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:
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. (more…)