Remarks in Fitchburg, Massachusetts
Mr. Mayor, and you, my fellow citizens:
There are two or three things that I should like to say to this audience, but before beginning what I have to say on some of the problems of the day, I wish to thank for their greeting, not only all of you, my fellow-citizens here, but particularly the men of the great war, and second only to them my comrades of a lesser war, where, I hope, we showed that we were anxious to do our duty, as you had done yours, only the need did not come to us.
We have great problems before us as a nation. I will not try to discuss them at length with you today, but I can speak a word as to the manner in which they must be met if they are to be met successfully. All great works, though they differ in the method of doing them, must be solved by substantially the same qualities. You who upheld the arms of Lincoln, who followed the sword of Grant, were able to do your duty not because you found some patent device for doing it, but by going down to the bedrock principles which had made good soldiers since the world began.
There was no method possible to devise which would have spared you from heart-breaking fatigue on the marches, from hardships at night, from danger in battle. The only way to overcome those difficulties and dangers was by drawing on every ounce of hardihood, of courage, of loyalty, and of iron resolution. That is how you had to win out. You had to win as the soldiers of Washington had won before you, as we of the younger generation must win if ever the call should be made upon us to face a serious foe. Arms change, tactics change, but the spirit that makes the real soldier does not change. The spirit that makes for victory does not change.
It is just so in civic life. The problems change, but fundamentally the qualities needed to face them in the average citizen are the same. Our new and highly complex industrial civilization has produced a new and complicated series of problems. We need to face those problems and not to run away from them. We need to exercise all our ingenuity in trying to devise some effective solution, but the only way in which that solution can be applied is the old way of bringing honesty, courage, and common sense to bear upon it. One feature of honesty and common sense combined is never to promise what you do not think you can perform, and then never fail to perform what you have promised. And that applies in public life just as much as in private life.
If some of those who have seen cause for wonder in what I have said this summer on the subject of the great corporations, which are popularly, although with technical inaccuracy, known as trusts, would take the trouble to read my messages when I was Governor, what I said on the stump two years ago, and what I put into my first message to Congress, I think they would have been less astonished. I said nothing on the stump that I did not think I could make good, and I shall not hesitate now to take the position which I then advocated.
I am even more anxious that you who hear what I say should think of it than that you should applaud it. I am not going to try to define with technical accuracy what ought to be meant when we speak of a trust. But if by trust we mean merely a big corporation, then I ask you to ponder the utter folly of the man who either in a spirit of rancor or in a spirit of folly says, "destroy the trusts," without giving you an idea of what he means really to do. I will go with him if he says destroy the evil in the trusts, gladly. I will try to find out that evil, I will seek to apply remedies, which I have already outlined in other speeches; but if his policy, from whatever motive, whether hatred, fear, panic or just sheer ignorance, is to destroy the trusts in a way that will destroy all our property—no. Those men who advocate wild and foolish remedies which would be worse than the disease are doing all in their power to perpetuate the evils against which they nominally war, because, if we are brought face to face with the naked issue of either keeping or totally destroying a prosperity in which the majority share, but in which some share improperly, why, as sensible men, we must decide that it is a great deal better that some people should prosper too much than that no one should prosper enough. So that the man who advocates destroying the trusts by measures which would paralyze the industries of the country is at least a quack, and at worst an enemy to the Republic.
In 1893 there was no trouble about anybody making too much money. The trusts were down, but the trouble was that we were all of us down. Nothing but harm to the whole body politic can come from ignorant agitation, carried on partially against real evils, partially against imaginary evils, but in a spirit which would substitute for the real evils, evils just as real and infinitely greater. Those men, if they should succeed, could do nothing to bring about a solution of the great problems with which We are concerned. If they could destroy certain of the evils at the cost of overthrowing the well-being of the entire country, it would mean merely that there would come a reaction in which they and their remedies would be hopelessly discredited.
