The Duties of American Citizenship Speech | Study Guide

Theodore Roosevelt

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The Duties of American Citizenship Speech | Summary & Analysis



Politics After the Civil War

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the federal government began a process known as Reconstruction. Former Confederate states would have to approve the 13th—15th Amendments, which provided civil rights to newly freed slaves. However, groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) terrorized freed slaves, and former Confederates regained political power. The federal government officially gave up Reconstruction with the Compromise of 1877, which withdrew the last federal troops from the South.

Reconstruction and the Compromise of 1877 left a bitter taste in all Americans' mouths. Politicians on both sides of the aisle had acted corruptly. Also, the public had another reason to hate politics: the spoils systems. Since the U.S.'s founding, elected officials had appointed their supporters to key government positions even if those supporters had no experience applicable to their new jobs. In January 1883, just a few weeks before Theodore Roosevelt gave his speech in front of the New York Assembly, Congress ended the spoils system by passing the Pendleton Act.

Also, after the Civil War, America received a surge of immigrants from Europe. Although immigrants had been coming to America since its inception, newly developed railway lines throughout Western, Central, and Eastern Europe allowed millions of people to travel to ports that would take them to the U.S. This rise in immigration led to many nativist groups that resembled the Know-Nothing Party; this political party, which existed from 1849 to 1860, opposed all immigration from Catholic countries.

Enter Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was born in 1858 to a wealthy New York City family. Although a sickly child, he traveled with his family throughout Europe, thus being exposed to different viewpoints. After dabbling in law, he became a student of history. From 1882–1884, he served in the New York state assembly, where he uncovered political corruption. It was in the assembly chamber that Roosevelt delivered "The Duties of American Citizenship" in 1883.

What Is a Good Citizen?

Roosevelt attempts to answer this question at the beginning of his speech. To him, a good citizen is one that is both virtuous and good to his friends and family. A good citizen raises healthy children so that they may inherit a better country. Roosevelt then compares a good citizen to a bad one, someone who does not participate in politics. He admits that even though young men should enjoy life, there is so much more they can do than just vote. These people, Roosevelt argues, are "unfit to live in a free community." Men with similar ideas and beliefs must combine forces to enact political change

Politics Is Every Man's First Duty

After introducing some key ideas, Roosevelt makes his main point: "The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics." He immediately makes it clear that politics is much more than running for political office. It is banding together with other citizens, even if you have to compromise with them, to achieve a shared goal. Roosevelt likens this process to building naval vessels; to gain one advantage, you may need to sacrifice another.

Do What You Can, But Start Small

By making political activism a broad category of activities, Roosevelt tells his listeners that only the poorest Americans—those who toil day in and day out—can excuse themselves from the political process. Everyone else can find a niche in "different organizations." This was his way of calling all Americans to perform political activities that match their natural strengths.

Roosevelt then cautions his audience: people starting out in politics should not expect to reform the system overnight. People should expect to fail. However, he provides his audience hope through a Civil War analogy. From 1861–1863, the Union Army of the Potomac suffered defeat after defeat. Even so, the soldiers did not throw down their guns and go home. They pressed on and were able to achieve the military victories that won the Civil War. Roosevelt knows that making this analogy would have a significant impact. Many of his listeners had either fought in the Civil War or had family members who fought and died for the Union.

Do Not Lose Yourself in Politics

After extolling the virtues of politics, Roosevelt conveys a warning at the speech's midway point. He discusses how easy it is for people to compromise or give up their convictions. Some politicians do so to pass legislation, while others do it so the people will reelect them. This latter reason has its own pitfalls, as the people, despite having the power to choose their leaders, are not always right. A representative must do just that—represent the people and not follow their whims in all cases. Only politicians who do not think of reelection when making decisions are useful. It is likely that with this section, Roosevelt was speaking to—and criticizing—the career politicians in the New York state assembly.

Criticism Is Not Action

Roosevelt turns his attention away from elected officials and to men who criticize those officials' actions. Of course, people should criticize ineffectual or corrupt politicians. However, too much criticism can lead men to dislike the entirety of politics. These men, "perpetually sneering at American politicians" poison the political well and turn even good politicians bad. Roosevelt mentions that every year the press harshly criticizes the New York State Assembly and calls all of its members corrupt. This unjust criticism causes an "unwholesome spirit" in good young men.

What We're Fighting Against

Roosevelt understood that the only way people would stop criticizing good politicians was to address people's legitimate grievances. Before 1883, the spoils system allowed elected officials to give their friends and political supporters positions in government. Although Congress passed the Pendleton Act—a law that forbade the spoils system—just weeks before Roosevelt gave his speech, Roosevelt advocates for even greater civil service reform. All American citizens must fight against these "corruptions and vices" to create a stronger republic.

Trust Immigrants Who Assimilate

The "spirit of Americanism" that Roosevelt mentions in his final argument can live in native- and foreign-born Americans. Immigrants who embrace America—and give up their foreign languages and customs—can and should enter politics. Roosevelt boasts that he was able to run his district so efficiently by hiring only the best men regardless of origin, race, or profession. Professionals ranging from native-born butchers to Hebrew rabbis made a positive contribution.

However, immigrants with a "divided allegiance" cannot be true Americans. "A man has got to be an American and nothing else." By embracing loyal immigrants and rejecting those that hold on to their homelands, Roosevelt is walking a fine line; he is trying to appease both pro- and anti-immigrant members of the New York Assembly.

Impact and Legacy

Many of the arguments and calls to action in Roosevelt's speech remained timely throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. In his inauguration speech in 1961, President Kennedy called for a new era of political and civic engagement: "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." In 2015, President Obama echoed Roosevelt's argument that immigrants can become loyal and trusted Americans: "Immigrants are soldiers, sailors, marines, Coast Guardsmen who protect us, often risking their lives for an America that isn't even their own yet."

Some 21st-century readers may view Roosevelt's views on assimilation as regressive. Throughout the 20th century, immigrant groups were routinely harassed, sometimes with deadly violence. Were Roosevelt and his speech responsible for these actions? Of course not. Roosevelt did not create America's nativist views; they had existed long before his birth. In 1883, it was controversial for a public figure like Roosevelt to even suggest that some foreign-born Americans could be trusted. His arguments were the first of many steps toward the modern idea that foreign-born Americans can be loyal even if they preserve their original languages and cultures. His views may not mirror modern, mainstream opinions, but they were a step in the right direction.

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