Theodore Roosevelt on Lincoln and the Race Problem

theodore-roosevelt-at-tuskegee-with-booker-t-washington-1905

On February 13, 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech to the New York City Republican Club at a Lincoln Day celebration.  His theme was Lincoln and Race.  Race has forever been one of the more explosive issues on the American political scene.  Roosevelt was eager to mend the old wounds of the Civil War between North and South.  Yet he understood the essential injustice visited each day on blacks in the United States, particularly in the South.  The speech is an interesting look at the topic of race from the standpoint of a man who in his day was normally considered to be usually enlightened on the race question.  Now, of course, Roosevelt would be regarded by many as a racist.  However, modesty perhaps should temper our criticism of Roosevelt, a man living more than a century ago, since in many ways we are little closer to harmony between the races than the races were in the time of Roosevelt.  The rights of blacks, thank God, are far, far greater than in Roosevelt’s day, but we are still far from a color blind society that will judge each man and woman by their character, rather than by their race.  Here are the remarks of Roosevelt:

 

 

Mr. President,

and you, my fellow members of the Republican Club, and you, my fellow guests of the Republican Club, before I come to the matter which I have specially to lay before you tonight let me say a word on another subject.

Prior to receiving the invitation to address this Club on this day I had already accepted an invitation from one who is a guest with me tonight. Gen. Howard, who was to give a dinner tonight in behalf of a cause which every man who believes in the memory of Abraham Lincoln, and who believes in the union, should have at heart.

On the last occasion when Gen. Howard spoke with the great martyred President, President Lincoln showed himself deeply interested in the welfare of the people of East Tennessee, Kentucky and the Virginia mountains, and spoke so earnestly of their welfare that Gen. Howard then pledged himself to do all he could to promote the welfare of those people among whom Lincoln was born, and in pursuance of that pledge he and those associated with him have established a group of schools, called the Lincoln Memorial University, at Cumberland Gap, for the industrial, normal and academic training of those people. And the General has felt that he was in a peculiar way carrying out the purpose of Abraham Lincoln in dedicating himself to that work.

I should not have felt at liberty to disregard his invitation to me for any other invitation except that which I have accepted this evening. But when I told the General what this Club meant to me, and what it meant to me to come as President of the United States among my fellow members here, the General at once released me from my promise to him.

And now in what I have to say to you tonight I shall not strive to entertain you. I shall try to speak to you in a manner to express what you and I, I believe, have most at heart.

I do not — I will change the form of that sentence — you here are Republicans only secondarily — you are Americans first. And I speak to you tonight as a typical gathering of my fellow Americans. Typical in the fact that we represent different creeds, that some of us were born here and some abroad, that some of us live here, some in the West and some in the South, but that we are each and all, every one of us, without regard to creed or birthplace, good Americans and nothing else.

I speak to you, my old friends and companions, to you, with many of whom I have been intimately associated in political life from the time that I cast my first vote, to you the men of the great war to whom I looked up from the time I came to manhood, as setting the example for every young American to follow should ever another war call for the people of the United States, to one or two of you beside whom I had the good fortune to fight in a little war—it wasn’t a big war, but it was all the war there was. I speak to a body of men who have rendered in the past, and are rendering in the present, in the Army, in the Navy, on the Bench, in the Senate, in private life, the kind of service which makes us content, and more than content to be American citizens. And, therefore, I intend to speak to you tonight, not as Republicans only, not as New Yorkers only, but as good Americans, good citizens of the United States, and, therefore, having deeply at heart the problems connected with any and all of our fellow citizens in whatever part of the Union they live.

In his second inaugural, in a speech which will be read as long as the memory of this nation endures, Abraham Lincoln closed by saying:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.


Immediately after his re-election he had already spoken thus. Mind you, gentlemen, speaking this within twenty-four hours after his re-election to the presidency in the midst of a civil war which, because of its extreme bitterness, would have corroded with a like bitterness the soul of any man less high-minded than he was. He said:

The strife of the election is but human nature practically applied to the facts of the case. What has occurred in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad, and as good.

Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged. . . . May not all having a common interest reunite in a common effort to serve our common country? For my own part, I have striven and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way.

So long as I have been here, I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom. While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election, and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result.

May I ask those who have not differed with me to join with me in this same spirit toward those who have?


