Campaign Address in Scranton, Penn.

Woodrow Wilson

September 23, 1912

Mr. Chairman, and fellow citizens: It is with very deep emotion that I face this great audience, because as your near neighbor I know what this audience represents. I know that we have in this great company, representing the rich and beautiful County of Lackawanna, a sort of cross section of the great people of the United States. Because there is represented here not only a very extraordinary variety of industry, but also the very extraordinary variety of population which makes up and enriches the body of our great nation. There are men represented here who have come from many distant lands to seek what America professes to offer. And as I face this audience the first thought that I have it this: It is true that our object in this campaign is to return the government to the people to whom it belongs. But it is very easy to say that, and the task of returning it to the people is a task which we ought to examine very frankly, very candidly and very intimately indeed.

This is not the year in which we can commend our policies by our rhetoric. This is the year in which we must render phrases into reality, when we must change the mist into the bar of iron. We must take counsel together how this great enterprise of freedom is to be accomplished. It is perfectly plain to every man, it always has been plain, what the Government of the United States was intended to be. It is written so plain, is couched in words so often repeated from one end of the world to the other, that no man needs now to be told that this was intended to be a government of the people, and that it was intended to be a government under which, above all things else, men were to enjoy absolute equality of opportunity. But it is one thing to say that there shall be equality of opportunity, and it is another thing to see to it that nobody successfully interferes to prevent the existence of freedom of opportunity. The power of the government is one thing, and the power of the forces opposed to the government is another thing. We don’t have to determine tonight what the purpose or the power of the government is. We have to determine what the purpose and the power of the people are who intend to see to it that the government serves them and not the people.

I know that the Government of the United States is not a free instrument and that it is our duty to set it free. Very well, set it free from whom? And how to set it free? Because I have always been impatient of the discussion of abstract propositions. That may seem a strange statement to be made by a man whose opponents, whenever they can’t answer his arguments, call him academic. But I have always been opposed to the mere presentation to audiences of the abstract conceptions of government.

Of course this was intended to be a government of free citizens and of equal opportunity, but how are we going to make it such–that is the question. Because I realize that while we are followers of Jefferson, there is one principle of Jefferson’s which no longer can obtain in the practical politics of America. You know that it was Jefferson who said that the best government is that which does as little governing as possible, which exercises its power as little as possible. And that was said in a day when the opportunities of America were so obvious to every man, when every individual was so free to use his powers without let or hindrance, that all that was necessary was that the government should withhold its hand and see to it that every man got an opportunity to act as he would. But that time is passed. America is not now and cannot in the future be a place for unrestricted individual enterprise. It is true that we have come upon an age of great cooperative industry. It is true that we must act absolutely upon that principle.

Let me illustrate what I mean. You know that it used to be true in our cities that every family occupied a separate house of its own, that every family had its own little premises, that every family was separated in its life from every other family. But you know that that is no longer the case, and that it cannot be the case in our great cities. Families live in layers. They live in tenements, they live in flats, they live on floors, they are piled layer upon layer in the great tenement houses of our crowded districts. And not only are they piled layer upon layer, but they are associated room by room so that there is in each room sometimes in our congested districts a separate family.

Now, what has happened in foreign countries, in some of which they have made much more progress than we in handling these things, is this: In the city of Glasgow, for example, which is one of the model cities of the world, they have made up their minds that the entries, that hallways, of great tenements are public streets. Therefore the policeman goes up the stairway and patrols the corridors. The lightning department of the city sees to it that the corridors are abundantly lighted, and the staircases. And the city does not deceive itself into supposing that the great building is a unit from which the police are to keep out and the city authority to be excluded, but it says: “These are the high-ways of human movement, and wherever light is needed, wherever order is needed, there we will carry the authority of the city.”

And I have likened that to our modern industrial enterprise. You know that a great many corporations, like the Steel Corporation, for example, are very like a great tenement house. It isn’t the premises of a single commercial family. It is just as much a public business as a great tenement house is a public highway. When you offer the securities of a great corporation to anybody who wishes to purchase them, you must open that corporation to the inspection of everybody who wants to purchase. There must, to follow out the figure of the tenement house, be lights along the corridor; there must be police patrolling the openings; there must be inspection wherever it is known that men may be deceived with regard to the contents of the premises. If we believe that fraud lies in wait for us, we must have the means of determining whether fraud lies there or not.

