William Howard Taft

Address at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, Washington

September 29, 1909

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Citizens of Seattle, of Washington, and of the Pacific Coast:

This great Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was the objective point on my trip to the West, and I am glad to have arrived here after two weeks' travel from the old Bay State. As I look about me at this wonderful exhibition of the progress of the Northwest, of Alaska, and the Pacific Coast, I feel a great pride in having urged upon the proper Congressional committee, with all the emphasis of which I was capable, the importance and the utility of the enterprise. And it is gratifying to know that under the administration of Seattle men the Exposition has been a great success both in arousing world-wide interest in the growth of the Far Northwest and in showing a profit over the immense outlay needed in its construction and maintenance.

When I first planned my visit to Seattle, I had included with it a trip to Alaska in order that I might by a personal investigation make myself better acquainted with the character of that great territory and with the best method of securing its development. I greatly regret that the time consumed by Congress in the consideration of the tariff bill prevented my carrying out the part of the plan embraced in a visit to this most interesting territory.

One of Mr. Seward's substantial claims to the gratitude of his countrymen and to a place among the statesmen of his country was the broad view which he took of the value of Alaska and his wisdom in effecting its purchase. The cession of Virginia and the ordinance of 1787, which gave to the nation the Middle West, the purchase by Jefferson of Louisiana Territory, which carried our domain to the Rocky Mountains, the annexation of Texas, and the treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo, which extended our territory to the Pacific Coast, were properly supplemented by the acquisition of Alaska, and this Exposition may well be regarded as a celebration of the foresight of Seward in his policy of expansion.

It would seem that the wealth of Alaska in minerals, in fish, in furs, and even in agriculture, was still but inadequately known, and yet its value from a mere money standpoint to the nation, as shown by the wealth which has been extracted from it, exceeds by many fold the cost of it to the Government of the United States. A review of the history of the territory will show that Congress has been very slow to extend to it a proper form of government.

Alaska is a country of immense expanse, and the governmental needs of the southeastern portion near to Washington and the Northwest are quite different from those of Nome and the Seward peninsula and of the valley of the Yukon. Such a territory has need of local legislation and local government, which can only be understood by those who are on the ground, and it is utterly impossible and impractical for Congress in its legislation to govern the details by legislation required for the best development of the territory. There has been no authority in the territory having an adequate jurisdiction to meet the exigencies of such a young but potentially prosperous territory.

It has been proposed that Congress should give to Alaska the regular form of territorial government under which a legislature and a Governor might be elected, and between the two they might be given the powers ordinarily given to the legislature and executive of regularly organized territories. I think this would be a great mistake, because I don't think that the territory has a population of sufficient number or sufficient stability and permanence of residence to warrant the delegation to a locally elected legislature of such authority. Many of the places in Alaska, where there is a considerable population, are nothing but mining camps, with all the migratory and temporary features of such settlements. More than that, the population is so small, as compared with the vast expanse of the territory, that it would be unwise to provide that a comparatively small population in southeastern Alaska should elect representatives and legislate for the enormous territory reaching from British Columbia clear to the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

Local self-government or home rule, in a country so large as Alaska, with a scattered nomadic population, intense local and sectional feeling, should not be given serious consideration until the population and developed resources of the country have increased to such an extent as to warrant the division of the territory into more limited areas, where the inhabitants of each would have an opportunity to become acquainted, and where there would be some degree of similarity of interests. Before such an experiment, an earnest effort should be made to secure larger percentage of permanent residents and endeavor to attach some of the population to the soil.

My own judgment is that the only way properly to develop Alaska for the benefit of everybody in it, is to bring the Territory under the management of one bureau and department in Washington, so that all the officials in the Government shall have to report to one head, and so also that the interests of the entire Territory shall be centered in one responsible bureau chief in Washington, whose business it shall be through his Department chief to present to Congress the needs of the Territory, to follow legislation, and to attend to everything at the National Capital in which the people of the Territory are interested. It is not necessary that the delegate shall be dispensed with, but an executive office, with records, with information and constantly active, can greatly contribute to the welfare of a territory for which it is responsible when located at the National Capital, and when understood to have the proper authority and responsibility.

