The young New Yorker, sporting a vaguely eerie perpetual sunburn and several other distinctive physical characteristics, should have seemed out of place in such a rural setting. Born to wealth and privilege, the New Yorker had been called to address a crowd on the opposite end of that spectrum. Men and women who led hard lives of toil and daily physical risk were his audience. If the physical danger was not enough, almost everyone in the crowd was a hairsbreadth from the type of economic ruin that did not worry the confident heir to a modest family fortune. But the New Yorker had a gift for communicating with the hard pressed. He spoke to their hearts and they gave him a loyalty that years later would propel the young man to a White House residency.
At the heart of the unlikely common bond shared between the quasi-aristocrat and his working class base was the people’s knowledge that their hero was a fighter. In fact, he lived for the fight; It was as much a part of him as his limbs or organs. In him the masses could see what they aspired to. With enough grit, luck and just the right opportunity, maybe they could enjoy the same life. And if not them, then their children. His uncanny ability with publicity reinforced the bond; his unconventionality cemented it.
So it was when a young Teddy Roosevelt addressed the citizenry of Dickinson, North Dakota on July 4, 1886 (who did you think I was talking about?). Having just completed Edmund Morris’ exceptional biography of T.R., which focuses so much on Teddy’s consuming lust for the arena, I find myself wondering about what Americans are fighting for today.
While the world had taken notice of the growing behemoth in the West for decades, Roosevelt was the first U.S. President to act as if the United States was a preeminent world power. Monroe may have told the world that interference in the Western Hemisphere was interference with United States’ interests; Roosevelt built a Navy that gave teeth to the doctrine. Trade across our boundary oceans was necessary to obtain full benefit from our burgeoning economic might; Roosevelt reshaped the politics of Central America and literally moved the earth to create a canal through which our goods could travel. Forty years after our greatest national tragedy, Roosevelt nudged the nation towards the idea it was over and African-Americans were citizens. To the South’s dismay he had the gall to dine with Booker T. Washington in the White House and appoint African-Americans to federal positions on the basis of merit. Recognizing that economic justice demanded that the fruits of labor be shared with labor, Roosevelt shaped legislation, the judiciary and national policy to tame the wildest excesses of Wall Street. And finally, consistent with the roots of his political career, Roosevelt insisted on competency and integrity from public servants.
As a result of his vision and energy, Roosevelt was not just our president. He became in many ways the leading figure on the world’s stage, a first for America. And Roosevelt took America with him. Through him we took our seat at the adults’ table. That Roosevelt spirit was on full display in his July 4th oration to Dickinson’s “grangers and ranchers” given 15 years before an assassin’s bullet made him the nation’s leader. Roosevelt loved the West and spent as much time there as possible. he was a rancher, hunter and outdoorsman of the first class. Remarkably enough, he was a leading citizens of both our nations’ largest, richest city and our most primitive territory.
Uniquely, Roosevelt understood the connection between these worlds. He saw so clearly the power that could be harnessed when one joined the other. Much of his 1886 speech focused on the development of that union and the role his settler audience had to play in that drama. But one line of his remarkable address speaks to me louder than the rest:
And for most of the American Century, we proved Roosevelt right. American power-economic, military and moral-became the fulcrum on which the planet rests. That is a hard fact to hear for many who are proud of their own heritage and I say it without boast; still it is a fact. Without this country the planet would still spin, but its inhabitants would be poorer in treasure and more importantly, poorer in hope and spirit.
Despite the heights to which the country has risen, Roosevelt would be deeply troubled by our current state of affairs. I am afraid he would see in us what he most despised-insecurity. Roosevelt knew in his bones that Americans and their system of government could drive the world forward. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” derived from that confidence. Yet today, we seem to have it backward. Speaking softly is a lost art. I have no immediate solution, but yet I am confident we will find our way forward. One suggestion, however, can be found in Roosevelt’s speech:
So tonight’s fireworks can be a just celebration only if we understand why “God shed his grace on thee…” America exists so that humans everywhere can advance. As long as we look only inward we betray our destiny. We are a bigger, more caring people than what we are showing to each other and to the world. Lets reduce the rhetoric and improve the stick. The struggle is not with each other, but to remind the world why American values should be their values. Teddy would tell us the fight is worth it.
Happy Birthday, America.