Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at a Luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club

July 10, 1916

Mr. Chairman. Judge Murphy, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am glad to find myself in Detroit and face to face with the men who have played the principal part in giving it distinction throughout the country and throughout the world. Looking about among you, I see that it is true in this matter, as in others, that the only men fit for such a job are young men and men who never grow old. There is the liveliness of youth in the eyes even of those of you who have shared with me the painful parting with the hirsute appendage.

I have been interested in some things that Mr. Denby has said to me to-day. He has shamefacedly admitted that he has found himself enjoying the companionship of Democrats. Now, I have long enjoyed the friendship and companionship of Republicans, because I am by instinct a teacher and I would like to teach them something. We have been trying, some of us, for a good many years to teach in politics, as well as elsewhere, this lesson, that we are all in the same boat; we have common interests, and it is our business to understand and serve those common interests. The great difficulty that has confronted us, gentlemen, has often been that we have deliberately looked at these common interests from self-chosen angles, which made them look as if some of us were separated from others; as if some of us wanted to depress business, for example, and others of us wanted to exalt business. I dare say that you have noticed that the same necessity to make a living is imposed upon Democrats as Republicans, and I dare say you are ready to believe that Democrats are just as willing to make a good living as Republicans. Therefore, it seems to me logically to follow, though I have been quoted as having no regard for logic, that Democrats are naturally as much interested in the business prosperity of the United States as anybody else. So that if you believe that they are not as fitted to guide it as other persons, you can not be doubting their interest: you are only impugning their intelligence.

And some Democrats had noticed that the inclination to suppose that only some persons understood the business of America had a tendency to run into the assumption that the number of persons who understood that business was very small, and that there were only certain groups and associations of gentlemen who were entitled to be trustees of that business for the rest of us. I have never subscribed, in any walk of life, to the trustee theory. I have always been inclined to believe that the business of the world was best understood by those men who were in the struggle for maintenance hot only, but for success. The man who knows the strength of the tide is the man who is swimming against it, not the man who is floating with it. The man who is immersed in the beginnings of business, who is trying to get his foothold, who is trying to get other men to believe in him and lend him money and trust him to make profitable use of that money, is the man who knows what the business conditions in the United States are, and I would rather take his counsel as to what ought to be done for business than the counsel of any established captain of industry. The captain of industry is looking backward and the other man is looking forward. The conditions of business change with every generation; change with every decade; are now changing at an almost breathless pace, and the men who have made good are not feeling the tides as the other men are feeling them. The men who have got into the position of captaincy, unless they are of unusual fiber, unless they are of unusually catholic sympathy, unless they have continued to touch shoulder with the ranks, unless they have continued to keep close communion with the men they are employing and the young men they are bringing up as their assistants, do not belong to the struggle in which we should see that every unreasonable obstacle is removed and every reasonable help a Horded that public policy can afford.

So I invite your thoughts, in what I sincerely believe to be an entirely nonpartisan spirit, to the democracy of business. An act was recently passed in Congress that some of the most intelligent business men of this country earnestly opposed. —men whom I knew, men whose character I trusted, men whose integrity I absolutely believed in. I refer to the Federal Reserve Act. by which we intended to take, and succeeded in taking credit out of the control of a small number of men and making it available to everybody who had real commercial assets, and the very men who opposed that act, and opposed it conscientiously, now admit that it saved the country from a ruinous panic when the stress of war came on, and that it is the salvation of every average business man who is in the midst of the tides that I have been trying to describe. What does that mean, gentlemen? It means that you can get a settled point of view and can conscientiously oppose progress if you do not need progress yourself. That is what it means. I am not impugning the intelligence even of the men who opposed these things, because the same thing happens to every man if he is not of extraordinary make-up, if he can not see the necessity for a thing that he does not himself need. When you have abundant credit and control of credit, you, of course, do not need that the area of credit should be broadened.

The suspicion is beginning to dawn in many quarters that the average man knows the business necessities of the country just as well as the extraordinary man does. I believe in the ordinary man. If I did not believe in the ordinary man I would move out of a democracy and, if I found an endurable monarchy. I would live in it. The very conception of America is based upon the validity of the judgments of the average man, and I call you to witness that there have not been many catastrophes in American history. I call you to witness that the average judgments of the voters of the United States have been sound judgments. I call you to witness that this great impulse of the common opinion has been a lifting impulse, and not a depressing impulse. What is the object of associations like that which is gathered here to-day, this Salesmanship Congress? The moral of it is that a few men can not determine the interests of a large body of men, and that the only way to determine them and advance them is to have a representative assembly chosen by themselves get together and take common counsel regarding them. And do you not notice that in every great occupation in the United States there is beginning to be more and more of this common counsel? And have you not noticed that the more common counsel you have the higher the standards are that are insisted upon?

