History of the American Nation, Volume 6

Author: William James Jackman

Chapter 117:
President Wilson’s First Message

Lofty in Tone, but Devoid of Practical Suggestions.—Disappointment to the Public.—An Invocation Rather Than a Message.—Notable Chiefly for Its Brevity.—What the New President Said.—Appeal to Loyalty of People. Speaks in Allegorical Terms.—Duty Before the Public. Iniquity of the Tariff.—Handicaps of Banking and Currency System.—Need for Conservation and Reclamation.—Idealistic Rather Than Practical.—Commended by English Press.—What Vice-President Marshall Said.—His Address to the Senate.—Views Held by President Wilson on Public Topics.—What He Advocates.

It would be difficult to conceive of a public document more lofty in tone and felicitous of phrase than President Wilson’s inaugural address delivered March 4, 1913. And yet it was a disappointment. A mass of glittering generalities, nowhere did the new executive outline what should be done, nowhere did President Wilson say what his policy or that of congress should be. His address was rather in the form of a prayer, an invocation, that all might be well with this land of ours. He appealed to the loyalty of his fellow-countrymen. Aside from this the address was unique. It was singularly brief. Few new executives have ever contented themselves with so scant an array of words. He said:

"There has been a change of government. It began two years ago, when the house of representatives became Democratic by a decisive majority. It has now been completed. The senate about to assemble will also be Democratic. The offices of president and vice-president have been put into the hands of Democrats.

"What does the change mean? That is the question that is uppermost in our minds today. That is the question I am going to try to answer, in order, if I may, to interpret the occasion.

"It means much more than the mere success of a party. The success of a party means little except when the nation is using the party for a large and definite purpose.

"NO one can mistake the purpose for which the nation now seeks to use the Democratic party. It seeks to use it to interpret a change in its own plans and point of view.

"Some old things with which we had grown familiar, and which had begun to creep into the very habit of our thought and of our lives, have altered their aspect as we have latterly looked critically upon them, with fresh, awakened eyes; have dropped their disguises and shown themselves alien and sinister.

"Some new things, as we look frankly upon them, willing to comprehend their real character, have come to assume the aspect of things long believed in and familiar, stuff of our own convictions. We have been refreshed by a new insight into our own life.

"We see that in many things life is very great. It is incomparably great in its material aspects, in its body of wealth, in the diversity and sweep of its energy, in the industries which have been conceived and built up by the genius of individual men and the limitless enterprise of groups of men.

"It is great, also, very great in its moral force. Nowhere else in the world have noble men and women exhibited in more striking forms the beauty and the energy of sympathy and helpfulness and counsel in their efforts to rectify wrong, alleviate suffering, and set the weak in the way of strength and hope.

"We have built up, moreover, a great system of government, which has stood through a long age as in many respects a model for those who seek to set liberty upon foundations that will endure against fortuitous change, against storm and accident. Our life contains every great thing and contains it in rich abundance.

"But the evil has come with the good, and much fine gold has been corroded. With riches has come inexcusable waste. We have squandered a great part of what we might have used, and have not stopped to conserve the exceeding bounty of nature, without which our genius for enterprise would have been worthless and impotent, scorning to be careful, shamefully prodigal as well as admirably efficient.

"We have been proud of our industrial achievements, but we have not hitherto stopped thoughtfully enough to count the human cost, the cost of lives snuffed-out, of energies overtaxed and broken, the fearful physical and spiritual cost to the men and women and children upon whom the dead weight and burden of it all has fallen pitilessly the years through.

"The groans and agony of it all had not yet reached our ears, the solemn, moving undertone of our life, coming up out of the mines and factories and out of every home where the struggle had its intimate and familiar seat.

"With the great government went many deep secret things which we too long delayed to look into and scrutinize with candid, fearless eyes. The great government we loved has too often been made use of for private and selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people.

"At last a vision has been vouchsafed us of our life as a whole. We see the bad with the good, the debased and decadent with the sound and vital. With this vision we approach new affairs.

"Our duty is to cleanse, to reconsider, to restore, to correct the evil without impairing the good, to purify and humanize every process of our common life without weakening or sentimentalizing it.

"There has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great. Our thought has been ’Let every man look out for himself, let every generation look out for itself,’ while we reared giant machinery which made it impossible that any but those who stood at the levers of control should have a chance to look out for themselves.

"We had not forgotten our morals. We remembered well enough that we had set up a policy which was meant to serve the humblest as well as the most powerful, with an eye single to the standards of justice and fair play, and remembered it with pride. But we were very heedless and in a hurry to be great.

"We have come now to the sober second thought. The scales of heedlessness have fallen from our eyes.

