Remarks at the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama
Governor, Col. Wiley, and you, fellow Americans and fellow citizens: I cannot sufficiently express the pleasure I feel in being here and in being greeted with more than a lavish warmth of hospitality as you have greeted me and, oh, my friends, oh, my fellow citizens, think what a privilege is ours, think what it means for this nation, that there is no place in the Union where the President of the Union can feel more at home, can feel more that he is indeed the President of all the Union, of a reunited and indissoluble Union, than speaking here under the shadow of the first capitol of the Confederacy. Poor, indeed, would be the soul of the man who did not leave Montgomery a better American than when he came into it after being received in it as I have been received.
In speaking to all of age, and younger still, you will not grudge me saying a special word of greeting to the veterans of the great war. Here, again, think how fortunate we are. There is no other people of which history tells which, having passed through such a war as we have passed through, now, after forty years, finds not only that the flag which had been rent asunder is once again whole, without a seam, but finds all her people challenging as theirs the right to claim their part in the heritage of glory bequeathed to every American alike by the American who wore the blue and the American who wore the gray in the great Civil War.
Here I have come to your mighty and beautiful State, with its wealth of agriculture, its wealth of manufactures, and, more than ever, I am impressed with the solidarity of our interests as a people. As the Governor pointed, the greatest and most important single export of our people is the export of cotton, that is the most important crop among our exports, and the whole nation is concerned in the welfare of the cotton growers. It is not only important for Alabama and the rest of the Gulf States, it is important for the entire Union, because it is the cotton crop which determines the balance of trade as being in favor of this nation. Whatever is the business of any part of this nation, the trade of the entire nation and the national government are bound to do everything possible in the interest of the cotton growers to pre serve your markets, to do everything that can possibly be done to see that the demand for cotton, the natural demand for cotton abroad, is kept up, and is met here under fair conditions by our own people.
Probably no State in this Union is more interested in the building of what is to be the greatest engineering feat the world has yet seen, the building of the Isthmian Canal. The cotton crop largely goes to Asia, and, of course, the canal greatly shortens the route. Our in fluence in the Orient must be kept at such a pitch as will insure our being able to guarantee fair treatment to our merchants and manufactures in the markets of China. We must insist upon having fair treatment, and as a step toward getting it we must give fair treatment in return. I would demand that on ethical grounds alone. I would demand it also on grounds of self-interest.
And now, in greeting all of you to-day, having paid first of all special tribute to the veterans, I want to go to the other end of the procession and say a word about the children. As you know, I believe in children. I like your stock, and I want to see it kept up. Nothing pleases me more than to see the care that you are devoting to education in this State, and among the many splendid heroic deeds to be credited to the Southern people in peace as well as in war, is the fact that having to face as they did the future in the midst of a broken and war-swept country they not only built up their industrial prosperity, but they have provided steadily for the education of the coming generation.
The prime factor in the growth of any nation is the factor of individual citizenship. The nation is going to be all right if the average man and average woman are all right. If the average man is a good father, a good husband, is a decent man in his own home, if he does his duty by his neighbors, if he does his duty in peace and yet has the stuff in him to enable him to do his duty in war, if the time comes, then the average man is all right; and if the average woman is a good wife and a good mother, then I think she is just a little bit better fellow than the average man, and I guess all of us think so too don't you? If anybody does not, I do not think much of him, that is all. What you want in this nation is not brilliancy, not genius, but the fair performance of the average duties, the common duties of life. Now, as I passed up here, I was awfully glad to see the men of the National Guard. The men in troops on horseback and the men on foot, they all know, and the veterans could tell them if it were necessary, that the man who is a good soldier is not the man who is always waiting until the chance comes to do something great and spectacular. It is the man who does each day's duty in passing, as they do on the march and in battle as that day's duty arises. Isn't that so, friends?
