Remarks Before the National Educational Association in Ocean Grove, New Jersey
I am glad to have the chance of greeting the National Educational Association, for in all this democratic land there is no more genuinely democratic association than this. It is truly democratic, because here each member meets every other member as his peer without regard to whether he is the president of one of the great universities or the newest recruit to that high and honorable profession which has in its charge the upbringing and training of those boys and girls who in a few short years will themselves be settling the destinies of this nation. It is not too much to say that the most characteristic work of the republic is done by the educators, for whatever our short-comings as a nation may be, we have at least firmly grasped the fact that we cannot do our part in the difficult and all-important work of self-government; that we cannot rule and govern ourselves unless we approach the task with developed minds and trained characters. You teachers make the whole world your debtor. If you did not do your work well this Republic would not endure beyond the span of the generation. Moreover, as an incident to your avowed work, you render some well-nigh unbelievable services to the country. For instance, you render to the Republic the prime, the vital service of amalgamating into one homogeneous body the children alike of those who are born here and of those who come here from so many different lands abroad. You furnish a common training and common ideals for the children of all the mixed peoples who are here being fused into one nationality. It is in no small degree due to you and your efforts that we are one people instead of a group of jarring peoples.
Moreover, where altogether too much prominence is given to the mere possession of wealth, the country is under heavy obligations to such a body as this, which substitutes for the ideal of accumulating money the infinitely loftier, nonmaterialistic ideal of devotion to work worth doing simply for that work's sake. I do not in the least underestimate the need of having material prosperity as the basis of our civilization, but I most earnestly insist if our civilization does not build a lofty superstructure on this basis, we can never rank among the really great peoples. A certain amount of money is, of course, a necessary thing, as much for the nation as for the individual; and there are few movements in which I more thoroughly believe than in the movement to secure better remuneration for our teachers. But, after all, the service you render is incalculable, because of the very fact that by your lives you show that you believe ideals to be worth sacrifice, and that you are splendidly eager to do nonremunerative work if this work is of good to your fellow men.
To furnish in your lives such a realized high ideal is to do a great service to the country. The chief harm done by the men of swollen fortune to the community is not the harm that the demagogue is apt to depict as springing from their actions, but the fact that their success sets up a false standard, and so serves as a bad example for the rest of us. If we did not ourselves attach an exaggerated importance to the rich man who is distinguished only by his riches, this rich man would have a most insignificant influence over us. It is generally our own fault if he does damage to us, for he damages us chiefly by arousing our envy or by rendering us sour and discontented.
In his actual business relation he is much more apt to benefit than harm the rest of us; and though it is eminently right to take whatever steps are necessary in order to prevent the exceptional members of his class from doing harm, it is wicked folly to let ourselves be drawn into any attack upon the man of wealth merely as such. Moreover, such an attack is in itself an exceptionally crooked and ugly tribute to wealth, and, therefore, the proof of an exceptionally ugly and crooked state of mind in the man making the attack. Venomous envy of wealth is simply another form of the spirit which in one of its manifestations takes the shape of cringing servility toward wealth, and in another the shape of brutal arrogance on the part of certain men of wealth. Each one of these states of mind, whether it be hatred, servility, or arrogance, is in reality closely akin to the other two; for each of them springs from a fantastically twisted and exaggerated idea of the importance of wealth as compared to other things. The clamor of the demagogue against wealth, the snobbery of the social columns of the newspapers which deal with the doings of the wealthy, and the misconduct of those men of wealth who act with brutal disregard of the rights of others, seem superficially to have no fundamental relations; yet in reality they spring from shortcomings which are fundamentally the same; and one of these shortcomings is the failure to have proper ideals.
This failure must be remedied in large part by the actions of you and your fellow teachers, your fellow educators throughout this land. By your lives, no less than by your teachings, you show that while you regard wealth as a good thing, you regard other things as still better.
