Remarks to the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution in Montpelier, Vermont
Mr. President, and you, my fellow citizens, men and women of Vermont:
I am glad to be here in your beautiful State and I am especially glad to come here, Mr. Proctor, as the guest of the society of which you are president, the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. It is a great thing to have had forefathers who did their work well in the world, always providing that the fact of having had them drives ns onward to try to do our part in the world now, instead of being seized as an excuse for refusing to do our own share.
I like to see a man who is a good citizen, who comes from a line of good citizens, but I am sure we all feel nothing but an added contempt for the wretched creature who makes worthy ancestors an excuse for his own failure to do what he should do. But when I come up here to Vermont, when I see you people, I do not feel as though I could teach you anything, but I hope I can give expression to certain thoughts that you and I have.
Now, gentlemen and ladies, the men who in the American Revolution founded the greatest republic upon which the sun has ever shone, who not only fought but planned and acted aright in civil life, did not devise any new scheme of human conduct, they acted according to the well-tried truths in accordance with which all success worth having has been obtained from generation to generation through the ages. Just this afternoon I was reading a wonderful old poem of "Piers Plowman" of the 14th century in England and it is curious to see how closely the poet, speaking to his fellow countrymen, adheres to the plain common sense rules of morality to which we must adhere now if we are to win.
There is a text in the Bible which contains two rules of conduct where too many people are apt only to take one, sometimes this one, sometimes that one. You need both. The text is one which teaches us to be both as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. Now to be only harmless is not really to deserve much praise, nor, on the other hand to possess all the wisdom and all the power that can come to man shall avail nothing if with it does not come the lift toward righteousness, the life toward decency. Now that rule means that we have got to be both decent and efficient. I can point out, fortunately, here, from your own State, just what I mean.
I want first to illustrate what I mean by the two men whom Vermont, this inland State, contributed to the navy of the United States and to the glory of the entire nation in the Spanish war, Admiral Dewey and our friend here whom I do not have to name.
Now gentlemen, Admirals Dewey and Clark had to have in them the courage, that desire to do decently, but it would not have done them any good if they had not learned their trade as the chances came. Admiral Dewey went into Manila bay, Admiral Clark took the Oregon around through Magellan straits and then into the fight at Santiago and there bore himself with signal valor. They did that not only be cause they had in them the raw material that made them able to do it, but because they had made the most of that raw material so they could meet the demands made upon them. Dewey could not have begun to go into Manila bay if he had not been trained year in and year out at his profession.
If Dewey or Clark had sat down during the long years of peace, as I have known pretty good men to sit down and say "Oh, well, there is not anything to be done, when the day comes I will be here all right but just now I do not care to train the big guns or whatever it is "if they had done that, you would not have known the name of either of them at this moment. It was because each not only had the power in him, you have to have that too, but he had in him the capacity for doing well the plain everyday work right along, doing it whether there was any immediate reward ahead or not. Neither of these two men could have said there would have been any war before the time of their retirement came, and if they had not acted upon the principle that it was well to take pains with the little things of life, the time of their retirement would have come and you would not have been aware they had been in the war.
They had the little things, they made the preparations in advance. Here you can draw the lesson for all of us on that fact. Take the men on horses back there, the regulars over there. Thank heaven, I think we are long past the stage in this country when any of our citizens feel any jealousy or anything but the heartiest admiration for the regular army and navy. All honor to the men who spend their lives in training themselves, and die at need for the honor and necessity of all of us, should the call be made. In the army and navy alike the way to make certain success is to train in advance.
When the war with Spain broke out it was too late to teach our men to shoot, to teach our men in the engine room to keep the gear in good shape, to teach our captains knowledge of seamanship, they had then to make trial of what they had already learned. If ever we have a war--but I certainly hope we never shall—I believe the chances are but small for any war in our time--if ever we have a war we are going to do well or ill largely because of the position in which we are at the outset of the war.
