Warren G. Harding photo

Remarks at a Dinner in Celebration of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Founding of the New York Commercial in New York City

May 23, 1921

Mr. Toastmaster and Gentlemen:

It is a pleasure to join in, the commemoration of an anniversary of business, for business is the most engrossing affair of the world. It is no confession of unworthy vanity to say it is especially engrossing in America, because it is the very lifeblood of material existence.

So I have come, Mr. Whitman, to greet you, your staff, your associates. and the splendid company of your friends here assembled. You and your predecessors, sir, have done a continuing work of generations for the cause of American business which it is a pleasure to acknowledge, and on which you are entitled to be highly complimented. The high place which we have given to business in the modern community could not be more eloquently attested than in this gathering. It has brought together men who are proud to be the workers, organizers, producers, directors of business life, and whom the community has recognized as its leaders in the most diversified realms. Perhaps a morsel of special satisfaction may be permitted to me. because, as a newspaper man myself, I find here the evidence of the stability, the permanence, the firm hold in public regard of the particular business that has engaged my own efforts. You are affording us proof of what may be achieved under the guidance of high ideals and a continuing policy of sincere, useful service.

We may well pause a moment to consider what such a background means to a commercial business such as your own. The New York Commercial comes down to us through a century and a quarter of splendid traditions. It is good to think that almost the only thing that has remained constant, unchanging, in the business world since this paper was founded is the supremacy of sound principle and high purpose, which have been its inspiration in the past, which guide it to-day, and which constitute a heritage of distinguished merit.

If we could have summoned for this occasion the men who prepared and issued the first numbers of the old New York Price Current, lineal progenitor of the Commercial, their amazement at material changes, their satisfaction in the vindication of right policies, would offer eloquent testimony. They would see the magic city of a remade world where they knew a straggling colonial port. They would count near twice as many people in that city as they knew in the entire country. They would learn that here is the business and financial lodestone of a new world. The revolution in methods of production, the introduction of the factory system, the marvels of steam and electricity, the railroad and the steamship, the summoning of science as the handmaiden to progress and the minister to human welfare—these things they would see, and they would exclaim at last: "Has nothing been left unchanged in this magic century of an Aladdin's world?"

And we would reply to them to-night: "Yes; one thing remains unchanged. The generations do not outgrow it. Invention does not supersede it. Mankind can no more prosper without it than it could in the earlier day of simple manners and methods. That one continuing, unchanging, and unchangeable thing is character. Here you may view one of its monuments. Here you will see how through all mutations the structure built with conscience as its architect and character as its corner stone is destined to stand, foursquare and firm. Here you see the business growth from those seeds of character and integrity which you planted. It has lived and grown in three centuries, but it has the same soul that you implanted in the days of humble beginnings."

On an occasion such as this, and in the presence of such an inspiration, it will not be inappropriate to consider for a moment the position, duties, and responsibilities of men who are leaders of business.

The New York Commercial was founded in the time when the young Republic was distracted by a division of opinion concerning our relations with Europe. The noble Washington was being lampooned and traduced because his administration was committed to the Jay treaty with Great Britain, first of the Nation's commercial covenants. It represented an effort to escape embroilment with the Old World system, and in the period when we were too weak to sustain a foreign conflict it served to postpone that disaster. But only to postpone it, for with every wish to preserve the peace it was impossible. We fought wars with France and England as incidents to the French revolutionary and Napoleonic upheaval. It has been too often assumed that our recent involvement in the troubles of Europe marked a new development in our affairs. In fact, it was an old story. We never were and never will be able to maintain isolation. But our part and our place in international affairs are strikingly changed. It is a far call from those days to these; from weakness to power, from poverty to affluence, from the minor to the major participation. For the strides we have taken in every phase of national importance we are indebted in great part to the vision, the energy, the unbounded confidence and unfailing optimism of the American business community, and to the farseeing leadership of men like those who have directed the great commercial newspaper whose guests we are to-night.

Every generation has it problems. Our rise in power and influence has imposed new responsibilities. Those who for more than a dozen decades have determined the course of this pioneer of the business press have given us a lesson well worth attention. They have seen the country go through many times of stress and crisis, and their institution has gone through with it; wiser for the experience, stronger for the tests. They have seen the time when our weakness as a Nation made it impossible for us to avoid involvement in the troubles of the Old World, and again they have seen how our strength imposed an obligation that made such avoidance equally impossible.

