The strenuous life is a simple philosophy, embodied in a single speech, lived by the man who advocated it – for individuals and the nation. The speech was given in 1899.
In 1898, a candidate for New York governor – once police commissioner, assistant secretary of the Navy, and a combat soldier – dared run against the Democratic establishment, Tammany Hall’s patronage and political corruption. He won.
As governor, he discovered Republicans – namely Republican boss Platt – were wrapped up in unsavory things. He took them on, forced those in power within the state to “take responsibility.”
He modeled political transparency, gave two press conferences a day, made corporations pay, mediated between labor and management, advanced constitutional values, and – he infuriated both parties.
In 1899, the Republican vice presidential candidate suddenly died, leaving presidential nominee William McKinley an open slot. New York’s Republicans told McKinley they had the man, a war hero – and pain in their backside. McKinley took him.
Turns out the vice presidential candidate was good with words and so a wicked campaigner, strong by nature, uncompromising on principle, likable to common folk. The team won, unfortunately leaving this new vice president with nothing to do, almost literally.
In September of 1900, fate intervened. McKinley was killed. The rabblerousing, anticorruption, fair minded, and independent cuss from New York – a self-described cowboy – was suddenly president. He was a father of four boys and girl, a role that defined him more than politics.
He was unafraid to tell it like it is, and regularly did. He revolutionized the office of president, and role of America in the world, sent the Great White Fleet out to deter wars, won the Nobel Peace Prize by ending the Russo-Japanese war, created the Panama Canal, proponed the 19th Amendment giving women the vote, desegregated the civil service, busted monopolies, forced fair labor, prosecuted political corruption, calmed the market crisis of 1907, invented conservation and the national park system.
More to the point, he pushed himself mentally, emotionally, and physically – eventually wrote more than 30 books, was a world renowned expert on grizzly bears and North American birds, explored Africa and South America at enormous physical cost.
But before all this, he gave a speech. One wonders if any candidate for anything today would dare to give the same speech. Here is what he said.
“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.”
He continued. “A life of ignoble 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.”
He explained. “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.”
He pulled no punches. “In this life we get nothing save by effort …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.”
And here was his epic central message: “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.”
“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 … 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 us do our share of the world’s work, by bringing order out of chaos …”
“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 rollcalls of Congress on the wrong side of these great questions.”
I preach to you…that our country calls not for the life of ease but for the life of strenuous endeavor…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.”
He had more to say, but let that suffice. These are the words of Theodore Roosevelt. They are timeless, echo. The strenuous life brings peace; shrinking from it brings pain.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.