THE STRENUOUS LIFE
speech delivered to Chicago's Hamilton Club on 10 April 1899.
version is abridged. Click here for
the unabridged version.]
Roosevelt fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and became a leading
advocate of American imperialism. He delivered this speech a couple
of months after the Senate had ratified the treaty with Spain that established
the Philippines as a colony of the United States. "The Strenuous
Life" exuberantly defended American imperialism using arguments
rooted not only in American economic self-interest but also in notions
of masculine vigor, racial fitness, and national destiny. --D. Voelker
In speaking to you,
men of the greatest city of the West, men of the State which gave to
the country Lincoln and Grant, men who preeminently and distinctly embody
all that is most American in the American character, I wish to preach,
not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous
life, the life of effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest
form of success which comes, not to the man who desires more 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.
A life of slothful
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. I ask only that what every self-respecting
American demands from himself and from his sons shall be demanded of
the American nation as a whole. . . .  You work yourselves, and you
bring up your sons to work. If you are rich and are worth your salt,
you will teach your sons that though they may have leisure, it is not
to be spent in idleness; for wisely used leisure merely means that those
who possess it, being free from the necessity of working for their livelihood,
are all the more bound to carry on some kind of non-remunerative [sic]
work in science, in letters, in art, in exploration, in historical research--work
of the type we most need in this country, the successful carrying out
of which reflects most honor upon the nation.
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. In this life we get nothing save by effort. Freedom from
effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort
 in the past. A man can be freed from the necessity of work only
by the fact that he or his fathers before him have worked to good purpose.
If the freedom thus purchased is used aright, and the man still does
actual work, though of a different kind, whether as a writer or a general,
whether in the field of politics or in the field of exploration and
adventure, he shows he deserves his good fortune. But if he treats this
period of freedom from the need of actual labor as a period, not of
preparation, but of mere enjoyment, even though perhaps not of vicious
enjoyment, he shows that he is simply a cumberer of the earth's surface,
and he surely unfits himself to hold his own with his fellows if the
need to do so should again arise. A mere life of ease is not in the
end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately
unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world.
In the last analysis
a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up
lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained
that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome
them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and
risk. The man must be glad to do a man's work, to dare and endure and
to labor; to  keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him.
The woman must be the housewife, the helpmeet of the homemaker, the
wise and fearless mother of many healthy children. . . . When men fear
work or fear righteous war, when women fear motherhood, they 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.
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. 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. If in 1861 the men who loved the Union had believed that
peace was the end of all things, and war and strife the worst of all
things, and had acted up to  their belief, we would have saved hundreds
of thousands of lives, we would have saved hundreds of millions of dollars.
Moreover, besides saving all the blood and treasure we then lavished,
we would have prevented the heartbreak of many women, the dissolution
of many homes, and we would have spared the country those months of
gloom and shame when it seemed as if our armies marched only to defeat.
We could have avoided all this suffering simply by shrinking from strife.
And if we had thus avoided it, we would have shown that we were weaklings,
and that we were unfit to stand among the great nations of the earth.
Thank God for the
iron in the blood of our fathers, the men who upheld the wisdom of Lincoln,
and bore sword or rifle in the armies of Grant! Let us, the children
of the men who proved themselves equal to the mighty days, let us, the
children of the men who carried the great Civil War to a triumphant
conclusion, praise the God of our fathers that the ignoble counsels
of peace were rejected; that the suffering and loss, the blackness of
sorrow and despair, were unflinchingly faced, and the years of strife
endured; for in the end the slave was freed, the Union restored, and
the mighty American republic placed once more as a helmeted queen among
We of this generation
do not have to face a task such as that our fathers faced, but we have
our tasks, and woe to us if we fail to perform them! We cannot, if we
would, play the part of China, and be content to rot by inches in ignoble
ease within our borders, taking no interest in what goes on beyond them,
sunk in a scrambling commercialism; heedless of the higher life, the
life of aspiration, of toil and risk, busying ourselves only with the
wants of our bodies for the day, until suddenly we should find, beyond
a shadow of question, what China has already found, that in this world
the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated
ease is bound, in the end, to go down before other nations which have
not lost the manly and adventurous qualities. If we are to be a really
great people, we must strive in good faith to play a great part in the
world. We cannot avoid meeting great issues. All that we can determine
for ourselves is whether we shall meet them well or ill. In 1898 we
could not help being brought face to face with the problem of war with
Spain. All we could decide was whether we should shrink like cowards
from the contest, or enter into it as beseemed a brave and high-spirited
people; and, once in, whether failure or success should crown our banners.