There was splendid courage among the Spaniards; there were some very brave men at the Spanish guns, but they could not hit. I do not care how brave you are if you don't hit, the enemy has no special regard for you. We must have the trained efficiency in advance that will only come by preparedness in advance, and that is the reason that every effort is now being made with the army and particularly with the navy to see that we have not simply a pretty efficient force but the most efficient force any nation can have. The best is none too good for this Republic.
I am glad to welcome you here, young men of the National Guard, some of whom served in the Spanish War with me, but most of all I am glad to welcome those to whom for their great good fortune it was given to do the mightiest deed that any generation of men of this continent have done— than any generation of men in the last century did, the men who fought to the finish the great Civil War. There have been other crises in which it was necessary for our people to do well, but you proved your truth and your valor in the one crisis where failure meant death to the nation; where failure meant that all that had been done before would have passed—would have gone for nothing, that all that had been accomplished by our ancestors in the Revolutionary War would have been torn asunder like an idle page and the history of our Republic would have been put down as a meaningless failure.
You did that great feat and you did it by putting ahead certain fundamental virtues which, men and women of Vermont, I can say with entire sincerity and without a particle of flattery are typical of your State. You showed the two great qualities of anxiety to do honorable work, and of realization that while that work must be practical, it must be carried on in accordance with a high ideal.
There are people in this government, I regret to say, of whom it must be said, not that they have had bad ideals but that they have no ideals at all, and among those I class every man who is unable to see in this country anything but material prosperity. Material prosperity is a great thing, a necessary thing. We must have it as a basis upon which to build, but it is not everything, it is not even the main thing. It was Napoleon who said that in war the moral was to the material as ten to one, and in peace the moral question was many times as important as the material:
It is to you of the National Guard, here in front, that I speak. I want you to have, and I hope in the end to see that you have, the best high power smokeless powder weapon. I don't like black powder weapons at this stage of the game. I had about as soon see our people armed with crossbows. I want to see this nation and the States join in giving to the National Guard the best weapons of precision that can be obtained. After you have got that weapon, what will talk is the use you make of it. If you are put against equally good men with better weapons, the equally good men will beat you; if you have got the best weapon in the world and are second rate men, the first rate man will beat you for all he has only a club. You have got to have— you of the Civil War, you fought with widely different weapons and widely different tactics from the men who were with Ethan Allen when he struck the first great blow for Jehovah and the Continental Congress, up here, but the spirit that modeled him and those like him was yours, and so now, the men who at any time in the future find it their duty to hand down the honor of the flag that you have handed down to us— they must have, must be spurred on by the feelings, the ideals that spurred you on from '61 to '65 if they are to rise to the level of the nation's best.
Now what is true in war is true in peace. Great changes come in the superficial aspects of the social system, and behind all these changes you need exactly the same old fundamental virtue. Now at the beginning of the 20th century, with our railroads, our telegraph lines, our wonderful industries, our great corporations, with all that these changes mean, and the other changes that have been brought about, it still remains true that the Vermont of the 20th century, the America of the 20th century can be made what they shall be made only by putting in the fight, by putting into use, by applying the very qualities that the Vermonters showed at the close of the 18th century, that our people showed when out of the jangling confederated States just come through the Revolutionary War, they made this great Republic.
I have spoken to you of the poem of "Piers the Plowman," that old 14th century poet; he tells there of certain necessities for the people of his day. We are just exactly as needy in ours. The need of honesty, the need of resolute purpose to do work well. You in Vermont have come to the front. You have given to the nation men of leadership, altogether disproportionate to your numbers, to the wealth of your State, because you have acted on the belief unless you worked and worked hard and well, you were not doing your duty. A body of men who live only for pleasure, I do not care whether they are rich men or poor men; whether they are the sons of millionaires or whether they are those who are commonly known as "hoboes", if they do not work, fundamentally they are alike, fundamentally each has shirked his duty. One has shirked the duty of the wage earner, the other has shirked his duty to use the great privileges entrusted to him, but each has also shirked his duty to the State. Each stands on the wrong side in the line of cleavage which divides good citizens from bad citizens, a line of cleavage which runs at right angles to the line that divides wealth and poverty, don't forget that. You have got bad men on both sides of the line that divides men of moderate means from those that are very well off, and you have rich men and poor men on both sides of the line that divides good citizenship from bad citizenship, and any man who tries to teach you anything to the contrary is your enemy, and the enemy of the nation as a whole.
