William Howard Taft

Address at the Sixth Annual Convention of the National Rivers and Harbors Congress

December 08, 1909

Mr. President, Members of the National Rivers and Harbors Congress, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I don't know that I have any right to be here to talk about waterways, unless it makes a man an expert on the subject to have gone down the Mississippi River. The dangers to which one was exposed on that journey, by reason of the shoals and the other obstacles and temptations of the journey, certainly offered an opportunity for careful study and deliberation. Now I think I am a sufficiently established resident of Washington to make what I have to say an address of welcome. I am delighted that you selected Washington as your place of meeting. You have done it wisely, first, because when you want a thing done it is just as well to get close to the men who are to do it; and secondly. Washington is always a good place to come to, and you can induce the ladies of the family to come with you, which is always an assurance of both work and pleasure.

I congratulate this Congress on having brought the subject of waterways to such a point that the Representatives in Congress, from one end of the country to the other, recognize it as a subject that calls for action. They have not come to a definite conclusion as to the policy that ought to be adopted, but they have come to the conclusion that some policy must be adopted with reference to the development of these instrumentalities which nature has furnished for the transportation of goods and for the controlling of railroad rates.

You in your declaration say that you are in favor of a policy and not in favor of any particular project. I think that a wise platform to take; and yet when it comes to the practical enforcement and accomplishment of something, you have got to go into projects. You may insist that a policy ought to be adopted, and you have insisted, and I do not doubt that you have—indeed I know you have—made that distinguished member of Congress, the head of the Rivers and Harbors Committee, sit up nights to devise a policy which shall be presented to the country and satisfy the demand that has arisen in such a—I had almost said—unanimous way the country through. But you are coming now near to the detail of projects.

One has to travel over the country to find out what the country is thinking about. You go into the Northwest and you find the development of the Columbia River as one of the great projects of many who live in that neighborhood. You go into far-distant Texas, and you find that they have an inland waterways project there reaching into Louisiana, into the bayous of Texas, and down along the Gulf, that has demonstrated its usefulness as to part, and that only needs further addition and improvement to carry out a great system of waterways there that shall reach farms and plantations that are even beyond railroads now. And so, as you come up the eastern shore of this country, you find the inland—I don't think they call it inland waterways exactly, but it is the inside waterway—the Atlantic Deeper Waterways Association. Now, it is well that there is in almost every part of the country a project of that sort to awaken the interests of those who live in that part of the country, for while we are all patriots, and while we are all in favor of all the country, we are just a little more intensely in favor of that which is nearest than we are in favor of that which is very far away. The danger to this movement, the test of the value of the movement, is going to be seen when you get off that very safe platform, that you are in favor of a policy and not in favor of a project, and get down to the business of pushing projects.

One of the things that I think we ought to do is not to decry the past. It is to take from the past that which is valuable and build on it. The trip down the Mississippi River was an eye-opener to many of us. The work which has gone on at the end of the river and near its mouth, up along the banks in Mississippi and Louisiana, and up into Arkansas, is a work that commends itself to every one who sees it. It is work in the direction both of the preservation of farms and the establishment of a great waterway there. The work which has been done by the National Government through its army engineers in strengthening the banks of that river is a work of experimentation, but work which has now demonstrated the possibility of treating that river in such a way as to hold the banks and keep the river within it, and insuring a reasonable depth where steamers may go.

Then we have had an investigation by the army engineers into the practicability of deepening to six feet the Missouri River, from Sioux City to St. Louis; of deepening the Mississippi River from St. Paul to St. Louis; of deepening and keeping at an eight-foot depth the river from St. Louis to Cairo; and also of a project for the maintenance of a nine- foot depth the year round in the Ohio River. I recognize the gentlemen who applaud, as coming from the Columbia River district and illustrating that disinterested enthusiasm that is certain to carry all the projects through.

Now I don't think I betray a secret when I say that the gentleman who has most to do with the initiation of projects in Congress is fully charged with the necessity for doing something in the next Congress to foreshadow, or rather to begin, a policy with respect to those rivers. You have the Missouri, the upper Mississippi, the Mississippi between St. Louis and Cairo, and the Ohio between Pittsburg and Cairo, all of them satisfying the requirements that you have to put in your platform with respect to the improvement of the waterways. That is an improvement in the heart of the country, an improvement that reaches to more States than any other improvement that can be mentioned in this entire country. It affects not only the States along whose borders the improvements will be made, but it affects all the states along the borders of the Mississippi beyond Cairo, for the project will also include and must include the investment of a sufficient amount of money to keep the nine-foot stage always between Cairo and New Orleans.

I am aware that there are a great many gentlemen in this country who are in favor of something more than nine feet between Cairo and the Gulf, but you must get nine feet before you get fourteen. When you once get that system that I have outlined into operation so as to show the benefits that can be derived from it, what will go on thereafter no man can foresee. The truth is that the engineers will tell you that after you have harnessed the Mississippi River by protecting its banks, no man can tell what the depth of that river will be made by the river itself confined within reasonable banks. In other words, what I am urging, what Tam laboring for, is something practical in the way of a moderate project in order that you may go on and gradually develop a larger project than that which was in your minds at its initiation—that you do something practical by taking the materials that you have, and as you go on and as the business increases, demonstrate to those in the country who are not so near to that improvement its advantage to the entire country in the reduction of railroad rates and in the actual transportation of that kind of business that the river will attract.

