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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


A Young Men’s Hero

I HAVE told you what Theodore Roosevelt is like as I see him. I have told of the man, the friend, the husband and father, because back of his public career, of his great office, I see himself always; and to my mind so it must be that you will take him to your heart as the President, also, and find the key to all he is and stands for. Knowing him as he really is, you cannot help trusting him. I would have everybody feel that way toward him who does not do so already; for we are facing much too serious times, you and he and all of us, to be honestly at odds where we should pull together. As for the others who are not honestly at odds with him, who are “working for their own pockets all the time,” who are kin to the malefactors who burned up four thousand Christmas-trees in Philadelphia the other day to reduce the supply and force up the price of the remaining ones—what sweet Christmas joys must have been theirs!—I care nothing for them. I would as lief have them all in front and within fighting reach from the start. They belong there, anyhow.

And now, what does it all mean? Why have I written it? Just to boom Roosevelt for the Presidency in the election that comes soon? No, not that. I shall rejoice to see him elected, and I shall know that never was my vote put to better use for my country than when I cast it for him. To have him beaten by the Christmas-tree cabal would argue an unpreparedness, an unfitness to grapple with the real problems of the day, that might well dishearten the patriot. But this not because of himself, much as I like to hear the whole country shout for the friend I love, but because of what he stands for. It matters less that Theodore Roosevelt is President, but it matters a good deal that the things prevail which he represents in the nation’s life. It never mattered more than at this present day of ours—right now. Yesterday I spoke in a New England town, a prosperous, happy town, where the mills were all running, property booming, the people busy; but there was a fly in the ointment, after all. It came out when I expressed my pleasure at what I had seen.

“Yes,” they said, “we are all that; and we would be perfectly happy but for the meanest politics that ever disgraced a town.”

When I settled into my seat in the train to think it over, this paragraph from a sermon on “Money-madness” stared me in the face—curiously, it was preached by the pastor of the biggest money-king of them all, so the paper said:

  • In these days there is such a hunt after wealth that the efforts of our best men are withdrawn from the public service. The men of the stamp of Jefferson, of Washington, who gave themselves to their country, are not now to be found in legislative halls; they are corporation lawyers.
  • And before I had time to run over in my mind the shining exceptions I knew, the Roots, the Tafts, the Knoxes, the Garfields, and the rest of them, and who only brought out more sharply the truth of the general statement, in comes my neighbor with whom just now I fought shoulder to shoulder against Tammany in New York, as good and clean and honest a fellow as I know, and tells me it is all over. Clean discouraged is he, and he will never spend his time and money in fighting for decency again.

    “What’s the use?” says he. “It is all waste and foolishness; and, after all, how do I lose by some one getting what he wants and paying for it? I know this blackmailing business, a wide-open town, and all that,—I know it is wrong when you come to high principle; but we live in a practical, every-day world. Let us live and let live. I get what I want, the other fellow gets what he wants; and if it is worth my paying the price to get it, how am I hurt? Is n’t it better than all this stew for nothing? Tammany’s in and back, and we will never win again. I am done with reform.”

    He is not; I know it, for I know him. He is just tired, and he will get over it. But he speaks for a good many who may not get over it so easily, and that is exactly what Tammany banks upon. It is what the enemy hopes for in all days: that he may tire out the good, convince them that the game is n’t worth the candle. And right here is the immense value of the man whom you cannot tire out, who will stand like a rock for the homely virtues, for the Ten Commandments, in good and evil report, and refuse to budge. For, though men sneer at him and call him a grand-stand player, as they will, the time will come when he will convince them that there is something more important than winning to-day or to-morrow, where a principle is at stake; that the function of the Republic, of government of the people, shall, please God, yet be to make high principle the soul and hope of the practical everyday world, even if it takes time to do it; and that it is worth losing all our lives long, with the lives thrown in, if that be necessary, to have it come true in the end. The man who will do that, who will take that stand and keep it, is beyond price. That is Theodore Roosevelt from the ground up. And now you know why I have written of him as I have.

    There was never a day that called so loudly for such as he, as does this of ours. Not that it is worse than other days; I know it is better. I find proof of it in the very fact that it is as if the age-long fight between good and evil had suddenly come to a head, as if all the questions of right, of justice, of the brotherhood, which we had seen in glimpses before, and dimly, had all at once come out in the open, craving solution one and all. A battle royal, truly! A battle for the man of clean hands and clean mind, who can think straight and act square; the man who will stand for the right “because it is right”; who can say, and mean it, that “it is hard to fail, but worse never to have tried to succeed.” A battle for him who strives for “that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to him who does not shrink from danger, from hardship or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” I am but quoting his own words, and never, I think, did I hear finer than those he spoke of Governor Taft when he had put by his own preferences and gone to his hard and toilsome task in the Philippines; for the whole royal, fighting soul of the man was in them.

