The Strenuous Life

By Theodore Roosevelt

April, 1899

In speaking to you, men of the greatest city of the West, men of the State which gave

to the country Lincoln and Grant, men who preeminently and distinctly embody all that

is most American in the American character I wish to preach, not the doctrine of

ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life; the life of toil and effort, of labor

and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who

desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from

hardship or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph .

A life of slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of

desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an

individual. I ask only that what every self-respecting American demands from himself

and from his sons shall be demanded of the American nation as a whole. Who among

you would teach your boys that case, that peace, is to be the first Consideration in their

eyes-to be the ultimate goal after which they strive? You men of Chicago have made

this city great, you men of Illinois have done your share, and more than your share, in

making America great, because you neither preach nor practice such a doctrine. You

work yourselves, and you bring up your sons to work. If you are rich and are worth

your salt, you will teach your sons that though they ma have leisure, it is not to be spent

in idleness; for wisely used leisure merely means that those who possess it, being free

from the necessity of working for their livelihood, are all the more bound to carry on

some kind of non-remunerative work in science, in letters, in art, in exploration, in

historical research-work of the type we most need in this country, the successful

carrying out of which reflects most honor upon the nation. We do not admire the man

of timid peace. We admire the man who embodies victorious effort; the man who never

wrongs his neighbor, who is prompt to help a friend, but who has those virile qualities

necessary to win in the stern strife of actual life. It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to

have tried to succeed. In this life we get nothing save by effort. Freedom from effort in

the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past. A man can be

freed from the necessity of work only by the fact that he or his fathers before him have

worked to good purpose. If the freedom thus purchased is used aright, and the man still

does actual work, though of a different kind, whether as a writer or a general, whether

in the field of politics or in the field of exploration and adventure, he shows he deserves

his good fortune. But if he treats this period of freedom from the need of actual labor as

a period, not of preparation, but of mere enjoyment, even though perhaps not of

vicious enjoyment, he shows that he is simply a cumberer of the earth's surface, and he

surely unfits himself to hold his own with his fellows if the need to do so should again

arise. A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a

life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world.

In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it

up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall

endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know

how to wrest triumph from toil and risk. The man must be glad to do a man's work, to

dare and endure and to labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him.

The woman must be the housewife, the helpmeet of the homemaker, the wise and

fearless mother of many healthy children. In one of Daudet's powerful and melancholy

books he speaks of "the fear of maternity, the haunting terror of the young wife of the

present day." When such words can be truthfully written of a nation, that nation is

rotten to the heart's core. When men fear work or fear righteous war, when women

fear motherhood, they tremble on the brink of doom; and well it is that they should

vanish from the earth, where they are fit subjects for the scorn of all men and women

who are themselves strong and brave and highminded.

As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation. It is a base untruth to say that happy

is the nation that has no history. Thrice happy is the nation that has a glorious history.

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered

by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer

much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. If in 1861

the men who loved the Union had believed that peace was the end of all things, and

war and strife the worst of all things, and had acted up to their belief, we would have

saved hundreds of thousands of lives, we would have saved hundreds of millions of

dollars. Moreover, besides saving all the blood and treasure we then lavished, we

would have prevented the heartbreak of many women, the dissolution of many homes,

and we would have spared the country those months of gloom and shame when it

seemed as if our armies marched only to defeat. We could have avoided all this

suffering simply by shrinking from strife. And if we had thus avoided it, we would have

shown that we were weaklings, and that we were unfit to stand among the great nations

of the earth. Thank God for the iron in the blood of our fathers, the men who upheld

the wisdom of Lincoln, and bore sword or rifle in the armies of Grant! Let us, the

children of the men who proved themselves equal to the mighty days, let us, the

children of the men who carried the great Civil War to a triumphant conclusion, praise

the God of our fathers that the ignoble counsels of peace were rejected; that the

suffering and loss, the blackness of sorrow and despair, were unflinchingly faced, and

the years of strife endured; for in the end the slave was freed, the Union restored, and

the mighty American republic placed once more as a helmeted queen among nations.

We of this generation do not have to face a task such as that our fathers faced, but we

have our tasks, and woe to us if we fail to perform them! We cannot, if we would, play

the part of China, and be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders,

taking no interest in what goes on beyond them, sunk in a scrambling commercialism;

heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk, busying ourselves only

with the wants of our bodies for the day, until suddenly we should find, beyond a

shadow of question, what China has already found, that in this world the nation that has

trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated ease is bound, in the end, to go down

before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities. If we are

to be a really great people, we must strive in good faith to play a great part in the

world. We cannot avoid meeting great issues. All that we can determine for ourselves is

whether we shall meet them well or ill. In 1898 we could not help being brought face to

face with the problem of war with Spain. All we could decide was whether we should

shrink like cowards from the contest, or enter into it as beseemed a brave and

highspirited people; and, once in, whether failure or success should crown our banners.

