Remarks in Providence, Rhode Island
Mr. Governor, and you, my fellow citizens:
We are passing through a period of great commercial prosperity, and such a period is as sure as adversity itself to bring mutterings of discontent. At a time when most men prosper somewhat some men always prosper greatly; and it is as true now as when the tower of Siloam fell upon all alike, that good fortune does not come solely to the just, nor bad fortune solely to the unjust. When the weather is good for crops it is good for weeds. Moreover, not only do the wicked flourish when the times are such that most men flourish, but, what is worse, the spirit of envy and jealousy springs up in the breasts of those who, though they may be doing fairly well themselves, see others no more deserving, who do better.
Wise laws and fearless and upright administration of the laws can give the opportunity for such prosperity as we see about us. But that is all that they can do. When the conditions have been created which make prosperity possible, then each individual man must achieve it for himself by his own energy and thrift and business intelligence. If when people wax fat they kick, as they have kicked since the days of Jeshurun, they will speedily destroy their own prosperity. If they go into wild speculation and lose their heads they have lost that which no laws can supply. If in a spirit of sullen envy they insist upon pulling down those who have profited most in the years of fatness, they will bury themselves in the crash of the common disaster. It is difficult to make our material condition better by the best laws, but it is easy enough to ruin it by bad laws.
The upshot of all this is that it is peculiarly incumbent upon us in a time of such material well-being, both collectively as a nation and individually as citizens, to show, each on his own account, that we possess the qualities of prudence, self-knowledge, and self-restraint. In our government we need above all things stability, fixity of economic policy; while remembering that this fixity must not be fossilization, that there must not be inability to shift our laws so as to meet our shifting national needs. There are real and great evils in our social and economic life, and these evils stand out in all their ugly baldness in time of prosperity; for the wicked who prosper are never a pleasant sight. There is every need of striving in all possible ways, individually and collectively, by combinations among ourselves and through the recognized governmental agencies, to cut out those evils. All I ask is to be sure that we do not use the knife with an ignorant zeal which would make it more dangerous to the patient than to the disease.
One of the features of the tremendous industrial development of the last generation has been the very great increase in private, and especially in corporate fortunes. We may like this or not, just as we choose, but it is a fact nevertheless; and as far as we can see it is an inevitable result of the working of the various causes, prominent among them steam and electricity. Urban population has grown in this country, as in all civilized countries, much faster than the population as a whole during the last century. If it were not for that Rhode Island could not today be the State she is. Rhode Island has flourished as she has flourished because of the conditions which have brought about the great increase in urban life. There is evil in these conditions, but you can't destroy it unless you destroy the civilization they have brought about. Where men are gathered together in great masses it inevitably results that they must work far more largely through combinations than where they live scattered and remote from one another. Many of us prefer the old conditions of life, under which the average man lived more to himself and by himself, where the average community was more self-dependent and where even though the standard of comfort was lower on the aver age, yet there was less of the glaring inequality in worldly conditions which we now see about us in our great cities. It is not true that the poor have grown poorer; but some of the rich have grown so very much richer that, where multitudes of men are herded together in a limited space, the contrast strikes the onlooker as more violent than formerly. On the whole, our people earn more and live better than ever before, and the progress of which we are so proud could not have taken place had it not been for the upbuilding of industrial centres, such as this in which I am speaking.
But together with the good there has come a measure of evil. Life is not so simple as it was; and surely, both for the individual and the community, the simple life is normally the healthy life. There is not in the great cities the feeling of brotherhood which there is still in country localities; and the lines of social cleavage are far more deeply marked.
For some of the evils which have attended upon the good of the changed conditions we can at present see no complete remedy. For others the remedy must come by the action of men themselves in their private capacity, whether merely as individuals or by combination. For yet others some remedy can be found in legislative and executive action--national, State, or municipal. Much of the complaint against combinations is entirely unwarranted. Under present-day conditions it is as necessary to have corporations in the business world as it is to have organizations, unions, among wage-workers. We have a right to ask in each case only this: that good, and not harm, shall follow. Exactly as labor organizations, when managed intelligently and in a spirit of justice and fair play, are of very great service not only to the wage workers, but to the whole community, as has been shown again and again in the history of many such organizations; so wealth, not merely individual, but corporate, when used aright is not merely beneficial to the community as a whole, but is absolutely essential to the upbuilding of such a series of communities as those whose citizens I am now addressing. This is so obvious that it ought to be too trite to mention, and yet it is necessary to mention it when we see some of the attacks made upon wealth, as such.
Of course a great fortune if used wrongly is a menace to the community. A man of great wealth who does not use that wealth decently is, in a peculiar sense, a menace to the community, and so is the man who does not use his intellect aright. Each talent--the talent for making money, the talent for showing intellect at the bar, or in any other way--if unaccompanied by character, makes the possessor a menace to the community. But such a' fact no more warrants us in attacking wealth than it does in attacking intellect. Every man of power, by the very fact of that power, is capable of doing damage to his neighbors; but we cannot afford to discourage the development of such men merely because it is possible they may use their power for wrong ends. If we did so we should leave our history a blank, for we should have no great statesmen, soldiers, merchants, no great men of arts, of letters, of science. Doubtless on the average the most useful citizen to the community as a whole is the man to whom has been granted what the Psalmist asked for—neither poverty nor riches. But the great captain of industry, the man of wealth, who, alone or in combination with his fellows, drives through our great business enterprises, is a factor without whom the civilization that we see round about us here could not have been built up. Good, not harm, normally comes from the up building of such wealth. Probably the greatest harm done by vast wealth is the harm that we of moderate means do ourselves when we let the vices of envy and hatred enter deep into our own natures.
