Remarks at the Harvard Commencement Dinner in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Mr. President, President Eliot, and you, my fellow Harvard men:
I am speaking for all of you I am sure—I speak for all Americans today, when I say that we watch with the deepest concern the sick-bed of the English king, and that all Americans in tendering their hearty sympathy to the people of Great Britain remember keenly the outburst of genuine grief with which England last fall greeted the calamity that befell us in the death of President McKinley.
President Eliot spoke of the service due and performed by the college graduate to the State. It was my great good fortune five years ago to serve under your President, the then Secretary of the Navy, ex-Governor Long, and by a strange turn of the wheel of fate he served in my Cabinet as long as he would consent to serve, and then I had to replace him by another Harvard man!
I have been fortunate in being associated with Senator Hoar, and I should indeed think ill of myself if I had not learned something from association with a man who possesses that fine and noble belief in mankind, the lack of which forbids healthy effort to do good in a democracy like ours. I shall not speak of his associate, the junior senator, another Harvard man – Cabot Lodge—because it would be difficult for me to discuss in public one who is my closest, stanchest, and most loyal personal friend. I have another fellow Harvard man to speak of today, and it is necessary to paraphrase an old saying in order to state the bald truth, that it is indeed a liberal education in high-minded statesmanship to sit at the same council table with John Hay.
In addressing you this afternoon, I want to speak of three other college graduates, because of the service they have done the public. If a college education means anything, it means fitting a man to do better service than he could do without it; if it does not mean that it means nothing, and if a man does not get that out of it, he gets less than nothing out of it. No man has a right to arrogate to himself one particle of superiority or consideration because he has had a college education, but he is bound, if he is in truth a man, to feel that the fact of his having had a college education imposes upon him a heavier burden of responsibility, that it makes it doubly incumbent upon him to do well and nobly in his life, private and public. I wish to speak of three men, who, during the past three or four years have met these requirements, of a graduate of Hamilton College, Elihu Root, of a graduate of Yale, Governor Taft, and of a fellow Harvard man, Leonard Wood—men who did things; did not merely say how they ought to be done, but did them themselves; men who have met that greatest of our national needs, the need for service that cannot be bought, the need for service that can only be rendered by the man willing to forego material advantages because it has to be given at the man's own material cost.
When in England they get a man to do what Lord Cromer did in Egypt, when a man returns as Lord Kitchener will return from South Africa, they give him a peerage, and he receives large and tangible reward. But our Cromers, our men of that stamp, come back to this country, and if they are fortunate, they go back to private life with the privilege of taking up as best they can the strings left loose when they severed their old connections; and if fortune does not favor them they are accused of maladversion in office—not an accusation that hurts them, but an accusation that brands with infamy every man who makes it, and that reflects but ill on the country in which it is made.
Leonard Wood four years ago went down to Cuba, has served there ever since, has rendered her literally invaluable service; a man who through those four years thought of nothing else, did nothing else, save to try to bring up the standard of political and social life in that island, to clean it physically and morally, to make justice even and fair in it, to found a school system which should be akin to our own, to teach the people after four centuries of misrule that there were such things as governmental righteousness and honesty and fair play for all men on their merits as men. He did all this. He is a man of slender means. He did this on his pay as an army officer. As Governor of the island sixty millions of dollars passed through his hands, and he came out having been obliged to draw on his slender capital in order that he might come out even when he left the island. Credit to him? Yes, in a way. In another, no particular credit, because he was built so that he could do nothing else. He devoted himself as disinterestedly to the good of the Cuban people in all their relations as man could. He has come back here, and has been attacked, forsooth, by people who are not merely unworthy of having their names coupled with his but who are incapable of understanding the motives that have spurred him on to bring honor to this republic.
And Taft, Judge Taft, Governor Taft, who has been the head of the Philippine Commission, and who has gone back there—Taft, the most brilliant graduate of his year at Yale, the youngest Yale man upon whom Yale ever conferred a degree of LL.D., a man who, having won high position at the bar, and then served as Solicitor-General at Washington, was appointed to the United States bench. He was then asked to sacrifice himself, to give up his position in order to go to the other side of the world to take up an infinitely difficult, an infinitely dangerous problem, and do his best to solve it. He has done his best. He came back here the other day. The man has always had the honorable ambition to get upon the Supreme Court, and he knew that I had always hoped that he would be put on the Supreme Court, and when he was back here a few months ago, and there was a question of a vacancy arising, I said to him: "Governor, I think I ought to tell you that if a vacancy comes in the Supreme Court" (which I knew would put him for life in a position which he would especially like to have), "I do not see how I could possibly give it to you, for I need you where you are." He said to me: "Mr. President, it has always been my ambition to be on the Supreme Court, but if you should offer me a justiceship now, and at the same time Congress should take away entirely my salary as Governor, I should go straight back to the Philippines, nevertheless, for those people need me, and expect me back, and believe I will not desert them." He has gone back, gone back as a strong friend among weaker friends to help that people upward along the difficult path of self-government. He has gone to do his part—and a great part—in making the American name a symbol of honor and good faith in the Philippine Islands; to govern with justice, and with that firmness, that absence of weakness, which is only another side of justice. He has gone back to do all of that because it is his duty as he sees it. We are to be congratulated, we Americans, that we have a fellow-American like Taft.
And now Elihu Root, who, unlike myself, Mr. President Eliot, but like most of you present, comes of the old New England stock, whose great-grandfather stood beside Leonard Wood's great-grandfather among the "embattled farmers" at Concord Bridge; Elihu Root, who had worked his way up from being a poor and unknown country boy in New York, to the leadership of the bar of the great city—he gave it up, made the very great pecuniary sacrifice implied in giving it up, and accepted the position of Secretary of War, a position which, for the last three years and at present amounts to being not only the Secretary of War, but the Secretary for the islands, the Secretary for the Colonies at the same time. He has done the most exhausting and the most responsible work of any man in the administration, more exhausting and more responsible work than the work of the President, because circumstances have been such that with a man of Root's wonderful ability, wonderful industry and wonderful conscientiousness, the President could not help but devolve upon him work that made his task one under which almost any other man would have staggered. He has done all this absolutely disinterestedly. Nothing can come to Root in the way of reward save the reward that is implied in the knowledge that he has done something of incalculable importance which hardly another man in the Union—no other man that I know of— could have done as well as he has done it. He has before him continually questions of the utmost intricacy to decide, questions upon which life and death hang, questions the decision of which will affect our whole future world policy, questions which affect the welfare of the millions of people with whom we have been brought into such intimate contact by the events of the Spanish War, whose welfare must be a prime consideration from now on with every American public man worthy to serve his country. Root has done this work with the certainty of attack, with the certainty of misunderstanding, with the certainty of being hampered by ignorance (and worse than ignorance). And yet he has created, not for himself but for the nation also, a wonderful triumph from all these adverse forces.
Those three men have rendered inestimable service to the American people. I can do nothing for them. I can show my appreciation of them in no way save the wholly insufficient one of standing up for them, and for their work; and that I will do as long as I have tongue to speak!
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Harvard Commencement Dinner in Cambridge, Massachusetts Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343460