Best Quotes From Theodore Roosevelt’s 1883 Speech “Duties of American Citizenship”


Neil: This speech is President Theodore Roosevelt rallying every American to get in the Arena of politics. Just as we have a duty to serve and protect our family, we have a responsibility to our country and our community.

He especially calls out “men in business” who make excuses not to serve in politics and then complain when politicians are corrupt or make bad policies. He argues that voting is the least you can do as a citizen.

Roosevelt’s quote “People who say they do not have time to attend to politics are simply saying they are unfit to live in a free community.” echos Plato’s quote from The Republic — “The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”

This also reminds me of a much more recent quote “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” — Jeff Hammerbacher (2011).

We should all be asking ourselves the Hamming Question“what is the most important problem in your field, and why aren’t you working on it?

It might help to first ask “what is the most important field?”

I believe that politics is increasingly the most important field with leverage to improve or destroy our country and world. Speak now or forever lose your peace.


No man can be a good citizen who is not a good husband and good father, who is not honest in its dealings with other men and women, loyal to his friends and fearless in the presence of his enemies, who has not had a sound heart, a healthy mind and a healthy body, just as no amount of attention to civil rights will save a nation where domestic life is undermined, or there is a lack of virtues harsh military alone can ensure the position of a country in the world.”

It should be obvious in this country that every man must devote a reasonable share of his time doing his duty in the political life of the community.

Many of our men in business, or our young men who are determined to enjoy life (as they have every right to do so only if they do not sacrifice other things to enjoyment), rather pride themselves on being good citizens if they even vote, the vote is still the least of their duties

Nothing to win is never gained without effort. You cannot have freedom without effort and pain for her that you can gain success as a banker or a lawyer without work and effort, without self-denial in youth and the display of intelligence and alert ready to mature.”

People who say they do not have time to attend to politics are simply saying they are unfit to live in a free community. Their place is under the despotism, or whether they simply do nothing but vote, you can take despotism tempered by an occasional plebiscite, like Napoleon seconds.

“In one of the beautiful stanzas Lowell on the Civil War, he speaks of the fact that his countrymen were then learning, that freedom is not a gift that long delays in the hands of cowards: nor yet it soon long in the hands of the lazy and idle in the hands of man so absorbed in the pursuit of pleasure or the pursuit of gain, or so wrapped in his own home life easier than being unable to take his part in the fight hard with fellow men for political supremacy.”

If freedom is useful to have, if the right to self-government is a valuable right, then both should be retained exactly as our ancestors have acquired through work, and especially by the work in the organization, which is combined with our fellows who have similar interests and the same principles.”

You feel half angry, half amused and wholly contemptuous, to find businessmen or high social status in the community saying they have not really had time to hunt meetings, to organize political clubs, and take a personal hand in all the important details of practical politics, the men who further urge against their will that they believe the condition of political morality low, and they are afraid they may be required to do what is not right if they go into politics.”

The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that it must work in politics, his second duty is that he must do this work in a practical way, and the third is this must be done in accordance with the highest principles of honor and justice.

It is not necessary to dogmatize on the independence on the one hand or party allegiance on the other. There are occasions where it may be the highest duty of every man to act outside and against parties with whom he has himself been hitherto identified, and there may be many more occasions when it’s over great duty is to sacrifice some of his own cherished opinions for the sake of the success of the party which he believes to be the whole law.”

I do not think the average citizen, at least in one of our major cities, can do very well in support of his own party all the time on every issue, local and otherwise, in any case if he can do, he was more happily placed than I have been.”

I am fully convinced that the best people to work must be organized, and of course an organization is really a party, whether a large organization covering the whole nation and numbering its millions of membership, or association of citizens in a particular locality, came together to win certain victory specific, as, for example, that the municipal reform.”

Someone said that racing yacht, like a good rifle, is a set of incompatibilities you need to get the maximum power sailing possible without sacrificing some other quality, if you really get the power larger sail, which, in a word you need to do more or less a compromise on each in order to acquire the dozen things necessary, but, of course, to make this compromise, you must be very careful for the good of something unimportant not to sacrifice one of the main principles of successful naval architecture.

“Well, it is about so that political work of a man. He learned to preserve its independence on the one hand, and on the other hand, unless he wants to be a wholly ineffective crank, he got to have a sense of allegiance to a party and responsibility of the parties, and he had to realize that in any given requirement, it may be a matter of duty to sacrifice quality, or it may be a matter of duty to sacrifice the other.”

I feel he has no right to plead the lack of agreement with either party as an excuse to abstain from active political work before the election. It will, of course, to prohibit him from the primaries in both major parties, and prevent him from doing his part in organizing their management, but unless it’s very unfortunate, it can certainly find some number of men who are in the same position as himself and who agree with him on specific parts of the political work, and they can turn in practically and effectively long before the election to try to this new piece of work in a practical way.”

