William Howard Taft

Remarks at the State Fair Grounds in Macon, Georgia

November 04, 1909

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, Citizens of Georgia:

I am glad to be back in Georgia. I was a Georgian when

I was elected President of the United States. They went through a preliminary canter just a year ago to-day at the polls, but the real election under the Constitution, as your jurist Senator will tell you, was when I was within the precincts of Georgia, and, therefore, for the time being subject to the Georgian laws, with an allegiance to Georgia, and, I am glad to say, was a Georgian in spirit and in heart. I say so because I came under the delightful influence of Georgian hospitality. I was permitted to work out my own way with a considerateness that I greatly appreciated. I had been engaged in a contest and a controversy that made me wish to lie down for a time, and you permitted me to enjoy that leisure and that rest without disturbing it, but only by your soothing hospitality you enabled me to recover again the strength I needed to meet the responsibilities of the office, for which you had been somewhat innocent in choosing me.

I am greatly indebted to your distinguished Governor, to Senator Bacon, and to your Congressman, Mr. Bartlett, for their representing you in taking me into this beautiful city of Macon, and I may add in giving me a Georgian breakfast. It is an admirable meal—one attractive to me in a way that I hate to admit—but it isn't the best preparation for an oration.

My friends, the note that will rise up in my voice, and which I can not restrain, is one of congratulation to the people of Georgia upon the condition in which they find themselves this year and this decade under the Providence of God. It is, as your Chairman has said, enough to make one stop and think when you realize that out of your cotton crop alone you will receive in gold more than double all the gold that will be mined in the United States during a year.

Now, I sincerely hope that you will spend that to the best advantage. I know from looking about through the town of Macon that you are spending it to make your homes more attractive, and to educate the next generation that is coming on to uphold the high traditions of Georgia, and to maintain its loyalty and support to the National Government.

I have had the privilege of travelling now some 12,000 miles across the United States, down her western border along her southern border, until I reached home in Georgia. And while I would not detract from your natural State pride, and from that feeling, which I know exists, because I have a Georgian, Capt. Archibald W. Butt, as my military aide, that the Georgians are just the best people in the world, nevertheless I want to admit to you that if I were to be put blindfolded, without knowing exactly where I was, before this magnificent audience, it would be a little difficult for me to distinguish between you and some of the audiences that I meet in Ohio. You may not regard that as a compliment, but you must know that I come from Ohio, and the resemblance I like to emphasize, because that is the text of what I would preach both in Georgia and in Ohio.

We have our differences. We differ because the sun differs a little bit in its method of showing its love to you in Georgia and to us in Ohio. We differ because you can raise cotton and we have to get along with corn and wheat But in the essential, in the aspirations that we have, in our training, in our moral standards, in our political ideals and in our determination to make our condition better with reference to each individual who comes to be part of our people and part of our government, our aims are alike, and we are alike.

Now, you differ from some of us because we have benighted Democrats in Ohio. You differ from us in your view of some political principles. I do not care if you do. If you will only give me such a warmth of reception as you have this morning, I can wipe out the memory of all those principles for the time being and rejoice that you have taken me in as a brother. The truth is, a wholesome difference of opinion with reference to economic and political principles is essential that we reach the truth. If we all agreed—well, there wouldn't be any fun in politics to begin with; if we all agreed, it would indicate an apathy and an indifference to principle that would mean that the country was going downward instead of upward.

The independence of thought that we seek to cherish here must lead to differences of opinion, maintained by argument and voted into the ballot box, and then we all acknowledge acquiescence in the result of that ballot box.

We have been trained a thousand years through our English ancestry in the self-restraint that is absolutely necessary to the success of popular government, and in that quality of being good losers that enabled us to live happily and contentedly under a government selected by a majority of which we are not a part. And the same self-restraint teaches the majority that rules that the limitations of the Constitution, and not only the limitations of law and the Constitution, but limitations of decency, limitations of patriotism, are as strong on the majority as it is possible that law should be. In other words, the power that is enjoyed is the power to be exercised only for the benefit of the people and the country, and not for the purpose of exalting the person who temporarily is vested with power to exercise it.