So it is now. We cannot avoid the responsibilities that confront us in Hawaii, Cuba,

Porto Rico, and the Philippines. All we can decide is whether we shall meet them in a

way that will redound to the national credit, or whether we shall make of our dealings

with these new problems a dark and shameful page in our history. To refuse to deal

with them at all merely amounts to dealing with them badly. We have a given problem

to solve. If we undertake the solution, there is, of course, always danger that we may

not solve it aright; but to refuse to undertake the solution simply renders it certain that

we cannot possibly solve it aright. The timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts

his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the

ignorant man, and the man of dull mind, whose soul is incapable of feeling the mighty lift

that thrills "stern men with empires in their brains"-all these, of course, shrink from

seeing the nation undertake its new duties; shrink from seeing us build a navy and an

army adequate to our needs; shrink from seeing l us do our share of the world's work,

by bringing order out of chaos in the great, fair tropic islands from which the valor of

our soldiers and sailors has driven the Spanish flag. These are the men who fear the

strenuous life, who fear the only national life which is really worth leading. They believe

in that cloistered life which saps the hardy virtues in a nation, as it saps them in the

individual; or else they are wedded to that base spirit of gain and greed which

recognizes in commercialism the be-all and end-all of national life, instead of realizing

that, though an indispensable element, it is, after all, but one of the many elements that

go to make up true national greatness. No country can long endure if its foundations are

not laid deep in the material prosperity which comes from thrift, from business energy

and enterprise, from hard, unsparing effort in the fields of industrial activity; but neither

was any nation ever yet truly great if it relied upon material prosperity alone. All honor

must lie paid to the architects of our material prosperity, to the great captains of

industry who have built our factories and our railroads, to the strong men who toil for

wealth with brain or hand; for great is the debt of the nation to these and their kind. But

our debt is yet greater to the melt whose highest type is to be found in a statesman like

Lincoln, a soldier like Grant. They showed by their lives that they recognized the law of

work, the law of strife; they toiled to win a competence for themselves and those

dependent upon them; but they recognized that there were yet other and even loftier

duties- duties to the nation and duties to the race.

We cannot sit huddled within our own borders and avow ourselves merely an

assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond. Such

a policy would defeat even its own end; for as the nations grow to have ever wider and

wider interests, and are brought into closer and closer contact, if we are to hold our

own in the struggle for naval and commercial supremacy, we must build up our Dower

without our own borders. We must build the isthmian canal, and we must Rasp the

points of vantage which will enable us to have our say in deciding the destiny of the

oceans of the East and the West.

So much for the commercial side. From the standpoint of international honor the

argument is even stronger. The guns that thundered off Manila and Santiago left us

echoes of glory, but they also left us a legacy of duty. If we drove out a medieval

tyranny only to make room for savage anarchy, we had better not have begun the task

at all. It is worse than idle to say that we have no duty to perform, and can leave to

their fates the islands we have conquered. Such a course would be the course of

infamy. It would be followed at once by utter chaos in the wretched islands themselves.

Some stronger, manlier power would have to step in and do the work, and we would

have shown ourselves weaklings, unable to carry to successful completion the labors

that great and high-spirited nations are eager to undertake.

The work must be done; we cannot escape our responsibility; and if we are worth our

salt, we shall be glad of the chance to do the work-glad of the chance to show

ourselves equal to one of the great tasks set modern civilization. But let us not deceive

ourselves as to the importance of the task. Let us not be misled by vainglory into

underestimating the strain it will put on our powers. Above all, let us, as we value our

own self-respect, face the responsibilities with proper seriousness, courage, and high

resolve. We must demand the highest order of integrity and ability in our public men

who are to grapple with these new problems. We must hold to a rigid accountability

those public servants who show unfaithfulness to the interests of the nation or inability

to rise to the high level of the new demands upon our strength and our resources.

Of course we must remember not to judge any public servant by any one act, and

especially should we beware of attacking the men who are merely the occasions and

not the causes of disaster. Let me illustrate what I mean by the army and the navy. If

twenty years ago we had gone to war, we should have found the navy as absolutely

unprepared as the army. At that time our ships could not have encountered with

success the fleets of Spain any more than nowadays we can put untrained soldiers, no

matter how brave, who are armed with archaic black-powder weapons, against well--

drilled regulars armed with the highest type of modern repeating rifle. But in the early

eighties the attention of the nation became directed to our naval needs. Congress most

wisely made a series of appropriations to build up a new navy, and under a succession

of able and patriotic secretaries, of both political parties, the navy was gradually built

