THEODORE ROOSEVELT, "THE STRENUOUS LIFE"
(10 APRIL 1899)
Leroy G. Dorsey
Texas A&M University
At the dawn of the twentieth
century, Theodore Roosevelt was preoccupied with an earlier era. He embraced America's story of origin--hardy
frontiersmen struggling against impossible odds in an uncharted wilderness
during the eighteenth century. Such men had
founded a civilized society unlike any other.
He routinely talked about and demonstrated a rough-and-tumble
individualism and a strong sense of honor, traits that he believed defined the
nation's past. As Richard Slotkin noted,
"Roosevelt symbolizes history itself as a
series of great 'hunts' in which a succession of representative hunter-heroes
and political leaders carry the nation from colony to world power."
But Roosevelt worried that modern America
was losing its anchor to the past.
Roosevelt gave voice to his concerns
during "The Strenuous Life" speech, given on 10 April 1899 to a group of wealthy
men at a Chicago
banquet. During the speech, he invoked the nation's
frontier past to goad citizens into accepting their responsibilities at home
and their destiny abroad. For example,
he described the Civil War as a modern example of the frontier experience,
lauding the men who willingly met that "strenuous" challenge and
chastising those who rejected it for a life of material comfort. Roosevelt
even charged American women to uphold the "strenuous life" by birthing
many children, thus ensuring a native-born numerical superiority over
foreigners arriving in ever-increasing numbers.
Finally, he framed the need to stop the anarchy caused by Filipino
rebels following the Spanish-Cuban-American War, reflecting an extension of
early frontiersmen's struggles against "uncivilized" Native
Americans. Roosevelt's public recollection
of the mythic truths about America's
past set the "strenuous life" as a legacy that would guide future
Advent of Modern America
Americans faced a number of
unsettling transitions in the latter part of the nineteenth century. New economic, social, and international
impulses had challenged traditional views of national life, calling into
question how products would be made, who would make them, and where those
products would be sold. With the U. S.
Census Bureau declaring the "closing" of the frontier in 1891, many
entrepreneurs and laborers had begun to seek their fortunes in the city instead
of living off the land. Advances in technology had transformed the manufacturing
process from an individual endeavor into a collective enterprise of mass
production. High-speed machines produced
millions of units, far outpacing the efforts of even the most productive
individual. As a result, economic growth
skyrocketed; by the turn of the twentieth century, America had become a leading industrialized
The need to manage these vast
increases in production, distribution, and capital spawned a new form of business
organization--the corporation. This
legalized entity, with its mysterious bureaucratic practices, contrasted
starkly with the family-owned, neighborhood businesses that had defined
American economic life for the previous century. In fact, the structure of the corporations
removed owners from day-to-day contact with workers and the public, making them
seem not only distant but also uncaring.
During the frequent economic depressions in the latter part of the
nineteenth century, corporations routinely ensured their own success by
threatening workers with unemployment or by paying lower wages. The earliest corporate entities, the railroad
trusts, epitomized this new way of doing business. They demonstrated a ruthless drive to form
monopolies, conspired to set rates, depressed wages, and bribed government
officials. Corporate railroad titans
demonstrated little concern for their own employees by routinely disregarding safety
considerations. Railroad brakemen, for
example, often suffered life-threatening yet preventable injuries. According to Alan Trachtenberg, railroad
corporations gave the country "its first taste of robber barons on a grand
Although the industrial boom widened
the gulf between workers and owners, all Americans appeared to relish the
increased prosperity that came with industrialization. Mass production created
hundreds of products at cheaper prices.
New technologies brought revolutionary inventions, such as the telephone
and the phonograph. Americans traveled faster
than ever before by train. Because of industrialization, workers' hours
decreased, leaving them with leisure time that they used to frequent saloons,
movies, and arcades.
Yet there was a cost to all these technological
and economic changes. Medical experts
warned that industrialized life caused increasing numbers of people to suffer
from a psychological condition evidenced by headaches, malaise, insomnia, and
sexual dysfunction. These maladies had always existed, but now
they were associated with the economic and social "progress" of the
era, which proved all the more disturbing.
According to Jackson Lears, this condition of "nervous illness"
stemmed from the "unprecedented speed with which railway and telegraph
allowed people to transact business, the barrage of information from magazines
and newspapers, [and] the monotony of routinized, subdivided labor." Doctors prescribed relaxation, exhorting
sufferers to isolate themselves from the "moral and intellectual
strenuosity" of their lives. These medical pronouncements also fed
cultural fears of a decline in masculinity among American men.
