“We live in a very confused time. The economic developments which have embarrassed our life are of comparatively recent origin, and our chief trouble is that we do not exactly know what we are about. We have not made a thorough analysis of the facts; we are full of suspicions, but our arguments do not abound in proof.” - President Woodrow Wilson ’79

An Address Delivered By President Woodrow Wilson ’79 At the Annual Dinner of the Chamber of Commerce of Cleveland, Ohio

The Right Honorable James Bryce, the British Ambassador; the Honorable Curtis Guild, Governor of Massachusetts, and President Wilson ’79 were the speakers, in the order here given, at the annual dinner of the Chamber of Commerce of Cleveland, Ohio, November 16th. The directors of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce entertained the speakers at luncheon at the Union Club, and in the evening four hundred and fifty of the leading citizens of Cleveland were present at the annual dinner.

Speaking on “Ideal of Public Life,” President Wilson urged an enlargement of the conception of the public service. No man, he said, in a free country governed by opinion can afford to be a wholly private man. It is his duty to enter into public counsel, and in proportion as he enters into public counsel he enters into public life. The roll of our public men is not confined to those who occupy or seek public office; all those of whom we take counsel are in the best sense of the word public men. Particularly now, when there seems to be no distinctive party doctrines and when part leaders lead us we know not exactly whither, the country consciously seeks counsel of men who speak definitely and fearlessly and who think close to the facts not only but also close to definite principles. What the country just now needs and wishes more than anything else is disinterested advice and clearing of counsel. Public life is not merely the transaction of public business; it is also the formation of the public thought, the guidance of the public purpose, the clarification of all programmes, and the careful testing of all remedies. Our chief political difficulties lie in the field of modern business combinations, and only those who really understand the method and the motives of those combinations can give the public advice which it would be worth its while to follow. Our present tendency is to go almost feverishly in search of strange experimental processes by which to check the things of which we are afraid, and we are apt in such a search to lose the very thing for which we have been distinguished, the only thing for which we have been distinguished among the nations; namely, our clear grasp of principles, our confidence in the operation of individual freedom, our faith in men rather than in government.

Many men in public office and who are the accredited leaders of parties think of these things clearly and act upon definite principle with regard to them, but they need recruiting out of the general ranks of society. Counsel cannot be common counsel if it is confined to accredited political leaders; it must be enriched by the thought and purpose of those whose thought has other foundation and other scope than the interest of parties and the immediate feasibility of particular programmes. We need to encourage, as we are already encouraging, the rise of an additional class of men, intensely practical, intimately acquainted with the facts about which they speak and not afraid of uncovering what is ugly; but not opportunists, not confining their views to what is immediately practicable, but looking forward to the long course which the nation must pursue if it intends to rid itself of economic evils and purify the processes of its life; men determined to lead but able to lead without being candidates for office, without seeking place, trying to find their leadership in the force of their ideas, not in the force of their ambitions; men with definite programmes but not tied to parties and not dismayed if parties will not at once take up the measures which they advocate.

We live in a very confused time. The economic developments which have embarrassed our life are of comparatively recent origin, and our chief trouble is that we do not exactly know what we are about. We have not made a thorough analysis of the facts; we are full of suspicions, but our arguments do not abound in proof. We are eager to touch the springs of action, but have not yet discovered exactly where they lie. We need nothing so much as that public thought should be instructed, purified, invigorated by plain, straightforward disinterested discussion not so much of party programmes as of facts and situations and needs. Above all things we need men who, because they are rendered independent by not seeking office or even desiring it, can hold militant ideals for which they are ready to fight in season and out of season and which they are ready to expound though no man at first agree with them. If there were a large number of such men, their counsel would presently be heeded, and parties would no longer cast about for popular cries and issues. The public thought would bulk very clear to the eyes of all leaders, if formed by non-partisan processes.

I do not mean that parties can be or should be discredited. I believe that party action is the necessary process of life in a free country governed by opinion. What I mean is that the nation will not get at its real thoughts and purposes if it take counsel in public matters only of those who are party leaders and who are hampered, as party leaders must always be, by the exigencies of party contest and the necessity of always looking to the major chance at election time. Party leaders are obliged in a great degree to be opportunists. But the country cannot afford to be guided by opportunists alone. It must form its parties by a very definitely forming its opinions, and opinion may dominate parties instead of merely supplying them with catch words, test candidates for office rather than merely coach them for success. Let us insist now for a little while, in this time when new thinking and new purposing is to be done, on thinking outside party formulas and class interests, as the men of our creative period did when the nation was in process of birth. Let us seek to encourage a class of public men who can make opinion, whom parties must heed and cannot use.

This is not cynical counsel based upon anu pessimistic feeling that party morality is at a low ebb. On the contrary, the action of parties in our day is touched at many points with hopeful signs. Opinion everywhere prefers the process which is righteous and the man who is honest, and parties are as likely now as they ever were to serve the nation creditably and to good purpose. But they must serve the nation and not merely play a game for advantage, and they cannot serve a nation which does not definitely form and declare its thought.

Nothing is more evident in our day than that the country is confused in its thinking, and needs to look its affairs over very carefully before determining what legal and constitutional changes it will make. In our haste and eagerness to reform manifest abuses, we are inclined to enter upon courses dangerous and unprecedented, I mean unprecedented in America, and quite contrary to the spirit which has hitherto ruled in her affairs. We turn more and more with a sense of individual helplessness to the government, begging that it take care of us because we have forgotten how to take care of ourselves, begging that it will regulate our industries, scrutinize our economic undertakings, supervise our enterprizes and keep the men who conduct them within definite bounds of law and morality. We no longer know any remedy except to put things in the hands of the government. In such courses we are turning directly away from all the principles which have distinguished America and made her institutions the hope of all men who believe in liberty. Undoubtedly in our time we must look to government to do a great many things which were once within the power of the individual and are now much beyond it, but it is none the less our duty to see that endeavor is not swallowed up in government.

We find many things done under forms of corporate organization which are clearly against the public welfare as well as against all principles of private morality, and so we strike at corporations, and, striking at corporations, embarrass the business of the country. There is no such thing as corporate morality or corporate integrity or corporate responsibility. Every transaction that is against the public welfare or right principle can be traced, if we will but take the pains to trace it, to some individual or body of individuals who are responsible for it, and those individuals should be punished without fear or favor, without checking the courses of the country’s business. We must analyze our new methods of business so as to re-discover the individual int hem and hold him to his personal responsibility. This, and not methods of government supervision, is the task of the enlightened lawyer and legislator, if we would bring back to America her great fame and leadership in the world of politics and law. It is difficult; it can be accomplished only by the most careful analysis of the facts; but it can be accomplished, and it will set us free alike from individual crime in the field of business and from governmental tutelage in the field of politics. Our two tsks are to break up monopolies and re-discover the individual in all matters of legal responsibility. Governmental supervision will not free us or moralize us; it will in the long run enslave us and demoralize us. But individual responsibility and an impartial enforcement of the law against those who are actually responsible will bring us alike freedom and public morals.

This was originally published in the November 27, 1907 issue of PAW.