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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). The Strenuous Life. 1900.




IN the long run every great nation instinctively recognizes the men who peculiarly and preëminently represent its own type of greatness. Here in our country we have had many public men of high rank—soldiers, orators, constructive statesmen, and popular leaders. We have even had great philosophers who were also leaders of popular thought. Each one of these men has had his own group of devoted followers, and some of them have at times swayed the nation with a power such as the foremost of all hardly wielded. Yet as the generations slip away, as the dust of conflict settles, and as through the clearing air we look back with keener wisdom into the nation’s past, mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant. There are great men also in the second rank; for in any gallery of merely national heroes Franklin and Hamilton, Jefferson and Jackson, would surely have their place. But these three greatest men have taken their place among the great men of all nations, the great men of all time. They stood supreme in the two great crises of our history, on the two great occasions when we stood in the van of all humanity and struck the most effective blows that have ever been struck for the cause of human freedom under the law, for that spirit of orderly liberty which must stand at the base of every wise movement to secure to each man his rights, and to guard each from being wronged by his fellows.

Washington fought in the earlier struggle, and it was his good fortune to win the highest renown alike as soldier and statesman. In the second and even greater struggle the deeds of Lincoln the statesman were made good by those of Grant the soldier, and later Grant himself took up the work that dropped from Lincoln’s tired hands when the assassin’s bullet went home, and the sad, patient, kindly eyes were closed forever.

It was no mere accident that made our three mightiest men, two of them soldiers, and one the great war President. It is only through work and strife that either nation or individual moves on to greatness. The great man is always the man of mighty effort, and usually the man whom grinding need has trained to mighty effort. Rest and peace are good things, are great blessings, but only if they come honorably; and it is those who fearlessly turn away from them, when they have not been earned, who in the long run deserve best of their country. In the sweat of our brows do we eat bread, and though the sweat is bitter at times, yet it is far more bitter to eat the bread that is unearned, unwon, undeserved. America must nerve herself for labor and peril. The men who have made our national greatness are those who faced danger and overcame it, who met difficulties and surmounted them, not those whose lines were cast in such pleasant places that toil and dread were ever far from them.

Neither was it an accident that our three leaders were men who, while they did not shrink from war, were nevertheless heartily men of peace. The man who will not fight to avert or undo wrong is but a poor creature; but, after all, he is less dangerous than the man who fights on the side of wrong. Again and again in a nation’s history the time may, and indeed sometimes must, come when the nation’s highest duty is war. But peace must be the normal condition, or the nation will come to a bloody doom. Twice in great crises, in 1776 and 1861, and twice in lesser crises, in 1812 and 1898, the nation was called to arms in the name of all that makes the words “honor,” “freedom,” and “justice” other than empty sounds. On each occasion the net result of the war was greatly for the benefit of mankind. But on each occasion this net result was of benefit only because after the war came peace, came justice and order and liberty. If the Revolution had been followed by bloody anarchy, if the Declaration of Independence had not been supplemented by the adoption of the Constitution, if the freedom won by the sword of Washington had not been supplemented by the stable and orderly government which Washington was instrumental in founding, then we should have but added to the chaos of the world, and our victories would have told against and not for the betterment of mankind. So it was with the Civil War. If the four iron years had not been followed by peace, they would not have been justified. If the great silent soldier, the Hammer of the North, had struck the shackles off the slave only, as so many conquerors in civil strife before him had done, to rivet them around the wrists of freemen, then the war would have been fought in vain, and worse than in vain. If the Union, which so many men shed their blood to restore, were not now a union in fact, then the precious blood would have been wasted. But it was not wasted; for the work of peace has made good the work of war, and North and South, East and West, we are now one people in fact as well as in name; one in purpose, in fellow-feeling, and in high resolve, as we stand to greet the new century, and, high of heart, to face the mighty tasks which the coming years will surely bring.

Grant and his fellow-soldiers who fought through the war, and his fellow-statesmen who completed the work partly done by the soldiers, not only left us the heritage of a reunited country and of a land from which slavery had been banished, but left us what was quite as important, the great memory of their great deeds, to serve forever as an example and an inspiration, to spur us on so that we may not fall below the level reached by our fathers. The rough, strong poet of democracy has sung of Grant as “the man of mighty days, and equal to the days.” The days are less mighty now, and that is all the more reason why we should show ourselves equal to them. We meet here to pay glad homage to the memory of our illustrious dead; but let us keep ever clear before our minds the fact that mere lip-loyalty is no loyalty at all, and that the only homage that counts is the homage of deeds, not of words. It is but an idle waste of time to celebrate the memory of the dead unless we, the living, in our lives strive to show ourselves not unworthy of them. If the careers of Washington and Grant are not vital and full of meaning to us, if they are merely part of the storied past, and stir us to no eager emulation in the ceaseless, endless war for right against wrong, then the root of right thinking is not in us; and where we do not think right we cannot act right.