To-day, in the particular realm of this newspaper, we face a like condition. Our strength in the industrial, financial, and commercial world, our capacity to produce, our ability to extend credits which others can not give and which brave but unfortunate peoples sorely need—all these make it necessary that we shall adopt new commercial methods whereby to insure the fullest possible service to civilization. I bespeak the help of every organ of intelligent, understanding business to enable the Nation to meet these demands.

It has been said many times, but it can not be too often repeated and emphasized, that in doing this we will be alike discharging a duty to others and seizing an opportunity for our own advancement. There have seldom been more convincing proofs than we see all around us now of the essential interdependence of all parts of the world. No people, no race, no continent, can live within itself alone. He who displays the broadest spirit of brotherhood, helpfulness, and true charity will most surely be easting his bread upon the waters. The instruments of sound, safe business must be adapted, it is true, to the conditions which face us—conditions unlike any that our times have known, though not greatly different in their economic fundamentals from those of some other epochs. But changing epochs do not alter everlasting principles.

Courage, confidence, and wisdom, along with a fitting measure of enterprise and even adventure, are needed. After the Napoleonic era there were some who viewed the future gloomily; but those who looked to it with hopeful vision, with assurance in the basic things of civilization, at last enjoyed both the satisfaction of duty performed and the substantial rewards of industry expanded, commerce extended, and enterprise firmly established. The day of like opportunity for our generation is dawning after the night of storm and trial.

Our duty to the world at large is pressing, but we will equip ourselves best to perform helpfully if we are unwaveringly loyal to ourselves. The most important thing to Americans is America, and the most important thing to America is our constitutional system. Our Constitution was adopted in order to perfect a more perfect Onion, and as the national life has developed under it that Union has been so perfected that State lines have well-nigh ceased to have more than geographical and political significance. We have had the test of disunion, the triumph of reunion, and now the end of sectionalism. On the social side, we have naturally fallen into groupings with community of interest—agricultural and industrial—and incidentally social. These groupings have drawn us as a community still closer together. The Great War effaced the last vestige of sectionalism, and we stand to-day more firmly unified than ever before.

Inseparable from the formation of a more perfect Union, the Constitution sought to establish justice. True, we have not attained the perfection of our ideals in this regard, nor has any. other human society done so; but it is the proof of our national righteousness of purpose that we are never satisfied, and therefore are always trying to maintain as possible the equilibrium of precise justice.

Justice, like charity, must begin at home. We must be just to ourselves arid to our own first of all. This is not selfish, for selfishness seeks more than a fair share; we seek only that which is rightfully our own, and then to preserve that to ourselves and our posterity. The wax sadly disjointed things in the world and we are now seeking to restore the proper balance. In our efforts to do this, to achieve justice without selfishness, we will do well to cling to our firm foundations. I believe in the inspired beginning. There we will find that national greatness was founded on agriculture, that later we developed industry, and ultimately commerce, both domestic and foreign.

We will do well to keep in mind at this time the fundamental importance of agriculture and in every possible way insure justice to it. Surely we have done all that could be expected of us in carrying the burdens of others, and there is no regret, but our just concern now is for our America, because our own restoration is our first service to a world turning to us for aid and inspiration. The country has emerged from the hectic prosperity following the war and is suffering from depression. We are confronted by the need to place our own house in order, and no more important feature of that effort can be visioned than to place our agricultural industry on a sound basis and provide machinery and facilities for financing and distributing crops. If we do this we merely will be providing the farmer with facilities similar to those enjoyed by the business community generally. The farmer is entitled to all the help the Government can give him without injustice to others, because it is of the utmost importance that the agricultural community be contented and prosperous. This must be accomplished not at the expense of any other section of the community, but by processes which will insure real justice among all elements in the community. Agriculture has been laboring under several handicaps and is entitled to have facilities placed at its disposal which will remove these.

Turning to industry, our policy must be to give it every facility possible, but to keep Government outside of participation in business on its own account. It is not necessary for the Government to intrude itself in the business activities which are better conducted through private instrumentalities merely in order to demonstrate that the Government is more powerful than anything else in this country. The time has passed when any man or group of men are likely to indulge the idea of being more powerful than the Government. There is no need for the Government to engage in business in order to enforce justice and fair dealing in business. Nor is there need for the Government to engage in business to deplete the Treasury [,it has done unreasonably well in that direction already].

The Government's part in business should be no more than to insure adherence to the principles of common honesty and to establish regulations that will enable it to sail a safe course. There has been some tendency to regard business as dishonest until it should prove itself honest and to regard bigness in business as a crime. But almost all business to-day is conducted on a scale which, though we have come to regard it as commonplace, would have made our forefathers gasp; and I prefer to assume it is honest until proven dishonest. If they had attempted to limit business in size and scope, they would have prevented even the little business of to-day being as great as it is. So I speak for the least possible measure of Government interference with business but for the largest cooperation with properly conducted business, and the most effective measures to insure that, whether it be big or little, business shall be honest and fair.

