Remarks in Portland, Maine
Mr. Mayor, and you, my fellow citizens, men and women of Maine:
I wish to say a word to you in recognition of great service rendered not only to all our country but to the entire principle of democratic government throughout the world, by one of your citizens. The best institutions are of no good if they won't work. I do not care how beautiful a theory is, if it won't fit in with the facts it is of no good. If you built the handsomest engine that ever had been built and it did not go, its usefulness would be limited. Well, that was just about the condition that Congress had reached at the time when Thomas B. Reed was elected Speaker. We had all the machinery, but it didn't work,—that was the trouble,—and you had to find some one powerful man who would disregard the storm of obloquy sure to be raised by what he did in order to get it to work. Such a man was found when Reed was made Speaker. We may differ among ourselves as to policy. We may differ among ourselves as to what course government should follow; but if we possess any intelligence we must be united in the opinion that it shall be able to follow some course. If government cannot go on it is not government. If the legislative body cannot enact laws, then there is no use of misnaming it a legislative body; and if the majority is to rule some method by which it can rule must be provided. Government by the majority in Congress had practically come to a stop when Mr. Reed became Speaker. Mr. Reed, at the cost of infinite labor, at the cost of the fiercest attacks, succeeded in restoring that old principle; and now through Congress we can do well or ill, accordingly as the people demand, but at any rate, we can do something—and we owe it more than to any other one man to your fellow-citizen, Mr. Reed. It is a great thing for any man to be able to feel that in some one crisis he left his mark deeply scored for good in the history of his country, and Tom Reed has the right to that feeling.
Now a word or two more. I was greeted here not only by your mayor, not only by other men standing high, but by you, General Chamberlain, to whom it was given, at the supreme moment of the war, to win the supreme reward of a soldier. All honor to the man, and may we keep ourselves from envying because to him came the supreme good fortune of winning the medal of honor for mighty deeds done in the mightiest battle that the nineteenth century saw Gettysburg.
I see everywhere I stop—in Maine, as in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut—men who in the times that tried the nation's worth, rose level to the nation's need and offered gladly all life itself upon the nation's altar—the men who fought in the great Civil War from '61 to '65. They taught us much by their life in war time, and they have taught us as much by their life ever since. They were soldiers when we needed soldiers, and they were of the very best kind, and when the need was for citizenship in civil life they showed us they could give the highest kind of citizenship. Not merely did they leave us a reunited country; not merely did they leave us the memory of the great deeds they did, to be forever after an inspiration to us, but they left us the memory of the way the deed was done. All the time, gentlemen, we have people often entirely well meaning—who will rise up and tell us that by some patent device we can all be saved in citizenship or in social life. Now, General, and you, you veterans who wear the button, when you came down to the root of things in war time you had to depend upon the qualities of manhood which had made good soldiers from the days when the children of Israel marched out of Egypt, down. Rifles now instead of bows then, but the man behind the rifle is more important than the rifle itself.
So with our laws. We need good laws. We need a wise administration of the law, an upright and fearless administration of the law. But the best constitution that was ever devised by the wit of man and the best laws that were ever put upon the statute books, will not avail to save us if the average citizen has not in him the root of right living. The Army of the Potomac could never have seen Appomattox if it had not been for the spirit that drove you from the office and the factory and the farm to take up the burden of war, and when you went to war to stay there until you saw it through. They did not conquer in war by hysterics. Doubtless you will remember that after Bull Run there were some excellent people that thought the war was over, and over the wrong way. It was not over. Three years and nine months had to elapse and then it got over the other way.
About the worst quality you can have in a soldier is hysterics or anything approaching it, and it is pretty nearly the worst quality in civil life. We need in civil life the plain, practical, every-day virtues which all of us admit in theory to be necessary and which when we all practice will come mighty near making a state perfect. Brilliancy is a good thing. So is genius. Every now and then the chance comes to render some such great service as I told you about Tom Reed's rendering, some such service, General, as you rendered at Gettysburg, but normally what we want is not genius but the faculty of seeing that we know how to apply the copy-book moralities that we write down, and as long as we think of them only as fit for the copy-book there is not much use in us.
We need in our public life as in our private life the virtues that everyone could practice if he would. We need the will to practice them. There are two kinds of greatness that can be achieved. There is the greatness that comes to the man who can do what no one else can do. That is a mighty rare kind, and of course it can only be achieved by the man of special and unusual qualities. Then there is the other kind that comes to the man who does the things that everyone could do but that everyone does not do; who goes ahead and does them himself. To do that you first of all have got to school yourselves to do the ordinary, commonplace things.
Now, General, I was a very little time in my war; you were a long time in yours. I did not see much fighting, but I saw a lot of human nature. I recollect one young fellow who came down to join a cavalry regiment. He was filled with enthusiasm, thinking he was going to look all the time like my friend in that smart khaki uniform who welcomes me over there, who welcomes me and whom I want to thank for coming to meet me. After three days the young man came down to me and said, "Colonel, I wish to make a complaint, sir; I came down here to fight for my country, and the captain has put me to work digging kitchen sinks." I asked the captain about it and he said, "Yes." The captain was a large man from New Mexico, and he explained to that excel lent youth that he would go right on digging kitchen sinks, and when the fighting came he should have all the fighting there was, but at present his duty was to dig kitchen sinks. In other words, he had to do the small duties that were done, and thereby best fit himself to do the big duties that might loom in the future.
So it is with us in the work of everyday citizenship. I believe that this nation will rise level to any great emergency that may meet it, but it will only be because now in our ordinary work-a-day life, the times of peace, in the times when no great crisis is upon us, we school ourselves by constant practice in the commonplace, everyday, indispensable duties, so that when the time arrives we shall show that we have learned aright the primary lessons of good citizenship. I thank you.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks in Portland, Maine Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343477