It is not my purpose in this address to sketch, in even the briefest manner, the life and deeds of Grant. It is not even my purpose to touch on the points where his influence has told so tremendously in the making of our history. It is part of the man’s greatness that now we can use his career purely for illustration. We can take for granted the fact that each American who knows the history of the country must know the history of this man, at least in its broad outline; and that we no more need to explain Vicksburg and Appomattox than we need to explain Yorktown. I shall ask attention, not to Grant’s life, but to the lessons taught by that life as we of to-day should learn them.

Foremost of all is the lesson of tenacity, of stubborn fixity of purpose. In the Union armies there were generals as brilliant as Grant, but none with his iron determination. This quality he showed as President no less than as general. He was no more to be influenced by a hostile majority in Congress into abandoning his attitude in favor of a sound and stable currency than he was to be influenced by check or repulse into releasing his grip on beleaguered Richmond. It is this element of unshakable strength to which we are apt specially to refer when we praise a man in the simplest and most effective way, by praising him as a man. It is the one quality which we can least afford to lose. It is the only quality the lack of which is as unpardonable in the nation as in the man. It is the antithesis of levity, fickleness, volatility, of undue exaltation, of undue depression, of hysteria and neuroticism in all their myriad forms. The lesson of unyielding, unflinching, unfaltering perseverance in the course upon which the nation has entered is one very necessary for a generation whose preachers sometimes dwell overmuch on the policies of the moment. There are not a few public men, not a few men who try to mold opinion within Congress and without, on the stump and in the daily press, who seem to aim at instability, who pander to and thereby increase the thirst for overstatement of each situation as it arises, whose effort is, accordingly, to make the people move in zigzags instead of in a straight line. We all saw this in the Spanish war, when the very men who at one time branded as traitors everybody who said there was anything wrong in the army at another time branded as traitors everybody who said there was anything right. Of course such an attitude is as unhealthy on one side as on the other, and it is equally destructive of any effort to do away with abuse.

Hysterics of this kind may have all the results of extreme timidity. A nation that has not the power of endurance, the power of dogged insistence on a determined policy, come weal or woe, has lost one chief element of greatness. The people who wish to abandon the Philippines because we have had heavy skirmishing out there, or who think that our rule is a failure whenever they discover some sporadic upgrowth of evil, would do well to remember the two long years of disaster this nation suffered before the July morning when the news was flashed to the waiting millions that Vicksburg had fallen in the West and that in the East the splendid soldiery of Lee had recoiled at last from the low hills of Gettysburg. Even after this nearly two years more were to pass before the end came at Appomattox. Throughout this time the cry of the prophets of disaster never ceased. The peace-at-any-price men never wearied of declaiming against the war, of describing the evils of conquest and subjugation as worse than any possible benefits that could result therefrom. The hysterical minority passed alternately from unreasoning confidence to unreasoning despair; and at times they even infected for the moment many of their sober, steady countrymen. Eighteen months after the war began the State and congressional elections went heavily against the war party, and two years later the opposition party actually waged the Presidential campaign on the issue that the war was a failure. Meanwhile there was plenty of blundering at the front, plenty of mistakes at Washington. The country was saved by the fact that our people, as a whole, were steadfast and unshaken. Both at Washington and at the front the leaders were men of undaunted resolution, who would not abandon the policy to which the nation was definitely committed, who regarded disaster as merely a spur to fresh effort, who saw in each blunder merely something to be retrieved, and not a reason for abandoning the long-determined course. Above all, the great mass of the people possessed a tough and stubborn fiber of character.

There was then, as always, ample room for criticism, and there was every reason why the mistakes should be corrected. But in the long run our gratitude was due primarily, not to the critics, not to the fault-finders, but to the men who actually did the work; not to the men of negative policy, but to those who struggled toward the given goal. Merciful oblivion has swallowed up the names of those who railed at the men who were saving the Union, while it has given us the memory of these same men as a heritage of honor forever; and brightest among their names flame those of Lincoln and Grant, the steadfast, the unswerving, the enduring, the finally triumphant.

Grant’s supreme virtue as a soldier was his doggedness, the quality which found expression in his famous phrases of “unconditional surrender” and “fighting it out on this line if it takes all summer.” He was a master of strategy and tactics, but he was also a master of hard hitting, of that “continuous hammering” which finally broke through even Lee’s guard. While an armed foe was in the field, it never occurred to Grant that any question could be so important as his overthrow. He felt nothing but impatient contempt for the weak souls who wished to hold parley with the enemy while that enemy was still capable of resistance.

