William Howard Taft

Address at the Washington Convention of the Laymen's Missionary Movement in Continental Memorial Hall

November 11, 1909

Mr. President; and Gentleman of the Laymen's Missionary Movement:

I like to think, whether it be true or not, that we have in this generation reached a somewhat different view of the responsibilities of a civilized nation from that which prevailed in the last generation, especially as applied to our country. It was perhaps natural that when we were engaged in digging into the soil and doing the best we could to make enough to live on, we should fall into the habit of thinking that we were a nation by ourselves, with no responsibilities whatever with respect to the rest of the world. So we have had maxims come down to us and a construction put upon Washington's farewell address that would still keep us in a place of isolation, and with pleasant remarks and well and politely expressed hopes for the welfare of other peoples, would cause us to devote ourselves entirely to our own improvement. In the days when that principle was announced and was followed with a good deal of care, there was one doctrine which was utterly at variance with it ? the Monroe Doctrine. That did cause some sort of responsibility and did make us assume some sort of protection over and interest in the independent nations and governments of this hemisphere. That is now enlarged into what I think we may call a definite recognition on the part of our public men that we have a very distinct interest in the welfare, and a very distinct duty with reference to the condition, of the countries of this hemisphere, and that we have exhibited it in what was, I think we may almost say, the only altru?istic foreign war that history presents?that in which we fought for the liberties of Cuba and the ending of what we regarded at the time as an international scandal. So we have gone on; we have established in a sense a receivership for Santo Domingo and we are helping out that country as well as we may, and we are doing what we can to preserve the peace between the Central American countries; and there lies back in all the history of this continent the possibilities of the heavy obligation resting upon us should unhappiness and chaos arise among any of the people of this hemisphere.

That is one step. The Cuban war illustrated the fact that when you go into a war you never know where you are coming out. We entered lightly ? well, not lightly; with a sense of due gravity, but certainly not with a sense of what the possibilities were ? at Key West and at Santiago, and we brought up ten thousand miles away at Manila. Then we had to take over that Government; and we still have it. It has cost us a good deal of money. I had a Democratic Senator ask me the other day how much I thought it cost? "right down between us," he said. Well, I explained to him that the War Department accounts showed, so far as the army was concerned, down to 1902, it had cost us about one hundred and seventy millions of dollars, and that the further cost depended upon how you regarded the army. If you thought we could get along with fifteen or twenty thousand men less than we now had, then the whole cost of these men should be imposed on the cost of our Philippine policy, which would be twenty-five or thirty millions of dollars; but that if you thought we ought to have an army as it is now anyway, it has cost by reason of our Philippine policy upward of six million of dollars annually. Perhaps I am a little bit extreme; perhaps my experience in the Philippines has colored my view; but I do not think that the money we have spent even estimating it at the highest sum, has been wasted in any way. I think it has developed our national character; that it has broadened us into a view of our national responsi?bility that no other experience could. No one can say ? I mean conscientiously say, that is "right down between us" ? that we have been there for the exploitation of our own business. I do not mean to say that it may not come along, and I think it will and I hope it will; but certainly we have not made any money out of it up to date, and cer?tainly we have not been there and have not done the things we have done with a view to our business profit. We have been there conscientiously ? and I think I can speak for part of those who have had to do with its immediate responsi?bility ? for the betterment of the people of the Philippine Islands; and I am sure we have bettered their condition. We are in the position of many a man who has sought to help another man, and if we go into that sort of thing for undying gratitude we may as well give it up in the beginning. It does not continue and it does not persist, and the only benefit you can get out of it is the consciousness of having tried to do something for another man, and the belief that you have, no matter what he thinks about it.

I was thrown into the Philippines against my will ? I won't say that, for I am a person I presume who could say yes or no ? but I mean I was led into it by another, by that sweet nature, that most engaging character, that lovely man, William McKinley. I know what actuated him and I know that the spirit that actuated him influenced us all ? his successor, Theodore Roosevelt; his Secretary of War, Elihu Root; and all who had the good fortune to serve under those great men. In the control and government of those islands I first came to be aware of the importance of foreign missions; and, if I may say so, I think there is a strong analogy between the spirit that leads a nation into what we have done in Cuba, in Santo Domingo and in the Philippines, and that movement which I am glad to see growing stronger and stronger ? the movement in favor of foreign missions. The Philippine Islands themselves are an example of what ancient foreign missions could do. They are the only people, the only race, in the Orient who are Christians, and they were made so three hundred years ago by the earnest efforts of Augustinian and Franciscan friars. They led them on, taught them the agricultural arts, and led them on to a peaceful and religious life. They did not believe in too much education; they did not believe in bringing them into close communion with the European nations. They thought there was a good deal they might learn there that would hurt them. But that which they wrought has been to our great advantage in working out the problem that we are set to there, the problem of teaching them self-government. They are a Christian people, and they look to Europe and America for their ideals, and they recognize those ideals, and that makes it possible to instil in them the principles of civil liberty and the freedom of our institutions. Now there came about in the Islands what is perfectly natural with the prevalence of one denomination, and the division between the Spanish and the native priesthood led to a great deal of demoralization in the church, and led to its taking on a very strong political character. The condition has greatly improved since we went in there, in that regard, because of course we carried with us entire freedom of religion. That has led to the sending in of missionaries of other than the Roman Catholic denomination, and has brought about a spirit of emulation and competition that makes for the good of the entire Islands and for all the churches. But the operation of the foreign missions there, the effect upon the people, the influence upon the people which the church exerts and without which the Government could carry on but few of its reforms, all impress themselves upon a man charged with the responsibility of civil government in those Islands.

