York State Conference on Church Federation): “People make an unspeakable mistake when they quarrel about the boundary line between them. They have a common enemy to face, who demands united attention and united action.”

ON HOW TO HELP A NEIGHBOR: “In charity the one thing always to be remembered is that while any man may slip and should at once be helped to rise to his feet, yet no man can be carried with advantage either to him or to the community.”

“If a man permits largeness of heart to degenerate into softness of head he inevitably becomes a nuisance in any relation of life.”

“If, with the best of intentions, we can only manage to deserve the epithet of ‘harmless,’ it is hardly worth while to have lived in the world at all.”

ON SUCCESS IN LIFE (in speech at LaCrosse, Wis., 1903): “If you want your children to be successful, you should teach them the life that is worth living, is worth working for. What a wretched life is that of a man who seeks to shirk the burdens laid on us in the world. It is equally ignoble whether he be a man of wealth or one who earns his bread in the sweat of his brow.”

ON LYNCHING: “The worst enemy of the colored race is the colored man who commits some hideous wrong, especially if that be the worst of all crimes: rape; and the worst enemy of the white race is the white man who avenges that crime by another crime, equally infamous.… Shameless deeds of infamous hideousness should be punished speedily, but by the law, not by another crime.”

Two things which Mr. Roosevelt did when Governor of New York, among the countless minor details of his official life, always seemed to me so characteristic of him that I have kept the record of them.

When Mrs. Place was to be executed for the murder of her step-daughter, after a period of great public excitement, he wrote to the warden of Sing Sing: “I particularly desire that this solemn and awful act of justice shall not be made an excuse for the hideous sensationalism which is more demoralizing that anything else to the public mind.”

A bill had passed the Assembly, giving directions as to the wearing of gowns by attorneys practicing in the Supreme Court. Governor Roosevelt returned it without his approval, but with this endorsement:

“This bill is obviously and utterly unnecessary. The whole subject should be left and can safely be left where it properly belongs—to the good sense of the judiciary.”


    “We stand on the threshold of a new century, a century big with fate of the great nations of the earth. It rests with us to decide whether in the opening years of that century we shall march forward to fresh triumphs, or whether at the outset we shall deliberately cripple ourselves for the contest. Is America a weakling to shrink from the world-work to be done by the world powers? No! The young Giant of the West stands on a continent and clasps the crest of an ocean in either hand. Our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks into the future with fearless and eager eyes, and rejoices as a strong man to run a race. We do not stand in craven mood, asking to be spared the task, cringing as we gaze on the contest. No! We challenge the proud privilege of doing the work that Providence allots us, and we face the coming years high of heart and resolute of faith that to our people is given the right to win such honor and renown as has never yet been granted to the peoples of mankind.”
  • I shall set down last the closing words of the speech in which Theodore Roosevelt seconded the nomination of William McKinley, whom so soon he was to succeed, at the Philadelphia Convention, in June, 1900. They contain his prophecy of