Theodore Roosevelt and “The Strenuous Life”

“The Strenuous Life” was a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1899 in Chicago.

Like many at the turn of the century, Roosevelt worried that industrialization and urbanization were “weakening” Americans, making them timid and less resourceful.  Large corporations were making the chances of successful entrepreneurship harder and harder and “manhood”–generally associated with financial prestige–was becoming an ideal fewer and fewer could achieve.  The country’s men lacked a much needed “confidence” necessary to continue on the work of the nation’s founding ancestors.  Numerous doctors diagnosed men with “neurasthenia,” a condition of enfeebled manliness, an overly “civilized” taste for thrift, order, and moral prudery. 

What Roosevelt proposed was that America return to a life of manly grit.  Instead of the meek and mild Christianity practiced by late nineteenth-century churches, “muscular Christianity” should take more of a priority.  Even Roosevelt’s Wilderness Campaign, so great at preserving an eroding frontier and giving us our national parks, was connected to his desire to preserve arenas in which men could go “be men”—hunting, riding horses, trapping, testing themselves for their “Spartan” resolve, sharpening their warrior instincts.  Men should welcome tests of their ability to endure suffering and privation, feats his wildly popular military training camps developed.

Here’s a quote:

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Legacy: This is the era in which professional sporting clubs and societies began to flourish.  This is the moment when “frontier nostalgia” rose to prominence and numerous “back to nature” societies developed.  Boxing emerges as the nation’s number one pastime.The Boy Scouts were founded during this time.  Young boys discovered a flood of new books on war, heroes of the Civil War, the legends of Daniel Boone and Davey Crocket.  Roosevelt himself endlessly proselytized the virtues of his service in the Rough Riders, a volunteer regiment organized during the imperialist Spanish-American-Philippine War (Roosevelt fought in Cuba).  “Leadership” begins to surface as a prized virtue, a subject to be taught in public schools.  Cowboys, long considered “rough” and “unsavory” individuals, vaulted to fame as prized emblems of “the strenuous life,” a mythology which a new literary form, the Western, never tired of delivering.

This new ideology of “masculinity,” of course, thrives today in the steroid-bloated behemouths one can observe everywhere in popular culture.


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