I attended the other day the Congress of the Advertising Men, and their motto is Truth and fair dealing in what you represent your business to be and your goods to be. " I have no doubt that in every association like this the prevailing sentiment is that only by the highest standards—I mean the highest moral standards—can you achieve the most permanent and satisfactory business results. Was that the prevalent conception before these associations were drawn together? Have you not found the moral judgment of the average man steady the whole process and clarify it? Do you not know more after every conference with your fellows than you did before? I never went into a committee of any kind upon any important public matter, or private matter so far as that is concerned, that I did not come out with an altered judgment and knowing much more about the matter than when I went in; and not only knowing much more, but knowing that the common judgment arrived at was better than I could have suggested when I went in. That is the universal experience of candid men. If it were not so, there would be no object in congresses like this. Yet whenever we attempt legislation, we find ourselves in this case: We are not in the presence of the many who can counsel wisely, but we are in the presence of the few who counsel too narrowly, and the means by which we have been trying to break away from that is not by excluding these gentlemen who constituted the narrow circles of advice, but by associating them with hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens.

I have had some say that I was not accessible to them, and when I inquired into it I found they meant that I did not personally invite them. They did not know how to come without being invited, and they did not care to come if they came upon the same terms with everybody else, knowing that everybody else was welcome whom I had the time to confer with.

Am I telling you things unobserved by you? Do you not know that these things are true? And do you not believe with me that the affairs of the Nation can be better conducted upon the basis of general counsel than upon the basis of special counsel? Men are colored and governed by their occupations and their surroundings and their habits. If I wanted to change the law radically. I would not consult a lawyer. If I wanted to change business methods radically. I would not consult a man who had made a conspicuous success by using the present methods that I wanted to change. Not because I would distrust these men. but because I would know that they would not change their thinking over night, that they would have to go through a long process of reacquaintance with the circumstances of the time, the new circumstances of the time, before they could be converted to my point of view. You get a good deal more light on the street than you do in the closet. You get a good deal more light by keeping your ears open among the rank and file of your fellow citizens than you do in any private conference whatever. I would rather hear what the men are talking about on the trains and in the shops and by the fireside than hear anything else, because I want guidance and I know I could get it there, and what I am constantly asking is that men should bring me that counsel, because I am not privileged to determine things independently of this counsel. I am your servant, not your ruler.

One thing that wo are now trying to convert the small circles to that the big circles are already converted to is that this country needs a merchant marine and ought to get one. I have found that I had a great deal more resistance when I tried to help business than when I tried to interfere with it. I have had a great deal more resistance of counsel, of special counsel, when I tried to alter the things that are established than when I tried to do anything else. We call ourselves a liberal nation, whereas, as a matter of fact, we are one of the most conservative nations in the world. If you want to make enemies, try to change something. You know why it is. To do things to-day exactly the way you did them yesterday saves thinking. It does not cost you anything. You have acquired the habit; you know the routine; you do not have to plan anything, and it frightens you with a hint of exertion to learn that you will have to do it a different way to-morrow. Until I became a college teacher, I used to think that the young men were radical, but college boys are the greatest conservatives I ever tackled in my life, largely because they have associated too much with their fathers. What you have to do with them is to take them up upon some visionary height and show them the map of the world as it is. Do not let them see their father's factory. Do not let them see their father's counting-house. Let them see the great valleys teeming with laborious people. Let them see the great struggle of men in realms they never dreamed of. Let them see the great emotional power that is in the world, the great ambitions, the great hopes, the great fears. Give them some picture of mankind, and then their father's business and every other man's business will begin to fall into place. They will see that it is an item and not the whole thing; and they will sometimes see that the item is not properly related to the whole, and what they will get interested in will be to relate the item to the whole, so that it will form part of the force, and not part of the impediment.

This country, above every country in the world, gentlemen, is meant to lift; it is meant to add to the forces that improve. It is meant to add to everything that betters the world, that gives it better thinking, more honest endeavor, a closer grapple of man with man, so that we will all be pulling together like one irresistible team in a single harness. That is the reason why it seemed wise to substitute for the harsh processes of the law. which merely lays its hand on your shoulder after you have sinned and threatens you with punishment, some of the milder and more helpful processes of counsel. That is the reason the Federal Trade Commission was established, —so that men would have some place where they could take counsel as to what the law was and what the law permitted; and also take counsel as to whether the law itself was right and advice had not better be taken as to its alteration. The processes of counsel are the only processes of accommodation, not the processes of punishment. Punishment retards but it does not lift up. Punishment impedes but it does not improve. And we ought to substitute for the harsh processes of the law. wherever we can. the milder and gentler and more helpful processes of counsel.