This country is full of opportunities. Pardon me for making a personal allusion, but I am so pleased as an American to come here to this beautiful city, the capital of this State, this State of which we are so proud, and see in your Mayor a man who by his life gives the lie to those who say there is not a chance for a man in America to rise. There is a chance, a first class chance for the man who takes advantage of it, but not for the man who is continually grumbling because there is no chance.
Then, my fellow countrymen, let us remember constantly that the way in which we can rise level to what our fathers did, is by applying the principles upon which they acted, not by sitting down and doing nothing. We can do our duty now just as our forefathers did in the Revolution, as you did in the Civil War.
You left us a reunited country and you left us more for you left us the memory of the deeds by which you kept it reunited, you left us the memory of what you did in the war, and what you did in peace, and one of the fundamental lessons we learned from what you did was the lesson of brotherhood, the lesson of comradeship, and the lesson implied in that of treating each man according to his worth as a man. All of you, after you had been in the war but a short while, grew to value the man on your right or the man on your left not with reference to this man's past, but to what he was in the present; whether he came from the town or the country, whether he was a banker or a bricklayer, a farmer or a mechanic, it made no difference to you if he had in him the stuff that made him move forward when the call was to move forward, that was what you wanted to know. You wanted to know if he would "stay put". That was what interested you, and if he was a man whose metal rang true in battle, if he was a man who was true and tried, a loyal man on the march or in camp, so you need not have any doubt where he was, that was what you cared for.
And so it must be with our citizenship in civil life. We must test a man by the fundamental qualities of his manhood. I have spoken of these qualities before today but I am going to speak of them again now. In the first place the man must be honest, must be decent. If he is not honest, if he is not straight in his dealings with his fellow men then the more popular he is the more danger he is to the community as a whole.
Benedict Arnold was as gallant a soldier as ever wore the American uniform and that was what made him so dangerous when he betrayed that uniform. Benedict Arnold left a leg at Saratoga, when he fought at the forefront of the battle. Benedict Arnold had he died then would have left his name as a heritage of honor for all time to his children, but he did not have the root of righteousness in him. So it was in war, so it is in peace. The public man who is brilliant, able, but who is so absolutely selfish that he is willing to mislead his country men to their own destruction is rendered infinitely more dangerous to them by the qualities that bring him success.
The business man of great talent in affairs, the man who has the gift of making vast sums of money, if he uses his talent right, if he plays the part as many great captains of industry have played their part, is a benefit, a great benefit to the country, but if he uses his talent wrongly, and if he lacks conscience, if he becomes absorbed completely in his own selfish wellbeing, he is all the greater curse because of that great ability. The scoundrel that succeeds is a man to fear, not the scoundrel that fails. You have got to have then honesty first, and no other quality will stand for that, ability, courage, saving grace of common sense, and honesty.
But honesty is not enough; you there, you veterans, you wanted the man next you to be patriotic, but if he ran away his patriotism did not help. Besides decency, besides honesty and righteousness you must have courage. You need it absolutely in war and you need it in peace. Courage to stand up for the right, the courage that will refuse to yield either on the one hand to any temptation either to the illusions and weaknesses of those who use wealth wrongly, or on the other hand to the none the less base envy and hatred of those who because they are not well off, feel anger and malice and rancor towards those who are. You must have courage as well as honesty, and then in addition to that you have got to have another quality without which the others lose their savor. I do not care how honest a man is and how brave a man is, if he is a born fool you can do nothing for him. I ask for honesty. I ask for courage. Honesty and courage in our citizenship, and I ask that there go with them the saving grace of common sense.
I thank you.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks to the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution in Montpelier, Vermont Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343502