Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at a Luncheon at the Hotel Portland in Portland, Oregon

September 15, 1919

Mr. Jackson, ladies and gentlemen, as I return to Portland I can not help remembering that I learned a great deal in Oregon. When I was a teacher I used to prove to my own satisfaction—I do not know whether it was to the satisfaction of my classes or not— that the initiative and referendum would not work. I came to Oregon to find that they did work, and have since been apologizing for my earlier opinion. Because I have always taken this attitude toward facts, that I never let them get me if I see them coming first. There is nothing I respect so much as a fact. There is nothing that is so formidable as a fact, and the real difficulty in all political reform is to know whether you can translate your theories into facts or not, whether you can safely pick out the operative ideas and leave aside the inoperative ideas. For I think you will all agree with me that the whole progress of human affairs is the progress of ideas; not of ideas in the abstract form, but of ideas in the operative form, certain conceptions of justice and of freedom and of right that have got into men's natures and led those natures to insist upon the realization of those ideas in experience and in action.

The whole trouble about our civilization as it looks to me, is that it has grown complex faster than we have adjusted the simpler ideas to the existing conditions. There was a time when men would do in their business what they would not do as individuals. There was a. time when they submerged their individual consciences in a corporation and persuaded themselves that it was legitimate for a corporation to do what they individually never would have dreamed of doing. That is what I mean by saying that the organization becomes complex faster than our adjustment of the simpler ideas of justice and right to the developing circumstances of our civilization. I say that because the errand that I am on concerns something that lies at the heart of all progress. I think we are all now convinced that we have not reached the right and final organization of our industrial society; that there are many features of our social life that ?ought to undergo correction; that while we call ourselves democrats— with a little "d"—while we believe in democratic government, we have not seen yet the successful way of making our life in fact democratic; that we have allowed classes to disclose themselves; that we have allowed lines of cleavage to be run through our community, so that there are antagonisms set up that breed heat, because they breed friction. The world must have leisure and order in which to see that these things are set right, and the world can not have leisure and order unless it has a guaranteed peace.

For example, if the United States should conceivably—I think it inconceivable—stay out of the league of nations, it would stay out at this cost: We would have to see, since we were not going to join our force with other nations, that our force was formidable enough to be respected by other nations. We would have to maintain a great Army and a great Navy. We would have to do something more than that: We would have to concentrate authority sufficiently to be able to use the physical force of the Nation quickly upon occasion. All of that is absolutely antidemocratic in its influence. All of that means that we should not be giving ourselves the leisure of thought or the release of material resources necessary to work out our own methods of civilization, our own methods of industrial organization and production and distribution; and our problems are exactly the problems of the rest of the world. I am more and more convinced, as I come in contact with the men who are trying to think for other countries as we are trying to think for this one, that our problems are identical, only there is this difference: Peoples of other countries have lost confidence in their Governments. Some of them have lost confidence in their form of government. That point, I hope and believe, has not been reached in the United States. We have not lost confidence in our Government. I am not now speaking of our administration; I am now thinking of our method of government. We believe that we can manage our own affairs and that we have the machinery through which we can manage our own affairs, and that no clique or special interest is powerful enough to run away with it. The other countries of the world also believe that about us. They believe that we are successfully organized for justice, and they therefore want us to take the lead and they want to follow the lead. If we do not take the lead, then we throw them back upon things in which they have no confidence and endanger a universal disorder and discontent in the midst of which it will be impossible to govern our own affairs with success and with constant achievement. Whether you will or not, our fortunes are tied in with the rest of the world, and the choice that we have to make now is whether we will receive the influences of the rest of the world and be affected by them or dominate the influences of the world and lead them. That is a tremendous choice to make, but it is exactly that tremendous choice that we have to make, and I deeply regret the suggestions which are made on some sides that we should take advantage of the present situation in the world but should not shoulder any of the responsibility. Do you know of any business or undertaking in which you can get the advantage without assuming the responsibility? What are you going to be? Boys running around the circus tent and peeping under the canvas? Men declining to pay the admission and sitting on the roof and looking on the game? Or are you going to play your responsible part in the game, knowing that you are trusted as leader and umpire both?

Nothing has impressed me more, or impressed me more painfully, if I may say so, than the degree in which the rest of the world trusts us and looks to us. I say "painfully" because I am conscious that they are expecting more than we can perform. They are expecting miracles to be wrought by the influence of the American spirit on the affairs of the world, and miracles can not be wrought. I have again and again recited to my fellow citizens on this journey how deputations from peoples of every land and every color and every fortune, from all over the world, thronged to the house in which I was living in Paris to ask the guidance and assistance of the United States. They did not send similar delegations to anybody else, and they did not send them to me except because they thought they had heard in what I had been saying the spirit of the American people uttered. Moreover, you must not forget this, that almost all of them had kinsmen in America. You must not forget that America is made up out of all the world and that there is hardly a race of any influence in the world, at any rate hardly a Caucasian race, that has not scores and hundreds, and sometimes millions, of people living in America with whom they are in correspondence, from whom they receive the subtle suggestions of what is going on in American life, and of the ideals of American life. Therefore they feel that they know America from this contact they have had with us, and they want America to be the leading force in the world. Why, I received delegations there speaking tongues that I did not know anything about. I did not know what family of languages they belonged to, but fortunately for me they always brought an interpreter along who could speak English, and one of the significant facts was that the interpreter was almost always some young man who had lived in America. He did not talk English to me; he talked American to me. So there always seemed to be a little link of some sort tying them up with us, tying them up with us in fact, in relationship, in blood, as well as in life, and the world will be turned back to cynicism if America goes back on it. We dare not go back on it. I ask you even as a business proposition whether it is more useful to trade with a cynic or with an optimist. I do not like to trade with a man with a grouch. I do not like to trade with a man who begins by not believing anything I am telling him. I like to trade with a man who is more or less susceptible to the eloquence which I address to him. A salesman has a much longer job if he approaches a grouch than if he approaches a friend. This trivial illustration illustrates, my fellow citizens, our relation to the rest of the world. If we do not do what the rest of the world expects of us, all the rest of the world will have a grouch toward America, and you will find it a hard job to reestablish your credit in the world. And back of financial credit lies mental credit. There is not a bit of credit that has not got an element of assessment of character. You do not limit your credit to men who can put up the collateral, who have the assets; you extend it also to the men in whose characters and abilities you believe; you think they are going to make good. Your credit is a sort of bet on their capacity, and that is the largest element in the kind of credit that expands enterprise. The credit that merely continues enterprise is based upon asset and past accomplishment, but the credit that expands enterprise is based upon your assessment of character. If you are going to put into the world this germ, I shall call it, of American enterprise and American faith and American vision, then you must be the principal partners in the new partnership which the world is forming.