It is absolutely necessary to earn a certain amount of money; it is a man's first duty to those dependent upon him to earn enough for their support; but after a certain point has been reached money-making can never stand on the same plane with other and nobler forms of effort. The roll of American worthies numbers men like Washington and Lincoln, Grant and Farragut, Hawthorne and Poe, Fulton and Morse, St. Gaudens and MacMonnies; it numbers statesmen and soldiers, men of letters, artists, sculptors, men of science, inventors, explorers, roadmakers, bridge builders, philanthropists, moral leaders in great reforms; it numbers men who have deserved well in any one of countless fields of activity; but of rich men it numbers only those who have used their riches aright, who have treated wealth not as an end, but as a means, who have shown good conduct in acquiring it, and not merely lavish generosity in disposing of it.
Thrice fortunate are you to whom it is given to lead lives of resolute endeavor for the achievement of lofty ideals, and, furthermore, to instill, both by your lives and by your teachings, these ideals into the minds of those who in the next generation will, as the men and women of that generation, determine the position which this nation will hold in the history of mankind.
In closing I want to speak to you of how certain things, some of which have happened, and some of which have been suggested to me by what has happened in the past week, emphasize what I have said to you as to the importance to this country of having within its limits men who put the realization of high ideals above any form of money making.
Within a week this country has lost a great statesman, who was also a great man of letters, a man who occupied a peculiar and unique position in our country, a man of whose existence we could each of us be proud, for the United States as a whole was better because John Hay lived. John Hay entered the public service as a young man just come of age, as the secretary of President Lincoln. He served in the war and was a member of the Loyal Legion. He was trusted by and was intimate with Lincoln as hardly any other man was. He then went on rendering service after service, and always able—this was one of his great advantages and great merits—at any moment to go to private life unless he could continue in public life on his own terms.
He went on rendering service after service to the country until as the climax of his career he served as Secretary of State under two successive administrations, and by what he did and by what he was contributed in no small degree to achieving for this Republic the respect of the nations of mankind. Such service as that could not have been rendered save by a man who had before him ideals as far apart as the poles from those ideals which have in them any taint of what is base or sordid.
Now, I wished to secure as John Hay's successor the man whom I regard, of all the men of the country, as the one best fitted to be such successor. In asking him to accept the position of Secretary of State I was asking him to submit to a very great pecuniary sacrifice, and I never even thought of that aspect of the question, for I knew he would not, either. I knew that whatever other considerations he had to weigh, for and against taking the position, the consideration of how it would affect his personal fortune would not be taken into account by Elihu Root, and he has accepted.
I am not speaking of Hay and Root as solitary exceptions. On the contrary, I am speaking of them as typical of a large class of men in public life.
Even when we hear so much criticism of certain aspects of our public life and of certain of our public servants, criticism which I regret to state is in many cases deserved, it is well for us to remember also the other side of the picture, to remember that here in America we now have, and always have had at the command of the nation in any crisis, in any emergency, the very best ability to be found within the nation, and that ability has been given with the utmost freedom, given lavishly and generously, although at great pecuniary loss to the man giving it.
There is not in my Cabinet a man to whom it is not a financial disadvantage to stay in the Cabinet. There is not in my Cabinet one man who does not have to give up something substantial, often much that is substantial, sometimes what is a very real hardship for him to give up, in order that he may continue in the service of the Nation and have the only reward for which he looks or for which he cares, the consciousness of having done service that was worth rendering. I hope more and more throughout this nation to see the spirit grow which makes such service possible. I hope more and more to see the sentiment of the country as a whole become such that each man shall feel borne in on him, whether he is in public life or in private life and, mind you, some of the greatest public services can be best rendered by those who are not in public life—that the chance to do good work is the greatest chance that can come to any man or any woman in our generation or in any other generation, and to feel that if such work can be well done it is in itself the amplest reward and the amplest prize.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks Before the National Educational Association in Ocean Grove, New Jersey Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343647