Those here who have been in the big war know it. You who were in the Civil War know the man who wanted next to you in rank was the man whom you could count on doing his share, whatever the work. You did not want him to drop his blanket at 10 o'clock because it was too hot, and then want to share yours at midnight when it was cold. If you had to dig a kitchen sink you wanted him to do his share of the work, and not derive the profits if you did the work. You wanted the man to do his duty as that day's duty arose—that is the important point.
It is just so in the affairs of civil life. It is given to mighty few men ever to have the chance of doing anything heroic, and to those few men that chance, if it comes at all, comes but once or twice in a lifetime, and you do not judge a life by any two or three minutes in it. You judge it by the sum of days, the sum of years. What we need is the performance of duty, of the ordinary duty that the ordinary man or woman has to meet as he or she lives his or her life, and in one way it is a great comfort to think so.
Gentlemen, if you only think of it, the essential point in our lives is the likenesses in our lives, not the dissimilarities. Some people lead their lives in positions of more prominence than others, but if they are decent people, if they are good people, they show just the same kind of quality, just the same kind of virtue in one place as the other, and the good citizen, the man who has done good to his country, is the man who, whether he is a very wealthy man or whether he has but a day's bread by that day's toil, whether he is an officer or private in the ranks of life, has done his duty as the Lord gives him light to see his duty in the position he occupies. It is not the President or the Senators or the Congressmen, or even the Governors, who make up our nation, who make the greatness of our nation. The man that counts is the average private citizen; he is the man that counts.
I am not saying that to compliment you, but so that you may realize your responsibility. It is not a bit important that you should feel flattered at the thought, but it is very important that you should realize the weight of responsibility that thought implies; it very important that you should realize what self-government is. Anybody can be governed by somebody else. It is the easiest thing in the world to be the subject of a despotism. Just sit still and take it—no trouble about that at all. But to be a member of a self-governing community means that if you are to do your part in that community, you must possess the powers of self-restraint, of self-rule, of courage, of honesty, clean living, and decent thinking. Those are the qualities needed if it is to be true that the average citizen is in our country the man that counts.
It is just as it was in the Civil War, you men, the veterans of the Civil War here, know. A great thing that we should have developed mighty leaders of men, the great generals who have left their names as memories and heritages of honor and glory to our people forever, but, after all, the prime factor alike in the Union and Confederate armies was the man with the musket, the man behind the gun. The best officers in the world could not have done anything with the army if the army did not do the right thing; if the army had not been of the right kind. You had to have the right stuff in them, or else nobody could have got it out of them.
Now, it is just so in citizenship. I don't care how wise the leaders are, self-government won't work unless you have the right type of man in the ranks, unless you have the right type of private citizen, and it has worked and will work in this country because we have got the right kind of citizens, because we have the right type of private citizen. But, he is not going to make himself the right type merely by applauding the sentiment. He is going to make himself the right type by understanding that it is hard work taking part in self-government.
There has got to be some principle in control somewhere in every one, and the less of it there is within any man, the more of it there is with out him, the less a man is able to govern himself, the more somebody else will have to govern, and if a man cannot govern his own appetites and passions, somebody else will have to do the governing for him in the long run.
People can govern themselves only by practicing the virtues of moderation, self-restraint, of understanding that the simple homely virtues of honesty, courage and common sense are essential to the full development of citizenship in a free land, and, gentlemen, the successful performance of political duty depends absolutely upon the successful performance of domestic, of social duty. There can never be, there never will be, a good government of which the average citizen is not a decent man in private life.
It is a contradiction in terms to speak of good government if the government does not rest upon clean lives and decency in the home, respect of husband and wife for each other, tenderness of the man for those dependent upon him; performance of duty by woman and by man, and the proper education of the children who are to make the next generation. The vital things in life are the things that foolish people look upon as commonplace; the vital things in life are those things which it lies within the reach of each of us to do and the failure to perform which means the destruction of the state.
I shall not keep you longer. Let me just say once more that though I came into this State, I hope, a good American and proud of my country, I shall leave this State just a little better American and a little bit prouder of my country.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343658