Remarks in Mobile, Alabama

October 23, 1905

Mr. Mayor, gentlemen, and you, my fellow Americans:

I cannot sufficiently express my appreciation of the magnificent greeting that you have given me to-day, and a man would be but a poor American who could meet you here, my fellow citizens, without being stirred to feel that he must, even more than before, strive to do all that in him lies for our common country, and I know that the rest of you will not grudge my saying that most of all am I touched by the sight of the men who wore the gray in the great war parading here to-day. I have just been presented by Judge Semmes with this beautiful badge. I passed by the statue of Admiral Semmes as we drove up hither. Admiral Semmes had under him on the "Alabama" one of my uncles, and it was another uncle that built the "Alabama," and now the judge's sister, the admiral' s daughter, is the wife of that distinguished ex-Confederate who, as governor of the Philippines, has held aloft the record of the American role for integrity, efficiency and firmness. The last time I came through this beautiful, historic city of yours, I was going with my own regiment to the Spanish War, and in that regiment I think there were more men whose fathers wore the gray than there were men whose fathers wore the blue. But, gentlemen, they marched in that spirit symbolized by your march today, carrying the American flag.

In speaking before the citizens of this great seaport of the gulf, I naturally wish to say a word about the Panama Canal. Now, I hold that as a matter of public policy, whatever helps a part of our country helps the whole, and I did my best to bring about the construction of that canal in the interest of all our people, but if there was any one section to be most benefited by it, it was the section that includes the gulf states. Originally I had been for the Nicaraguan Canal, but when Congress acted, I abode by the decision of Congress. It became evident that we should either have no canal at all or a Panama canal, and I am for a canal. If we had not acted as we then did, our chance of building that canal would have vanished for a century to come, and as it is, we now are assured of having that canal within a comparatively short time, and gentlemen, I want to warn you not to be misled by interested clamor. Every man who had to do with bringing about the construction of that canal knows that for decades it was opposed, and successfully opposed, by the great commercial interests which did not wish to see it completed. By the great commercial interests which did not wish, and do not wish, to see a canal speedily dug through the isthmus; to see communication between the Pacific and the Atlantic by water speedily begun. No! It seems to me evident from certain things that I see in a portion of the daily press that those interests are still active, and that they are going to try to becloud the issue, with the hope of putting off for ten or fifteen years or longer the digging of that canal, and their weapons will be every form of misrepresentation, and, gentlemen, they will fail! You need not have the slightest alarm. Uncle Sam has started to dig that canal, and it will be dug, and soon. And the people who are, largely by the circulation of false rumors and misstatements, seeking to create confusion such as will defer the building of the canal, will be disappointed. We have, as a people, the right to feel genuine satisfaction with the progress that has already been made; and, gentlemen, let me add something that you here will appreciate the significance of: the sanitation of the isthmus. Do you remember that a couple of years ago men said you could not dig that canal because yellow fever was epidemic always there; and yet we are digging it, and with a cleaner bill of mortality than the isthmus has ever known before. I am happy to be able to tell you that from information received this very day, I find that those who have just returned from the isthmus are not only pleased, but astonished by the excellent trim in which the project is, and that it is going on well, and that it will go along even better in the future.

Now, of all the things that were said about me to-day, in the more than kind, the over-kind allusions to me. perhaps I was especially pleased by what the colonel said as to my attitude toward crooked public servants. I will take advice about appointing men, but if I find them crooked I do not take any advice at all about removing them. We have scriptural authority for the saying that offenses must come, but the Good Book adds, "Woe to them through whom they come." I cannot guarantee, and no human being can, and there will not be an occasional man, or an improper man appointed, or an occasional well meaning man, who after appointed, being tempted, goes wrong, but I can say that every effort within the power of the government will be made to hunt such a man out of the public service and to punish him to the fullest extent of the law.

