Woodrow Wilson – Labor Day Speech in Buffalo, New York

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September 2, 1912

Mr. Chairman and fellow citizens:

I feel that it is an honor and a privilege to address an audience like this and yet I feel, more than the honor of the occasion, the responsibility of it. Because I have learned from occupying a responsible executive position that the thing that grips a man most is what he promised the people that he would attempt before he was elected.

When I was engaged in the campaign before my election as governor of New Jersey, I made a good many promises. And I think that a great many people who heard me supposed that it was the usual thing that these promises were made in order to get votes, and that the man who made them did not feel the full responsibility of keeping them after he was elected. I don’t know what the reason is, perhaps because I went into politics rather late in life, but I felt that every promise I made in that campaign I was bound to try to fulfill. No man can promise more than that he will do his best. I had not tried my hand at politics. I did not know, and I told my friends in New Jersey that I did not know, whether I could bring these things to pass or not, but I did tell them that there was one thing I did know: that I would make everybody very uncomfortable if these things were not done. And I did not except the members of my own party. I promised to make the men of the Democratic party, as well as the men of the Republican party, very uncomfortable if the promises of the campaign were not fulfilled; and it was more the dread of discomfort than anything else that brought about the passage of the bills which constituted one of the most extraordinary programs of reform that modern times has seen in a single state. I don’t claim any credit for that. I speak of it in order to point a moral which seems to me the most important moral in politics.

The only strength I had was that I was known to be in the circumstances the spokesman of the people of New Jersey. And the only reason I was dreaded was not that I had offices to give away —for I would not condescend to give an office in order to accomplish a political end—but because it was known that all I had to do was to ask the people of New Jersey what they thought and they would say what they thought.

I remember that I promised that if any one of the most important bills slumbered too long in committee, I would go down into the [county] from which the chairman of the committee came and suggest to the committee to send for the chairman and ask him at a public meeting why that bill wasn’t reported out. And I offered, which I think was perfectly sportsmanlike, to be present and debate the matter with him if he desired. And the interesting thing was that I didn’t have to carry out the suggestion. It was all like David Crockett’s coon. You remember the famous coon who is said to have remarked when he saw that David * had a bead on him, “Don’t shoot, Mr. Crockett, I’ll come down.” Well, I didn’t have to shoot, not because I was a formidable shot, but because it was known that I was uttering the desires that had been entertained to no effect by the people of New Jersey for half a generation.

Why is it that the people of this country are in danger of being discontented with the parties that have pretended to serve them? It [ is ] † because in too many instances their promises were not matched by their performances and men began to say to themselves, “What is the use 〈of〈 going to the polls and voting? Nothing happens after the election.” Is there any man within the hearing of my voice who can challenge the statement that any party that has forfeited the public confidence, has forfeited it by its own nonperformance.

Very well then, when I speak to you today, I want you to regard me as a man who is talking business. I want in the first place to say that I shall be scrupulous to be fair to those with whom I am in opposition. Because there is a great deal to be said for the programs of hopeful men who intend to do things even if they haven’t struck upon the right way to do them. And we ought not to divorce ourselves in sympathy with men who want the right thing because we do not think they have found the way to do them.

I want to speak upon this occasion, of course, on the interests of the workingman, of the wage earner, not because I regard the wage earners of this country as a special class, for they are not. After you have made a catalogue of the wage earners of this country, how many of us are left? The wage earners of this country, in the broad sense, constitute the country. And the most fatal thing that we can do in politics is to imagine that we belong to a special class, and that we have an interest which isn’t the interest of the whole community. Half of the difficulties, half of the injustices of our politics have been due to the fact that men regarded themselves as having separate interests which they must serve even though other men were done a great disservice by their promoting them.

We are not afraid of those who pursue legitimate pursuits provided they link those pursuits in at every turn with the interest of the community as a whole; and no man can conduct a legitimate business, if he conducts it in the interest of a single class. I want, therefore, to look at the nation as a whole today. I would like always to look at it as a whole, not divide it up into sections and classes, but I want particularly to discuss with you today the things which interest the wage earner. That is merely looking at the country as a whole from one angle, from one point of view, to which for the time being we will confine ourselves.

