William Howard Taft

Address at Corpus Christi, Texas

October 22, 1909

Mr. Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am delighted to be here and to meet the citizens of this enterprising city of Corpus Christi, and I am glad to receive their welcome as the temporary head of the Nation. I am glad to see the school children arrayed here, because it speaks well for a community that can have such school children. I think it does them good and gives them a patriotic thrill to come together on an occasion like this to meet the man who for the time being represents the sovereignty of the Nation which they love.

I am glad to be in this southwestern part of Texas. I think it is southwestern. I have been travelling for a good many days and I have not yet gotten to the eastern part of it.

It has been my great fortune to spend three or four days in this neighborhood, and to spend them out in the field, so that I am reasonably confident that you who have had more experience with this productive sun of yours can stand it even better than I.

I am delighted here to have the privilege of meeting and receiving the hospitable greeting of your Governor. The Governor and I have made a little arrangement between ourselves which perhaps, betraying a little confidence, I may tell you all. I am not sure how your local committee will like it, but the Governor has arranged that he is to wear a silk hat in deference to the Presidency, and I am to wear a soft straw hat in deference to the Governorship; so that if you see any apparent lack of congruity in that matter, you will understand that arrangement was made in El Paso.

Seriously speaking, I am exceedingly obliged to your Chief Magistrate for his continued hospitality and his kindness in visiting and welcoming me to the various important parts of the State.

And now, my dear friends, there is another occasion for this meeting to which I must make reference this morning. It is to the object of the Inland Waterways Convention, which manifests its importance by calling so many prominent representatives from all sections of the country to take part in your deliberations.

The subject of the conservation of our national resources received its first impetus from that crusader and reformer, Theodore Roosevelt. He pointed out how wasteful in the past we had been of those blessings which God has showered upon our country and yet which had limitations that if we did not respect would ultimately bring us to a famine in respect to many of them. He pointed out the necessity for the irrigation and reclamation of our arid and semi-arid land. He pointed out the fact that we had conferred upon private individuals and corporations ownerships of great mineral deposits, especially of coal and phosphate; that under our present laws, by mere agricultural settlement, persons and corporations might acquire sites upon which great water power could be obtained from the streams and sold to the public when converted into electrical power. He pointed out the necessity for our saving our forests and reforesting parts where the forests had been destroyed, not only for the purpose of preserving our timber preserves, but also for the purpose of equalizing the rainfall, preventing erosion of the soil by cloudbursts and overfall of rain, as well as by preserving the level in our navigable streams, so that they might be navigated the year round, and thus he led up to the improvement of our waterways all over the country, in order that by the use of these waterways and the cheapness of transportation we might have a substantial means of restraining the excessive railroad rates for the transportation of our produce. Now that program is a long one. It is one in respect to which we have taken some important steps. Of the government forests we have put about 70 per cent. in forest reservations under control, so that we shall not suffer from the forest fires or the denudation by private greed. We have not taken the steps that ought to be taken, but which doubtless will be, following the model of the general Government by the State governments, which shall preserve the privately owned forests, which are four times the size of those of the Government itself, from fire and from that sort of treatment which shall make the country a waste. We have not yet adopted the laws, but I hope to recommend them to Congress, by which the Government shall retain some control over the use of the coal lands still owned by the Government and still to be put under private use.

We have not yet adopted a law, but I hope to recommend one, by which the water-power sites shall be segregated from other parts of the public domain and parted with only under such conditions as shall enable the Government to secure a proper revenue therefrom, and to regulate the rates of power charged by those who shall take possession of those sites and transform the water power into electricity.

We have not yet adopted a rule, but I hope we may, and I shall recommend it, by which we shall retain some control over the phosphate lands of the Government containing immeasurable wealth in respect to the fertilizers of the soil of the West, leasing them or parting with them on such terms as to prevent the exportation of the phosphate or the charging of too high rates for its use.

The preservation of our waterways is one that has long attracted the attention of the Government; and while we do not permit other people to criticize us, when we get together in a convention and talk to each other confidentially, we must recognize that even we have made mistakes at times.

We have invested about $600,000,000 in our waterways. We have done very good work with reference to sea harbors, and we have done some excellent work, when the work was specified, in helping to make our rivers more navigable; but the trouble with the work has been that it has been done largely by piecemeal. It has not carried out a theory or a great project with reference to the establishment of a great avenue of transportation, and the time has arrived for changing our policy in that regard. Sometimes that body of men who have had charge of our waterways in the execution of the improvements appropriated for, the army engineers, have come under criticism because of the policy pursued by the Government, that is most unjust. That policy has been determined by the river and harbor committees of the Senate and the House—that is, the Commerce Committee of the Senate, and the Rivers and Harbors Committee of the House—and it has usually been determined by the clamor from home for appropriations, and by party considerations, whether there was enough money in the Treasury to justify the appropriations and not subject the party in power to too great criticism for wasteful extravagance.

Now as long as that limitation continues, as long as that state of affairs is allowed to exist, we may be sure of having a piecemeal, and a—what shall I call it?—a procession by jerks in reference to our improvements. Every man who looks at it from a business standpoint—and a business standpoint is a patriotic standpoint—knows that what ought to be done is for us to agree on the great projects that are necessary to better our conditions; to have those projects surveyed; to have the experts determine whether the proposal is practical; to have it determined by Congress that it will work the improvement hoped for; and then, having made up our minds to do it, to issue the bonds to pay for the construction. I do not think there is any distinction between the improvement of the Ohio River from Pittsburg to the mouth at Cairo, of the Mississippi River from the headwaters of that stream to New Orleans, from the head of navigation in the Missouri River to its mouth, and the inland waterways of the East, or the inland waterways of the Gulf, or the inland waterways of the West, and the construction of the Panama Canal.

