Remarks at the Dedication of the State Arsenal in Springfield, Illinois
Senator Cullom, Governor, and you, my fellow Americans, men and women of the great State of Illinois:
It is a deep pleasure for me to have the chance of speaking to you today and above all to speak to you here in Lincoln's home after having driven out to see Lincoln's tomb and after driving out in company with the man who accompanied the body of the great martyred President on its journey to its last resting place, your senior senator, Senator Cullom. I have met in Illinois many men who knew Lincoln personally, and at every place that I have stopped, I have seen men who fought in the army when Lincoln called the country to arms. All of us now pay our tribute to the greatness that is achieved; all of us now, looking back over the past forty years, can see the figure of Lincoln, staid, kindly, patient Lincoln, as it looms above his con-temporaries, as it will loom ever larger through the centuries to come.
It is a good thing for us, by speech, to pay homage to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, but it is an infinitely better thing for us in our lives to pay homage to his memory in the only way in which that homage can be effectively paid, by seeing to it that this republic's life, social and political, civic and industrial, is shaped now in accordance with the ideals which Lincoln preached and which all his life long he practiced. The greatness of our forefathers must serve not as an excuse to us for failing to do our duties in return, but as a spur to make us feel that we are doubly recreant to them as well as to ourselves if we fail to rise level with the standards they set.
To the men of Lincoln's generation the supreme gift was given of being true to themselves in a great national crisis. Theirs was not the life of ease, the life of comfort. For their good fortune they were given a duty hard to perform, but supremely well worth performing. I envy no man a life of ease, and I feel little but contempt for him if his only ideal is to lead a life of ease. We should reserve our feeling of admiration for the men who have difficult work to do, but work eminently worth doing and do it well. The problems that face us as a nation today are different from the problems which Lincoln and the men of his generation had to face. Different methods must be devised for solving them, but the spirit in which we approach them must be the same as the spirit with which Lincoln and his fellows in council, his followers in war, approached their problems, or else this nation will fail. But it will not fail—it will succeed because we still have in us the spirit of the men of '61.
Here we are as a nation, with a domain and a population such as no other republic in the history of the world has even approached. For weal or for woe we are a great power, a great nation. We cannot escape playing the part of a great nation. We shall play it ill or well, but play it we must. A small nation can play a small part, not a great nation, and upon the success of the experiment of free government conducted on a spirit of orderly liberty here on this continent, depends not only the welfare of this nation, but depends the future of free government in the entire world. And it behoves us, not only to exult in our privileges, but soberly to realize our responsibilities. Hitherto republics have failed, and the republics of antiquity failed. The republics of the middle ages failed although tried on a much smaller scale than ours, though on account of the smaller scale the experiment would have seemed less hazardous. And fundamentally the cause of the failure of those republics was to be found in the fact that ultimately each tended to become not a government of the whole people, doing justice to each member of the people, but a government, slipped into the hands of an oligarchy; sometimes it slipped into the hands of a mob-in either case the result was the same—it was exactly as fatal to the lasting welfare of the republic if it was turned into a government in which the few oppressed the many, as if it was turned into a government in which the many plundered the few. Either form of perversion of the true governmental principles spelled death and ruin to the community. It was no use to have escaped one form of ruin if ruin came at the other end of the pole. And now this government will succeed because it will be, and it shall be and must be kept true to the principles for which the men of Lincoln's generation fought.
This is not and never shall be a government of a plutocracy. This is not and never shall be a government of a mob. It is a government of liberty, by, under and through the law. A government in which no man is to be permitted either to domineer over the less well off or to plunder the better off. It is a government in which man is to be guaranteed his rights and in return in which it is to be seen that he does not wrong his fellows. The supreme safety of our country is to be found in the fearless and honest administration of the law of the land. And it makes not the slightest difference whether the offense against the law takes the form of cunning and greed on the one hand, or of physical violence on the other. In either case the law breaker must be held accountable and the law breaking stopped. And when any executive undertakes to enforce the law, he is entitled to the support of every decent man, rich or poor, no matter what form the law breaking has taken, he is entitled to the support of all men in his efforts; And if he is worth his salt, he will enforce the law whether he gets the support or not. All men are not merely wicked, but foolish, if they ask privileges to violate the law. All men are not only wicked but foolish if they complain because they are forced to obey the law. But the most foolish man in making such complaints is the rich man; for the rich man owes his very existence, his prosperity to the fact that the law throws its mantle around him, and he therefore is twice over foolish, if in any way he permits reverence for the law to be broken down in a community like ours.
And now, my countrymen, remember always that there are two sides to what I have preached to-day. It is a base and evil thing for the man of great means to look down upon, to treat with arrogance his brother who is less well off, and it is no less base, it is no less evil for any man to view with envy, with hatred, with rancor, his brother because that brother is better off. The two qualities, envy and arrogance, are the two opposite sides of the same black crystal. The same attributes which make a man when powerful, tyrannous over others, will make him the agitator and the revolutionist if he happens to be placed at the other end of the social scale. And I ask you to remember always that the man who preaches it to the men at one end of the social scale or to the men of the other, is equally a menace to the entire community. In Lincoln's day the men who wore the blue fought to establish once for all the principles that there was no place in this country for sectional hatred, and that the career of the men who sought to stir up one section against another was at an end.
Now let us see to it that there is just as little place in this country for the man who seeks to stir up creed against creed, class against class, one body of Americans against another body of Americans, as for the man who seeks to stir one section against another.
The line of cleavage of good and bad citizenship runs at right angles to the line of cleavage between locality and locality, creed and creed, class and class, occupation and occupation. If a man is a decent man, if he acts squarely by his fellows, if he does his duty, if he works at work which is useful and honorable, he is a good citizen, and he is entitled to the praise of all other good citizens. And if that is the case, the other man who refuses or rejects fellowship with him stamps himself as being a poor citizen of this republic. I ask that as a nation we approach the new problems in the spirit with which Lincoln and the men of Lincoln's time approached the problems they solved—a spirit of courage and resolution, a spirit of the broadest kindliness, a spirit of genuine brotherhood and love for all men. Not a spirit of weakness.
The men of 1861 had iron in their veins or they could never have won out in the great contest of that time. They were strong men or they could not have fought to a successful finish the great Civil War, and they were good men or they never would have dared to undertake it. And now, my fellow countrymen, as we read Lincoln's words, as we think of his deeds, let us in honesty and humility consecrate our selves and our lives to treating the problems of to-day as he treated those great problems in the solution of which he gave his life for the people.
Let us remember that we cannot win out as a nation if we permit the black vices of envy or rancor or arrogance to control us in our dealings with our fellows. Let us remember that we must act in a spirit of broad charity and kindliness to our fellows and yet with the clearsightedness that recognizes that there can be no compromise with the law breaker—that the first essential of civilized government is obedience to the law. Let us remember here that this must never be allowed to become a government by any class, that it must be kept a government such as it was as Washington founded it, such as it was as Lincoln preserved it—a government of the people as a whole in which every man is given justice as a man, and is guaranteed the treatment, social and political, which he can show himself entitled to receive. We can never make this government a good government save on the basis of a firm type of individual citizenship. The stream cannot rise higher than the source. Upon the character of the individual man, the individual woman, must depend, in the long run, the success of our institutions; and I believe in you, I believe in the future of this country of which you are part, because I believe that the average American citizen has in him those qualities of honesty, of courage, of fair dealing as between man and man; that the average American citizen has in him the spirit of justice which shows in every deed and in every act of Abraham Lincoln.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Dedication of the State Arsenal in Springfield, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343698