Theodore Roosevelt

Title: Theodore Roosevelt

Date: January 23, 1921

Location: New York City, NY

Context: Address as Vice President-elect before the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association

(Original document available here)

Great men are the ambassadors of Providence sent to reveal to their fellow men their unknown selves. To them is granted the power to call forth the best there is in those who come under their influence. Sometimes they have come as great captains, commanders of men, who have hewed out empires, sometimes as statesmen, ministering to the well-being of their country, sometimes as painters and poets, showing new realms of beauty, sometimes as philosophers and preachers, revealing to the race “the way, the truth, and the life,” but always as inspirers of noble action, translating high ideals into the practical affairs of life. There is something about them better than anything they do or say. If measured at all, they are to be measured in the responsive action of what others do or say. They come and go, in part a mystery, in part the simplest of all experience, the compelling influence of the truth. They leave no successor. The heritage of greatness descends to the people.

No man was ever meanly born. About his cradle is the wondrous miracle of life. He may descend into the depths, he may live in infamy and perish miserably, but he is born great. Men build monuments above the graves of their heroes to mark the end of a great life, but women seek out the birthplace and build their shrine, not where a great life had its ending but where it had its beginning, seeking with a truer instinct the common source of things not in that which is gone forever but in that which they know will again be manifest. Life may depart, but the source of life is constant.

For the purpose of ministering and giving expression to this sentiment, your association has been formed, formed in the memory of one of America’s great men, yet not solely for perpetuating the memory, but for extending the services to the people he loved, of Theodore Roosevelt.

If that ministration is to represent truly, and adequately represent, the spirit of that great man, it will be through and through patriotic. In all the criticisms that his zeal for the right, whatever the consequences, brought him, no one ever questioned his patriotism, no one ever doubted his love for his country. Standing once in the presence of death, which had overtaken his companion and narrowly missed him, when asked if he did not fear violence against himself, he replied: “Not half so much as I fear that I may make some mistake which will work injury to my country.” That country he loved above all else, and on her altar he laid not merely his own life but the greater sacrifice of those whose lives were dearer to him than his own. Yet it was not in the time of military peril but in the time of civil peril that he performed his most valuable services for America.

The greatest peril to our institutions does not lie in a direct assault upon them, nor will it come from those who, with evil intent, strive for their destruction. Disaster will come from those who probably with good intentions seek the private control of public action. It is an old story known to all, but in the exercise of that eternal vigilance which they tell us is the price of liberty it requires constant reiteration, and no estimate of the services and character of Theodore Roosevelt can be made without the retelling of it.

The underlying theory of the American form of government is the rule of the people through their representatives, thus creating a republic. There were those who distrusted popular sovereignty, still more who distrusted all forms of monarchy; out of their deliberations came not any form of monarchy nor a pure democracy, but a republic, in which all functions of government are to be executed by chosen representatives, acting under constitutional restraints dictated by reason alone, but in all things and at all times recognizing and declaring the sovereignty of the people and the supremacy of their will expressed in accordance with prevailing law.

The great contests in our government have partaken of the character of an effort to substitute for this public will some form of private will, for the public welfare some private interest. In its very broad aspects the American Revolution was a contest over this principle, the British contending for the rule of the commercial interests of the empire, the colonists defending their right to govern themselves in accordance with the public welfare. This principle had to be determined anew in the war between the States, when the issue was very squarely drawn between the execution of the public will, lawfully determined, and the supremacy of the private interests represented in human slavery. For half a century that interest had dominated the South, and it was claimed it had dominated the National Government. At last the people asserted their right to control the government, and the irrepressible conflict began which ended in the reassertion of the sovereignty of the people and a rededication of our nation to the cause of freedom. The great menace that had threatened our government from its very beginnings, weak and unheeded once, then powerful and dominant, was forever removed. But the old tendency remained, to break out in a new conflict between private interest and public welfare.

When the country recovered from the devastation of the war it entered an era of great industrial expansion. Many thousands of miles of railroads were laid, minerals were mined in great profusion, manufacturing plants increased enormously; there was a great influx of population causing the building of teeming cities, all of which led to a fabulous increase of wealth. It was distinctly a commercial age marked by a consuming desire for financial success. Along with this, however, went that spread of culture which wealth brings. Colleges were endowed, public libraries were built, hospitals were provided, science and the arts were supported and advanced. All this was done by the power of wealth as a result of business success.

It was no wonder that men were dazzled by its magnificence, and, seeing the good it had accomplished, sought to increase the means for the production of wealth by great combinations which in some instances partook of monopoly. Owning the business of the country, through it there was growing up the attempt to exercise an improper control over the affairs of government. “Surely,” men said, “business is supreme, see what great good it has accomplished. How better can the government be conducted than in the interests of business?” This certainly was well intended and believed to be patriotic on the part of its proposers. This condition culminated about twenty years ago. It had gone on unformulated in men’s minds, unconsciously tending to monopoly in business, and by that means private control of government, substituting the age-old formula of private interest for the public welfare. Logically developed it would have meant stagnation in business through the loss of all initiative, and bureaucracy in government through the loss of a true representation of the public will. The man who finally brought the business men of the nation to see that their course was economically unsound, and therefore to be abandoned, and who roused the American people to the assertion again of their right to control their government for the public welfare, was Theodore Roosevelt. No man had done so much to destroy an unsound economic theory, and to restore his country to its true form of representative government since the days of Abraham Lincoln. And as with Lincoln, no one, whether formerly victor or vanquished, would return to the old order. He broke the menace of monopoly. He made the sovereignty of the people again supreme.