Now, it does not do anybody any good, and it will do most of us a great deal of harm, to take steps which will check any proper growth in a corporation. We wish not to penalize but to reward a great captain of industry or the men banded together in a corporation who have the business forethought and energy necessary to build up a great industrial enterprise. Keep that in mind. A big corporation may be doing excellent work for the whole country, and you want, above all things, when striving to get a plan which will prevent wrong-doing by a corporation which desires to do wrong, not at the same time to have a scheme which will interfere with a corporation doing well, if that corporation is handling itself honestly and squarely. What I am saying ought to be treated as simple, elementary truths. The only reason it is necessary to say them at all is that apparently some people for get them.
I believe something can be done by national legislation. When I state that I ask you to note my words. I say I believe. It is not in my power to say I know. When I talk to you of my own executive duties I can tell you definitely what will and what will not be done. When I speak of the actions of anyone else I can only say that I believe something more can be done by national legislation. I believe it will be done. I think we can get laws which will increase the power of the Federal Government over corporations; if we cannot, then there will have to be an amendment to the Constitution of the nation conferring additional power upon the Federal Government to deal with corporations. To get that will be a matter of difficulty, and a matter of time.
Let me interrupt here by way of illustration. You of the great war recollect that about six weeks after Sumter had been fired on there began to be loud clamor in the North among people who were not at the front that you should go to Richmond; and there were any number of people who told you how to go there. Then came Bull Run, and a lot of those same people who a fortnight before had been yelling "On to Richmond at once," turned around and said the war was over. All the hysteric brotherhood said so. But you didn't think so. The war was not over. It was not over for three years and nine months, and then it was over the other way. And you got it over by setting your faces steadily toward the goal, by not relying upon anything impossible, but by each doing everything possible that came in his line to do, by each man doing his duty. You did not win by any patent device; you won by the generalship of Grant and Sherman and Thomas and Sheridan, and, above all, by the soldiership of the men who carried the muskets and the sabres. It did not come as soon as you wanted, and the men who said it would come at once did not help you much either.
In dealing with any great problem in civil life, be it the trusts or anything else, you are going to get along in just about the same fashion.
There is not any patent remedy for all the ills. All we can do is to make up our minds definitely that we intend to find some method by which we shall be able to tell, in the first place, what are the real evils and what of the alleged evils are imaginary; in the next place, what of those real evils it is possible to cure by legislation; and then to cure them by legislation and by an honest administration of the laws after they have been enacted. That statement of the problem will never be attractive to the man who thinks that somehow, by turning your hand, you are going to get a complete solution at once.
Grant's plan of fighting it out on that line, if it took all summer, was not attractive to the men who wanted it done in a week. But it was the only plan that won. The only way we can ever work out even an approximately satisfactory solution of these great industrial problems, of which this so-called problem of the trusts is but one, is by approaching them in a spirit which shall combine equally sanity and self-restraint on the one hand and resolute purpose on the other.
It is not given to me or to anyone else to promise a perfect solution. It is not given to me or to anyone else to promise you even an approximately perfect solution in a short time. But I think that we can work out a very great improvement over the present conditions, and the steps taken must, I am sure, be along these lines—along the lines, in the first place, of getting power somewhere so that we shall be able to say, the nation has power, let it use that power—and not as it is at present, where it is out of the question to say exactly where the power is.
We must get power first, then use that power fearlessly, but with moderation. Let me say that again—with moderation, with sanity, with self-restraint. The mechanism of modern business is altogether too delicate and too complicated for us to sanction for one moment any intermeddling with it in a spirit of ignorance, above all in a spirit of rancor. Something can be done, something is being done now. Much more can be done if our people resolutely but temperately will that it shall be done. But the certain way of bringing great harm upon ourselves, without in any way furthering the solution of the problem, but, on the contrary, deferring indefinitely its proper solution, would be to act in a spirit of ignorance, of violence, of rancor, in a spirit which would make us tear down the temple of industry in which we live because we are not satisfied with some of the details of its management.
I want you to think of what I have said, because it represents all of the sincerity and earnestness that I have, and I say to you here, from this platform, nothing that I have not already stated in effect, and nothing I would not say at a private table with any of the biggest corporation managers in the land.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks in Fitchburg, Massachusetts Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343535