Certain general laws, like the mining laws, the forestry laws, the customs laws and the land laws should be passed by Congress and perhaps executed by national officers, but this would leave a wide domain for domestic legislation which it seems to me ought to be intrusted to some local authority on the ground and having a knowledge of local needs. Of course if the Territory were so settled with a permanent population more or less equally distributed through its extent, such legislative power might be entrusted to an elected legislature, but for the reasons I have given, it seems to me that it would be much wiser to entrust this local legislative power to a commission of five or more members, appointed by the President, to act with the Governor in the discharge of such legislative functions. It seems wise not to confer legislative functions on the Governor alone, but to assist him in its exercise by the addition of competent persons who will live in the Territory, familiarize themselves with its local needs and bring to the attention of Congress and the Executive such additional legislation as may from time to time be wise.

It will be observed that this is practically the government which was given to the Philippine Islands, although the Commission there had more legislative authority than it would be wise or necessary to give to the Alaskan Commission. Objection will be made on the ground that this is treating the people of Alaska, who are generally free-born American citizens, as if the Territory were a dependency of persons unfit to exercise the power of self-government I can not deny that the conditions in Alaska are such as in my judgment to prevent the extension of local self-government safely to that Territory. It is not because of the character of the people if they were permanent residents and sufficient in number and sufficiently distributed to warrant the establishment of a representative government, but the conditions that exist are such as to put them for the time being in a position justifying a similar treatment to that of the Philippines. Indeed it would be a great deal better government than at present, because it would be vesting power in a local authority familiar with local needs, and to-day no such power exists. In other words, it would be a great advance over the present conditions. I don't know that Congress will agree with me in this view, but a personal experience in the practical operation of such a system of government for the benefit of the territory governed leads me to feel justified in making such a recommendation. The Territory will develop much more rapidly and the boon of self-government will come much more quickly under such a system than as the government is being carried on at present.

The future of Alaska is big with prosperity and great productiveness, but it needs intelligent legislation to develop it quickly and in the right way; and I know no better method of securing such a result than by a properly constituted Commission. There is an opportunity for Congress to aid in the construction of certain railroads that will largely develop the Territory, and which private enterprise is not able or willing to undertake unless it receives some sort of guaranty from the Government. That I would unhesitatingly recommend, because Alaska is a territory in which private capital can not be expected to build the first railroads.

I am especially interested in Alaska because her development has been delayed by a lack of appropriate legislation and because I know something of the needs of a land so far distant. Of course the law-making power of the Commission should be subject to the approval of the head of the department at Washington responsible for the government of Alaska, just as is provided now by the law governing the Philippines.

Since I last visited the Coast, I am glad to say that the Philippines have had extended to them in the matter of a tariff law a measure of justice, which ought to have been adopted nine years ago. If it had been adopted, the city of Seattle, the city of San Francisco, and the whole Pacific Coast would have profited by its enactment. Free trade with the Philippines as now established between the Islands and this country will develop an exchange of business between the two countries which will be greatly to the advantage of both. Trade in the Philippines has long had one trend, and it will take some time, perhaps two or three years, to effect a change, even now that the law is passed; but a familiarity with the situation in the Islands makes me confident that the Pacific Coast will come to value more and more highly the trade from the Philippines which will fall to it. There are many industries in the Philippines the products of which will sell well in the United States now that the tariff is lifted from them, and with similar relief from burden in entering the Philippines, American manufactures will have a far wider sale in those distant islands on the Pacific.

The Panama Canal will be completed on or before the first of January, 1915, and with its completion the trade between the Eastern and Western coasts of this country will be revolutionized, for the carriage of heavy bulk merchandise between the Pacific and the Atlantic Coast is almost certain to be by water. This will reduce the transcontinental business to the carriage of the more valuable classes of merchandise, which can profitably pay a higher rate of transportation. More than this, it will change the avenues of international trade, will bring the eastern coast of America closely in touch with the western coast of South America, and will greatly facilitate the direct transportation from the west coast of America to European ports.