    “But he undertook it gladly,” he said, “and he is to be considered thrice fortunate; for in this world the one thing supremely worth having is the opportunity coupled with the capacity to do well and worthily a piece of work the doing of which is of vital consequence to the welfare of mankind.”

    There is his measure. Let now the understrappers sputter. With that for our young men to grow up to, we need have no fear for the morrow. Let it ask what questions it will of the Republic, it shall answer them, for we shall have men at the oars.

    This afternoon the newspaper that came to my desk contained a cable despatch which gave me a glow at the heart such as I have not felt for a while. Just three lines; but they told that a nation’s conscience was struggling victoriously through hate and foul play and treason: Captain Dreyfus was to get a fair trial. Justice was to be done at last to a once despised Jew whose wrongs had held the civilized world upon the rack; and the world was made happy. Say now it does not move! It does, where there are men to move it,—I said it before: men who believe in the right and are willing to fight for it. When the children of poverty and want came to Mulberry Street for justice, and I knew they came because Roosevelt had been there, I saw in that what the resolute, courageous, unyielding determination of one man to see right done in his own time could accomplish. I have watched him since in the Navy Department, in camp, as Governor, in the White House, and more and more I have made out his message as being to the young men of our day, himself the youngest of our Presidents. I know it is so, for when I speak to the young about him, I see their eyes kindle, and their hand-shake tells me that they want to be like him, and are going to try. And then I feel that I, too, have done something worth doing for my people. For, whether for good or for evil, we all leave our mark upon our day, and his is that of a clean, strong man who fights for the right and wins.

    Now, then, a word to these young men who, all over our broad land, are striving up toward the standard he sets, for he is their hero by right, as he is mine. Do not be afraid to own it. The struggle to which you are born, and in which you are bound to take a hand if you would be men in more than name, is the struggle between the ideal and the husk; for life without ideals is like the world without the hope of heaven, an empty meaningless husk. It is your business to read its meaning into it by making the ideals real. The material things of life are good in their day, but they pass away; the moral remain to bear witness that the high hopes of youth are not mere phantasms. Theodore Roosevelt lives his ideals; therefore you can trust them. Here they are in working shape: “Face the facts as you find them; strive steadily for the best.” “Be never content with less than the possible best, and never throw away that possible best because it is not the ideal best.” Maxims, those, for the young man who wants to make the most of himself and his time. Happily for the world, the young man who does not is rare.

    Perhaps I can put what is in my mind in no better shape than by giving you his life-rules, to which I have seen him live up all these years, though I have not often heard him express them in so many words. Here is one:

    “It is better to be faithful than famous.”

    Look back now upon his career as I have sketched it, and see how in being steadfastly one he has become both. What better character could you or I or anybody give our day, which the croakers say worships only success? Put it the other way, that we refuse to accept the goodness that is weak-kneed and cowardly, that we demand of the champion of right that he shall believe in his cause enough to fight for it, and you have it. Look at him in every walk of life, from boyhood, when by sheer willpower he conquered his puny body that he might take his place among men and do a man’s work, and see how plain, straightforward manliness won its way despite the plotters. See him going on his way, bearing no grudges, nursing no revenge,—you cannot afford those things if you want to make the most of yourself,—believing no evil, but ever the best, of his neighbor, and craving his help for the best. The secret of the ages which the wise men sought with toil and trouble and missed, he found in his path without seeking. The talisman that turns dross to gold is your own faith in your fellow-man. Whatever you believe him to be, with the faith that makes you love your neighbor in spite of himself, that he will become. He will come up or come down to it, as you make your demand. Appeal to the animal, and watch the claws come out; appeal to the divine in him, and he will show you the heart of your brother. As the days passed in Mulberry Street, Roosevelt seemed to me more and more like a touchstone by rubbing against which the true metal of all about him was brought out: every rascal became his implacable enemy; the honest, his followers almost to a man.

    When, then, you have a bird’s-eye view of Theodore Roosevelt’s career, cast your eye down it once more and mark its bearings as a “pathway to ruin.” That, you remember, was what the politicians called it, from the early years in Albany down to the present day,—honestly enough, after their fashion, for they are the keepers of the husk I spoke of, and of the power of the ideal they have, can have no conception. Study their “path to ruin” carefully, and note whither it led, despite the “mistakes” with which it was thickly strewn.