I want as a means of illustration, not as a means of contest, to use the platform of the third party as the means of expounding what I have to say today. I want you to read that platform very carefully, and I want to call your attention to the fact that it really consists of two parts. In one part of it, it declares the sympathy of the party with a certain great program of social reform, and promises that all the influence of that party, of the members of that party, will be used for the promotion of that program of social reform. In the other part, it itself lays down a method of procedure, and what I want you to soberly consider is whether the method of procedure is a suitable way of laying the foundations for the realization of that social program—with regard to the social program, the betterment of the condition of men in this occupation and the other, the protection of women, the shielding of children, the bringing about of social justice here, there, and elsewhere. With that program who can differ in his heart, who can divorce himself in sympathy from the great project of advancing the interests of human beings, wherever it is possible to advance them? *

But there is a central method, a central purpose, in that platform from which I very seriously dissent. I am a Democrat as distinguished from a Republican because I believe (and I think that it is generally believed) that the leaders of the Republican party—for I always distinguish them from the great body of the Republican voters who have been misled by them—I say not the Republican party, but the leaders of the Republican party have allowed themselves to become so tied up in alliances with special interests that they are not free to serve us all. And that the immediate business, if you are to have any kind of reform at all, is to set your government free, is to break it away from the partnerships and alliances and understandings and [purchases] † which have made it impossible for it to look at the country as a whole and made it necessary to serve special interests one at a time. Until that has been done, no program of social reform is possible because a program of social reform depends upon universal sympathy, universal justice, universal cooperation. It depends upon our understanding one another and serving one another.

What is this program? What is the program of the third party with regard to the disentanglement of the government? Mr. Roosevelt has said, and up to a certain point I sympathize with him, that he does not object, for example, to the system of protection except in this circumstance—that it has 〈not〉 * inured to the benefit of the workingman of this country. It is very interesting to have him admit that because the leaders of the Republican party have been time out of mind putting this bluff up on you men that the protective policy was for your sake, and I would like to know what you ever got out of it that you didn’t get out of the better effort of organized labor. I have yet to learn of any instance where you got anything without going and taking it. And the process of our society instead of being a process of peace has sometimes too much resembled a process of war because men felt obliged to go and insist in organized masses upon getting the justice which they couldn’t get any other way.

It is interesting, therefore, to have Mr. Roosevelt admit that not enough of the “prize money,” as he frankly calls it, has gone into the pay envelope. He admits that not enough of the money has gone into the envelope. I wish it were not prize money, because dividing up prize money and dividing up earnings are two very different things. And it is very much simpler to divide up earnings than to divide up prize money, because the money is prize money for the [reason] that a limited number of men banded themselves together and got it from the Ways and Means Committee of the House and the Finance Committee of the Senate, and we paid the bills.

But Mr. Roosevelt says that his [object] will be to see that a larger proportion gets into the pay envelope. And how does he propose to do it? (For I am here not to make a speech; I am here to argue this thing with you gentlemen.) How does he propose to do it? I don’t find any suggestion anywhere in that platform of the way in which he is going to do it, except in one plank. One plank says that the party will favor a minimum wage for women; and then it goes on to say by a minimum wage it means a living wage, enough to live on.

I am going to assume, for the sake of argument, that it proposed more than that, that it proposed to get a minimum wage for everybody, men as well as women; and I want to call your attention to the fact that just as soon as a minimum wage is established by law, the temptation of every employer in the United States will be to bring his wages down as close to that minimum as he dares, because you can’t strike against the government of the United States. You can’t strike against what is in the law. You can strike against what is in your agreement with your employer, but if underneath that agreement there is the steel and the adamant of federal law, you can’t tamper with that foundation. And who is going to pay these wages? You know that the great difficulty about wages, one of the great difficulties about wages now, is that the control of industry is getting into fewer and fewer hands. And that, therefore, a smaller and smaller number of men are able to determine what wages shall be. In other words, one of the entanglements of our government is that we are dealing not with a community in which men may take their own choice of what they shall do, but in a community whose industry is very largely governed by great combinations of capital in the hands of a comparatively small number of men; that, in other words, we are in the hands, in many industries, of monopoly itself. And the only way in which the workingman can gain more wages is by getting them from the monopoly.

Very well then, what does this platform propose to do? Break up the monopolies? Not at all. It proposes to legalize them. It says in effect: You can’t break them up, the only thing you can do is to put them in charge of the federal government. It proposes that they shall be adopted and regulated. And that looks to me like a consummation of the partnership between monopoly and government. Because, when once the government regulates monopoly, then monopoly will have to see to it that it regulates the government. This is a [beautiful] circle of change.

