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Address to the Salesmanship Congress in Detroit, Michigan

July 10, 1916

Mr. Chairman, ladies, and gentlemen:

It is with a great deal of gratification that I find myself facing so interesting and important a company as this. You will readily understand that I have not come here to make an elaborate address, but I have come here to express my interest in the objects of this great association, and to congratulate you on the opportunities which are immediately ahead of you in handling the business of this country.

These are days of incalculable change, my fellow citizens. It is impossible for anybody to predict anything that is certain, in detail, with regard to the future cither of this country or of the world in the large movements of business; but one thing is perfectly clear, and that is that the United States will play a new part, and that it will be a part of unprecedented opportunity and of greatly increased responsibility.

The United States has had a very singular history in respect of its business relationships with the rest of the world. I have always believed, and I think you have always believed, that there is more business genius in the United States than anywhere else in the world; and yet America has apparently been afraid of touching too intimately the great processes of international exchange. America, of all countries in the world, has been timid; has not until recently, has not until within the last two or three years, provided itself with the fundamental instrumentalities for playing a large part in the trade of the world. America, which ought to have had the broadest vision of any nation, has raised up an extraordinary number of provincial thinkers, men who thought provincially about business, men who thought that the United States was not ready to take her competitive part in the struggle for the peaceful conquest of the world. For anybody who reflects philosophically upon the history of this country, that is the most amazing fact about it.

But the time for provincial thinkers has gone by. We must play a great part in the world whether we choose it or not. Do you know the significance of this single fact, that within the last year or two we have, speaking in large terms, ceased to be a debtor nation and become a creditor nation? We have more of the surplus gold of the world than we ever had before, and our business hereafter is to be to lend and to help and to promote the great peaceful enterprises of the world. We have got to finance the world in some important degree, and those who finance the world must understand it and rule it with their spirits and with their minds. We can not cabin and confine ourselves any longer, and so I said that I came here to congratulate you upon the great role that lies ahead of you to play. This is a salesmanship congress and hereafter salesmanship will have to be closely related in its outlook and scope to statesmanship to international statesmanship. It will have to be touched with an intimate comprehension of the conditions of business and enterprise throughout the round globe, because America will have to place her goods by running her intelligence ahead of her goods. No amount of mere push, no amount of mere hustling, or, to speak in the western language, no amount of mere rustling, no amount of mere active enterprise, will suffice.

There have been two ways of doing business in the world outside of the lands in which the great manufactures have been made. One has been to try to force the tastes of the manufacturing country on the country in which the markets were being sought, and the other way has been to study the tastes and needs of the countries where the. markets were being sought and suit your goods to those tastes and needs: and the latter method has beaten the former method. If you are going to sell carpets, for example, in India, you have got to have as good taste as the Indians in the patterns of the carpets, and that is going some. If you are going to sell things in tropical countries. they must, rather obviously, be different from those which you sell in cold and arctic countries. You cannot assume that the rest of the world is going to wear or use or manufacture what you wear and use and manufacture. Your raw materials must be the raw materials that they need, not the raw materials that you need. Your manufactured goods must be the manufactured goods which they desire, not those which other markets have desired. So your business will keep pace with your knowledge, not of yourself and of your manufacturing processes, but of them and of their commercial needs. That is statesmanship, because that is relating your international activities to the condition which exist in other countries.

If we can once get what some gentlemen are so loath to give us. a merchant marine! The trouble with some men is that they are slow in their minds. They do not see: they do not know the need, and they will not allow you to point it out to them. If we can once get in a position to deliver our own goods, then the goods that we have to deliver will be adjusted to the desires of those to whom we deliver them, and all the world will welcome America in the great field of commerce and manufacture.

There is a great deal of cant talked, my fellow citizens, about service. I wish the word had not been surrounded with so much sickly sentimentality, because it is a good, robust, red-blooded word, and it is the key to everything that concerns the peace and prosperity of the world. You can not force yourself upon anybody who is not obliged to take you. The only way in which you can be sure of being accepted is by being sure that you have got something to offer that is worth taking, and the only way you can be sure of that is by being sure that you wish to adapt it to the use and the service of the people to whom you are trying to sell.

