Remarks at Symphony Hall in Boston, Massachusetts
Governor Crane, Mayor Collins, men and women of Boston:
I want to take up this evening the general question of our economic and social relations, with specific reference to that problem with which I think our people are now greatly concerning themselves—the problem of our complex social condition as intensified by the existence of the great corporations which we rather loosely designate as trusts. I have not come here to say that I have discovered a patent cure-all for any evils. When people's minds are greatly agitated on any subject, and especially when they feel deeply but rather vaguely that conditions are not right, it is far pleasanter in addressing them to be indifferent as to what you promise; but it is much less pleasant afterward when you come to try to carry out what has been promised. Of course the worth of a promise consists purely in the way in which the performance squares with it. That has two sides. In the first place, if a man is an honest man he will try just as hard to keep a promise made on the stump as one made off the stump. In the second place, if the people keep their heads they won't wish promises to be made which are impossible of performance. You see, one side of that question represents my duty, and the other side yours.
Mankind goes ahead but slowly, and it goes ahead mainly through each of us trying to do the best that is in him and to do it in the sanest way. We have founded our Republic upon the theory that the average man will as a rule do the right thing, that in the long run the majority will decide for what is sane and wholesome. If our fathers were mistaken in that theory, if ever the times become such—not occasionally but persistently—that the mass of the people do what is unwholesome, what is wrong, then the Republic cannot stand, I care not how good its laws, I care not what marvelous mechanism its Constitution may embody. Back of the laws, back of the administration, back of the system of government lies the man, lies the average manhood of our people, and in the long run we are going to go up or go down accordingly as the average standard of our citizenship does or does not wax in growth and grace.
The first requisite of good citizenship is that the man shall do the homely, every-day, humdrum duties well. A man is not a good citizen, I do not care how lofty his thoughts are about citizenship in the abstract, if in the concrete his actions do not bear them out; and it does not make much difference how high his aspirations for mankind at large may be, if he does not behave well in his own family those aspirations do not bear visible fruit. He must be a good breadwinner, he must take care of his wife and his children, he must be a neighbor whom his neighbors can trust, he must act squarely in his business relations, he must do all those every—day ordinary duties first, or he is not a good citizen. But he must do more. In this country of ours the average citizen must devote a good deal of thought and time to the affairs of the State as a whole or those affairs will go backward; and he must devote that thought and that time steadily and intelligently. If there is anyone quality that is not admirable, whether in a nation or in an individual, it is hysterics, either in religion or in anything else. The man or woman who makes up for ten days' indifference to duty by an eleventh-day morbid repentance about that duty is of scant use in the world. Now in the same way it is of no possible use to decline to go through all the ordinary duties of citizenship for a long space of time and then suddenly to get up and feel very angry about something or somebody, not clearly defined, and demand reform, as if it were a concrete substance to be handed out forthwith.
This is preliminary to what I want to say to you about the whole question of great corporations as affecting the public. There are very many and very difficult problems with which we are faced as the results of the forces which have been in play for more than the lifetime of a generation. It is worse than useless for any of us to rail at or regret the great growth of our industrial civilization during the last half century. Speaking academically, we can, according to our several temperaments, regret that the old days with the old life have vanished, or not, just as we choose; but we are here to-night only because of the play of those great forces. There is but little use in regretting that things have been shaping themselves differently from what we might have preferred. The practical thing to do is to face the conditions as they are and see if we cannot get the best there is in them out of them. Now we shall not get a complete or perfect solution for all of the evils attendant upon the development of the trusts by any single action on our part. A good many actions in a good many different ways will be required before we get many of those evils even partially remedied. 69
We must first of all think clearly; we must probably experiment some what; we must above all show by our actions that our interest is permanent and not spasmodic; and we must see that all proper steps are taken toward the solution. Now of course all this is perfectly trite. Every one who thinks knows that the only way in which any problem of great importance was ever successfully solved was by consistent and persistent effort toward a given end—effort that did not cease with anyone election or with anyone year, but was continued steadily, temperately, but resolutely, toward a given end. It is a little difficult to set clearly before us all of the evils attendant upon the working of some of our great corporations, but I think that those gentlemen, and especially those gentlemen of large means, who deny the evils exist are acting with great folly. So far from being against property when I ask that the question of the trusts be taken up, I am acting in the most conservative sense in property's interest. When a great corporation is sued for violating the anti-trust law, it is not a move against property, it is a move in favor of property, because when we make it evident that all men, great and small alike, have to obey the law, we put the safe guard of the law around all men. When we make it evident that no man shall be excused for violating the law, we make it evident that every man will be protected from violations of the law.