“A warning apparently very necessary to decide is that a man who goes into politics should not expect to reform everything at once, with a jump. I know many excellent young men who, when awakened by the fact that they neglected their political duties, feel an immediate impulse to form themselves into an organization which shall forthwith purify politics everywhere, national, state, and the city as well, and I know a man who, after having gone around once in a primary, and after, of course, not been able to accomplish anything in a place where he knew no one and could not combine with anyone, returned saying it was totally unnecessary for a good citizen to try to accomplish something so.

“For these people too optimistic or too easily discouraged, I always feel like reading Artemus Ward article on the people of his city who gathered at a meeting to resolve that the city should support the Union and war civil, but were unwilling to take part in ending the rebellion unless they could go as brigadier-generals.”

I wish more of our good citizens would go into politics, and would it do in the same spirit with which their fathers went to the Federal armies. Start with the little, and do not expect to accomplish anything without an effort.”

“Of course, if you go first once, never bothered to know one of the others you will find yourself quite moved, but if you continue to participate and try to form associations with other men whom you meet at political rallies, or you can convince to attend, you will very soon find yourself a weight.

“Similarly, if a man believes that the policy of his city, for example, are very corrupt and wants to reform them, it would be a great idea for him to start his district. If he joins others who think as he does, to form a club where abstract political virtue will be discussed, it can do much good.”

“We need these clubs, but he must also learn to know his own parish or neighborhood, putting themselves in communication with the honestly in this district, we can be assured that there will be many, willing and able to something practical for procurance better government he set to work to procure a better assemblyman or better alderman before he tries his hand at making a mayor, a governor, or president.

If it starts at the top, it can make a brilliant temporary success, but chances are a thousand against one that will ultimately defeated, and never the good it does stand on the same basis substantial and continuous as if started at the bottom.

Of course, one or two of its efforts may be failures, but if he has the right stuff in him, he will go ahead and do his duty regardless of whether it meets the success or defeat. He is perfectly entitled to consider the question of failure while shaping efforts to succeed in a struggle for the right, but there should be no consideration of what it is when the question is whether we should or should not be a struggle for the right.

Once a band of one hundred and fifty or two hundred honest, intelligent, who know their business and profession is in a district, either in one of the regular organizations or outside, you can guarantee that local politicians in this area will begin to treat it with a mixture of fear, hatred, and respect, and that its influence will be felt, and that while sometimes men will be elected to office in defiance of his wishes, most often selected candidates will feel that they must pay some regard to its requirements for public decency and honesty.”

“But by advising you to be practical and work hard, I must not for one moment be understood as advising you to abandon one iota of your self-respect and devotion to principle. It is a bad sign for the country to see a class of our citizens sneer at practical politicians, and another Sunday school policy.”

“No man can be both an effective and decent work, in public life unless it is a practical politician, on the one hand, and a strong believer in Sunday school politics on the other.”

He must always strive manfully for the better, and yet, like Abraham Lincoln, must often resign themselves to accept the best possible.

Different political conditions breed various hazards. The demagogue is as ugly a creature as the courtier, if one is promoted through the Republican and the other under monarchical institutions.”

There is every reason why a man should have a honorable ambition to enter public life, and an honorable ambition to stay there when it happens, but he must take his party that cares about that as an it can hang in there on his own terms, without sacrificing his own principles, and if he do so his mind, he can really accomplish twice as much for the nation, and may reflect a hundred times more honor on himself, in a short term of service, what can the man who becomes gray in the public employment at the sacrifice of what he believes to be true and honest.”

It can be assumed that the man who is always sneering at our public life and our public men is a very bad citizen, and that it exerts little influence in the community is exercised for evil. The public speaker or columnist who teaches men of education that their proper attitude toward U.S. policy should be one of aversion or indifference makes every effort to perpetuate and aggravate the very evils which it is supposedly complained.”

“Exactly as it is generally the case that when a man mourns the decline of our civilization, he is himself, physically, mentally and morally a first class type of decay, so it is usually the case when a man is perpetually sneering at American politicians, whether worthy or unworthy, it is itself a poor citizen and a friend of the very forces of evil against which he professes to fight.”

Too often, these men seem to care less for attacking bad men, as to ruin the character of good men with whom they disagree on an issue of the pubis, and while their influence against evil is almost zero, they are sometimes able to weaken the hands of the well by withdrawing from the help they deserve, and they have therefore in the total sum of the forces working for evil.”

Occasionally it is necessary to beat a very good man, which is not good enough, even at the cost of electing a bad one but we must recognize that it may be necessary only occasionally and, in fact, I may say, only in very exceptional cases, and that, in general, where it is done the effect is quite unhealthy in every way, and those taking part to deserve the severest censure of all honest people.”

But exactly as the public man who commits a crime against the public is one of the worst of criminals, so, close on his heels in the race for iniquitous distinction, comes the man who falsely charges the public servant with outrageous wrongdoing; whether it is done with foul-mouthed and foolish directness in the vulgar and violent party organ, or with sarcasm, innuendo, and the half-truths that are worse than lies, in some professed organ of independence.”