So it is now. We
cannot avoid the responsibilities  that confront us in Hawaii, Cuba,
Porto Rico, and the Philippines. All we can decide is whether we shall
meet them in a way that will redound to the national credit, or whether
we shall make of our dealings with these new problems a dark and shameful
page in our history. To refuse to deal with them at all merely amounts
to dealing with them badly. We have a given problem to solve. If we
undertake the solution, there is, of course, always danger that we may
not solve it aright; but to refuse to undertake the solution simply
renders it certain that we cannot possibly solve it aright.
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 that thrills "stern men with empires in their brains"--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 in the great, fair tropic islands from which the valor of our
soldiers and sailors has driven the Spanish flag. These are the men
who fear the strenuous life, who fear the only national life which is
really worth leading.  They believe in that cloistered life which
saps the hardy virtues in a nation, as it saps them in the individual;
or else they are wedded to that base spirit of gain and greed which
recognizes in commercialism the be-all and end-all of national life,
instead of realizing that, though an indispensable element, it is, after
all, but one of the many elements that go to make up true national greatness.
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, from hard, unsparing effort in the fields of industrial
activity; but neither was any nation ever yet truly great if it relied
upon material prosperity alone. All honor must be paid to the architects
of our material prosperity, to the great captains of industry who have
built our factories and our railroads, to the strong men who toil for
wealth with brain or hand; for great is the debt of the nation to these
and their kind. But our debt is yet greater to the men whose highest
type is to be found in a statesman like Lincoln, a soldier like Grant.
They showed by their lives that they recognized the law of work, the
law of strife; they toiled to win a competence for themselves and those
dependent upon them; but they recognized that there were yet other and
even loftier duties--duties to the nation and duties to the race. 
We cannot sit huddled
within our own borders and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do
hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond. Such a policy would
defeat even its own end; for as the nations grow to have ever wider
and wider interests, and are brought into closer and closer contact,
if we are to hold our own in the struggle for naval and commercial supremacy,
we must build up our power without our own borders. We must build the
isthmian canal, and we must grasp the points of vantage which will enable
us to have our say in deciding the destiny of the oceans of the East
and the West.
So much for the commercial
side. From the standpoint of international honor the argument is even
stronger. The guns that thundered off Manila and Santiago left us echoes
of glory, but they also left us a legacy of duty. If we drove out a
medieval tyranny only to make room for savage anarchy, we had better
not have begun the task at all. It is worse than idle to say that we
have no duty to perform, and can leave to their fates the islands we
have conquered. Such a course would be the course of infamy. It would
be followed at once by utter chaos in the wretched islands themselves.
Some stronger, manlier power would have to step in and do the work,
and we would have shown ourselves weaklings, unable to carry  to
successful completion the labors that great and high-spirited nations
are eager to undertake.
The work must be
done; we cannot escape our responsibility; and if we are worth our salt,
we shall be glad of the chance to do the work--glad of the chance to
show ourselves equal to one of the great tasks set modern civilization.
But let us not deceive ourselves as to the importance of the task. Let
us not be misled by vainglory into underestimating the strain it will
put on our powers. Above all, let us, as we value our own self-respect,
face the responsibilities with proper seriousness, courage, and high
resolve. We must demand the highest order of integrity and ability in
our public men who are to grapple with these new problems. We must hold
to a rigid accountability those public servants who show unfaithfulness
to the interests of the nation or inability to rise to the high level
of the new demands upon our strength and our resources.
Of course we must
remember not to judge any public servant by any one act, and especially
should we beware of attacking the men who are merely the occasions and
not the causes of disaster. Let me illustrate what I mean by the army
and the navy. If twenty years ago we had gone to war, we should have
found the navy as absolutely  unprepared as the army. At that time
our ships could not have encountered with success the fleets of Spain
any more than nowadays we can put untrained soldiers, no matter how
brave, who are armed with archaic black-powder weapons, against well-drilled
regulars armed with the highest type of modern repeating rifle. But
in the early eighties the attention of the nation became directed to
our naval needs. Congress most wisely made a series of appropriations
to build up a new navy, and under a succession of able and patriotic
secretaries, of both political parties, the navy was gradually built
up, until its material became equal to its splendid personnel, with
the result that in the summer of 1898 it leaped to its proper place
as one of the most brilliant and formidable fighting navies in the entire
world. We rightly pay all honor to the men controlling the navy at the
time it won these great deeds, honor to Secretary Long and Admiral Dewey,
to the captains who handled the ships in action, to the daring lieutenants
who braved death in the smaller craft, and to the heads of bureaus at
Washington who saw that the ships were so commanded, so armed, so equipped,
so well engined, as to insure the best results.