I take leave to say, without intending the least disrespect to anybody, that, consciously or unconsciously, a man who opposes that proposition either has no imagination or no knowledge, or is a quitter. America has put her hand to this great enterprise already, in the men she sent overseas, and their part was the negative part merely. They were sent over there to see that a malign influence did not interfere with the just fortunes of the world. They stopped that influence, but they did not accomplish anything constructive, and what is the use clearing the table if you are going to put nothing on it? What is the use clearly the ground if you are not going to erect any building? What is the use of going to the pains that we went to, to draw up the specifications of the new building and then saying, "We will have nothing to do with its erection"? For the specifications of this treaty were American specifications, and we have got not only to be the architects, drawing up the specifications, but we have got to be the contractors, too. Isn't it a job worth while? Isn't it worth while, now that the chance has at last come, in the providence of God, that we should demonstrate to the world that America is what she claimed that she was? Every drop of blood that I have in me gets up and shouts when I think of the opportunity that America has. I come of a race that, being bred on barren hills and unfertile plains in Scotland, being obliged to work where work was hard, somehow has the best zest in what it does when the job is hard, and I was repeating to my friend, Mr. Jackson, what I said the other day about my ancestry and about the implications of it. I come of a certain stock that raised Cain in the northern part of the larger of the British Isles, under the name of the Covenanters. They met in a churchyard—they were church people and they had a convention out of doors—and on the top of a flat tombstone they signed an immortal document called the "solemn league and covenant," which meant that they were going to stand by their religious principles in spite of the Crown of England and the force of England and every other influence, whether of man or the Devil, so long as any of them lived. Now, I have seen men of all nations sit around a table in Paris and sign a solemn league and covenant. They have become Covenanters, and remain a Covenanter, and I am going to see this job through no matter what influence of evil withstand. [Loud applause.] Nothing has heartened me more on this journey than to feel that that really is the judgment of our fellow citizens. America is made up, as I have just said, out of all sorts of elements, but it is a singularly homogeneous people after all; homogeneous in its ideals, not in its blood; homogeneous in the infection which it has caught from a common light; homogeneous in its purpose. Every man has a sort of consciousness that America is put into the world for a purpose that is different in some respects from the purpose conceived by any other national organization.

Throughout America you have got a conducting medium. You do not put forth ah American idea and find it halted by this man or that or the other, except he be particularly asleep or cantankerous, but it spreads, it spreads by the natural contact of similar ideas and similar ambitions and similar hopes. For, my fellow citizens, the only thing that lifts the world is hope. The only thing that can save the world is such arrangements as will convince the world that hope is not altogether without foundation. It is the spirit that is in it that is unconquerable. You can kill the bodies of insurgent men who are fighting for liberty, but the more of them you kill the more you seem to strengthen the spirit that springs up out of the bloody ground where they fell. The only thing in the world that is unconquerable is the thought of men. One looks back to that legendary story of the Middle Ages, in which certain men who were fighting under one of the semi savage chiefs of that obscure time refused to obey the order of their chief because they considered it inconsistent with the traditions of their tribe, and he said, "Don't you know that I have the power to kill you?" They said, "Yes; and don't you know that we have the power to die cursing you?" You can not cut our spirits out. You can not do anything but lay our bodies low and helpless. If you do, there will spring up, like dragon's teeth out of the earth, armed forces which will overcome you.

This is the field of the spirit here in America. This is the field of the single unconquerable force that there is in the world, and when the world learns, as it will learn, that America has put her whole force into the common harness of civilization, then it will know that the wheels are going to turn, the loads are going to be drawn, and men are going to begin to ascend those difficult heights of hope which have sometimes seemed so inaccessible. I am glad for one to have lived to see this day. I have lived to see a day in which, after saturating myself most of my life in the history and traditions of America, I seem suddenly to see the culmination of American hope and history—all the orators seeing their dreams realized, if their spirits are looking on; all the men who spoke the noblest sentiments of America heartened with the sight of a great Nation responding to and acting upon those dreams, and saying, "At last, the world knows America as the savior of the world!"

Woodrow Wilson, Address at a Luncheon at the Hotel Portland in Portland, Oregon Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/318017

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