There is a fine lesson in this to the people who have been asking us to invite the certain destruction of our power in the Philippines, and therefore the certain destruction of the islands themselves, by putting any concession on our part ahead of the duty of reducing the islands to quiet at all costs and of stamping out the last embers of armed resistance. At the time of the Civil War the only way to secure peace was to fight for it, and it would have been a crime against humanity to have stopped fighting before peace was conquered. So in the far less important, but still very important, crisis which confronts us to-day, it would be a crime against humanity if, whether from weakness or from mistaken sentimentalism, we failed to perceive that in the Philippines the all-important duty is to restore order; because peace, and the gradually increasing measure of self-government for the islands which will follow peace, can only come when armed resistance has completely vanished.

Grant was no brawler, no lover of fighting for fighting’s sake. He was a plain, quiet man, not seeking for glory; but a man who, when aroused, was always in deadly earnest, and who never shrank from duty. He was slow to strike, but he never struck softly. He was not in the least of the type which gets up mass-meetings, makes inflammatory speeches or passes inflammatory resolutions, and then permits over-forcible talk to be followed by over-feeble action. His promise squared with his performance. His deeds made good his words. He did not denounce an evil in strained and hyperbolic language; but when he did denounce it, he strove to make his denunciation effective by his action. He did not plunge lightly into war, but once in, he saw the war through, and when it was over, it was over entirely. Unsparing in battle, he was very merciful in victory. There was no let-up in his grim attack, his grim pursuit, until the last body of armed foes surrendered. But that feat once accomplished, his first thought was for the valiant defeated; to let them take back their horses to their little homes because they would need them to work on their farms. Grant, the champion whose sword was sharpest in the great fight for liberty, was no less sternly insistent upon the need of order and of obedience to law. No stouter foe of anarchy in every form ever lived within our borders. The man who more than any other, save Lincoln, had changed us into a nation whose citizens were all freemen, realized entirely that these freemen would remain free only while they kept mastery over their own evil passions. He saw that lawlessness in all its forms was the handmaiden of tyranny. No nation ever yet retained its freedom for any length of time after losing its respect for the law, after losing the law-abiding spirit, the spirit that really makes orderly liberty.

Grant, in short, stood for the great elementary virtues, for justice, for freedom, for order, for unyielding resolution, for manliness in its broadest and highest sense. His greatness was not so much greatness of intellect as greatness of character, including in the word “character” all the strong, virile virtues. It is character that counts in a nation as in a man. It is a good thing to have a keen, fine intellectual development in a nation, to produce orators, artists, successful business men; but it is an infinitely greater thing to have those solid qualities which we group together under the name of character—sobriety, steadfastness, the sense of obligation toward one’s neighbor and one’s God, hard common sense, and, combined with it, the lift of generous enthusiasm toward whatever is right. These are the qualities which go to make up true national greatness, and these were the qualities which Grant possessed in an eminent degree.

We have come here, then, to realize what the mighty dead did for the nation, what the dead did for us who are now living. Let us in return try to shape our deeds so that the America of the future shall justify by her career the lives of the great men of her past. Every man who does his duty as a soldier, as a statesman, or as a private citizen is paying to Grant’s memory the kind of homage that is best worth paying. We have difficulties and dangers enough in the present, and it is the way we face them which is to determine whether or not we are fit descendants of the men of the mighty past. We must not flinch from our duties abroad merely because we have even more important duties at home. That these home duties are the most important of all every thinking man will freely acknowledge. We must do our duty to ourselves and our brethren in the complex social life of the time. We must possess the spirit of broad humanity, deep charity, and loving-kindness for our fellow-men, and must remember, at the same time, that this spirit is really the absolute antithesis of mere sentimentalism, of soup-kitchen, pauperizing philanthropy, and of legislation which is inspired either by foolish mock benevolence or by class greed or class hate. We need to be possessed of the spirit of justice and of the spirit which recognizes in work and not ease the proper end of effort.

Of course the all-important thing to keep in mind is that if we have not both strength and virtue we shall fail. Indeed, in the old acceptation of the word, virtue included strength and courage, for the clear-sighted men at the dawn of our era knew that the passive virtues could not by themselves avail, that wisdom without courage would sink into mere cunning, and courage without morality into ruthless, lawless, self-destructive ferocity. The iron Roman made himself lord of the world because to the courage of the barbarian he opposed a courage as fierce and an infinitely keener mind; while his civilized rivals, the keen-witted Greek and Carthaginian, though of even finer intellect, had let corruption eat into their brilliant civilizations until their strength had been corroded as if by acid. In short, the Roman had character as well as masterful genius, and when pitted against peoples either of less genius or of less character, these peoples went down.

