Address at a Union Religious Service at City Hall Park in Fresno, California
Mr. Mayor, Clergymen of Fresno, Ladies and Gentlemen, Citizens of Fresno:
It has not been my part in religious exercises, until I began this trip, to do other than form one of the audience; but I have found it impossible, under the friendly urgency of ministers of the gospel who occasionally desire a lay substitute, to keep from taking their places and attempting to preach a sermon.
I want to say, first, with respect to this audience, that the presence of the veterans of the Civil War is always a great inspiration to higher thoughts, to higher moral standards and to everything that goes to make our country worth living for.
I had discussed the question with some of my companions as to what subject I might select for this Sunday afternoon as one taking part in religious exercises, and, with the true California spirit, it was suggested that I ought to point out to Californians how much they have to thank God for. And perhaps if I took that subject I could get more earnest sympathy and hearing than with some other texts more useful. There is a text, however; I do not know that I can quote it exactly; but to these gentlemen before me who have taken part in the battles of the war, it will come by reason of its comparison with great significance, that "He who conquers himself is greater than he who taketh a city." Now the home application of that text to the individual I need hardly point out. The struggles of a man who is burdened by heredity or otherwise with the taste for strong drink, who having yielded many times has finally struggled and with the aid of God won the victory, those of us who are not so afflicted may yet appreciate and honor. But it is not drink alone. I sometimes think, and perhaps your distinguished Mayor, even more distinguished as a physician, will agree with me, that the appetite for food is one that may well enable a man, if he can control it, to look upon himself as better than the man who taketh a city.
And then there are so many instances in little things. I like to dwell upon the importance of little things in life, for life is not made up of one great series of grand stand plays. It is made up of the little things that go either to make others happy or to make them unhappy. It is the conduct of the husband as he comes home after a tired day in restraining himself when he is met by his eager, curious wife who wants to know how he has been living during that day and what has happened. Perhaps something has happened that does not please him, and he does not like to refer to it, and he cuts her off with a short answer. Oh, I know it and so do you. You have done it. So have I. Now, the overcoming of that disposition, the keeping of her happiness, and not your comfort and disposition constantly in your mind and heart is what makes you greater than if you took a city. And so it is with reference to every one with whom you come in contact. If you have to say "No" say it in such a way as to indicate to the person to whom you say it that you would like to say "Yes" if you could; and when you do say "Yes" and are able to communicate it to the other person, then you are glad because you know it makes him feel happy. These are the homely illustrations of what I read into that text. But I am expected, I suppose, to look at things from a political and governmental standpoint, and the text appeals to me more strongly in that regard possibly than in any other, because of some very acute experiences that I have had in political matters.
Popular government we all approve of, though sometimes I don't think we know exactly why we do approve it. I think frequently we mistake ends for means. We talk about liberty as something to be secured as an end. We think of popular government as something to be secured as an end. Well, neither is true. Liberty is a means in the pursuit of happiness. Popular government we have because we believe in the long run that it is the best government, that it is the government which makes most people happy, and the reason is this: That in the long run the interests of any particular class, and by that I mean those people who are affected by the same set of circumstances, can by representation in the government be better trusted to look after their own interests than any other class can be trusted to look after those interests, no matter how altruistic that class. So that if every class is represented, assuming that each class has intelligence enough to know its own interest, we can count on that being a better government than a government by one or a few or only a particular class. That is a popular government, but you can not run a popular government merely by calling it so. You must have some means of determining what shall direct the course of government; what shall decide. That is the majority. I do not know any other method in a popular government. We do have checks. We do have indirect means of giving expression to that vote of the majority, but when you get down to the basis, it is the control of the majority. Now you can not have a decent, popular government unless that majority can conquer itself; that is, unless that majority exercises the self-restraint that men with great power ought to exercise if it is to be exercised justly, you can not have popular government. And why? Well, take instances. I am not going into the various parts of the world, but I could call your attention, if it were not that I am in a responsible position now with respect to foreign countries, and must speak with care — I could call your attention to a good many instances where those who are