But let us also keep
ever in mind that all of this would not have availed if it had not been
for the wisdom of  the men who during the preceding fifteen years
had built up the navy. Keep in mind the secretaries of the navy during
those years; keep in mind the senators and congressmen who by their
votes gave the money necessary to build and to armor the ships, to construct
the great guns, and to train the crews; remember also those who actually
did build the ships, the armor, and the guns; and remember the admirals
and captains who handled battle-ship, cruiser, and torpedo-boat on the
high seas, alone and in squadrons, developing the seamanship, the gunnery,
and the power of acting together, which their successors utilized so
gloriously at Manila and off Santiago.
 . . . . A man's
first duty is to his own home, but he is not thereby excused from doing
his duty to the State; for if he fails in this second duty it is under
the penalty of ceasing to be a freeman. In the same way, while a nation's
first duty is within its own borders, it is not thereby absolved from
facing its duties in the world as a whole; and if it refuses to do so,
it merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the peoples
that shape the destiny of mankind.
In the West Indies
and the Philippines  alike we are confronted by most difficult problems.
It is cowardly to shrink from solving them in the proper way; for solved
they must be, if not by us, then by some stronger and more manful race.
If we are too weak, too selfish, or too foolish to solve them, some
bolder and abler people must undertake the solution. Personally, I am
far too firm a believer in the greatness of my country and the power
of my countrymen to admit for one moment that we shall ever be driven
to the ignoble alternative.
The problems are
different for the different islands. Porto Rico is not large enough
to stand alone. We must govern it wisely and well, primarily in the
interest of its own people. Cuba is, in my judgment, entitled ultimately
to settle for itself whether it shall be an independent state or an
integral portion of the mightiest of republics. But until order and
stable liberty are secured, we must remain in the island to insure them,
and infinite tact, judgment, moderation, and courage must be shown by
our military and civil representatives in keeping the island pacified,
in relentlessly stamping out brigandage, in protecting all alike, and
yet in showing proper recognition to the men who have fought for Cuban
The Philippines offer
a yet graver problem. Their population includes half-caste and native
Christians,  warlike Moslems, and wild pagans. Many of their people
are utterly unfit for self-government, and show no signs of becoming
fit. Others may in time become fit but at present can only take part
in self-government under a wise supervision, at once firm and beneficent.
We have driven Spanish tyranny from the islands. If we now let it be
replaced by savage anarchy, our work has been for harm and not for good.
I have scant patience with those who fear to undertake the task of governing
the Philippines, and who openly avow that they do fear to undertake
it, or that they shrink from it because of the expense and trouble;
but I have even scanter patience with 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. Their doctrines, if carried out, 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.
Their doctrines condemn your forefathers and mine for ever having settled
in these United States.
England's rule in
India and Egypt has been of great benefit to England, for it has trained
up generations of men accustomed  to look at the larger and loftier
side of public life. It has been of even greater benefit to India and
Egypt. And finally, and most of all, it has advanced the cause of civilization.
So, if we do our duty aright in the Philippines, we will add to that
national renown which is the highest and finest part of national life,
will greatly benefit the people of the Philippine Islands, and, above
all, we will play our part well in the great work of uplifting mankind.
But to do this work, keep ever in mind that we must show in a very high
degree the qualities of courage, of honesty, and of good judgment. Resistance
must be stamped out. The first and all-important work to be done is
to establish the supremacy of our flag. We must put down armed resistance
before we can accomplish anything else, and there should be no parleying,
no faltering, in dealing with our foe. As for those in our own country
who encourage the foe, we can afford contemptuously to disregard them;
but it must be remembered that their utterances are not saved from being
treasonable merely by the fact that they are despicable.
 . . . . I preach
to you, then, my countrymen, that our country calls not for the life
of ease but for the life of strenuous endeavor. The twentieth century
looms before us big with the fate of many nations. 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. Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute
to do our duty well and  manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness
by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve
high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink
from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided
we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through
strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately
win the goal of true national greatness.
did Roosevelt mean by the "strenuous life"?
did Roosevelt use negative examples to argue his point? What did
he want to make sure did not happen to the United States?
did Roosevelt describe the duty of the United States in the Philippines?
would you characterize Roosevelt's attitude towards the inhabitants
of the islands that the U.S. acquired from Spain?
Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (New York: The Century Co.,
1902), 1-21. Paragraph
numbers have been added, and the original pagination appears in brackets.