State of the Union Address

Woodrow Wilson

December 06, 1916

GENTLEMEN OF THE CONGRESS:

In fulfilling at this time the duty laid upon me by the Constitution of
communicating to you from time to time information of the state of the
Union and recommending to your consideration such legislative measures as
may be judged necessary and expedient, I shall continue the practice, which
I hope has been acceptable to you, of leaving to the reports of the several
heads of the executive departments the elaboration of the detailed needs of
the public service and confine myself to those matters of more general
public policy with which it seems necessary and feasible to deal at the
present session of the Congress.

I realize the limitations of time under which you will necessarily act at
this session and shall make my suggestions as few as possible; but there
were some things left undone at the last session which there will now be
time to complete and which it seems necessary in the interest of the public
to do at once.

In the first place, it seems to me imperatively necessary that the earliest
possible consideration and action should be accorded the remaining measures
of the program of settlement and regulation which I had occasion to
recommend to you at the close of your last session in view of the public
dangers disclosed by the unaccommodated difficulties which then existed,
and which still unhappily continue to exist, between the railroads of the
country and their locomotive engineers, conductors and trainmen.

I then recommended:

First, immediate provision for the enlargement and administrative
reorganization of the Interstate Commerce Commission along the lines
embodied in the bill recently passed by the House of Representatives and
now awaiting action by the Senate; in order that the Commission may be
enabled to deal with the many great and various duties now devolving upon
it with a promptness and thoroughness which are, with its present
constitution and means of action, practically impossible.

Second, the establishment of an eight—hour day as the legal basis alike of
work and wages in the employment of all railway employes who are actually
engaged in the work of operating trains in interstate transportation.

Third, the authorization of the appointment by the President of a small
body of men to observe actual results in experience of the adoption of the
eight—hour day in railway transportation alike for the men and for the
railroads.

Fourth, explicit approval by the Congress of the consideration by the
Interstate Commerce Commission of an increase of freight rates to meet such
additional expenditures by the railroads as may have been rendered
necessary by the adoption of the eight—hour day and which have not been
offset by administrative readjustments and economies, should the facts
disclosed justify the increase.

Fifth, an amendment of the existing Federal statute which provides for the
mediation, conciliation and arbitration of such controversies as the
present by adding to it a provision that, in case the methods of
accommodation now provided for should fail, a full public investigation of
the merits of every such dispute shall be instituted and completed before a
strike or lockout may lawfully be attempted.

And, sixth, the lodgment in the hands of the Executive of the power, in
case of military necessity, to take control of such portions and such
rolling stock of the railways of the country as may be required for
military use and to operate them for military purposes, with authority to
draft into the military service of the United States such train crews and
administrative officials as the circumstances require for their safe and
efficient use.

The second and third of these recommendations the Congress immediately
acted on: it established the eight—hour day as the legal basis of work and
wages in train service and it authorized the appointment of a commission to
observe and report upon the practical results, deeming these the measures
most immediately needed; but it postponed action upon the other suggestions
until an opportunity should be offered for a more deliberate consideration
of them.

The fourth recommendation I do not deem it necessary to renew. The power of
the Interstate Commerce Commission to grant an increase of rates on the
ground referred to is indisputably clear and a recommendation by the
Congress with regard to such a matter might seem to draw in question the
scope of the commission’s authority or its inclination to do justice when
there is no reason to doubt either.

The other suggestions—the increase in the Interstate Commerce Commission’s
membership and in its facilities for performing its manifold duties; the
provision for full public investigation and assessment of industrial
disputes, and the grant to the Executive of the power to control and
operate the railways when necessary in time of war or other like public
necessity—I now very earnestly renew.

The necessity for such legislation is manifest and pressing. Those who have
entrusted us with the responsibility and duty of serving and safeguarding
them in such matters would find it hard, I believe, to excuse a failure to
act upon these grave matters or any unnecessary postponement of action upon
them.

Not only does the Interstate Commerce Commission now find it practically
impossible, with its present membership and organization, to perform its
great functions promptly and thoroughly, but it is not unlikely that it may
presently be found advisable to add to its duties still others equally
heavy and exacting. It must first be perfected as an administrative
instrument.

The country cannot and should not consent to remain any longer exposed to
profound industrial disturbances for lack of additional means of
arbitration and conciliation which the Congress can easily and promptly
supply.

And all will agree that there must be no doubt as to the power of the
Executive to make immediate and uninterrupted use of the railroads for the
concentration of the military forces of the nation wherever they are needed
and whenever they are needed.

This is a program of regulation, prevention and administrative efficiency
which argues its own case in the mere statement of it. With regard to one
of its items, the increase in the efficiency of the Interstate Commerce
Commission, the House of Representatives has already acted; its action
needs only the concurrence of the Senate.