But there is other harm; and it is evident that we should try to do away with that. The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them, but it is in duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown. There is clearly need of supervision—need to possess the power of regulation of these great corporations through the representatives of the public wherever, as in our own country at the present time, business corporations become so very powerful alike for beneficent work and for work that is not always beneficent. It is idle to say that there is no need for such supervision. There is, and a sufficient warrant for it is to be found in anyone of the admitted evils appertaining to them.
We meet a peculiar difficulty under our system of government, be cause of the division of governmental power between the Nation and the States. When the industrial conditions were simple, very little control was needed, and the difficulties of exercising such control under our Constitution were not evident. Now the conditions are complicated and we find it hard to frame national legislation which shall be adequate; while as a matter of practical experience it has been shown that the States either cannot or will not exercise a sufficient control to meet the needs of the case. Some of our States have excellent laws--laws which it would be well indeed to have enacted by the National Legislature. But the widespread differences in these laws, even between adjacent States, and the uncertainty of the power of enforcement, result practically in altogether insufficient control. I believe that the nation must assume this power of control by legislation; if necessary by constitutional amendment. The immediate necessity in dealing with trusts is to place them under the real, not the nominal, control of some sovereign to which, as its creatures, the trusts shall owe allegiance, and in whose courts the sovereign's orders may be enforced.
This is not the case with the ordinary so-called "trust" today; for the trust nowadays is a large State corporation, which generally does business in other States, often with a tendency toward monopoly. Such a trust is an artificial creature not wholly responsible to or controllable by any legislation, either by State or nation, and not subject to the jurisdiction of any one court. Some governmental sovereign must be given full power over these artificial, and very powerful, corporate beings. In my judgment this sovereign must be the National Government. When it has been given full power, then this full power can be used to control any evil influence, exactly as the government is now using the power conferred upon it by the Sherman anti-trust law.
Even when the power has been granted it would be most unwise to exercise it too much, to begin by too stringent legislation. The mechanism of modern business is as delicate and complicated as it is vast, and nothing would be more productive of evil to all of us, and especially to those least well off in this world's goods, than ignorant meddling with this mechanism—above all, meddling in a spirit of class legislation or hatred or rancor. It is eminently necessary that the power should be had, but it is just as necessary that it should be exercised with wisdom and self-restraint. The first exercise of that power should be the securing of publicity among all great corporations doing an interstate business. The publicity, though non-inquisitorial, should be real and thorough as to all important facts with which the public has concern. Day light is a powerful discourager of evil. Such publicity would by itself tend to cure the evils of which there is just complaint; it would show us if evils existed, and where the evils are imaginary, and it would show us what next ought to be done.
Above all, let us remember that our success in accomplishing any thing depends very much upon our not trying to accomplish everything. Distrust whoever pretends to offer you a patent cure-all for every ill of the body politic, just as you would a man who offers a medicine which would cure every evil of your individual body. A medicine that is recommended to cure both asthma and a broken leg is not good for either. Mankind has moved slowly upward through the ages, some times a little faster, sometimes a little slower, but rarely indeed by leaps and bounds. At times a great crisis comes in which a great people, perchance led by a great man, can at white heat strike some mighty blow for the right—make a long stride in advance along the path of justice and of orderly liberty. But normally we must be content if each of us can do something—not all that we wish, but something—for the advancement of those principles of righteousness which underlie all real national greatness, all true civilization and freedom. I see no promise of any immediate and complete solution of all the problems we group together when we speak of the trust question. But we can make a beginning in solving these problems, and a good beginning, if only we approach the subject with a sufficiency of resolution, of honesty, and of that hard common-sense which is one of the most valuable, and not always one of the most common, assets in any nation's greatness. The existing laws will be fully enforced as they stand on the statute books without regard to persons, and I think good has already come from their enforcement. I think, furthermore, that additional legislation should be had and can be had, which will enable us to accomplish much more along the same lines. No man can promise a perfect solution, at least in the immediate future. But something has already been done, and much more can be done if our people temperately and determinedly will that it shall be done.
In conclusion let me add one word. While we are not to be excused if we fail to do whatever is possible through the agency of government, we must keep ever in mind that no action of the government, no action by combination among ourselves, can take the place of the individual qualities to which in the long run every man must owe the success he can make of life. There never has been devised, and there never will be devised, any law which will enable a man to succeed save by the exercise of those qualities which have always been the prerequisites of success— the qualities of hard work, of keen intelligence, of unflinching will. Such action can supplement those qualities but it cannot take their place. No action by the State can do more than supplement the initiative of the individual; and ordinarily the action of the State can do no more than to secure to each individual the chance to show under as favorable conditions as possible the stuff that there is in him.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks in Providence, Rhode Island Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343487