up, until its material became equal to its splendid personnel, with the result that in the

summer of 1898 it leaped to its proper place as one of the most brilliant and formidable

fighting navies in the entire world. We rightly pay all honor to the men controlling the

navy at the time it won these great deeds, honor to Secretary Long and Admiral

Dewey, to the captains who handled the ships in action, to the daring lieutenants who

braved death in the smaller craft, and to the heads of bureaus at Washington who saw

that the ships were so commanded, so armed, so equipped, so well engined, as to

insure the best results. But let us also keep ever in mind that all of this would not have

availed if it had not been for the wisdom of the men who during the preceding fifteen

years had built up the navy. Keep in mind the secretaries of the navy during those

years; keep in mind the senators and congressmen who by their votes gave the money

necessary to build and to armor the ships, to construct the great guns, and to train the

crews; remember also those who actually did build the ships, the armor, and the guns;

and remember the admirals and captains who handled battle-ship, cruiser, and

torpedo-boat on the high seas, alone and in squadrons, developing the seamanship, the

gunnery, and the power of acting together, which their successors utilized so gloriously

at Manila and off Santiago. And, gentlemen, remember the converse, too. Remember

that justice has two sides. Be just to those who built up the navy, and, for the sake of

the future of the country, keep in mind those who opposed its building up. Read the

"Congressional Record." Find out the senators and congressmen who opposed the

grants for building the new ships; who opposed the purchase of amour without which

the ships were worthless, who opposed any adequate maintenance for the Navy

Department, and strove to cut down the number of men necessary to man our fleets.

The men who did these things were one and all working to bring disaster on the

country. They have no share in the glory of Manila, in the honor of Santiago. They have

no cause to feel proud of the valor of our sea-captains, of the renown of our flag. Their

motives may or may not have been good, but their acts were heavily fraught with evil.

they did ill for the national honor, and we won in spite of their sinister opposition.

Now, apply all this to our public men of to-day. Our army has never been built up as it

should be built up. I shall not discuss with an audience like this the puerile suggestion

that a nation of seventy millions of freemen is in danger of losing its liberties from the

existence of an army of one hundred thousand men, three fourths of whom will be

employed in certain foreign islands, in certain coast fortresses, and on Indian

reservations. No man of good sense and stout heart can take such a proposition

seriously. If we are such weaklings as the proposition implies, then we are unworthy of

freedom in any event. To no body of men in the United States is the country so much

indebted as to the splendid officers and enlisted men of the regular army and navy.

There is no body from which the country has less to fear, and none of which it should

be prouder, none which it should be more anxious to upbuild.

Our army needs complete reorganization,-not merely enlarging,-and the reorganization

can only come as the result of legislation. A proper general staff should be established,

and the positions of ordnance, commissary, and quartermaster officers should be filled

by detail from the line. Above all, the army must be given the chance to exercise in

large bodies. Never again should we see, as we saw in the Spanish war,

major-generals in command of divisions who had never before commanded three

companies together in the field. Yet, incredible to relate, Congress has shown a queer

inability to learn some of the lessons of the war. There were large bodies of men in both

branches who opposed the declaration of war, who opposed the ratification of peace,

who opposed the upbuilding of the army, and who even opposed the purchase of

amour at a reasonable price for the battle-ships and cruisers, thereby putting an

absolute stop to the building of any new fighting-ships for the navy. If, during the years

to come, any disaster should befall our arms, afloat or ashore, and thereby any shame

come to the United States, remember that the blame will lie upon the men whose names

appear upon the roll-calls of Congress on the wrong side of these great questions. On

them will lie the burden of any loss of our soldiers and sailors, of any dishonor to the

flag; and upon you and the people of this country will lie the blame if you do not

repudiate, in no unmistakable way, what these men have done. The blame will not rest

upon the untrained commander of untried troops, upon the civil officers of a department

the organization of which has been left utterly inadequate, or upon the admiral with an

insufficient number of ships; but upon the public men who have so lamentably failed in

forethought as to refuse to remedy these evils long in advance, and upon the nation that

stands behind those public men.

So, at the present hour, no small share of the responsibility for the blood shed in the

Philippines, the blood of our brothers, and the blood of their wild and ignorant foes, lies

at the thresholds of those who so long delayed the adoption of the treaty of peace, and

of those who by their worse than foolish words deliberately invited a savage people to

plunge into a war fraught with sure disaster for them-a war, too, in which our own

brave men who follow the flag must pay with their blood for the silly, mock

humanitarianism of the prattlers who sit at home in peace.

The army and the navy are the sword and the shield which this nation must carry if she

is to do her duty among the nations of the earth-if she is not to stand merely as the

China of the western hemisphere. Our proper conduct toward the tropic islands we

have wrested from Spain is merely the form which our duty has taken at the moment.

