Remarks at the Forty-Second Anniversary Banquet of the Union League Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
This club was founded to uphold the hands of Abraham Lincoln when he stood as the great leader in the struggle for union and liberty. We have a right, therefore, to appeal to this club for aid in every governmental or social effort made along the lines marked out by Lincoln. The great President taught many lessons which we who come after him should learn. Among the most important of these was the lesson that for weal or for woe we are indissolubly bound together, in what ever part of the country we live, whatever our social standing, what ever our wealth or our poverty, whatever form of mental or physical activity our life work may assume. Lincoln, who was, more emphatically than any other President we have ever had, the President of the plain people, was yet as far removed as Washington himself from the slightest taint of demagogy. With his usual farsighted clearness of vision he saw that in a republic such as ours permanent prosperity of any part of our people was conditioned upon the prosperity of all; and that on the other hand, any effort to raise the general level of happiness by striking at the well-being of a portion of the people could not but be, in the end, disastrous to all.
The principles which Lincoln applied to the solution of the problems of his day are those which we must apply if we expect successfully to solve the different problems of our own day—problems which are so largely industrial. Exactly as it is impossible to develop a high morality unless we have as a foundation those qualities which give at least a certain minimum of material prosperity, so it is impossible permanently to keep material prosperity unless there is back of it a basis of right living and right thinking. In the last analysis, of course, the dominant factor in obtaining this good conduct must be the individual character of the average citizen. If there is not this condition of individual character in the average citizenship of the country, all effort to supply its place by the wisest legislation and administration will in the end prove futile. But given this average of individual character, then wise laws and the honest administration of the laws can do much to supplement it.
If either the business world or the world of labor loses its head, then it has lost something which cannot be made good by any governmental effort. Our faith in the future of the republic is firm, because we believe that on the whole and in the long run our people think clearly and act rightly.
Unquestionably, however, the great development of industrialism means that there must be an increase in the supervision exercised by the government over business enterprises. This supervision should not take the form of violent and ill-advised interference; and assuredly there is danger lest it take such form if the business leaders of the business community confine themselves to trying to thwart the effort at regulation instead of guiding it aright.
Such men as the members of this club should lead in the effort to secure proper supervision and regulation of corporate activity by the government, not only because it is for the interest of the community as a whole that there should be this supervision and regulation, but because in the long run it will be in the interest above all of the very people who often betray alarm and anger when the proposition is first made.
Neither this people nor any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of the vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole. Our peculiar form of government, a government in which the nation is supreme throughout the Union in certain respects, while each of nearly half a hundred States is supreme in its part of the Union in certain other respects, renders the task of dealing with these conditions especially difficult.
No finally satisfactory result can be expected from merely State action. The action must come through the Federal government The business of the country is now carried on in a way of which the founders of our Constitution could by no possibility have had any idea.
All great business concerns are engaged in interstate commerce, and it was beyond question the intention of the founders of our government that interstate commerce in all its branches and aspects should be under national and not State control. If the courts decide that this intention was not carried out and made effective in the Constitution as it now stands, then in the end the Constitution, if not construed differently, will have to be amended so that the original undoubted intention may be made effective. But, of course, a constitutional amendment is only to be used as a last resort if every effort of legislation and administration shall have been proved inadequate.
Meanwhile the men in public life and the men who direct the great business interests of the country should work not in antagonism but in harmony toward this given end. In entering a field where the progress must of necessity be so largely experimental it is essential that the effort to make progress should be tentative and cautious. We must grow by evolution, not by revolution. There must be no hurry, but there must also be no halt; and those who are anxious that there should be no sudden and violent changes must remember that precisely these sudden and violent changes will be rendered likely if we refuse to make the needed changes in cautious and moderate manner.
At the present moment the greatest need is for an increase in the power of the national government to keep the great highways of commerce open alike to all on reasonable and equitable terms. Less than a century ago these highways were still, as they had been since the dawn of history, either waterways, natural or artificial, or else ordinary roads for wheel vehicles drawn by animal power. The railroad, which was utterly unknown when our government was formed and when the great principles of our jurisprudence were laid down, has now become almost everywhere the most important, and, in many large regions, the only form of highway for commerce. The man who controls its use cannot be permitted to control it in his own interest alone.
It is not only just, but it is in the interest of the public, that this man should receive the amplest payment for the masterful business capacity which enables him to benefit himself while benefiting the public; but in return he must himself recognize his duty to the public, He will not and cannot do this if our laws are so defective that in the sharp competition of the business world the conscientious man is put at a disadvantage by his less scrupulous fellows.
It is in the interest of the conscientious and public-spirited railway man that there should be such governmental supervision of the railway traffic of the country as to require from his less scrupulous competitors, and from unscrupulous big shippers as well, that heed to the public welfare which he himself would willingly give, and which is of vital consequence to the small shipper. Every important railroad is engaged in interstate commerce. Therefore, this control over the railroads must come through the national government.
The control must be exercised by some governmental tribunal, and it must be real and effective. Doubtless there will be risk that occasionally, if an unfit President is elected, this control will be abused; but this is only another way of saying that any adequate governmental power, from the power of taxation down, can and will be abused if the wrong men get control of it.
The details must rest with the law-makers of the two Houses of Congress; but about the principle there can be. no doubt. Hasty or vindictive action would merely work damage; but in temperate, resolute fashion, there must be lodged in some tribunal the power over rates, and especially over rebates—whether secured by means of private cars, or private tracks, in the form of damages, or commissions, or in any other manner—which will protect alike the railroad and the shipper, and put the big shipper and the little shipper on an equal footing. Doubtless no law would accomplish all that enthusiasts hope; there is always disappointment over the results of such a law among the over sanguine; but very real and marked good has come from the legislation and administration of the last few years; and now, as part of a coherent plan, it is entirely possible, and, indeed, necessary, to enact an additional law which will mean further progress along the same lines of definite achievement in the direction of securing fair dealing as between man and man.
In some such body as the Interstate Commerce Commission there must be lodged in effective shape the power to see that every shipper who uses the railroads and every man who owns or manages a railroad shall on the one hand be given justice and on the other hand be required to do justice. Justice—so far as it is humanly possible to give and to get justice—is the foundation of our government We are not trying to strike down the rich man; on the contrary, we will not tolerate any attack upon his rights. We are not trying to give an improper advantage to the poor man because he is poor, to the man of small means because he has not larger means; but we are striving to see that the man of small means has exactly as good a chance, so far as we can obtain it for him, as the man of larger means; that there shall be equality of opportunity for the one as for the other.
We do not intend that this republic shall ever fail as those republics of olden time failed, in which there finally came to be a government by classes, which resulted either in the poor plundering the rich or in the rich exploiting and in one form or another enslaving the poor; for either event means the destruction of free institutions and of individual liberty. Ours is not a government which recognizes classes. It is based on the recognition of the individual. We are not for the poor man as such, nor for the rich man as such. We are for every man, rich or poor, provided he acts justly and fairly by his fellows, and if he so acts the government must do all it can to see that inasmuch as he does no wrong, so he shall suffer no wrong.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Forty-Second Anniversary Banquet of the Union League Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343753