English Literature

Average Americans by Theodore Roosevelt

Average Americans by Theodore Roosevelt.jpg



“‘Tis education forms the common mind,—
Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”

Alexander Pope

FROM the time when we were very little boys we were always interested in military preparedness. My father believed very strongly in the necessity of each boy being able and willing not only to look out for himself but to look out for those near and dear to him. This gospel was preached to us all from the time we were very, very small. A story, told in the family of an incident which happened long before I can remember, illustrated this. Father told me one day always to be willing to fight anyone who insulted[2] me. Shortly after this wails of grief arose from the nursery. Mother ran upstairs and found my little brother Kermit howling in a corner. When she demanded an explanation I told her that he had insulted me by taking away some of my blocks, so I had hit him on the head with a mechanical rabbit.

Our little boy fights were discussed in detail with father. Although he insisted on the willingness to fight, he was the first to object to and punish anything that resembled bullying. We always told him everything, as we knew he would give us a real and sympathetic interest.

Funny incidents of these early combats stick in my mind. One day one of my brothers came home from school very proud. He said he had had a fight with a boy. When asked how the fight resulted he said he had won by kicking the boy in the windpipe. Further investigation developed the fact that the windpipe was the pit of the stomach. My brother felt that it must be the windpipe, because when you kicked someone there he[3] lost his breath. I can remember father to this day explaining that no matter how effective this method of attack was it was not considered sportsmanlike to kick.

Father and mother believed in robust righteousness. In the stories and poems that they read us they always bore this in mind. Pilgrim’s Progress and The Battle Hymn of the Republic we knew when we were very young. When father was dressing for dinner he used to teach us poetry. I can remember memorizing all the most stirring parts of Longfellow’s Saga of King OlafSheridan’s Ride, and the Sinking of the Cumberland. The gallant incidents in history were told us in such a way that we never forgot them. In Washington, when father was civil service commissioner, I often walked to the office with him. On the way down he would talk history to me—not the dry history of dates and charters, but the history where you yourself in your imagination could assume the rôle of the principal actors, as every well-constructed boy wishes to do when in[4]terested. During every battle we would stop and father would draw out the full plan in the dust in the gutter with the tip of his umbrella.

When very little we saw a great many men serving in both the army and navy. My father did not wish us to enter either of these services, because he felt that there was so much to be done from a civilian standpoint in this country. However, we were taught to regard the services, as the quaint phraseology of the Court Martial Manual puts it, as the “honorable profession of arms.” We were constantly listening to discussions on military matters, and there was always at least one service rifle in the house.

We spent our summers at Oyster Bay. There, in addition to our family, were three other families of little Roosevelts. We were all taught out-of-door life. We spent our days riding and shooting, wandering through the woods, and playing out-of-door games. Underlying all this was father’s desire to have all of us children grow up manly and clean[5]-minded, with not only the desire but the ability to play our part at the country’s need.

Father himself was our companion whenever he could get away from his work. Many times he camped out with us on Lloyd’s Neck, the only “grown-up” of the party. We always regarded him as a great asset at times like these. He could think up more delightful things to do than we could in a “month of Sundays.” In the evening, when the bacon that sizzled in the frying-pan had been eaten, we gathered round the fire. The wind soughed through the marsh grass, the waves rippled against the shore, and father told us stories. Of the children who composed these picnics, two died in service in this war, two were wounded, and all but one volunteered, regardless of age, at the outbreak of hostilities.

When we were all still little tadpoles, father went to the war with Spain. We were too little, of course, to appreciate anything except the glamour. When he decided to go, almost all his friends and advisers told him he was making a mistake. Indeed, I think my[6] mother was the only one who felt he was doing right. In talking it over afterward, when I had grown much older, father explained to me that in preaching self-defense and willingness to fight for a proper cause, he could not be effective if he refused to go when the opportunity came, and urged that “it was different” in his case. He often said, “Ted, I would much rather explain why I went to the war than why I did not.”

At school and at college father encouraged us to take part in the games and sports. None of us were really good athletes—father himself was not—but we all put into it all we had. He was just as much interested in hearing what we had done on the second football team or class crew as if we had been varsity stars.

He always preached to us one maxim in particular: take all legitimate chances in your favor when going into a contest. He used to enforce this by telling us of a man with whom he had once been hunting. The man was naturally a better walker than father. Father selected his shoes with great care.[7] The man did not. After the first few days father was always able to outwalk and outhunt him just on this account. Father always went over his equipment with the greatest care before going on a trip, and this sort of thoroughness was imbued in all his sons.

Long before the European war had broken over the world, father would discuss with us military training and the necessity for every man being able to take his part.

I can remember him saying to me, “Ted, every man should defend his country. It should not be a matter of choice, it should be a matter of law. Taxes are levied by law. They are not optional. It is not permitted for a man to say that it is against his religious beliefs to pay taxes, or that he feels that it is an abrogation of his own personal freedom. The blood tax is more important than the dollar tax. It should not therefore be a voluntary contribution, but should be levied on all alike.”

