William Howard Taft

Address at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, Illinois

September 16, 1909

My Fellow Citizens of Chicago:

It is just about a year ago to-night that I made a speech in this hall to some 1,800 members of the railroad labor organizations, in which I attempted to convince them that there was nothing in my decisions as a Circuit Judge in labor injunction cases which ought to make them vote against me for the Presidency. It was a critical time in the campaign. It was a critical question in the campaign, and as I review that whole controversy, there was hardly another speech in my campaign of greater importance to me than that one; and in view of the result of the election I look back upon it now with especial interest. This hall, therefore, suggests one of the subjects upon which I shall speak to you.

You will remember perhaps that the head of the Federation of Labor, who had declared for my opponent, was anxious to carry the whole union labor vote against me, and as the ground for his action was my decisions as a Judge, I was put under the burden which I think no other candidate for the Presidency ever had to bear of explaining and defending in a political contest the decisions which I had made as a Judge upon the Bench. It was assumed by many, who thought themselves familiar with the situation, that I would lose a part of the labor vote which had theretofore been evenly divided between the Republicans and the Democrats. The result showed that this assumption was incorrect and that labor men—union labor as well as non-union labor men—thought for themselves, voted according to their own judgment, and declined to be delivered as a body to one party or the other; and on the whole, I do not think that in that election I suffered materially from the loss of labor votes. In the discussions I asserted that I was as much interested as any one in maintaining the cause of labor, when labor, organized or unorganized, by proper methods sought to better its condition by legislation or otherwise. I said that I expected to recommend to Congress, if I were elected, that interstate railroads be required to adopt any additional devices found useful for the purpose of saving from loss of life or limb employees engaged in the dangerous business of railroading. I also said that I favored the adoption of legislation looking to a proper definition of the cases in which preliminary injunctions might issue without notice and defining the proper procedure in such matters. Now that the election has come and gone, I want to take this opportunity of saying that I have not forgotten my own promises or those of the platform, and I propose in the next session of Congress to recommend the legislation on the subject of injunction which was promised in the Republican platform, and to see whether by such legislation it is not possible to avoid even a few cases of abuses that can be cited against the Federal courts in the exercise of their jurisdiction.

I do not think trades-unionism was greatly aided by the attempt to drag all organized labor into politics, and to induce it to vote one way; but that does not prevent my placing a proper estimate upon the immense good for labor in general which its organization and its efforts to secure higher wages have accomplished.

I know there is an element among employers of labor, and investors of capital which is utterly opposed to the organization of labor. I can not sympathize with this element in the slightest degree. I think it is a wise course for laborers to unite to defend their interests. It is a wise course for them to provide a fund by which, should occasion arise and strikes or lock-outs follow, those who lose their places may be supported pending an adjustment of the difficulties. I think the employer who declines to deal with organized labor and to recognize it as a proper element in the settlement of wage controversies is behind the times. There is not the slightest doubt that if labor had remained unorganized, wages would be very much lower. It is true that in the end they would probably be fixed by the law of supply and demand, but generally before this law manifests itself, there is a period in which labor, if organized and acting together, can compel the employer promptly to recognize the change of conditions, and advance wages to meet the rising market and increase in profits; and on the other hand can delay the too quick impulse of the employer facing a less prosperous future to economize by reducing wages.

There is a higher standard of living among American laborers than in any country in the world, and while there have doubtless been a good many other reasons for this, certainly the effect of the organization of labor has been to maintain a steady and high rate of wages making such a standard of living possible.

Nothing I have said, or shall say, should be construed into an attitude of criticism against, or unfriendliness to those workingmen who for any reason do not join unions. Their right to labor for such wages as they choose to accept is sacred, and any lawless invasion of that right can not be too severely condemned. All advantages of trades-unionism, great as they are, cannot weigh a feather in the scale against the right of any man lawfully seeking employment to work for whom and at what price he will. And I say this with all the emphasis possible even though the fact is that, if I were a workingman, I should probably deem it wise to join a union for the reasons given.

The effect of organized labor upon such abuses as the employment of child labor, as the exposure of laborers to undue risk in dangerous employments, to the continuance of unjust rules of law exempting employers from liability for accidents to laborers, has been direct, immediate and useful, and such reforms in those matters as have taken place would probably be long delayed but for the energetic agitation of the questions by the representatives of organized labor. Of course, when organized labor permits itself to sympathize with violent methods, with breaches of the law, with boycotts and other methods of undue duress, it is not entitled to our sympathy. But it is not to be expected that such organizations shall be perfect, and that they may not at times and in particular cases show defective tendencies that ought to be corrected.