You ought to take each as a measure by itself, determine whether it is worth the expenditure, and then if it is, get your money in the quickest way and build your work in the quickest way, so that you shall get a benefit from it at once. That is economic and it is business-like. Now of course I recognize the danger that there is in the proposition that you issue bonds for such enterprises. In other words, that when you issue bonds you are just like, was it not brother Micawber, who when he had just written a note and turned it over, thanked God that that debt had been paid. There is a disposition, when you pay for an enterprise by bonds, not to realize that some day those bonds have got to be paid, and that that is no payment. Nevertheless, I have confidence in the conservatism of the American people and Congress that they will not adopt every enterprise haphazard and go into the business on the theory that it does not cost anything because we can issue bonds to pay for it, but I believe they will go to work with conservatism, that they will calculate the question whether now is the time to do the work, or whether the country ought to develop more before we make such an expenditure.

Now you will say I am influenced by my beginning. I came from the Ohio Valley, and the Ohio River improvement has reached such a stage that we have gone on and built dams and demonstrated the possibility of making a nine-foot stage of water from Pittsburg to Cairo and keeping that nine feet every month in the year. That is going to cost sixty-three millions of dollars. It has been surveyed and carefully estimated, and that is the cost we may depend upon within reasonable limits.

Now I say if we are in favor of such an enterprise as that, let us vote the bonds and build it as rapidly as possible. You are not without interest in that Ohio River improvement. The fact is that there are nine feet from Cairo to the Gulf, and if you get your coal down and all those other articles of heavy merchandise that must travel by water, if they are to come to you at all, ultimately you have to count on getting that all the way by water, and that will come through a nine-foot intercoastal canal.

But, my friends, before you can induce Congress to vote the money for that canal, or the bonds, you have to show that you have grown to a point where the trade will justify the expenditure. That is a matter of growth, and whether you have it or not I do not know. I expect, if I took a vote, I would hear a very affirmative expression from the present Convention, but fortunately we do not all pass, that is, we have not a complete vote on everything that affects us in this country.

That the improvement of harbors and waterways is a matter to which we may properly devote our attention is demonstrated by the fact with respect to other harbors that have been made such a success.

Take the harbor of Galveston. That harbor, it was prophesied long ago, could amount to nothing because of the obstacles that were there, and a great deal of money was spent on it, and then the Lord seemed to take a hand and wiped out the entire town. But the energy of those citizens met the obstacles, and the city was rebuilt, and to-day it is the second port in the United States. But Galveston is a type of what can be done when you have trade that will find its way out, and when you adopt the best means to give expansion to that trade. Now just what ought to be done with reference to the intercoastal canal at this point I do not know. You have had the reports of engineers; you have had your example in a boat which you have here which goes from here to Galveston, as to the reduction of rates. There is not the slightest doubt that the best means of controlling railroad rates is water communication; but that is not the only means, and we ought to see it to that our interstate commerce law is made to accomplish the purpose declared in it by adding to its provisions so as to make it effective.

I am not in favor of drastic legislation against railroads except such as is necessary to keep them within the law and to keep them within reasonable rates. The truth is we want to encourage our railroads. You will rush in a body of 30,000 people in a county, and you will vote bonds for a railroad if it will only come in. Then it will come in, and after a time you won't find a friend of that railroad in that county—except possibly its local attorney. Then you will proceed to legislate and you will do injustice to that railroad, but after a while, after you have done injustice to the point where you don't get the proper accommodations, and where you drive them into a system of economy that does not build up your country, you finally begin to realize that the only good policy as well as the only honest policy is a square deal to the railroads so as to give them the rates they ought to have and not allow popular prejudice to deprive them of reasonable profit for the investment, including the risk that they made when they went into the business.

Now my friends, I did not intend to make as long a speech as this, but I only intended to outline what is before the National Government with reference to the conservation of our resources, the improvement of the waterways, and, in connection with the improvement of the waterways, the strengthening of the hand of the Interstate Commerce Commission so that we may have reasonable rates, so that as this southwestern country here in Texas grows up, as it is bound to grow, changing from a stock country to an agricultural country, to a place where you will produce cotton enough to make you all rich, that you shall have the means of putting that cotton on the market at a reasonable rate, in order that you may get a proper profit out of it.

I do not mean to limit you to cotton. I believe there are lots of other things you can produce, including children, and they all tend to the comfort of your homes, to making you better Texans and to making you better citizens of the greatest Republic on earth.

I want to thank the Confederate and the Grand Army veterans who have honored me by coming here this morning. I hope this test of the Texas sun will not be too much for them. When they were earlier in the field of arms, they were able to withstand the sun a good deal better than some of us that have a little too much avoirdupois, but it is a great scene to see the mixture of those who fought for the blue and those who fought for the gray here in Texas sitting together and worshipping the old flag and feeling a common pride in the deeds of heroism that were done in the Civil War between '61 and '64, and that we remember now and use now only to weld more closely all of those who gather under the starry banner.

William Howard Taft, Address at Corpus Christi, Texas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365217

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