Address at the Coliseum in St. Louis, Missouri
Governor Hadley, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:
If you will give me a little quiet and a little time, I will bring that voice back from Texas.
It is a great pleasure to meet the people of St. Louis in this magnificent structure. I feel somewhat at home here, because I attempted to address an audience before it had a roof on it.
I am glad to meet here the distinguished Chief Executive of the State of Missouri, and to congratulate the State on having not only those great qualities and opportunities and resources which he has described, but also on having such a Governor.
We are on the eve of a great journey down the Mississippi River, and cursed be he who calls it a junket! It has reference, as the Governor says, to the problem of transportation by railway and waterway. It is, however, only a part of a still greater movement inaugurated by Theodore Roosevelt, and called by him properly the conservation of our national resources. You in the Mississippi Valley are especially interested in that part of the conservation that looks to the improvement of inland waterways; but you are not lacking in that broad national view that takes in the necessities and the crying necessities of other parts of the Union. The conservation includes, first — and that you are directly interested in — the preservation of our forests because their relation to navigable streams and non-navigable streams has been directly traced by scientific men; the prevention of floods, the prevention of droughts, the prevention of the erosion of the soil and the transportation on your Father of Waters of the farm products of Ohio and Missouri and Iowa to the delta at the mouth of the Mississippi. The part that the United States as a government can claim in this conservation of our resources has not been definitely settled, and it is not likely to be until all the phases of the problem are presented for solution. It is certain that the United States has the right to deal with the land which it owns in such a way as to conduce to the general welfare; and therefore that it owes a duty to the people with reference to the forest lands that it owns to preserve them and develop them as far as possible, to make them useful with reference to our water supply.
But the Government owns only about one-fourth of all the forest lands of the United States. Those other lands are in States, and we must look to the State governments to follow the example of the Federal Government and use all the power possible to preserve those forests from fire and from such denudation as shall destroy their water-equalizing quality throughout the country. The United States has been most bounteous and generous in the sale and disposition of the public lands, and we could point out, if we were hypercritical, the waste and undue generosity with which we have parted with those lands. But in doing so we are apt to forget the condition of the country that led to that generous policy, and we are apt to ignore the enormous progress that has been made in the country by the carrying out of that generous policy. Therefore, without any tears for what has been done in the past, we can take our stand now on the present conditions and say that a time has come for the inauguration of a new policy with reference to disposing of the lands that remain to the United States.
There would seem to be no reason why we should change the mode of disposing of agricultural land; but there are certain kinds of lands that modern progress shows have an element in them that requires us in their future disposition to be most careful. There are the mineral lands, of which we have disposed of millions of acres as agricultural lands, and yet they have enriched their present owners by the treasures under the soil. There is no reason now why we should not separate the surface of the land and its internal contents, its mineral contents in the disposition, so that a man may settle land as agricultural land and cultivate it as such and not become the owner of the coal or minerals which lie below the surface and of which no one has cognizance at present. That applies to coal land and to oil land and applies to phosphate land, which contains the element by which other soil can be made productive.
Then there has developed in the last decade an enormous power available for all sorts of manufacture and for transportation as well, in electricity. That electricity can be most cheaply produced by water power. A great many sites have been disposed of to private corporations that are now pursuing a course with reference to the development of those powers that ought to be encouraged; and it is quite probable that when they come to sell that power the sovereign power of the State may step in to regulate the rate at which they dispose of that power to other individuals. Meantime there remains in the ownership of the Government enough power sites over which the Government may retain control by the disposition through conditional deeds or leases or some other form of conditional disposition, so that the rates can be directly regulated through the ownership by the Government of those existing power sites. There will then be a number of power sites absolutely owned by private individuals, a number controlled by the States, and still more owned by the Government under the character of title which I have defined, and we may rest assured that under that arrangement monopoly can not possess itself of all the power sites in the country.
And now I come to the subject of waterways. We have done a great deal in this country in the improvement of waterways, and we have spent a great deal of money. I am not criticising the methods then pursued. We were growing. We had a great many things to do, and the first money that was expended ought to have been expended in the development of our harbors on the seacoast. We have spent a good deal of money in the inland waterways. I don't think it has been spent as much to a good purpose as it would have been had we adopted some other theory and some other method, but I am not here to criticise the past, and I think that a great deal could probably be said in defense of the economy that has been pursued in that matter. But I do think we now have reached a time in the history of the development of our waterways when a new method ought to be adopted. Now, I would like to clear away a good many suppositions that I am afraid have lodged in some minds.
This improvement of waterways, the improvement by the irrigation of arid and sub-arid lands, and all this conservation of resources is not for the purpose of distributing "pork" to every part of the country. Every measure that is to be taken up is to be adopted on the ground that it is to be useful to the country at large and not on the ground that it is going to send certain Congressmen back to Congress, or on the ground that it is going to make a certain part of the country prosperous during the expenditure of that money. If that is the principle — the one which I deprecate — that is to obtain, then I am in favor of going along in the same old way we have gone on before. The method I am in favor of is this: That we should take up every comprehensive project on its merits, and we should determine, by all the means at our command, whether the country in which that project is to be carried out is so far developed as to justify the expenditure of a large sum in carrying out the project, and whether the project will be useful when done. When you have determined that on the general principle of good to the entire country, then I am in favor of doing that work as rapidly as it can be done, and I am in favor of issuing bonds to do it. And if it shall turn out that some part of the country is linked to a particular project by reason of eloquent and large words and a general lively imagination that is not sustained by the facts of cold investigation, then that part of the country must wait until it can grow up to that project and that project come to it.
I am not minimizing the difficulties that are going to arise in selecting what has to be done or in determining the order in which those projects are to be carried out. I know I value more intensely than I ever did in my life the interest and local patriotism that we find all over the United States; but we can not trust that in a plan of improvement which if carried on without sanity and without a knowledge of the good that is to come from it will bankrupt the Government. Now there is a proposition that we issue $500,000,000 of bonds or a billion of bonds for waterways, and then that we just cut that up and apportion a part to the Pacific, a part to the Atlantic, a part to the Mississippi, a part to the Missouri and a part to the Ohio. I am opposed to it because it not only smells of the "pork barrel," but it will be the "pork barrel." Let every project stand on its own bottom. Let it prove itself by means of its friends and by means of those who know whether it is to be profitable or not, and then enter upon it, but don't let us in the enthusiasm of vague declaration and eloquence embark on a plan that will reflect no credit on our business common sense and will only display the seamy side of that local patriotism which united together makes up our grand Americanism.
And now, my friends, I have subjected you long enough to the croak of a crow, and I am going to ask you to excuse me from speaking further other than to say to you that I have had great pleasure in standing before this magnificent audience of St. Louisans and Missourians, of Congressmen and of Governors, and it makes my heart well up with patriotism to look into your faces and find here in the center of the country the same spirit of determination to overcome all obstacles which are between us and higher living and greater prosperity that I have found from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and from Canada to the Gulf.
William Howard Taft, Address at the Coliseum in St. Louis, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365215