Theodore Roosevelt delivered this inspirational address to the college preparatory boys attending the Groton School in Massachusetts on May 24, 1904, a school which the Roosevelt family supported. "Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground."
I want to speak to you first of all as regards your duties as boys; and in the next place as regards your duties as men; and the two things hang together. The same qualities that make a decent boy make a decent man. They have different manifestations, but fundamentally they are the same. If a boy has not got pluck and honesty and common-sense he is a pretty poor creature; and he is a worse creature if he is a man and lacks any one of those three traits.
Because much has been given to you, therefore we have a right to expect much from you; and we have a right to expect that you shall begin to give that much just as soon as you leave school and go to college, so that you shall count when you are there. Now, there are in our civic and social life very much worse creatures than snobs, but none more contemptible. If you have any stuff in you at all, and try to amount to anything in after life, you will not remain snobs even if you start as such. It will be taken out of you very soon and very roughly if you go into any real work. Go into politics, go to your district convention, and try to carry it on the snob basis and see how far you will get. The thing that will strike you in just about a week is that there are a whole lot of able people sliding around this planet. The fact that the individual opposed to you does not wear a cravat, and does wear a saw-edge collar, does not imply that you are going to carry the convention against him!
You will soon find that it is not his clothes but his political sense and energy that control. You will find that if you expect to do anything there will be mighty little temptation to try to treat the men with whom you are working on any basis save the fundamental democratic basis of what they amount to, and what you can show you amount to as compared to them. So that if you go into life to do anything, it is perfectly useless for me to tell you to get rid of snobbery, because you will have to. It is just as true in every other field as in politics. Every man who works in philanthropy and he can do nothing in philanthropy unless he combines a very earnest desire to accomplish what is decent with the determination to accomplish it in practical fashion if he goes into philanthropy and tries to do something in a college settlement, tries to do his part in working to disentangle the tangled knot of our social and civic life, he will find just as soon as he gets interested in his work he wont care and won't know who the people are who are with him except as he judges them by their fruits. The interest that you take in him is, can a given man accomplish something? If he can not, then let him give place to the man who can.
I believe with all my heart in athletics, in sport, and have always done as much thereof as my limited capacity and my numerous duties would permit; but I believe in bodily vigor chiefly because I believe in the spirit that lies back of it. If a boy can not go into athletics because he is not physically able to, that does not count in the least against him. He may be just as much of a man in after life as if he could, because it is not physical address but the moral quality behind it which really counts. But if he has the physical ability and keeps out because he is afraid, because he is lazy, because he is a mollycoddle, then I haven't any use for him. If he has not the right spirit, the spirit which makes him scorn self-indulgence, timidity and mere ease, that is if he has not the spirit which normally stands at the base of physical hardihood, physical prowess, then that boy does not amount to much, and he is not ordinarily going to amount to much in after life. Of course, there are people with special abilities so great as to outweigh even defects like timidity and laziness, but the man who makes the Republic what it is, if he has not courage, the capacity to show prowess, the desire for hardihood; if he has not the scorn of mere ease, the scorn of pain, the scorn of discomfort (all of them qualities that go to make a man's worth on an eleven or a nine or an eight); if he has not something of that sort in him then the lack is so great that it must be amply atoned for, more than amply atoned for, in other ways, or his usefulness to the community will be small. So I believe heartily in physical prowess, in the sports that go to make physical prowess. I believe in them not only because of the amusement and pleasure they bring, but because I think they are useful. Yet I think you had a great deal better never go into them than to go into them with the idea that they are the chief end even of school or college; still more of life. Remember that in life, and above all in the very active, practical, workaday life on this continent, the man who wins out must be the man who works. He can not play all the time. He can not have play as his principal occupation and win out. Let him play; let him have as good a time as he can have. I have a pity that is akin to contempt for the man who does not have as good a time as he can out of life. But let him work. Let him count in the world. When he comes to the end of his life let him feel he has pulled his weight and a little more. A sound body is good; a sound mind is better; but a strong and clean character is better than either.
Of course, the worst of all lives is the vicious life; the life of a man who becomes a positive addition to the forces of evil in a community. Next to that and when I am speaking to people who, by birth and training and standing, ought to amount to a great deal, I have a right to say only second to it in criminality comes the life of mere vapid ease, the ignoble life of a man who desires nothing from his years but that they shall be led with the least effort, the least trouble, the greatest amount of physical enjoyment or intellectual enjoyment of a mere dilettante type. The life that is worth living, and the only life that is worth living, is the life of effort, the life of effort to attain what is worth striving for. If there ever was a pursuit which stultified itself by its very conditions, it is the pursuit of pleasure as the all-sufficing end of life. Happiness can not come to any man capable of enjoying true happiness unless it comes as the sequel to duty well and honestly done. To do that duty you need to have more than one trait.