In the Orient I could not but take an interest in what occurred on the mainland. Every time you travel around the world, or travel anywhere, you have to refresh your knowledge. The Philippine Islands are about sixty-six hours from Hong Kong, but here we are apt to associate them all together. Distances there do not seem quite so great as they do here, and you do come closer to China when you are in the Philippines than when you are here. We could, those of us who were in the Orient, study somewhat the Chinese question, study somewhat the movements that were going on in that great Empire of four hundred millions of people; and the chief movement that was going on was a movement that found its inspiration, that had its progress, in the foreign missions that have been sent there to introduce Christian civilization among that people. I do not hesitate to say that, because I am convinced of the fact. They are the outposts of the Christian civilization. Each missionary, with his house and his staff, forms a nucleus about which gathers an influence far in excess of the numerical list of the converts. They have a political influence, an influence upon the Government of China itself, upon the Viceroys of China, who exercise so much power there that we do not understand it. The development of China to-day, and her budding out as she is, and as I hope she will continue to do, is largely the result of, first, the missionary movement, and then the education in America and elsewhere, under the influence of these missionaries, of young Chinamen who are anxious that their country shall take the position that her wealth, and numbers, and resources, and possibilities, and history justify. The same thing is true, though I am not so familiar with it, in regard to Africa. The men who take their lives in their hands and go among the natives are entitled to be called the outposts of civilization. They have been criticised, and I presume that is something that is common to humankind; they have been held up to contempt at times. I have read one book by a very distinguished author who visited China and thought it was wise to poke fun at what he called the assumed self-sacrifice of the missionaries in China. But I am glad to say ? I have not seen it myself, but I understand ? that the author has withdrawn all these implications and all of this criticism of the men who are fighting for the cause of civilization in that great country. You visit a Chinese mission ? I mean a denominational mission in China from this country or Great Britain ? and you find a large house, you find a considerable staff, you find as near comfort as they can have in a country that does not know what Occidental comfort is; but you find upon examination that they have to go out among the sick, they have to pursue their course of life far away from friends and homes; they have to undergo that homesickness that no one understands until he has been ten thousand miles away from home and is longing just to breathe in the smoke of his own home, dirty as it is, in order that he may know that he is near where he grew up. The lives they lead, the good they do, and the fact that they represent the highest of our civilization, make it important that they should be sent, with all the instruments of usefulness possible, into those far distant places. I do not want to reflect upon anybody, but I am bound to say that in those distant lands a great many who visit there for gain, and for so-called business, for livelihood that they could not earn at home, are not representatives of our best element at home; and they visit there for other purposes than the spread of Christian civilization. They take in the native when they can, and they do not impress the native, who has only them to judge by, that the civilization that they represent would be any great improvement on that which he has. When you contrast them with the missionaries who go there only for disinterested purposes, risking their lives by going into parts of that country where, should an uprising occur, there is no adequate protection, it makes me indignant to hear contempt expressed for these men who are carrying the banner of Christian civilization and putting themselves in positions where they may be complete sacrifices to the cause. They say they were the cause of the Boxer trouble. Anybody who looks into that knows that they had to bear the danger of it. But the cause of the Boxer trouble came from the fear on the part of China that there was a disposition on the part of a good many Christian powers to divide up, and that the division was going to be parts of China. That was their fear of foreign intervention and they manifested it in a plain way, and the missionaries who were among them for the purpose of spreading Christian civilization had to bear the brunt of it. That is the only excuse for criticism of the missionaries in respect to the Boxer movement.

I sincerely hope that the result of this movement will give to the foreign missions an impetus that, with due respect to our clerical brethren, it can not have unless the whole body of good men in the community press forward. I have spoken of it solely from the laymen's standpoint and not from the purely religious standpoint; but I have spoken the things that I think I know, and I am here not so much to talk as to express by my presence the sympathy I have with the movement that you have so successfully inaugurated.

William Howard Taft, Address at the Washington Convention of the Laymen's Missionary Movement in Continental Memorial Hall Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365209

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