A Roosevelt for Our Day

In popular imagination, Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as swashbuckling hero, a trust buster and champion of American greatness. In 1900, while serving as governor of New York and running for the Vice Presidency, he published a collection of speeches and articles in The Strenuous Life, a title designed to capture the forcefulness of the former Rough Rider and future Bull Moose presidential candidate.

But Roosevelt was also a vigorous enthusiast for compromise. In several of the collected essays he attacked the uncompromising (whom he called “impracticables” or extremists) as equally or more dangerous than the corrupt and dishonest. Though the language is a century old, the strength of his argument and moral convictions have clear application more than a century later.*

In that spirit, I give you the following selections from The Strenuous Life with as little commentary as I can muster.

On the uncompromising:

“It is true that the impracticable idealist differs from the hard-working, sincere man who in practical fashion, and by deeds as well as by words, strives in some sort actually to realize his ideal; but the difference lies in the fact that the first is impracticable, not in his having a high ideal, for the ideal of the other may be higher.”

“It is a great mistake to think that the extremist is a better man than the moderate. Usually the difference is not that he is morally stronger, but that he is intellectually weaker. He is not more virtuous. He is simply more foolish.”

“The man who is taken in by, or demands, impossible promises is not much less culpable than the politician who deliberately make such promises and then breaks faith.”

“When one of these professional impracticables denounces the attitude of decent men as ‘a hodge-podge of the ideal and the practicable,’ he is amusingly unaware that he is writing his own condemnation, showing his own inability to do good work or to appreciate good work.”


On the logic of compromise:

“Roosevelt favorably cited this quotation from a letter by Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury (1883-1896), to his chancellor: “The bill does not, of course, represent my ideal, but it is a careful collection of points which could be claimed, which it would be indecent to refuse, and which would make a considerable difference about our powers of dealing rightly with cases. Gain that platform, and it will be a footing for the more ideal measures. I do not want the best to be any more the deadly enemy of the good. We climb through degrees of comparison.”

“[W]hen we come to the countless measures and efforts for doing good, let us keep ever clearly in mind that while we must always strive for the utmost good that can be obtained, and must be content with no less, yet that we do only harm if, by intemperate championship of the impossible good, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to work a real abatement of existing and menacing evil.”

“‘Compromise’ is so often used in a bad sense that it is difficult to remember that properly it merely describes the process of reaching an agreement. Naturally there are certain subjects on which no man can compromise… [A]n honest politician is entirely justified in promising on the stump that he will make no compromise on any question of right and wrong. This promise he can and ought to make good. But when questions of policy arise – and most questions, from the tariff to municipal ownership of public utilities and the franchise tax, are primarily questions of policy – he will have to come to some kind of working agreement with his fellows, and if he says that he will not, he either deliberately utters what he knows to be false, or else he ensures for himself the humiliation of being forced to break his word. No decent politician need compromise in any way save as Washington and Lincoln did … but some distance he must go if he expects to accomplish anything.”

I only hope that more of our politicians will come to share Roosevelt’s convictions and conclusions.


* What makes these speeches and essays more remarkable is the fact that Roosevelt wrote them all himself. The skill that he demonstrates and the fact that he found time to write these while serving as governor takes our more recent great political speakers down a notch or two.

One Response to A Roosevelt for Our Day
  1. Solomon Kleinsmith
    July 29, 2011 | 4:23 am

    I stumbled across a first edition copy of this a few years ago, in not too terrible condition. One of my favorite books. He was a man of his times, but very wise.