Remarks in La Crosse, Wisconsin
Mr. Mayor, men and women of Wisconsin:
Let me at the outset state to you that, after listening to the vivid description of the Senator as to how I shoot and ride, I am bound that you of Wisconsin shall never have the chance to see for yourselves. I would far rather that you should take his word for it. I am glad indeed to have the chance of coming through your great State, in the heart of the country, a state peculiarly typical of the great republic, in its diversity of occupation, its diversity of stock within its limits, and its absolute unity in patriotic feeling and purpose.
I am sure that the rest of you whom I greet so heartily will not grudge my saying a word of special greeting to those to whom all Americans owe more than to any other set of our people who ever have been on this continent, the men who from '1 to '65 proved their truth by their endeavor, whose conscience and heart rang true on war's red touchstone.
You, the men of the great war, taught by your example what to do in war, and you, my comrades, the men of the lesser war in '98, the men who went to Porto Rico or Cuba or the Philippines, speaking on behalf of you, I want to say to the veterans that while we did not have a big job to do, we did it at any rate. We in that war suffered from a complaint that you did not suffer from at all, there was not enough war to go 'round. You didn't have any such difficulty. You not only taught us the lessons of war, but you taught us the lessons of peace. It is an awfully good thing for a man to be brought into contact with his fellowmen on terms which are reduced down to the elemental basis of things.
In ordinary life we are so apt to be divided by artificial distances. Our lives are so hemmed around that we often do not have the chance to test a man on his worth as a man. You, who fought in the great war, had to judge your comrades by the stuff there was in them. You remember the marches, when, at 10 o'clock, the blanket was too heavy, and if you were a raw recruit, you threw it away, and in about twelve hours it was too light.
You knew what it was to toil, footsore and weary, under the blazing heat of the southern sun; you knew what it was to lie in the trenches in the frozen mud of winter; you faced death by bullets, death on the fever cot of the hospital; you saw the brightest and the bravest around you shed their blood like water for the sake of an ideal; you did all that, and you knew what was the test you applied to the men around you. Little you cared whether they came from one state or another. Little you cared what their creed was; little you cared whether their ancestors had come to this country two centuries and a half ago, or whether they themselves had been born on the other side, but came over here and proved as you did, by their valor, their loyalty to their adopted flag. You cared for none of these things, they were not the essentials; what you cared for was whether the man had the right fiber in him. You wanted to know that when the order was given to move he would move in the right direction; that was what you were concerned with then.
It is just the same in citizenship now; what we need as never before in this country, if we are to make, as we assuredly shall and will make, our scheme of government a success, what we need to keep ever be fore us is the fact that any distinction is artificial which divides one man from his fellow. It is just as wicked, no matter from which stand point the line of division is drawn, whether it is from a standpoint of those who look down with arrogance upon the less well off, or from the standpoint of those who regard with mean envy and rancor and hate others who are better off. In every case is the feeling unworthy of the citizens of a great republic, one worthy of the heirs of the spirit of Washington, of Lincoln, and of Grant.
We have a right to demand that each man shall do his duty by his neighbor and his state; beyond that it is not our affair. Let him manage his own private business as he wishes, so long as he infringes no right of anyone else. Let him lead his private life as he desires; it is not our concern, provided only that he is a square and decent man, who wrongs no one and does his duty in peace and war, and that is the common sense spirit of Americanism.
That common sense spirit can be applied in more ways than one when an appeal is made to any set of our people to do something wrong in their own interest. It would be well for them to remember what is almost always implied in the character of a man who asks you to do something that is not quite straight, when he says it will be for your benefit. Let me tell you a short story.
A number of years ago I myself lived far west of here, out on the plains, a cow puncher, and by the way it is curious what relative terms east and west are. I lived out on the Little Missouri in those days and at the end of one season one of the punchers came to me and said: "Boss, I would like my time." I said, "What are you going to do ?" He said, "I am going to spend the winter in the far east." I said, "What do you mean by the far east, Norway or Nubia ?" He said, "No, Duluth." Duluth represented to him the most eastern point of the horizon.
You know in a cow country in those days, and to a slight extent still, there were no fences, and the cowboy and the branding iron took the place of them, and the way you kept up your herd was that the calf was branded with the brand of the cow. Mavericks were unbranded yearlings, or well grown calves, and people of not over sensitive honesty would put a brand on them that did not indicate the cow. One day when I was out riding with a cow puncher we struck a cow and a pretty well grown calf. He got down his rope and tied it down and as he took the cinch ring made a fire and heated it and started to run on the brand. I said: "Hello, you are putting on my brand; this is a Thistle cow." He said: "That's all right." I said: "I don't know about that; what do you mean? Oh, I see; now come back to the ranch and get your time." He said: "I was running on your brand." I said: "Yes, but if you will steal for me you will steal from me."
That's a pretty safe rule to go on. If a man will do something crooked and ask you to back him on the ground that it will turn out to your advantage, he will do something crooked to your harm if the chance comes.
In public life and in private life no country can afford in the long run to tolerate any standard but absolute honesty of fair dealing as between man and man, neighbor and neighbor, and in the long run the most useful kind of politics is the kind of politics that teaches each man and set of men to demand justice, to be satisfied with no less than justice, but to do justice also.
So it is, gentlemen, in the field of international societies. Our republic has to take a great place in the world. It cannot help it. We have had worthy citizens during the last few years who have felt reluctant about our republic going out into the world to do its duty. It cannot be helped. If you are a big nation you have got to play a big nation's part.
You can play it badly if you want to, but you have got to play it well or badly one way or the other, and I think I know you too well for you not to desire to see it played well. Let us play it manfully; but courteously and fairly. Let us scrupulously refrain from wronging the weak, and see to it that we are not wronged by the strong. Let us remember that boasting, speaking ill of our neighbors, is just as offensive in a nation as in an individual.
Here in your own community, among your own friends, on the farms, in the shops, in business, in all the ways of life, you despise a man who cannot take his own part. It is not worth taking, and you will a good deal more than despise him if he oppresses others; you dislike him as well as despise him if he is quarrelsome and always speaking ill of his neighbors and inviting trouble.
It is just the same in international affairs. I want to see our public men and our writers in the press make the point of speaking courteously of other nations; of refraining from any expression that will invite trouble; of remembering that nobody likes to have disagreeable things said of him; that this country is growing so big that what its people say is read abroad, and that therefore it is wise and it is decent not to use language that will hurt other people's feelings upon any question of our foreign policy. Let me quote again my favorite proverb: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far."
Remember that this country wants peace; we are honorable, desirous of peace with all the nations of mankind, we wish them well. Let us treat them with the spirit of scrupulous fair dealing, do everything we can to avoid trouble and then keep ourselves in such shape that it will be mighty poor policy for anyone to have trouble with us. Now is not that sound common sense ?
In closing just let me say one word of thanks to all of you for coming out to greet me, to you veterans of the great war, to my comrades who furnished the guard today, let me here have the chance of thanking, as I will never have the chance otherwise, the members of the local Brotherhood of Engineers for the greeting they conveyed and bouquet of flowers they sent me through their representative, Mr. Russell.
We all of us are under a debt to the railroad men, among other things for the fact that they furnished one of the members of the anthracite strike commission, whose report, I feel, marks as good a bit of work as has-been done in our country towards settling one of the gravest problems that, as a nation, we have before us. Let me thank all of you, and say how glad I am to see you, and, in particular, how glad I have been to see the children. They seem to be all right in quality, and all right in quantity, and, as I think very highly of you, I should be mighty sorry if I thought the stock were dying out.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks in La Crosse, Wisconsin Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343405