Here are some words from a Fourth of July speech given by Theodore Roosevelt to the citizens of Dickinson, in the Dakotas, back in 1886. Dickinson had a population of about seven hundred but many from other communities came and it was the largest crowd ever seen in Stark County. According to David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback,
A parade led by the Dickinson Silver Cornet Band included a wagon drawn by four white horses carrying thirty-eight little girls dressed in white, representing the states of the Union. According to one Medora man, everybody got caught up in the spirit and wanted to be part of the parade, with the result there was no one left to watch except two drunks who were beyond watching anything.
TR’s speech may seem naive and excessively idealistic to many in these days of multicultural ethics and feelings that it the government’s job, rather than our own, to care for us — to provide for us from conception and birth till death — as would a kindly guardian for an incompetent ward. If TR’s words now strike many as naive and overly idealistic, so much the pity.
Here is some of what TR said:
I am peculiarly glad to have an opportunity of addressing you, my fellow citizens of Dakota, on the Fourth of July, because it always seems to me that those who dwell in a new territory and whose actions, therefore, are peculiarly fruitful, for good and bad alike, in shaping the future, have in consequence peculiar responsibilities. … Much has been given to us, and so, much will be expected of us; and we must take heed to use aright the gifts entrusted to our care.
The Declaration of Independence derived its peculiar importance, not on account of what America was, but because of what she was to become; she shared with other nations the present, and she yielded to them the past, but it was felt in return that to her, and to her especially, belonged the future. It is the same with us here. We, grangers and cowboys alike, have opened a new land. … [T]he first comers in a land can, by their individual efforts, do far more to channel out the course in which its history is to run than can those who come after them; and their labors, whether exercised on the side of evil or on the side of good, are far more effective than if they had remained in old settled communities.
So it is peculiarly incumbent on us here today so to act throughout our lives as to leave our children a heritage, for which we will receive their blessings and not their curse. … If you fail to work in public, as well as in private, for honesty and uprightness and virtue, if you condone vice because the vicious man is smart, or if you in any other way cast your weight into the scales in favor of evil, you are just so far corrupting and making less valuable the birthright of your children. …
It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it. …
[W]e must keep steadily in mind that no people were ever yet benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue. It is of more importance that we should show ourselves honest, brave, truthful, and intelligent, than that we should own all the railways and grain elevators in the world. We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune. Here we are not ruled over by others, as in the case of Europe; we rule ourselves. All American citizens, whether born here or elsewhere, whether of one creed or another, stand on the same footing; we welcome every honest immigrant no matter from what country he comes, provided only that he leaves off his former nationality, and remains neither Celt nor Saxon, neither Frenchman nor German, but becomes an American, desirous of fulfilling in good faith the duties of American citizenship.
When we thus rule ourselves, we have the responsibilities of sovereigns, not of subjects. We must never exercise our rights either wickedly or thoughtlessly; we can continue to preserve them in but one possible way, by making the proper use of them. In a new portion of the country, especially here in the Far West, it is peculiarly important to do so; and on this day of all others we ought soberly to realize the weight of the responsibility that rests upon us. I am, myself, at heart as much a Westerner as an Easterner; I am proud, indeed, to be considered one of yourselves, and I address you in this rather solemn strain today, only because of my pride in you, and because your welfare, moral as well as material, is so near my heart.
“Honesty and uprightness and virtue“; such “trite,” old-fashioned words. “It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.” We became a great nation when honesty, uprightness, and virtue were not trite, archaic words. We can again find the path that led us there and follow it where it may lead. The Dakotas were a new territory both geographically and in spirit. We can become a new territory in spirit just as the Dakotas were then a new territory in spirit; spirit is the more important of the two.
Even though “we have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received,” the problems of our far more populous nation are now different and greater than then but so are the opportunities if we remember that “we have the responsibilities of sovereigns, not of subjects.” It is only necessary that we remember our past, recognize our problems, and deal with them as we must, as sovereigns rather than as serfs.
We cannot change the past, though many have tried to edit it to fit their current perceptions of right and wrong, good and evil. In recent years, we’ve come a long way, baby, and often the way has been a wrong one. The future, however, is still in our hands and we can make of it only what we will, in national sickness and in national health, for better or for worse. Nations, not cared for by their sovereigns, the people, rot because they let them.
Today, but not only today, we must remember our basic foundations, act upon them, and preserve them for future generations; soon enough it will be their job to do that, but if we don’t succeed they may well not find a solid foundation upon which to build, and themselves to pass on to their successors, a strong and good nation.