During the late nineteenth century,
more and more American men worried that they had become too civilized. The romanticized notion of masculinity,
originating in the nation's agrarian past, had identified men as "conquerors"
of nature. This idea, though, had given
way to the modern notion that masculinity was defined by restraint and
gentility. Since young men now needed to
demonstrate their worth by amassing capital for their business ventures, they
needed to appear refined in character--they had to act more "civilized"--in
order to gain the approval of those who controlled this new economic
environment. Yet as they became more "civilized,"
many felt less "manly," less in control of the environment around
them. According to Gail Bederman, a "recurring round of severe economic
depressions" between 1873 and 1896 "drove home the reality that even
a successful . . . small businessman might lose everything, unexpectedly,
through no fault of his own." Once conquerors of the wilderness, these new economic
men seemed vulnerable to being overwhelmed by industrialized forces beyond their
Not only did middle-class men find
their sense of masculinity threatened by economic changes, but also by a new
working class that included large numbers of immigrants. Immigrants arrived on American shores in
ever-increasing numbers in the latter half of the nineteenth century, drawn by
the promise of good-paying jobs in the new industrialized factories. Although some native-born Americans called
for restrictions against foreigners, whom they considered an unhealthy influence
on American culture, immigrants satiated the nation's "voracious appetite
for unskilled labor." Before long, however, immigrants would be
blamed for the crippling and violent strikes staged by an increasingly
assertive labor movement, and many immigrants even ran for political office,
propagating what some native-born Americans viewed as foreign ideologies. The increasing economic and political power
of nonwhite immigrant men further called into question the status and even the
masculinity of the white men who had controlled the country for more than a
Tensions at home mirrored the
anxieties Americans felt about foreigners abroad. Business entrepreneurs voiced the need for
markets overseas, claiming that the industrial boom had created more goods than
could be sold in the United
Yet Germany, Spain,
and other European powers had been acting on their imperialistic designs to
control economic resources in undeveloped parts of the world for centuries. America had been content to stay largely
removed from world affairs, despite its brief participation in the
Spanish-Cuban-American War in 1898.
Attempting to shake off its isolationist tendency, some speakers declared
needed to help enlighten the backward people in other countries, teaching them
how to be cultured by acquainting them with economic civility. Couching the need to help "backward
people" by bringing them civilization and "material splendor"
made the very ideas that had been endangering middle-class notions of
masculinity all the more influential.
American citizens had seemingly ignored
their beliefs in the necessity of a physically vigorous and principled life. Many corporations generated huge profits
through underhanded means. "Nervous
illness" caused a malaise in the middle and upper classes. Alien and "unhealthy" immigrants had
begun to take over the national body.
And "overcivilized" men had cast their unseemly money-making
mission overseas as a moral imperative. Thus,
at the end of the nineteenth century, concerns about the weakening of the
national character opened a rhetorical space for those who advocated a return
to traditional, "manly" virtues.
That space would be occupied for many years by Theodore Roosevelt.
Rise of Roosevelt
Asthmatic since his birth on 27 October 1858, Theodore
Roosevelt was a sickly boy. At age 14 he
had a life-altering experience. As he recalled in his autobiography, two "mischievous"
but "good-hearted boys" about his same age had made him the target of
their roughhousing. What vexed Roosevelt was that each boy handled him with "easy
contempt" and prevented him from "doing any damage whatever in
return." After this humiliating treatment,
he resolved that he would never "again be put in such a helpless position." To that end, he remade his young body,
training to become proficient in boxing, horseback riding, wrestling, and any
activity in which he could demonstrate his physical prowess.
was also raised to believe that a strong moral character was as important as physical
hardiness. As a child growing up in New York City, he was
taught the importance of personal virtue as he watched his father engage in an "immense
amount of practical charitable work." Roosevelt admired
his father as a moral exemplar who inspired others, and he looked for ways in
which he could do the same. For instance, after graduating from Harvard
in 1880, Roosevelt immediately began the study
of law, but was troubled by the law's tendency to "be against justice." Roosevelt was
offended particularly by corporate lawyers whose standards were not compatible "with
the idealism I suppose every high-minded young man is apt to feel."
Disenchanted with studying the law,
Roosevelt sought other avenues in which to
demonstrate his moral and manly idealism.
Joining the Republican Party in 1880, he served a three-year term as a
New York State Assemblyman from 1881-1884, earning a reputation as a crusader
who sought reforms in child labor laws and worker safety, and drawing headlines
each time he chastised corrupt corporate practices. Roosevelt's
rising political career, however, would be cut short by the death of his first
wife and his mother within hours of one another in 1884. He responded to this tragedy by exiling
himself to the Dakota Territory, where he had
previously started a cattle ranch.
According to biographer William Harbaugh, Roosevelt
attempted to "lose himself in the challenge--of the roundup, of
exploration, of man-killing animal, and of near total isolation." This two- year exile marked one of the "great
formative experiences" in Roosevelt's
Reinvigorated by his self-imposed
exile, Roosevelt remarried in 1886, returned to New York, and placed his mark on a number of
literary, political, and military endeavors.