In all this he stood for a great principle impartially applied. He declared and enforced the supremacy of the public law alike against those who opposed it in the name of capital or in the name of labor. In that he was the true friend of both, the benefactor of employer and employee and the defender of the republic of the United States. He found it menaced and he left it free.

In a struggle of that nature not all good men or all patriots are on one side. Had it been so there would be no struggle. Nor is it alone the guilty who suffer. There were many Americans who, conscious of their own rectitude, assumed the rectitude of others and therefore disapproved of the Roosevelt policies. They were using their power unselfishly for the public welfare. But there were others who were not. Men said in derision that Roosevelt had discovered the Ten Commandments. What they said derisively let us state seriously. He had discovered the Ten Commandments, and he applied their doctrine with great vigor in places that had assumed they had the power to discard the Ten Commandments.

We have seen that the reaction of public opinion went too far. It created a condition in which men of large interests, no matter how innocent of any offense, have since felt they would be misjudged and their motives misconstrued if they took part in public affairs. That sentiment is wrong and, being wrong, works a grave public injury. The public business has come to be the largest single business that there is. Unless it can have the benefit of the training and ability that is developed in great private enterprises it cannot be conducted successfully, and if not successful the people suffer. Innocence is not enough in government administration, as Theodore Roosevelt well knew. There must be added that character and ability that come only from grappling with the great problems of life, most usually gained by Americans in great business and administrative activities. He did not fail to surround himself with advisers of that kind. He had them in his Cabinet. He sought their counsel from the Senate and from private life. The war helped to dissipate this unwholesome state of public opinion by reason of the universally patriotic and active assistance rendered by the business interests to the government. The American people are entitled by right to have their public business administered by a training and intelligence, a capacity and character, the equal of that which any private enterprise can command. It is the duty of men in business life to provide such service at some inconvenience to themselves, some risk of being misunderstood, and some likelihood of being publicly abused.

There was another reaction against the management of business which greatly strengthened organizations of employees in the estimation of public opinion. That increased until such organizations undertook to dictate to the government, sometimes successfully. That menace, again, of private will against the public will has been met and defeated not only without but within their own ranks. It did not have the support of the rank and file of employees, who have been at all times patriotic, law-abiding, and God-fearing men and women. If there be any class who should seek the public welfare, they are that class, for, more nearly than any other body of our citizens, the wage-earners are the public. The counsel and assistance of their representatives, their true representatives, should be sought, will be sought in State and nation, as it was sought and followed by Roosevelt. No government can be successful which outlaws any good influence, wherever its source, whatever its calling. The sovereignty of the people means the sovereignty not of a self-selected few. It means the supremacy of the matured convictions of all the people. Our franchise is not granted to class or caste. It is the acquired right of all Americans.

There was another service which he rendered not merely to his fellow countrymen this time but to the world. There is a tendency on the part of men and people to lapse into a contented ease, to regard the difficulties of others and the perils of our neighbors as none of our particular business. Theodore Roosevelt never lapsed. He was against what he believed to be wrong everywhere. He was against it in his speech, he was for taking effective action against it; for he was no carpet-knight–his headquarters through his life were always in the field. When the Great War broke out he refused to be neutral. He had no hesitation in declaring he was an American, and he immediately proclaimed that the war was an American war, and that he was on the side of America.

Our country has known little of foreign affairs. It has desired to know little of them. It has been our tradition that what went on in Europe could have little effect here. But we have declared and maintained the Monroe Doctrine of no interference here by Europe. The closing of our exchange, the denial of our access to the sea, the death of our nationals when peacefully engaged, did not seem to wake us from our delusion. We wanted peace, and rightfully; but it was the voice of Roosevelt that roused the nation to the meaning and the menace of the war to America. In this he was never so disinterested, so patriotic, so eager for the right for its own sake. He appealed from the things that seemed to be to the soul of the things that are.

This was his last great service. He roused the national conscience into righteous action. He spoke to the soul of his country and he saw her response. He saw her rise, triumphant again above every sordid motive, resurgent to the everlasting realities. He saw his fellow countrymen make their sacrifices and he made his. He knew their suffering, but he knew their courage.

He saw their final victory. He saw the beginning of the return of those never-conquered banners as they came streaming home. In that triumphant sound of drumbeat and bugle he too was summoned home, under the brighter banners of truth and righteousness which in him never suffered defeat.

His work goes on. His battle line strengthens. His principles have more defenders, his actions more admirers.

His devoted followers are building a shrine at his birthplace to increase the influence of his life. The people whom he loved and trusted and served are the contributors. Here men may come and remember that he reestablished a representative government of all the people, reopened the closing doors of opportunity, reawakened the soul of his country, and reinforced the moral fibre of America. Let the people make pilgrimages to this shrine where his great life began, where Theodore Roosevelt learned to kneel in prayer, let them contemplate his works and recall his sacrifices, and out of their pilgrimage, their contemplation, and their recollection will be born the unyielding conviction, “Greater love hath no man than this.”

Calvin Coolidge, The Price of Freedom, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1924

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Pamela Mett, who prepared this document for digital publication.

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