Remarks in Wheeling, West Virginia
My friends and fellow citizens:
It is a pleasure to come here to your city. I wish to thank the Mayor, and, through the Mayor, all of your citizens, for the way in which, upon your behalf, he has greeted me; and I wish to state that it is a special pleasure to be introduced by my friend, Senator Scott. I have known the Senator for some time, and I like him, because when he gives you his word you don't have to think about it again.
I am glad to have the chance of saying a few words here in this great industrial center in one of those regions which have felt to a notable degree the effects of the period of prosperity through which we are now passing. Probably never before in our history has the country been more prosperous than it is at this moment; and it is a prosperity which has come alike to the tillers of the soil and to those connected with our great industrial enterprises.
Every period has its own troubles and difficulties. A period of adversity, of course, troubles us all; but there are troubles in connection with a period of prosperity also. When all things flourish it means that there is a good chance for things that we don't like to flourish also, just exactly as things that we do like. A period of great national material well-being is inevitably one in which men's minds are turned to the way in which those flourish who are interested in the management of the gigantic capitalistic corporations, whose growth has been so noted a feature of the last half century—the corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts—accepting the word in its usual and common significance as a big corporation usually doing business in several States at least, besides the State in which it is incorporated, and often, though not always, with some element of monopoly in it.
It seems to me that in dealing with this problem of the trusts—perhaps it would be more accurate to say the group of problems which come into our minds when we think of the trusts—we have two classes of our fellow—citizens whom we have to convert or over ride. One is composed of those men who refuse to admit that there is any action necessary at all. The other is composed of those men who advocate some action so extreme, so foolish, that it would either be entirely non effective, or, if effective, would be so only by destroying everything, good and bad, connected with our industrial development.
In every governmental process the aim that a people capable of self government should steadfastly keep in mind is to proceed by evolution rather than revolution. On the other hand, every people fit for self government must beware of that fossilization of mind which refuses to allow of any change as conditions change. Now, in dealing with the whole problem of the change in our great industrial civilization in dealing with the tendencies which have been accentuated in so extraordinary a degree by steam and electricity, and by the tremendous upbuilding of industrial centers which steam and electricity have been the main factors in bringing about—I think we must set before ourselves the desire not to accept less than the possible, and at the same time not to bring ourselves to a complete standstill by attempting the impossible. It is a good deal as it is in taking care, through the engineers, of the lower Mississippi River. No one can dam the Mississippi. If the nation started to dam it, the nation would waste its time. It would not hurt the Mississippi, but it would not only throw away its own means, but would incidentally damage the population along the banks. You can't dam the current. You can build levees to keep the current within bounds and to shape its direction. I think that is exactly what we can do in connection with these great corporations known as trusts. We cannot reverse the industrial tendency of the age. If you succeed in doing it, then all cities like Wheeling will have to go out of business. Remember that. You cannot put a stop to or reverse the industrial tendencies of the age, but you can control and regulate them and see that they do no harm.
A flood comes down the Mississippi—you can't stop it. If you tried to build a dam across it, it would not hurt the flood, and it would not benefit you. You can guide it between levees so as to prevent its doing injury, and so as to ensure its doing good. Another thing: you don't build those levees in a day or in a month. A man who told you that he had a patent device by which in sixty days he would solve the whole question of the floods along the lower Mississippi would not be a wise man; but he would be a perfect miracle of wisdom compared to the man who tells you that by anyone patent remedy he can bring the millennium in our industrial and social affairs.
We can do something; I believe we can do a good deal, but our accomplishing what I expect to see accomplished is conditioned upon our setting to work in a spirit as far removed as possible from hysteria— a spirit of sober, steadfast, kindly—I want to emphasize that—kindly determination not to submit to wrong ourselves and not to wrong others, not to interfere with the great business development of the country, and at the same time so to shape our legislation and administration as to minimize, if we cannot eradicate, the unpleasant and vicious features connected with that industrial development. I have said that there can be no patent remedy. There is not anyone thing which can be done to remove all of the existing evils. There are a good many things which, if we do them all, will, I believe, make a very appreciable betterment in the existing conditions. To do that is not to make a promise that will evoke wild enthusiasm, but a promise that can be kept; and in the long run it is much more comfortable only to make promises that can be kept than to make promises which are sure of an immense reception when made, but which entail intolerable humiliation when it is attempted to carry them out.
I am sufficiently fortunate to be advocating now, as President, precisely the remedies that I advocated two years ago—advocating them not in any partisan spirit, because, gentlemen, this problem is one which affects the life of the nation as a whole—but advocating them simply as the American citizen who, for the time being, stands as the Chief Executive and, therefore, the special representative of his fellow American citizens of all parties.
A century and a quarter ago there had been no development of industry such as to make it a matter of the least importance whether the nation or the State had charge of the great corporations or super vised the great business and industrial organizations. A century and a quarter ago, here at Wheeling, commerce was carried on by pack train, by wagon train, by boat. That was the way it was carried on throughout the whole civilized world—oars and sails, wheeled vehicles and beasts of burden—those were the means of carrying on commerce at the end of the eighteenth century, when this country became a nation.
