William Howard Taft

Address at a Banquet Honoring the President by the Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce of Washington, D.C.

May 08, 1909

Mr. Chairman and the Solid Men of Washington:

I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the courtesy that you have extended to me this evening in this magnificent banquet, and in your coming here to take part in this occasion. I am proud of it, if it be the case, and I must believe it from the assurances given to-night, that this is the first time that a President of the United States has ever had the pleasure of meeting on such an occasion and under such circumstances, the business men of Washington. I hope for close intimacy; I hope that we may come together and we may discuss these things, because certainly we need it. I take the utmost personal pride in the City of Washington. It thrills my heart every day to look out of the back windows of the White House—for the short time I have been there—and whenever I get the opportunity, to see this beautiful city in which we are permitted to live—these avenues and streets constructed on a magnificent plan, looking forward for centuries; these trees planted with great foresight to make every part of Washington a park; these vistas into which always creeps unbidden that beautiful shaft that marks the memory of the founder of the city.

I have not been here very long in the City of Washington, as some men count it long. I was here two years between 1890 and 1892; four years from 1904 to 1908—but that is a little bit longer than Justice Stafford. I have been a tax-payer; I have invested some money in land in Washington and have not seen a dollar come out of it; I have sent my children to the public schools; I have hung to straps in street cars, going both ways to the Capitol; I have bathed in the Potomac mud—in a bathtub; I have lunched at Harvey's on those steamed oysters, and I have been a fan with my friend "Sunny Jim" at the base-ball park and have had a love, and cultivated it with him, for tail-enders. And therefore, I claim that I have been through experiences that ought to give me some of the local atmosphere and some of the local feeling of Washington. And yet, with all that, gentlemen, as I look about here into these smiling faces, these somewhat rotund forms that give evidence of prosperity, it is a little difficult for me to realize that it was about those "caitiffs" and those "slaves" that Mr. Justice Stafford spoke.

In spite of my experience in Washington, I am a nationalist. This city is a home of the government of a nation, and when men who were just as much imbued with the principles of civil liberty as any who have come after, Washington at the head, put into the Constitution the provisions with reference to the government of the District of Columbia, they knew what they were doing, and spoke for a coming possible eighty millions of people, who should insist that the home of their government should be governed by their representatives; and that if there were in that eighty millions of people men who desired to come and share in the grandeur of that capital and live in a city of magnificent beauty as this was and enjoy all the privileges, then they come with their eyes open as to the character of the government that they are to have, and they must know that they must depend not upon the principles ordinarily governing in popular government, but that they must trust, in order to secure their liberty —to get their guaranties—they must trust to the representatives of eighty millions of people selected under that Constitution.

I want to say, with deference to this discussion, that if this meeting (or subsequent meetings) is to be devoted to securing an amendment to the Constitution, by which you are going to disturb the principle of two Senators from every State, and you are going to abolish the provision that was put in there ex industria by George Washington, you will not get ahead in the matter of better government in Washington by such meetings. I do not want to seem to be abrupt, but I believe it is possible by such meetings as this to arouse the interest of Congress and the Executive to the necessity of consulting the people of Washington, to let them act as Americans act when they don't have the right of suffrage—let them act by the right of petition; and are they not exercising that right all the time? Isn't it possible to determine on the part of the committees of the House and the Senate what the attitude of the Washington citizens is? Why, the government that we have to-day in Washington everybody admits is a good government. Has it not been brought about through the aid of those very committees in the House and Senate who you say know nothing about Washington, and who make their knowledge, or lack of knowledge, ridiculous by showing it? We are all imperfect. We can not expect perfect government, but what we ought to do is to pursue practical methods, and not, I submit with deference to Justice Stafford, make it seem as if the people of Washington were suffering some great and tremendous load and sorrow, when as a matter of fact they are the envy of the citizens of other cities.

Washington intended this to be a Federal city, and it is a Federal city, and it tingles down to the feet of every man, whether he comes from Washington State, or Los Angeles, or Texas, when he comes and walks these city streets and begins to feel that "this is my city; I own a part of this Capital, and I envy for the time being those who are able to spend their time here." I quite admit that there are defects in the system of government by which Congress is bound to look after the government of the District of Columbia. It could not be otherwise under such a system, but I submit to the judgment of history that the result vindicates the foresight of the fathers.

Now, I am opposed to the franchise in the District; I am opposed, and not because I yield to any one in my support and belief in the principles of self-government; but principles are applicable generally, and then, unless you make exceptions to the application of those principles, you will find that they will carry you to very illogical and absurd results. This was taken out of the application of the principle of self-government in the very Constitution that was intended to put that in force in every other part of the country, and it was done because it was intended to have the representatives of all the people in the country control this one city, and to prevent its being controlled by the parochial spirit that would necessarily govern men who did not look beyond the city to the grandeur of the nation, and this as the representative of that nation.

I have gotten over being frightened by being told that I am forgetting the principles of the fathers. The principles of the fathers are maintained by those who maintain them with reason, and according to the fitness of the thing, and not by those who are constantly shaking them before the mass of the voters when they have no application.

