The speech is a powerful reminder about the importance of political leadership; the challenge of maintaining a free Republic and the virtue of those who serve it honorably regardless of success or failure.
Roosevelt had just completed his second presidential term and was traveling the world. He had completed over a decade of service in the military, served as the governor of New York and acted nearly two full terms as the president of the United States. He had spent the years before in a number of capacities; going in and out of public office, writing history books and ranching out on the American frontier.
Roosevelt was a machine who had the experiences and achievements that would normally require several lifetimes, but he rolled it all into one.
The Man in the Arena speech had a number of instructive lessons that should be remembered today. In the speech, Roosevelt spoke about the follies of unrestricted welfare and redistribution:
There should, so far as possible, be equal of opportunity to render service; but just so long as there is inequality of service there should and must be inequality of reward. We may be sorry for the general, the painter, the artists, the worker in any profession or of any kind, whose misfortune rather than whose fault it is that he does his work ill. But the reward must go to the man who does his work well; for any other course is to create a new kind of privilege, the privilege of folly and weakness; and special privilege is injustice, whatever form it takes.
The idea of equality of outcome was not only foreign to Roosevelt, but he thought it to be out of step with the true intention of the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln. He warned the nation about the dangers of class warfare.
“Of one man in especial, beyond any one else, the citizens of a republic should beware, and that is of the man who appeals to them to support him on the ground that he is hostile to other citizens of the republic, that he will secure for those who elect him, in one shape or another, profit at the expense of other citizens of the republic,” Roosevelt said.
Roosevelt also hammered out the characteristics that made a man a poor citizen and a demagogue, “It makes no difference whether he appeals to class hatred or class interest, to religious or antireligious prejudice. The man who makes such an appeal should always be presumed to make it for the sake of furthering his own interest.”
It is fitting that Roosevelt made this speech on April 23, because it happens to be the birth date of two men for whom this speech could easily have applied, James Buchanan and Stephen A. Douglas, who were born in 1791 and 1813 respectively.
Historians and Americans who study history typically look upon both Buchanan and Douglas in an unfavorable light. They are both seen as foils to the greatness of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.
In the case of Douglas, his reputation as the greatest statesman in the Union, which was earned due to his dominant position in the U.S. Senate and his pivotal role in the Compromise of 1850, vanished after the nation was plunged into chaos and war because of his doctrine of “Popular Sovereignty,” which was adopted in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
Popular Sovereignty allowed U.S. territories to vote on whether or not they were going to accept slavery or not when they entered the union. This created a mad rush of partisans from both sides into the territories and sparked the precursor conflict to the Civil War, Bleeding Kansas.
Douglas’s policies also sunk the administration of President James Buchanan, who had to deal with a nation in chaos. Worse than merely flailing haplessly, Buchanan nearly disengaged from the events that were tearing the country apart.
Buchanan, who had held more public offices than any man prior to becoming president in American history, proved to be incapable of rising to the challenge of Southern secession and Civil War. When Buchanan’s term ended in 1860, seven states had left the union and war was immanent.
It is claimed that Buchanan said to Lincoln after leaving office, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man.”
Buchanan and Douglas were political enemies despite the fact that they were both Northern Democrats, but Lincoln would equally overshadow both in time.
However, if there is a temptation to judge Buchanan and Douglas harshly, then heed the words of Roosevelt:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
While Douglas and Buchanan both failed in office and held ideas that led to the near ruin of America as a free and united country, it was up to men like Lincoln and freed slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, to lead the country, by getting active in politics, running for office and championing better ideas and a new path for the country.
The good citizens in a Republic have a duty to enter the arena, or they will risk being led by misguided ideologues or demagogues. The lessons of “The Man in the Arena” speech apply just as well today as they did 112 years ago.