Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the St. Paul Auditorium in St. Paul, Minnesota

September 09, 1919

Mr. Chairman, my fellow countrymen, I am very happy that the mayor sounded the note that he has just sounded, because by some sort of divination he realized what was in my heart to-night. I do not feel since I have left Washington this time that I am on an ordinary errand. I do not feel that I am on a political errand, even in the broad sense of that term. I feel rather that I am going about to hold counsel with. my fellow countrymen concerning the most honorable and distinguished course which our great country can take at this turning point in the history of the world. And the mayor was quite right when he said that this is a conference concerning the true interpretation of the American spirit. I believe, I hope without an undue touch of national pride, that it is only the American spirit that can be the true mediator of peace.

The theme that I find uppermost in my thought to-night is this: We are all actuated, my fellow countrymen, by an intense consciousness and love of America. I do not think that it is fancy on my part; it is based upon long experience that in every part of the world I can recognize an American the minute I see him. Yet that is not because we are all of one stock. We are of more varied origins and stocks than any people in the world. We come from all the great races of the world. We are made up out of all the nations and peoples who have stood at the center of civilization. In this part of the country it is doubtful whether in some of our great cities 50 per cent of the people come of parents born in America. One of the somewhat serious jests which I allowed myself to indulge on the other side of the water was with my Italian colleagues when they were claiming the city of Fiume upon the Adriatic because of its Italian population, and other cities scattered here and there whose surrounding population was not Italian but in whom an Italian element played an important part. I said, "That is not a sufficient argument for the extension of Italian sovereignty to these people, because there are more Italians in New York City than in any city in Italy, and I doubt if you would feel justified in suggesting that the sovereignty of Italy be extended over the city of New York." I advert to this, my fellow citizens, merely as one illustration, that could be multiplied a hundredfold, of the singular make-up of this great Nation.

I do not know how it happens that we are all Americans; we are so different in origin; we are so different in memories. The memory of America does not go very far back as measured by the distances of history, and great millions of our people carry in their hearts the traditions of other people, the traditions of races never bred in America; yet we are all unmistakably and even in appearance Americans, and nothing else. There is only one possible explanation for that, my fellow citizens, and that is that there is in the practice and in the tradition of this country a set of principles which, however imperfectly, get into the consciousness of every man who lives in this country.

One of the chief elements that make an American is this: In almost every other country there is some class that dominates, or some governmental authority that determines the course of politics, or some ancient system of land laws that limits the freedom of land tenure, or some ancient custom which ties a man into a particular groove in the land in which he lives. There is none of that in America. Every man in America, if he behaves himself, knows that he stands on the same footing as every other man in America, and, thank goodness, we are in sight of the time when every woman will know that she stands upon the same footing. We do not have to ask anybody's leave what we shall think or what we shall do or how we shall vote. We do not have to get the approval of a class as to our behavior. We do not have to square ourselves with standards that have been followed ever since our great-grandfathers. We are very much more interested in being great-grandfathers than in having had great-grandfathers, because our view is to the future. America does not march, as so many other peoples march, looking back over its shoulder. It marches with its eyes not only forward, but with its eyes lifted to the distances of history, to the great events which are slowly culminating, in the Providence of God, in the lifting of civilization to new levels and new achievements. That is what makes us Americans.

And yet I was mistaken a moment ago when I said we are nothing else, because there are a great many hyphens left in America. For my part, I think the most un-American thing in the world is a hyphen. I do not care what it is that comes before the word "American." It may be a German-American, or an Italian-American, a Swedish-American, or an Anglo-American, or an Irish- American. It does not make any difference what comes before the "American," it ought not to be there, and every man who comes to take counsel with me with a hyphen in his conversation I take no interest in whatever. The entrance examination, to use my own parlance, into my confidence is, "Where do you put America in your thoughts? Do you put it first, always first, unquestionably first?" Then we can sit down together and talk, but not otherwise. Now, I want you distinctly to understand that I am not quarreling with the affectionate memories of people who have drawn their origin from other countries. I no more blame a man for dwelling with fond affection upon the traditions of some great race not bred in America than I blame a man for remembering with reverence his mother and his father and his forebears that bred him and that gave him a chance in the world. I am not quarreling with those affections; I am talking about purposes. Every purpose is for the future, and the future for Americans must be for America.

