Address to the Minnesota Legislature in St. Paul

April 04, 1903

Mr. Governor, Mr. Lieutenant-Governor, Mr. Speaker, members of the Legislative Body, men and women of Minnesota:

I thank you for greeting me and for giving me the chance to say a word or two in welcome and in acknowledgment of your greeting.

To any American capable of any depth of reflection whatever, it should always be a somewhat solemn thing to come into the presence of two bodies—one a legislative body, the other an educational body; the legislative body, which is not only the method but the symbol of our free government; the educational body, which, using educational in its broadest and truest sense, means the body that fits us for self government. Self-government is not an easy thing. The nations of antiquity, the nations of the middle ages, that tried the experiment of independent self-government which should guarantee freedom to the individual, and yet safety from without and within to the body politic itself, rarely lasted long, never rose to a pitch of greatness, such as ours, without having suffered some radical and, as it proved ultimately, fatal change of structure. Until our Republic was founded it had proved impossible in the long run to combine freedom for the individual and greatness for the nation. The republics of antiquity and of the middle ages went one of two lines, either proved fatal. Either the individual's interests were sacrificed, and, while retaining the forms of freedom, the republic became in effect a despotism; or else the freedom of the individual was kept at the cost of utter impotence either to put down disorder at home or to repel aggression from abroad.

It has been given to us during the century and a quarter of our national life so to handle ourselves as a people that we have escaped both dangers. We have been able to escape the leadership of those who feared Scylla so much that they would plunge us into Charybdis, and of those who feared Charybdis so much that they would plunge us into Scylla. We have been able to preserve orderly liberty and strength to grow in greatness among the nations of the earth, while becoming steadily more and more democratic in the truest and broadest sense of the word. I believe with all my heart that we shall continue on the path thus marked out for us; but we shall so continue only if we remember that in the last analysis the safety of the Republic de pends upon the high average of individual citizenship.

We can keep all the forms of free government; and every Fourth of July we can talk possibly a little too boastfully of both the past and the present; and yet it shall not avail us if we do not have in our hearts the spirit that makes for decent citizenship, the spirit that alone counts in the formation of a true republic. And that spirit is essentially the same in public life as in private life. The manifestations of it differ, but the spirit is the same. A public man is as much bound to tell the truth on the stump as off the stump. On the other hand, his critics will do well to remember that truth—telling is a virtue for them to practice also. What we need in public life and in private life is not genius so much as the many-sided development of the qualities which in their sum make good citizenship. In a great crisis we shall need a genius; thrice and thrice over fortunate is the nation which then develops a Lincoln to lead it in peace; a Grant to lead it in war; a Washington to lead it in war and peace.

But what we need as a nation, as an individual, at the ordinary times which are so much larger in the aggregate than the extraordinary times, and upon our conduct in which really depends our conduct in extra ordinary times, are the commonplace virtues which we all recognize, and which when we were young we wrote about in copybooks, and which, if we practice, will count for a thousand times more in the long run than any brilliance and genius of any kind or sort whatsoever.

I want to say just a word on the other side of the two great questions, the legislative and educational questions. Education must be twofold. Of course if we do not have education in the school, the academy, the college, the university, and have it developed in the highest and wisest manner, we shall make but a poor fist of American citizenship. One of the things that is most hopeful in our Republic is the way in which the State has taken charge of elementary education; and the way in which, in the East through private gift, here in the West through the wise liberality of the several States, the higher education has been taken care of, as in your own University of Minnesota. But such education can never be all. It can never be more than half, and sometimes not that. Nothing can take the place of the education of the home; and that education must be largely the unconscious influence of character upon character. There is no use in the father trying to instill wise saws and precepts into the son, if his own character gives the lie to his advice. And unfortunately it is just as true in the education of children as in everything else, that it is almost as harmful to be a virtuous fool as a knave. So often throughout our social structure from the wealthiest down to the poorest you see the queer fatuity of the man or the woman which makes them save their children temporary discomfort, temporary unpleasantness, at the cost of future destruction; you see a great many men, and I am sorry to say a great many women, who say, "I have had to work hard; my boy or my girl shall not do anything." I have seen it in every rank. I have heard the millionaire say, "I have had to work all my life to make money, let my boy spend it." It would be better for the boy never to have been born than to be brought up on that principle. On the other hand, I have seen the overworked drudge, the laborer's wife, who said, "Well, I have had to work my heart out all my days; my daughters shall be ladies"; and her conception of her daughters being ladies was to have them sit around useless and incompetent, unable to do anything, brought up to be discontented cumberers of the earth's surface. As Abraham Lincoln said: "There is a deal of human nature in mankind." Fundamentally, virtues and faults are just the same in the millionaire and the day laborer. The man or the woman who seeks to bring up his or her children with the idea that their happiness is secured by teaching them to avoid difficulties is doing them a cruel wrong. To bring up the boy and girl so sheltered that they cannot stand any rough knocks, that they shrink from toil, that when they meet an obstacle they feel they ought to go around or back instead of going on over it—the man or woman who does that, is wronging the children to a degree that no other human being can wrong them. If you are worth your salt and want your children to be worth their salt, teach them that the life that is not a life of work and effort is worthless, a curse to—the man or woman leading it, a curse to those around him or her. Teach the boys that if they are ever to count in the world they will count not by flinching from difficulties, but by warring with and overcoming them. What utter scorn one feels for those who seek only the life of ease; the life passed in dexterous effort to avoid all angular comers, to avoid being put in the places where a strong man by blood and sweat and toil and risk wins triumph! What a wretched life is the life of the man passed in endeavoring to shirk his share of the burden laid upon him in this world! And it makes no difference whether that man is a man of inherited wealth or one who has to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow; it is equally ignoble in either case. What is true of the individual is true of the nation. The man who counts is not the man who dodges work, but he who goes out into life rejoicing as a strong man to run a race, girding himself for the effort, bound to win and wrest triumph from difficulty and disaster.

So it is with our Nation. No nation which has bound itself only to do easy things ever yet amounted to anything, ever yet came to anything throughout the ages. We have become a great people. At the threshold of this twentieth century we stand with the future looming large before us. We face great problems within and great problems without. We cannot if we would refuse to face those problems. All we can decide is whether we will do them well or ill; for the refusal to face them would itself mean that we were doing them ill. We are in the arena into which great nations must come. We must play our part. It rests with us to decide that we shall not play it ignobly; that we shall not flinch from the great problems that there are to do, but that we shall take our place in the forefront of the great nations and face each problem of the day with confident and resolute hope.

Theodore Roosevelt, Address to the Minnesota Legislature in St. Paul Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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