Presidential Speeches

March 4, 1909: Inaugural Address

About this speech

William Taft

March 04, 1909

Source National Archives
Presidential Speeches |

March 4, 1909: Inaugural Address


My Fellow-Citizens: 

Anyone who has taken the oath I have just taken must feel a heavy weightof responsibility. If not, he has no conception of the powers and dutiesof the office upon which he is about to enter, or he is lacking in a propersense of the obligation which the oath imposes. 

The office of an inaugural address is to give a summary outline of themain policies of the new administration, so far as they can be anticipated.I have had the honor to be one of the advisers of my distinguished predecessor,and, as such, to hold up his hands in the reforms he has initiated. I shouldbe untrue to myself, to my promises, and to the declarations of the partyplatform upon which I was elected to office, if I did not make the maintenanceand enforcement of those reforms a most important feature of my administration.They were directed to the suppression of the lawlessness and abuses ofpower of the great combinations of capital invested in railroads and inindustrial enterprises carrying on interstate commerce. The steps whichmy predecessor took and the legislation passed on his recommendation haveaccomplished much, have caused a general halt in the vicious policies whichcreated popular alarm, and have brought about in the business affecteda much higher regard for existing law. 

To render the reforms lasting, however, and to secure at the same timefreedom from alarm on the part of those pursuing proper and progressivebusiness methods, further legislative and executive action are needed.Relief of the railroads from certain restrictions of the antitrust lawhave been urged by my predecessor and will be urged by me. On the otherhand, the administration is pledged to legislation looking to a properfederal supervision and restriction to prevent excessive issues of bondsand stock by companies owning and operating interstate commerce railroads. 

Then, too, a reorganization of the Department of Justice, of the Bureauof Corporations in the Department of Commerce and Labor, and of the InterstateCommerce Commission, looking to effective cooperation of these agencies,is needed to secure a more rapid and certain enforcement of the laws affectinginterstate railroads and industrial combinations. 

I hope to be able to submit at the first regular session of the incomingCongress, in December next, definite suggestions in respect to the neededamendments to the antitrust and the interstate commerce law and the changesrequired in the executive departments concerned in their enforcement. 

It is believed that with the changes to be recommended American businesscan be assured of that measure of stability and certainty in respect tothose things that may be done and those that are prohibited which is essentialto the life and growth of all business. Such a plan must include the rightof the people to avail themselves of those methods of combining capitaland effort deemed necessary to reach the highest degree of economic efficiency,at the same time differentiating between combinations based upon legitimateeconomic reasons and those formed with the intent of creating monopoliesand artificially controlling prices. 

The work of formulating into practical shape such changes is creativeword of the highest order, and requires all the deliberation possible inthe interval. I believe that the amendments to be proposed are just asnecessary in the protection of legitimate business as in the clinchingof the reforms which properly bear the name of my predecessor. 

A matter of most pressing importance is the revision of the tariff.In accordance with the promises of the platform upon which I was elected,I shall call Congress into extra session to meet on the 15th day of March,in order that consideration may be at once given to a bill revising theDingley Act. This should secure an adequate revenue and adjust the dutiesin such a manner as to afford to labor and to all industries in this country,whether of the farm, mine or factory, protection by tariff equal to thedifference between the cost of production abroad and the cost of productionhere, and have a provision which shall put into force, upon executive determinationof certain facts, a higher or maximum tariff against those countries whosetrade policy toward us equitably requires such discrimination. It is thoughtthat there has been such a change in conditions since the enactment ofthe Dingley Act, drafted on a similarly protective principle, that themeasure of the tariff above stated will permit the reduction of rates incertain schedules and will require the advancement of few, if any. 

The proposal to revise the tariff made in such an authoritative wayas to lead the business community to count upon it necessarily halts allthose branches of business directly affected; and as these are most important,it disturbs the whole business of the country. It is imperatively necessary,therefore, that a tariff bill be drawn in good faith in accordance withpromises made before the election by the party in power, and as promptlypassed as due consideration will permit. It is not that the tariff is moreimportant in the long run than the perfecting of the reforms in respectto antitrust legislation and interstate commerce regulation, but the needfor action when the revision of the tariff has been determined upon ismore immediate to avoid embarrassment of business. To secure the neededspeed in the passage of the tariff bill, it would seem wise to attemptno other legislation at the extra session. I venture this as a suggestiononly, for the course to be taken by Congress, upon the call of the Executive,is wholly within its discretion. 