I would hesitate to recommend, and I dare say the Congress would hesitate
to act upon the suggestion should I make it, that any man in any I
occupation should be obliged by law to continue in an employment which he
desired to leave.

To pass a law which forbade or prevented the individual workman to leave
his work before receiving the approval of society in doing so would be to
adopt a new principle into our jurisprudence, which I take it for granted
we are not prepared to introduce.

But the proposal that the operation of the railways of the country shall
not be stopped or interrupted by the concerted action of organized bodies
of men until a public investigation shall have been instituted, which shall
make the whole question at issue plain for the judgment of the opinion of
the nation, is not to propose any such principle.

It is based upon the very different principle that the concerted action of
powerful bodies of men shall not be permitted to stop the industrial
processes of the nation, at any rate before the nation shall have had an
opportunity to acquaint itself with the merits of the case as between
employe and employer, time to form its opinion upon an impartial statement
of the merits, and opportunity to consider all practicable means of
conciliation or arbitration.

I can see nothing in that proposition but the justifiable safeguarding by
society of the necessary processes of its very life. There is nothing
arbitrary or unjust in it unless it be arbitrarily and unjustly done. It
can and should be done with a full and scrupulous regard for the interests
and liberties of all concerned as well as for the permanent interests of
society itself.

Three matters of capital importance await the action of the Senate which
have already been acted upon by the House of Representatives; the bill
which seeks to extend greater freedom of combination to those engaged in
promoting the foreign commerce of the country than is now thought by some
to be legal under the terms of the laws against monopoly; the bill amending
the present organic law of Porto Rico; and the bill proposing a more
thorough and systematic regulation of the expenditure of money in
elections, commonly called the Corrupt Practices Act.

I need not labor my advice that these measures be enacted into law. Their
urgency lies in the manifest circumstances which render their adoption at
this time not only opportune but necessary. Even delay would seriously
jeopard the interests of the country and of the Government.

Immediate passage of the bill to regulate the expenditure of money in
elections may seem to be less necessary than the immediate enactment of the
other measures to which I refer, because at least two years will elapse
before another election in which Federal offices are to be filled; but it
would greatly relieve the public mind if this important matter were dealt
with while the circumstances and the dangers to the public morals of the
present method of obtaining and spending campaign funds stand clear under
recent observation, and the methods of expenditure can be frankly studied
in the light of present experience; and a delay would have the further very
serious disadvantage of postponing action until another election was at
hand and some special object connected with it might be thought to be in
the mind of those who urged it. Action can be taken now with facts for
guidance and without suspicion of partisan purpose.

I shall not argue at length the desirability of giving a freer hand in the
matter of combined and concerted effort to those who shall undertake the
essential enterprise of building up our export trade. That enterprise will
presently, will immediately assume, has indeed already assumed a magnitude
unprecedented in our experience. We have not the necessary
instrumentalities for its prosecution; it is deemed to be doubtful whether
they could be created upon an adequate scale under our present laws.

We should clear away all legal obstacles and create a basis of undoubted
law for it which will give freedom without permitting unregulated license.
The thing must be done now, because the opportunity is here and may escape
us if we hesitate or delay.

The argument for the proposed amendments of the organic law of Porto Rico
is brief and conclusive. The present laws governing the island and
regulating the rights and privileges of its people are not just. We have
created expectations of extended privilege which we have not satisfied.
There is uneasiness among the people of the island and even a suspicious
doubt with regard to our intentions concerning them which the adoption of
the pending measure would happily remove. We do not doubt what we wish to
do in any essential particular. We ought to do it at once.

At the last session of the Congress a bill was passed by the Senate which
provides for the promotion of vocational and industrial education, which is
of vital importance to the whole country because it concerns a matter, too
long neglected, upon which the thorough industrial preparation of the
country for the critical years of economic development immediately ahead of
us in very large measure depends.

May I not urge its early and favorable consideration by the House of
Representatives and its early enactment into law? It contains plans which
affect all interests and all parts of the country, and I am sure that there
is no legislation now pending before the Congress whose passage the country
awaits with more thoughtful approval or greater impatience to see a great
and admirable thing set in the way of being done.

There are other matters already advanced to the stage of conference between
the two houses of which it is not necessary that I should speak. Some
practicable basis of agreement concerning them will no doubt be found an
action taken upon them.

Inasmuch as this is, gentlemen, probably the last occasion I shall have to
address the Sixty—fourth Congress, I hope that you will permit me to say
with what genuine pleasure and satisfaction I have co—operated with you in
the many measures of constructive policy with which you have enriched the
legislative annals of the country. It has been a privilege to labor in such
company. I take the liberty of congratulating you upon the completion of a
record of rare serviceableness and distinction.

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