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Address to the Minnesota State Legislature in St. Paul

September 09, 1919

Mr. Speaker, your excellency, gentlemen of the legislature, ladies and gentlemen, I esteem it an unusual privilege to stand in this place to-day and to address the members of this great body, because the errand upon which I have left Washington is so. intimate a matter of the life of our own Nation as well as of the life of the world. Yet I am conscious, standing in this presence, that perhaps the most appropriate things I could allude to are those which affect, us immediately. I know that you have been called together in special session for special objects. One of those objects you have achieved, and I rejoice with you in the adoption of the suffrage amendment. Another of the objects, I understand, is to consider the high cost of living, and the high cost of living is one of those things which are so complicated; it ramifies in so many directions that it seems to me we can not do anything in particular without knowing how the particulars affect the whole. It is dangerous to play with a complicated piece of machinery, piece by piece, unless you know how the pieces are related to each other.

The cost of living at present is a world condition. It is due to the fact that the man power of the world has been sacrificed in the agony of the battle field and that all the processes of industry have been either slackened or diverted. The production of foodstuffs, the production of clothing, the production of all the necessaries of life has either been slackened or it has been turned into channels which are not immediately useful for the general civil population. Great factories, as I need not tell you, in our own country which were devoted to the uses of peace have recently been diverted in such fashion as to serve the purposes of war, and it will take a certain length of time to restore them to their old adjustments, to put their machinery to the old uses again, to redistribute labor so that it will not be concentrated upon the manufacture of munitions and the other stuffs necessary for war, but will be devoted to the general processes of production so necessary for our life.

Back of all that—and I do not say this merely for an argumentative reason, but because it is true—back of that lies the fact that we have not yet learned what the basis of peace is going to be. The world is not going to settle down, my fellow citizens, until it knows what part the United States is going to play in the peace. And that for a very interesting reason. The strain put upon the finances of the other Governments of the world has been all but a breaking strain. I imagine that it will be several generations before foreign Governments can finally adjust themselves to carrying the overwhelming debts which have been accumulated in this war. The United States has accumulated a great debt, but not in proportion to those that other countries have accumulated when you reckon our wealth as compared with theirs. We are the only nation in the world that is likely in the immediate future to have a sufficient body of free capital to put the industrial world, here and elsewhere, on its feet again. Until the industrial world here and elsewhere is put on its feet you can not finally handle the question of the cost of living, because the cost of living in the last analysis depends upon the things we are always talking about but do not know how to manage—the law of supply and demand. It depends upon manufacture and distribution. It depends upon all the normal processes of the industrial and commercial world. It depends upon international credit. It depends upon shipping. It depends upon the multiplication of transportation facilities domestically. Our railroads at this moment are not adequate to moving the commerce of this country. Every here and there they run through a little neck—for example, the Pennsylvania system at Pittsburgh—where everything is congested and you are squeezing a great commerce through a little aperture. Terminal facilities at the ports are not adequate. The problem grows the more you think of it. What we have to put our minds to is an international problem, first of all—to set the commerce of the world going again and the manufacture of the world going again. And we have got to do that largely. Then we have got to see that our own production and our own methods of finance and our own commerce are quickened in every way that is possible. And then we, sitting in legislatures like this and in the Congress of the United States, have to see to it, if you will permit a vulgar expression, that "nobody monkeys with the process."

I understand that one of the excellent suggestions made by your governor is that you look into the matter of cold storage. Well, there are other kinds of storage besides cold storage. There are all sorts of ways of governing and concentrating the reserve stocks of goods. You do not have to keep everything cold, though you can keep the cold hand of control on it; you can manage by a concert that need not be put on paper to see to it that goods are doled out to the market so that they will not get there so fast as to bring the price down. The communities of the United States are entitled to see that these dams are removed and that the waters that are going to fructify the world flow in their normal courses. It is not easy. It is not always pleasant. You do not like to look censoriously into the affairs of your fellow citizens too much or too often, but it is necessary to look with a very unsympathetic eye at some of the processes which are retarding distribution and the supply which is going to meet the demand.