We now complain that the men who control these monopolies control the government, and it is in turn proposed that the government should control them. I am perfectly willing to be controlled if it is I, myself, who control me. If this partnership can be continued, then this control can be manipulated and adjusted to its own pleasure. Therefore, I want to call your attention to this fact that these great combined industries have been more inimical to organized labor than any other class of employers in the United States. Is not that so?

These monopolies that the government, it is proposed, should adopt are the men who have made your independent action most difficult. They have made it most difficult that you should take care of yourselves; and let me tell you that the old adage that God takes care of those who take care of themselves is not gone out of date. No federal legislation can change that thing. The minute you are taken care of by the government you are wards, not independent men. And the minute they are legalized by the government, they are protégés and not monopolies. They are the guardians and you are the wards. Do you want to be taken care of by a combination of the government and the monopolies? [ A voice from the audience: “No.”] * Because the workingmen of this country are perfectly aware that they sell their commodity, that is to say labor, in a perfectly open market. There is free trade in labor in the United States. The laboring men of all the world are free to come and offer their labor here and you are similarly free to go and offer your labor in most parts of the world. And the world demand is what establishes for the most part the rate of wages, at the same time that these gentlemen who are paying the wages in a free-trade market are protected by an unfree market against the competition that would make them [bid] higher because [bid] in competition and not [bid] † under protection. If I am obliged to refrain from going into a particular industry by reason of the combination that already exists in it, I can’t become an employer of labor, and I can’t compete with these gentlemen for the employment of labor. And the whole business of the level of wages is artificially and arbitrarily determined.

Now, I say, gentlemen, that a party that proposes that program cannot, if it carries out that program, be forwarding these other industrial purposes of social regeneration, because they have crystallized, they have hardened, they have narrowed the government which is to be the source of this thing. After all this is done, who is to guarantee to us that the government is to be pitiful, that the government is to be righteous, that the government is to be just? Nothing will then control the power of the government except open revolt, and God forbid that we should bring about a state of politics in which open revolt should be substituted for the ballot box.

I believe that the greatest force for peace, the greatest force for righteousness, the greatest force for the elevation of mankind, is organized opinion, is the thinking of men, is the great force which is in the soul of men, and I want men to breathe a free and pure air. And I know that these monopolies are so many cars of juggernaut which are in our very sight being driven over men in such ways as to crush their life out of them. And I don’t look forward with pleasure to the time when the juggernauts are licensed. I don’t look forward with pleasure to the time when the juggernauts are driven by commissioners of the United States. I am willing to license automobiles, but not juggernauts, because if any man ever dares take a joy ride in one of them, I would like to know what is to become of the rest of us; because the road isn’t wide enough for us to get out of the way. We would have to take to the woods and then set the woods afire. I am speaking partly in pleasantry but underneath, gentlemen, there is a very solemn sense in my mind that we are standing at a critical turning point in our [choice].

Now you say on the other hand, what do the Democrats propose to do? I want to call your attention to the fact that those who wish to support these monopolies by adopting them under the regulation of the government of the United States are the very men who cry out that competition is destructive. They ought to know because it is competition as they conducted it that destroyed our economic freedom. They are certainly experts in destructive competition. And the purpose of the Democratic leaders is this: not to legislate competition into existence again-because statutes can’t make men do things—but to regulate competition.

What has created these monopolies? Unregulated competition. It has permitted these men to do anything that they chose to do to squeeze their rivals out and to crush their rivals to the earth. We know the processes by which they have done these things. We can prevent those processes by remedial legislation, and that remedial legislation will so restrict the wrong use of competition that the right use of competition will destroy monopoly. In other words, ours is a program of liberty and theirs is a program of regulation. Ours is a program by which we find we know the wrongs that have been committed and we can stop those wrongs. And we are not going to adopt into the governmental family the men who forward the wrongs and license them to do the whole business of the country.

I want you men to grasp the point because I want to say to you right now the program that I propose doesn’t look quite as much like acting as a Providence for you as the other program looks. But I want to frankly say to you that I am not big enough to play Providence, and my objection to the other program is that I don’t believe that there is any other man that is big enough to play Providence. I have never known any body of men, any small body of men, that understood the United States. And the only way the United States is ever going to be taken care of is by having the voice of all the men in it constantly clamorous for the recognition of what is justice as they see life. A little group of men sitting every day in Washington City is not going to have a vision of your lives as a whole. You alone know what your lives are. I say, therefore, take the shackles off of American industry, the shackles of monopoly, and see it grow into manhood, see it grow out of the enshackled childishness into robust manliness, men being able to take care of themselves, and reassert the great power of American citizenship.

