Remarks at the Dedication of the Young Men's Christian Association Building in Oskaloosa, Iowa
Ladies and gentlemen:
It is with pleasure that I come here to take part in the dedication of this Y.M.C.A. building. I feel that there is something peculiarly appropriate in the presence of the men who fought in the great war at any ceremony which tends to make for decency, for high thinking, for good citizenship.
I wish first to say one word about your Congressman, Mr. Lacey, at whose request I stopped. In public life generally we are not apt to find the man whose interests go for the whole country as well as for those who have his immediate fate in their hands, and I wish to congratulate this district on having in the American Congress a man who spends his best efforts for the whole United States. Gentlemen, I never say before a man what I would not say behind him, or vice versa, and I do not speak hyperbolically, I say what I mean, and I wish to pay this tribute to Mr. Lacey: Wherever there is a matter that I feel is of real and serious consequence to the nation as a whole, I can ask Mr. Lacey to come to me, or can go to him, with the absolute certainty that he will approach the matter simply from the standpoint of the public service. He wishes to do well his duty by the public, and the fact that the work is worth doing is a sufficient reward for doing it. And that I regard as high praise for any man in public life.
Now a word about the building itself and what purpose it subserves. We cannot afford to have our civilization go on without united and ordered effort on the part of decent people to see that the forces of decency have the upper hand., We do not need to bother about the weeds, they will grow anyhow; but the grain needs some careful tending and nothing augurs better for the future of this country than the way in which efforts are made, such as this, which has resulted in the erection of this association building here. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if you leave a young man's time when he is at liberty absolutely vacant he will fill it; and it is liable with what is not best worth having in it. Give him occupation; give him the chance to improve himself; make the path fairly easy that leads to clean living and decent work and you will help him up more than you will by a hundred mere preachings; you will give him the chance to be decent. More and more the Young Men's Christian Association has tended to do good throughout the nation because it has proceeded in so sane a spirit; a spirit which seeks not to dwarf or suppress healthy instincts, but to get them to turn in the right direction, because, like all true educational institutions, it recognizes what an education must mean; (we are all of us being educated all the time); that it can help the body; that it can help what is of more good than the body, the mind, and finally that it can help what counts for far more than mind and body, character—the sum of all qualities that we call character. That is what counts in the long run. It is a good thing to be a strong man; it is a better thing to be an intelligent and intellectual man; but best of all it is to be a Man, a good man, a brave and a strong man.
That is what counted, oh my comrades, with you in the great war. When you went into that struggle you went into a struggle that could have been brought to a successful conclusion only by men whose stout bodies and cool heads united the brave heart. That is what counted in the long months of inaction, in the weariness of the marches, in the sleepless vigils of the cold winter nights and finally in the red hot fire and agony of the fight. That was when you proved the stuff that there was in the man; then you could see the qualities that you had to have in order to make the man able to do a little more than his fair share. And it is just so in our life now, in our life relative to the state, the life of the man in his own family, or in dealing with his neighbors—the thing that counts is the combination of qualities which we call character, at the door of which we call decency, honesty, the spirit that makes a man treat his fellows squarely and fairly, that makes him a good husband, a good father, a good neighbor, a good man to do business with, a good man to have his property next to yours or to work beside in the shop or on the farm; and decency is not enough. In addition to this you have to have something else; just as you, the men of the great war, needed more than patriotism. You had to have the quality of courage, the usual quality of hardihood, the quality of iron strength. I do not care how patriotic a man was, if he had a tendency to run away there was nothing to be done with him. So it is now; you have got to have decency, honesty, virtue, morality as the bedrock, but if you have got nothing built upon it, it is a poor structure.
The virtue that sits at home and complains that vice has the upper hand, the parlor virtue, the far sighted virtue, does not count. What you need is the good man who is not afraid, that virtue that will go out into the world and try to do something. The decent man who is not afraid of the hurly burly of actual life, and it is rough work, too. Most things that are worth having come by effort. That is true in civil life as in military. You need decency; you need courage, and in addition to this you need the saving grace of common sense. Common sense you have got to have to guide the other aright. It is a mighty good thing to have softness of heart, but it is a pity when the softness extends its area and you get softness of the head as well.
I congratulate you, the people of this beautiful State, upon what you are doing upon the higher life of which the erection of this building is but a symbol. In closing let me say how glad I am to be here. How I have enjoyed coming through Iowa. Let me thank especially the men of the Grand Army for coming out and then my own comrades, the men of the National Guard, for coming here to act as escort. I was pleased to pass so many children. I congratulate Iowa on many things. On her soil, her climate, her crops, but above all her citizenship. I congratulate her upon the men and women who have made her what she is. Because men and women, I do not have to do much preaching to you. I feel rather more like sitting at the feet of Gamaliel. I feel that you practice what I want to preach, and I congratulate you in it. Finally, as I said, I like crops, but as I like your stock, the crop I like best to see is the children.. I congratulate you on their quality. That is all right and it seems to me the quantity is all right. I like your stock and I should be very sorry to see it die out.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Dedication of the Young Men's Christian Association Building in Oskaloosa, Iowa Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343433