A speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in Buffalo, New York on January 26, 1883, it probed into the theoretical reasons why every citizen must be involved in politics and the practicality of serving in that capacity. People must not excuse themselves from politics just because they are too busy and then blame the government for its ineptitude.
Of course, in a sense, the essential first man to be a good citizen is his possession of the home virtues which we think when we call a man by the emphatic adjective of manly. No man can be a good citizen who is not a good husband and good father, who is not honest in its dealings with other men and women, loyal to his friends and fearless in the presence of his enemies , who has not had a sound heart, a healthy mind and a healthy body, just as no amount of attention to civil rights will save a nation where domestic life is undermined, or there is a lack of virtues harsh military alone can ensure the position of a country in the world. In a free republic the ideal citizen must be willing and able to take up arms in defense of the flag, just as the ideal citizen must be the father of many healthy children. A race must be strong and vigorous, it must be a race of good fighters and good breeders, else its wisdom will come to naught and its virtue ineffective, and no sweetness and delicacy, no love and appreciation beauty in art or literature, no capacity for up material prosperity cannot atone for the lack of big manly virtues.
But this is outside my subject, for what I am talking about the attitude of the American citizen in civic life. It should be obvious in this country that every man must devote a reasonable share of his time doing his duty in the political life of the community. No man has the right to shirk his political duties under whatever plea of pleasure or business, and if such a steal can be forgiven to those of small cleans it is entirely unforgivable those among whom it is more common in people whose circumstances give them freedom in the struggle for life. Insofar as the community grows to think rightly, it will also grow to consider ways of the young man who escapes his duty to the state in times of peace as being only one degree worse than the man who So he escapes in time of war. Many of our men in business, or our young men who are determined to enjoy life (as they have every right to do so only if they do not sacrifice other things to enjoyment), rather pride themselves on being good citizens if they even vote, the vote is still the least of their duties, Nothing to win is never gained without effort. You cannot have freedom without effort and pain for her that you can gain success as a banker or a lawyer without work and effort, without self-denial in youth and the display of intelligence and alert ready to mature. People who say they do not have time to attend to politics are simply saying they are unfit to live in a free community. Their place is under the despotism, or whether they simply do nothing but vote, you can take despotism tempered by an occasional plebiscite, like Napoleon seconds. In one of the beautiful stanzas Lowell on the Civil War, he speaks of the fact that his countrymen were then learning, that freedom is not a gift that long delays in the hands of cowards: nor yet it soon long in the hands of the lazy and idle in the hands of man so absorbed in the pursuit of pleasure or the pursuit of gain, or so wrapped in his own home life easier than being unable to take his part in the fight hard with fellow men for political supremacy. If freedom is useful to have, if the right to self-government is a valuable right, then both should be retained exactly as our ancestors have acquired through work, and especially by the work in the organization, which is combined with our fellows who have similar interests and the same principles. We should not accept the excuse of the businessman who attributed his failure to the fact that its social functions are very nice and exciting that he had no time left for work in his office, nor we pay much attention to his statement he also did not like business anyway because he thought the morals of the business community in any way what they should be, and I saw that the great successes were most often won by the men of mark Jay Gould. It is the same way with politics. You feel half angry, half amused and wholly contemptuous, to find businessmen or high social status in the community saying they have not really had time to hunt meetings, to organize political clubs, and take a personal hand in all the important details of practical politics, the men who further urge against their will that they believe the condition of political morality low, and they are afraid they may be required to do what is not right if they go into politics.
The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that it must work in politics, his second duty is that he must do this work in a practical way, and the third is this must be done in accordance with the highest principles of honor and justice. Of course, it is not possible to define rigidly just the way the work should be practical. Mood of each individual man and convictions must be taken into account. To some extent his work must be done in accordance with its individual beliefs and theories of good and evil. To a large extent even greater, it must be done in combination with others, assign or change some of its own theories and beliefs so as to enable it to stand on common ground with others , which also yielded or modified certain of their theories and beliefs. It is not necessary to dogmatize on the independence on the one hand or party allegiance on the other. There are occasions where it may be the highest duty of every man to act outside and against parties with whom he has himself been hitherto identified, and there may be many more occasions when it’s over great duty is to sacrifice some of his own cherished opinions for the sake of the success of the party which he believes to be the whole law. I do not think the average citizen, at least in one of our major cities, can do very well in support of his own party all the time on every issue, local and otherwise, in any case if he can do, he was more happily placed than I have been. Secondly, I am fully convinced that the best people to work must be organized, and of course an organization is really a party, whether a large organization covering the whole nation and numbering its millions of membership, or association of citizens in a particular locality, came together to win certain victory specific, as, for example, that the municipal reform. Someone said that racing yacht, like a good rifle, is a set of incompatibilities you need to get the maximum power sailing possible without sacrificing some other quality, if you really get the power larger sail, which, in a word you need to do more or less a compromise on each in order to acquire the dozen things necessary, but, of course, to make this compromise, you must be very careful for the good of something unimportant not to sacrifice one of the main principles of successful naval architecture. Well, it is about so that political work of a man. He learned to preserve its independence on the one hand, and on the other hand, unless he wants to be a wholly ineffective crank, he got to have a sense of allegiance to a party and responsibility of the parties, and he had to realize that in any given requirement, it may be a matter of duty to sacrifice quality, or it may be a matter of duty to sacrifice the other.