You need a great many qualities to make a successful man on a nine or an eleven; and just so you need a great many different qualities to make a good citizen. In the first place, of course it is al most tautological to say that to make a good citizen the prime need is to be decent, clean in thought, clean in mind, clean in action; to have an ideal and not to keep that ideal purely for the study to have an ideal which you will in good faith strive to live up to when you are out in life. If you have an ideal only good while you sit at home, an ideal that nobody can live up to in outside life, then I advise you strongly to take that ideal, examine it closely, and then cast it away. It is not a good one. The ideal that it is impossible for a man to strive after in practical life is not the type of ideal that you wish to hold up and follow. Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground. Be truthful; a lie implies fear, vanity or malevolence; and be frank; furtiveness and insincerity are faults incompatible with true manliness. Be honest, and remember that honesty counts for nothing unless back of it lie courage and efficiency. If in this country we ever have to face a state of things in which on one side stand the men of high ideals who are honest, good, well-meaning, pleasant people, utterly unable to put those ideals into shape in the rough field of practical life, while on the other side are grouped the strong, powerful, efficient men with no ideals: then the end of the Republic will be near. The salvation of the Republic depends the salvation of our whole social system depends upon the production year by year of a sufficient number of citizens who possess high ideals combined with the practical power to realize them in actual life.
You often hear people speaking as if life was like striving upward toward a mountain peak. That is not so. Life is as if you were traveling a ridge crest. You have the gulf of inefficiency on one side and the gulf of wickedness on the other, and it helps not to have avoided one gulf if you fall into the other. It shall profit us nothing if our people are decent and ineffective. It shall profit us nothing if they are efficient and wicked. In every walk of life, in business, politics; if the need comes, in war; in literature, science, art, in everything, what we need is a sufficient number of men who can work well and who will work with a high ideal. The work can be done in a thousand different ways. Our public life depends primarily not upon the men who occupy public positions for the moment, because they are but an infinitesimal fraction of the whole. Our public life depends upon men who take an active interest in that public life; who are bound to see public affairs honestly and competently managed; but who have the good sense to know what honesty and competency actually mean. And any such man, if he is both sane and high-minded, can be a greater help and strength to any one in public life than you can easily imagine without having had yourselves the experience. It is an immense strength to a public man to know a certain number of people to whom he can appeal for advice and for backing; whose character is so high that baseness would shrink ashamed before them; and who have such good sense that any decent public servant is entirely willing to lay before them every detail of his actions, asking only that they know the facts before they pass final judgment.
Success does not lie entirely in the hands of any one of us. From the day the tower of Siloam fell, misfortune has fallen sometimes upon the just as well as the unjust. We sometimes see the good man, the honest man, the strong man, broken down by forces over which he had no control. If the hand of the Lord is heavy upon us the strength and wisdom of man shall avail nothing. But as a rule in the long run each of us comes pretty near to getting what he deserves. Each of us can, as a rule there are, of course, exceptions finally achieve the success best worth having, the success of having played his part honestly and manfully; of having lived so as to feel at the end he has done his duty; of having been a good husband, a good father; of having tried to make the world a little better off rather than worse off because he has lived; of having been a doer of the word and not a hearer only still less a mere critic of the doers. Every man has it in him, unless fate is indeed hard upon him, to win out that measure of success if he will honestly try.
There are two kinds of success to be won. In the first place, there is success in doing the thing that can only be done by the exceptional man. Therefore most of us can not achieve this kind of success. It comes only to the man who has very exceptional qualities. The other kind, a very, very high kind, is the ordinary kind of success, the success that comes to the man who does the things which most men could do, but which they do not do; which comes to the man who develops or possesses to a higher degree the qualities that all of us have to a greater or less extent. In the history of the world some of the men who stand high who stand in all but the very highest places are those who have not possessed any wonderful genius in statecraft, war, art, literature in whatever calling; but who have developed within themselves, by long, patient effort, resolutely maintained in spite of repeated failure, the ordinary, everyday, humdrum qualities of courage, of resolution, of proper appreciation of the relative importance of things; of honesty, of truth, of good sense, of unyielding perseverance. We can each one of us develop to a very high degree these qualities; and if we do so develop them, each one of us is sure of a measure of success.
Return to the Theodore Roosevelt page
Return to the American History home page