Not only should criticism be honest, but it should be intelligent, in order to be effective.

Congressmen are very often demagogues; they are very often blind partisans; they are often exceedingly short-sighted, narrow-minded, and bigoted; but they are not usually corrupt; and to accuse a narrow-minded demagogue of corruption when he is perfectly honest, is merely to set him more firmly in his evil course and to help him with his constituents, who recognize that the charge is entirely unjust, and in repelling it lose sight of the man’s real shortcomings.

“I have known more than one State legislature, more than one board of aldermen against which the charge of corruption could perfectly legitimately be brought, but it cannot be brought against Congress.”

Against nothing is fearless and specific criticism more urgently needed than against the “spoils system,” which is the degradation of American politics. And nothing is more effective in thwarting the purposes of the spoilsmen than the civil service reform.

“Certainly the reform is needed when you contemplate the spectacle of a New York City treasurer who acknowledges his annual fees to be eighty-five thousand dollars, and who pays a deputy one thousand five hundred dollars to do his work”

“when you note the corruptions in the New York legislature, where one man says he has a horror of the Constitution because it prevents active benevolence, and another says that you should never allow the Constitution to come between friends!”

“All these corruptions and vices are what every good American citizen must fight against.”

Finally, the man who wants to do his duty as a citizen in our country must be imbued from beginning to end with the spirit of Americanism.

“People sometimes ask me if there is not a prejudice against a man of wealth and education in policy areas. I do not think there is, unless the man in turn shows that the facts of his wealth and education as having giving him a claim to superiority aside the merits, it is able to prove himself to have become effective.”

“Of course, if he feels he should have treated a little better than a carpenter, a plumber or a butcher, who happens to be near him, he will be thrown out of the race very quickly, and probably nearly enough, and if it began to be seen and carefully condescend to these men, it turns out they do not like this attitude even more.”

“Once upon a time a number of men who think as we do here tonight (the numbers being myself) got hold of one of the city assembly of New York, and ran a really great way, better than any other district assembly has never been done before or since either party. We did it through hard work and good organization, working practically, and yet by being honest and square in the pattern and method: especially did we do it all by turning as the amortization of Americans without regard distinctions of race origin.”

“Among the many men who have done much in organizing our victories was the son of a Presbyterian minister, the nephew of a Hebrew rabbi, and two well-known Catholic gentlemen. We also had a professor from Columbia College (stroke-oar of a university team), a noted retail butcher, and the editor of a local newspaper German, various brokers, bankers, lawyers, bricklayers and a stonemason who was particularly helpful for us, although questions of theory rather than policy applied, it had a decidedly socialist turn of mind.”

“Again, questions of race origin, like questions of creed, must not be considered: we wish to do good work, and we are all Americans, pure and simple.

“among my especial political and personal friends in that body was a gentleman from the southern tier of counties, who was, I incidentally found out, a German by birth, but who was just as straight United States as if his ancestors had come over here in the Mayflower or in Henry Hudson’s yacht.”

“Of course, none of these men of Irish or German birth would have been worth their salt had they continued to act after coming here as Irishmen or Germans, or as anything but plain straight-out Americans. We have not any room here for a divided allegiance. A man has got to be an American and nothing else

If, however, he does become honestly and in good faith an American, then he is entitled to stand precisely as all other Americans stand, and it is the height of un-Americanism to discriminate against him in any way because of creed or birthplace. No spirit can be more thoroughly alien to American institutions, than the spirit of the Know-Nothings.

To face the future and striving, each according to the measure of its individual capacity, to work on the salvation of our country, we should be neither pessimistic nor optimistic shy crazy.

We must recognize the dangers that exist and threaten us: we should neither overestimate them nor shrink from them, but steadily giving them should overcome and began to slaughter them.

Serious dangers are not yet encountered in the storm of the Republicperils of political corruption, perils of individual laziness, indolence and timidity, perils arising from the greed of unscrupulous rich, and the anarchic violence of the poor-sighted and turbulent.”

There is every reason why we should recognize them, but there is no reason why we should fear or doubt our ability to overcome them, except that each will, according to the measure of his ability, to full duty, and endeavor to live it to earn the praise of being called a good American citizen.”

Published by Neil Thanedar

Neil Thanedar is an entrepreneur, investor, scientist, altruist, and author. He is the founder & GP of Utopic, a pre-seed biotech VC fund investing in the future of science. He is also the founder & chairman of Air to All, a 501(c)3 nonprofit medical device startup, and Labdoor, a consumer watchdog with $7M+ in funding and 20M+ users. He previously co-founded Avomeen Analytical Services, a product development and testing lab acquired for $30M+ in 2016. He has also served as Executive Director of The Detroit Partnership and Senior Advisor to his father Shri Thanedar in his campaigns for Governor, State Representative, and US Congress in Michigan.