We have got to choose now, my fellow citizens, what kind of future it is going to be for America. I think that what I have said justifies me in adding that this Nation was created to be the mediator of peace, because it draws its blood from every civilized stock in the world and is ready by sympathy and understanding to understand the peoples of the world, their interests, their rights, their hopes, their destiny. America is the only Nation in the world that has that equipment. Every other nation is set in the mold of a particular breeding. We are set in no mold at all. Every other nation has certain prepossessions which run back through all the ramifications of an ancient history. We have nothing of the kind. We know what all peoples are thinking, and yet we by a fine alchemy of our own combine that thinking into an American plan and an American purpose. America is the only Nation which can sympathetically lead the world in organizing peace.

Constantly, when I was on the other side of the water, delegations representing this, that, and the other peoples of Europe or of Asia came to visit me to solicit the interest of America in their fortunes, and, without exception, they were able to tell me that they had kinsmen in America. Some of them, I am ashamed to say, came from countries I had never heard of before, and yet even they were able to point, not to a handful, not to a few hundreds, but to several thousand kinsmen in America. I never before knew that they came, but they are here and they are our interpreters, the interpreters on our behalf of the interests of the people from whom they sprang. They came to America as sort of advanced couriers of those people. They came in search of the Golden West. They came in search of the liberty that they understood reigned among that free and happy people, They were drawn by the lure of justice, by the lure of freedom, out of lands where they were oppressed, suppressed, where life was made impossible for them upon the free plane that their hearts had conceived. They said, "Yonder is our star in the west," and then the word went home, "We have found the land. They are a free people that are capable of understanding us. You go to their representatives in Paris and put your case before them, and they will understand." What a splendid thing that is, my fellow countrymen! I want you to keep this in your minds as a conception of the question that we are now called upon to decide.

To hear some men talk about the league of nations you would suppose that it was a trap set for America; you would suppose that it was an arrangement by which we entered into an alliance with other great, powerful nations to make war some time. Why, my fellow countrymen, it bears no resemblance to such description. It is a great method of common counsel with regard to the common interests of mankind. We shall not be drawn into wars; we shall be drawn into consultation, and we will be the most trusted adviser in the whole group. Consultation, discussion, is written all over the whole face of the covenant of the league of nations, for the heart of it is that the nations promise not to go to war until they have consulted, until they have discussed, until all the facts in the controversy have been laid before the court which represents the common opinion of mankind.

That is the league of nations. Nothing can be discussed there that concerns our domestic affairs. Nothing can be discussed there that concerns the domestic affairs of any other people, unless something is occurring in some nation which is likely to disturb the peace of the world, and any time that any question arises which is likely to disturb the peace of the world, then the covenant makes it the right of any member, strong or weak, big or little, of that universal concert of the nations to bring that matter up for clarification and discussion. Can you imagine anything more calculated to put war off, not only to put it off, but to make it violently improbable? When a man wants to fight he does not go and discuss the matter with the other fellow. He goes and hits him, and then somebody else has to come in and either join the fight or break it up. I used a very homely illustration the other night, which perhaps it may not be amiss for me to use again. I had two friends who were becoming more and more habitually profane. Their friends did not like it. They not only had the fundamental scruple that it was wrong, but they also thought, as I heard a very refined lady say, It was not only wrong but, what was worse, it was vulgar." They did not like to see their friends adjourning all the rest of their vocabulary and using only those words. So they made them enter into a solemn agreement—I ought to say they lived in a large city—that they would not swear inside the corporate limits; that if they got in a state of mind which made it necessary to explode in profanity they would get out of town and swear. The first time the passion came upon them and they recalled their promise they got sheepishly on a street car and made for the town limits, and I need hardly tell you that when they got there they no longer wanted to swear. They had cooled off. The long spaces of the town, the people going about their ordinary business, nobody paying any attention to them, the world seeming to be at peace when they were at war, all brought them to a realization of the smallness of the whole business, and they turned around and came into town again. Comparing great things with small, that will suffice as a picture of the advantage of discussion in international matters as well as in individual matters, because it was universally agreed on the other side of the water that if Germany had allowed the other Governments to confer with her 24 hours about the recent war, it could not have taken place. We know why. It was an unconscionable war. She did not dare discuss it. You can not afford to discuss a thing when you are in the wrong, and the minute you feel that the whole judgment of the world is against you, you have a different temper in affairs altogether.

