Remarks at the Dedication of the Washington Public Library

January 07, 1903

Mr. Carnegie, ladies and gentlemen:

I count myself fortunate in being able to come here today not only for my own private individual sake, but as in some sort representing the people of all the country, to express my profound appreciation of what is emphatically a gift of wisdom, a gift to do the utmost possible benefit to all of the people of this country, from you, Mr. Carnegie. It seems to me that a man has a right to call himself thrice blessed who combines the power and the purpose to use his wealth for the benefit of the people at large in a way that shall do them real benefit, and in no way can more benefit be done than through the gift of libraries such as this—a free library, where each man, each woman, has the chance to get for himself or herself the training that he or she has the character to desire and to acquire.

Of course our common school system lies at the foundation of our educational system. But it is the foundation only. Of those who are to stand pre-eminent as the representatives of the culture of the community, the enormous majority must educate themselves. The work done by this library is helpful because it represents one side of the way in which all healthy work in this community must be done. Mr. Carnegie, neither you nor anyone else can make a man wise or cultivated. All you can do is to give him a chance to add to his own wisdom or to his own cultivation. That is all you can do in any kind of philanthropic work. The only philanthropic work that counts in the long run is the work that helps a man to help himself. That is true socially, sociologically and in every way. The man who will submit or demand to be carried is not worth carrying. And if you make the effort it helps neither him nor you. But every man of us needs help--needs more and more to be given the chance to show for himself the stuff that is in him; and this kind of free library is doing in the world of cultivation, the world of scholarship, what it should be our aim to do in the great world of political and social development that is, it is as far as may be equalizing the opportunities and then leaving to the men themselves to show how they are able to take advantage of them. In other words, this is the kind of gift that steers the happy middle course between the Charybdis of failure to show public spirit on the one hand and on the other the Scylla of showing that public spirit in a way that will demoralize and pauperize those who take advantage of it. To quote an expression that I am fond of— that is equally far from the two prime vices of our civilization, hardness of heart and softness of head.

I am not here to make a speech. I unfortunately have to leave at once, as the President has several duties to perform. I have come because I feel that the movement for securing better facilities for self-training, better facilities for education in its widest and broadest and deepest sense, is one of such prime importance that the President of the United States could nowhere more appropriately come than to this building, Mr. Carnegie, at this time, to thank you for the gift that you have made to the people of the national capital.

Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Dedication of the Washington Public Library Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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