Similarly, the treatment of labor by the great corporations is not now what it was in Jefferson’s time. Who is this great audience knows his employer? I mean among those who go down into the mines, or go into the mills and factories, and who never see, who particularly never deal with, the president of the corporation. You probably don’t know the directors of the corporation by sight. The only thing you know is that by the score, by the hundred, by the thousand, you are employed with your fellow workmen by some agent of an invisible employer. Therefore, whenever bodies of men employ bodies of men it ceases to be a private relationship. So that when a court, when a court in my own state, held that workmen could not peaceably dissuade other workingmen from taking employment, and based the decision upon the analogy of domestic servants, they simply showed that their minds and understandings were lingering in an age which had passed away two or three generations ago. This dealing of great bodies of men with other bodies of men is a matter of public scrutiny and should be a matter of public regulation.

Similarly, it was no business of the law in the time of Jefferson of come into the house and see how I kept house. But when my house, when my property, when my so-called private property, became a great mine, and men went along dark corridors amidst every kind of danger in order to dig out of the bowels of the earth things necessary for the industries of a whole nation, and when it was known that no individual owned these mines, that they were owned by great stock companies, that their partnership was as wide as great communities, then all the old analogies absolutely collapsed, and it became the right of the government to go down in those mines and see whether accidents were properly safeguarded against, to see whether the modern method of using these inestimable riches of the world were followed or were not followed. And so you know that, by the action of a Democratic House only two years ago, the Bureau of Mines and Mining was fully equipped to act as foster father of the miners of the United States, and to go into these so-called private properties and see that the life of human beings was just as much safeguarded there as it could be in the circumstances, just as much safeguarded as it would be upon the streets of Scranton; because there are dangers on the streets of Scranton. If somebody puts a derrick improperly erected and secured on top of a building or overtopping the street upon any kind of structure, then the government of the city has the right to see that the derrick is so secured that you and I can walk under it and not be afraid that the heavens are going to fall on us. And, similarly, in these great beehives, wherein every corridor swarm men of flesh and blood, it is similarly the privilege of the government, whether of the state or of the United States, as the case may be, to see that human life is properly cared for and that the human lungs have something to breathe.

What I am illustrating for you is this, and it is something that our Republican opponents don’t seem to credit us with intelligence enough to comprehend. Because we wont’ take the dictum of a leader who thinks he knows exactly what ought to be done for everybody, we are accused of wishing to minimize the powers of the Government of the United States. I am not afraid of the utmost exercise of the powers of the government of Pennsylvania, or of the Union, provided they are exercised with patriotism and intelligence and really in the interest of the people who are living under them. But when it is proposed to set up guardians over those people and to take care of them by a process of tutelage and supervision, in which they play no active part, I utter my absolute objection. Because the proposal of the third party, for example, is not to take you out of the hands of the men who have corrupted the Government of the United States, but to see to it that you remain in their hands and that the government guarantees to you that they will be humane to you.

The most corrupting thing in this country has been this self-same tariff of which Mr. Palmer spoke so convincingly. The workingmen of America are not going to allow themselves to be deceived by a colossal bluff any longer. One of the corporations in the United Sates which has succeeded in mastering the laborer and saying to him, “You shall not organize; you shall not exercise your liberty of cooperation, though we who employ you are using the power of organization to the utmost point of absolute control,” namely, the United States Steel Corporation, paid enormous dividends and still more enormous bonuses to those who promoted its organization at the same time that it was making men work twelve hours, seven days a week, at wages which in the 365 days of the year would now allow enough to support a family. If they have millions to divide among themselves and get those millions, as they profess to get them, from the opportunities created by the tariff, where does the workingman come in?