Now speaking to this assembly—I think it was this assembly (we have got so many congresses in favor of so many good things that sometimes there is a little difficulty in distinguishing, and when you all meet together in Washington at the same time there is danger of mistaken identity as to associations)—but at any rate a year ago President Roosevelt and I were together on a platform before the Conservation of Resources Convention, I think it was, in which we both advocated the issuing of bonds in order that a project improving waterways when begun should be completed in a reasonable time. Now I am still a consistent advocate of that theory. I believe that the Government is entitled to as rapid a method of developing an enterprise and putting it through as private corporations, and as they always issue bonds, or generally do (some of them are fortunate enough not to have to), in order to expedite the completion of these projects, it would seem wise for the Nation to do so where it will accomplish the same result.

But I want to suggest a word of caution. You are going to encounter in Congress great opposition to the policy of issuing bonds right out of hand. You are much more likely to get from Congress a declaration of policy in the shape of a declaration that a certain improvement ought to be carried out and spread upon the minutes of Congress in the form of a resolution or a declaration in a statute. Now, what I advise you to do is to get that declaration. Then when the time comes that political exigency shall prevent the appropriation of sufficient amounts from the current revenues to put the proper part of the project through the coming year or the coming two years as economy requires, the question of issuing bonds will arise. I would get the declaration first, and not have the bonds first, for the reason that you will encounter the objection of Congress that the issuing of bonds and the receipt of the money will develop a desire to be extravagant. That may not meet your views, but I have thought it over, and I know something about Congress. 1 know where you are going to encounter opposition, and I believe the best way is the natural way with those gentlemen. You lead them on to declare in favor of the Missouri improvement, in favor of the St. Louis to St. Paul improvement, in favor of the Cairo to St. Louis improvement, in favor of the Ohio improvement, all of which have been approved by the army engineers, and get them recorded in the statutes of this country as declaring that those things are to be carried out and let them make their first appropriation from the revenues of the country, and then you have them where they must issue bonds, unless the revenues afford a sufficient amount each year to carry that project on economically and with due rapidity.

I tell you, gentlemen, you are getting, as the boys and girls used to say in "finding the button"—you are getting warm. You are at a point where you can accomplish something if you don't stop it by doing it the wrong way. I don't feel justified in giving advice to a body like this on a subject which they have studied so much, or, I should not feel it except that I have had pretty close association as Secretary of War and otherwise with the army engineers, who have given their lives to the study of these improvements.

I know those army engineers very well. Doubtless you do, as you have met them in the districts to which they were assigned. I venture to say that in your whole experience you have never met men of a higher standard of character, of a higher devotion to public duty, and of greater skill in their profession than those same army engineers. They are selected from the first ten or the first five of the graduates of West Point, and they have a little ring in the Army, which I might betray to you by reason of some inside information. If a class comes out that has not developed very good material in the way of engineers and mathematicians, somehow or other the Chief of Engineers advises the Secretary of War that for that year they do not need any particular addition to the corps; and so it is that they have acquired a greater proportion of the mathematical and engineering ability of those who graduated from West Point than they really were entitled to. They have gone on, and, with but one exception, their record is clear, in the honesty, and I had almost said the severity, with which they have expended the Government's funds, and have seen to their being put into material at a cost which was an honest cost. But it has been said that they were crotchety; that at times they did not apparently catch the sound of progress; that they were slow sometimes in the building up of improvements. I am not prepared to say that those criticisms with reference to individuals were not well founded. You can not take a great corps like that, numbering as it does a great many officers within it, and not find men who fail to keep up with the procession, but I am very sure from talking with General Marshall and with a number of the other men at the head of the corps that they are fully charged with the increased interest in this country among the people and among the business men in the development of the inland waterways, and that you could not have a safer body of men to advise than the army engineers.

I count it one of the great good fortunes of this country that when the country had to build the Panama Canal, after using the great ability of civil engineers, we finally settled down upon the army engineers to carry that project through.

So it is with respect to the waterways. They have recommended to the chairman of the waterways committee in the House a system of improvements that I believe will meet the judgment of this convention, if it be moderated to the possibilities of what can be accomplished. I think you can secure upon the statute books of this country a declaration in favor of continuing contracts to build the four or five projects which the engineers have recommended, in such a way, even if you do not get the bonds voted at first, that if the time arises when the revenues will not permit their use, I mean the current revenues, to continue that work with reasonable rapidity, you can move upon the Government for the issuing of bonds. I would make the fight for bonds when the conditions strengthen the argument in their favor. It is a strong argument that you will have to meet; that if you are going to issue a large amount of bonds just for the purpose of putting them into the waterways as their necessity may develop, then there is a temptation to extravagance. Perhaps it is my judicial experience, but I always feel as if you ought to shape your policy in order to win, not according to the enthusiastic suggestions of your imagination, but in order to overcome the obstacles that you are likely to encounter in winning the end which you seek.

And, now, ladies and gentlemen, I am very much obliged to you for giving me such attention. I realize that what I have said comes from the lips of a mere tyro, but it comes from one who has some temporary responsibility in respect to the matter, and from one who is thoroughly in sympathy with the general object which you seek here, to wit, the development of all the waterways of this country by a general policy in such a way as to reduce and control railroad rates and in such a way as to stimulate upon the bosom of the waters the transportation of such merchandise as is peculiarly fitted to that character of carriage.

APP Note: The president spoke at the New Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.

William Howard Taft, Address at the Sixth Annual Convention of the National Rivers and Harbors Congress Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365205

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