Now one of the great troubles—I am inclined to think much the greatest trouble—in any immediate handling of the question of the trusts comes from our system of government. Under this system it is difficult to say where the power is lodged to deal with these evils. Remember that I am not saying that even if we had all the power we could completely solve the trust question. If what we read in the papers is true, international trusts are now being planned. It is going to be very difficult for any set of laws on our part to deal completely with a problem which becomes international in its bearings. But a great deal can be done in various ways even now—a great deal is being done— and a great deal more can be done, if we see that the power is lodged somewhere to do it. On the whole, our system of government has worked marvelously well— the system of divided functions of government, of a scheme under which Maine, Louisiana, Oregon, Idaho, New York, Illinois, South Carolina can all come together for certain purposes and yet each be allowed to work out its salvation as it desires along certain other lines. On the whole, this has worked well; but in some respects it has worked ill. While I most firmly believe in fixity of policy, I do not believe that that policy should be fossilized, and when conditions change we must change our governmental methods to meet them. I believe with all my heart in the New England town meeting, but you can't work the New England town meeting in Boston it is too big. You must devise something else. If you look back in the history of Boston you will find that Boston was very reluctant to admit this particular truth for some time in the first decades of the nineteenth century. When this government was founded there were no great individual or corporate fortunes, and commerce and industry were being carried on very much as they had been carried on in the days when Nineveh and Babylon stood in the Mesopotamian Valley. Sails, oars, wheels—these were the instruments of commerce. The pack train, the wagon train, the rowboat, the sailing craft—these were the methods of commerce. Everything has been revolutionized in the business world since then, and the progress of civilization from being a dribble has be come a torrent. There was no particular need at that time of bothering as to whether the nation or the State had control of corporations. They were easy to control. Now, however, the exact reverse is the case. And remember when I say corporations I do not mean merely trusts technically so-called, merely combinations of corporations, or corporations under certain peculiar conditions. For instance, some time ago the Attorney-General took action against a certain trust. There was considerable discussion as to whether the trust aimed at would not seek to get out from under the law by becoming a single corporation. Now, I want laws that will enable us to deal with any evil no matter what shape it takes. I want to see the government able to get at it definitely; so that the action of the government cannot be evaded by any turning within or without Federal or State statutes. At present we have really no efficient control over a big corporation which does business in more than one State. Frequently the corporation has nothing whatever to do with the State in which it is incorporated except to get incorporated; and all its business may be done in entirely different communities—com munities which may object very much to the methods of incorporation in the State named. I do not believe that you can get any action by any State, I do not believe it practicable to get action by all the States that will give us satisfactory control of the trusts, of big corporations; and the result is at present that we have a great, powerful, artificial creation which has no creator to which it is responsible. The creator creates it and then it goes and operates somewhere else; and there is no interest on the part of the creator to deal with it. It does not do anything where the creator has power; it operates entirely outside of the creator's jurisdiction.
It is of course a mere truism to say that the corporation is the creature of the State, that the State is sovereign. There should be a real and not a nominal sovereign, someone sovereign to which the corporation shall be really and not nominally responsible. At present if we pass laws nobody can tell whether they will amount to anything. That has two bad effects. In the first place, the corporation becomes indifferent to the law-making body; and in the next place, the law-making body gets into that most pernicious custom of passing a law not with reference to what will be done under it, but with reference to its effects upon the opinions of the voters. That is a bad thing. When any body of law-makers passes a law, not simply with reference to whether that law will do good or ill, but with the knowledge that not much will come of it, and yet that perhaps the people as a whole will like to see it on the statute books—it does not speak well for the law-makers, and it does not speak well for the people either. What I hope to see is power given to the National Legislature which shall make the control real. It would be an excellent thing if you could have all the States act on somewhat similar lines so that you would make it unnecessary for the national government to act; but all of you know perfectly well that the States will not act on similar lines. No advance whatever has been made in the direction of intelligent dealing by the States as a collective body with these great corporations. Here in Massachusetts you have what I regard as, on the whole, excellent corporation laws. Most of our difficulties would be in a fair way of solution if we had the power to put upon the national statute books, and did put upon them, laws for the nation much like those you have here on the subject of corporations in Massachusetts. So you can see, gentlemen, I am not advocating anything very revolutionary. I am advocating action to prevent anything revolutionary. Now, if we can get adequate control by the nation of these great corporations, then we can pass legislation which will give us the power of regulation and supervision over them. If the nation had that power, mind you, I should advocate as strenuously as I know how that the power should be exercised with extreme caution and self-restraint. No good will come from plunging in without having looked carefully ahead. The first thing we want is publicity; and I do not mean publicity as a favor by some corporations—I mean it as a right from all corporations affected by the law. I want publicity as to the essential facts in which the public has an interest. I want the knowledge given to the accredited representatives of the people of facts upon which those representatives can if they see fit base their action later. The publicity itself would cure many evils. The light of day is a greater deterrer of wrongdoing. The mere fact of being able to put out nakedly, and with the certainty that the statements were true, a given condition of things that was wrong, would go a long distance toward curing that wrong; and, even where it did not cure it, would make the path evident by which to cure it. We would not be leaping in the dark; we would not be striving blindly to see what was good and what bad. We would know what the facts were and be able to shape our course accordingly.
A good deal can be done now, a good deal is being done now. As far as the anti-trust laws go they will be enforced. No suit will be undertaken for the sake of seeming to undertake it Every suit that is undertaken will be begun because the great lawyer and upright man whom we are fortunate enough to have as Attorney-General, Mr. Knox, believes that there is a violation of the law which we can get at; and when the suit is undertaken it will not be compromised except upon the basis that the government wins. Of course, gentlemen, no laws amount to anything unless they are administered honestly and fearlessly. We must have such administration or the law will amount to nothing. I believe that it is possible to frame national legislation which shall give us far more power than we now have, at any rate over corporations doing an interstate business. I cannot guarantee that, because in the past it has more than once happened that we have put laws on the statute books which those who made them intended to mean one thing, and when they came up for decision by the courts, it was found that the intention had not been successfully put into effect. But I believe that additional legislation can be had. If my belief is wrong, if it proves evident that we cannot, under the Constitution as it is, give the national administration sufficient power to deal with these great corporations, then no matter what our reverence for the past, our duty to the present and the future will force us to see that some power is conferred upon the national government. And when that power has been conferred, then it will rest with the national government to exercise it.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at Symphony Hall in Boston, Massachusetts Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343486