One notable defect which has been pointed out has been in the disposition of the majority of members in labor unions to reduce the compensation of all men engaged in a particular trade to a dead level, and to fail to recognize the difference between the highly skilled and very industrious workman and the one only less skilled and less industrious. I think that there is a movement among trades- unions themselves to correct this levelling tendency, and nothing could strengthen the movement more than the adoption of some plan by which there should remain among union workmen the impetus and motive to be found in the greater reward for greater skill and greater industry.

There is one thing to be said in respect to American trades-unionism that its critics are not generally alive to. In France the trades-unions are intensely socialistic. Indeed, in some of the late difficulties it was plain that there was a strong anarchistic feeling among them and that they opposed all authority of any kind. It is also plain that the tendency toward socialism in England and England's trades-unionism is growing stronger and stronger. I need not point out the deplorable results in this country if trades- unionism became a synonym for socialism. Those who are now in active control, the Federation of Labor and all the great railroad organizations, have set their faces like flint against the propagandism of socialistic principles. They are in favor of the rights of property and of our present institutions modified by such remedial legislation as to put workingmen on equality with their opponents in trade controversies and trade contracts and to stamp out the monopoly and the corporate abuses which are an outgrowth of our present system unaccompanied by proper limitation; and I think all of us who are in favor of the maintenance of our present institutions should recognize this battle which has been carried on by the conservative and influential members of trades-unionism, and willingly give credit to these men as the champions of a cause which should command our sympathy, respect and support.

Our friends of the great unions at times complain of our courts, more perhaps because of the decisions in injunction cases than for anything else. I have already referred to this particular phase of litigation in which they have an interest, but when the subject of courts is mentioned it suggests to me a larger field for complaint and reform in which all citizens are interested and have a right to be heard.

There is no subject upon which I feel so deeply as upon the necessity for reform in the administration of both civil and criminal law. To sum it all up in one phrase, the difficulty in both is undue delay. It is not too much to say that the administration of criminal law in this country is a disgrace to our civilization, and that the prevalence of crime and fraud, which here is greatly in excess of that in the European countries, is due largely to the failure of the law and its administrators to bring criminals to justice. I am sure that this failure is not due to corruption of officials. It is not due to their negligence or laziness, though of course there may be both in some cases; but it is chiefly due to the system against which it is impossible for an earnest prosecutor and an efficient judge to struggle. We inherited our system of criminal prosecutions and the constitutional provisions for the protection of the accused in his trial from England and her laws. We inherited from her the jury trials. All these limitations and the jury system are still maintained in England, but they have not interfered with an effective prosecution of criminals and their punishment. There has not been undue delay in English criminal courts. In this country we have generally altered the relation of the judge to the jury. In England the judge controls the trial, controls the lawyers, keeps them to relevant and proper argument, aids the jury in its consideration of the facts, not by direction but by suggestion, and the lawyers in the conduct of the cases are made to feel that they have an obligation not only to their clients but also to the court and to the public at large not to abuse their offices in such a way as unduly to lengthen the trial and unduly to direct the attention of the court and the jury away from the real facts at issue. In this country there seems to have been on the part of all State legislatures a fear of the judge and not of the jury, and the power which he exercises in an English court has by legislation been reduced from time to time until now, and this is especially true in Western States, he has hardly more power than the moderator in a religious assembly. The tendency of legislation is to throw the reins on the back of the jury and to let them follow their own sweet will, influenced by all the arts of counsel for the defendant in leading them away from the real points at issue, and in awakening their emotions of pity for the defendant in forgetfulness of the wrongs of the prosecuting witness, or it may be of the deceased, and of the rights of society to be protected against crime, and all these defects are emphasized in the delays which occur in the trials—delays made necessary because the trials take so great a time. A murder case in England will be disposed of in a day or two days that here will take three weeks or a month, and no one can say, after an examination of the record in England, that the rights of the defendant have not been preserved and that justice has not been done. It is true that in England they have enlarged the procedure to the point of allowing an appeal from a judgment in a criminal case to a court of appeals, but this appeal is usually taken and allowed only on a few questions easily considered by the court above and promptly decided. Counsel are not permitted to mouse through the record to find errors that in the trial seemed of little account, but that are developed into great injustices in the court of appeal. This is another defect of our procedure. No criminal is content with a judgment of the court below, and well may he not be because the record of reversals is so great as to encourage it in every case and to hang important judgments in appellate proceedings sometimes for years. I don't know when the reforms are to be brought about in this country. Until our people shall become fully aware and in some concrete way be made to suffer from the escape of criminals from just judgment in this country, the system may continue. One of the methods by which it could be remedied in some degree is to give judges more power in the trial of criminal causes and enable them to aid the jury in its consideration of facts and to exercise more control over the arguments that counsel see fit to advance. Judges, and especially judges who are elected, ought not to be mistrusted by the people. A judgeship is a great office and the man who holds it should exercise great power and he ought to be allowed to exercise that in a trial by jury. Then it is undoubtedly true that in England, lawyers in the conduct of their cases feel much more and respect much more their obligations to assist the court in administering justice and restrain themselves from adopting the desperate and extreme methods for which American lawyers are even applauded. The trial here is a game in which the advantage is with the criminal, and if he wins he seems to have the sympathy of a sporting public. Trial by jury, as it has come to us through the Constitution, is the trial by jury under the English law, and under the law the vagaries, the weaknesses, the timidities and the ignorance of juries were to be neutralized by the presence in court of a judge to whom they should look for instruction upon the law and sound advice in respect to the facts, although of course with regard to the facts their ultimate conclusion must be their own, and they were fully at liberty to disregard the judicial suggestion.