Over the next three years, he published several works, most notably his
adventures on the Dakota frontier, Ranch
Life and the Hunting-Trail. Roosevelt worked from 1889-1895 as a Civil Service
Commissioner who fought to ensure equality in the civil service hiring
process. He rejected the system that
allowed politicians the freedom to appoint their unqualified friends to
government positions. In 1895, he became
the President of the New York City Board of Police, prowling the city at night
and looking to stamp out corruption in both police activities and criminal
enterprises. Appointed Assistant
Secretary of the Navy in 1897, Roosevelt spent a little more than a year in
that position, lobbying to increase spending in preparation for war,
particularly given the escalating tensions between Spain
and Cuba. His most controversial act as Assistant
Secretary occurred when he, without the approval of his superiors, ordered the
fleet to seize Manila after the battleship Maine had blown
up near Cuba
in February 1898. With suspicions of
Spanish treachery for the Maine incident
driving America into war, Roosevelt resigned and accepted command of the First
Volunteer Calvary Regiment. He and his "rough
riders" charged into history during the famous battle of San
Juan Hill. Roosevelt's
success in the Spanish-Cuban-American War gave him the support he needed to win
the governorship of New York
in 1898. During his two-year term, he
continued his crusade to enact reforms in the workplace and in public housing.
Throughout his career, Roosevelt communicated his belief in the necessity of
moral spirit and martial vigor. As one
biographer noted, Roosevelt had "learned
how to move crowds," realizing that speeches about virility and integrity "worked
better on the stump" than speeches about "tariff policy." Roosevelt had
chronicled many of his exploits out west as a rancher and abroad as a
soldier. Along with his speeches, he
wrote various narrative histories about the heroic men that he believed
epitomized manly strength and steely resolve.
His popular works, such as The
Winning of the West and Hero Tales
from American History, along with his numerous magazine and newspaper
articles centering on themes of strength and honor, cemented his image as a
modern frontiersman. Moreover, as a war
hero, he had many opportunities to address an adoring public. He frequently used such occasions to promote the
themes of the "strenuous life" as fundamental to American
progress. His most notable opportunity
came on 10 April 1899,
when he addressed the prestigious Hamilton Club in Chicago.
Roosevelt's Mythic Framing of National Character
possessed a "supreme belief" in character,
comprised of both physical strength and personal integrity. As he contemplated America's problems on the eve of
the twentieth century, he considered the same qualities crucial to the success
of the nation, declaring: "As it is with the individual, so it is with the
nation."(4) In "The Strenuous Life," he called
upon the members of the Hamilton Club to shoulder their responsibility as role
models, something he believed that many corporate titans and other men had abandoned
in their drive for material success. According
to Roosevelt, either the "men of the greatest city of the West" would
embrace the "doctrine of the strenuous life," demonstrating a manly character
and embracing hard work and "bitter toil," or they would worship the "doctrine
of ignoble ease" (1), shrink from such challenges, and prove themselves
unfit for the "serious work in the world" (3). To promote the correct character both at home
and abroad, he inspired his audience with examples from its storied past.
According to Slotkin, Roosevelt "looked to history for a usable past,"
one that could "offer clues" about appropriate behavior in the modern
world. Roosevelt frequently framed the nation's past
within the myth of the frontier, a compelling narrative that historically has
character and obligations in a wide variety of contexts. This narrative romanticized the history of European
settlers who demonstrated a martial and moral spirit on the North American
continent. These mythic settlers fought "savage
wars" against both indigenous peoples and harsh environments to "conquer"
the wilderness and establish America's
democratic ideology in the new world. Roosevelt lauded the personal traits forged by
the frontier experience, offered the frontiersmen as timeless role models, and called
for modern citizens to exhibit similar qualities in fulfillment of America's
destiny as a preeminent world power. His
political rhetoric invoked elements of this mythic story as an antidote to modern
impulses, for he believed that the lessons of the frontier had been lost amid
the greed and scrambling commercialism of the late nineteenth-century
declared that modern citizens had placed too great an emphasis on materialism
and a "life of ignoble ease," forgetting how hard their ancestors had
struggled to found a nation (2). As a
result, too many people sought a "period of freedom" from struggle
and conflict, becoming content to wallow in "mere enjoyment" (3). Roosevelt strategically invoked America's
mythic origins to promote an alternative approach to life: one that embraced the
strength and fortitude that had helped create the nation's "glorious
history" (4). He reminded his
audience of the "strenuous life" of their ancestors on the frontier, noting
how they understood that it was "better . . . 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" (4). Roosevelt's
own reputation as a frontiersman lent credibility to his romanticized memories of
how the pioneers fought against impossible odds to tame a savage wilderness.
