The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Franklin D. Roosevelt
Address at Worcester, Mass.
October 21, 1936

Senator Walsh, Governor Curley, Mayor Sullivan, and my friends of New England:

I am glad to be in New England—New England from which have come most of my forebears. In recent weeks I have traveled through a great part of the United States. I have spoken about farming and mining and livestock, about business big and little, about the wage earner, about the national debt, about drought and flood, about work for the needy unemployed and about security— security for our people and for their homes.

I have found a Nation more greatly prosperous, more definitely on the highway to complete recovery than at any time in the past seven years. I have seen the record of what we have done in the faces of the people I have met. We have banished Old Man Gloom.

It has taken only one day of driving through Rhode Island and Massachusetts to prove to me that New England is in step and on the march with the rest of the Nation.

I have seen things today even more welcome to me than your lovely autumn foliage. I have seen the smoke from factories which three and a half years ago were smokeless. I have heard the sound of mills which three and a half years ago were silent. I have seen men at work who three and a half years ago were jobless. I have seen women and children who, after long years of fear, have begun to live and hope again.

Three and a half years ago we declared war on the depression. You and I know today that that war is being won.

But now comes that familiar figure—the well-upholstered hindsight critic. He tells us that our strategy was wrong, that the cost was too great, that something else won the war. That is an argument as old as the remorse of those who had their chance and muffed it. It is as recent as the claims of those who say that they could have done better.

You may remember the First Battle of the Marne in the World War. Almost everybody thought that it was Marshal Joffre who had won it. But some refused to agree. One day, a newspaperman appealed to Marshal Joffre: "Will you tell me who did win the Battle of the Marne?" "I can't answer that," said the Marshal. "But I can tell you that if the Battle of the Marne had been lost the blame would have been on me."

Our war, too—this war we are now finishing- had to be won. No price, we were told then, was too high to pay to win it. We did count the cost. But in the barrage that we laid down against the depression we could not stop firing to haggle about the price of every shell. We kept on firing and fighting. The important thing is that the war is being won.

Without that victory we cannot have the kind of America we know and love and want our children to live in.

New England, as one of the senior partners in the company of the States, has always stood for two of the fundamentals of American liberty: the Town Meeting, with its essential insistence on local control over local affairs, and the doctrine for which Sam Adams and his friends were willing to fight— the doctrine of democracy in taxation. While I do not happen to be a cousin of the distinguished Adams family, I consider myself, politically, a lineal descendant of old Sam.

In 1776 the fight was for democracy in taxation. In 1936 that is still the fight. Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: "Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society." One sure way to determine the social conscience of a Government is to examine the way taxes are collected and how they are spent. And one sure way to determine the social conscience of an individual is to get his tax-reaction.

Taxes, after all, are the dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.

As society becomes more civilized, Government—national, State and local government—is called on to assume more obligations to its citizens. The privileges of membership in a civilized society have vastly increased in modern times. But I am afraid we have many who still do not recognize their advantages and want to avoid paying their dues.

It is only in the past two generations that most local communities have paved and lighted their streets, put in town sewers, provided town water supplies, organized fire departments, established high schools and public libraries, created parks and playgrounds—undertaken, in short, all kinds of necessary new activities which, perforce, had to be paid for out of local taxes.

And let me at this point note that in this most amazing of campaigns, I have found sections of the Nation where Republican leaders were actually whispering the word to the owners of homes and farms that the present Federal Administration proposed to make a cash levy on local real estate to pay off the national debt. They know that the Federal Government does not tax real estate, that it cannot tax real estate. If they do not know that, I suggest they read the Constitution of the United States to find out.

New obligations to their citizens have also been assumed by the several States and by the Federal Government, obligations unknown a century and a half ago, but made necessary by new inventions and by a constantly growing social conscience.

The easiest way to summarize the reason for this extension of Government functions, local, State and national, is to use the words of Abraham Lincoln: "The legitimate object of Government is to do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot by individual effort do at all, or do so well, for themselves."

Taxes are the price we all pay collectively to get those things done.

To divide fairly among the people the obligation to pay for these benefits has been a major part of our struggle to maintain democracy in America.

Ever since 1776 that struggle has been between two forces. On the one hand, there has been the vast majority of our citizens who believed that the benefits of democracy should be extended and who were willing to pay their fair share to extend them. On the other hand, there has been a small, but powerful group which has fought the extension of those benefits, because it did not want to pay a fair share of their cost.

That was the line-up in 1776. That is the line-up in this campaign. And I am confident that once more—in 1936—democracy in taxation will win.

Here is my principle: Taxes shall be levied according to ability to pay. That is the only American principle.

Before this great war against the depression we fought the World War; and it cost us twenty-five billion dollars in three years to win it. We borrowed to fight that war. Then, as now, a Democratic Administration provided sufficient taxes to pay off the entire war debt within ten or fifteen years.

Those taxes had been levied according to ability to pay. But the succeeding Republican Administration did not believe in that principle. There was a reason. They had political debts to those who sat at their elbows. To pay those political debts, they reduced the taxes of their friends in the higher brackets and left the national debt to be paid by later generations. Because they evaded their obligation, because they regarded the political debt as more important than the national debt, the depression in 1929 started with a sixteen-billion-dollar handicap on us and our children.

Now let's keep this little drama straight. The actors are the same. But the act is different. Today their role calls for stage tears about the next generation. But in the days after the World War they played a different part.

The moral of the play is clear. They got out from under then, they would get out from under now—if their friends could get back into power and they could get back to the driver's seat. But neither you nor I think that they are going to get back.

As in the World War, we have again created a tax structure to yield revenues adequate to pay the cost of this war against depression in this generation and not in the next.