"We have made up our minds to square every process of our national life again with standards we so proudly set up at the beginning and have always carried at our hearts. Our work is a work of restoration.

"We have itemized with some degree of particularity the things that ought to be altered, and here are some of the chief items:

"A tariff which cuts us off from our proper part in the commerce of the world violates the just principles of taxation and makes the government a facile instrument in the hands of private interests.

"A banking and currency system based upon the necessity of the government to sell its bonds fifty years ago and perfectly adapted to concentrating cash and restricting credits.

"An industrial system which, take it on all its sides, financial as well as administrative, holds capital in leading strings, restricts the liberties and limits the opportunities of labor, and exploits without renewing or conserving the natural resources of the country.

"A body of agricultural activities never yet given the efficiency of great business undertakings or served as it should be through the instrumentality of science taken directly to the farm, or afforded the facilities of credit best suited to its practical needs.

"Water courses undeveloped, waste places unreclaimed, forests untended, fast disappearing without plan or prospect of renewal, unregarded waste heaps at every mine.

"We have studied as perhaps no other nation has the most effective means of production, but we have not studied cost or economy as we should either as organizers of industry, as statesmen, or as individuals.

"Nor have we studied and perfected the means by which government may be put at the service of humanity, in safeguarding the health of the nation, the health of its men and its women and its children, as well as their rights in the struggle for existence.

"This is no sentimental duty. The firm basis of government is justice, not pity. These are matters of justice. There can be no equality of opportunity, the first essential of justice in the body politic, if men and women and children be not shielded in their lives, their very vitality, from the consequences of great industrial and social processes which they can not alter, control, or singly cope with.

"Society must see to it that it does not itself crush or weaken or damage its own constituent parts. The first duty of law is to keep sound the society it serves. Sanitary laws, pure food laws, and laws determining conditions of labor which individuals are powerless to determine for themselves are intimate parts of the very business of justice and legal efficiency.

"These are some of the things we ought to do, and not leave the others undone, the old fashioned, never to be neglected, fundamental safeguarding of property and of individual right. This is the high enterprise of the new day. To lift everything that concerns our life as a nation to the light that shines from the hearthfire of every man’s conscience and vision of the right.

"It is inconceivable that we should do this as partisans; it is inconceivable we should do it in ignorance of the facts as they are or in blind haste.

"We shall restore, not destroy. We shall deal with our economic system as it is and as it may be modified, not as it might be if we had a clean sheet of paper to write upon; and step by step we shall make it what it should be, in the spirit of those who question their own wisdom and seek counsel and knowledge, not shallow self-satisfaction or the excitement of excursions whither they cannot tell. Justice, and only justice, shall always be our motto.

"And yet it will be no cool process of mere science. The nation has been deeply stirred, stirred by a solemn passion, stirred by the knowledge of wrong, of ideals lost, of government too often debauched and made an instrument of evil.

"The feelings with which we face this new age of right and opportunity sweep across our heartstrings like some air out of God’s own presence, where justice and mercy are reconciled and the judge and the brother are one.

"We know our task to be no mere task of politics, but a task which shall search us through and through, whether we be able to understand our time and the need of our people, whether we be indeed their spokesmen and interpreters, whether we have the pure heart to comprehend and the rectified will to choose our high course of action.

"This is not a day of triumph; it is a day of dedication. Here muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity. Men’s hearts wait upon us; men’s lives hang in the balance; men’s hopes call upon us to say what we will do.

"Who shall live up to the great trust? Who dares fail to try?

"I summon all honest men, all patriotic, all forward looking men, to my side. God helping me, I will not fail them, if they will but counsel and sustain me."

Look at it as we may it is a peculiar address; a plea for help, rather than an avowal of what will be attempted in the line of government activity. It is commendable, in that it does not attempt to tell congress what it should do. It is idealistic rather than practical. Press comment on the address was favorable, especially by the English papers.

The London morning papers in editorial comments treated it as a departure both in style and substance from the traditional speeches on such occasions, and said’ it initiates or rather connects a new era in social reform. The comments were wholly in admiration of the address so far as the aims of the president are concerned, but doubts were expressed as to what may be expected to be achieved by the new administration.

The Daily Telegraph dwelt on what it calls the transparent sincerity of the address and its eloquent and ornate presentation of humane ideals. It compared it to the speeches through which William J. Bryan became the idol of millions of Americans, and said:

"President Wilson has plucked at last the string of pure idealism. The chastened tone of his address has a very real correspondence with the facts of political psychology in the United States today."

After calling attention to the limitations of the presidential and legislative powers and the divisions of opinion among the Democrats themselves, the paper said:

"Whatever happens, President Wilson’s term is certain to be a remarkable and fervid period in the modern development of the United States."

