Remarks at a Meeting of the American Tract Society
Mr. Justice, Mr. Schick, and you my fellow members of this congregation, and our guests who are with us today:
I am glad, on behalf of this church, to say amen to the appeal that has been made by Dr. Swift on behalf of the great society to the account of whose work you have been listening. Mr. Justice, you quoted the advice of a poet, "To be doers rather than dreamers." In the Book of all Books there is a sentence to the same effect, "Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only." Let us show ourselves today doers of the Word, upholders in fact of what has been preached to us by Dr. Swift.
He has set forth the needs of the society, and he has set forth the great field over which it works. I wish to touch only on a small portion of that field, but, after all, the portion that most concerns us—the need here at home, here in this country of furthering in every way the work of the society, the work of all kindred societies, both among the native born and among the thousands who come to these shores from abroad. And there is a peculiar propriety in such an appeal being made to this church, for, as I have said here before, this church more than most others should ever keep before it as part of its duty, as one of the chief parts of its duty, that of caring in all ways, but especially in spiritual ways, for the people who come to us from abroad.
The United States government does endeavor to do its duty by the immigrants who come to these shores, and I was glad, Dr. Swift, to listen to what you said as to the work that is being done on Ellis Island, for it is a just tribute to that work. But unless people have had some experience with the dangers and difficulties surrounding the newly arrived immigrant they can hardly realize how great they are. The immigrant comes here almost unprotected; he does not, as a rule, know our language; he is wholly unfamiliar with our institutions, our customs, our habits of life and ways of thought; and there are, I am sorry to say, great numbers of evil and wicked people who hope to make their livelihood by preying on him. He is exposed to innumerable temptations, innumerable petty oppressions, on almost every hand; and unless someone is on hand to help him he literally has no idea where to turn. No greater work can be done by a philanthropic or religious society than to stretch out the helping hand to the man and the woman who come here to this country to become citizens and the parents of citizens, and therefore do their part in making up, for weal or for woe, the future of our land. If we do not take care of them, if we do not try to uplift them, then as sure as fate our own children will pay the penalty. If we do not see that the immigrant and the children of the immigrant are raised up, most assuredly the result will be that our children and children's children are pulled down. The level of well-being in this country will be a level for all of us. We cannot keep that level down for a part and not have it sunk more or less for the whole. If we raise it for a part we shall raise it to a certain extent for the whole. Therefore, it means much, not merely to the immigrants, but to every good American that there should be at Ellis Island the colporteurs of this society and the representatives of other religious and philanthropic societies, to try to care for the immigrant's body, and above all to try to care for the immigrant's soul.
It is, of course, unnecessary to say that the things of the body must be cared for; that the first duty of any man, especially the man who has others dependent upon him, is to take care of them and to take care of himself. Nobody can help others if he begins. by being a burden to others. Each man must be able to pull his own weight, to carry his own weight, and therefore, each man must show the capacity to earn for himself and his family enough to secure a certain amount of material well-being. That must be the foundation. But on that foundation he must build as a superstructure the spiritual life.
One of the best things done by this society and by kindred religious and benevolent societies is supplying in our American life of to-day the proper ideals. It is a good thing to have had the extraordinary material prosperity which has followed so largely on the extraordinary scientific discoveries alluded to by Justice Brewer, if we use this material prosperity aright. It is not a good thing, it is a bad thing, if we treat it as the be-all and end-all of our life. If we make it the only ideal before the nation, if we permit the people of this republic to get before their minds the view that material well-being carried to an ever higher degree is the one and only thing to be striven for, we are laying up for ourselves not merely trouble but ruin. I, too, feel the faith and hope that have been expressed here to-day by the vice-president and the secretary of the society, but I so feel because I believe we shall not permit mere material well-being to become the only ideal of this nation, because I believe that more and more we shall accustom ourselves to looking at the great fortunes accumulated by certain men as being nothing in themselves either to admire or envy or to deplore, save as they are used well or ill. If the great fortune is used well, if the man who has accumulated it has the strength necessary to resist the temptations either to use it wrongfully, or, what is nearly as bad, not to use it right—for. negation may be almost as harmful as positive wrong doing—he is entitled to the praise due to whoever employs great powers for the common good. If the man who accumulates that great fortune uses it ill or does not use it well, then, so far from being an object of envy, still less an object of admiration, he should take his place among those whom we condemn and pity—for usually, if we have the root of the matter in us, we will pity those we condemn. If he uses it aright, then he is entitled to our admiration, our respect, exactly as every man is entitled to it if he has special talents for the welfare of the people as a whole, for the uplifting of mankind.
Wonderful changes have come in the last half century. It may well be, as Mr. Justice Brewer has said, that we tremble on the verge of still greater changes in the future. The railway, the telegraph, the telephone, steam, electricity, all the marvelous mechanical inventions of these last five decades, have changed much in the superficial aspect of the world, and have, therefore, produced certain great changes in the world itself. But after all, in glorifying over and wondering at this extraordinary development, I think that we sometimes forget that, compared to the deeper things, it is indeed only superficial in its effect. The qualities that count most in man and woman now are the qualities that counted most two thousand years ago; and as a nation we shall achieve success or merit failure accordingly as we do or do not display those qualities. Among the members of this congregation is a man who, in his prime, served as the feet engineer of Farragut when Farragut went into Mobile Bay. That was forty-one years ago.
The ships and the guns with which Farragut did that mighty feat are now almost as obsolete as the galleys that fought for the mastery of the Ægean Sea when Athens waged war on Sparta. They could no more stand against a modern ship than could the ships that fought against the invincible Armada in 1588. But if the need ever comes for this nation to call on its sons to face a foreign foe, the call will or will not be made in vain, just exactly according to whether we do or do not still retain the spirit which drove Farragut and the men under him onward to victory. The gun changes; the ship changes; but the qualities needed in the man behind the gun, in the man who handles the ship, are just the same as they ever were. So it is in our whole material civilization of to-day. The railroad, the telegraph, all these wonderful inventions, produce new problems, confer new benefits and bring about new dangers. Cities are built up to enormous size, and, of course, with the upbuilding of the cities comes the growth of the terrible problems which confront all of us who have to do with city life. Out ward circumstances change. New dangers spring up and old dangers vanish. But the spirit necessary to meet the new dangers, the spirit necessary to insure the triumph that we must and shall win, is the same now that it has always been. This is the spirit which lies behind this society and all kindred societies; and we owe to this society all the help that we can afford to give, for it is itself giving to our people a service beyond price, a service of love, a service which no money could buy.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at a Meeting of the American Tract Society Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343747