China is waking up. She is approaching a period of development that can not but increase her trade and augment her importance as customer and as a trader with this country, while Japan and all the other Oriental countries are moving onward with giant steps in the commercial competition of the world. The many prophecies that have been made that in the next half century the commercial progress of the world is to be seen more decidedly in the Pacific than anywhere else are certainly well founded; and under those conditions it behooves us as Americans interested in pushing her trade into every quarter of the globe to take steps to repair a condition that exists in respect to our merchant marine that is humiliating to our national pride and most burdensome to us in competition with other nations in obtaining international trade.

We maintain a protective tariff to encourage our manufacturing, farming, and mining industries at home and within our jurisdiction, but when we assume to enter into competition upon the high seas in trade between international ports, our jurisdiction to control that trade so far as the vessels of other nations are concerned, of course ceases, and the question which we have to meet is how with the greater wages that we pay, with the more stringent laws we enact for the protection of our sailors, and with the protective system making a difference in the price between the necessaries to be used in the maintenance of a merchant marine, we shall enable that merchant marine to compete with the marine of the rest of the world.

This is not the only question either, for it will be found on an examination of the methods pursued in other countries with respect to their merchant marines, that there is now extended by way of subsidies by the various governments to their respective ships, upward of $35,000,000, and this offers another means by which in the competition the American merchant ship is driven out of business and finds it utterly impossible to bid against its foreign competitors. Not only this, but so inadequate is the American merchant marine to-day that in seeking auxiliary ships with which to make our navy an instrument of offense or defense, or indeed in sending it around the world as a fleet, we have to call on vessels sailing under a foreign flag to carry the coal and to supply the other needs of such a journey. Were we compelled to go into a war to-day, our merchant marine lacks altogether a sufficient tonnage of auxiliary unarmed ships absolutely necessary to the proper operation of the navy, and were a war to come on we should have to purchase such vessels from foreign countries, and this might under the laws governing neutrals be most difficult.

The trade between the eastern ports of the United States and South America is a most valuable trade, and now equals something like $250,000,000; but European nations, appreciating the growing character of this trade, have by subsidies and other means of encouragement so increased the sailings of large and well-equipped vessels from Europe to the ports of South America as visibly to affect the proportion of trade which is coming to the United States by the very limited service of a direct character between New York and South American ports.

I need not tell you of the inadequacy of the American shipping marine on the Pacific Coast and the growing power for commercial purposes in this regard of the Empire of Japan. Japan is one of the most active and generous countries in the matter of subsidies to its merchant marine that we have, and the effect is only too visible in an examination of the statistics.

For this reason, it seems to me that there is no subject to which Congress can better devote its attention in the coming session than the passage of a bill which shall encourage our merchant marine in such a way as to establish American lines directly between New York and eastern ports and South American ports, and between our Pacific Coast ports and the Orient and the Philippines. We earn a profit from our foreign mails of from $6,000,000 to $8,000,000 a year. The application of that amount would be quite sufficient to put on a satisfactory basis two or three Oriental lines and several lines from the East to South America. Of course, we are familiar with the argument that this would be contributing to private companies out of the treasury of the United States; but we are contributing in various ways on similar principles in effect, both by our protective tariff law, by our river and harbor bills, and by our reclamation service. We are not putting money in the pockets of ship owners, but we are giving them money with which they can compete for a reasonable profit only with the merchant marine of the world.

From my observation I think the country is ready now to try such a law and to witness its effect in a comparatively small way upon the foreign trade of the United States. If it is successful, experience will show how the policy can best be expanded and enlarged and the American commercial flag be made to wave upon the seas as it did before our Civil War. It is true that our foreign trade is great and increasing, and this without the merchant marine, but it is also true that the ownership of a merchant marine greatly enhances the opportunities for the merchants of the country having such a merchant marine. This is shown by consular reports and a reference to statistics in an indisputable way.

There is no part of the country more interested in the development of this policy than Seattle, Washington and the whole Pacific Coast. With the enormous energy and potential force that you have developed in your community here for trade and business expansion, it cannot have escaped the foresight of your business captains that the development of a merchant marine means the growth of Seattle into a port of such importance that hardly the lively imagination of her ambitious citizens can compass.

William Howard Taft, Address at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, Washington Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365231

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