The 1910 speech they refer to was memorable. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is stained with dust, sweat and blood; valiantly striving,” Roosevelt said. The quote concludes: “If he fails, at least [he] fails by daring much, so his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
It’s easy to see why sports superstars love it. These powerful words contain two essential doctrines for athletic success.
First, victory requires energy. Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” strives, toils and toils. Throughout his life, the former president revered “the man who epitomizes victorious effort”.
Second, the speech celebrates her ability to let go of failure, build resilience, and bounce back from her shortcomings. In the sports world, the ability to forget a bad game or performance makes an athlete stronger. A retrospective documentary series on Tom Brady’s career was called “Man in the Arena” and referenced Roosevelt’s speech as a guiding principle – to come back and try again.
Yet the speech rarely elicits careful reading. Most of the time, we call it the “man in the arena” speech. Roosevelt called it “citizenship in a republic” and the short passage we know so well eclipsed his larger point about the need for collective responsibility in a democracy. In today’s political environment, the discourse has profound relevance.
Roosevelt did not advocate individualism. Whether on the playing field or in the political arena, he recognized that a single person had enormous power and potential, but that any individual effort paled in comparison to the power of a group of people sharing the same ideas. “I am a strong individualist by personal habit,” he admitted, but added: “It is a simple matter of common sense to recognize that the state, the community, the citizens acting together, can do a number of things better than if they were left to individual action.
Roosevelt gave the speech in Paris. After leaving the presidency in 1909, he left Washington and sailed to Africa to hunt game. After the safari, he traveled to Europe and lectured in the Old World on empire, international relations, and peace. He gave dozens of conferences in Europe, his speech “Citizenship in a Republic” in Paris deviating from these themes.
His inspiration came from the streets of the Rive Gauche – the Left Bank, which avant-garde Parisian artists and writers called home. Roosevelt slipped out of his hotel and blended anonymously into the crowd of window-shoppers and bustling passers-by along the quays of the Latin Quarter. In the early 20th century, many famous Americans resided in these neighborhoods. The artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso met in the apartment of the writer and poet Gertrude Stein. Novelist Edith Wharton lived just a few blocks from Stein, and American dancer Loie Fuller perfected her serpentine dance at the Odeon.
Roosevelt wandered in and out of rare book stores thinking of the historical parallels between the United States and France. Each nation shared the same system of government and France was the only stop on his European tour without a monarch. The advantages of democracy seemed obvious to him, as they always have. Democracy gave citizens self-determination and popular sovereignty gave birth to individual freedom. The cultural parade he saw on the Left Bank was the product of democracy.
As he progressed, the weaknesses of democracy became equally evident. Roosevelt marched north, across the Seine, through Place Vendôme. In this part of Paris, the imposing monuments of Napoleon and the Paris Commune caught his eye, telling the story of the city’s alliances with revolution and dictatorship. Democracy requires vigilance and morality to survive these inevitable crises.
Such conclusions did not come to him as an epiphany. Roosevelt had preached about civic responsibility throughout his storied political career. But the Parisian experience reinforced his convictions and influenced the speech he gave the next day at the Sorbonne, the oldest university in the city. There, a huge crowd climbed into an auditorium to hear the most famous American leader speak in Paris since Ulysses S. Grant had visited the city more than 30 years before.
The speech did not disappoint. The crowd kept cheering as members of the French academy huddled together and congratulated the former president on a spirited talk. Yet Roosevelt could not expect this to make the impression it did. He certainly could not have imagined that it would become a sound bite for future American athletes and celebrities.
Read as a whole, the speech calls on citizens to work together to achieve social justice. Equality was the ultimate goal of democracy. The good citizen “sees to it that others receive the freedom he thus claims as his own” and, in the optimal case, everyone would contribute to this common good.
“The best test of true love of freedom,” Roosevelt recounted, “is the way minorities are treated in the country.” Even though he did not fully practice what he preached in his own political career, Roosevelt’s speech implied that racial hatred, misogyny, ableism, classism, ageism, and discrimination of every kind diminished the democratic experience.
It was perhaps this passage that inspired Nelson Mandela to give a copy of the speech to South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar before the 1995 World Cup. Roosevelt against a British poem. This creative license obscured Mandela’s purpose. He didn’t give it to Pienaar to inspire victory in the game. He was meant to inspire unity off the pitch. When Mandela became president, he inherited a divided nation. These divisions were evident in rugby, a sport dominated by white players. In prison, Mandela cheered for any team other than the South African Springboks. Cheering on the opposing team was an act of defiance in protest against his country’s apartheid practices. As president, however, Mandela sought opportunities for social cohesion and he delivered the Pienaar Speech with the aim of renewing South African democracy. This was also Roosevelt’s intention.
Roosevelt’s case for good citizenship has been corrupted. Now a pithy assertion of individualism, the frequent quotes ignore the real “man in the arena” whom Roosevelt identified as the ordinary person. In Paris, he exclaims that the heroes of a republic go to work every day. Yet Roosevelt emphasized that the most important work is “of an unpaid character”. Caring for children, volunteering, doing charity, helping a neighbor and other similar acts are the greatest contributions to the health of the republic – and to the vitality of democracy more broadly.
“It’s not the criticism that counts,” Roosevelt said in his speech. “Not the man who shows how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” The critic he was referring to was anyone who “expresses contempt” or is “hostile to other citizens of the republic”. Beware of the demagogue who breeds factions among us, Roosevelt warned.
As we enter a busy political season and the bashing escalates, it would help us to remember everything of Roosevelt’s speech. It doesn’t fit perfectly on a pair of shoes or make a neat tattoo, but the whole speech offers a lesson in the strengths of our democracy. It also indicates where threats exist.