In our effort at establishing industrial justice we must see that the wage earner is placed in an economically sound position. His lowest wage must be enough for comfort, enough to make his house a home, enough to insure that the struggle for existence shall not crowd out the things truly worth existing for. There must be provision for education, for recreation, and a margin for savings. There must be such freedom of action as will insure full play to the individual's abilities. On the other side, the wage earner must do justice to society. He must render services fully equal in value to the compensation he is paid. And, finally, both employer and employee owe to the public such efficiency as will insure that cost of service or production shall not be higher than the public can fairly pay.

Assuming that these things may be laid down as fundamentals, it is for us all to get back to work. That is what made our country great; it is what will put the whole world back on the right track. We must have, the world must have, confidence that things will come out right. We have dealt with the greatest problem that humanity ever confronted in carrying on the war. We will have no problem hereafter greater or more difficult than that was. Therefore we are entitled to every confidence that we will cope successfully with the problems which yet lie ahead of us.

Our position in the world has been greatly changed as a result of the war. We have become a creditor rather than a debtor. It is doubtless unfortunate that the change was brought about under the conditions which war imposed. We would have become a great creditor nation in the near future had there been no war. The exigencies of war compelled the Government to take, by taxation, much wealth from our people to be loaned to our Allies. This is the basis of their obligation to us, and it is not a good form in which to hold the obligations of one people to another people. It is altogether to be hoped that in a reasonable period we may change the form of these obligations and distribute them among all the people. We hope that this may be accomplished and also that there may be effective reduction of the cost of Government. In these ways we hope to release a great volume of wealth and credit from the burden that Government has been imposing and make it available for the development of domestic industry and the expansion of foreign trade. We ask the cooperation of business leaders, and we assure them that within its proper limitations the Government will meet them halfway.

By this process we shall aim to create renewed demand for the product of our industries, to establish permanent markets abroad for surpluses. We are learning that the immediate need, so far as our own country is concerned, is not so much production as facilities of exchange. To that end I could wish that the tendency of the world's gold to gravitate to us might be checked. Beyond the point of insuring security to our circulation, gold would be more useful to us in the vaults of great banks abroad, where it would be the guarantee of the gold standard and of those fair exchanges which are vital in international trade. I feel strongly that the protection of the gold standard is one of the great obligations which peculiarly appeals to us.

We are coming to understand the elements of the problem we face, and that is a long step toward solution. Give us the earnest support of such men as I see gathered here, of such organs of sound policy as we are gathered to acclaim, and we shall not be long in putting our country on the right course, ready for the signal, " Full speed ahead."

[extemporaneous concluding remarks:]

And before I close, my fellow Americans, I sometimes think it is fair for an Administration to speak in confidence to the people it seeks to serve. I would like you captains of industry, you leaders of commerce, you commanding figures in finance, to know the aspiration of the present Administration. Secretary Hoover spoke of understanding; the Vice-President supplemented some of the things he said. I have one outstanding wish for the president Administration and that is to inaugurate the era of understanding. I want understanding between the Government and the people. I want understanding among nations. And I want our America to have nothing to do with any nation that is not willing to sit at the table and come to an understanding.

I want understanding between the captains of industry and those who make up their toiling forces. Aye, I want understanding with those who come to our shores to participate in the benefits of residence in America. I want them to come understanding that there are obligations as well as privileges of American citizenship. And I want it understood everywhere that a man must give as well as receive from the Government which shields him. Nay, more, I want an understanding between those who would preserve our form of government and those who would destroy it, and I want the destroyer or would-be destroyer to understand that he is mad to destroy the thing that makes his existence possible, and I want him who would preserve to understand his obligations in teaching the other his place in government under the law.

Nay, more my country men, I want it understood that a nation that goes on to the supreme fulfillment must be in every way a righteous nation and its people must be a righteous people, and in the strength of righteousness I know America will go on to the supreme fulfillment of its destiny.

The headline is that he "suggests distribution of allies' war debts among all our people.

APP NOTE: The President referred to Russell R. Whitman who had acquired The Commercial in 1917. In 1927 the New York Commercial merged with the Journal of Commerce.

Warren G. Harding, Remarks at a Dinner in Celebration of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Founding of the New York Commercial in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/359815

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