To further illustrate the virtues
of the "strenuous life," Roosevelt also invoked a more recent event
"usable past": the Civil War. In recalling this "savage war"
that pitted brother against brother, Roosevelt
taught the same lesson that he drew from the frontier experience: the need for
sacrifice, the martial spirit, and moral commitment in both the individual and
the nation. "Thank God for the iron in the blood of our fathers," Roosevelt declared, for the men who "bore sword or
rifle in the armies of Grant!"
Manly vigor on the part of those "who upheld the wisdom of Lincoln" saved the
union. Had the nation instead listened
to those who--because of their love of money and ease--shrunk from "strife"
and preached peace at any cost during the Civil War, the nation might have
saved "hundreds of millions of dollars" in "blood and treasure"
(4). Yet in doing so, it would have
signaled to the whole world that America was a nation of "weaklings
. . . unfit to stand among the great nations of the earth" (4).
definition of national character raised questions about the nature of "real"
Americans. Unlike their fair-haired and
blue-eyed "old" counterparts from northern Europe, he observed, the "new"
immigrants from the southern regions of Europe
seemed to resist assimilating into American culture. Roosevelt, along with other politicians,
nativists, and even some scientists worried that these "new"
immigrants would cling to their foreign ways of thinking, bringing with them
crime, anarchy, disease, and a host of Old World ideologies and problems. Roosevelt indirectly
may have reaffirmed these nativist fears by insisting that a "healthy
state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean,
vigorous, healthy lives."
The potential threat of immigrants was
compounded, according to Roosevelt and many nativists, because the birth rates of
these foreign peoples outpaced that of whites, posing a long-term threat to the
very survival of the white race.
Despite these concerns, Roosevelt endorsed a "melting pot" nation,
where people of various races and ethnicities would assimilate and blend
together into a unique American culture. Of course, there was a limit to his support
for the "melting pot." According
to Thomas Dyer, Roosevelt favored liberal immigration
as long as the "breeding powers of the old-stock Americans remained strong
enough to enable them to absorb the great masses of new people."
In addition, he did not consider certain
ethnic groups--Asians and African-Americans, most notably--sufficiently
advanced or "civilized" to participate in democratic
self-governance. In short, Roosevelt embraced immigration as long as "real"
Americans continued to set the standard for national culture. For him, that meant citizens of white, Anglo
origin not only had to outnumber immigrants but also define the standards of
politics and culture.
In "The Strenuous Life," Roosevelt put a special burden on white, Anglo women to perform
their "womanly" duties and sustain the population. For women, living the "strenuous life"
meant embracing their natural roles as mothers and bearing many healthy
children. In his four-volume history of
the American frontier, The Winning of the
West, Roosevelt had praised frontier women
for fearlessly bearing many children despite the challenges of the wilderness. Roosevelt
returned to that theme in "The Strenuous Life," insisting that modern
women should do no less. Quoting from one
author's "melancholy" novel, Roosevelt observed that the "'fear
of maternity'" and the "'haunting terror'" of motherhood had led
to a decline in the birthrate in America.
Although many women had worked
tirelessly to gain equal access and rights in the public sphere,
Roosevelt called upon them to show the same dedication
to their traditional roles. He declared
that the "woman must be the housewife" and "the wise and
fearless mother of many healthy children."
When men shirked the "strenuous life" by fearing to work or to
wage "righteous war," and when women feared motherhood, each would "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 high-minded."
By expanding the "strenuous
life" to women, Roosevelt gave all
Americans of his generation the responsibility of emulating their frontier ancestors. Moreover, by linking men who "fear
righteous war" to women who "fear motherhood," he elevated those
women who bore many children to heroic status; they became the equivalent of
male warriors defending their country. The maternal impulse, no less than bravery in
combat, was necessary to sustain the "strenuous life."
Roosevelt often contrasted his idealized
view of America's
past with present conditions to highlight the decline of virtue in the modern era. On the one hand, the nation's foundational
story had justified waging a "savage war" to bring civilization to a
backward land; it was a noble and honorable pursuit. On the other hand, the modern era emphasized material
ease, with men fearing war and women fearing childbirth. This attitude threatened Americans reaching
for new frontiers.
recognized that "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 . . . in the fields of industrial activity," he was
quick to warn his audience that no nation could be "truly great if it
relied upon material prosperity alone" (6). For him, to worship profits was to "sit
huddled within our borders and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of
well-to-do hucksters" (7). Roosevelt acknowledged the contributions of the "great
captains of industry who have built our factories and our railroads," but he
also depicted those who pursued wealth as an end in itself as contemptuous of
the "strenuous life" (6). To
solve this crisis of spirit in America,
he directed his audience to look beyond America's own borders. Just as the nation's ancestors demonstrated strength
and determination by conquering the frontier, and just as the last generation renewed
its character on the battlefields of the Civil War, Americans of the twentieth
century would need to embrace new challenges abroad as a great world power.
