Remarks on Receiving the Degree of Doctor of Human Letters From Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts
Mr. President and you of Williams:
It is a high honor that I have received at your hands, and I very deeply appreciate it.
Before speaking of what I had intended to say here to-day, I want to say a word just suggested by that address on "Idealism in Politics." I wish to see every graduate of this college, and every graduate of every other college in the land, feel the need of ideals in business and in law, quite as much as in politics. I want you to have high ideals, but practical ideals. I do not want you ever to get into a frame of mind, which we see pretty often in the world at large, which believes that you can only have either high and fantastic ideals, or else low and practical ones.
If you have to choose between being noxious and merely harmless, of course, choose to be harmless. But do not expect a very great gratitude from any person interested in the country, if you choose merely to be harmless. If you choose to have high ideals so fantastic that they are of no use when you try to apply them in practical life, do not for one moment delude yourself into the belief that to have the fantastic ideals shows that you are more virtuous than the man who has not. It merely shows that you are more foolish. Have high ideals but try to realize them in practical shape.
Now with regard to Santo Domingo; I have done everything that in me lay to prevent the crisis coming. All I asked on behalf of the people of the United States was that Santo Domingo should be good and happy. Without entering into the ethical question I shall merely say that it was not happy. Finally, affairs grew into such shape down there that it was evident that the bonds of society were on the point of dissolution; and the government of Santo Domingo made an earnest appeal to the government of the United States, and asked that this nation, out of the abundance of its strength, should strive to help a weaker brother. In the interest of the peace of the world, and in the interest of justice we yielded to Santo Domingo's request, and have started to try to help her so to carry on her finances that she may be able to pay all that she can of what she justly owes, individual or national, without impliedly formulating a responsibility and obligation to go with that right.
We say that in our own interest and in the interests of the people of the western hemisphere we adhere to the Monroe Doctrine. We cannot say that other peoples shall not do what ought to be done unless we do it ourselves. People answer that trouble and bother will come if we do it. Of course, if this nation does not do its duty because it thinks the duty will necessitate encountering some trouble, some bother, then let this nation cease to claim to be great. I demand that the nation do its duty, accept responsibility that must go with greatness. I ask that the nation dare to be great, and that in daring to be great it show that it knows how to do justice to the weak no less than to exact justice from the strong.
In order to take such a position of being a great nation, the one thing we must not do is to bluff. It is perfectly defensible, although I do not think it perfectly proper, to say we will not try to be a big nation, will not try to play the part of a big nation, or act as such in the world. But the unpardonable thing is to say we will act as a big nation, and then decline to take all steps to act as a big nation at all. Therefore, gentle men, see to it that the navy is built up, and kept built up to the highest point of efficiency. I ask that, not in the interest of war, but as a guarantee of peace. I believe in the Monroe Doctrine; I believe in the building and maintaining as an open highway for the nations of man kind the Panama Canal. I had a great deal rather see this country abandon the Monroe Doctrine, and give up all thought of building the Panama Canal, than see it attempt to maintain the one and construct the other, and refuse to provide for itself the means which can alone render its attitude as a nation worthy of the respect of the other nations of mankind. Keep on building and maintaining at the highest point of efficiency the United States navy, or quit trying to be a big nation. Do one or the other.
Another question of which I wish to speak is that of a closer super vision by the government of great industrial combinations; for, of course, wealth at present finds its expression through these great industrial combinations. I think that it has been a great mistake to act on the theory which has shaped most of our legislation, national and State, for the last thirty years, that it is possible to turn back the hands of the clock, to forbid combinations, and to restore business ac cording to and under conditions which have absolutely passed away.
That cannot be done. What we can have done is to put an efficient supervision over the owners of the combinations, so as to see as far as possible that they are employed in the interest of and not against the interest of the general public.
I do not believe that such supervision can come effectively through the State, nor that it can effectively come through the municipality, but ultimately in the great majority of cases to be effective it must be exercised by the national government. I trust that in the end means will be found by which the exercise of such control over all the great industrial corporations, which are really engaged in and doing an interstate business, will be lodged in the hands of the national government. As the first step to that I hope to see the passage of legislation which will give, as an executive not as a judicial function, to the national government the supervision of the railroads of the United States which are engaged in interstate commerce, with the power, when a rate is complained of as improper and unjust, to examine that rate, and, if they think the rate should be changed, to change it to a given rate and to have that given rate take practically immediate effect. Now, I am perfectly well aware that there are objections to the proposed change. In my judgment they are infinitely outweighed by the objections attendant upon not making the change.
I expect that the commission will be able to pass upon a given rate brought before it, just as the Supreme Court passes upon a given question of law brought before it, and one will prove to be as feasible as the other has proved feasible. That system should be, and in my judgment will be, introduced. I believe it will work a measurable betterment for the public. It can only come if the officers intrusted with the administration of the law remember that it is exactly as much their duty to protect the railroad from the public as to protect the public from the railroad; to remember that when we say we want justice from the railroad we must, if we are honest, add also a pledge to do justice to the railroad.
I am going to illustrate what I mean by some work now being done in the Department of Justice and in the Bureau of Corporations, at the head of which stands your fallow-alumnus, James Garfield. Resolutions have been passed by very important bodies demanding the investigation of what is called the beef trust, and of the Standard Oil Company. The beef trust had to be investigated partly by the Department of Justice, acting through the district attorney of Chicago. The Commissioner of Corporations was to report upon the facts of the case, and the district attorney was to act on the legal evidence he could obtain. If the district attorney can collect legal evidence which will show that there has been willful and intentional violation of the law by any man, no matter how high he stand socially and financially, he will be indicted, and if possible convicted. If he does not secure such legal evidence, no amount of popular feeling is to be allowed to be substituted for the legal evidence.
So in investigating the beef trust and the Standard Oil Company I have been content to leave it absolutely in the hands of Mr. Garfield, because I knew that he was as incapable of being swayed by popular demand on the one hand, as by any sympathy on the other; that in conducting his investigations he would do his simple elementary duty by finding them guilty or not of the specific facts alleged, not with regard to whether he personally did or did not like the corporation, but in accordance with the evidence produced before him, and obtained by him to show the corporations' acts on the points complained of.
The same spirit must be shown in applying the laws dealing with all corporations if, as I hope, we get the scope of those laws sufficiently lodged.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks on Receiving the Degree of Doctor of Human Letters From Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343596