This is a great process of discussion that we are entering into, and my point to-night—it is the point I want to leave with you—is that we are the people of all people in the world intelligently to discuss the difficulties of the nations which we represent, although we are Americans. We are the predestined mediators of mankind. I am not saying this in any kind of national pride or vanity. I believe that is mere historic truth, and I try to interpret circumstances in some intelligent way. If that is the kind of people we are, it must have been intended that we should make some use of the opportunities and powers that we have, and when I hear gentlemen saying that we must keep out of this thing and take care of ourselves I think to myself, "Take care of ourselves? Where did we come from? Is there nobody else in the world to take care of? Have we no sympathies that do not run out into the great field of human experience everywhere? Is that what America is, with her mixture of bloods?" Why, my fellow citizens, that is a fundamental misconception of what it is to be an American, and these gentlemen are doing a harm which they do not realize. I want to testify to you here to-night, my fellow citizens, because I have the means of information, that since it has seemed to be uncertain whether we are going to play this part of leadership in the world or not, this part of leadership in accommodation, the old intrigues have stirred up in this country again. That intrigue which we universally condemn— that hyphen which looked to us like a snake, the hyphen between "German" and "American"—has reared its head again, and you hear the "his-s-s" of its purpose. What is that purpose? It is to keep America out of the concert of nations, in order that America and Germany, being out of that concert, may stand—in their mistaken dream—united to dominate the world, or, at any rate, the one assist the other in holding the nations of the world off while its ambitions are realized.

There is no conjecture about this, my fellow citizens. We know the former purposes of German intrigue in this country, and they are being revived. Why? We have not reduced very materially the number of the German people. Germany remains the great power of central Europe. She has more than 60,000,000 people now (she had nearly 70,000,000 before Poland and other Provinces were taken away). You can not change the temper and expectations of a people by five years of war, particularly five years of war in which they are not yet conscious of the wrong they did or of the wrong way in which they did it. They are expecting the time of the revival of their power, and along with the revival of their power goes their extraordinary capacity, their, unparalleled education, their great capacity in commerce and finance and manufacture. The German bankers and the German merchants and the German manufacturers did not want this war. They were making conquest of the world without it, and they knew it would spoil their plans, not advance them; and it has spoiled their plans, but they are there yet with their capacity, with their conception of what it is to serve the world materially and so subdue the world psychologically. All of that is still there, my fellow countrymen, and if America stays out then the rest of the world will have to watch Germany and watch America, and when there are two dissociated powers there is danger that they will have the same purposes.

