William Howard Taft

Remarks at the Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Birmingham, Alabama

November 02, 1909

Mr. Chairman, Senator Johnston, Governor Comer, Gentlemen of Birmingham and Citizens of Alabama:

When your distinguished Chairman arose first he advised us that there was to be no reference to politics and that the time of each speaker was limited. He, however, is a toastmaster and, having made the regulation, is entitled to suspend it in his own case, and I make no argument to that at all. It reminds me of an answer made by my friend Judge Howland once, when introduced by a toastmaster whom he called a "roastmaster," with an introduction that took off some of the Judge's peculiarities in advance. He said he had no objection at all because he was reminded of the story of the gentleman who wandered into a saloon in Nevada where a game of poker was going on, and as he sat looking over the game, he saw the dealer transfer four aces from the bottom of the pack into his own hand. He nudged another gentleman who was sitting by him looking over the game. And said, "Did you see that?" "See what," said the man. "See that man take four aces off the bottom of the pack?" His neighbor turned to him and said, "Hell, isn't it his deal?" I am entirely willing to recognize the right of the toastmaster himself to discuss politics and exclude it in the rest of us. I can not, however, refrain from certain observations upon the peculiarities of Alabama politics, and the position of governor in the State. There seems to attach to it a certain necessity for a purgatory after the term, and I am not at all sure that it is not a good arrangement, and that it does not make for excellent senators.

I have listened with a great deal of interest to the statements as to the growth of Birmingham. Those of us who do not live in Birmingham associate it with three or four cities of this country. Perhaps you will decline to accept the association, but as I am a man up a tree, so to speak, I can insist upon the similarity—Birmingham, Atlanta, Pittsburg, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle and Los Angeles are types of a growing prosperity and business development that one who swings around the country as I have done feels the greatest national pride in dwelling upon. They are in the first class. They have a public spirit and a determination to succeed that develop into—I had almost called it a chimney draft and take you off your feet. There seems to be no thing that can limit their growth. You have something substantial and tangible at your doors upon which you can base your future with even more certainty than these other cities that have developed so much.

My friend on the right, who is making Republican voters, has demonstrated that you have a wealth here that is hardly equalled in the world, and I am glad that it is so, glad that you have caught the spirit of your opportunities and are determined to force them to a point where you shall make yourselves certainly the Pittsburg of the South and one of the great industrial centers of the world. Your Governor has been good enough to suggest that a desire for arbitrary rule is not confined to governors and that it affects the head of the nation as well—the temporary head of the nation—and he has made suggestions as to what I might do with the vacancies that will await me when I get back to Washington. I thought that his suggestion with reference to the associate justiceship was much too indefinite, and that when he made his definite suggestion it received a very much heavier approval. If he will also name his associate justice from the lawyers of Alabama, then he will be really helping me with respect to both offices.

What one sees in Birmingham one also sees in a less degree in every town and State of the United States. It is a spirit of progress and determination to overcome the obstacles that present themselves which I do not think is unjust to call typically American. I haven't found a corner of this country where there is anything but optimism and contentment, anything but a request that they be given an equal chance in the race and a determination to come out first. I can never make a speech on an occasion like this in dealing with our progress as a nation without referring to the fact that has impressed itself on me every time I have stepped onto the platform, in a little town in the Far West or in a large city like this, and that is the homogeneity of the American people, their having become a type different from that of any other nation, and a type that illustrates all we take pride in, the progressiveness and the courage and the enterprise which have made this country what it is, and which are going to carry it to a development that even we with our optimism can hardly reach in our imagination. And what I long for and hope for and believe is that in that material progress we are not going to lose sight of the fact that unless we accompany it with an elevation of the individual, with an elevation of our business standards, with the making of the character of each citizen better and higher and increasing our moral standards, the material progress will not be worth anything to the nation.

I think that in the last ten years and under the influence of Theodore Roosevelt, we have had called to our attention the dangers into which we might be led by an undue desire to increase our material prosperity at the cost of honesty in business and freedom from monopoly and greed with reference to our corporations and business generally. And now that we are about to resume a prosperity which will grow as I believe in the next four or five years to a point never before seen in this country or in the world, it is wise that we should take into consideration the necessity that we shall not let it come except on condition that it comes with a preservation of equality of opportunity to American citizens and the bettering of our business integrity and the restraint of all those things that tend to monopoly and corruption in politics and in business.

Now, the Chairman said I must keep out of politics, and I will because I believe I am speaking a doctrine to which everybody subscribes, whether he be Republican or Democrat. I am glad to be in Birmingham because it is in the South. It is said to be cosmopolitan, and it has attracted by reason of its great business opportunities many from the North and other places, and yet it is in Alabama and it is in the South and you would not have me say that you are not a Southern community as you are.

I am deeply interested in the development of the South and in her obtaining a share of the national prosperity which came so slowly to her in the last three decades. Birmingham is leading the South in that direction, and she, because of her cosmopolitan character, because she is becoming more and more aware of how close she is to the North and how close she is to the entire country in a business way, is influencing the South as the North is influenced toward her to believe that this country is ceasing to have sections, not ceasing to have traditions, and there is a definition that I want to make as emphatic as possible. I would not have the South give up a single one of her noble traditions. I would not have her abate a single bit of the deep pride she feels in all the great heroes who represented her in that awful struggle between the North and the South. I would have the whole country know, as I believe the South is growing herself to know, that it is possible to preserve all those traditions intact and have a warm and deeply loyal love for the old flag to which she has come back, and to know that the North respects her for those traditions she preserves and does not ask her to discard one, but only wishes to unite with her in the benefits of a common country and of a sympathy and association between the peoples of the two sections that will certainly lead us on to a greater and greater future.

William Howard Taft, Remarks at the Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Birmingham, Alabama Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365214

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