I was trying to expound in another place the other day the long way and the short way to get together. The long way is to fight. I hear some gentlemen say that they want to help Mexico, and the way they propose to help her is to overwhelm her with force. That is the long way to help Mexico as well as the wrong way. After the fighting you have a nation full of justified suspicion and animated by well-founded hostility and hatred, and then will you help them? Then will you establish cordial business relationships with them? Then will you go in as neighbors and enjoy their confidence? On the contrary, you will have shut every door as if it were of steel against you. What makes Mexico suspicious of us is that she does not believe as yet that we want to serve her. She believes that we want to possess her, and she has justification for the belief in the way in which some of our fellow-citizens have tried to exploit her privileges and possessions. For my part, I will not serve the ambitions of these gentlemen, but I will try to serve all America, so far as intercourse with Mexico is concerned, by trying to serve Mexico herself. There are some things that are not debatable. Of course, we have to defend our border. That goes without saying. Of course, we must make good our own sovereignty, but we must respect the sovereignty of Mexico. I am one of those—I have sometimes suspected that there were not many of them—who believe, absolutely believe, the Virginia Bill of Rights, which was the model of the old bill of rights, which says that a people has a right to do anything they please with their own country and their own government. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that, and I am going to stand by that belief. (That is for the benefit of those gentlemen who wish to butt in. )

Now, I use that as an illustration, my fellow citizens. What do we all most desire when the present tragical confusion of the world's affairs is over? We desire permanent peace, do we not? Permanent peace can grow in only one soil. That is the soil of actual good will, and good will can not exist without mutual comprehension. Charles Lamb, the English writer, made a very delightful remark that I have long treasured in my memory. He stuttered a little bit. and he said of some one who was not present. "I h-h-hate that m-man;" and some one said, "Why, Charles, I didn't know you knew him." "Oh," he said. "I-I-I don't; I-I can't h-hate a m-man I know." That is a profound human remark. You can not hate a man you know. I know some rascals whom I have tried to hate. I have tried to head them off as rascals, but I have been unable to hate them. I have liked them. And so. not to compare like with unlike, in the relationship of nations with each other, many of our antagonisms are based upon misunderstandings, and as long as you do not understand a country you can not trade with it. As long as you can not take its point of view you can not commend your goods to its purchase. As long as you go to it with a supercilious air, for example, and patronize it. as we have tried to do in some less developed countries, and tell them that this is what they ought to want whether they want it or not. you can not do business with them. You have got to approach them just as you really ought to approach all matters of human relationship.

Those people who give their money to philanthropy, for example, but can not for the life of them see from the point of view of those for whose benefit they are giving the money are not philanthropists. They endow and promote philanthropy, but you can not be a philanthropist unless you love all sorts and conditions of men. The great barrier in this world, I have sometimes thought, is not the barrier of principle, but the barrier of taste. Certain classes of society find certain other classes of society distasteful to them. They do not like the way they dress. They do not like the infrequency with which they bathe. They do not like to consort with them under the conditions under which they live. and. therefore, they stand at a distance from them, and it is impossible for them to serve them. They do not understand them and do not feel that common pulse of humanity and that common school of experience which is the only thing that binds us together and educates us in the same fashion.

This, then, my friends, is the simple message that I bring you. Lift your eyes to the horizons of business: do not look too close at the little processes with which you are concerned, but let your thoughts and your imaginations run abroad throughout the whole world, and with the. inspiration of the thought that you are Americans and are meant to carry liberty and justice and the principles of humanity wherever you go, go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America.

APP Note: The first meeting of the World Salesmanship Congress was in the Arcadia Auditorium. The General Chairman of the Conference was D. M. Barrett, Editor of Salesmanship magazine.

Woodrow Wilson, Address to the Salesmanship Congress in Detroit, Michigan Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/318164

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