And now, gentlemen, in this great seaport city, I want to say another word, and that is about the United States navy. Judge Semmes, in passing by the monument of your illustrious father, I felt the thrill of pride every American must feel, that the names of the combatants in that famous ship duel are commemorated in the name of the "Kearsarge" and the "Alabama" in our United States navy now, and that if ever they have to go into action, they go into action side by side, manned by Americans against a common foe. Now, gentlemen, I know that an audience composed as this audience is, of men who either them selves, or whose fathers fought in the Civil War, appreciate to the full the sound national policy, if I may use the vernacular, of never "bluffing unless you mean to make good." Now, we undertook to build the Panama Canal because we said that owing to our position and interests and standing, we were the only nation that could or should do it. That means that we have got to protect it and police it ourselves. We did not ask anybody else to help us do the work we have allotted to ourselves. We must, therefore, bring up and keep up our navy to the highest point of efficiency. We can afford to have a small army, although we must insist upon its being kept up to the highest point of efficiency. That, I am glad to say, our regular army in its individual units has now done. But in the event of war, a war which I hope will never come, but if it does come, the American people in the future as in the past must on land rely upon the volunteer soldiery; upon such men as those who have been my escort to-day, and I want to say that I had the very strongest fellow-feeling when I saw you; I felt as if my own regiment was along. But while it is a simple task to turn a man of the proper temper, physique and training into a good soldier, you cannot improvise either a battleship or crew of a battleship. At sea, the war has to be fought with the ships and crews that have been prepared before the war begins, and we wish to profit by the lessons of our own country and the lessons of other countries, in seeing that our navy is always kept adequate to our needs. It is not necessary to have a very large navy, but it is necessary that, ship for ship, it should be just a little the most efficient navy in the world. In battle the shots that count are the shots that hit. There are plenty of gallant fellows we saw them in the Spanish war—who will go down with their ships.

That is all right. If there is nothing else to do, better go down with the ship rather than surrender, but try to make the other fellow's ship go down first. And I want the people to feel that in assuming to dig the Isthmian Canal, in assuming the position we have assumed as regards this western hemisphere, and in the oriental seas, we bind ourselves to keep our navy at such a point of efficiency that there shall be no chance of humiliation at the hands of any foreign foe.

And finally, my friends, I want to say just one word in conclusion. I shall not keep you more than three minutes. I appreciate immensely this mighty outpouring. I wish I could be heard by all of you, and I only hope you do not hurt one another while trying to listen. But let us never forget that the American nation depends, in the last analysis, upon the quality of its individual citizenship, upon the quality of the average man and average woman that go to make it, and next only to the veterans, the people I think I was most pleased to see today were the children, those who were carried in the arms of their fathers and mothers, or walked beside them, and those who were gathered in groups under their teachers. The nation is going to be all right surely, if the average man is a decent husband and father and the average woman a good wife and mother.

While I congratulate you with all my heart upon your cotton crop, upon your great resources, the best crop you have got, or any one else can have, is the crop of children. They are the raw material of the country as it will be a generation hence, and, father, mother, teacher, must see to it that that raw material is turned out as a finished product, fit to do the very best work in American life. My friends, self government is not an easy thing. It is easy enough to be governed by some body else. People do not need any great qualities to live under a despotism, but it needs great qualities in order to achieve successful self government, for the average man must be straight, must be clean, must be brave, and must have common sense, and, therefore, infinitely more important than any of the things which sometimes loom out before us, is that group of things connected with home and family life. The things that count are the things upon which we are all agreed, and must be all agreed, in our civic life, whether president, governor, mayor, congressman, or state legislator, or councilman. There are certain basic principles to which we must prove true if we are to make this country what she shall be made in the future. If this country rises level in the future to the standard set by the men of her glorious past, we cannot, any of us, afford to differ about the question of honesty in public life, decency and cleanliness in private life. Those qualities go to the root of the whole question of citizenship, and I believe that this great self-governing republic will rise to a height in this century never before dreamed of by any other nation, because I believe that the average American citizen, North or South, East or West, has the right stuff in him, that the average American citizen has the three fundamental principles of honesty, courage and common sense.

Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks in Mobile, Alabama Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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