Mr. Roosevelt himself has spoken of the profits which they get as “prize money,” and his objection is just the objection that I am raising. He says that not enough of the “prize money” gets into the pay envelope. And I quite agree with him. But I want to know how he proposes to get it there. I search his program from top to bottom, and the only proposal I can find is this: That there shall be an industrial commission charged with the supervision of the great monopolistic combinations which have been formed under the protection of the tariff, and that the Government of the Unites States shall see to it that these gentlemen who have conquered labor shall be kind to labor. And I find then the proposition is this: That there shall be two masters, the great corporations and, over it, the Government of the United States, and I ask, “Who is going to be the master of the Government of the United States?” It has a master now, those who in combination control these monopolies. And if the government controlled by the monopolies in its turn controlled the monopolies, the partnership is finally consummated.

I don’t care how benevolent the master is going to be, I will not live under a master. That is not what America was created for. America was created in order that every man should have the same chance with every other man to exercise mastery over his own fortunes. Now, what I want to do is to follow the example of the authorities of the city of Glasgow. I want to light and patrol the corridors of these great organizations in order to see that nobody who tries to traverse them is waylaid and maltreated. Because if you will but hold them off, if you will but see to it the weak are protected, I will venture a wager with you that there are some men in the United States now weak, economically weak, who have brains enough to compete with these gentlemen. And if you will but protect them, they will presently come into the market and put these gentlemen on their mettle. And the minute they come into the market, there will be a bigger market for labor and a different wage scale for labor. Because it is susceptible of absolute proof that high-paid labor of America–where it is high-paid–is cheaper than the low-paid labor of the continent of Europe.

Do you know that about 90 per cent, I am told, of those who are employed in labor in this country are not employed in the protected industries, and that their wages are almost without exception higher than the wages of those who are employed in the protected industries? There is no corner on carpenters, there is no corner on bricklayers, there is no corner on scores of individual instances of classes of skilled laborers. But there is a corner on the poolers in the furnaces, there is a corner on the men who dive down into the mines. They are in the grip of a controlling power which determines the market rates of wages in the United States, and only where labor is free is labor highly paid in America.

So that when I am fighting against monopolistic control, I am fighting for the liberty of every man in America, and I am fighting for the liberty of American industry. These gentlemen say that the commission which they wish to set up should not be bound too much by laws, but that they should be allowed to indulge in what they call constructive regulation, which amounts to administration. And they intimate, though they do not say, that it will be perfectly feasible for this commission to regulate prices and also to regulate, I dare say, in the long run, though they do not now propose it, the rates of wages. How are they going to regulate them? Suppose that they take the net profits of a great concern–and if you take some of these monopolistic concerns, the net profits are very large–and suppose they say these net profits are too large. How are they going to tell how much of those profits came from efficiency of administration and how much from excessive prices? Now, if you tax efficiency, you discourage industry. If you tax excessive profits, you destroy your monopoly without increasing its efficiency. Because without competition there isn’t going to be efficiency.

Do you know that railway rates in the United States came down and came steadily down during the period which preceded the regulation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and that since the regulation of the Interstate Commerce Commission the rates have steadily, though not rapidly, gone up? That means that the cost of operation of the railways in the competitive period under the stimulation of competition went down, and that the cost of operation since the period of competition was closed has not gone down. I am not going to explain it, but I suspect that nobody brings his operation costs down unless he has to, and that he doesn’t have to unless somebody more intelligent and more efficient than himself gets in the field against him. There is instance after instance in the United States of the discouragement of invention, because, if with the machinery that you have, you have got a corner on the market, why should you encourage those who would improve your machinery? There is no reason why you should improve your processes if you have got control of the whole production or so large a proportion of it that you are independent. And if under the present circumstances a man does arise who shows that he can beat you, what do you do? You buy him out at three or four times the value of his business. And then you charge the consumer the interest on the four or five times that you paid him to get out. And so the process of monopoly is a process of piling up capital, nominal capital, piling up prices and not increasing efficiency.

