Remarks at the Fair Grounds in Atlanta, Georgia
Here in this great industrial center, in this city which is a typical Southern city, and therefore a typical American city, it is natural to consider certain phases of the many-sided industrial problem which this generation has to solve. In this world of ours it is practically impossible to get success of any kind on a large scale without paying something for it. The exceptions to the rule are too few to warrant our paying heed to them; and as a rule it may be said that something must be paid as an offset for everything we get and for everything we accomplish. This is notably true of our industrial life. The problems which we of America have to face today are very serious, but we will do well to remember that after all they are only part of the price which we have to pay for the triumphs we have won, for the high position to which we have attained. If we were a backward and stationary country we would not have to face these problems at all; but I think that most of us are agreed that to be backward and stationary would be altogether too heavy a price to pay for the avoidance of the problems in question. There are no labor troubles where there is no work to be done by labor. There are no troubles about corporations where the poverty of the community is such that it is not worth while to form corporations. There is no difficulty in regulating railroads where the resources of a region are so few that it does not pay to build railroads. There are many excellent people who shake their heads over the difficulties that as a nation we now have to face; but their melancholy is not warranted save in a very partial degree, for most of the things of which they complain are the inevitable accompaniments of the growth and greatness of which we are proud.
Now, I do not wish to be misunderstood. I do not for one moment mean to say that there are not many and serious evils with which we have to grapple, or that there are not unhealthy signs in the body social and politic; but I do mean to say that while we must not show a foolish optimism we must no less beware of a mere blind pessimism. There is every reason why we should be vigilant in searching out what is wrong and unflinchingly resolute in striving to remedy it. But at the same time we must not blind ourselves to what has been accomplished for good, and above all we must not lose our heads and become either hysterical or rancorous in grappling with what is bad.
Take such a question, for instance, as the question, or rather the group of questions, connected with the growth of corporations in this country. This growth has meant, of course, the growth of individual fortunes. Undoubtedly the growth of wealth in this country has had some very unfortunate accompaniments, but it seems to me that much the worst damage that people of wealth can do the rest of us is not any actual physical harm, but the awakening in our breasts of either the mean vice of worshiping mere wealth, and the man of mere wealth, for the wealth's sake, or the equally mean vice of viewing with rancorous envy and hatred the men of wealth merely because they are men of wealth. Envy is, of course, merely a kind of crooked admiration; and we often see the very man who in public is most intemperate in his denunciation of wealth, in his private life most eager to obtain wealth, in no matter what fashion, and at no matter what moral cost.
Undoubtedly there is need of regulation by the Government, in the interest of the public, of these great corporations which in modern life have shown themselves to be the most efficient business implements, and which are, therefore, the implements commonly employed by the owners of large fortunes. The corporation is the creature of the state. It should always be held accountable to some sovereign, and this ac countability should be real and not sham. Therefore, in my judgment, all corporations doing an interstate business, and this means the great majority of the largest corporations, should be held accountable to the Federal Government, because their accountability should be coextensive with their field of action. But most certainly we should not strive to prevent or limit corporate activity. We should strive to secure such effective supervision over it, such power of regulation over it, as to enable us to guarantee that its activity will be exercised only in ways beneficial to the public. The unwisdom of any well-meaning but mis guided effort to check corporate activity has been shown in striking fashion in recent years by our experience in the Philippines and in Porto Rico. Our national legislators very properly determined that the islands should not be exploited by adventurers without regard to the interests of the people of the islands themselves. But unfortunately in their zeal to prevent the islands from being improperly exploited they took measures of such severity as to seriously, and in some respects vitally, to hamper and retard the development of the islands. There is nothing that the islands need more than to have their great natural resources developed, and these resources can be developed only by the abundant use of capital, which, of course, will not be put into them unless on terms sufficiently advantageous to offer prospects of good remuneration. We have made the terms not merely hard, but often prohibitory, with the result that American capital goes into foreign countries, like Mexico, and is there used with immense advantage to the country in its development, while it can not go into our own possessions or be used to develop the lands under our own flag. The chief sufferers by this state of things are the people of the islands themselves.
It is impossible too strongly to insist upon what ought to be the patent fact that it is not only in the interests of the people of wealth themselves, but in our interest, in the interest of the public as a whole, that they should be treated fairly and justly; that if they show exceptional business ability they should be given exceptional reward for that ability. The tissues of our industrial fabric are interwoven in such complex fashion that what strengthens or weakens part also strengthens or weakens the whole. If we penalize industry we will ourselves in the end have to pay a considerable part of the penalty.
