Remarks at a Luncheon in New Orleans, Louisiana
Governor, Mr. Mayor, and fellow citizens:
Let me at the outset express to you my profound gratitude, my deep appreciation of the way in which the people of New Orleans and Louisiana have greeted me today. Gentlemen, no President of the United States could have been greeted as I have been greeted today and not go back to take up the duties of his office with a stronger and more earnest purpose to try to represent all the splendid people whom he serves. And, Governor, as you have so well said, when a man is President, when he holds any public office, questions of merely partisan character sink into absolute insignificance compared with the mighty questions upon which all good Americans are united.
And now, gentlemen, as you have greeted me so well, you have given me the opportunity to indulge myself in a luxury. There have been moments in the past when I was afraid of saying how well I thought of the Senators and Representatives in the National Congress from Louisiana, for fear I might damage them. I did not know but that, may be, the best service I could do them was to keep still. Now I am emboldened by your generous kindness and confidence to say that it has been indeed a pleasure to deal with Louisiana's representatives in the Senate and in the lower House of Congress, because whenever I had to do with a great question of national importance I could go to them convinced that if I could show them it was really for the good of the nation they would stand for it.
Now that's all I ask. Sometimes I couldn't make them look at things my way; that was my misfortune. But all I had to do was to be able to show them that any measure was for the country's good and I knew they would stand for it; I don't want any Senator or Congressman to vote for anything I favor just because I favor it, but I don't want him to vote against it just because I favor it. And there were certain very worthy men in both Houses of Congress who insistently went against the realization of their most cherished objects in the past, as soon as I took them up. Now, from the Representatives of Louisiana I was sure of support, whether it was a question of building up and keeping at a high point of efficiency the United States navy, or whether it was a question of building the Panama Canal. And, mind you, gentlemen the two questions go together.
One thing that, as President of this country, I won't do, is to make a bluff that I can't make good. I don't intend on behalf of the nation to take any position until I have carefully thought out whether that position will be advantageous to the nation, but if I take it, I am going to keep it, and I am going to keep it no matter what outsider goes the other way.
And I am sure that you, gentlemen, know it has been an utter mistake to think of me as a man desirous of seeing this nation quarrelsome, this nation eager to get into trouble. I have no respect either for the nation or for the individual that brawls, that invites trouble, and I want to see this nation do as the individual men in the nation who would respect themselves, should do, scrupulously regardful of the rights of others and honestly endeavoring to avoid all cause of difficulty. But I want, on behalf of this nation, the peace that comes not to the coward, who cringes for it, but the peace of the just man armed, who asks it as a right.
And now, listening to the greeting of the Governor and the Mayor, this afternoon, I felt at once very proud and very humble. I have been greeted with words far above my worth, far above what is merited by what I have done. I didn't say that for the purpose of asking your dissent from it. I don't say anything unless I mean it.
I came down to see this body of men this afternoon with a heart full of gratitude to them for having displayed, through the trials of the hard summer that has past, those qualities of heroism which we like to think of as distinctly American. And, gentlemen, in coming among you this afternoon I have the feeling of a man who, having been at headquarters, but not in action, goes to see a regiment that has been in action.
I know that you gentlemen, Governor, and Mayor, at any time during the past summer had but to request my presence and I would have come down here at once, at any time when I could have been of the slightest assistance to you in the magnificent struggle you were waging. And I wish to express the profound appreciation and gratitude of all Americans toward you, our fellow Americans, who have borne the heat and burden of the contest during the long day that has been passing. And I want to say that in actual war there can be no greater and more effective heroism than was shown by those who stayed here at their posts, and by those who, being away, came back to aid in the fight of their fellows in distress. You have had your martyrs, among them my dear, lamented friend, Archbishop Chapelle, but you have your proud memories of service rendered, and the thrill that comes with the victory you have already won, and I have been both amused and irritated at the comments sometimes made by people who live in other communities that were not in danger.
As to your shortcomings: Among the younger men are some who, when younger still, have played football, and they will remember how very much easier it was to play the game from the side lines than on the field. Now, Louisiana and New Orleans this summer did what, so far as I remember, has never been done before in the case of a similar epidemic of yellow fever in the United States. They took told of it after it had started, and when it had got well under way, and they controlled and conquered it without waiting for frost to come. The highest gratitude is due to the officials of the State, to the officials of the city, and to the private individuals, clergymen, educators, and business men who spent their time and money and risked their lives freely in that work, and who achieved much success in that work. It was the greatest privilege to me to contribute what I was able to the work.
Mr. Mayor, Governor, you can hardly realize the pleasure I felt when a request was made upon me that gave the chance to do something for you, and I am glad to find how well you think of the work that was done by the United States Public Health and Marine Hospital Service under Dr. White.
Now, just a word; it is getting late. Just a word on a couple of subjects. The Governor spoke of the Panama Canal. It's a very big work, and it's a very big nation that can do that kind of work. I expect soon to have a report from the engineers as to the exact shape the work will take. I will then be able to make more definite forecasts as to time, but of this I can assure you, the work will be done well; it will be done as speedily as possible and will absolutely and surely be done.
One more point. New Orleans and Louisiana are vitally interested in the levee system. The Mississippi, which flows through this State, drains portions of twenty-odd other States, and the control of that river must, in my opinion, be in good part a national object. The national government now does something toward the erection and care of the levees. In my judgment it should do not only more, but very much more.
And, finally, my friends, let me say a word of special duty to some of those who have greeted me today, because of what their greeting symbolized. I was greeted by your school children, who stood around the monument erected to that pure and upright man and that mighty general, Robert E. Lee. And as we drove away from the square in which that statue stands, we passed by a house in this old Confederate city in which there was prominently displayed a picture of Abraham Lincoln and underneath it the words, "With Malice Toward None, With Charity Toward All."
I was greeted by a special guard of honor, composed of men who in the great war had worn the Confederate uniform. I was also greeted by men who in that war had worn the blue. I saw among them many of my comrades of the lesser war, and I had in my own regiment, as well as from many other States, men whose fathers had worn the blue, all united forever in loyalty to one indissoluble Union, and separated only by the rivalry of trying to see which could do the most for the flag of our common country.
Oh, my fellow countrymen, think what a fortune is ours, that we belong to this nation, which, having fought one of the mightiest wars of all times, is now united and claimed by the whole people as their own; claimed as their heritage of honor and glory, and exulting in every deed of valor performed by the very man who stood on which ever side in that contest, provided only that when the days came which tried men's souls he did all that was in him, did his duty according to the light that was given him.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at a Luncheon in New Orleans, Louisiana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343651