Now, the question arises: What shall we do with the government of Washington? Shall we have the present board of three; shall we have one or shall we have some other form? I confess I do not know. My predecessor has recommended a change of the present form so as to give the responsibility to one, with the view to visiting that one with the responsibility. On the other hand, it is said that three have worked well; that it gives more opportunity, possibly, for counsel, and that it takes away the bureaucratic character of the government. As I have said, I have reached no conclusion as to what recommendation I shall make to Congress on the subject. I fully concur with Justice Stafford in thinking that it would be most unwise to introduce into the District what I understand to be a bureaucratic form of government. That is right. A bureaucratic form of government is one which, as he very well described it, would make the War Department look after the streets; Dr. Wiley, possibly, look after the health—the Agricultural Department through him—and the Treasury Department look after the finances. And so as to each branch of the government you should go to the head of that particular department in the general government. I think that would be a very burdensome, a very awkward, a very clumsy system of government. I am strongly in favor of retaining the municipal form, so that everything which shall affect the city of Washington shall be done under the chief executive of that city, and by that chief executive. In other words, I would give an entity to the city of Washington, or the District of Columbia, and take all of that entity out of the operation of the bureaus of the general government. That is what I understand to be the government to-day, and the only question that has been mooted is really whether one man should be put at the head of that government as a mayor, or whether you should have three. I agree that probably three men are better, where you have real legislative functions to perform. I am inclined to think that, where the legislative functions are reduced to a minimum and consist in little more than mere executive regulation, possibly the one-headed form is the better, for executive purposes and to fix the responsibility; but I am only thinking out loud, and only because we are here talking right out in meeting I am telling you the reasons as they have been brought to me.

Now I want to talk about the future. And the future of Washington! What an enormous development is before us! Why, I am not an imaginative man, but I would like to come back here a hundred years hence and see the beauties of which this city is capable! Right here, under our noses for a time, under our very eyes, are those beautiful Potomac flats that are going to make as fine parks and parkways as there are in the world! Those parks ought to be connected with the Rock Creek Park by means of the mouth of Rock Creek, or otherwise; and then through them all there ought to be carried a park clear around, including the Soldiers' Home, and completing the circuit with Rock Creek at the other end. Then, too, there is the development in Anacostia and along the Eastern Branch. Then, the opportunities for playgrounds that there are in Washington! It just makes my mouth water for my poor city of Cincinnati, when I look out and can see clear down to the Potomac and see six and seven baseball matches going on with all the fervor of Young America, and nobody to say them nay! And to think—to think that we had a genius a hundred years ago, almost, in his way, as matchless as Washington, to make the plan for a great Capital, whose remains were buried here the other day, and whose plans were hardly changed in the new plan made by Burnham and his associates. I know there has been discussion as to that plan. There has been a feeling that perhaps it was slipped on to us at one time, and at another; but we all know, even my dear friend, good old Uncle Joe, knows, that we are going to build up to that plan some day. It is not coming at once, but we ought to thank God that we have got a plan like that to build to so that when we go on with the improvement every dollar that we put in goes to make Washington beautiful a hundred years hence.

Then, Justice Stafford, in his very eloquent remarks, called attention to the fact that in 1846—I am sorry to say it ought to be characterized, at least as far as that is concerned, as a day of small things—when the Congress could have recited this: "Whereas, no more territory ought to be held under the exclusive legislation given to Congress over the District, which is the seat of the general government, than may be necessary and proper for the purposes of such a seat. Therefore"—we give back all that we got from Virginia. It is true the early statute said that no buildings should be put on anything but the Maryland side of the river, and perhaps they felt that as we were not going to use that side for buildings, they did not need it at all. I have never been able to satisfy myself that that retrocession was within the power of Congress to make. They did attempt to settle it once in the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court has a facility in avoiding the main question, born of long practice. And when a gentleman who is paying taxes on this side asks that they be extended to the other side, on the ground that that retrocession did not carry Virginia, so that he might have his. taxes reduced, the Supreme Court says that he can not do it in a collateral way; says that, as both parties to the transaction seem to be satisfied up to this time, they do not intend to investigate or seek any burdens that their salaries do not require them to meet. We have never had that question tested. I believe we ought to look forward to a great city of Washington, and while the Anglo Saxon—and especially the Anglo Saxon in Virginia—holds on to territory as long as he can, it might be possible by agitating the question in a legal way to induce another settlement by which we should get the only part of that that we really would like to have, the part that we own now in fee, the eleven hundred acres of the Arlington estate, and a great deal that is unoccupied, leaving Alexandria out, and Falls Church, and taking in only that that is uninhabited, so that we may have in this District, under our fostering control, where we can build roads and make the District still more beautiful, that bank of the Potomac on the other side, as you go up toward Cabin John Bridge. We will need it; the city will continue to grow. It may be, as Justice Stafford has said, that there will be inaugurated a protest by the people living here that they have not political power; but I think that the Justice will find, when he comes to looking into the hearts of the American people, that they will not be convinced when they come to Washington that the Washingtonians are suffering to that degree that requires a reversal of the policy adopted, with entire clearness of mind by the framers of the Constitution. Washington, who doubtless inserted that particular provision in the Constitution, through his influence, also had L'Enfant draw the plans of Washington, and the plans of Washington were not adapted to a village like Alexandria and the village that was in the District at the time we came here—that was adapted to a city of magnificent distances, and to a city of millions of inhabitants; and therefore the clause was adopted, knowing that just such a city we would have here, and just such a city would have to get along, relying upon the training in self-government of the representatives of eighty millions of people to do justice by it and its residents.

Now, my dear friends, I want to say to you that I have got into a constitutional discussion here that I did not anticipate, but I hope it has not clouded my meaning, which I intended to make as clear as possible, that I am deeply interested in the welfare of the District, I am deeply interested in securing good government to every man, woman and child in this District, and to secure so far as is possible, with the original plan under the Constitution, such voice as the people of the District may require in their local matters. But, when it comes to defining how that is to be given, I can not be more explicit than to say it must rest ultimately on the right of petition. I do not see how you can do anything else. I am sure that if you will constantly agitate, and if you will have as eloquent an orator as Justice Stafford talk to the committees of the House and Senate every year, he will rouse them to such a desire to save you from the "slavery" that he has pictured, that you will get the attention you deserve.

APP Note: The president spoke at the New Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.

William Howard Taft, Address at a Banquet Honoring the President by the Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce of Washington, D.C. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365244

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