Remarks to the National and International Good Roads Convention at Odeon Hall in St. Louis, Missouri
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:
When we wish to use descriptive terms fit to characterize great empires and the men who made those empires great, invariably one of the terms used is to signify that that empire built good roads. When we speak of the Romans, we speak of them as rulers, as conquerors, as administrators, as road builders. There were empires that rose over night and fell over night, empires whose influence was absolutely evanescent, which have passed away without leaving a trace of their former existence; but wherever the Roman established his rule the traces of that rule remain deep today, stamped on the language and customs of the people, or stamped in tangible form upon the soil itself. And so passing through Britain fifteen centuries and over after the dominion of Rome passed away, the Roman roads as features still remain; going through Italy, where power after power has risen, and flourished, and vanished since the days when the temporal dominion of the Roman emperors transferred its seat from Rome to Byzantium—going through Italy after the Lombard, the Goth, the Byzantine, and all the people of the Middle Ages that have ruled that country—it is the imperishable Roman road that reappears.
The faculty, the art, the habit of road building marks in a nation those solid, stable qualities which tell for permanent greatness. Merely from the standpoint of historic analogy we should have a right to ask that this people which has tamed a continent, which has built up a country with a continent for its base, which boasts itself, with truth, as the mightiest republic that the world has ever seen, which I firmly believe will in the century now opening rise to a position of headship and leadership such as no other nation has ever yet attained—merely from historic analogy, I say, we should have a right to demand that such a nation build good roads. Much more have we the right to demand it from the practical standpoint. The great difference between the semi-barbarism of the Middle Ages and the civilization which succeeded it was the difference between poor and good means of communication. And we to whom space is less of an obstacle than ever it was in the history of any other nation, we who have spanned a continent, who have thrust our border westward in the course of a century and a quarter until it has gone from the Atlantic to the Alleghanies, from the Alleghanies down into the valley of the Mississippi, across the great plains; over the Rockies to where the Golden Gate lets through the long heaving waters of the Pacific, and finally to Alaska, to the Arctic regions, to the tropic islands of the sea—we who take so little account of mere space must see to it that the best means of nullifying the existence of space are at our command.
Of course, during the last century there has been an altogether phenomenal growth of one kind of road wholly unknown to the people of an earlier period—the iron road. The railroad is, of course, something purely modern. A great many excellent people have proceeded upon the assumption that somehow or other having good rail ways should be a substitute for having good highways, good ordinary roads. A more untenable position cannot be imagined. What the railway does is to develop the country; and of course its development implies that the developed country will need more and better roads.
A few years ago it was a matter of humiliation that there should be so little attention paid to our roads; that there should be a willingness not merely to refrain from making good roads, but to let the roads that were in existence become worse. I cannot too heartily congratulate our people upon the existence of a body such as this, ramifying into every section of the country, having its connections in every State of the country, and bent upon that eminently proper work of making the conditions of life easier and better for the people whom of all others we can least afford to see grow discontented with their lot in life--the people who live in the country districts. The extraordinary, the wholly unheard-of, rate of our industrial development during the past seventy-five years, together with the good sides, has had some evil sides. It is a fine thing to see our cities built up, but not at the expense of the country districts. The healthy thing to see is the building up of both the country and city go hand in hand. But we cannot expect the ablest, the most eager, the most ambitious young men to stay in the country, to stay on the farm, unless they have certain advantages. If the farm life is a life of isolation, a life in which it is a matter of great and real difficulty for one man to communicate with his neighbor, you can rest assured that there will be a tendency to leave it on the part of those very people whom we should most wish to see stay in it. It is a good thing to encourage in every way any tendency which will tend to check an unhealthy flow from the country to the city. There are several such tendencies in evidence at present. The growth of electricity as a means of transportation tends to a certain degree to exercise a centrifugal force to offset the centripetal force of steam. Exactly as steam and electricity have tended to gather men in masses, so now electricity, as applied to the purposes which steam has so long claimed as exclusively its own, tends again to scatter out the masses. The trolley lines that go out into the country are doing a great deal to render it more possible to live in the country and yet not to lose wholly the advantages of the town. The telephone is not to be minimized as an instrument with a tendency in the same direction; and rural free delivery is playing its part along the same lines. But no one thing can do more to offset the tendency toward an unhealthy growth from the country into the city than the making and keeping of good roads. They are needed for the sake of their effect upon the industrial conditions of the country districts; and I am almost tempted to say they are needed for the sake of social conditions in the country districts. If winter means to the average farmer the existence of a long line of liquid morasses through which he is to move his goods if bent on business, or to wade and swim if bent on pleasure; if winter means that after an ordinary rain the farmer boy or girl cannot use his or her bicycle; if a little heavy weather means a stoppage of all communication not only with industrial centres but with the neighbors, you must expect that there will be a great many young people of both sexes who will not find farm life attractive. It is for this reason that I feel the work you are doing is so pre-eminently one in the interest of the Nation as a whole. I congratulate you upon the fact that you are doing it. In our American life it would be hard to over estimate the amount of good that has been accomplished by associations of individuals who have gathered together to work for a common object which was to be of benefit to the community as a whole; and among all the excellent objects for which men and women combine to work today, there are few indeed which have a better right to command the energies of those engaged in the movement, and the hearty sympathy and support of those outside, than this movement in which you are engaged.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks to the National and International Good Roads Convention at Odeon Hall in St. Louis, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343437