New or increased taxes are not needed to enable us to balance the Federal Budget and to begin very soon a rapid reduction in the national debt. Recovery is with us. Federal revenues are increasing; emergency expenditures are decreasing. A balanced budget is on the way. Does that sound like bankruptcy to you?

Why this increase in Government revenues? Because the taxpayer earns more money and spends more money. Though he pays more money in taxes, he has more money left for himself and for his family.

For the average American we have reduced the individual income tax. Any family head who earns an income of less than $26,000 a year pays a smaller income tax in 1936 than he paid for 1932. That means that less than one percent of the heads of American families pay more than they did; and more than 99 percent pay less than they did, for more than 99 percent earn less than $26,000 per year. If you want the answer to this talk about high taxes under this Administration—there it is. Taxes are higher for those who can afford to pay high taxes. They are lower for those who can afford to pay less. That is getting back again to the American principle—taxation according to ability to pay.

You would think, to hear some people talk, that those good people who live at the top of our economic pyramid are being taxed into rags and tatters. What is the fact? The fact is that they are much farther away from the poorhouse than they were in 1932. You and I know that as a matter of personal observation.

A number of my friends who belong in these very high upper brackets have suggested to me, more in sorrow than in anger, that if I am reelected they will have to move to some other Nation because of high taxes here. I shall miss them very much but if they go they will soon come back. For a year or two of paying taxes in almost any other country in the world will make them yearn once more for the good old taxes of the U.S.A.

One more word on recent history. I inherited from the previous Administration a tax structure which not only imposed an unfair income tax burden on the low-income groups of this country, but also imposed an unfair burden upon the average American by a long list of taxes on purchases and consumption- hidden taxes.

In 1933 when we came into office, fifty-eight cents out of every dollar of Federal revenue came from hidden taxes. Leaving out of account the liquor tax—for liquor was illegal in 1933—we have reduced these indirect taxes to thirty-eight cents out of every dollar.

How else have we improved and Americanized the tax structure?

First, we gave a credit to earned income- that is, income from personal work or service- thus substantially reducing taxes paid by the working citizen. Wasn't that the American thing to do?

Second, we decreased the tax rates on small corporations. Wasn't that the American thing to do?

Third, we increased the taxes paid by individuals in the higher brackets—those of incomes over $50,000 a year. Wasn't that the American thing to do?

Fourth, we increased still further the taxes paid by individuals in the highest brackets—those with incomes over one million dollars a year. Wasn't that the American thing to do?

Fifth, we increased the tax on very large estates. Wasn't that the American thing to do?

Finally, this year we had to find new revenues to meet the immediate bonus payments and to take the place of the processing taxes. This new tax, called the undistributed profits tax, is merely an extension of the individual income tax law and a plugging-up of the loopholes in it, loopholes which could be used only by men of very large incomes.

I want to say a word to you average investors and stockholders who are being flooded by propaganda about this tax—propaganda, incidentally, paid for by your money. It is being disseminated by those who have used corporations in the past to build up their own economic power, who seek, by holding back your dividends, to keep down their taxes.

It is a fact that 98.5 percent of all American corporations will pay a smaller normal corporation tax under the new law.

It is a fact that the law permits corporations to expand and build up adequate reserves.

But for the first time it gives the stockholder a practical chance to determine for himself whether to keep his earnings in the corporation for expansion purposes or to take them out. He is now the one—not the board of directors—to choose between using his dividends for something else and reinvesting them in the stock of the corporation.

What we are concerned with primarily is principle, and the principle of this law is sound. If in its application imperfections are discovered, they must be corrected for the good of American business.

I am certain that the average of our citizenship is not taken in by the amazing amount of other tax misinformation which has been turned loose in this political campaign.

People tell you there are fifty-eight taxes on a loaf of bread, or sixty-three taxes on a lady's coat. But stop, look and listen. You will find what the propagandists do not tell you: only two or three of all of them are Federal taxes imposed by the national Government. All the rest are imposed by local, town, county, city, district and State Governments. Two-thirds of all the taxes paid in America are State and local taxes, not Federal taxes.

This Administration has had something to do with these local taxes. It has made them easier to bear. At the request of local and State Governments for whom the local burden had become too heavy, we in Washington assumed the cost of paying in greater part for work for the needy unemployed. And, by a national fiscal policy aimed at reducing interest rates throughout the Nation we have greatly lightened the burden of carrying local government debts, helping those of you who own homes and farms or who pay rent.

I want to say a word also to the wage earners who are finding propaganda about the security tax in their pay envelopes. I want to remind them that the new social security law was designed for them, for the greater safety of their homes and their families. The fund necessary to provide that security is not collected solely from workers. The employer, too, pays an equal share. And both shares—yours and the employer's—are being held for the sole benefit of the worker himself.

I have spoken in Chicago and elsewhere of the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of business men are like the rest of us. Most of us whether we earn wages, run farms or run businesses are in one sense business men. All they seek and all we seek is fair play based on the greater good of the greater number—fair play on the part of the Government in levying taxes on us and fair play on the part of Government in protecting us against abuses.

Once more this year we must choose between democracy in taxation and special privilege in taxation. Are you willing to turn the control of the Nation's taxes back to special privilege? I know the American answer to that question. Your pay envelope may be loaded with suggestions of fear, and your dividend letter may be filled with propaganda. But the American people will be neither bluffed nor bludgeoned.

The seeds of fear cannot bear fruit in the polling booth.

Inside the polling booth every American man and woman stands as the equal of every other American man and woman. There they have no superiors. There they have no masters save their own minds and consciences. There they are sovereign American citizens. There on November 3d they will not fear to exercise that sovereignty.

Citation: Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Address at Worcester, Mass.", October 21, 1936. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15201.
 
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