Remarks in Topeka, Kansas

May 01, 1903

Colonel McCook, gentlemen, and ladies:

It needed no urging to get me to accept your invitation. I hailed the chance of speaking a few words to you on this occasion, because it seems to me that the railroad branch of the Young Men's Christian Association exemplifies in practice just exactly what I like to preach; that is, the combination of efficiency with decent living and high ideals.

In our present advanced civilization we have to pay certain penalties for what we have obtained. Among the penalties is the fact that in very many occupations there is so little demand upon nerve, hardihood, and endurance, that there is a tendency to unhealthy softening of fibre and relaxation of fibre; and such being the case I think it is a fortunate thing for our people as a whole that there should be certain occupations, prominent among them railroading, in which the man has to show the very qualities of courage, of hardihood, or willingness to face danger, the cultivation of the power of instantaneous decision under difficulties, and the other qualities which go to make up the virile side of a man's character—the qualities, Colonel McCook, which you and those like you showed when as boys, as young men, they fought to a finish the great Civil War.

So much for the manliness, so much for the strength, so much for the courage, developed by your profession, all of which you show, and have to show, or you could not succeed in doing the work you are doing as your life work. These qualities are all-important, but they are not all-sufficient. It is necessary absolutely to have them. No nation can rise to greatness without them; but by them alone no nation will ever become great. Reading through the pages of history you come upon nation after nation in which there has been a high average of individual strength, bravery, and hardihood, and yet in which there has been nothing approaching to national greatness, because those qualities were not supplemented by others just as necessary. With the courage, with the hardihood, with the strength, must come the power of self-restraint, the power of self mastery, the capacity to work for and with others as well as for one's self, the power of giving to others the love which each of us must bear for his neighbor, if we are to make our civilization really great. And these are the qualities which are fostered and developed, which are given full play, by institutions such as the Young Men's Christian Association.

The other day in a little Lutheran church at Sioux Falls I listened to a most interesting and most stimulating sermon, which struck me particularly because of the translation of a word which, I am ashamed to say, I had myself always before mistranslated. It was on the old text of faith, hope, and charity. The sermon was delivered in German, and the word that the preacher used for charity was not charity, but love; preaching that the greatest of all the forces with which we deal for betterment is love. Looking it up I found, of course, what I ought to have known but did not, that the Greek word which we have translated into the word charity, should be more properly translated love. That is, we use the word charity at present in a sense which does not make it correspond entirely to the word used in the original Greek. This Lutheran preacher developed in a very striking but very happy fashion the absolute need of love in the broadest sense of the word, in order to make mankind even approximately perfect.

We need then the two qualities—the quality of which I first spoke to you which has many shapes, the quality which rests upon courage, upon bodily and mental strength, upon will, upon daring, upon resolution, the quality which makes a man work; and then we need the quality of which the preacher spoke when he spoke of love as being the great factor; the ultimate factor, in bringing about the kind of human fellowship which will even approximately enable us to come up toward the standard after which I think all of us with many short-comings strive. Work, the quality which makes a man ashamed not to be able to pull his own weight, not to be able to do for himself as well as for others without being beholden to anyone for what he is doing. No man is happy if he does not work. Of all miserable creatures the idler, in whatever rank of society, is in the long run the most miserable. If a man does not work, if he has not in him not merely the capacity for work but the desire for work, then nothing can be done with him. He is out of place in our community. We have in our scheme of government no room for the man who does not wish to pay his way through life by what he does for himself and for the community. If he has leisure which makes it unnecessary for him to devote his time to earning his daily bread, then all the more he is bound to work just as hard in some way that will make the community the better off for his existence. If he fails in that, he fails to justify his existence. Work, the capacity for work, is absolutely necessary; and no man's life is full, no man can be said to live in the true sense of the word, if he does not work. This is necessary, and yet it is not enough. If a man is utterly selfish, if utterly disregardful of the rights of others, if he has no ideals, if he works simply for the sake of ministering to his own base passions, if he works simply to gratify himself, small is his good in the community. I think even then he is probably better off than if he is an idler, but he is of no real use unless together with the quality which enables him to work he has the quality which enables him to love his fellows, to work with them and for them for the common good of all.