Not only that, but we have got to realize that we are face to face with a great industrial problem which does not center in the United States. It centers elsewhere, but which we share with the other countries of the world. That is the relation between capital and labor, between those who employ and those who are employed, and we might as well sit up straight and look facts in the face, gentlemen. The laboring men of the world are not satisfied with their relations with their employers. Of course, I do not mean to say that there is universal dissatisfaction, because here, there, and elsewhere, in many cases fortunately, there are very satisfactory relations, but I am now speaking of the general relationship which exists between capital and labor. Everywhere there is dissatisfaction, with it much more acute on the other side of the water than on this side, and one of the things that have to be brought about for mankind can be brought about by what we do in this country, because, as a matter of fact, if I may refer for a moment to the treaty of peace, there is a part of that treaty which sets up an international method of consultation about the conditions of labor. It is a splendid instrument locked up in that great document. I have called it frequently the Magna Charta of labor, for it is that, and the standards set up, for standards are stated, are the standards of American labor so far as they could be adopted in a general conference. The point I wish to make is that the world is looking to America to set the standards with regard to the conditions of labor and the relations between labor and capital, and it is looking to us because we have been more progressive than other nations in those matters, though sometimes we have moved very slowly and with undue caution. As a result of our progressiveness the ruling influences among our working men are conservative in the sense that they see that it is not in the interest of labor to break up civilization, and progressive in the sense that they see that a constructive program has to be adopted. By a progressive I do not mean a man who is ready to move, but a man who knows where he is going when he moves. A man who has got a workable program is the only progressive, because if you have not got a workable program you can not make it good and you can not progress. Very well, then, we have got to have a constructive program with regard to labor, and the minute we get it we will relieve the strain all over the world, because the world will accept our standards and follow our example. I am not dogmatic about this matter. I can not presume that I know how it ought to be done. I know the principle upon which it ought to be done. The principle is that the interests of capital and the interests of labor are not different but the same, and men of business sense ought to know how to work out an organization which will express that identity of interest. Where there is identity of interest there must be community of interest. You can not any longer regard labor as a commodity. You have got to regard it as a means of association, the association of physical skill and physical vigor with the enterprise which is managed by those who represent capital; and when you do, the production of the world is going to go forward by leaps and bounds.

Why is it that labor organizations jealously limit the amount of work that their men can do? Because they are driving hard bargains with you; they do not feel that they are your partners at all, and so long as labor and capital are antagonistic production is going to be at its minimum. Just so soon as they are sympathetic and cooperative it is going to abound, and that will be one of the means of bringing down the cost of living. In other words, my fellow citizens, we can do something, we can do a great deal, along the lines of your governor's recommendation and along the lines that I took the liberty of recommending to the Congress of the United States, but we must remember that we are only beginning the push, that we are only learning the job, and that its ramifications extend into all the relationships of international credit and international industry. We ought to give our thought to this, gentlemen: America, though we do not like to admit it, has been very provincial in regard to the world's business. When we had to engage in banking transactions outside the United States we generally did it through English bankers or, more often, through German bankers. You did not find American banks in Shanghai and Calcutta and all around the circle of the world. You found every other bank there; you found French banks and English banks and German banks and Swedish banks. You did not find American banks. American bankers have not, as a rule, handled international exchange, and here all of a sudden, as if by the turn of the hand, because of the sweeping winds of this war which have destroyed so many things, we are called upon to handle the bulk of international exchange: We have got to learn it, and we have got to learn it fast. We have got to have American instrumentalities in every part of the world if American money is going to rehabilitate the world, as American money must.

If you say, "Why should we rehabilitate the world?" I will not suggest any altruistic motive; but if you want to trade you have got to have somebody to trade with. If you want to carry your business to the ends of the world, there must be business at the ends of the world to tie in with. And if the business of the world lags your industries lag and your prosperity lags. We have no choice but to be the servants of the world if we would be our own servants. I do not like to put it on that ground because that is not the American ground. America is ready to help the world, whether it benefits her or not. She did not come into the world, she was not created by the great men who set her Government up, in order to make money out of the rest of mankind. She was set up in order to rehabilitate the rest of mankind, and the dollar of American money spent to free those who have been enslaved is worth more than a million dollars put in any American pocket.