But reform in our criminal procedure is not the only reform that we ought to have in our courts. On the civil side of the courts there is undue delay, and this always works for the benefit of the man with the longest purse. The employment of lawyers and the payment of costs all become more expensive as the litigation is extended. It used to be thought that a system by which cases involving small amounts could be carried to the Supreme Court through two or three courts of intermediate appeal was a perfect system, because it gave the poor man the same right to go to the Supreme Court as the rich man. Nothing is further from the truth. What the poor man needs is a prompt decision of his case and by limiting the appeals in cases involving small amounts of money so that there shall be a final decision in the lower court, an opportunity is given to the poor litigant to secure a judgment in time to enjoy it and not after he has exhausted all his resources in litigating to the Supreme Court.

I am a lawyer and admire my profession, but I must admit that we have had too many lawyers in legislating on legal procedure, and they have been prone to think that litigants were made for the purpose of furnishing business to courts and lawyers, and not courts and lawyers for the benefit of the people and litigants. More than this, I am bound to say that in the matter of reducing the cost of litigation, and, indeed, the time of it, Congress and the Federal courts have not set a good example. Probably under the Constitution it is impossible in the Federal courts to unite suits at law and cases in equity in one form of action, as has been done in the codes of the States, but it certainly is possible to introduce a simpler form of procedure both in suits in law and suits in equity. This last form of procedure—that is, equity—has been entirely in the control of the courts and especially the Supreme Court, and yet in years no real reform has taken place in that regard, and the procedure is just about as clumsy, just about as expensive, just about as likely to produce delay as it was thirty or forty years ago. The fact that no reform has been instituted may perhaps be due to the circumstance that our judges have been overloaded with work in the Supreme Court, and thus opportunity has not been seized for this reform. But I conceive that the situation is now ripe for the appointment of a commission by Congress to take up the question of the law's delays in the Federal courts and to report a system which shall not only secure quick and cheap justice to the litigants in the Federal courts but shall offer a model to the legislatures and courts of the States by the use of which they can themselves institute reforms.

I would abolish altogether the system of payment of court officers by fee. The fee system may be properly continued for the reimbursement of the public treasury by litigants specially interested, but the fees ought to be reduced to the lowest point and the motive for increasing the expense of litigation that arises from the payment of the compensation of court officers out of fees should be removed. I do not think that the delays in justice are due to any niggardliness on the part of the public in appropriating money to meet the expenses of administration. The evil lies deeper in the system which I have referred to only in a most summary way.

Of all the questions that are before the American people I regard no one as more important than this, to wit, the improvement of the administration of justice. We must make it so that the poor man will have as nearly as possible an opportunity in litigating as the rich man, and under present conditions, ashamed as we may be of it, this is not the fact.

And now, my friends, I have subjected you to a rather solemn discussion of a rather solemn subject.

I always like to visit Chicago because it is in a sense the center of the country. Much more than Boston is it the hub about which many people and many interests revolve. In making up the personnel of my Cabinet and my administration I have been surprised to find how many admirable men you have in your community, and I must apologize for the drain which I have made upon your resources by calling to Washington and foreign courts at least half a dozen of your most prominent and able citizens. In doing so I had to ask them all to make personal sacrifices in the matter of compensation and to gather their reward from disinterested desire to serve the public and a patriotic willingness to put their abilities at the disposition of the country.

We are entering now upon an era of prosperity which I hope will be long continued. We have just passed a tariff bill which has ended for the time the disturbance of business that always arises from the consideration and agitation over such a bill, and there is nothing now to prevent the application of all the capital and all the forces which have been suspended for the last year and a half or two years by a lack of confidence and a waiting for such settlement, to the expansion of business and the further development of the resources of this country. But this prospect of prosperity must not blind us to the necessity for carrying out certain great reforms advocated by Mr. Roosevelt, recommended in the Republican party platform, which I believe are needed to prevent a return to the abuses of which all men recognize the evil in our previous business methods and the management of our great 'corporations. I expect to consider these questions more at length at another stage in my journey, as I do also the character of the tariff bill which has been adopted and which has been subjected to much criticism, but to-night I feel that I have wearied you far beyond any claim I have had to your attention.

William Howard Taft, Address at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365236

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