Remarks at the Piedmont Club Luncheon in Atlanta, Georgia
Mr. Graves and my hosts:
It is almost unkind to greet a guest in a speech to which it is impossible that any guest should adequately respond. Gentlemen, surely it must be almost unnecessary for me to say not alone how I have enjoyed today, but how deeply touched and moved I have been at your reception of me, at Georgia's reception of its descendant. I told the Governor I had a kind of ancestral reversionary right to his chair; because the first revolutionary president of Georgia was my great-great grandfather, Archibald Bulloch, after whom one of my boys is named. Noman could meet with such a reception as you have given me today; no man could see your city; could see your people, could address such an audience as I have addressed, and not be a better citizen afterwards. It means a great deal to me to meet all of you personally, with all that you gentlemen typify in the world of politics, the world of business, and that world of ethical effort which can alone render either business or politics noble.
Now, I am going to very ill repay the courtesy with which I have been greeted by causing for a minute or two acute discomfort to a man of whom I am very fond—Uncle Remus. Presidents may come and Presidents may go, but Uncle Remus stays, put. Georgia has done a great many things for the Union, but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature. I suppose he is one of those literary people who insist that art should have nothing to do with morals, and will condemn me as a Philistine for not agreeing with them, but I want to say that one of the great reasons why I like what he has written is because after reading it I rise up with the purpose of being a better man, a man who is bound to strive to do what is in him for the cause of decency and for the cause of righteousness. Gentlemen, I feel too strongly to indulge in any language of mere compliment, or mere flattery. Where Mr. Harris seems to me to have done one of his greatest services is that he has written what exalts the South in the mind of every man who reads it, and yet what has not even a flavor of bitterness toward any other part of the Union. There is not an American anywhere who can read Mr. Harris' stories—I am not speaking at the moment of his wonderful folk tales, but of his stories—who does not rise up a better citizen for having read them, who does not rise up with a more earnest desire to do his part in solving American problems aright. I cannot too strongly express the obligations I am under to Mr. Harris; and one of those obligations is to feel as a principle that it is my duty (which, if I have transgressed, I have not transgressed knowingly) never as an American to do anything that could be construed into an attack upon any portion of our common country.
Now, let me say one word on something entirely different, suggested by our talk here today. In speaking over with several of the gentleman round about me their experiences in the Georgia legislature and some of my experiences in the New York legislature, the thing that struck me most was the truth of Abraham Lincoln's saying that, "there is a deal of human nature in mankind". The enemies we have to fight; the friends upon whom we have to rely, are substantially the same in whatever part of the Union we live. We have to war against the same evil tendencies in our own souls; we have to strive to give expression to the same aspirations toward righteousness, toward honor. In doing that there are two things that are necessary above all others.
In the first place, the fearless condemnation of what is wrong; the standing up for what is decent, for what is straight; the refusing to palter with the eternal principles of truth; refusing to pardon any man who for any reason lapses from the law that teaches that the man who is to be of service must obey the great rule of truth, of courage and of honor. In the second place, to remember that second only in iniquity, second only in the injury done to the republic, to the wrong of the man who acts corruptly, comes the wrong of the man who wantonly accuses the honest man of corruption. Thief is an ugly name, because it denotes an ugly thing. Liar is as ugly a name as thief and as little to be desired by any right-thinking man; and either to steal or to lie marks the man as unfit for association with decent men and an enemy of all that is best and most upright in our political life. Too often we have seen public sentiment condoning the acts both of the thief and the liar (I am using ugly words, gentlemen, and I am using them because I wish to denote in the sharpest and in the most ugly fashion ugly attributes), when their acts are shifted a little so that they can be hidden under other names. The man who in political life, the man who in business life, by chicanery or by corruption in any shape or form, does or achieves what could not be done or achieved save by or through chicanery or corruption, stands on the same level with the man who in court is convicted of theft. The man who on no grounds or on insufficient grounds attacks the honest and upright man, whether in public or private life, is corrupt; who seeks to persuade men to believe that he is corrupt; who accuses him of corruption, this man stands on the same evil eminence of infamy with the corruptionist himself; and he is himself the greatest ally of the corruptionist he professes to denounce. The republic will go down, our democratic institutions will be a failure, if the moral sense of the people grows so blunted that they will accept anything else, whether brilliancy or loyalty of party service, or any other deed or quality, as an offset to corruption. The minute that there comes a question of corruption in public life, if we have any sense of loyalty to the Union and its institutions, all political lines vanish at once. We can afford to consider in a public servant nothing but the question of his honesty or dishonesty when once that question is raised. I have been able to deal with Senator Clay as I have dealt because I knew that was the principle in which he consistently acts.
The surest way of blunting the public conscience in dealing with corruption is to confuse the public mind as to who is corrupt and who is not. There are plenty of men with whom we differ radically, plenty of men of whom we radically disapprove, as to whom it is right and necessary that we should express that disapprobation; but beware of expressing it in terms that imply moral reprobation. When we express moral reprobation, let us be sure that we know the facts, and then that we say only exactly what is true. To accuse an honest man of being a thief is to gladden the heart of every thief in the nation. In our legislative bodies, in our national congress, if you find that any mind is corrupt, you are not to be excused if you do not hunt him out of public life, whether he is of one party or whether he is of another. But if you accuse, either specifically, or in loose general declamation, all men of being corruptionists, you by just so much weaken your own strength when it becomes necessary to assail the genuine corruptionist. So far from asking that you be lenient in your judgment of any public man, I hold that you are recreant to your duty if you are thus lenient. Do not be lenient, but do be just. If you like a man's policy, say so. If you think he is acting in a way so misguided that he will bring ruin to the State or nation, say so. But do not accuse him of corruption unless you know that he is corrupt; and if you know that he is corrupt, if you have good reason to believe that he is corrupt, then refuse under any plea of party expediency or consideration from refraining from smiting him with the sword of the Lord.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Piedmont Club Luncheon in Atlanta, Georgia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343624