Roosevelt’s Independence Day Speech
In the spring of 1886, Theodore Roosevelt returned to his ranch in the Dakota Badlands after hearing reports of an early thaw. Less than a week after his arrival, Mike Finnegan and two other drifters made the mistake of stealing Roosevelt’s rowboat. After a 13-day, 150-mile chase, Roosevelt turned the Finnegan gang over to the area’s sole law enforcement authority in Dickinson.
While in Dickinson, Roosevelt chanced upon Dr. Victor Hugo Stickney, the region’s only physician. A staunch Republican, Stickney immediately hit it off with the rancher. A few months later, when plans for Dickinson’s annual Independence Day celebration were underway, Stickney insisted Roosevelt give the afternoon speech. Although reluctant, Roosevelt finally agreed.
At 2:00pm on this day in 1886, Theodore Roosevelt mounted the platform. After thanking the committee for the invitation, he reminded the more than 500 onlookers that it was important to remember their rights and privileges as Americans citizens, but it was just as equally importantly to remember their duties. “When we thus rule ourselves, we have the responsibility of sovereigns, not of subjects.” Thus “[i]t is peculiarly incumbent on us here today,” he said, “to so act throughout our lives as to leave our children a heritage for which we will receive their blessing and not their curses.”
Raising his voice to counter the increasing wind, Roosevelt warned the audience, “that the republic can only be kept pure by the individual purity of its members, and that if it once becomes thoroughly corrupt it will surely cease to exist.”
Roosevelt continued, “[w]hen you here exercise your privileges at the ballot box, you are not only exercising a right, but you are also fulfilling a duty, and a heavy responsibility rests on you to fulfill your duty well. If you fail to work in public life as well as in private, for honesty, and uprightness and virtue—if you condone vice because the vicious man is smart…you are just so far corrupting and making less valuable the birthright of your children.”
In closing, Roosevelt confided that at heart, he was just “as much a westerner as an easterner. “I am proud indeed”, he said, “to be considered one of yourselves, and I address you in this rather solemn strain today only because of my pride in you and because your welfare, moral as well as material, is so near my heart.”
Theodore Roosevelt returned to Medora on the evening train. On the way, he visited with A.T. Packard, publisher of Medora’s weekly newspaper. Packard later wrote that it was during this encounter he first realized the potential of Roosevelt and suggested that he would someday become president of the United States. Roosevelt responded without hesitation, “If your prophecy comes true, I will do my part to make a good one.”
Written by Christina Sunwall
Vivian, James F. The Romance of My Life: Theodore Roosevelt's Speeches in Dakota. Fargo, ND: Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, 1989.