There can be only one intelligent reason for America staying out of this, and that is that she does not want peace, that she wants war sometimes and the advantage which war will bring her, and I want to say now and here that the men who think that by that thought they are interpreting America are making the sort of mistake upon which it will be useful for them to reflect in obscurity for the rest of their lives. This is a peaceful people. This is a liberty-loving people, and liberty is suffocated by war. Free institutions can not survive the strain of prolonged military administration. In order to live tolerable lives you must lift the fear of war and the practice of war from the lives of nations. America is evidence of the fact that no great democracy ever entered upon an aggressive international policy. I want you to know, if you will be kind enough to read the covenant of the league of nations—most of the people that are arguing against it are taking it for granted that you have never read it— take the pains to read it, and you will find that no nation is admitted to the league of nations that can not show that it has the institutions which we call free. Nobody is admitted except the self-governing nations, because it was the instinctive judgment of every man who sat around that board that only a nation whose government was its servant and not its master could be trusted to preserve the peace of the world. There are not going to be many other kinds of nations long, my fellow citizens. The people of this world—not merely the people of America, for they did the job long ago—have determined that there shall be no more autocratic governments.

And in their haste to get rid of one of them they set up another. I mean in pitiful Russia. I wish we could learn the lesson of Russia so that it would be burned into the consciousness of every man and woman in America. That lesson is that nobody can be free where there is not public order and authority. What has happened in Russia is that an old and distinguished and skillful autocracy has had put in its place an amateur autocracy, a little handful of men exercising without the slightest compunction of mercy or pity the bloody terror that characterized the worst days of the Czar. That is what must happen if you knock things to pieces. Liberty is a thing of slow construction. Liberty is a thing of universal cooperation. Liberty is a thing which you must build up by habit. Liberty is a thing which is rooted and grounded in character, and the reason I am so certain that the leadership of the world, in respect of order and progress, belongs to America is that I know that these principles are rooted and grounded in the American character. It is not our intellectual capacity, my fellow-citizens, that has given us our place in the world, though I rate that as high as the intellectual capacity of any other people that ever lived, but it is the heart that lies back of the man that makes America. Ask this question of yourselves. I have no doubt that this room is full of mothers and fathers and wives and sweethearts who sent their beloved young men to France. What did you send them there for? What made you proud that they were going? What made you willing that they should go? Did you think they were seeking to aggrandize America in some way? Did you think they were going to take something for America that had belonged to somebody else? Did you think that they were going in a quarrel which they had provoked and must maintain? The question answers itself. You were proud that they should go because they were going on an errand of self-sacrifice, in the interest of mankind. What a halo and glory surrounds those old men whom we now greet with such reverence, the men who were the soldiers in our Civil War! They saved a Nation. Ah, when these youngsters grow old who have come back from the fields of France, what a halo will be around their brows! They saved the world. They are of the same stuff as those old veterans of the Civil War. Mind you, I was born and bred in the South, but I can pay that tribute with all my heart to the men who saved the Union. It ought to have been saved. It was the greatest thing that men had conceived up to that time. Now we come to a greater thing—to the union of great nations in conference upon the interests of peace. That is the fruitage, the fine and appropriate fruitage, of what these men achieved upon the fields of France.

I saw many fine sights in Paris, many gallant sights, many sights that quickened the pulse; but my pulse never beat so fast as when I saw groups of our boys swinging along the street. They looked as if they owned something, and they did. They owned the finest thing in the world, the thing that we are going to prove was theirs. They owned the ideals and conceptions that will govern the world. And on this errand that I am going about on I feel that I am doing what I can to complete what they so gallantly began. I should feel recreant, my fellow citizens, if I did not do all that is in my power to do to complete the ideal work which those youngsters so gallantly began.