I want a chance to fight for the liberation of American industry, and I know how to do it. I didn’t find it out. I have had no divine inspiration. I do not pretend to have the absolute by the wool, but I have been fortunate enough to live with men who did know how. And I have been docile enough to learn from men who did know. The only advantage that I can claim is that I haven’t any notes in bank and therefore am at liberty to look around me. I have always been careful to live on the salary that I have, knowing that that was the only condition of independence. And being at liberty to look around, having the privilege of being associated with men who were in the thick of every kind of affairs, I have had the opportunity of knowing what was going on, and I have had the opportunity of knowing how things can be done which are exactly opposite to those which are proposed in the program I have just been criticizing.

These giant corporations have got their monopolistic power because the processes of competition by which they crushed the small man out were not regulated, and I am in favor of such regulation of competition as will see to it that new entries can come into the race and that the newcomer is allowed to show his paces before he is put out of the race. You can do that. You can say to these gentlemen who are in the driver’s seat of these cars of Juggernaut, “You can drive down the highways, but we warn you that if anybody gets run over, the driver goes to jail. We don’t care how big the concern is, we don’t care how powerful a business you have built up if you don’t use your power unfairly. But the minute you use it unfairly, then you come under the ban of the law. Mark you, we are not going to put the car of Juggernaut in jail. We are going to put the driver in jail, because we may want to use the car ourselves. What we want you to distinctly understand is that nobody is going to take a joy ride in that thing; that we recognize in this great thing the majesty and, it may be, the majestic duty of the great conception of property, but we also recognize on the road the great thronging multitudes of mankind. And if you can’t drive along the road without crushing men, then we will have to forbid even the road to you, because we are going to protect men.”

We believe that the power of America resides not in the men who have made good and gained a great supremacy in the field of business, but in the men who are to make good. Where is the power, where is the distinction of the great office of President of the United States? Is America going to be saved because George Washington was great? Because Lincoln was great? Because men of devoted characters have served in that great office? Don’t you know that America is safe only because we do not know who the future Presidents of the United States are going to be? If we had depended upon the lineage of these gentlemen, they might have failed to have sons like themselves. But we are not depending upon anybody except the great American people, and we know that when the time comes some figure, it may be hitherto unknown, from some family whose name and fame the country has never heard, will come a man fitted for the great task by the gift of God and by virtue of his own indomitable character.

I say this with a certain degree of embarrassment because I am a candidate for that great office. And I am not going to pretend to any body of my fellow citizens that I have any sort of confidence that I am a big enough man for the place. But I do feel proud of this, that no law, no rule of blood, no privilege of money, picked me out to be a candidate even. It may be a mistake, but you can’t blame your system for it, because it is a fine system where some remote, severe academic schoolmaster may become President of the United States. He is not connected at least with the powers that have been, and he has even upon occasion set himself against the powers that are. Men speculate as to what he might be ignorant or audacious enough to do. But all of that is of the excitement of the democratic game. We are sports. We aren’t going to tie up to a particular family. We aren’t going to tie up to a particular class. We are going to say, “We have played this game long enough now to be perfectly serene about it, and we are going to take the chances of the game.” That is the beauty of democracy. Democracy means that instead of depending for the fertility of your genius upon a little acre long tilled, you are going to depend upon all the wide prairies and the hillsides and the forested mountains, that you don’t care whether a man comes from Maine or from Texas, or from Washington or from Florida, or anywhere in between, provided when he comes and you look at him you like him.

And your confidence of the future is in this, that some man of some kind, probably from an uncalculated quarter, is going to come. You see, therefore, that I am simply going about to illustrate a single thing. I am simply trying to hold your attention to one theme, namely this, that America must be fertile, or she cannot be great, and that if you confine the processes of your industry or the processes of your politics to these lines where there may be or has been monopoly, you impoverish the great country which we would enrich. That to my mind is the whole lesson of history.