    Mistakes! Roosevelt is no more infallible than you or I, and no doubt he has made his mistakes, though they were not the ones the politicians picked out. There is a use for mistakes in his plan of life: they are made to learn from. Here is another of his maxims: “The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything.” He has made fewer than most people, because he has taught himself from the very start to think quick and straight. He makes sure he is right and then goes ahead. The snags, if there be any in the way, do not trouble him. Dodge them he never does, but shoulders the responsibility and goes ahead. That is one reason why he has been able to do so much in his brief life: he never has to be on the defensive, to cover his retreat, but is ever ready to go ahead, to attack.

    He is always fair. That is a cardinal virtue in a fighter of Anglo-Saxon blood, for we all have the love of fair play in us. He never hits a man below the belt. Even to the policemen whom he searched out at night in the old days when as Commissioner he made a rounds-man of himself, he gave a fair show. He was not out to “make a case” against them, but to see that they did their duty. Of every man he demands the best that is in him, no more, no less. For himself, there is nothing that is worth doing at all that is not worth doing as well as it can be done. When he was a boy the wonders of electricity aroused his interest, and he pelted a friend, a medical practitioner, with questions concerning it. “Other boys asked questions,” the doctor said, recalling the experience; “but Theodore wanted to know the nature of the force.” There he came to the limit of knowledge. But it was so with everything. What he knows he knows thoroughly, because he has learned all he could learn about it; and so he is able to give points to his opponent and win. For just as in boxing it is science, not slugging, that wins, so in life it is the man who knows who carries off the prizes worth having. He gets all the rewards, the other fellow the hard knocks.

    When the work in hand has been done he believes in having a good time. No man has a better. He put it in words once in my hearing: “Have all the fun you honestly and decently can; it is your right.” It is part of the perfect balance that gets things done, and done right. Above all, his conception of life is a sane, common-sense one. It is the view which leaves the fun out that makes all the trouble. Somewhere I have told of my experience in Denmark, my old home, where they make butter for a living. I had been away more than twenty years, and many things had changed. I found the country divided into two camps, in matters of religious practice, when in my childhood we were one. Now there were the “happy Christians,” and the “hell-preachers” who saw only the wrath to come. Speaking with an old friend about the dairy industry, he gave me, quite unconsciously, directions that were good beyond the borders of the Danish land: “If you want good butter,” said he, “go to the happy Christians. They make the best.” Of course they do. They make the world go round. It is the honest fun that keeps life sane and sweet, butter and all.

    One more of his life-rules, and this one you may fairly call his motto: “Be ready!” Ammunition fixed, canteen filled, knapsack slung, watch for the opportunities of life that come, and seize them as they pass. They are for the one who is ready for them. Lose no time; a man can lose a fortune and make another; but the time that is lost is lost forever. It does not come back. Waste no time in grumbling. Roosevelt never does. The man who is busy helping his neighbor has no time to growl. Growling holds up progress and never helps anything. Be ready, and when the order comes fall in. Fighting for the things worth while, hit the hardest licks you know how and never count the odds against you. They have nothing to do with it. If you are right, just fight on, “trying to make things better in this world, even if only a little better, because you have lived in it.” Let that be your watchword, and all will come out right.

    My story stops here. There is nothing in it, as I have shown you Roosevelt and his life, that is beyond the reach or strength of any one who will make the most of himself with determined purpose. “He stands,” some one has said, “for the commonplace virtues; he is great on lines along which each one of us can be great if he wills and dares!” It is for that reason above all significant that he should be the young man’s President, the type and hero of the generation that is to shape the coming day of our Republic as it is entering upon its world-mission among the nations. When Theodore Roosevelt first came into my life, he “came to help.” How he has helped me I can never tell. He made my life many times richer for his coming. Of how he has helped all of us we heard the echo in the resolution that instructed the delegates of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, the first to be chosen anywhere to the National Convention of the Republican party, to vote for him for President.

    “We admire the courage,” it ran, “that prompts him to do right to all men, without respect to race, color, or condition. We trust that he may long be spared to stand as an example of virile American manhood, fearing nothing but failure to do his duty toward God and man.”

    When that can be truly said of a man, the rest matters little. To him apply the words of Washington, which will never die:

    “Let us rear a standard to which the wise and the honest may repair. The event is in the hands of God.”