This was a war to make similar wars impossible, and merely to win this war and stop at that is to make it certain that we shall have to fight another and a final one. I hear opponents of the league of nations say, "But this does not guarantee peace." No; nothing guarantees us against human passion and error, but I would like to put this business proposition to you: If it increases the probability of peace by, let us say, 10 per cent, do you not think it is worth while? In my judgment, it increases it about 99 per cent. Henceforth the genius of the world will be devoted to accommodating the counsels of mankind and not confusing them; not supplying heat but supplying light; not putting friction into the machine, but easing the friction off and combining the parts of the great machinery of civilization so that they will run in smooth harmony and perfection. My fellow citizens, the tasks of peace that are ahead of us are the most difficult tasks to which the human genius has ever been devoted. I will state the fundamental task, for it is the fundamental task. It is the relationship between those who toil with their hands and those who direct that toil. I will not say the relationship between capital and labor; that means something slightly different. I say the relationship between those who organize enterprise and those who make enterprise go by the skill and labor of their hands. There is at present, to say the least, a most unsatisfactory relationship between those two and we must devote our national genius to working out a method of association between the two which will make this Nation the nation to solve triumphantly and for all time the fundamental problem of peaceful production. You ask, "What has that got to do with the league of nations?" I dare say that you do not know because I have never heard anybody tell you that the great charter, the new international charter, of labor is in the treaty of peace and associated with the league of nations. A great machinery of consultation is set up there, not merely about international political affairs, but about standards of labor, about the relationships between managers and employees, about the standards of life and the conditions of labor, about the labor of women and of children, about the humane side and the business side of the whole labor problem. And the first conference is going to sit in Washington next month; not the conference which some of you may have heard of, which I have just called of our own people, but an international conference to consider the interests of labor all over the round world. I do not know—nobody knows—whether the Senate will have stopped debating by that time or not. I heard a Member of the Senate say that nobody knew that except God Almighty! But whether it has finished or not, the conference is going to sit, and if it has not finished, the only question that will be left unsettled is whether we are going to sit inside of it or outside of it. The conference at Paris voted, in their confidence in the American people, that the first meeting should be held in Washington and should be called by the President of the United States. They supposed in their innocence that the President of the United States represented the people of the United States. And in calling this conference, as I have called it, I am confident that I am representing the people of the United States. After I have bidden the delegates welcome, perhaps I can have a chair just outside the door and listen.

I am jesting, my fellow citizens, but there is a little sadness in the jest. Why do we wait to do a great thing? Why do we wait to fulfill the destiny of America? Why do we make it possible that anybody should think that we are not coming in now, but are going to wait later and come in with Germany? I suppose there is a certain intellectual excitement and pleasure in debate, but I do not experience any when great issues like this are pending, and I would be very sad, indeed, if I did not have an absolute, unclouded confidence of the result. I had the great good fortune to be born an American, I have saturated myself in the traditions of our country, I have read all the great literature that interprets the spirit of our country, and when I read my own heart with regard to these great purposes, I feel confident that it is a sample American heart. Therefore I have the most unbounded confidence in the result. All that is needed is that you should be vocal and audible. I know what you want. Say it and get it. I am your servant; all the men elected to go to Washington are your servants. It is not our privilege to follow our private convictions; it is our duty to represent your convictions and execute your purposes, and therefore all that is needed is a consciousness. Tell me that you do not want to do what I am urging and I will go home; but tell me, as your faces and your voices tell me, that you do want what I want, and I will be heartened for the rest of my journey, and I will say to the folks all the way from here to the Pacific, "Minnesota is up and on her tiptoes and behind you. Let's all of us get in the great team which is to redeem the destinies of mankind."

Our fathers of the revolutionary age had a vision, my fellow citizens. There were only 3, 000, 000 Americans then, in a little strip of settlements on the Atlantic coast. Now the great body of American citizens extends from ocean to ocean, more than a hundred millions strong. These are the people of whom the founders of the Republic were dreaming, those great hosts of free men and women who should come in the future and who should say to all the world, "Here are the testaments of liberty. Here are the principles of freedom. Here are the things which we must do in order that mankind may be released from the intolerable things of the past." And there came a day at Paris when the representatives of all the great governments of the world accepted the American specifications upon which the terms of the treaty of peace were drawn. Shall we have our treaty, or shall we have somebody else's? Shall we keep the primacy of the world, or shall we abandon it?

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the St. Paul Auditorium in St. Paul, Minnesota Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317922

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