Men have always, sooner or later, kicked over the traces after they had for a little while lived upon the theory that some of them ought to take care of the rest of them. There is no man, there is no group of men, there is no class of men, big enough or wise enough to take care of a free people. If the free people can’t take care of itself, then it isn’t free, it hasn’t grown up. That is the very definition of freedom. If you are afraid to trust any and every man to put forth his powers as he pleases, then you are afraid of liberty itself. I am willing to risk liberty to the utmost, and I am not willing to risk anything else. So that, for my part, having once got blood in my eye and felt the zest of the active quest for the scalps of the men who don’t know any better than to resist the liberties of a great people, it doesn’t make any difference to me whether I am elected President or not. I’ll find some means somewhere of making it infinitely uncomfortable for them.

Really, the object of public opinion is to make it uncomfortable for the men who don’t behave themselves. Because I am very much more afraid of the just opinion of my fellow citizens that I am of jail. Because in jail you are at least safeguarded against the most terrible of all things–the look in the eyes of the people who don’t trust you. In those circumstances, the thickness of the wall of the prison is a gracious thing to you. I would a great deal rather be in jail than be hated. If I am a crook, I want to be segregated, because when you are once crooked you don’t fit anywhere. And the singular thing about our recent experience is that there are a lot of men who are crooked and don’t know it, who will describe themselves to you as having such straight grain in them that they can carry the strain of the whole structure of political life. They don’t know than they have been gyrating; they have been dervishes so long that they can’t see anything as a fixed point, not even the Decalogue.

So that what I long for, and what I believe you long for, is to return to the simplicity of American life. It’s go to be complicated in its structure. You can’t go back to the old ways of doing business entirely, but it can be simple again in its moral judgments. It can again establish the standard of morality. We have got very much confused. Our morality is just about big enough to fit my personal relationship to you. It’s got to be big enough to fit my personal relationship to all the community in which I live and everybody with whom I am connected, whether I see them or not. And we haven’t got up to the job yet. We can get up to it only by threading our way along these intricate corridors, only by taking the patrolman’s lamp and going up and down the interior of our great complicated structure of life, through all the passages of the beehive in which we live, and see to it that men are remaining our neighbors and doing their duty as human beings.

That is the reason, my friends, that I am a democrat with a little d. And I am a Democrat with a big D because the divided Republican family doesn’t seem to know what to do with us. The regular Republicans and the irregular Republicans are very much more interested in each other than they are in us. And while that is the case, I think we, while they are thus engaged, better go about the business of the country. I remember being in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, before the presidential primaries. The day before the ex-President had been there, and the day before that, the President of the United States had been there, and they had been saying a great deal about each other. I was holding a midday meeting, and I wanted to get the attention, at least, of my audience, so I ventured to say to them, “After what you people have been through with here the last two days, perhaps you would like to know what the public questions of the day are.” And I feel a good deal that way still. The question of the day is not the division of responsibility, but the method of the liberation of the people.

I am not interested in persons. I can’t force myself to be interested in persons. I don’t want to say anything about them, and I don’t care what they say about me. I simply want to say to them at every point, “Very true, it any be so, let us grant all that, and return to business. What are you proposing to do to put more money in the envelope of the workingman? What are you proposing to do to break up the lines of monopoly in the United States? What are you proposing to do to set this people free again and give them direct access to their own government?” For the vision of America will never change. America once, when she was a little people, sat upon a hill of vantage and had a vision of the future. She saw men happy because they were free. She saw them free because they were equal. She saw them banded together because they had the spirit of brothers. She saw safe because they did not wish to impose upon one another. And the vision is not changed. The multitude has grown–that welcome multitude that comes from all parts of the world to seek a safe place of life and of hope in America.

And so America will move forward, if she moves forward at all, only with her face to that same sun of promise. Just so soon as she forgets the sun in the heavens, just so soon as she looks so intently upon the road before her and around her that she does not know where it leads, then will she forget what America was created for, and her light will go out, and the nations will grope again in darkness, and they will say, “Where are those who prophesied a day of freedom for us? Where are the lights that we followed? Where is the torch that the runners bore? Where are those who bade us hope? Where came in those whispers of dull despair?

Has America turned back? Has America forgotten her mission? Has America forgotten that her politics are part of her life and that only as the red blood of her people flows in the veins of her polity shall she occupy that point of vantage which has made her the beacon and the leader of mankind?

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