These are the ancient principles of government the world over. For when in the history of labor, here in this country or in any other, did the government present its citizens with freedom and with justice? When has there been any fight for liberty that wasn’t a fight against this very thing, the accumulation of regulative power in the hands of a few persons? I in my time have read a good deal of history and, if I were to sum up the whole history of liberty, I should say that it consisted at every turn in human life in resisting just such projects as are now proposed to us. If you don’t believe it, try it. If you want a great struggle for liberty that will cost you blood, adopt this program, put yourselves at the disposition of a Providence resident in Washington and then see what will come of it.

Ah, gentlemen, we are debating very serious things. And we are debating this: Are we going to put ourselves in a position to enter upon a great program of understanding one another and helping one another? I can’t understand you unless you talk to me. I can’t understand you by looking at you. I can’t understand you by reading books. With apologies to the gentlemen in front of me, I couldn’t even understand you by reading the newspapers. I can understand you only by what you know of your own lives and make evident in your own actions. I understand you only in proportion as you “hump” yourselves and take care of yourselves, and make your force evident in the course of politics. And, therefore, I believe in government as a great process of getting together, a great process of debate.

There are gentlemen on this platform with me who have seen a great vision. They have seen this, for example: You know that there are a great many foreigners coming to America and qualifying as American citizens. And if you are widely acquainted among them you will know that this is true: that the grown-up people who come to America take a long time in feeling at home in America. They don’t speak the language and there is no place in which they can get together with the general body of American citizens and feel that they are part of them. But their children feel welcome. Where? In the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is the great melting pot of democracy. And after the children of these men who have joined us in their desire for freedom have grown up and come through the processes of the schools, they have imbibed the full feeling of American life.

Now, somebody has said—somebody repeated to me the other day—the saying of one of these immigrants that when he went to a meeting or to a series of meetings in the evening in a schoolhouse where all the neighborhood joined to discuss the interests of the neighborhood, he for the first time saw America as he had expected to see it. This [ was ] America as he had imagined it, this frank coming together of all the people in the neighborhood, of all sorts and conditions, to discuss their common interests. And these gentlemen to whom I have referred have devoted their lives to this: to make the schoolhouses of this country the vital centers of opportunity, to open them out of school hours for everybody who desires to discuss anything and for making them, among other things, the clearinghouses where men who are out of jobs can find jobs and where jobs who are out of men can find men. Why shouldn’t our whole life center in this place where we learn the fundamentals of our life? Why shouldn’t the schoolhouses be the constant year-in-and-year-out places of assembly where things are said which nobody dares ignore? Because, if we haven’t had our way in this country, it has been because we haven’t been able to get at the ear of those who are conducting our government. And if there is any man in Buffalo, or anywhere else in the United States, who objects to your using the schoolhouses that way, you may be sure that there is something he doesn’t want to have discussed.

You know I have been considered as disqualified for politics because I was a school teacher. But there is one thing a school teacher learns that he never forgets, namely, that it is his business to learn all he can and then to communicate it to others. Now, I consider this to be my function. I have tried to find out how to learn things and learn them fast. And I have made up my mind that for the rest of my life I am going to put all I know at the disposal of my fellow citizens. And I know a good many things that I haven’t yet mentioned in public which I am ready to mention at the psychological moment. There is no use firing it off when there is nobody to shoot at, but when they are present, then it is sport to say it. And I have undertaken the duty of constituting myself one of the attorneys for the people in any court to which I can get entrance. I don’t mean as a lawyer, for while I was a lawyer, I have repented. But I mean in the courts of public opinion wherever I am allowed, as I am indulgently allowed today, to stand on a platform and talk to attentive audiences—for you are most graciously attentive—I want to constitute myself the spokesman so far as I have the proper table of contents for the people whom I wish to serve; for the whole strength of politics is not in the leader but in the followers. By leading I do not mean telling other people what they have got to do. I [mean] finding out what the interests of the community are agreed to be, and then trying my level best to find the methods of solution by common counsel. That is the only feasible program of social uplift that I can imagine, and, therefore, I am bound in conscience to fight everything that crystallizes things so at the center that you can’t break in.