If it is difficult to establish fixed rules for party action in the abstract, it would of course be totally impossible to set them for the Party’s action in concrete, referring to organizations TODAY ‘ Today. I think we should be open minded enough to recognize that a good citizen, to fight with courage, honesty and common sense to do his best for the nation, can accommodate the many ways in different, and connecting with many different organizations. It is well for a man if he is able conscientiously to feel that his views on major issues of the day, on issues like the tariff, finance, immigration, regulation of the liquor traffic, and others like them, are such as to bring it into line with most of those of his fellow citizens that make up one of the greatest parties: but it is perfectly supposable that he may feel so strongly for or against certain principles held by a party, or certain principles held by the other, he is incapable of giving either full membership. In this case, I feel he has no right to plead the lack of agreement with either party as an excuse to abstain from active political work before the election. It will, of course, to prohibit him from the primaries in both major parties, and prevent him from doing his part in organizing their management, but unless it’s very unfortunate, it can certainly find some number of men who are in the same position as himself and who agree with him on specific parts of the political work, and they can turn in practically and effectively long before the election to try to this new piece of work in a practical way.
A warning apparently very necessary to decide is that a man who goes into politics should not expect to reform everything at once, with a jump. I know many excellent young men who, when awakened by the fact that they neglected their political duties, feel an immediate impulse to form themselves into an organization which shall forthwith purify politics everywhere, national, state, and the city as well, and I know a man who, after having gone around once in a primary, and after, of course, not been able to accomplish anything in a place where he knew no one and could not combine with anyone, returned saying it was totally unnecessary for a good citizen to try to accomplish something so. For these people too optimistic or too easily discouraged, I always feel like reading Artemus Ward article on the people of his city who gathered at a meeting to resolve that the city should support the Union and war civil, but were unwilling to take part in ending the rebellion unless they could go as brigadier-generals. After the battle of Bull Run, there were hundreds of thousands of good young men in the North who felt it was their duty to enter the Northern armies, but none of them who possessed much intelligence should be held high at the outset, or anticipated that individual action would be of decisive importance in a given campaign. He went as a private or a sergeant, lieutenant or captain, as the case may be, and did his duty in his company in his regiment, after a while in his brigade. When Ball Bluff and Bull Run succeeded the utter failure of the campaign of the peninsula, where the terrible defeat of Fredericksburg was followed by the scarcely less disastrous day at Chancellorsville, he has not announced (if it had some courage or virility of him) that he considered it quite useless for any self-respecting citizen to enter the army of the Potomac, because he was not really a lot of weight in its councils, and not approve of his management, he just bit the bullet and has stubbornly on his duty, grieving over, but not discouraged by the countless shortcomings and follies committed by those who helped guide the destinies of the army, while recognizing also bravery, patience, intelligence, and resolution with which other men in high places offset the follies and weaknesses and persevering with equal mind through triumph and defeat until that finally he saw the tide of failure turn at Gettysburg and the full flood of victory come with Appomattox.