I always hear, because it is pleasant and because the man who says it believes it, and also because it rounds a full period, about the power of the President of United States, and I doubt not that after I am out of office I shall be able to look back and see where I might have done things in the exercise of power that would have filled me with a consciousness of it, but I am bound to say that under existing circumstances the thing which impresses me most is not the power I have to exercise under the Constitution, but the limitations and restrictions to which I am subject under that instrument. Sometimes a man's head swells a little bit with his momentary authority, and he thinks that there is a good deal of the limitation of the Constitution that might have been safely omitted in his case. Now, here is my friend, Senator Bacon—he and his fellows sit up at the other end of the avenue and they pass on all my appointments. I could get along if they didn't have that power, and for the time being it seems to me that the country would get along a little better if they couldn't put their fingers in, but our forefathers builded well, and they knew what they were doing; and I am not in favor, even if it seems to me that a particular provision ought to be omitted, of changing the Constitution every time you run against the sharp edge of something that indicates that you are only mortal and that the forefathers in making the Constitution distrusted your human nature.

My friends, that leads me up to one little sermon, and that is, the wisdom and necessity of following the law as it is. I know that sometimes in the heat and enthusiasm of reform, there is an impatience with legal limitations and statutes that seem to be directed against that reform, or to prevent its immediate accomplishment, such as to lead us to disregard it or to ignore it. I do not think, and I am sure you will agree with me, that that is the best way of getting rid of a legal limitation that interferes with progress. The best way is to have the people understand that that limitation ought to be removed, and that the statutes of our Government ought to conform so far as may be to our highest ideals and ambitions; but that the first thing that we have got to do after arousing the people to the necessity of change, is to change the law, and not rely upon the Executive himself to ignore the statutes and follow a law unto himself because it is supposed to be the law of higher morality.

Now, that may sound like a lawyer's view. Lawyers are necessary in a community. Some of you who have paid fees—some of you who have lost cases in courts of justice—may have a different view; but as I am a member of that legal profession, or was at one time, and have only lost standing in it by becoming a politician, I still retain the pride of the profession. And I still insist that it is the law and the lawyer that make popular government under a written constitution and written statutes possible, because if you depart in any way from the law as it is, you enter upon a path, which, while entirely certain for one issue in your mind with respect to the higher moral aim of your own soul and that of your fellow-citizens, nevertheless leads into a wilderness, and by which you cannot subsequently guide your steps. Therefore, let us first make the laws to accord to our desires and our ambitions, and then follow them.

I have said that much because I have noticed a tendency among some of our best fellow-citizens to hold the Executive responsible for not doing a great many things in which it is the business of my friends in Congress, with Senator Bacon and Judge Bartlett, to lead the way, and for the Executive only to follow after they have laid down the rules. That does not rid the Executive of the responsibility of recommending changes in the law. But it does prevent him from going ahead and exercising those changes without the coordinate action of the legislative branch of the Government; and as I intend to recommend a good many measures at the next meeting of Congress, I have taken this method of intimating to you where the responsibility will be if those measures do not pass.

My friends, I am delighted to be here. These surroundings could hardly be surpassed in everything that goes to make up a pleasant meeting. The beautiful ladies and the men with shining eyes and welcoming hospitable hearts, all these surroundings make a man feel as if he could talk from now on until dewy eve. But I am not going to. I only want to say that such a meeting as this confirms me in the view that there is not one single reason why you should not feel as close to the Government at Washington, and as much a part of it, as any other part of the country, and that all that is necessary to have you understand that is to give you the assurance, which I am delighted to give, and which I know you will receive in the same spirit, that we are Americans all together—that you have as much right to be heard by me while I temporarily exercise the powers of the Chief Executive at Washington as any citizens in the land, and that it will gratify me beyond expression if through any act of mine or through the administration as a whole, I can have contributed to bring all the peoples of this country together in one common bond of union, and one sentiment of loyalty to our flag and to our country.

William Howard Taft, Remarks at the State Fair Grounds in Macon, Georgia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365213

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