This is the spirit in which mighty Lincoln sought to bind up the nation’s wounds when its soul was yet seething with fierce hatreds, with wrath, with rancor, with all the evil and dreadful passions provoked by civil war. Surely this is the spirit which all Americans should show now, when there is so little excuse for malice or rancor or hatred, when there is so little of vital consequence to divide brother from brother.

Lincoln, himself a man of Southern birth, did not hesitate to appeal to the sword when he became satisfied that in no other way could the Union be saved, for high though he put peace he put righteousness still higher. He warred for the Union; he warred to free the slave; and when he warred he warred in earnest, for it is a sign of weakness to be half-hearted when blows must be struck. But he felt only love, a love as deep as the tenderness of his great and sad heart, for all his countrymen alike in the North and in the South, and he longed above everything for the day when they should once more be knit together in the unbreakable bonds of eternal friendship.

We of today, in dealing with all our fellow citizens, white or colored. North or South, should strive to show just the qualities that Lincoln showed: his steadfastness in striving after the right, and his infinite patience and forbearance with those who saw that right less clearly than he did ; his earnest endeavor to do what was best, and yet his readiness to accept the best that was practicable when the ideal best was unattainable; his unceasing effort to cure what was evil, coupled with his refusal to make a bad situation worse by any ill-judged or ill-timed effort to make it better.

The great Civil War, in which Lincoln towered as the loftiest figure, left us not only a reunited country, but a country which has the proud right to claim as its own the glory won alike by those who wore the blue and by those who wore the gray; by those who followed Grant and by those who followed Lee, for both fought with equal bravery and with equal sincerity of conviction, each striving for the light as it was given him to see the light, though it is now clear to all that the triumph of the cause of freedom and of the Union was essential to the welfare of mankind. We are now one people, a people with failings which we must not blink, but a people with great qualities in which we have the right to feel just pride.

All good Americans who dwell in the North must, because they are good Americans, feel the most earnest friendship for their fellow countrymen who dwell in the South, a friendship all the greater because it is in the South that we find in its most acute phase one of the gravest problems before our people, the problem of so dealing with the man of one color as to secure him the rights that no man would grudge him if he were of another color. To solve this problem it is, of course, necessary to educate him to perform the duties a failure to perform which will render him a curse to himself and to all around him. Mind that. And it is true of every one. In addition to rights in every Republic there are correlative duties. And if the man, black or white, is not trained to do his duty he becomes necessarily a festering plague spot in the whole body politic.

Most certainly all clear sighted and generous men in the North appreciate the difficulty and perplexity of this problem, sympathize with the South in the embarrassment of conditions for which she is not alone responsible, feel an honest wish to help her where help is practicable, and have the heartiest respect for those brave and earnest men of the South who, in the face of fearful difficulties, are doing all that men can do for the betterment alike of white and of black.

The attitude of the North, I would always rather preach about the sins prevalent in the particular congregation I am addressing, the attitude of the North toward the negro is far from what it should be, and there is need that the North also should act in good faith upon the principle of giving to each man what is justly due him, of treating him on his worth as a man, granting him no special favors, but denying him no proper opportunity for labor and the reward of labor. But the peculiar circumstances of the South render the problem there far greater and far more acute.

Neither I nor any other man can say that any given way of approaching that problem will present in our time even an approximately perfect solution, but we can safely say that there can never be such solution at all unless we approach it with the effort to do fair and equal justice among all men, and to demand from them in return just and fair treatment for others. Our effort should be to secure to each man, whatever his color, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment before the law.

And let me interject right here. It is forty years since the Civil War came to a close within a few weeks, it is nearly forty years, this anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday, since the anniversary of Lincoln’s death, and surely in all this land there should be no audience to whom such an appeal as that I am making should appeal more than to this which I am now addressing.

As a people striving to shape our actions in accordance with the great law of righteousness, we cannot afford to take part in or be indifferent to the oppression or maltreatment of any man who, against crushing disadvantages, has by his own industry, energy, self-respect and perseverance struggled upward to a position which would entitle him to the respect of his fellows if only his skin were of a different hue.

Every generous impulse in us revolts at the thought of thrusting down instead of helping up such a man. To deny any man the fair treatment granted to others no better than he is to commit a wrong upon him — a wrong sure to react in the long run upon those guilty of such denial. The only safe principle upon which Americans can act is that of “all men up,” not that of “some men down.” If in any community the level of intelligence, morality and thrift among the colored men can be raised, it is, humanly speaking, sure that the same level among the whites will be raised to an even higher degree, and it is no less sure that the debasement of the blacks will in the end carry with it an attendant debasement of the whites.

