Remarks at the Milwaukee National Soldiers' Home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
You fought in a great war; I and those with me in a little war. But it was enough to give us an idea of what you had to do; enough to give us an idea of the debt the whole country is under to you and those like you—to you to whom we owe it that we are Americans and citizens of a great and mighty nation. There are certain things, and it seems almost needless to repeat them, and yet it is these which we need to keep as living facts if we are to make of this nation all it should be made. The lessons which you taught us by what you did in the war are the same lessons that, in later conditions, must be applied to what we do in times of peace. In the first place, you learned that it is not the man who wishes to do some heroic act that is needed, but that it was, in the long run, the man who in times of a great crisis stood firm and ready, who was the most desired.
All of you will remember from your own experiences who the man was that really did well as a soldier. I suppose that every man here has found, as I have from my small experience, the young fellow, red hot for glory, wanting to make a splurge, but not contented to do the other things first. I will give you an example out of my own experience. I remember a young fellow, a man of well-to-do parents, who had read about the war and wanted to join a cavalry regiment and take part in the war. He came to me after three days in camp, after he had been to the captain—the captain, by the way, was a gruff fellow from New Mexico, and not very sympathetic—and he said, "Colonel, I have come down here to fight for my country and they put me to digging trenches." I said, "Now, my friend, if they have put you digging, go ahead and dig, and if you dig well perhaps they will try you at fighting later." Now, you could pretty near make a guess at what kind of a soldier that man would make by the way he went at his digging. If he did that well, so also would he perform his other duties. It is just so in civil life.
The man who is always waiting until there comes a chance to do something heroic will never do anything. The constant, faithful performance of each duty as it arises makes as good a citizen as it makes a soldier. You, who have seen four years of warfare, such as has not been seen in any other modern war, have you not seen thirty times the faithful, sacred performance of the humdrum duty for the one time where it was necessary to plunge into the soul-stirring activities? Which of you grew to feel, as all men must grow to feel, the appreciation of the man on the right, or the man on the left, according to the way he did his duty? If he shirked it a little bit you suffered as well as he did. Now, you had it on a thousand times greater scale than we did. We had one man who would carry hard tack and another bacon. They would take great, big loads, and, about four o'clock in the afternoon, would find they were very tired and would drop their loads. Then at night, they would feel offended because they could not have half the bacon of their comrades. I can put it in another way.
You remember the first march with blankets and the inevitable recruit who carried too much, and who started off by going to carry everything? At ten o'clock the blanket grew too heavy, and the fellow dropped it, and he wished he had two blankets by ten o'clock at night. Don't you remember? Of course, you do. The fellow who had a claim on sharing the rations of the man who carried them, was not an enviable person for a companion. It is just the same in civil life, just the same in doing the work of a citizen. The man who attends to the ordinary humdrum duties and who makes a good citizen is the man who goes at a thing in a regular, business-like way, and who remembers the duties to family and to the state and does them, not spasmodic ally, but as a regular thing.
Did you, as soldiers, not admire the men who met every occasion as it arose, charged as they charged Fredericksburg, up the stone wall, who, as the occasion arose, did some one single feat of heroism? The man who helped in the policing of the camp, who did not straggle in the march, who did not drop all of his things because they were so hard to carry and expect the other man to share with him. The man who did all these things and then had the stuff in him to fight when the occasion came— that is the man who will succeed in war as well as in civil life. That is the lesson you have all taught us of the younger generation by what you did. Yes, you even taught us more than that. In the first place, the lessons which were taught in the Civil War by the duties of you who fought, showed us that a man is worth only what he is worth as a man. We see in your modern life too much hate, too much envy, too much of an effort to divide men along lines that are not significant. It makes no difference what rank a man occupies. The looking down upon the less well off, or the envy of the better off is equally evil. You and all self-respecting men will consider the looking down upon the less fortunate an evil.
Well, it is just as much an evil to look up to any man save the man whose quality entitles him to be looked up to. The man who envies mere wealth pays it a compliment to which it was never entitled in our history. The men who left names of which We are proud, courageous men, such as those you followed—Grant, Sheridan, Thomas, Sherman, Logan and Farragut—the great leaders in war and the great leaders in peace, the men who by their lives added to the achievements of the nation—these leaders—those were the men whom it is worth while envying. Do not pay to ignoble lives the compliment of envy.
Which of you, as you went forward to battle, were interested to know about the man on your right or the man on your left, or interested about the profession he followed, whether he was a banker or a bricklayer? Or which of you cared in which way he worshiped his Creator? And did you care whether he was born here or abroad, whether his stock came over in the Mayflower, or settled in the earliest days on the banks of the Hudson or the James, or whether it came from the Rhine or the coast of Ireland ?
All you cared for was "did he stand pat?" If he had the heart in him to do his duty in camp, if you could count on his standing with you, you were for him. So let it be in civil life, whether he be rich or poor, whether upon one side or the other, let him worship in the way he chooses. About those things we need not concern ourselves; if we know that he has the right kind of living in him, then accept him for his worth as a man. Gauge his worth as you did the worth of your comrades.
Now I cannot stay and talk with you as long as I would like to. I would like to spend a couple of hours with you, because you and your comrades occupy the position of envy that never has been occupied by any other men save the men of Washington in the blue and buff— the men of '76. I do not know whether it will ever be occupied again in our history—the position of the men who have made our nation of all times their debtor—the position of the men to whose lives we turn for lessons for every generation. I thank you. Good-bye.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Milwaukee National Soldiers' Home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343401