Remarks in Aberdeen, South Dakota
I appreciate deeply your having come out to greet me this evening. All day I have been traveling through your beautiful State, and now I have come to your city in the heart of the wheat belt, and the more I have seen the firmer my conviction has been that South Dakota not only grows first class products of the farm; that she not only is great in stock raising, but that she does what is better still—produces the right type of men and women. That is what really counts. We have to have a foundation deep and broad of material prosperity. Without that foundation, we cannot build the superstructure of lofty national life, but we must build that superstructure on it; and passing through your State today nothing has struck me more than the frequency of the colleges, academies, high schools, and the little schools out on the prairie. You are getting the right type of citizenship. I speak to pioneers, the sons of pioneers, and those who have come in just after them and have had to share in the roughness of pioneer life; and we must never forget that much though there is due to the pioneer, almost as much, quite as much in the end, is due to the educator, the schoolteacher, the clergyman, who came out here to help to build up the higher life.
To make a good citizen, more than one quality is needed. In the first place—in speaking to an audience like this you can take it for granted. that you have got the basic quality of strength—strength, hardihood, courage, and qualities that make a man. This is not a place for weaklings. No weak or timid man could have come out here and out of the prairie have carved this commonwealth. It was necessary to have men to do the work in this state; but that is not enough. In addition to being men, if you are not decent men you will make but a poor fist of the government. Decency will not avail without strength, and neither will strength avail without decency. Mere cunning, mere craft, mere smartness, if unbalanced by the moral sense, make the man a curse to himself and his neighbors. The rugged virtues that make a man are indispensable, but in addition to them, hand in hand with them, have got to go the virtues that make a man a good man in private life, a decent neighbor, a man with whom it is safe to do business, and a man who does his duty by the state.
There is not a royal road to good citizenship, to doing well in public life, any more than there is a royal road to learning. What you need in public life and private life alike is to possess the old, work-a-day, ordinary virtues that we read about when we were children and wrote about in the copybooks, but do not always remember when we grow older. In managing the state, in managing the nation, fundamentally, we need just the qualities that are necessary in the home, or in business. People will speak to you saying that there is some patent device by which the state or the nation can do something that will make everybody happy and prosperous. It is not so. What the nation can do, or the state can do, is to have such laws enacted and have them so administered that each man shall have the best possible chance to exercise his qualities, to show the stuff that there is in him. And if there is not any stuff in him it cannot be brought out. No law that the wit of man has ever devised, or ever will devise, can make a fool wise, or a weakling strong, or a coward brave. A man has got to develop the qualities of courage, of honesty, of strength of purpose, of will, of power for effort. He has got to develop them from within. There is not. any law that can put them into him from without. He has got to have those in him and develop them, and then the laws can be so shaped as to give the fairest and fullest chance for these qualities to show their effects. Something can be done by the law; something can be done by each of us in relation to the others.
There is not a man here, not one of us, who does not sometimes slip, sometimes stumble. There is not one of us who does not sometimes need to have a helping hand stretched out to him; and shame to anyone of us who, on such an occasion, fails to stretch out his hand to his brother who has slipped or fallen. But if a man lies down you cannot carry him. You can help him up if he stumbles, but he has got to have the desire to walk or he will be down again. All that the law can do is to smooth the path somewhat for the man who is willing and anxious to walk.
During the last few years We have had great prosperity. If the hand of the Lord is heavy upon us, if there comes drought or freshet, if there comes pestilence or some other form of evil with which our finite human powers can but struggle ill, then disaster will come upon the best of us, for ever since the days when the tower of Siloam fell, disaster has fallen too often alike on the deserving and on the undeserving—but under Providence prosperity can come and will come to us if we keep a system of law and administration which will enable us to do good work, and then what is more important by far if we do the good work our selves. It is easy enough by bad legislation, by bad laws, to put a stop to all chance of prosperity. Good laws can give the chance to develop it, and that is all. If the business world turns crazy, if it loses its head, it has lost what no legislation can supply. All that can be done is to do as we have done, to have such a financial system, to have such an economic system, especially under the tariff, as to give the best chance to our people; and then my abiding faith in the American people is, given that chance, that they themselves will take advantage of it.
I have been glad today to meet the men and women of Dakota, and the children, and I congratulate you on the quality and quantity of them.
This is a first class stock and I do not want to see it die out; and I believe you are free from the danger here.
In closing let me try to impress upon every man in his dealings with public affairs that you need just the same kind of qualities in a public servant that you need in a neighbor, in a friend, in a member of your household. For one thing you want any man with whom you have dealings to keep his word. If he will always tell the truth, you can pardon some other shortcomings, because you know where you are. It is just as unpardonable to promise anything on the stump and not keep the promise, as to promise it off the stump and not keep it. And the man should be held to the same rugged accountability for doing it. Now there is another side to that. You must not ask him to promise what, if he is a sensible man, he knows cannot be done. If you are dealing at a store you have got a right that the man with whom you are dealing shall promise you a good quality of goods and deliver them, and you are a fool if you deal with him when he has broken his word. But if you permit yourself to be led away by the man who · promises what now he cannot give, if he is a straight man, then you are to blame if you are disappointed. If you demand in a public man that he promise the millennium you can guarantee that he will never be able to meet your expectation. The millennium is some way off. The world is getting better, but it has got a long way to travel before it becomes perfect. You need in public life, as you need in private life, the qualities that you prize in the home, the qualities that you prize among your neighbors with whom you do business. And those qualities when you get them all sifted down can be resolved into three. In the first place, decency and honesty. It does not make any difference how smart a man is, if he is not a square man his smartness makes him a curse to all about him. It has always seemed to me a distressing thing to hear among our people a certain admiration of mere smartness, unbalanced by any moral sense. All of you know men of whom some one will say that while they are not quite straight they are dreadfully smart. That type of man is a poor creature, and the man who admires him is a poor creature. You cannot afford, if you wish to retain your self-respect, to admire any man who has not the root of decency in him. But that is not enough. I do not care how honest a man is, or how upright he is, if he is afraid he is no good. If he has not got pluck, hardihood, courage, you can do nothing with him. Look back in your own experience. You wanted decent men in the state, but no man, I do not care how decent he was, if he had been afraid he could not have come into this state and built it up; he could not have stood the pioneer days. With honesty we must have courage. And honesty and courage by themselves are not enough. I do not care how brave a man is, nor how honest he is, if he is a natural born fool you can do nothing with him. With honesty and courage must go the saving grace of common sense, intelligence, power to think, power to work, power to make the best of circumstances that arise.
I am glad to have seen you, and I think when I have been describing the qualities of good citizenship, I have been describing them to an audience that has more than its fair share of them.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks in Aberdeen, South Dakota Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343411