Remarks at Capitol Park in Birmingham, Alabama
I wish to say that I am stirred most deeply by this magnificent reception from what Mr. Rhodes has so well called the Magic City of the South. No American worthy of the name would fail to be stirred with patriotism as he comes into your magnificent State, into this magnificent city. Alabama has made a wonderful record. At the close of the war, shattered, war swept, it seemed that it was impossible for her people, in the grip of poverty as they were, to rally; and any people less strong than you of Alabama would have failed, but you had the stuff in you and you succeeded.
About the year 1880 the tide turned, and the last quarter of a century has seen in Alabama a progress that would have been absolutely impossible in any other age or in any other nation than ours. The agriculture of the State went upward by leaps and bounds; but even more marvelous was your mechanical and industrial progress. You have here in your State coal and iron, the two basic elements in modern industrialism, and you have also a wealth of water power only partially used, and given that amount of natural resources and the right type of man to use them the result is what we have seen. But, my friends, there is something that is ahead of any kind of natural resources, and that is the citizenship of the men on the soil, and I want to say that, proud though I am of your extraordinary industrial prosperity, I am prouder yet of the men who have achieved it.
Now, think what it means to have the President of the United States greeted as he has been today, with, on his right and his left hand, as a guard of honor, the veterans of the Civil War—the men who wore the blue, the men who wore the gray—united to honor me. Old men of the great war, I have some of my comrades of the lesser war here to greet me also.
Our war was not a very big war, but it was all the war there was, and we had to do the best we could with it, and all we hope is that we showed ourselves not altogether unworthy of you of the mighty days. For instance, in my regiment (the last time we passed through this State I was with my regiment), in that regiment I had, I believe, more men whose fathers wore the gray than I had of those whose fathers wore the blue, and almost all the fathers wore one or the other. And those men were united together with but one rivalry to see which could do best for the flag of our common country.
And what a heritage is ours! Here, after one of the greatest wars of all time, we are left, what was left by no other war, the right for the children of those who fought on both sides to feel the keenest pride alike in the deeds of the men who followed Grant and in the deeds of the men who followed Lee, so long as each man did all that in him lay to prove the truth by his endeavor, to show that at the call of the nation, at the call of duty, he was willing to lay down everything—life itself—for the right as God gave him to see the right.
I have said a word now of special greeting to the veterans—the men in blue and gray are entitled to the right of the line. Now I want to travel down to the other end and say a word to the children. I appreciate all of Alabama's progress, appreciate all of Alabama's crops, but the best Alabama crop is the crop of Alabama children.
As I said once before today, I like your stock and am glad it is not dying out. As I came up the street nothing pleased me so much as the school children drawn up alongside the line of march. We must remember that we leave this country in the hands of the children of today, and that the American of tomorrow will be what we train the boy or girl to be.
Of course, gentlemen, it is a mere truism to say that the state, in the last analysis, depends upon the quality of its average citizenship. If the average man is a straight and decent man, a man of clean private life—a good husband, a good father—tender to those dependent upon him; able to do his civic duty, able if the need should arise to do his duty in war also; if the average woman is sweet and true, and wise and tender—a good wife, a good mother—that states goes up, and if we haven't got that quality of private citizenship, no material welfare, no glitter of material wealth, will amount to anything.
I believe in the future of America, because I believe that the average American man, and the average American woman, is sound at heart and that therefore we can count with safety upon ultimately solving aright the many and difficult problems with which we are brought face to face.
Now, it is equally a truism to say that if the children are not well educated, if they are not brought up as they should be, the state will go down. We of this generation have received a splendid heritage from you men of the years from '61 to '65. Honor will not endure with us if we treat your great deeds as excuses for our own idleness or folly.
I will be through now in just two minutes more. I would like to stay here indefinitely, but the trouble is I am having such a good time everywhere that I want to stay longer than I can anywhere.
And therefore, the future of the state depends upon the kind of child that today is being trained up to be the man of the future. When I speak of education, I do not mean education in intelligence. That counts tremendously; but I tell you what counts more, and that is education in character. It is character that determines the nation's progress in the long run. You know that—you of the Civil War that was what counted. When the time of trial came, with the man on your right hand, or on your left, you were not so much concerned with how much he knew, as you were with whether he had the right stuff in him. Isn't that so? You wanted to be sure that when the order was given to move forward he moved in the right direction. Isn't that so? Now, let us be sure the child moves in the right direction. You cannot put it all off on the teacher; if the father and mother neglect their duties the teacher can only partially make the loss good.
Finally, and in closing, my friends, let me draw one more lesson from the Civil War; from the experience of the men of the Civil War. In our growing industrialism, there are certain to be some people who grow wealthy and arrogant, and other people who become envious because they do not grow wealthy. Now, I ask each American citizen in civil life to take example by the organizations of Union and Con federate veterans. Each man in the Civil War, when men's souls were really tried, found that in reference to his comrade, he could say but one thing, and that was that comrade's worth as a man; that's what concerned him, and nothing else. And now in the organization of the veterans after the Civil War each hails the other as comrade. It makes no difference whether the man was a lieutenant general or whether he was the youngest recruit that served at the very end of the war. All that is asked is, Did he do his duty? If he did, you are for him. If he did not, you have no comradeship with him.
I ask that the same lesson that you of the Civil War applied practically in your persons during and since that war be applied by the rest of us in civil life. I ask that we scorn alike the base arrogance of the rich man who would look down on his poorer brother, and the equally base envy of the poor man who would hate his richer brother; and that you apply to every citizen of this republic just this one test, the test that gauges his worth as a man. Does he do his duty fairly by himself, his family, his neighbor, and the State and nation? If he does, be for him, whether he is rich or poor, because if you are not you are recreant to the spirit of Americanism.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at Capitol Park in Birmingham, Alabama Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343657