Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena"

President Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent
President Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent / Fine Art/GettyImages

Over the course of his time in the public eye, Theodore Roosevelt gave a number of moving, influential, highly quotable public addresses—but none of them has the legacy of the speech he delivered in Paris on April 23, 1910, which would become one of the most widely quoted orations of his career.

The former president—who left office in 1909—had spent a year hunting in Central Africa before embarking on a tour of Northern Africa and Europe in 1910, attending events and giving speeches in places like Cairo, Berlin, Naples, and Oxford. He stopped in Paris on April 23 and made his way to the Sorbonne, where “fully 25,000 persons packed the streets,” in the words of the newspapers. At 3 p.m., before a crowd that included “ministers in court dress, army and navy officers in full uniform, nine hundred students, and an audience of two thousand ticket holders,” according to the Edmund Morris biography Colonel Roosevelt, Roosevelt delivered a speech called “Citizenship in a Republic,” which would come to be known as “The Man in the Arena.”

“It’s Not the Critic Who Counts”

In addition to touching on his own family history, war, human and property rights, the responsibilities of citizenship, and France’s falling birthrate, Roosevelt railed against cynics who looked down at men who were trying to make the world a better place. “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” he said. “A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life's realities—all these are marks, not ... of superiority but of weakness.”

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Teddy Roosevelt Speaking in Yonkers
Theodore Roosevelt delivering a speech in Yonkers, New York. / Historical/GettyImages

Then he delivered an inspirational and impassioned message that drew huge applause:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The speech was a wild success. “Several times the applause lasted two minutes and was probably the greatest demonstration ever given a foreign lecturer,” one newspaper noted. “So eager was every one [outside] to get a glimpse of Roosevelt that frequent clashes with the police occurred.”

“Citizenship in a Republic”—which Morris called “one of [Roosevelt’s] greatest rhetorical triumphs”—made headlines around the world. It ran in the Journal des Debats as a Sunday supplement, got sent to the teachers of France by Le Temps, was printed by Librairie Hachette on Japanese vellum, was turned into a pocket book that sold 5000 copies in five days, and was translated across Europe.

Roosevelt himself, however, was apparently shocked by how his speech was received, “admitting to Henry Cabot Lodge that the reaction of the French was ‘a little difficult for me to understand,’” Morris wrote.

The Enduring Legacy of “The Man in the Arena”

Roosevelt might be even more surprised to learn that the most famous section of his speech still resonates and inspires, even today.

Richard Nixon, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Pat Nixon, Tricia Nixon Cox
When Richard Nixon resigned, he quoted "The Man in the Arena." / Keystone/GettyImages

It was quoted by Nixon in his resignation speech (“Sometimes I have succeeded and sometimes I have failed, but always I have taken heart from what Theodore Roosevelt once said about the man in the arena ... ”). Author, researcher, and professor Dr. Brené Brown paraphrased it in a TED Talk and used Roosevelt’s phrase daring greatly as the title of one of her books. “The first time I read this quote,” Brown writes in the introduction to Daring Greatly, “I thought, This is vulnerability. Everything I've learned from over a decade of research on vulnerability has taught me this exact lesson. Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it's understanding the necessity of both; it's engaging. It's being all in.”

“The Man in the Arena” has a place in sports history, too: Before the 1995 World Cup, Nelson Mandela gave a copy of the passage to Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team—and they won, defeating the favored All Blacks of New Zealand. Washington Nationals player Mark DeRosa would read it to himself before big games, and before the Nationals faced the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Division Series in 2012, DeRosa read it aloud to his teammates. “That’s a quote I’ve always gone back to,” he told the Washington Times. “I go to that a lot, I really do. I’ve done it since college. I like it because people think they know, but they have no idea what we’re thinking from pitch to pitch. With our backs against the wall I wanted to say something that brought us together, a little band of brothers. Go out and fight. See what happens. I felt it was fitting. It fires me up when I read it.” The team was victorious.

LeBron James
A detail shot of the shoes worn by LeBron James during the game on January 7, 2023. / Lachlan Cunningham/GettyImages

More recently, LeBron James wrote a quote from the speech on his shoes, and Tom Brady used Man in the Arena as the title of a documentary series about his time with the New England Patriots. In a tweet announcing the series, Brady wrote that “I have quoted Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ speech since I saw it painted on our weight room wall at UM in 1995. It’s a constant reminder to ignore the noise, buckle my chinstrap, and battle through whatever comes my way.”

The speech has its cultural touchstones as well: One wonders what TR would have made of his words being tattooed on Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth’s arms and used in a Cadillac commercial.