Father was much interested in General Wood’s camps for the training of the younger[8] boys and was heartily in sympathy with them. Both Archie and Quentin attended them. Quentin had a badly strained back at the time, but that did not keep him from going.

At the sinking of the Lusitania a very keen realization of the gravity of the situation was evident all over the country. A number of younger men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five met together to talk things over. In this group were Grenville Clarke, Philip A. Carroll, Elihu Root, Jr., Cornelius W. Wickersham, J. Lloyd Derby, Kenneth P. Budd, and Delancy K. Jay. They felt that it was only a question of time until we would be called to the colors, and realized most keenly the fact that it is one thing to be willing and quite another to be able to take your part. They felt, as this war has shown, the lamentable injustice and grievous loss that is entailed by putting against men who are trained in the business of fighting untrained men who, no matter how good their spirit and how great their courage, do not know the game.

[9]The outcome of the conference of these men was the decision to ask General Wood if it would be possible for him to hold a training camp, for men up to forty-five years, similar to those held for boys. With the usual patriotism that characterizes him, General Wood said at once that he would hold the camp even if they were able to get only twenty-five men to attend. In the beginning, converts came slowly, but after a campaign of personal solicitation, in which members of the original group went individually to various cities in the vicinity of New York, the movement got under way with such success that the first so-called “Business Men’s Plattsburg Camp” numbered about one thousand, and was immediately followed by another nearly as large.

At this time the average man did not know what military training and service meant. The camp was composed of men of all types and all ages. Many of them, too old for active service, had come as an earnest of their belief and through the desire to teach by their actions as well as by their preachings. Robert[10] Bacon and John Purroy Mitchel attended this camp, both of them men whose memory will always be treasured by those who were fortunate enough to know them.

We took it all very seriously. At one end of the company street you would see two prominent middle-aged business men trying to do the manual of arms properly, rain dripping off them, their faces set like the day of judgment, crowned with grizzled hair. At the other would be Arthur Woods, the Police Commissioner of New York, “boning” the infantry drill regulations. George Wharton Pepper was promoted to sergeant, and was as proud of it as of any of his achievements in civil life. Bishop Perry of Rhode Island was named as color sergeant.

Men who went to this Plattsburg camp had to pay their own money in order to try to fit themselves to serve their country. No more undemocratic arrangement could have been made for it placed beyond the power of the men of small means, who form the body of the country, to get in advance the knowledge[11] necessary to act as an officer. Yet this was the only course open to us. In the ensuing year these camps spread over the country, and through them passed many thousands of men. Far over and above their value from the standpoint of military training was their educational value in national duty. A large percentage of the commissioned officers on our country’s roll of honor attended the Plattsburg camps.

These camps in themselves furnished the nucleus for the selection of the commissioned personnel of the national army, and furnished, furthermore, the system by which the great mass of our junior officers were chosen and educated. Yet the movement was launched, not with the backing and help of the national administration, but rather in spite of the national administration. No official representing the administration visited these early camps. Solely by private endeavor, therefore, arose the system of selection of officers which enabled the army in this war, more than any army this country has had in the past, to choose the men for commissions with[12] a keen regard for their ability, with a truer democracy and less of political influence. On account of this movement the town of Plattsburg is known from one coast to the other.

During this first camp my father came up to address the men. Up to this time, although he had spoken on universal military training, it had been considered as such an unthinkable program that no one had paid any attention. Two or three times people have asked me when my father first became convinced of the necessity for universal training and service in this nation. They have always been greatly surprised when I have referred them back to a message to Congress written during his first term as President, in which he suggested that the Swiss system of training would be an advisable one to adopt in the United States. Many years before this he had directed N. Carey Sawyer to investigate and report on Switzerland’s military policy. So little were people concerned with it at that time that no comment of any sort was caused by either act.

[13]The evening of my father’s arrival at Plattsburg an orderly came and directed me to report at headquarters, where my father was sitting in conference.

“Ted, I have decided to make a speech to-morrow in favor of universal service,” father said to me. “My good friends here, who believe in it as much as I do, feel that the time is not ripe, that the country would not understand it, and that it will merely provoke a storm of adverse criticism. I have told them that although the country may criticize, and although unquestionably a storm of attacks will be directed against me, it must be done, because the country must begin thinking on the subject.”

He spoke next day before the assembled students. The ring of serious khaki-clad men seated on the parade ground, father speaking very earnestly in the center, speaking until after dark, when he had to finish by a lantern, is a clear picture to me.

To many of them this exposition was the first they had ever heard on the subject.[14] Most of them up to this time had not been interested in it, and had felt vaguely that compulsory military training and service was synonymous with the German system and was not democratic. When France and Switzerland were brought to their attention as democracies, as efficient democracies, and as countries which had a thoroughly developed system of universal military training, their eyes were opened and they saw the matter in a new light. From this camp, directed in a large part by my father’s and General Wood’s inspiration and ideas, grew a nation-wide group of young men who felt the seriousness of the situation, young men who realized we must take our part and who wished, as one of my private soldiers put it to me, “At least to have a show for their white alley” when the war broke.

