On July 4, 1886, Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech in Dickinson, part of what was then the Dakota Territory. Roosevelt had spent almost three years in the Dakota badlands, gaining physical strength, hunting, running cattle and trying to forget the simultaneous deaths of his mother and his wife.
Dickinson is not far from Medora, today a tourist town, which was the only place we could find a hotel room. Earlier we had stayed in a Williston, N.D., hotel that was basic, to put it politely, yet more expensive. But it was fully booked for subsequent nights at any price. Aside from being a long drive from some interviews, Medora is no hardship. It makes the most of the Roosevelt connection. There’s the Rough Rider Inn. The Theodore restaurant. The Bully Pulpit golf course. And, most important, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a stark dry expanse of cliffs cut into the earth.
But it’s Roosevelt’s July 4, 1886 speech, which many historians see as a harbinger of his later political ambitions, that most interests me. Here’s what he said:
I do not undervalue for a moment our material prosperity; like all Americans, I like big things; big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat-fields, railroads, — and herds of cattle, too, — big factories, steamboats, and everything else.
We must keep steadily in mind that no people were ever yet benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue. It is of more importance that we should show ourselves honest, brave, truthful, and intelligent, than that we should own all the railways and grain elevators in the world. We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.
What would Roosevelt have thought of Dickinson and the oil boom in the hills where he ran cattle and hunted? What’s happening here is big, no doubt about that. There are big trucks – a couple of hundred thousand last year. Big oil rigs. Big trailer parks. In Dickinson, there’s also a big McDonald’s.