The Tory Morning Post printed some unwontedly sympathetic remarks on the combination of character and caution in the address, in which it said:

"There is nothing to antagonize or alarm the great interests of the country, while there is yet a note of sympathy for the poor and suffering which is well calculated to touch the heart of humanity."

The Post commended Mr. Wilson’s caution against sentimentalism and expressed the opinion that the thesis of the address is no less remarkable because it is not pugnacious.

The Daily Graphic, while expressing the fear that the times are not too propitious for an idealist, heartily wished the president good luck, and said:

"The echoes of his noble address will bring to the world which is in the mad pursuit of international uncharitableness and bloated schemes of a military holocaust a welcome reminder of better things and more manly strivings."

The Daily Mail is the least appreciative of all the papers. It thinks the inaugural reads rather like a tract and says it conveys somewhat too black an impression of modern conditions in America. It adds:

"One fact at least clearly appears—the era of free competition in the United States is ended and the day of government control of industry is at hand."

The paper pointed out that in a life where there are going to be prizes for everybody the prizes must be of small value and that the attraction of the United States for the energetic people of Europe as a place where the rewards of success are the greatest will henceforward be to some extent lacking. Moreover, the paper said, it does not see how the trusts can be "busted" without destroying the business prosperity which means "the full dinner pail."

The radical newspapers were frankly delighted with the address. The Daily News and Leader said:

"President Wilson has set before his fellow-citizens a fine ideal and indicated to them the road by which it can be pursued."

The Daily Chronicle said: "The inaugural address of President Wilson is a striking expression of that elevated democracy which has long been absent from high politics in the United States. The United States must be heartily congratulated at having such a fearless statesman at its head. We look for the influence of his spirit to spread far beyond his own country."

Vice-President Marshall was a little more outspoken. In addressing the senate over which he is to preside he pleaded for fair dealing and urged the senate to place the United States in the front of all nations by the rigid observance of all treaty obligations.

"I offer no surety as to my discharge of duties," he said, "other than a personal pledge I will seek to familiarize myself with them and will endeavor always to exercise that complaisance and forbearance which are essential to him who presides over great debates upon great public questions by great men.

"Divergent views relative to this body would be less divergent if the American people would come to realize that on all sides of questions much may truthfully be said. Such an attitude of the public mind would eliminate the view that this body is distinctively deliberate and not thoroughly patriotic. Charges of bad faith based on an attitude of mind or conduct should never be made until it is clearly established that the resultant action is the outcome of personal interest or improper and dishonorable business or social relations.

"Your action has not always met with universal approval, but up to this good hour no workable substitute for the exercise of the functions of this body has been proposed. It is not needful for me here and now to accept a brief in your defense.

"To my mind government is the harness with which a people draws its load of civilization. If the harness be properly adjusted the load, though heavy, will be drawn with ease and no part of the people will be galled. The senate is the blinders, intended to keep the people from shying at imaginary dangers and toppling into the ditch our system of government. So long as the blinders serve this purpose they are the most valuable part of the harness, but if they be drawn so closely to the eyes as to prevent the seeing of real dangers then they should either be spread or done away with entirely.

"With neither right nor desire to infringe upon the prerogatives of the president so soon to be, I beg the expression of the opinion that whatever diverse views may be held relative to the work of this body, all persons are agreed that under the constitution the senate of the United States is singularly the guardian of the people’s honor.

"When we enter the chancelleries of the world and submit to their judgments, not only our right to be, but our right to be respected, we can hope to be measured in but one way; and we moist be able to show that the solemn treaty obligations of this republic will be kept with the same scrupulous honesty, both of spirit and letter, whether made with the humblest people of this continent struggling for self-government or with the mightiest monarch of the old world.

"If any one, in the name of the American people, either in violation of treaty obligations or the manifest purpose of the Monroe doctrine, has taken aught while this body was deliberating, it is your duty to ascertain all facts thereto. And if wrong or injustice has been done, even to the humblest republic, let this people be brave enough and sufficiently honest to make reparation."


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Chicago: William James Jackman, "Chapter 117: 1913 President Wilson’s First Message," History of the American Nation, Volume 6 in William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.1906-1912 Original Sources, accessed May 31, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=H46RJLZUIINPE8M.

MLA: Jackman, William James. "Chapter 117: 1913 President Wilson’s First Message." History of the American Nation, Volume 6, in William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.1906-1912, Original Sources. 31 May. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=H46RJLZUIINPE8M.

Harvard: Jackman, WJ, 'Chapter 117: 1913 President Wilson’s First Message' in History of the American Nation, Volume 6. cited in , William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.1906-1912. Original Sources, retrieved 31 May 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=H46RJLZUIINPE8M.