Roosevelt’s Ode to the Strenuous Life

By Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.
September 25, 2021 Updated: September 26, 2021

An almost mythical figure in U.S. history, Theodore Roosevelt embodied the very essence of masculine virtues. “The Strenuous Life,” his great speech on toil and vigor, is a timeless call to action. This cherished and oft-quoted address is one of the most eloquent expressions of American idealism, just as relevant today as it was in Roosevelt’s time.

Delivered in Chicago in 1899, when Roosevelt was governor of New York, the speech combined stoic wisdom with an appeal for individual industry and effort to further American prosperity. The opening remarks sum up the essence of Roosevelt’s vision of America, one that would come to define his presidency.

He said: “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Roosevelt knew that the American ideal wasn’t only contained in the written Constitution but in the constitution of its citizens and their eagerness to work for noble purpose and just cause.

It wasn’t merely an appeal to American grit and tenacity, but an endorsement of supreme effort as the key to personal and national transformation. Weak in his youth, Roosevelt toiled relentlessly to mold himself into a man capable of leading both an army and a country.

Arguably the most virile president in U.S. history, Roosevelt was a frail child, unremarkable in strength and stature. He was a sickly, asthmatic boy who had to sleep propped up in bed. Far from a beacon of vitality, Roosevelt was advised that a desk job would suit his weak countenance.

But Roosevelt’s father, seeing his son suffer the wrath of ill health and childhood bullies, took him aside and implored him to remake himself through vigorous exercise, namely boxing. Heeding his father’s advice, Roosevelt committed himself to strengthen his frail body through mental fortitude and effort. In near miraculous fashion, he succeeded, reinventing himself as a sportsman proficient in hiking, rowing, boxing, and jiu-jitsu, activities he would enjoy throughout his life.

Roosevelt’s personal embodiment of struggle and triumph endowed his “Strenuous Life” speech with a power rare in even the most stirring presidential addresses.

“We do not admire the man of timid peace,” he said. “We admire the man who embodies victorious effort; the man who never wrongs his neighbor, who is prompt to help a friend, but who has those virile qualities necessary to win in the stern strife of actual life.”

An Edict for the Modern Man

The modern man can take heart that the principles espoused by Roosevelt have exceptional potency in today’s world, where comfort and safety have taken the place of liberty.

The toil and effort of past generations may have granted us a life of peace, but comfort and convenience have made “ignoble ease” the default as a result of the trappings and temptations of the modern world. But strength in body and sharpness of mind is ours for the taking if we can overcome the hindrance of self-imposed limitations.

There is no need to relive the hardships of our ancestors, but we should honor their sacrifice by remembering that comfort isn’t a virtue, and that toiling for a noble cause molds both character and fortune. The man willing to adopt responsibility and embrace the strenuous life will find himself moving swiftly toward places of power and prestige unworthy of the mediocre man content with comfort and ease. Those who apply supreme effort to their chosen trade and rid themselves of unworthy habits will rise quickly and assuredly through the ranks of common men who have yet to realize that their fate is of their own making.

It may be tempting to sit and wait for so-called experts to solve the existential crises of our time but the American ideal compels each of us to strive forward with a spirit of vigor and self-reliance, not for selfish ends but with morality and responsibility. Roosevelt perfectly articulates this sentiment with succinct wisdom in his closing remarks:

“Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.