Words to Stir a Nation (And a President?)

Theodore Roosevelt’s THE MAN IN THE ARENA speech has long been a inspirational favorite of mine. But, in a strange confluence between doing a book feature on THE TRUE PATRIOT and doing research for an upcoming book feature on The Elements of Journalism, I came across a quote on presidential criticism by President Theodore Roosevelt. He made it in 1918, during WWI and after he left office. The quote launched me on a journey to share more about this man and his words.

Criticism of the Presidency

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.” (Roosevelt in the Kansas City Star, 149; May 7, 1918)

When I read the quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s senior thesis at Harvard on Women’s rights in 1880, I knew he was not only a man of his time, but also a man for our time. To think that nearly a 100 years after his autobiography, we women are still fighting for equal rights in work and pay.

Women’s Rights

“Viewed purely in the abstract, I think there can be no question that women should have equal rights with men.”…”Especially as regards the laws relating to marriage there should be the most absolute equality between the two sexes. I do not think the woman should assume the man’s name.”
(The Practicability of Equalizing Men and Women before the Law, Senior thesis at Harvard, 1880)

“Much can be done by law towards putting women on a footing of complete and entire equal rights with man – including the right to vote, the right to hold and use property, and the right to enter any profession she desires on the same terms as the man.”…”Women should have free access to every field of labor which they care to enter, and when their work is as valuable as that of a man it should be paid as highly.” (An Autobiography, 1913)

Theodore Roosevelt was a progressive and a reformer. A man who advocated women’s suffrage, old-age pensions, and child labor laws. He was a man who knew government. And he was not a Democrat.

The Character of American Politics

“No man can lead a public career really worth leading, no man can act with rugged independence in serious crises, nor strike at great abuses, nor afford to make powerful and unscrupulous foes, if he is himself vulnerable in his private character.” (An Autobiography, 1913)

Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.

A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user. (An Autobiography, 1913)

No people is wholly civilized where a distinction is drawn between stealing an office and stealing a purse.

When they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer “Present” or “Not guilty.”

Let individuals contribute as they desire; but let us prohibit in effective fashion all corporations from making contributions for any political purpose, directly or indirectly. (Sixth Annual Message to the Congress, December 3, 1906)

Besides being the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt was also an accomplished writer, historian, naturalist, conservationist, and rancher. He was involved in government through out his life and held many elected and unelected positions from NY State Assemblyman, Governor of New York, Vice President and President of the United States to deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory, Police Commissioner of New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Colonel of the Rough Riders.

The Character of a Man (or Woman)

The first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his own weight.

To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.

Avoid the base hypocrisy of condemning in one man what you pass over in silence when committed by another. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 11, 1890)

Measure iniquity by the heart, whether a man’s purse be full or empty, partly full or partly empty. If the man is a descent man, whether well off, stand by him; if he is not a decent man stand against him, whether he be rich or poor.

The Character of Our Nation

The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.

It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it. (Dakota Territory, July 4, 1886)

Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor. (Third Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1903.)

We cannot do great deeds unless we are willing to do the small things that make up the sum of greatness. (New York, May 30, 1899)

Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.
True Americanism

…the man who can do most in this country is and must be the man whose Americanism is most sincere and intense…

We Americans have many grave problems to solve, many threatening evils to fight, and many deeds to do, if, as we hope and believe, we have the wisdom, the strength, the courage, and the virtue to do them. But we must face facts as they are. We must neither surrender ourselves to a foolish optimism, nor succumb to a timid and ignoble pessimism. Our nation is that one among all the nations of the earth which holds in its hands the fate of the coming years. We enjoy exceptional advantages, and are menaced by exceptional dangers; and all signs indicate that we shall either fail greatly or succeed greatly. I firmly believe that we shall succeed; but we must not foolishly blink the dangers by which we are threatened, for that is the way to fail. On the contrary, we must soberly set to work to find out all we can about the existence and extent of every evil, must acknowledge it to be such, and must then attack it with unyielding resolution. There are many such evils, and each must be fought after a fashion; yet there is one quality which we must bring to the solution of every problem,- that is, an intense and fervid Americanism. We shall never be successful over the dangers that confront us; we shall never achieve true greatness, nor reach the lofty ideal which the founders and preservers of our mighty Federal Republic have set before us, unless we are Americans in heart and soul, in spirit and purpose, keenly alive to the responsibility implied in the very name of American, and proud beyond measure of the glorious privilege of bearing it…

…We Americans can only do our allotted task well if we face it steadily and bravely, seeing but not fearing the dangers. Above all we must stand shoulder to shoulder, not asking as to the ancestry or creed of our comrades, but only demanding that they be in very truth Americans, and that we all work together, heart, hand, and head, for the honor and the greatness of our common country. (Excerpt from The Forum Magazine, April 1894)


Theodore (T. R.) Roosevelt, Jr.
(October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919)

The 26th President of the United States (1901–1909)
Husband, Father, widower
Cowboy, rancher, naturalist, explorer, hunter, conservationist
Writer,  philosopher, historian, legislator
Police Commissioner, Secretary of the Navy,
Colonel of the Rough Riders, Governor of New York
Vice President of the United States
Awarded Nobel Peace Prize – 1906

Look for more on Roosevelt’s remarkable life, writings and speeches, here and here.



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