Practical Work in Politics

Practical Work in Politics  (1894) 
by Theodore Roosevelt

This speech was delivered in Philadephia, Pennsylvania on January 26, 1894, at the National Conference for Good City Government

There are two gospels I always want to preach to reformers, whether they are working for civil service reform, for municipal reform, or for any other reform. The first is the gospel of morality; the next is the gospel of efficiency. To a body like this I do not think I have to dwell much upon the necessity of being straight and decent, for of course a man must try to render disinterested, honest service to the community if he has the least claim to be called a good citizen. But I know you don’t ‘need to have me dwell upon this side of the question. You come here representing the men who sincerely wish to see our municipal government purified, to see our public officials elected because they are likely to render honest service to the community, and to see our whole political life conducted in accordance with the highest standards of morality.

I don’t have to tell you to be upright, but I do think I have to tell you to be practical and efficient. When I say practical I don’t mean that you have got to connive at wrongdoing or submit to it; on the contrary, I believe that the most practical of politicians is the most honest, and that in the long run the politics of fraud and treachery and bribery and foulness are unpractical politics. But I do mean to say that you have got to face facts as they are ; that, while keeping a high standard, you have yet got to realize that there are very many men whose standard is not so high, and that you must strive to get out from these men the best that lies in them, even though it is not the absolute best. In condemning men whose standards are not as high as they ought to be (though this condemnation is often necessary) you must be careful not to encourage men whose standards are still lower. It is sometimes necessary to help the best by overthrowing the good, even though it produce the temporary triumph of the bad ; but such action must always be regarded as exceptional; to follow it out as a steady policy ‘is an infallible method of working evil to the community.

Two points in especial bear in mind: be actors, and not merely critics of others, in the first place, and in the second, do not try to accomplish anything at the very beginning, and then because you fail abandon the effort to accomplish anything.

As to the first point, criticism is a very good thing, but work is a much better one. It is not the man who sits at home in his parlor, the man who reads his evening paper before the fire and says how bad our politicians are, who ever works an improvement in our municipal government. It is the man who goes out to the primaries and the polls, who attends the meetings of his party organizations, if he is a party man, or who gets up effective independent organizations if he is not a party man, the man who wins in actual hard fighting and who is not afraid of the blood and sweat he is the man who deserves our gratitude; he is the man upon whom we must ultimately rely for results. Meetings like this, where all of us who believe alike get together, talk with one another, and learn to see the situation as it is, and try to plan methods for making it better, serve an admirable purpose, too; but the real battle must be fought out on other and less pleasant fields. In the end the work has got to be done by actual, hard, stubborn, long-continued service in the field of practical politics itself. You have got to go out and meet not merely the men who think like you, but the men who think differently from you. You have got to try to win them to your side by argument; to try to beat them and overthrow them, and drive them from the field if you can't win them by argument. You may as well make up your mind at the beginning that when you thus go into practical politics you will make some mistakes, and you will be criticised by those who don’t go in ; but you may make up your mind also that in no other way can you ever achieve anything, and that the crown must finally be awarded, not to the man who says how poorly others have done the work, but to the man who actually does the work, even though he does it imperfectly and with many shortcomings.

Again, don’t try to begin by reforming the whole world. Prove yourself to be a tolerably efficient under-officer before you aspire to the work of the commander-in-chief. Of course from the outset you must take an interest in the great problems of state and national legislation, no less than of municipal ; but this must not be all. Go into your own assembly district, try to find out the men who think as you do, and whom you can spur into taking some kind of an active part; then, whether you are a Republican like myself, a Democrat like my friend here, or an Independent like my friend there, try to get your fellows to organize with you and to organize on a basis of desire for clean, decent government. Become thoroughly familiar with the work of the different machines in your district, with the work gone through in nominating candidates, no less than in preparing for the actual battle at the polls. Try to make your influence felt on your local representative, whether a councilman, alderman, or any other official. Make yourself a power. Teach the politicians, and by degrees teach the people too, that you are not only disinterested, but that you are efficient also; that you are striving for the right, and that when you hit you hit to some purpose.

In carrying on your battle for decency remember one thing: if you are to win you must win by being straight out Americans, and by conducting your campaign in the regular American spirit. If you try to organize your movement on any line of caste, on any line of birthplace or of creed, you will be beaten, and you will deserve to be beaten. Go into our politics simply as Americans. Work heartily with the man in whose ideas you believe and who believes in your ideas, without any reference to whether he is a Jew or Gentile, Catholic or Protestant, whether he was born here or abroad, whether he is a banker or a butcher, a professor or a hod-carrier, a railway president or the owner of a corner store; in short, act as Americans, and as nothing else.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.