May 20, 2011
This is part one of a three part series written by our visiting scholar, Stacy Cordery, in which she explores Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 visit to Fargo, North Dakota.
In June of 1910, Theodore Roosevelt returned from his African safari without a real sense of what to do with himself. The youngest former president ever, he flirted with writing, but politics proved too seductive. Within weeks of disembarking he had started out on a western speaking tour to provide support for Republicans campaigning in the off-year election. In short order, his talks sounded like stump speeches for himself, for election to an undefined position in an unspecified future. In Osawatomie, Kansas, Roosevelt delivered what came to be known as the New Nationalism address, wherein he famously underscored his concerns about fundamental injustices built into the American system. By the time he had turned around to head back east, his stance on judicial recall had moderated, but he was still breathing fire on topics like union rights, woman’s suffrage, conservationism, and the need for further trust-busting.
Fargo, North Dakota, was barely more than a whistle-stop on his return trip to Oyster Bay, but he managed to give two important speeches, meet up with old friends, headline a parade, and express the memorable sentiment that he’d never have been president had it not been for his experiences in North Dakota when he was a young man. This blog is part one of a three-part exploration of that September 1910 visit, culminating with the phrasing he used to convey his gratitude to North Dakota.
On the rainy Monday of September 5th, Roosevelt kicked off his chockfull schedule by waving energetically to a thrilled and appreciative crowd of thirty thousand North Dakotans and Minnesotans. He clambered into a car beside the lieutenant governor and led off the Labor Day parade. At the end of the route, he stood to review the proceedings. People hollered out “Welcome home” and “We like you, Teddy,” and “Hello Teddy, how’s things?” After a noteworthy eighty two automobiles, numerous dignitaries, scores of bands, and countless phalanxes of labor representatives passed, the parade concluded with a grand finale: a TR lookalike dressed in safari togs, who was, as the Fargo Forum described, “surrounded by stuffed bear and deer, which he proceeded to kill with his gun every now and then” to widespread amusement and applause.
At Island Park, the real Roosevelt launched into a stirring Labor Day address before twenty thousand North Dakotans, some of whom were perched in trees while the others jostled before the speaker’s platform. He began with a history lesson and concluded with a call to action:
“The demands of progress now deal not so much with the material as with the moral and ethical factors of civilization. Our basic problem in the twentieth century is to see that the marvelously augmented powers of production bequeathed to us by the nineteenth century be made to administer to the needs of the many rather than be exploited for the profit of the few.”
Roosevelt leaned over the crowd and drove his fist into his hand for emphasis. He urged workers to work hard, bosses to behave responsibly, unions to be scrupulously honest, and government officials to assist the process of collective bargaining when it goes off-track.
“Strikes are sometime necessary and proper,” Roosevelt thundered, but they must never turn violent lest strikers lose the support of other Americans. He professed his optimism in the future, and to the animated glee of listening carpenters, railroad workers, smiths, and other workers, Roosevelt seconded the platform of the American Federation of Labor which called for the eight-hour work day and the six-day week. “Our ideal,” he finished, “should be a rate of wages sufficiently high to enable workmen to live in a manner comfortable to American ideals and standards, to educate their children, and to provide for sickness and old age; the abolition of child labor; safety device legislation to prevent industrial accidents; and automatic compensation for losses caused by those industrial accidents.”
Image: Detail from stereograph. This is Roosevelt delivering a speech in Mandan, North Dakota on his earlier 1903 tour of the West. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division
Roosevelt quotes, “Speech at Fargo,” 5 September 1910, From Library of Congress Manuscripts Division.
Background information, “Labor Should Organize, Sometimes Should Strike…,” Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, 5 September 1910, p. 10.