The problem is so to adjust the relations between two races of different ethnic type that the rights of neither be abridged nor jeoparded; that the backward race be trained so that it may enter into the possession of true freedom — not false freedom — true freedom, while the forward race is enabled lo preserve unharmed the high civilization wrought out by its forefathers. The working out of this problem must necessarily be slow; it is not possible in off-hand fashion to obtain or to confer the priceless boons of freedom, industrial efficiency, political capacity and domestic morality. And that is a lesson that some of our good friends in this country need to learn in dealing with outside peoples. All the resolutions passed at all the anti-imperialist gatherings held in the United States since the close or the beginning of the war with Spain, have not availed for the welfare of the people of the Philippines one one-hundredth part as much as what was done by any one day’s work of the present Secretary of War, Secretary Taft.

Gentlemen, this meeting is all right. Nor is it only necessary to train the colored man ; it is quite as necessary to train the white man, for on his shoulders rests a well nigh unparalleled sociological responsibility. It is a problem demanding the best thought, the utmost patience, the most earnest effort, the broadest charity, that is the word Lincoln used: charity toward all, the broadest charity of the statesman, the student, the philanthropist, of the leaders of thought in every department of our national life. The Church can be a most important factor in solving it aright. But above all else we need for its successful solution the sober, kindly, steadfast, unselfish performance of duty by the average plain citizen in his every day dealings with his fellows.

The ideal of elemental justice meted out to every man is the ideal we should keep ever before us. It will be many a long day before we attain to it, and unless we show not only devotion to it, but also wisdom and self-restraint in the exhibition of that devotion, we shall defer the time for its realization still further. In striving to attain to so much of it as concerns dealing with men of different colors, we must remember two things.

In the first place, it is true of the colored man, as it is true of the white man, that in the long run his fate must depend far more upon his own effort than upon the efforts of any outside friend. That applies to every man. There is not one of us that does not occasionally stumble, and shame to each of us if he does not stretch out a hand to help the brother who thus stumbles. Help him if he stumbles, but remember that if he lies down, there is no use in trying to carry him. It will hurt both of you. Every vicious, venal or ignorant colored man is an even greater foe to his own race than to the community as a whole. The colored man’s self-respect entitles him to do that share in the political work of the country which is warranted by his individual ability and integrity and the position he has won for himself. But the prime requisite of the race is moral and industrial uplifting.

Laziness and shiftlessness, these, and, above all, vice and criminality of every kind, are evils more potent for harm to the black race than all acts of oppression of white men put together. The colored man who fails to condemn crime in another colored man, who fails to cooperate in all lawful ways in bringing colored criminals to justice, is the worst enemy of his own people, as well as an enemy to all the people. Law-abiding black men should, for the sake of their race, be foremost in relentless and unceasing warfare against lawbreaking black men. If the standards of private morality and industrial efficiency can be raised high enough among the black race, then its future on this continent is secure. The stability and purity of the home are vital to the welfare of the black race as they are to the welfare of every race.

In the next place, the white man, who, if only he is willing, can help the colored man more than all other white men put together, is the white man who is his neighbor. North or South. Let me interject there, it is a good thing to remember, that while it is occasionally proper to join in mass meetings and call attention to our neighbor’s shortcomings, it is normally better to attend to our own. Each of us must do his whole duty without flinching, and if that duty is national it must be done in accordance with the immutable principles upon which our nation stands, but in endeavoring each to be his brother’s keeper, it is wise to remember that ordinarily each can do most for that brother who is his next door neighbor. If we are sincere friends of the negro, let us each in his own locality show it by his action therein, and let us each show it also by upholding the hands of the white man in whatever locality, who is striving to do justice to the poor and the helpless, to be a shield to those whose need for such a shield is great.

The heartiest acknowledgments are due to the ministers, the judges and law officers, the grand juries, the public men, and the great daily newspapers in the South, who have recently done such effective work in leading the crusade against lynching in the South; and I am glad to say that during the last three months the returns, as far as they can be gathered, show a smaller number of lynchings than for any other three months during the last twenty years. Those are rather striking figures and I take a certain satisfaction in them in view of some of the gloomy forebodings of last summer. Let us uphold in every way the hands of the men who have led in this work, who are striving to do all their work in this spirit. I am about to quote from the address of the Right Reverend Robert Strange, Bishop Co-adjutor of North Carolina, as given in “The Southern Churchman” of October 8. 1904 — October 8th last.