I wish more of our good citizens would go into politics, and would it do in the same spirit with which their fathers went to the Federal armies. Start with the little, and do not expect to accomplish anything without an effort. Of course, if you go first once, never bothered to know one of the others you will find yourself quite moved, but if you continue to participate and try to form associations with other men whom you meet at political rallies, or you can convince to attend, you will very soon find yourself a weight. Similarly, if a man believes that the policy of his city, for example, are very corrupt and wants to reform them, it would be a great idea for him to start his district. If he joins others who think as he does, to form a club where abstract political virtue will be discussed, it can do much good. We need these clubs, but he must also learn to know his own parish or neighborhood, putting themselves in communication with the honestly in this district, we can be assured that there will be many, willing and able to something practical for procurance better government he set to work to procure a better assemblyman or better alderman before he tries his hand at making a mayor, a governor, or president. If it starts at the top, it can make a brilliant temporary success, but chances are a thousand against one that will ultimately defeated, and never the good it does stand on the same basis substantial and continuous as if started at the bottom. Of course, one or two of its efforts may be failures, but if he has the right stuff in him, he will go ahead and do his duty regardless of whether it meets the success or defeat. He is perfectly entitled to consider the question of failure while shaping efforts to succeed in a struggle for the right, but there should be no consideration of what it is when the question is whether we should or should not be a struggle for the right. Once a band of one hundred and fifty or two hundred honest, intelligent, who know their business and profession is in a district, either in one of the regular organizations or outside, you can guarantee that local politicians in this area will begin to treat it with a mixture of fear, hatred, and respect, and that its influence will be felt, and that while sometimes men will be elected to office in defiance of his wishes, most often selected candidates will feel that they must pay some regard to its requirements for public decency and honesty.
But by advising you to be practical and work hard, I must not for one moment be understood as advising you to abandon one iota of your self-respect and devotion to principle. It is a bad sign for the country to see a class of our citizens sneer at practical politicians, and another Sunday school policy. No man can be both an effective and decent work, in public life unless it is a practical politician, on the one hand, and a strong believer in Sunday school politics on the other. He must always strive manfully for the better, and yet, like Abraham Lincoln, must often resign themselves to accept the best possible. Of course, when a man confined to higher ground as a statesman, when he becomes a leader, he must often consult with others and rely on their opinion, and must continually be s install it in his mind how he can go in a little deference to the desires and prejudices of others while still adhering to its own moral standards: but I do not speak so much of such men as I do the citizen Ordinary, who wants to do his duty as a member of the Commonwealth in its civic life and to this man I think the only quality which must always be the most important is that of disinterestedness. If he starts to feel when he wants the office itself, with a will to recover the cost of his convictions, or keep it when obtained at the cost of his convictions, his usefulness is gone. Let him take his party to do his duty in politics, regardless of office attire at all, and let him know that often the men in this country who have done the best job for our public life n ‘ men were not in place. If, on the other hand, he reached the position of the public, do not let him try to plan for himself a career. I do not think every man should consider letting his political career as a livelihood, or as his sole occupation in life, because if he does, he immediately becomes most seriously handicapped. When he begins to think how such and such an act will have an impact on his constituents, or will affect some great political leader who will influence his destiny, he is shackled and his hands are tied . Not only can it be his duty often to disregard the will of politicians, but it may be his plain duty at times to ignore the wishes of the people. The people’s voice is not always the voice of God, and when it happens to be the voice of the devil, he is clearly the duty of man to defy his orders. Different political conditions breed various hazards. The demagogue is as ugly a creature as the courtier, if one is promoted through the Republican and the other under monarchical institutions. There is every reason why a man should have a honorable ambition to enter public life, and an honorable ambition to stay there when it happens, but he must take his party that cares about that as an it can hang in there on his own terms, without sacrificing his own principles, and if he do so his mind, he can really accomplish twice as much for the nation, and may reflect a hundred times more honor on himself, in a short term of service, what can the man who becomes gray in the public employment at the sacrifice of what he believes to be true and honest. And besides, when an official has definitely made up his mind that he will not pay attention to his own future, but it will do what he honestly believes to be best for the community, regardless of how its actions can affect its prospects, not only it becomes infinitely more useful as an official, but it has a much better time. He was released from care to harass the party that is inevitably the one who is trying to shape his sails to catch every gust of wind of political favor.
