I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

“The Strenuous Life”

Theodore Roosevelt

  • Theodore Roosevelt, “The Strenuous Life” in The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (New York: The Century Co., 1903), 1-21.

“The Strenuous Life” is a speech that Theodore Roosevelt gave in Chicago in 1899. The speech is based on the assertion that Americans have a duty to advance two things: their race and their nation. Advancement is only possible if individuals choose to live a strenuous existence, an existence that is defined by strife, challenge, and honesty. An easy life is not worth living, according to Roosevelt. Those who have been placed in a position, in which they have leisure time, as more and more individuals were at the turn of the century, should not use this time for rest and relaxation, but rather for betterment of self and country. Roosevelt proposes that there is a direct correlation between the strength and character of the civilians and that of the nation. A nation supporting a weak and gluttonous populous will be weak in its global affairs.

In “The Strenuous Life,” Roosevelt takes the ideas of Turner’s Frontier Thesis and the concepts he outlined in The Winning of the West and updates them in order to make them work for the current situation. The frontier no longer existed, and thus, neither did the force that had made Americans “American.” Without the frontier, individuals like Roosevelt had to scramble for either a new sense of identity or a new way to extend the old, Roosevelt opted for the latter. A new frontier was needed on which to impress the moral virtuousness of the American people for it was their duty to uplift the rest of the world to their level of democratic bliss. The West Indies and the Philippines are the lucky targets of this new age of Frontierism as the United States’ military, the “sword and shield” of American exceptionalism, swept in and rescued them from, as Roosevelt puts it, “Spanish tyranny.”  These islands, Roosevelt states, are unable to govern themselves without falling into complete chaos because the native does not possess the manly, individualistic characteristics that the American enjoys. The United States must not stay within its borders and enjoy the fruits of success, but rather must go out into the world and continue to lead a strenuous life directing the destinies of those nations that are not blessed with moral, intellectual, and physical strength. And thus, American imperialism is reborn and subsequently justified.

It is interesting how heavily Roosevelt relies on gender classifications in the “Strenuous Life.” It is clear that part of being a clean and honest population is that everyone sticks to his or her gender roles. That is, women stay home and support and nurture the men that lead the strenuous existence, which is, in many ways, really just a form of in-your-face manliness. Much of his speech suggests an extreme personal and national insecurity. Roosevelt is afraid that the United States is going to lose its edge. Thus, he feels the need to make sure that America is constantly proving its superiority to the rest of the world, for if the United States population falls off its horse for just a moment, a stronger nation will come in and do the job. One must wonder, if the United States was truly so far superior to other countries, how another country could so easily take its place as the world dominator. Additionally, Roosevelt continues to present a perplexing contradiction in regards to the virtue of civilization. The timid man, he says, is the over-civilized man. Yet, when taking over other countries, such as the Philippines, it is understood that the United States is bringing civilized order to their savage chaos. At what point does civilized become over-civilized? Is it possible to stop the process? Seemingly not since the precious Western frontier had already fallen victim to civilization’s allures by 1899. Lastly, it is interesting to observe some of the first qualms regarding the population’s increase in leisure time in “The Strenuous Life.” As the twentieth century got underway, those in power began to fret more and more over how to keep the masses from wasting this free time on lazy and idle pursuits rather than on noble self-betterment. One solution was to encourage outdoor recreation, which led to an increase in conservation and park development.

Feature Photo:  [Family portrait with Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and grandson?] / Walter Scott Shinn, N.Y., ca. 1916, Library of Congress Collection.


Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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1 Comment

  1. The critique of the speech in not based in the actual timeframe.
    An anachronism in real time – that makes the criticisms completely out of sync.
    The word “gender” originated in 1928 meaning “sex”.
    It’s not until the 1950’s it takes another meaning.
    So the use of “gender roles” in a 1899 speech is patently absurd.
    Try to view medical science through the same backward lense and see what you come up with!
    As for imperialism – Western Europe was as imperial as the USA ever was.
    And they are still the countries the rest of the world want to come to.
    Best regards
    Henrik Oelund


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