Roosevelt pointed to the fate of China
as a cautionary tale. Content to "rot
by inches in ignoble ease," sunk in a "scrambling commercialism"
and "heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and
risk," China had lost
the "manly and adventurous virtues" (5) and suffered a crushing
defeat by Japan
in the 1890s. Training itself to "a career of
unwarlike and isolated ease," it had gone "down before other nations"
which had "not lost the manly
and adventurous qualities" (5). As
such, China had become an
object lesson for the United
States: "[W]e have our tasks, and woe
to us if we fail to perform them (5)!"
America had risen to the challenge in 1898 to face down Spain, yet even
then there had been "large bodies" of men in both branches of
government who had "opposed the declaration of war . . . who opposed the
upbuilding of the army," and who opposed the "building of any new
fighting-ships for the navy" (13). These
"public men who . . . so lamentably failed in forethought" had risked
the nation's honor, and they bore responsibility for "any shame" that
might come to the United
States from some future military "disaster"
(13). By failing to prepare America for the "strenuous life," they
risked reducing the nation to the "China of the western hemisphere"
Now that America
had defeated Spain and
emerged as a world power, Roosevelt insisted that it could not "avoid the
responsibilities that confront us in Hawaii, Cuba, Porto Rico, and the Philippines" (5). For Roosevelt, the war with Spain and the subsequent conflict in the Philippines had opened up America's next frontier, and the United States
was duty bound to continue to advance "civilization." America's
frontier legacy had echoed in the "guns that thundered off Manila and Santiago,"
ending the "medieval tyranny" of the Spanish. Now, America was obligated to protect that
legacy by safeguarding those island territories against "savage anarchy"
and "utter chaos" (8).
In advocating an active role in the
Philippines, Roosevelt reminded
his audience of America's
mythic struggle to defeat the American Indians. Citizens of the new nation then felt the
responsibility to "civilize" their indigenous foes by providing for
their material and educational needs.
He declared that modern Americans had a
similar duty to help the backward Filipinos who, because of their population of
"half-caste and native Christians, warlike Moslems, and wild pagans,"
had distinguished themselves as "utterly unfit for self-government" (17).
Roosevelt had no patience for 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" and civilize
the Filipinos (17). Taking that position to its extreme, he announced that such
logic "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." Indeed, that sort of
thinking would "condemn your forefathers and mine for ever having settled
in these United States"
obviously exaggerated to make his point and submerged the suffering of the American
Indians at the hands of white men. Yet
by invoking the nation's frontier legacy, he affirmed the lesson of "The
Strenuous Life" in dramatic, mythical terms: Anglo Americans had a
responsibility to challenge the unknown and to "civilize" backward peoples
(e.g., American Indians and Filipinos). American
soldiers may have been guilty of atrocities and other war crimes during their
occupation of the Philippines,
but for Roosevelt their presence symbolized
the vigor and morality of the "strenuous life." To abandon U.S.
obligations in the Philippines,
Roosevelt asserted, would not just be bad foreign policy, but a betrayal of America's
frontier legacy and its moral responsibilities as a "civilized"
Roosevelt played a critical role in
domestic and international policies as it entered the twentieth century. Denouncing the lust for material wealth in the
new industrial age, he called upon the nation to embrace its international
obligations in an increasingly dangerous world.
He reminded his audience of America's glorious past, and he
tried to revive the nation's spirit of adventure and service. Hoping to create his own "usable past,"
he called for a renewed demonstration of America's moral and physical might,
an exertion of the "strenuous life" that would ensure "true
national greatness" (20). His attitude
obligations in the world, for both good and ill, continues to echo into the
Legacy of "The Strenuous Life"
Theodore Roosevelt's speech
resonated powerfully with his audiences and helped to position him for his next
political conquest. Newspapers lauded the
speech as a "splendid illustration of American fearlessness" and a
rousing call for "battle and work and heroics." According to biographer Kathleen Dalton, this
speech "touched a nerve and inspired a generation of young men . . . to
serve their country and to grasp world leadership." Because of his war-time heroics, along with
his proven ability as a public speaker, the Republican National Committee urged
Roosevelt to accept the vice-presidential
nomination and campaign alongside presidential incumbent William McKinley. The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket won the 1900
After an assassin killed President McKinley
in 1901, Roosevelt ascended to the presidency,
where he could "preach" his lessons about national strength and
morality from the "bully pulpit." Roosevelt's
use of that office to exhort the public to transcend its greedy and fearful
nature helped transform the office into the modern "rhetorical presidency,"
where the chief executive serves as a moral leader providing the citizenry with
a compelling vision of the nation's destiny.
