© U. & U.º
At work in the White House
President Wilson wrote at this desk those great State Papers whose eloquence thrilled the whole world
Legislation fulfilling promises — Repeal of the Panama Canal tolls an early test of power — Clash between railroads and the brotherhoods — Antitrust legislation — "Crime is personal" — "The most adequate navy in the world"
"It is a record of extraordinary length and variety, rich in elements of many kinds, but consistent in principle throughout." — Wilson
The story of 1913‑1921 is a story of redeemed pledges. Woodrow Wilson was chary with promises. His word, once given, was better than a bond.
Perhaps the best test of Wilson's leadership in obtaining legislation was in securing the repeal of the law giving American ships freedom from Panama Canal tolls. The act exempting vessels engaged in the coastwise trade of the United States had passed Congress August 24, 1912. It had been received with apparent general approval as encouragement to the American Merchant Marine and had passed Congress in the face of contention that it violated the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty. Its repeal was stubbornly fought. In his shortest message to Congress, Mr. Wilson urged repeal "with the utmost earnestness of which I am capable, and closed by saying: "I ask this of you in support of the foreign policy of the administration. I shall not know how to deal with other matters of greater delicacy and nearer consequence if you do p196 not grant it to me in ungrudging measure." He did not enter into legal and technical questions that had been raised or into the effect upon American shipping. "Whatever may be our own differences of opinion concerning this much debated measure," he said, "its meaning is not debated outside the United States. Everywhere else the language of the treaty is given but one interpretation, and that interpretation precludes the exemption I am asking you to repeal."
His appeal was to "deserve our reputation for generosity and for the redemption of every obligation without quibble or hesitation." It was not, however, "granted" without bitter opposition and the charge that it was "a surrender to Britain" and the "encouragement of British shipping at the expense of America's merchant marine." How often opponents charged Wilson with favoring the British and how often he was assailed for being so hard upon them! Conscious that he was neither "pro" nor "anti" but wholly for what he regarded as the right thing, no matter what nation was helped or injured, he heard such charges unmoved.
In the Panama tolls contest a favorite argument by the strong opponents to repeal was: "The Panama Canal was built upon territory secured by Americans; it was built by American money and American ships are entitled to an advantage." The answer was that in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty we had pledged there should be no discrimination. President Wilson urged that our word was plighted and, therefore, there could be no debate as to our keeping faith. "We consented to the treaty," he said. "Its language we accepted, if we did not originate it; and we are too big, too powerful, too self-respecting a nation to interpret with a too strained or p197 refined reading the words of our own promises just because we have power enough to give us leave to read them as we please. The large thing to do is the only thing we can afford to do — a voluntary withdrawal from a position everywhere questioned and misunderstood."
The repeal carried in the House by a vote of 247 to 162, and in the Senate by a vote of 50 to 35.
From the day of his inauguration President Wilson regarded himself as industrial as well as political leader of the nation. If there were threatening clouds he did not wait for the storm to break. He moved to avert disturbance to business and the distress from unemployment. The severest challenge to this wise leadership came in August, 1916, in the midst of his campaign for re-election, when a clash between railroad brotherhoods and the roads over hours and wages became acute. He was counselled that the poker was hot at both ends and that he should let the railroad companies and their employees "fight it out." No timid course or shifting of responsibility appealed to him. Four hundred thousand trainmen had demanded an eight-hour day with no reduction in the pay they were receiving for the ten-hour day. Conferences with the railroad managers and employees failed to result in an agreement. In a referendum, 90 per cent of the trainmen voted to strike. The United States Board of Mediation and Counsel failed in efforts to avert the strike. President Wilson called a conference of the disputants at the White House on August 13. He proposed as a basis of settlement: That the eight-hour day be conceded, that the overtime demand of the trainmen and certain demands of the railroads be postponed awaiting inquiry, and that in the p198 meantime Congress authorize him to appoint a commission to observe and report on the results.
The trainmen accepted this proposition, but it was rejected by the railroad managers. President Wilson then called the railroad presidents to Washington. They declined to adopt his suggestion and made counter-proposals. In the meantime the labor leaders, distrusting any other remedy, issued a strike order to take effect September 4. The President requested the withdrawal of the order, but was informed that the committee of brotherhood chairmen, which had already dispersed, was the only body empowered to withdraw it. After several conferences with leaders in Congress — always "common counsel" in big matters — President Wilson recommended immediate legislative action. He suggested the legal recognition of the eight-hour day, the creation of a commission to study the effects of the change and related legislation. But as the immediate task was to avert the strike, Mr. Adamson, of Georgia, chairman of the House Interstate Commerce Committee, brought in a bill covering only the two points mentioned and providing for the wage to remain in effect until thirty days after the report of the commission of inquiry.
While there was sharp criticism of Wilson's course, the legislation he approved passed the House September 1 by a vote of 239 to 56, showing that most of the members of both parties approved the necessity and wisdom of prompt and effective action. Such Old Guard leaders in the House as ex-Speaker Cannon gave it their support, though Leader Mann opposed it. By the time it had reached the Senate the Republican leaders thought they saw in it a winning campaign issue. Of the Republican Senators only La Follette voted for it. The Republican p199 campaign speakers denounced it in the closing days of the campaign and most Democrats defended it, but not all. There was no unanimity. The country as a whole believed that Wilson had found a way to prevent the prostration of business. They were more influenced by desire for industrial peace than by any hostility to the method employed. What effect did it have on the election? Wilson lost all the big industrial states where it was predicted his action would aid him, but the labor vote in the West undoubtedly swelled his majority in the states that determined the result. He permitted no political considerations, however, to affect his action.