During the ensuing winter and summer in many parts of the country enthusiasts were working, and many more camps were founded and carried to a successful completion. Recognition of a mild sort was obtained from[15] the National Government. Not recognition which permitted men to go as men should go in a democracy, to learn to serve their country, as pupils of the country, at the country’s expense, but at least as men doing something which was not unrecognized and frowned on by their government.

Toward the winter of 1917 father talked ever increasingly to all of us concerning his chance of being permitted to take a division or unit of some sort to Europe. When war was declared he took this matter up directly with the President. What happened is now history. He took his disappointment as he took many other disappointments in his life. Often after he had worked with all that was in him for something, when all that could be done was done, he would say, “We have done all we can; the result is now on the knees of the gods.”

Meanwhile he was constantly interested in and constantly talked with all of us about what we were doing. At last, two months after we severed diplomatic relations, training[16] camps for officers were called into being with enormous waste and inefficiency, and we ambled slowly toward the training of an army and its commanding personnel.

All of us except my brother Quentin left for Plattsburg. Quentin, on the day before diplomatic relations were severed, had telephoned from college to father to say he would go into the air service, where his real ability as a mechanician stood him in good stead. Of the other three, Kermit had had the least training from a purely military standpoint, having been in South America during most of the time when we had been working on the “Plattsburg movement.” His ability and experience, however, in other ways were greater, as in his hunting trips in Africa and South America he had handled bodies of men in dangerous situations. Archie had attended practically all the camps, and was naturally a fine leader of men and a boy of great daring.

At Plattsburg, Archie and I were fortunate enough to be put in the same company. During the major part of the month we were there[17] we were in charge of the company. Our duty was to instruct potential officers in the art of war which we ourselves did not know. We spent hours wig-wagging and semaphoring. Neither of these methods of signaling did I ever see used in action.

In our “conference” periods the floor was opened for questions. The conversation would be something like this: “What is light artillery?” “Light artillery is the lighter branch of the artillery.”—”That is all very well, but define it further.” Deep thought. “It is the artillery carried by men and not by horses.” One man asked in all solemnity once, “Does blood rust steel more than water?” It is not necessary to add that he never became an officer.

We worked like nailers, but were always watching for the word that troops were to be sent across. To all of us, from the beginning, it was not a question of deciding whether we should go or not. We had been brought up with the idea that, deplorable as war was, the only way when it broke was to go. The only[18] way to keep peace, a righteous peace, was to be prepared and willing to fight. A splendid example of a fine family record is given by Governor Manning’s family, of South Carolina: seven sons, all in service, and one paying the supreme sacrifice.

“If we had a trained army like the Swiss, Germany would never dare commit any offenses against us, and, furthermore, I believe it highly possible that the entire war might have been avoided,” was a statement often made to me by father at the beginning of the war.

At the end of the first three weeks we heard rumors that a small expeditionary force was to be sent over immediately. We telephoned father at Oyster Bay and asked him if he could help us get attached to this expeditionary force. He said he would try, and succeeded in so far as Archie and I were concerned, as we already had commissions in the officers’ reserve corps. We offered to go in the ranks, but General Pershing said we would be of more value in the grades for which we held commissions.[19] Our excitement was intense when one day in an official envelope from Washington we received a communication, “Subject—Foreign Service.” The communication was headed “Confidential,” so we were forced to keep all our jubilation to ourselves. Some ten days after we received another communication, “Subject—Orders,” and were directed to report to the commanding general, port of embarkation, New York, “confidentially by wire,” at what date we would be ready to start.

We both felt this was not the most expeditious way to proceed, but we obeyed orders and telegraphed. We supplemented this, however, by taking the next train and reporting in person at the same time the telegram arrived, in case they could not decode our message. General Franklin Bell was the commanding general, and he very kindly helped us get off at once, and we left on the liner Chicago for Bordeaux on June 18th.

Our last few days in this country we spent with the family. Archie and I went with our[20] wives to Oyster Bay, where father, mother, and Quentin were. My wife even then announced her intention of going to Europe in some auxiliary branch, but she promised me she would not start without my permission. The promise was evidently made in the Pickwickian sense, as when I cabled her from Europe not to come the answer that I got was the announcement of her arrival in Paris. There were six of our immediate family in the American expeditionary forces—my wife, one brother-in-law, Richard Derby, and we four brothers. Father, busy as he was, during the entire time we were abroad wrote to each of us weekly, and, when he physically could, in his own hand.

i_048The last five years have made me bitterly conscious of the shortcomings of our national character; but we Roosevelts are Americans, and can never think of living anything else, and wouldn’t be anything else for any consideration on the face of the earth; a man with our way of looking at things can no more change his country than he can change his mother; and it is the business of each of us to play the part of a good American and try to make things as much better as possible.

This means, at the moment, to try to speed up its war; to back its army to the limit; and to support or criticize every public official precisely according to whether he does or does not efficiently support its war and the army.



1 reply »

  1. J’aime beaucoup votre blog. Un plaisir de venir flâner sur vos pages. Une belle découverte. blog très intéressant. Je reviendrai m’y poser. N’hésitez pas à visiter mon univers. Au plaisir

    Liked by 1 person

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