For President Roosevelt, that
destiny would be found by the nation's active engagement overseas. As a result, he initiated a number of
opportunities for America
to demonstrate the "strenuous life."
For example, Roosevelt reinterpreted
the Monroe Doctrine--a decades-old request to the European powers to refrain from
interfering in the Western hemisphere; most foreign powers had given it little
notice. Roosevelt's famous "Corollary"
to the Monroe Doctrine declared that the United
States had the right to intervene anywhere in the Americas
to maintain order. He invoked the "Corollary"
in 1902 to threaten Great
Britain with war if it did not leave
Venezuelan waters. Less than a year later, Roosevelt wrested
control of Panama from Colombia,
considered by many Americans as an act of presidential belligerence. Roosevelt successfully diverted attention by
promoting a patriotic story of American workers who conquered the
disease-ridden isthmus to perform a heroic feat of excavation in creating the Panama Canal. In the last years of his presidency, Roosevelt sent the nation's battleship fleet on an
unprecedented world tour. Stories by national
and international media reported the awe created by this technological concentration
of power, endorsing Roosevelt's policy for maintaining a strong navy and
as a major participant in world affairs.
legacy continued to influence American politics long after his death in 1919. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, used his
first inaugural address in 1933 to chastise the "rulers of the exchange of
mankind's goods" for their "own stubbornness and their own
incompetence," which FDR blamed for the Great Depression. Echoing his cousin Theodore, FDR charged his
audiences with displaying the character necessary to continue the nation's
march to destiny, declaring: "Happiness lies not in the mere possession of
money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative
effort. The joy, the moral stimulation,
of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits." Similarly, Harry S Truman echoed Roosevelt's warning
against isolationism as he urged Americans in 1947 to assist Greece in resisting communist
encroachment in that region. Truman
warned that if "we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of
the world--and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation."
Other American presidents have
likewise justified their policies by echoing TR's appeals to the "strenuous
life." During John F. Kennedy's "Inaugural
Address," the young president assured the "people in the huts and
villages" around the world that the United
States would help them "break the bonds of misery,"
and, reminiscent of the Roosevelt Corollary, warned "hostile powers"
that it would "oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas." Kennedy specifically invoked a "New
Frontier" when he spoke months later about American citizens volunteering
for the Peace Corps. He likened them to
mythic pioneer heroes who served "under conditions of physical hardship"
and lived "under primitive conditions" to assist long-suffering
peoples in Third World countries. Like Roosevelt,
Kennedy invoked the frontier as a means for physical and moral regeneration,
summoning citizens to put aside their selfish concerns and to join together in
selfless acts of heroism.
Ronald Reagan also embodied the
Rooseveltian legacy. Both men, seen as
cowboy-presidents, promoted America's
"strenuous" responsibilities at home and abroad. According to Sloktin, Reagan ushered in the
widespread use of the term "frontier" to frame everything from the
daunting methods needed to create a new American economy, to the revolutionary developments
of the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") to protect the
nation from Soviet space-based attacks. In fact, Reagan's rhetoric about the Soviets
cast them as a mythic, godless threat that America was destined to stop. He identified them as the "focus of evil
in the modern world," and urged Americans to resist the temptation to "ignore
the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire." For Reagan,
military might was important in the coming struggle, but it was the nation's "moral
will and faith" that would ensure victory.
As we enter the twenty-first
century, George W. Bush continues Roosevelt's legacy. Critics may mock Bush for his "far-fetched"
historical comparisons between himself and Theodore Roosevelt, calling the "wilderness-drilling,
Halliburton-coddling second Bush . . . no match for the wild-life-loving,
trust-busting first Roosevelt."
Yet rhetorically, Bush does mimic Roosevelt in many ways by insisting upon our obligations
as a great nation to promote democracy around the world. For instance, President Bush's rhetoric
concerning the War in Iraq
recalls the frontier legacy and the "strenuous life."
In his address to the nation on 10 January 2007, Bush echoed
Roosevelt's rhetoric about the insurgents in the Philippines, as he described the "Radical
Islamic extremists" who attempted to "topple moderate governments"
and "create chaos in the region."
As the leader of the free world, Bush suggested, America had a moral duty to assume
the burdens of this "savage war" and lead this "new struggle
that will set the course for a new century."
rhetorical legacy is a powerful narrative that provides contemporary Americans
a way of understanding their domestic and international responsibilities. On the one hand, the "strenuous life"
imagines a glorious destiny and calls upon Americans to rise above their own
selfish interests to sacrifice for some larger good. It asks all Americans to overcome their weaknesses
and to aspire to their rightful place among the legendary and noble heroes of
history. On the other hand, Roosevelt's "usable past" has a dark side,
encouraging a sort of public forgetfulness about the costs of prejudice,
imperialism, and war. For both good and
ill, Roosevelt's legacy has helped shape
American history, and we continue to heed his call to the "strenuous life"
to this day.
