In 1958, the United States threw a yearlong centennial birthday party for Theodore Roosevelt and North Dakota’s festivities were second only to New York. Both states claimed Roosevelt as one of their own and both wanted to make sure Roosevelt was celebrated in style. It was during that celebration that Dickinson State Teachers’ College held the first ever Theodore Roosevelt Symposium. Unlike our three day long symposium of today, the 1958 version was a lecture series which spanned the entire year and brought prominent speakers to Dickinson, North Dakota, to discuss the famed 26th president and his legacy. Among these speakers were Howard K. Beale, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Secretary of the Interior Fred A. Seaton, Governor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin of Maryland and Hermann Hagedorn, the noted Roosevelt biographer, head of the Roosevelt Memorial Association (today’s Theodore Roosevelt Association) and chair of the Roosevelt Centennial Committee. However, the first speaker to open the series was a rising star in national politics, a young idealist senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.
Senator Kennedy was actually the second choice for the committee in Dickinson; they had wanted Vice President Richard Nixon to be the first speaker. However, Nixon’s schedule did not work and the committee asked Kennedy if he could come and open the symposium. Kennedy’s lecture, “The Moral and Spiritual Imperatives of Free Government” was delivered on Saturday, April 12, 1958. The lecture recounts Roosevelt’s adventures in the west while illustrating how the New York reformer and Dakota cowboy always saw both the possibilities and the responsibilities the American government places on its people.
Describing Roosevelt’s first major public speech on Independence Day in Dickinson, Kennedy notes what Roosevelt chose to emphasize: “Looking very young and embarrassed, on a platform in the public square, Roosevelt talked simply, directly, earnestly and emphatically. And he talked about the moral challenge of free government. 'We have rights', he told the people of Dickinson and those who had gathered for miles around; 'but we also have correlative duties; none can escape them.'"
You may read the entirety of Kennedy’s speech here.
This 1958 visit was during Kennedy’s senatorial re-election campaign though he was already being viewed as a strong presidential candidate for the 1960 presidential race. He would win that race in November 1960 but his presidency was cut short by his assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.