in favor of popular government, and who, if I may use the expression, pull the tail feathers out of the eagle in deifying liberty and apostrophizing everything that we hold dear, think just as soon as they become a majority that that gives them the right to control the minority absolutely, and if the minority show any disposition to question it, they send them to jail. What is the effect of that? They say this is popular rule; this is the rule of the majority. So what does the minority do? Why the minority says "We will take to the woods," and they do take to the woods. And so we have that system that alternates between an election and a revolution and a revolution and an election, and we call that popular government. Now, why is it that it works that way? It is because the majority and the minority do not govern themselves and do not exercise that self-restraint without which popular government is absolutely impossible. And that is the application of the text that comes home to me in thinking and dealing with these countries that are struggling for popular government. A minority that is beaten in the election can not stand the defeat. It has to go to the woods. They are not good losers, and the majority are not good winners. Popular government is a most difficult thing to establish. We have had to hammer it out in a thousand years of Anglo-Saxon suffering and controversy and contest. And now it rests, where? It rests in the common-sense, and the self-restraint of the American people. It rests in the knowledge of the majority that it must keep within the checks of the law and the Constitution if the Government is to be preserved. And it must rest in the view of the minority that it is much more important that the government should be sustained than that the minority should have for the time being control of or a voice in the government. Its rests in the knowledge of the majority that the rights of the minority and the individuals of that minority are exactly as sacred as the rights of the individuals of the majority. Our people exercised government over themselves when they adopted the Constitution of the United States. We do not vote directly under that Constitution. We have a vote which controls the lower House in the selection of the members. We delegate to those members the power to make laws. We do not make them directly. We elect legislatures which elect Senators. Those Senators are reelected every six years. The members of the House are elected every two years, and then we elect a President every four years. Each one of those little joints between popular expression and will and the embodying of that will in the resultant course of the Government, is something which the people voluntarily introduced into our government—for what purpose? To enable them to govern themselves, so that the first wave of popular will should not find immediate expression in legislation, but that the people should take time, should discuss the matter, and should have several delays before they accomplish their entire purpose with respect to the Government.
The people rule, there is no doubt about that, but they rule according to law and under the Constitution, and they voluntarily and willingly placed the restraints of that Constitution upon themselves in order that they might act with deliberation and with the checks that were sure to secure moderate, clear-headed, well-thought out policies, and therefore when the American people voted that Constitution and now are maintaining it and supporting it, as I hope they always will, they are governing themselves, and are more to be credited than he that taketh a city.
And finally even we—or rather even those of the cloth, whose place I humbly take at this hour, have learned to govern themselves in this. There was a time in religious history when the man who was in governmental control and had his own theological theory to work out, worked it out by breaking everybody into believing it or else by cutting off the head or burning the body of the man who didn't agree with him. Well, you can reason out pretty logically sometimes that that was the course to be properly taken. And we tried it on both sides. One church and then another, as it got a chance, took that method of introducing religion into the mind and soul and body of the person thus offered up. After a time there crept into the beliefs and practice of all religion the idea that the way to have religion conquer was to be gentle with views that were contrary to the creed and rely on the arguments and the spirit of the religion to win converts rather than to use the stake and the axe. They overcame the feeling in themselves that they must make their religion conquer by any means, and they took the method that introduced a broad tolerance of all religious creeds and let each creed and each religion speak for itself gently with a message of good will to all humanity; and that is what we have to-day. And that is what I am glad to think is illustrated by this meeting to-dav. It means the brotherhood of man as between all christian religions, the brotherhood of man and the Fatherhood of God. It means tolerance for every belief and every creed that a man honestly and conscientiously entertains. And it means that with that tolerance all the people can be much more surely brought within the circle of those who believe and act upon that belief than by any other method.
APP Note: Near the end, the use of "to-day" and "christian" not capitalized is as in the printed volume.
William Howard Taft, Address at a Union Religious Service at City Hall Park in Fresno, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365224