There had been no radical change, no essential change, in the means of carrying on commerce from the days when the Phænician galleys plowed the waters of the Mediterranean. For four or five thousand years, perhaps longer, from the immemorial past when Babylon and Nineveh stood in Mesopotamia, when Thebes and Memphis were mighty in the valley of the Nile—from that time on through the supremacy of Greece and of Rome, through the upbuilding of the great trading cities like Venice and Genoa in Italy; like the cities of the Rhine and the Netherlands in Northern Europe—on through the period of the great expansion of European civilization which followed the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, down to the time when this country became a nation—the means of commercial intercourse remained substantially unchanged. Those means, therefore, limited narrowly what could be done by any corporation, the growth that could take place in any community.
Suddenly, during our own lifetime as a nation—a lifetime trivial in duration compared to the period of recorded history—there came a revolution in the means of intercourse which made a change in commerce, and in all that springs from commerce, in industrial development, greater than all the changes of the preceding thousands of years. A greater change in the means of commerce of mankind has taken place since Wheeling was founded, since the first settlers built their log huts in the great forests on the banks of this river, than in all the previous period during which man had led an existence that can be called civilized.
Through the railway, the electric telegraph, and other developments, steam and electricity worked a complete revolution. This has meant, of course, that entirely new problems have sprung up. You have right in this immediate neighborhood a very much larger population than any similar region in all the United States held when the Continental Congress began its sessions; and the change in industrial conditions has been literally immeasurable. Those changed conditions need a corresponding change in the governmental agencies necessary for their regulation and supervision.
Such agencies were not provided, and could not have been provided, in default of a knowledge of prophecy by the men who founded the Republic. In those days each State could take care perfectly well of any corporations within its limits, and all it had to do was to try to encourage their upbuilding. Now the big corporations, although nominally the creatures of one State, usually do business in other States, and in a very large number of cases the wide variety of State laws on the subject of corporations has brought about the fact that the corporation is made in one State, but does almost all its work in entirely different States.
It has proved utterly impossible to get anything like uniformity of legislation among the States. Some States have passed laws about corporations which, if they had not been ineffective, would have totally prevented any important corporate work being done within their limits. Other States have such lax laws that there is no effective effort made to control any of the abuses.
As a result we have a system of divided control—where the nation has something to say, but it is a little difficult to know exactly how much, and where the different States have something to say, but where there is no supreme power that can speak with authority. It is, of course, a mere truism to say that every corporation, the smallest as well as the largest, is the creature of the State. Where the corporation is small there is very little need of exercising much supervision over it, but the stupendous corporations of the present day certainly should be under governmental supervision and regulation. The first effort to make is to give somebody the power to exercise that supervision, that regulation. We have already laws on the statute books. Those laws will be enforced, and are being enforced, with all the power of the National Government, and wholly without regard to persons. But the power is very limited. Now I want you to take my words at their exact value. I think—I cannot say I am sure, because it has often happened in the past that Congress has passed a law with a given purpose in view, and when that law has been judicially interpreted it has proved that the purpose was not achieved—but I think that by legislation additional power in the way of regulation of at least a number of these great corporations can be conferred. But, gentlemen, I firmly believe that in the end power must be given to the National Government to exercise in full supervision and regulation of these great enterprises, and, if necessary, a Constitutional amendment must be resorted to for this purpose.
That is not new doctrine for me. That is the doctrine that I advocated on the stump two years ago. Some of my ultra—conservative friends have professed to be greatly shocked at my advocating it now. I would explain to those gentlemen, once for all, that they err when ever they think that I advocate on the stump anything that I will not try to put into effect after election. The objection is made that working along these lines will take time. So it will. Let me go back to my illustration of the Mississippi River. It took time to build the levees, but we built them. And if we have the proper intelligence, the proper resolution, and the proper self-restraint, we can work out the solution along the lines that I have indicated. Thus, the first thing is to give the National Government the power. All the power that is given, I can assure you, will be used in a spirit as free as possible from rancor of any kind, but with the firmest determination to make big man and little man alike obey the law.
What we need first is power. Having gotten the power, remember the work won't be ended—it will be only fairly begun. And let me say again and again and again that you will not get the millennium—the millennium is some way off yet. But you will be in a position to make long strides in advance in the direction of securing a juster, fairer, wiser management of many of these corporations, both as regards the general public and as regards their relationship among themselves and to the investing public. When we have the power I most earnestly hope, and should most earnestly advocate, that it be used with the greatest wisdom and self-restraint.
The first thing to do would be to find out the facts. For that purpose I am absolutely clear that we need publicity—that we need it not as a matter of favor from anyone corporation, but as a matter of right, secured through the agents of the Government, from all the concerned. The mere fact of the publicity itself will tend to stop many of the evils, and it will show that some other alleged evils are imaginary, and finally. in making evident the remaining evils—those that are not imaginary and that are not cured by the simple light of day—it will give us an intelligent appreciation of the methods to take in getting at them. We should have, under such circumstances, one sovereign to whom the big corporations should be responsible—a sovereign in whose courts a corporation could be held accountable for any failure to comply with the laws of the legislature of that sovereign. I do not think you can accomplish that among the forty-six sovereigns of the States. I think that it will have to be through the National Government.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks in Wheeling, West Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343533