Of course we are bound to handle the affairs of our own household well. We must see

that there is civic honesty, civic cleanliness, civic good sense in our home administration

of city, State, and nation. We must strive for honesty in office, for honesty toward the

creditors of the nation and of the individual; for the widest freedom of individual

initiative where possible, and for the wisest control of individual initiative where it is

hostile to the welfare of the many. But because we set our own household in order we

are not thereby excused from playing our part in the great affairs of the world. A man's

first duty is to his own home, but he is not thereby excused from doing his duty to the

State; for if he fails in this second duty it is under the penalty of ceasing to be a freeman.

In the same way, while a nations first duty is within its own borders, it is not thereby

absolved from facing its duties in the world as a whole; and if it refuses to do so, it

merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the peoples that shape the destiny

of mankind.

In the West Indies and the Philippines alike we are confronted by most difficult

problems. It is cowardly to shrink from solving them in the proper way; for solved they

must be, if not by us, then by some stronger and more manful race. If we are too weak,

too selfish, or too foolish to solve them, some bolder and abler people must undertake

the solution. Personally, I am far too firm a believer in the greatness of my country and

the power of my countrymen to admit for one moment that we shall ever be driven to

the ignoble alternative.

The problems are different for the different islands. Porto Rico is not large enough to

stand alone. We must govern it wisely and well, primarily in the interest of its own

people. Cuba is, in my judgment, entitled ultimately to settle for itself whether it shall be

an independent state or an integral portion of the mightiest of republics. But until order

and stable liberty are secured, we must remain in the island to insure them, and infinite

tact, judgment, moderation, and courage must be shown by our military and civil

representatives in keeping the island pacified, in relentlessly stamping out brigandage, in

protecting all alike, and yet in showing proper recognition to the men who have fought

for Cuban liberty. The Philippines offer a yet graver problem. their population includes

halfcaste and native Christians, warlike Moslems, and wild pagans. Many of their

people are utterly unfit for self-government, and show no signs of becoming fit. Others

may in time become fit but at present can only take part in self- government under a

wise supervision, at once firm and beneficent. We have driven Spanish tyranny from the

islands. If we now let it be replaced by savage anarchy, our work has been for harm

and not for good. I have scant patience with those who fear to undertake the task of

governing the Philippines, and who openly avow that they do fear to undertake it, or

that they shrink from it because of the expense and trouble; but I have even scanter

patience with those who make a pretense of humanitarianism to hide and cover their

timidity and who cant about "liberty" and the "consent of the governed," in order to

excuse themselves for their unwillingness to play the part of men. Their doctrines, if

carried out, would make it incumbent upon us to leave the Apaches of Arizona to work

out their own salvation, and to decline to interfere in a single Indian reservation. Their

doctrines condemn your forefathers and mine for ever having settled in these United


England's rule in India and Egypt has been of great benefit to England, for it has trained

up generations of men accustomed to look at the larger and loftier side of public life. It

has been of even greater benefit to India and Egypt. And finally, and most of all, it has

advanced the cause of civilization. So, if we do our duty aright in the Philippines, we

will add to that national renown which is the highest and finest part of national life, will

greatly benefit the people of the Philippine Islands, and, above all, we will play our part

well in the great work of uplifting mankind. But to do this work, keep ever in mind that

we must show in a very high degree the qualities of courage, of honesty, and of good

judgment. Resistance must be stamped out. The first and all-important work to be done

is to establish the supremacy of our flag. We must put down armed resistance before

we call accomplish anything else, and there should be no parleying, no faltering, in

dealing with our foe. As for those in our own country who encourage the foe, we can

afford contemptuously to disregard them; but it must be remembered that their

utterances are not saved from being treasonable merely by the fact that they are


When once we have put down armed resistance, when once our rule is acknowledged,

then an even more difficult task will begin, for then we must see to it that the islands are administered with absolute honesty and with good judgment. If we let the public service of the islands be turned into the prey of the spoils politician, we shall have begun to tread the path which Spain trod to her own destruction. We must send out there only

good and able men, chosen for their fitness, and not because of their partisan service,

and those men must not only administer impartial justice to the natives and serve their

own government with honesty and fidelity, but must show the utmost tact and firmness, remembering that, with such people as those with whom we are to deal, weakness is the greatest of crimes, and that next to weakness comes lack of consideration for their principles and prejudices.

I preach to you, then, my countrymen, that our country calls not for the life of ease but

for the life of strenuous endeavor. The twentieth century looms before us big with the

fate of many nations. If we stand idly by, if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease and

ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of

their lives and at the risk of all they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will

pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world. Let us therefore

boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to

uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to

serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife,

moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife

is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor,

that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.

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