Teddy Roosevelt’s “True Americanism”

Published: June 2, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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“The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average can not be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”

Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic” from an essay delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris, 1910

In both word and deed, Teddy Roosevelt seemed to embody American character. Although only forty-two when he became president, Roosevelt had amassed quite a range of experience as rancher, author, civil service commissioner, naturalist, New York City police commissioner, assistant secretary of the Navy, soldier, statesman and governor of New York.

A proponent of the “strenuous life,” Roosevelt’s ideas and energy were as boundless as his rhetoric. TR stressed patriotism, responsibility, and civic virtue, and the crowds who heard Roosevelt speak never doubted what he believed or where he stood on an issue.

Considering recent events both at home and abroad, Roosevelt’s words, from an essay entitled “True Americanism” in 1894, seem no less significant today.

“…We Americans have many grave problems to solve, many threatening evils to fight, and many deeds to do, if, as we hope and believe, we have the wisdom, the strength, the courage and the virtue to do them.  But we must face facts as they are.

“We must neither surrender ourselves to a foolish optimism, nor succumb to a timid and ignoble pessimism.  Our nation is that one among all the nations of the earth which holds in its hands the fate of the coming years.  We enjoy exceptional advantages, and are menaced by exceptional dangers; and all signs indicate that we shall either fail greatly or succeed greatly.

“I firmly believe that we shall succeed; but we must not foolishly blink [away] the dangers by which we are threatened, for that is the way to fail.

“On the contrary, we must soberly set to work to find out all we can about the existence and extent of every evil, must acknowledge it to be such, and must then attack it with unyielding resolution. There are many such evils, and each must be fought after a fashion; yet there is one quality which we must bring to the solution of every problem – that is, an intense and fervid Americanism.

“We shall never be successful over the dangers that confront us; we shall never achieve true greatness, nor reach the lofty ideal which the founders and preservers of our mighty federal Republic have set before us, unless we are Americans in heart and soul, in spirit and purpose, keenly alive to the responsibility implied in the very name of American, and proud beyond measure of the glorious privilege of bearing it.”

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