But let me reiterate that, in virtue, it must not become ineffective, and he should not apologize to evade duties by any means of false he cannot do his homework and maintain his self-esteem. It makes no sense, it can, and when he urges such a plea, it is a sign of pure laziness and self-indulgence. And yet, beware how he became a critic of others’ actions, rather than a doer of deeds himself, and to the extent that it does act as a spokesman (and of course the carrier word has a very useful and necessary), beware of indiscriminate censure, even more than of indiscriminate praise. The screaming vulgarity of the foolish spread eagle orator who keeps shouting in defiance Europe, praising everything American, good and bad, and feeling the introduction of any reform, because it has already been tried successfully abroad, is offensive and contemptible to the last degree, but after all it is just as harmful as the moody, argumentative restless, giggling, and continues to the refined, well-educated man, who is always attacking good and bad, which America truly is suspicious, and in the true spirit of servile colonialism considers us inferior to that of people around the water. It can be assumed that the man who is always sneering at our public life and our public men is a very bad citizen, and that it exerts little influence in the community is exercised for evil. The public speaker or columnist who teaches men of education that their proper attitude toward U.S. policy should be one of aversion or indifference makes every effort to perpetuate and aggravate the very evils which it is supposedly complained. Exactly as it is generally the case that when a man mourns the decline of our civilization, he is himself, physically, mentally and morally a first class type of decay, so it is usually the case when a man is perpetually sneering at American politicians, whether worthy or unworthy, it is itself a poor citizen and a friend of the very forces of evil against which he professes to fight. Too often, these men seem to care less for attacking bad men, as to ruin the character of good men with whom they disagree on an issue of the pubis, and while their influence against evil is almost zero, they are sometimes able to weaken the hands of the well by withdrawing from the help they deserve, and they have therefore in the total sum of the forces working for evil. They meet the prohibitionist policy, which in a close fight between a man and a temperance alcohol seller diverts enough votes from the former to elect the liquor seller Occasionally it is necessary to beat a very good man , which is not good enough, even at the cost of electing a bad one but we must recognize that it may be necessary only occasionally and, in fact, I may say, only in very exceptional cases, and that, in general, where it is done the effect is quite unhealthy in every way, and those taking part to deserve the severest censure of all honest people.
Moreover, the very need of denouncing evil makes it all the more wicked to weaken the effect of such denunciations by denouncing also the good. It is the duty of all citizens, irrespective of party, to denounce, and, so far as may be, to punish crimes against the public on the part of politicians or officials. But exactly as the public man who commits a crime against the public is one of the worst of criminals, so, close on his heels in the race for iniquitous distinction, comes the man who falsely charges the public servant with outrageous wrongdoing; whether it is done with foul-mouthed and foolish directness in the vulgar and violent party organ, or with sarcasm, innuendo, and the half-truths that are worse than lies, in some professed organ of independence. Not only should criticism be honest, but it should be intelligent, in order to be effective. I recently read in a religious paper an article railing at the corruption of our public life, in which it stated incidentally that the lobby was recognized as all-powerful in Washington. This is untrue. There was a day when the lobby was very important at Washington, but its influence in Congress is now very small indeed; and from a pretty intimate acquaintance with several Congresses I am entirely satisfied that there is among the members a very small proportion indeed who are corruptible, in the sense that they will let their action be influenced by money or its equivalent. Congressmen are very often demagogues; they are very often blind partisans; they are often exceedingly short-sighted, narrow-minded, and bigoted; but they are not usually corrupt; and to accuse a narrow-minded demagogue of corruption when he is perfectly honest, is merely to set him more firmly in his evil course and to help him with his constituents, who recognize that the charge is entirely unjust, and in repelling it lose sight of the man’s real shortcomings. I have known more than one State legislature, more than one board of aldermen against which the charge of corruption could perfectly legitimately be brought, but it cannot be brought against Congress. Moreover these sweeping charges really do very little good. When I was in the New York legislature, one of the things that I used to mind most was the fact that at the close of every session the papers that affect morality invariably said that particular legislature was the worst legislature since the days of Tweed. The statement was not true as a rule; and, in any event, to lump all the members, good and bad, in sweeping condemnation simply hurt the good and helped the bad. Criticism should be fearless, but I again reiterate that it should be honest and should be discriminating. When it is sweeping and unintelligent, and directed against good and bad alike, or against the good and bad qualities of any man alike, it is very harmful. It tends steadily to deteriorate the character of our public men; and it tends to produce a very unwholesome spirit among young men of education, and especially among the young men in our colleges.
Against nothing is fearless and specific criticism more urgently needed than against the “spoils system,” which is the degradation of American politics. And nothing is more effective in thwarting the purposes of the spoilsmen than the civil service reform. To be sure, practical politicians sneer at it. One of them even went so far as to say that civil-service reform is asking a man irrelevant questions. What more irrelevant question could there be than that of the practical politician who asks the aspirant for his political favor – “Whom did you vote for in the last election?” There is certainly nothing more interesting, from a humorous point of view, than the heads of departments urging changes to be made in their underlings, “on the score of increased efficiency” they say; when as the result of such a change the old incumbent often spends six months teaching the new incumbent how to do the work almost as well as he did himself! Occasionally the civil-service reform has been abused, but not often. Certainly the reform is needed when you contemplate the spectacle of a New York City treasurer who acknowledges his annual fees to be eighty-five thousand dollars, and who pays a deputy one thousand five hundred dollars to do his work-when you note the corruptions in the New York legislature, where one man says he has a horror of the Constitution because it prevents active benevolence, and another says that you should never allow the Constitution to come between friends! All these corruptions and vices are what every good American citizen must fight against.