If we make conditions such that the men of exceptional ability are able to secure marked benefits by the exercise of that ability, then we shall ourselves benefit somewhat. It is our interest no less than our duty to treat them fairly. On the other hand, it is no less their interest to treat us fairly—by "us" I mean the great body of the people, the men of moderate or small fortunes, the farmers, the wage-workers, the smaller business men and professional men. The man of great means who achieves fortune by crooked methods does wrong to the whole body politic. But he not merely does wrong to, he becomes a source of imminent danger to, other men of great means; for his ill-won success tends to arouse a feeling of resentment, which if it becomes inflamed fails to differentiate between the men of wealth who have done decently and the men of wealth who have not done decently The conscience of our people has been deeply shocked by the revelations made of recent years as to the way in which some of the great fortunes have been obtained and used, and there is, I think, in the minds of the people at large a strong feeling that a serious effort must be made to put a stop to the cynical dishonesty and contempt for right which have thus been revealed. I believe that something, and I hope that a good deal, can be done by law to remedy the state of things complained of. But when all that can be, has thus been done, there will yet remain much which the law can not touch, and which must be reached by the force of public opinion. There are men who do not divide actions merely into those that are honest and those that are not, but create a third subdivision—that of law honesty; of that kind of honesty which consists in keeping clear of the penitentiary. It is hard to reach astute men of this type save by making them feel the weight of an honest public indignation. But this indignation, if it is to be effective, must be intelligent. It is, of course, to the great advantage of dishonest men of wealth if they are denounced, not for being dishonest, but for being wealthy, and if they are denounced in terms so overstrained and hysterical as to invite a reaction in their favor. We can not afford in this country to draw the distinction as between rich man and poor man. The distinction upon which we must insist is the vital, deep-lying, unchangeable distinction between the honest man and the dishonest man, between the man who acts decently and fairly by his neighbor and with a quick sense of his obligations, and the man who acknowledges no internal law save that of his own will and ap-petite. Above all we should treat with a peculiarly contemptuous abhorrence the man who in a spirit of sheer cynicism debauches either our business life or our political life. There are men who use the phrase "practical politics" as merely a euphemism for dirty politics, and it is such men who have brought the word "politician" into discredit. There are other men who use the noxious phrase "business is business," as an excuse and justification for every kind of mean and crooked work; and these men make honest Americans hang their heads because of some of the things they do. It is the duty of every honest patriot to rebuke in emphatic fashion alike the politician who does not understand that the only kind of "practical politics" which a nation can with safety tolerate is that kind which we know as clean politics, and that we are as severe in our condemnation of the business trickery which succeeds as of the business trickery which fails. The scoundrel who fails can never by any possibility be as dangerous to the community as the scoundrel who succeeds; and of all the men in the country, the worst citizens, those who should excite in our minds the most contemptuous abhorrence, are the men who have achieved great wealth, or any other form of success, in any save a clean and straight forward manner.
So much for the general subject of industrialism. Now, just a word in reference to one of the great staples of this country, which is peculiarly a staple of the Southern States. Of course I mean cotton. I am glad to see diversifications of industry in the South, the growth of manufactures as well as the growth of agriculture, and the growing growth of diversification of crops in agriculture. Nevertheless it will always be true that in certain of the Southern States cotton will be the basis of the wealth, the mainstay of prosperity in the future as in the past. The cotton crop is of enormous consequence to the entire country. It was the cotton crop of the South that brought four hundred million dollars of foreign gold into the United States last year, turning the balance of trade in our favor. The soil and climate of the South are such that she enjoys a practical monopoly in the production of raw cotton. No other clothing material can be accepted as a substitute for cotton. I welcome the action of the planters in forming a cotton association, and every assistance shall be given them that can be given them by the National Government. Moreover, we must not forget that the work of the manufacturers in the South supplements the work of the planter. It is an advantage to manufacture the raw material here and sell to the world the finished goods. Under proper methods of distribution it may well be doubted whether there can be such a thing as over-production of cotton. Last year's crop was nearly fourteen million bales, and yet the price was sufficiently high to give a handsome profit to the planter. The consumption of cotton increases each year, and new uses are found for it.
This leads me to a matter of our foreign relations, which directly concerns the cotton planter. At present our market for cotton is largely in China. The boycott of our goods in China during the past year was especially injurious to the cotton manufacturers. This Government is doing, and will continue to do, all it can to put a stop to the boycott. But there is one measure to be taken toward this end in which I shall' need the assistance of the Congress. We must insist firmly on our rights; and China must beware of persisting in a course of conduct to which we can not honorably submit. But we in our turn must recognize our duties exactly as we insist upon our rights. We can not go into the international court of equity unless we go in with clean hands. We can not expect China to do us justice unless we do China justice. The chief cause in bringing about the boycott of our goods in China was undoubtedly our attitude toward the Chinese who come to this country. This attitude of ours does not justify the action of the Chinese in the boycott, and especially some of the forms which that action has taken. But the fact remains that in the past we have come short of our duty toward the people of China. It is our clear duty, in the interest of our own wage-workers, to forbid all Chinese of the coolie class—that is, laborers, skilled or unskilled—from coming here. The greatest of all duties is national self-preservation, and the most important step in national self-preservation is to preserve in every way the well-being of the wage-worker. I am convinced that the well being of our wage-workers demands the exclusion of the Chinese coolies, and it is therefore our duty to exclude them, just as it would be the duty of China to exclude American laboring men if they became in any way a menace to China by entering into her country. The right is reciprocal, and in our last treaty with China it was explicitly recognized as inhering in both nations. But we should not only operate the law with as little harshness as possible, but we should show every courtesy and consideration and every encouragement to all Chinese who are not of the laboring class to come to this country. Every Chinese traveler or student, business man or professional man, should be given the same right of entry to, and the same courteous treatment in, this country as are accorded to the student or traveler, the business man or professional man of any other nation. Our laws and treaties should be so framed as to guarantee to all Chinamen, save of the excepted coolie class, the same right of entry to this country and the same treatment while here as is guaranteed to citizens of any other nation. By executive action I am as rapidly as possible putting a stop to the abuses which have grown up during many years in the administration of this law. I can do a good deal, and will do a good deal, even without the action of the Congress; but I can not do all that should be done unless such action is taken, and that action I most earnestly hope will be taken. It is needed in our own interest and especially in the interest of the Pacific slope and of the South Atlantic and Gulf States; for it is short-sighted indeed for us to permit foreign competitors to drive us from the great markets of China. Moreover, the action I ask is demanded by considerations that are higher than mere interest, for I ask it in the name of what is just and right.
America should take the lead in establishing international relations on the same basis of honest and upright dealing which we regard as essential as between man and man.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Fair Grounds in Atlanta, Georgia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343625