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Address to the Interdenominational Meeting at Aeolian Hall in New York City

January 27, 1916

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen:

You have paid me a great honor to-day, and I want to say how deeply and from the heart I appreciate it. I feel that you have unduly honored me as a man and that most of the things you have been pleased to say can be truly said of me only as a representative of the great people whom we all love. Because in my efforts for peace I have been conscious of representing the spirit of America and no private convictions merely of my own. It is hard to hold the balance even, where so many passions are involved, but I have known that in their hearts and by their purpose the people of America were seeking to hold the balance even. The neutrality of the United States has not been a merely formal matter. It has been a matter of conviction and of the heart, and in reflecting upon peace and the means of maintaining it, one is obliged to search for the foundations of peace. I can find no other foundation for peace than is laid in justice without aggression. If you wish to be just and insist upon being justly treated and have no motive of covetousness or aggression, I believe you stand upon the only firm foundations which will sustain peace.

The greatest thing in the world, the greatest force in the world, is character, and I believe that character can be expressed upon a national scale and by a nation; that every act of a nation, at any rate of a nation which opens its counsels to the voice of the people themselves, expresses its character in its attitude toward its own j affairs and in its attitude toward the affairs of other nations. America has always stood resolutely and absolutely for the right of every people to determine its own destiny and its own affairs. I am so absolute a disciple of that doctrine that I am ready to do that thing and observe that principle in dealing with the troubled affairs of our distressed neighbor to the south. And similarly it is the passion of America to be permitted to live her own life according to her own principle. The only thing that she profoundly resents, or will ever profoundly resent, is having her life and freedom interfered with. Those are the terms of self-respect upon which we deal with one another as individuals, and those are the terms of self-respect upon which nations deal with one another. Because character is determined, at any rate is manifested, by what an individual and a nation most quickly respond to. I have never found audiences in America responding to any doctrine or purpose of aggression, but I have found them responding instantly, as the instrument responds to the hand of the musician, to every sentiment of justice and every ideal of liberty and every purpose or freedom.

America has not grown cold with regard to the great things for which she created a Government and a Nation, and these are the only things that stir her passion; and surely it is a handsome and elevated passion, a disinterested passion, because at its heart dwells the interest of every man and every woman within her confines. There is a further foundation for peace additional to this conception of justice and of fairness to others. That is our internal attitude toward each other. America has been hospital in an unprecedented degree toward all nations, all races, all creeds. She has seemed almost to desire to be made up of all the stocks and influenced by all the thoughts of the wide world. She has seemed to realize that she could be fertile only if every great impulse were planted amongst her. So she has set for herself in this process, which is still unfinished, of uniting and amalgamating these things, the problem of making disparate things live together in peace and accommodation and harmony. The peace of America depends upon the attitude of the different elements of race and thought of which she is made up toward one another.

I have been deeply disturbed, gentlemen, I think every thoughtful American has been deeply disturbed, at the evidence afforded in recent days of the recrudescence of religious antagonisms in this country. That is a very dangerous thing which cuts at the very root of the American spirit. If men do not love one another, they can not love peace. If men are intolerant of one another they will be intolerant of the processes of peace, which are the processes of accommodation. "Live and let live" is a very homely phrase, and yet it is the basis of social existence. I have neighbors whose manners and opinions I would very much like to alter, but I entertain a suspicion that they would in turn very much like to alter mine, and I am afraid that if I began the process in their direction they might insist upon it in mine; and upon reflection as I grow older I agree to live and let live. Birrell says somewhere, "The child beats its nurse and cries for the moon; the old man sips his gruel humbly and thanks God that nobody beats him." I have not yet quite reached that point of humility, and I always accept, perhaps by some impulse of my native blood, the invitation to a fight; but I hope I always conduct the fight in knightly fashion. I hope I do not traduce my antagonists. I hope that I fight them with the purpose and intention of converting them, and I know that I wish that the best argument and the right purpose shall prevail. It is not a case of knock down and drag out; it is a case of putting up the best reason why your own side should survive. These franknesses of controversy, these knightly equalities of condition in the fight, are the necessary conditions precedent to peace. Peace does not mean inaction. There may be infinite activity; there may be almost violent activity in the midst of peace.

Peace dwells, after all, in the character and in the heart, and that is where peace is rooted in this blessed country of ours. It is rooted in the hearts of the people. The only place where tinder lies, and the spark may kindle a flame, is where still deeper things lie which they love, the principles and independence of their own life. Let no man drop fire there. Because peace is inconsistent with the loss of self-respect. More than that, peace is inconsistent with the abandonment of principle.

But these things are not to be thought of. These things, I pray God, may never be challenged. I mention them merely that we may frankly remind each other of the conditions under which we live. We believe in peace, but we believe also in justice and righteousness and liberty, and peace can not subsist without these. In what you have too generously praised me for, therefore, gentlemen, I have conceived myself merely as the spokesman of yourselves and of all other Americans who, like yourselves, are thoughtful of the welfare and ideals of America. These are very responsible days. I do not see how any man dares utter anything but the truth in this tense atmosphere. I do not see how any man can in conscience display narrow or partisan passion. We are all of one spiritual kith and kin, and a great family is building up here which I believe in my heart will set an example to the world of those things which elevate and purify and strengthen mankind.

Woodrow Wilson, Address to the Interdenominational Meeting at Aeolian Hall in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317467

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