Finally, the man who wants to do his duty as a citizen in our country must be imbued from beginning to end with the spirit of Americanism. I say this not as a matter of spreading eagle rhetoric: I say this soberly as a piece of down-to-fact, common sense advice, derived from my own experience of others. Of course, the question of Americanism has several sides. If a man is an educated man, he must show his Americanism does not happen then misled and try to apply all the theories of political thinkers of other countries, like Germany and France, our own terms quite different. He should not get a fad, for example, on responsible government, and above all, it should not, simply because he is intelligent, or a college professor well read in political literature, try discuss our institutions when it has not had knowledge of how they are worked. Again, if a rich man, a man of means and time, he must really feel, not only affect to feel, that there is no social differences obtain save such a man may in some do so himself by his own actions. People sometimes ask me if there is not a prejudice against a man of wealth and education in policy areas. I do not think there is, unless the man in turn shows that the facts of his wealth and education as having giving him a claim to superiority aside the merits, it is able to prove himself to have become effective. Of course, if he feels he should have treated a little better than a carpenter, a plumber or a butcher, who happens to be near him, he will be thrown out of the race very quickly, and probably nearly enough, and if it began to be seen and carefully condescend to these men, it turns out they do not like this attitude even more. Do not let him think about the issue at all. Let him go in the political game with the thought over these questions, a college student gives the social situation of members of his own and rival teams in a football game. As soon as he became interested in politics (and it will soon take an interest not only because of politics but also to take a good healthy interest in playing the game itself – an interest that is perfectly normal and praiseworthy, and that only a crook would oppose), it will start to work up the organization as to be more effective, and it will not do not care who started working with him, except to the extent that this is a good boy and an effective worker. Once upon a time a number of men who think as we do here tonight (the numbers being myself) got hold of one of the city assembly of New York, and ran a really great way, better than any other district assembly has never been done before or since either party. We did it through hard work and good organization, working practically, and yet by being honest and square in the pattern and method: especially did we do it all by turning as the amortization of Americans without regard distinctions of race origin. Among the many men who have done much in organizing our victories was the son of a Presbyterian minister, the nephew of a Hebrew rabbi, and two well-known Catholic gentlemen. We also had a professor from Columbia College (stroke-oar of a university team), a noted retail butcher, and the editor of a local newspaper German, various brokers, bankers, lawyers, bricklayers and a stonemason who was particularly helpful for us, although questions of theory rather than policy applied, it had a decidedly socialist turn of mind.
Again, questions of race origin, like questions of creed, must not be considered: we wish to do good work, and we are all Americans, pure and simple. In the New York legislature, when it fell to my lot to choose a committee – which I always esteemed my most important duty at Albany – no less than three out of the four men I chose were of Irish birth or parentage; and three abler and more fearless and disinterested men never sat in a legislative body; while among my especial political and personal friends in that body was a gentleman from the southern tier of counties, who was, I incidentally found out, a German by birth, but who was just as straight United States as if his ancestors had come over here in the Mayflower or in Henry Hudson’s yacht. Of course, none of these men of Irish or German birth would have been worth their salt had they continued to act after coming here as Irishmen or Germans, or as anything but plain straight-out Americans. We have not any room here for a divided allegiance. A man has got to be an American and nothing else; and he has no business to be mixing us up with questions of foreign politics, British or Irish, German or French, and no business to try to perpetuate their language and customs in the land of complete religious toleration and equality. If, however, he does become honestly and in good faith an American, then he is entitled to stand precisely as all other Americans stand, and it is the height of un-Americanism to discriminate against him in any way because of creed or birthplace. No spirit can be more thoroughly alien to American institutions, than the spirit of the Know-Nothings.
To face the future and striving, each according to the measure of its individual capacity, to work on the salvation of our country, we should be neither pessimistic nor optimistic shy crazy. We must recognize the dangers that exist and threaten us: we should neither overestimate them nor shrink from them, but steadily giving them should overcome and began to slaughter them. Serious dangers are not yet encountered in the storm of the Republic – perils of political corruption, perils of individual laziness, indolence and timidity, perils arising from the greed of unscrupulous rich, and the anarchic violence of the poor-sighted and turbulent. There is every reason why we should recognize them, but there is no reason why we should fear or doubt our ability to overcome them, except that each will, according to the measure of his ability, to full duty, and endeavor to live it to earn the praise of being called a good American citizen.