As the ages roll by, the eternal problem forever fronting each man and each race forever shifts its outward shape, and yet at the bottom it is always the same. There are dangers of peace and dangers of war; dangers of excess in militarism and of excess by the avoidance of duty that implies militarism; dangers of slow dry-rot, and dangers which become acute only in great crises. When these crises come, the nation will triumph or sink accordingly as it produces or fails to produce statesmen like Lincoln and soldiers like Grant, and accordingly as it does or does not back them in their efforts. We do not need men of unsteady brilliancy or erratic power—unbalanced men. The men we need are the men of strong, earnest, solid character—the men who possess the homely virtues, and who to these virtues add rugged courage, rugged honesty, and high resolve. Grant, with his self-poise, his self-command, his self-mastery; Grant, who loved peace and did not fear war, who would not draw the sword if he could honorably keep it sheathed, but who, when once he had drawn it, would not return it to the sheath until the weary years had brought the blood-won victory; Grant, who had no thought after the fight was won save of leading the life led by other Americans, and who aspired to the Presidency only as Zachary Taylor or Andrew Jackson had aspired to it—Grant was of a type upon which the men of to-day can well afford to model themselves.

As I have already said, our first duty, our most important work, is setting our own house in order. We must be true to ourselves, or else, in the long run, we shall be false to all others. The republic cannot stand if honesty and decency do not prevail alike in public and private life; if we do not set ourselves seriously at work to solve the tremendous social problems forced upon us by the far-sweeping industrial changes of the last two generations.

But in considering the life of Grant it is peculiarly appropriate to remember that, besides the regeneration in political and social life within our own borders, we must also face what has come upon us from without. No friendliness with other nations, no good will for them or by them, can take the place of national self-reliance. No alliance, no inoffensive conduct on our part, would supply, in time of need, the failure in ability to hold our own with the strong hand. We must work out our own destiny by our own strength. A vigorous young nation like ours does not always stand still. Now and then there comes a time when it is sure either to shrink or to expand. Grant saw to it that we did not shrink, and therefore we had to expand when the inevitable moment came.

Great duties face us in the islands where the Stars and Stripes now float in place of the arrogant flag of Spain. As we perform those duties well or ill, so will we, in large part, determine our right to a place among the great nations of the earth. We have got to meet them in the very spirit of Grant. If we are frightened at the task, above all, if we are cowed or disheartened by any check, or by the clamor of the sensation-monger, we shall show ourselves weaklings unfit to invoke the memories of the stalwart men who fought to a finish the great Civil War. If we do not rule wisely, and if our rule is not in the interest of the peoples who have come under our guardianship, then we had best never to have begun the effort at all. As a nation we shall have to choose our representatives in these islands as carefully as Grant chose the generals who were to serve at the vital points under him. Fortunately, so far the choice has been most wise. No nation has ever sent a better man than we sent to Cuba when President McKinley appointed as governor-general of that island Leonard Wood; and now, in sending Judge Taft at the head of the commission to the Philippines, the President has again chosen the very best man to be found in all the United States for the purpose in view.

Part of Grant’s great strength lay in the fact that he faced facts as they were, and not as he wished they might be. He was not originally an abolitionist, and he probably could not originally have defined his views as to State sovereignty; but when the Civil War was on, he saw that the only thing to do was to fight it to a finish and establish by force of arms the constitutional right to put down rebellion. It is just the same thing nowadays with expansion. It has come, and it has come to stay, whether we wish it or not. Certain duties have fallen to us as a legacy of the war with Spain, and we cannot avoid performing them. All we can decide is whether we will perform them well or ill. We cannot leave the Philippines. We have got to stay there, establish order, and then give the inhabitants as much self-government as they show they can use to advantage. We cannot run away if we would. We have got to see the work through, because we are not a nation of weaklings. We are strong men, and we intend to do our duty.

To do our duty—that is the sum and substance of the whole matter. We are not trying to win glory. We are not trying to do anything especially brilliant or unusual. We are setting ourselves vigorously at each task as the task arises, and we are trying to face each difficulty as Grant faced innumerable and infinitely greater difficulties. The sure way to succeed is to set about our work in the spirit that marked the great soldier whose life we this day celebrate: the spirit of devotion to duty, of determination to deal fairly, justly, and fearlessly with all men, and of iron resolution never to abandon any task once begun until it has been brought to a successful and triumphant conclusion.