Last updated—11 July 2007
Leroy G. Dorsey is an Associate Professor of Communication
at Texas A&M University. He would like to thank Shawn J. Parry-Giles and
J. Michael Hogan for their guidance and editorial suggestions on the unit. And, he would like to thank Miriam Aune for
her initial editing work on the manuscript.
Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The
Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum,
The text of Roosevelt's
speech appeared in the Chicago Tribune
on 11 April 1899,
the day after it was delivered. This
unit examines this version of Roosevelt's
The Census report is quoted in Ray A.
Billington, The Genesis of the Frontier
Thesis: A Study in Historical Creativity (San Marino, CA: The Huntington
Library, 1971), 114.
See John W. Chambers II, The Tyranny of
Change: America in the
Progressive Era 1890-1920 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 19-20; George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth
of Modern America
(New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 4-5.
Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age
(New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 39; Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2003), 16-17.
See Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America, 57-58; Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age,
1865-1905 (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2006), 60.
Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America,
Chambers II, The Tyranny of Change,
See Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours For What
We Will: Workers and Leisure in An Industrial
City, 1870-1920 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1987); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York
(Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986).
Edwards, New Spirits, 56.
T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the
Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books,
See Clifford Putney, Muscular
Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America,
1880-1920 (Cambridge, MA:
Press, 2001); and Gail Bederman, Manliness
and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States,
1880-1917 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Bederman, Manliness and Civilization,
Matthew F. Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues:
The United States Encounters
Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 65,
88-97. See also Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration
Control in America (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press,
Bederman, Manliness and Civilization,
Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues, 49-57.
Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography
(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929), 27-28.
H. W. Brands, T. R.: The Last Romantic
(New York: Basic Books, 1997), 26.
Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A
Strenuous Life (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 18.
William H. Harbaugh, The Life and Times
of Theodore Roosevelt, Rev. ed. (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 54.
For information on these parts of Roosevelt's
life, see his An Autobiography; Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt; Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New
York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc. 1979); Carleton Putnam, Theodore Roosevelt: The Formative Years,
1858-1886 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1959); Brands, T. R.; and Harbaugh, The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt.
Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt, 192-193.
John M. Blum, The Republican Roosevelt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
All of the remaining passages from Roosevelt's
April 10, 1899,
speech before the Hamilton Club are cited with reference to paragraph numbers
in the speech that accompanies this essay.
Richard Slotkin, Lost Battalions: The
Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005),
See Leroy G. Dorsey and Rachel M.
Harlow, "'We Want Americans
Pure and Simple': Theodore Roosevelt and the Myth of Americanism,"
Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6
(2003): 55-78; Leroy G. Dorsey, "Sailing into the 'Wondrous Now': The Myth
of the American Navy's World Cruise,"
Journal of Speech 83 (1997): 447-465; Leroy G. Dorsey, "The Frontier Myth in Presidential Rhetoric: Theodore Roosevelt's
Campaign for Conservation," Western
Journal of Communication 59 (1995): 1-19; Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation; and Janice H. Rushing, "Mythic Evolution of
'The New Frontier' in Mass Mediated Rhetoric," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 3 (1986): 265-296.
See Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation,
See Vanessa B. Beasley, ed., Who Belongs
in America: Presidents, Rhetoric, and Immigration (College Station: Texas
A&M University Press, 2006); Philip Gleason, Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth-Century
America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Desmond
King, Making Americans: Immigration,
Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2000); Mary E. Stuckey, Defining
Americans: The Presidency and National Identity (Lawrence: University Press
of Kansas, 2004); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness
of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race
(Cambridge, MD: Harvard University Press, 1998); and Keith Fitzgerald, The Face of the Nation: Immigration, the
State, and the National Identity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,
This passage from "The Strenuous Life" appears in paragraph 3 of the
1901 version of the speech: The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (New York: The Century
Co., 1901) but not in the version printed in the Chicago Tribune on 11
April 1899. The substantive
difference between the two versions is Roosevelt's
inclusion of paragraph  in the 1901 version that does not appear in the text
printed from the Chicago Tribune of 11 April 1899. To read the
version with paragraph 3 inserted, see the 1901 version included in this unit
on "The Strenuous Life." The 1901 version continues to be published
again in the 1911 edition of Roosevelt's speeches, and it is the version used
by the Theodore Roosevelt Association, an organization "founded in 1919
and chartered by Congress in 1920 to preserve the memory and ideals of the 26th
President of the United
Chambers II, The Tyranny of Change,
Dorsey and Harlow, "'We Want Americans
Pure and Simple,'" 55-78; Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 59.