Preparedness legislation before this country entered the war received its stimulus from President Wilson. Writing from Cornish in the summer of 1915, he requested the Secretaries of War and Navy to give study to the methods to strengthen both branches of the service, and have a program ready for his consideration so it could be presented to the coming session of Congress. When Congress assembled in December of that year, he gave chief place in his message to urging the passage of the measures to put the Army and Navy in shape for national defense. In his tour of the West, in the early part of 1916, he declared "The United States should have the most adequate Navy in the world," and the measures adopted by Congress, if they had been carried out, would today give this country primacy in capital ships. Like insistence upon proper coast defense and increase the army had brought increased appropriations.
"Crime is personal."
That sentence challenged attention more than a decade ago. Woodrow Wilson, college president, was speaking about the wrongs of combinations in restraint p200 of trade. There had been suits or prosecutions brought against corporations charged with violating the antitrust laws. He was the first man in America to fix attention to the fact that you can never reach the root of the disease until the guilty man, not the corporation, is brought to account. He made it clear that the crime complained of must have been committed by some man. "Get the man," was the substance of his speech, for he went on to say the laws will be violated as long as the individual can hide behind the corporation.
When he came to the Presidency, he felt the need of additional legislation to prevent restraint of trade. He secured the co‑operation of Congress in the enactment of the Clayton anti-trust law. For the first time there was secured the legal recognition of the fact that "labor" is not a commodity.
It would convey a wrong impression to let it be inferred that Mr. Wilson would stand for any injustice to business because it was big. On the contrary, he believed all protection should be thrown around large independent enterprises. "It is a mistake," he once said, "to suppose the great captains of industry are engrossed in a vulgar pursuit of wealth." He said: "These men are not fascinated by the glitter of gold. The appetite for power has not got hold of them. They are in line with the exercise of their faculties upon a great scale. They are organizing and overseeing a great part of the life of the world." He would end all monopoly based upon privilege.
Among the outstanding achievements of his first term, in addition to tariff and currency reform, was legislation for the construction of the Alaskan railroad, authorized by act of Congress, March 12, 1914, which was the initial great step taken to make possible the p201 development of that Territory since its purchase by Andrew Johnson, and the Merchant Marine act which passed May 20, 1916.
The Alaskan railroad measure had support from all parties, but the attempt to give the United States a place in the ocean-carrying commerce, after fifty years of stagnation, was fought at every step by the almost solid Republican vote in Congress. Aided by a handful of Democrats, by a filibuster they postponed the passage many months. That delay in construction of ships proved most injurious when the first and insistent demand was for ships. Because this country had few ships, the owners charged "all the traffic would bear" and three hundred million dollars represented the annual ocean freight bill paid to the foreign owners of ships by American commerce. If there had been no filibuster, the United States would have found itself better equipped with ships when war came. In addition to this wise foresight, Wilson secured provision for greater safety of life at sea by an international conference, the Seamen's Act, designed to end high sea slavery; the Ship Registry Act; and the war risk insurance for merchant ships. As a result, in 1916, for the first time in history, the United States became the foremost ship-building country in the world. All this in pursuance to Wilson's declaration after he had secured tariff and currency reform: "We can develop no true or effective American policy without ships of our own — not ships of war, but ships of peace, carrying goods and carrying much more; creating friendships and rendering indispensable services to all interests on this side of the water. They must move constantly back and forth between the Americas." He had declared when he was a candidate for the Presidency in 1912:
p202 "Without a great merchant marine we cannot take our rightful place in the commerce of the world. Our industries have expanded to such a point that they will burst their jackets, if they cannot find a free outlet to the markets of the world; and they cannot find such an outlet unless they be given ships of their own to carry their goods — ships that will go the routes they want them to go — and prefer the interests of America in their sailing orders and their equipment. Our domestic markets no longer suffice. We need foreign markets. That is another force that is going to break the tariff down. The tariff was once a bulwark; now it is a dam. For trade is reciprocal; we cannot sell unless we also buy."
To these outstanding measures of progress must be added the legislation for the improvement and extension and protection of agriculture, the safety of railway employees, the anti-injunction measure, creating the Federal Trade Commission and Tariff Commission, the ratification of the amendment to elect Senators by the people, the act that began the great program of building hard surface roads on a large scale, and other progressive measures to promote the welfare and prosperity of the people. This unprecedented success in reform measures in so brief a period implied hearty co‑operation and teamwork by the executive and the legislators.
The legislation necessary for the carrying on of the war, the mobilization of resources, the conservation of food and the regulation of the price of essential products, the taking over and operation of the railroads because private operation had broken down, the large powers of the Overman act, the creation and administration of agencies for all needed purposes — all these reveal the grasp and wisdom of the man at the helm.
p203 The record of victories in Congress is unparalleled. Every measure which President Wilson urged upon the legislative branch was enacted into law until he was stricken on his Western trip in September, 1919. The White House was the centre of initiative and leadership. Mr. Wilson had cordial relations with Congress. He sought and secured co‑operation by the only methods he knew of conducting public business — direction, frankness and persuasion. If members of his own party were not disposed to carry out pledges, he was not averse to persuasion. But he respected the rights and powers of Congress as he was tenacious of the rights of the executive. If he had marked success in his recommendations to Congress, it was because what he urged appealed to its judgment and because he consulted freely with chairmen of all committees dealing with legislation he favored.
Woman suffragists found Mr. Wilson their best champion. "A few Presidents like Lincoln, Garfield and Roosevelt expressed their belief in woman suffrage," declares Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the American Woman Suffrage Association, "but Mr. Wilson was the only President who, while in power, worked for it." And Mrs. Catt enumerates instances from 1915 to the completion of ratification in 1920 showing Mr. Wilson's unflagging interest in the cause, adding: "His active aid was freely given and was invaluable."
Every promise kept.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Life of Wilson
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 16 Aug 08