It has been a very great grief to some of us, year after year, year after year, to see a fundamental thing like the fiscal policy of the Government with regard to duties on imports made a football of politics. Why, gentlemen, party politics ought to have nothing to do with the question of what is for the benefit of the business of the United States, and that is the reason we ought to have a tariff commission, and, I may add, are going to have a tariff commission. But, then, gentle men. the trouble will be upon me. The provision as it stands makes it obligatory upon me not to choose more than half the commission from any one political party. The bill does not undertake to say how many political parties there are. That just now is a delicate question. But I am forbidden to take more than two of the same variety, and yet the trouble about that is I would like to find men for that commission who were of no one of the varieties. I would like to find men who would find out the circumstances of American business. particularly as it changes and is going to change with perplexing rapidity in the years immediately ahead of us. without any regard whatever to the interest of any party whatever, so that we should be able to legislate upon the facts and upon the large economic aspects of those facts without stopping to think which party it was going to hurt and which party it was going to benefit. But almost everybody in this country wears a label of some kind, and under the law I suppose I will have to turn them around and see how they are labeled, how they are branded: and that is going to be a very great blow to my spirit and a very great test of my judgment. I hope, after the results are achieved, you will judge me leniently, because my desire would be not to have a bipartisan but an absolutely nonpartisan commission of men who really applied the tests of scientific analysis of the facts and no other tests whatever to the conclusions that they arrived at.

Did you ever think how absolutely supreme and sovereign facts are? You can make laws all the year through contrary to the facts and the facts will overrun the laws. Do not let a fact catch you napping, because you will get the worst of it if you do: and the object of the tariff commission is that we should see the facts coming first, so that they could not get ns. I remember a cynical politician saying to me once, when I was thanking him for having voted the way I hoped he would vote, knowing that that had not been his initial inclination, Well, Governor, they never get me if I see them coming first." He had heard from home, and he saw them coming. Now, I have that attitude toward facts. I never let them get me if I see them first, and it is because I want to see them that I want commissions of this sort and the spirit of this sort that I have tried to describe in the commission as it is constituted.

Because, as I was saying this morning, there is a task ahead of us of most colossal difficulty. We have not been accustomed to the large world of international business and we have got to get accustomed to it right away. All provincials have got to take a back seat. All men who are afraid of competition have got to take a back seat. All men who depend upon anything except their intelligence and their efficiency have got to take a back seat. It will be interesting to see the sifting process go on. I have some men in mind to nominate for back seats, and I will not draw all of them from the same party. It will not need an act of Congress for that purpose. And some men are going to be surprised at the keenness of the air into which they are thrust out. They are going to be thrust out, and we are either going to make conquest, peaceful conquest, of the markets of the world or we are going to be prevented forevermore of boasting of the business ability of America. I have never been afraid of trusting an American business man out in the air, but some men have. They have said. "Give us a wall to crouch behind for fear these fellows should get us," and when it has come to finding out who were crouching behind the wall, it was found that all sorts were crouching behind the wall, the capable and the incapable, and that the main object of the wall was to shelter the incapable.

As an American I am too proud to submit to anything like that. I believe that Americans can manufacture goods better than anybody else; that they can sell goods as honestly as anybody else; that they can find out the conditions and meet the conditions of foreign business better than anybody else, and I want to see them given a chance right away, and they will be whether I want them to be or not. We have been trying to get ready for it. The national banks of the United States, until the recent Currency Act, were held back by the very terms of the law under which they operated from some of the most important international transactions. To my mind that is one of the most amazing facts of our commercial history. The Congress of the United States was not willing that the national banks should have a latchkey and go away from home. They were afraid they would not know how to get back under cover, and banks from other countries had to establish branches where American bankers were doing business, to take care of some of the most important processes of international exchange. That is nothing less than amazing, but it is not necessary any longer. It never was necessary; it was only thought to be necessary by some eminently provincial statesmen. We are done with provincialism in the statesmanship of the United States, and we have got to have a view now and a horizon as wide as the world itself. And when I look around upon an alert company like this, it seems to me in my imagination they are almost straining at the leash. They are waiting to be let loose upon this great race that is now going to challenge our abilities. For my part, I shall look forward to the result with absolute and serene confidence, because the spirit of the United States is an international spirit, if we conceive it right. This is not the home of any particular race of men. This is not the home of any particular set of political traditions. This is a home the doors of which have been opened from the first to mankind, to everybody who loved liberty, to everybody whose ideal was equality of opportunity, to everybody whose heart was moved by the fundamental instincts and sympathies of humanity. That is America, and now it is as if the nations of the world, sampled and united here, were in their new union and new common understanding turning about to serve the world with all the honest processes of business and of enterprise. I am happy that I should be witnessing the dawn of the day when America is indeed to come into her own.

APP Note: The Detroit Athletic Club building was opened in 1915. Present at the luncheon were Henry Ford and Mayor Oscar Marx. Judge Alfred J. Murphy was Circuit Judge of Wayne County. Edwin Denby was President of the Detroit Board of Commerce and Treasurer of the Hupp Motor Car Corporation.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at a Luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/318175

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