Words from Theodore Roosevelt, before he was president

This is an excerpt from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1886 on the Fourth of July in a little town in the Dakota territory:

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; and we are the pioneers, and as we shaped the course of the stream near its head, our efforts have infinitely more effect, in bending it in any given direction … In other words, the first comers to 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 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 blessing and not their curse …. If you fail to work in public life, as well as 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.

I do no undervalue for a moment our material prosperity; like all Americans, I like big things; big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat fields, railroads — and herds of cattle, too — big factories, steamboats, and everything else. But we 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 worth of its good fortune….

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.

Mornings on Horseback, p. 349-350

It is an optimistic speech, and one of broad vistas and unending horizons, much like the United States was during the late 19th century. But it is still, more than 100 years later, an uplifting speech and inspiring one.

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