It seems to me that these Young Men's Christian Associations play a part of the greatest consequence, not merely because of the great good they do in themselves, but because of the lesson of brotherhood that they teach all of us. All of us here are knit together by bonds which we cannot sever. For weal or for woe our fates are inextricably intermingled. All of us in our present civilization are dependent upon one another to a degree never before known in the history of mankind, and in the long run we are going to go up or go down together. For a moment, some man may rise by trampling on his fellows; for a moment, and much more commonly, some men may think they will rise or gratify their envy and hatred by pulling others down. But any such movement upward is probably illusory, and is certainly short lived. Any permanent movement upward must come in such a shape that all of us feel the lift a little, and if there is a tendency downward all of us will feel that tendency, too. We must, if we are to raise ourselves, realize that each of us in the long run can with certainty be raised only if the conditions are such that all of us are somewhat raised. In order to bring about these conditions the first essential is that each shall have a genuine spirit of regard and friendship for others, and that each of us shall try to look at the problems of life somewhat from his neighbor's standpoint—that we shall have the capacity to understand one another' s position, one another' s needs, and also the desire each to help his brother as well as to help himself. To do that wisely, wisely to strive with that as the aim, is not very easy. Many qualities are needed in order that we can contribute our mite toward the upward movement of the world—among them the quality of self-abnegation, and yet combined with it the quality which will refuse to submit to injustice. I want to preach the two qualities going hand in hand. I do not want a man to fail to try to strive for his own betterment, I do not want him to be quick to yield to injustice; I want him to stand for his rights; but I want him to be very certain that he knows what his rights are, and that he does not make them the wrongs of some one else.

I have a great deal of faith in the average American citizen. I think he is a pretty good fellow, and I think he can generally get on with the other average American citizen if he will only know him. If he does not know him, but makes him a monster in his mind, then he will not get on with him. But if he will take the trouble to know him and realize that he is a being just like himself, with the same instincts, not all of them good, the same desire to overcome those that are not good, the same purposes, the same tendencies, the same short comings, the same desires for good, the same need of striving against evil; if he will realize all this, then if you can get the two together with an honest desire each to try not only to help himself but to help the other, most of our problems will be solved. And I can imagine no way more likely to hurry forward such a favorable solution than to encourage the building up of just such institutions as this.

Therefore, I congratulate you with all my heart upon this meeting today. Therefore I esteem myself most fortunate in having the chance of addressing you. It is a very good thing to attend to the material side of life. We must in the first instance attend to our material prosperity. Unless we have that as a foundation we cannot build up any higher kind of life. But we shall lead a miserable and sordid life if we spend our whole time in doing nothing but attending to our material needs. If the building up of the railroads, of the farms, of the factories, of the industrial centres, means nothing whatever but an increase in the instruments of production and an increase in the fevered haste with which those instruments are used, progress amounts to but a little thing. If, however, the developing of our material prosperity is to serve as a foundation upon which we raise a higher, a purer, a fuller, a better life, then indeed things are well with the Republic. If as our wealth increases the wisdom of our use of the wealth increases in even greater proportion, then the wealth has justified its existence many times over. If with the industry, the skill, the hardihood, of those whom I am addressing and their fellows, nothing comes beyond a selfish desire each to grasp for himself whatever he can of material enjoyment, then the outlook for the future is indeed grave, then the advantages of living in the twentieth century sur rounded by all our modern improvements, our modern symbols of progress, are indeed small. But if we mean to make of each fresh development in the way of material betterment a step toward a fresh development in moral and spiritual betterment, then we are to be congratulated.

To me the future seems full of hope because, although there are many conflicting tendencies, and although some of these tendencies of our present life are for evil, yet, on the whole the tendencies for good are in the ascendency. And I greet this audience, this great body of delegates, with peculiar pleasure because they are men who embody, by the very fact of their presence here, the two essential sets of qualities of which I have been speaking. They embody the capacity for self-help with the desire mutually to help one the other. You have several qualities I like. You have sound bodies. Your profession is not one that can be carried on, at least in some of its branches, without the sound body. You have sound minds, and that is better than sound bodies; and finally, the fact that you are here, the fact that you have done what you have done, shows that you have that which counts for more than body, for more than mind—character.

I congratulate you upon what you are doing for yourselves, and I congratulate you even more upon what you are doing for all men who hope to see the day brought nearer when the people of all nations, will realize—not merely talk of, but realize—what the essence of brotherhood is. I congratulate you, as I say, not only because you are bettering yourselves, but because to you, for your good fortune, it is given to better others, to teach, in the way in which teaching is most effective, not merely by precept but by action. The railroad men of this country are a body entitled to the well wishes of their fellow men in any event, but peculiarly is this true of the railroad men of the country who join in such work as that of the Young Men's Christian Associations, because they are showing by their actions—and oh, how much louder actions speak than words!--that it is not only possible, but very, very possible and easy to combine the manliness which makes a man able to do his own share of the world's work, with that fine and lofty love of one's fellow-men which makes you able to come together with your fellows and work hand in hand with them for the common good of mankind in general.

Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks in Topeka, Kansas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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