It is in this impersonal way that I am trying to illustrate to you how the problem that we are facing in the high cost of living is the end and the beginning and a portion of a world problem, and the great difficulty, just now, my fellow citizens, is in getting some minds adjusted to the world. One of the difficulties that are being encountered about the treaty and the league of nations, if I may be permitted to say so—and perhaps I can say so the more freely here because I do not think this difficulty exists in the mind of either Senator from this State—the difficulty is, not prejudice so much but that thing which is so common and so inconvenient—just downright ignorance! Ignorance, I mean, of the state of the world and of America's relation to the state of the world. We can not change that relation. It is a fact. It is a fact bigger than anybody of us, and one of the advantages that the United States has it ought not to forfeit; it is made up out of all the thinking peoples of the world. We do not draw our blood from any one source; we do not draw our principles from any one nation; we are made up out of all the sturdy stocks of the round world. We have gotten uneasy because some other kinds of stocks tried to come in; but the bulk remains the same; we are made up out of the hard-headed, hard-fisted, practical and yet idealistic, and forward-looking peoples of the world, and we of all people ought to have an international understanding, an ability to comprehend what the problem of the world is and what part we ought to play in that problem. We have got to play a part, and we can play it either as members of the board of directors or as outside speculators. We can play it inside or on the curb, and you know how inconvenient it is to play it on the curb.

There is one thing that I respect more than any other, and that is a fact. I remember, when I was governor of the State of New Jersey, I was very urgently pressing some measures which a particular member of the senate of the State, whom I knew and liked very much, was opposed to. His constituents were very much in favor of it, and they sent an influential committee down personally to conduct his vote; and after he had voted for the measure they brought him, looking a little sheepish, into my office to be congratulated. Well, he and I kept as straight faces as we could, and I congratulated him very warmly, and then with a very heavy wink he said to me behind his hand, "Governor, they never get me if I see 'em coming first." Now, that is not a very high political principle, but I commend that principle to you with regards to facts. Never let them get you if you see them coming first; and any man with open eyes can see the facts coming, coming in serried ranks, coming in overwhelming power, not to be resisted by the United States or any other nation. The facts are marching and God is marching with them. You can not resist them. You must either welcome them or subsequently, with humiliation, surrender to them. It is welcome or surrender. It is acceptance of great world conditions and great world duties or scuttle now and come back afterwards.

But I am not arguing this with you, because I do not believe it is necessary in the State of Minnesota. I am merely telling you. It is like the case of the man who met two of his fellow lawyers and asked them what they were discussing. They said, "We were discussing who is the leading member of the bar of this county," and the other said, "Why, I am." They said, "How do you prove it?" He said, "I don't have to prove it; I admit it." I think that that is the state of mind of the thoughtful persons of our country, and they, thank God, are the chief portions of it, with regard to the great crisis that we are face to face with now.

It has been a privilege, gentlemen, to be permitted in this informal way to disclose to you some part of the thought which I am carrying about with me as really a great burden, because I have seen the disturbed world on the other side of the water. I know the earnest hope and beautiful confidence with which they are looking toward us, and my heart is full of the burden of it. It is a great responsibility for us to carry. We will have to have infinite intelligence and infinite diligence in business to fulfill the expectations of the peoples of the world; and yet that is our duty, our inescapable duty, and we must concert together to perform it.

Everywhere I have been on this trip the majority of the committee that has received me has consisted of Republicans, and nothing has pleased me so much, because I should be ashamed of myself if I permitted any partisan thought to enter into this great matter. If I were a scheming politician and anybody wished to present me with the peace of the world as a campaign issue, it would be very welcome, because there could be no issue easier to win on; but everybody knows that that is not a worthy thought, everybody knows that we are all Americans. Scratch a Democrat or a Republican and underneath it is the same stuff. And the labels rub off upon the slightest effort—not the memories, the recollections; some of them are very stubborn, but it is the principle that matters. The label does not make much difference. The principle is just the same, and the only thing we differ about is the way to carry out the principle. Back of all lies that wonderful thing, that thing which the foreigner was amazed to see in the faces of our soldiers, that incomparable American spirit which you do not see the like of anywhere; that universal brightness of expression, as if every man know there was a future and that he had something to do with molding it, instead of that dull, expressionless face which means that there is nothing but a past and a burdensome present. You do not see that in the American face. The American face mirrors the future, and, my fellow citizens, the American purpose mirrors the future of the world.

Woodrow Wilson, Address to the Minnesota State Legislature in St. Paul Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317871

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