It is amazing to me that public-spirited, devoted men in this country have not seen that the program of the third party proclaims purposes and in the same breath provides an organization of government which makes the carrying out of those purposes impossible. I would rather postpone my sympathy for social reform until I had got in a position to make things happen. And I am not in a position to make things happen until I am part of a free organization which can say to every interest in the United States: “You come into this conference room on an equality with every other interest in the United States, and you are going to speak here with open doors. There is to be no whispering behind the hand. There is to be no private communication. What you can’t afford to let the country hear had better be left unsaid.”

What I fear, therefore, is a government of experts. God forbid that in a democratic country we should resign the task and give the government over to experts. What are we for if we are to be [scientifically] taken care of by a small number of gentlemen who are the only men who understand the job? Because if we don’t understand the job, then we are not a free people. We ought to resign our free institutions and go to school to somebody and find out what it is we are about. I want to say I have never heard more penetrating debate of public questions than I have sometimes been privileged to hear in clubs of workingmen; because the man who is down against the daily problem of life doesn’t talk about it in rhetoric; he talks about it in facts. And the only thing I am interested in is facts. I don’t know anything else that is as solid to stand on.

I beg, therefore, that in the election that is approaching you will serve your own interests by discriminatingly serving the whole country and holding [it as your ultimate aim] to see to it that liberty, the initiative of the individual, the initiative of the group, the freedom of enterprise, the multiplicity of American undertakings, is the foundation of your judgment. Do not let America get tied up into little coteries; see to it that every door is open to the youngster as well as to the older man that has made his way. See to it that those who are swimming against the stream have some little glimpses of the [shore]. See to it that those who are sweating blood know that they must not sweat blood all their lives but that if they devote their energy they will devote it in hope and not in despair, as their own masters, and not as men’s servants; as men who can look their fellows in the face and say: “We also are of the free breed of American citizens.” For, gentlemen, we are at this juncture recovering the ideals of American politics, nothing else. By forgetfulness, by negligence, by criminal discrimination against one another, we have allowed our government to come to such a pass that it does not serve us all without discrimination; and we are about to recover it.

I am not here to commend one party above another. I am here to commend one purpose rather than another, and to challenge every man to vote, not as he has been in the habit of voting, merely because that has been his habit, but as he deems the interests of the community to demand not only, … as he believes will be most effective in the long run. In other words, choose measures, choose paths, choose men and, if you please, forget that there are parties.

I am a party man. I believe in party organization except where party organization goes to seed and becomes a machine. Then I think that part ought to be cut off. But I am for something that will dominate party organization. That is the reason I am interested in this schoolhouse business. I am for the organization of public opinion which at every election will say: “You can’t label us; you can’t drive us into a pen; you can’t tell us how we are going to vote by the caption at the top of the ticket. We are going to read the ticket; we are going to find out who are on it; we are going to find out who made the ticket; we are going to find out what the program is behind the ticket, and we are going to choose accordingly.” For only in that way can America be governed as she ought to be governed.

It is very embarrassing to me, I will tell you frankly, to appear as one who solicits your votes. I would a great deal rather get elected first and then come back to you and say, “Now, what are we going to do?” Because before election a man is in this unpleasant position, he is as much as saying, “Elect me and you just see what I’ll do.” Now, no man is big enough to say that truthfully. [He] can say it, but [he] oughtn’t to say it. But after the election the point is not “What will he do?” but “What will you back him up in doing?—What will we do?”

And I had rather argue politics in the plural than in the singular. It is a lonely business arguing it in the singular. All that you can promise in the singular is that there will be a good deal doing, that you won’t allow yourself to be fooled even by your own party, and that the pledges you take upon yourself you take yourself individually and will do your best to carry out whether anybody else goes with you or not. But I am not afraid of that. If the American people elect a man President and say, “You go on and do those things,” nobody is going to head him off because there is a force behind him which nobody dares resist—that great impulse of just opinion without which there is no pure government at all.

I do not know any other appeal, therefore, than this appeal to you as Americans, as men who constitute the bone and sinew of American citizenship and [who], when you address yourselves to the discussion of public affairs, know what the realities are and are not deceived by the appearances. Let us get together and [save] the government of the United States.

Source: A Crossroads of Freedom, the 1912 Campaign Speeches. Contributors: John Wells Davidson - editor, Charles Seymour - author, Woodrow Wilson - author. Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. 1956. Page: 69-85.


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