Thomas Dyer, Theodore Roosevelt and the
Idea of Race (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 123.
Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the
West--An Account of the Exploration and Settlement of our Country from the
Alleghanies to the Pacific: The Works
of Theodore Roosevelt, National edition, 20 vols. (New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1926), 8: 93.
To review this passage, see paragraph 3 of the 1901 version of "The
Strenuous Life" contained within this unit. For a more developed
explanation of this paragraph, see note 31 of this essay.
See Aileen S. Kraditor, The Ideas of the
Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 (1965; New York: W. W. Norton &
Company, 1981); Eleanor Flexner, Century
of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States (New York:
Atheneum, 1973); and Karlyn Kohrs Campbell,
Man Cannot Speak for Her: A Critical
Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric, 2 vols. (New York: Praeger, 1989).
To review this passage, see paragraph 3 of the 1901 version of "The
Strenuous Life" contained within this unit. For a more developed
explanation of this paragraph, see note 31 of this essay.
To review this passage, see paragraph 3 of the 1901 version of "The
Strenuous Life" contained within this unit. For a more developed
explanation of this paragraph, see note 31 of this essay.
Warren Zimmermann, First Great Triumph:
How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002),
By seizing the Philippines, America ensured its trade routes to Asia. However, Roosevelt emphasized the endeavor as a manifestation of
Americans' marital vigor and acknowledgment of its frontier legacy. On the attempt to educate and
"civilize" Native Americans, see David W. Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School
Experience, 1875-1928 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 5-27.
Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues, 243-244.
"Roosevelt on 'The Strenuous Life,'" Chicago Tribune, April
11, 1899, p. 12; "Last Week in Chicago," New York Times, April
16, 1899, p. 26.
Theodore Roosevelt, A Strenuous Life,
The term, "bully pulpit," is attributed to Roosevelt by George H.
Putnam in "Roosevelt: Historian and Statesman,"
which appeared in Roosevelt, The Winning
of the West, 9: x.
See Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical
Presidency (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1987); James W. Ceaser, Glen E. Thurow, Jeffrey Tulis, and Joseph M.
Bessette, "The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency," Presidential Studies Quarterly 11 (1981): 158-171. Recent scholarship questions the rhetorical
presidency beginning in the twentieth century, identifying it instead as
originating with George Washington; see Leroy G. Dorsey, ed., The Presidency and Rhetorical Leadership
Texas A&M University Press, 2002).
For examples of Roosevelt's use of the
rhetorical presidency, see Mary Stuckey, "Establishing the Rhetorical
Presidency through Presidential Rhetoric: Theodore Roosevelt and the
Brownsville Raid," Quarterly Journal
of Speech 92 (2006): 287-309; Dorsey, "The Frontier Myth in Presidential Rhetoric, 1-19.
Howard K. Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and
the Rise of America
to World Power (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956),
J. Michael Hogan, The Panama
Canal in American Politics: Domestic Advocacy and the Evolution of
Policy (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), 34-56.
Dorsey, "Sailing into the 'Wondrous Nowm,'" 447-465.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, "First Inaugural Address," in American Rhetorical Discourse, 3rd
ed., eds., Ronald F. Reid and James F. Klumpp (Long Grove, IL:
Waveland Press, Inc., 2005), 749.
Harry S. Truman, "Aid to Greece
The Marshall Plan," in Contemporary
American Voices: Significant Speeches in American History, 1945-Present,
eds., James R. Andrews and David Zarefsky (New York: Longman, 1992), 11.
See John F. Kennedy, "Inaugural Address," in American Rhetorical Discourse, 788; Leroy G. Dorsey, "The Myth
of War and Peace in Presidential Discourse: John Kennedy's 'New Frontier' Myth
and the Peace Corps," Southern
Communication Journal 62 (1996): 47; and Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 489-504.
Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation,
Ronald Reagan, "Speech to the National Association of Evangelicals (The
'Evil Empire' Speech)," in American
Rhetorical Discourse, 802-803.
Michael C. Schaffer, "Reflect Shun: George W. Bush Claims the Mantle of
Teddy Roosevelt," The New Republic
Online, February 15,
2007, located at http://www.tnr.com. See also "T.R.? He's No T.R.," Editorial, New York Times, February 11, 2007, Late Edition, 4.11.
See Mark West and Chris Carey, "(Re)Enacting Frontier Justice: The Bush
Administration's Tactical Narration of the Old West Fantasy after September
11," Quarterly Journal of Speech
92 (2006): 379-412; and John B. Judis, The
Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and
Woodrow Wilson (New York:
George W. Bush, "President's Address to the Nation," The White House, January 10, 2007, www.whitehouse.gov.