The bishop first enters an emphatic plea against any social intermingling of the races, a question which must, of course, be left to the people of each community to settle for themselves, as in such a matter no one community, and indeed no one individual, can dictate to any other; always provided that in each locality men keep in mind the fact that there must be no confusing of civil privileges with social intercourse. Civil law cannot regulate social practices. Society, as such, is a law unto itself, and will always regulate its own practices and habits. Full recognition of the fundamental fact that all men should stand on an equal footing as regards civil privileges in no way interferes with recognition of the further fact that all reflecting men of both races are united in feeling that race purity must be maintained. The bishop continues, I am quoting what this Southern Bishop says:

“What should the white men of the South do for the negro? They must give him a free hand, a fair field and a cordial godspeed, the two races working together for their mutual benefit and for the development of our common country. He must have liberty, equal opportunity to make his living, to earn his bread, to build his home. He must have justice, equal rights, and protection before the law. He must have the same political privileges; the suffrage should be based on character and intelligence for white and black alike. He must have the same public advantages of education; the public schools are for all the people, whatever their color or condition. The white men of the South should give hearty and respectful consideration to the exceptional men of the negro race, to those who have the character, the ability and the desire to be lawyers, physicians, teachers, preachers, leaders of thought and conduct among their own men and women. We should give them cheer and opportunity to gratify every laudable ambition, and to seek every innocent satisfaction among their own people. Finally the best white men of the South should have frequent conferences with the best colored men, where, in frank, earnest and sympathetic discussion, they might understand each other better, smooth difficulties, and so guide and encourage the weaker race.”

Surely we can all of us join in expressing our substantial agreement with the principles thus laid down by this North Carolina bishop, this representative of the Christian thought of the South.

I am speaking on the occasion of the celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, and to men who count it their peculiar privilege that they have the right to hold Lincoln’s memory dear and the duty to strive to work along the lines that he laid down. We can pay most fitting homage to his memory by doing the tasks allotted to us in the spirit in which he did the infinitely greater and more terrible tasks allotted to him.

Let us be steadfast for the right, but let us err on the side of generosity rather than on the side of vindictiveness toward those who differ from us as to the method of attaining the right. Let us never forget our duty to help in uplifting the lowly, to shield from wrong the humble, and let us likewise act in a spirit of the broadest and frankest generosity toward all our brothers, all our fellow countrymen; in a spirit proceeding not from weakness, but from strength, a spirit which takes no more account of locality than it does of class or of creed, a spirit which is resolutely bent on seeing that the Union which Washington founded and which Lincoln saved from destruction shall grow nobler and greater throughout the ages for evermore.

I believe in this country with all my heart and soul. I believe that our people will in the end rise level to every need, will in the end triumph over every difficulty that rises before them. I could not have such confident faith in the destiny of this mighty people if I had it merely as regards one portion of that people. Throughout our land things on the whole have grown better and not worse, and this is as true of one part of the country as it is of another. I believe in the Southerner as I believe in the Northerner. I claim the right to feel pride in his great qualities and in his great deeds exactly as I feel pride in the great qualities and deeds of every other American. For weal or for woe we are knit together, and we shall go up or go down together, and I believe that we shall go up and not down, that we shall go forward instead of halting and falling back, because I have an abiding faith in the generosity, the courage, the resolution and the common sense of all my countrymen.

The Southern States face difficult problems, and so do the Northern States. Some of the problems are the same for the entire country. Others exist in greater intensity in one section, and yet others exist in greater intensity in another section. But in the end they will all be solved, for fundamentally our people are the same throughout this land, the same in the qualities of heart and brain and hand which have made this Republic what it is in the great today ; which will make it what it is to be in the infinitely greater tomorrow. I admire and respect and believe in and have faith in the men and women of the South as I admire and respect and believe in and have faith in the men and women of the North. All of us alike. Northerners and Southerners, Easterners and Westerners, can best prove our fealty to the nation’s past by the way in which we do the nation’s work in the present, for only thus can we be sure that our children’s children shall inherit Abraham Lincoln’s single-hearted devotion to the great unchanging creed that “righteousness exalteth a nation.”

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Published in: on April 28, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Theodore Roosevelt on Lincoln and the Race Problem  
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