In the mailing of a tariff bill the prime motive is taxation and thesecuring thereby of a revenue. Due largely to the business depression whichfollowed the financial panic of 1907, the revenue from customs and othersources has decreased to such an extent that the expenditures for the currentfiscal year will exceed the receipts by $100,000,000. It is imperativethat such a deficit shall not continue, and the framers of the tariff billmust, of course, have in mind the total revenues likely to be producedby it and so arrange the duties as to secure an adequate income. Shouldit be impossible to do so by import duties, new kinds of taxation mustbe adopted, and among these I recommend a graduated inheritance tax ascorrect in principle and as certain and easy of collection. 

The obligation on the part of those responsible for the expendituresmade to carry on the Government, to be as economical as possible, and tomake the burden of taxation as light as possible, is plain, and shouldbe affirmed in every declaration of government policy. This is especiallytrue when we are face to face with a heavy deficit. But when the desireto win the popular approval leads to the cutting off of expenditures reallyneeded to make the Government effective and to enable it to accomplishits proper objects, the result is as much to be condemned as the wasteof government funds in unnecessary expenditure. The scope of a modern governmentin what it can and ought to accomplish for its people has been widenedfar beyond the principles laid down by the old "laissez faire" school ofpolitical writers, and this widening has met popular approval. 

In the Department of Agriculture the use of scientific experiments ona large scale and the spread of information derived from them for the improvementof general agriculture must go on. 

The importance of supervising business of great railways and industrialcombinations and the necessary investigation and prosecution of unlawfulbusiness methods are another necessary tax upon Government which did notexist half a century ago. 

The putting into force of laws which shall secure the conservation ofour resources, so far as they may be within the jurisdiction of the FederalGovernment, including the most important work of saving and restoring ourforests and the great improvement of waterways, are all proper governmentfunctions which must involve large expenditure if properly performed. Whilesome of them, like the reclamation of and lands, are made to pay for themselves,others are of such an indirect benefit that this cannot be expected ofthem. A permanent improvement, like the Panama Canal, should be treatedas a distinct enterprise, and should be paid for by the proceeds of bonds,the issue of which will distribute its cost between the present and futuregenerations in accordance with the benefits derived. It may well be submittedto the serious consideration of Congress whether the deepening and controlof the channel of a great river system, like that of the Ohio or of theMississippi, when definite and practical plans for the enterprise havebeen approved and determined upon, should not be provided for in the sameway. 

Then, too, there are expenditures of Government absolutely necessaryif our country is to maintain its proper place among the nations of theworld, and is to exercise its proper influence in defense of its own tradeinterests in the maintenance of traditional American policy against thecolonization of European monarchies in this hemisphere, and in the promotionof peace and international morality. I refer to the cost of maintaininga proper army, a proper navy, and suitable fortifications upon the mainlandof the United States and in its dependencies. 

We should have an army so organized and so officered as to be capablein time of emergency, in cooperation with the national militia and underthe provisions of a proper national volunteer law, rapidly to expand intoa force sufficient to resist all probable invasion from abroad and to furnisha respectable expeditionary force if necessary in the maintenance of ourtraditional American policy which bears the name of President Monroe. 

Our fortifications are yet in a state of only partial completeness,and the number of men to man them is insufficient. In a few years however,the usual annual appropriations for our coast defenses, both on the mainlandand in the dependencies, will make them sufficient to resist all directattack, and by that time we may hope that the men to man them will be providedas a necessary adjunct. The distance of our shores from Europe and Asiaof course reduces the necessity for maintaining under arms a great army,but it does not take away the requirement of mere prudence-- that we shouldhave an army sufficiently large and so constituted as to form a nucleusout of which a suitable force can quickly grow. 

What has been said of the army may be affirmed in even a more emphaticway of the navy. A modern navy can not be improvised. It must be builtand in existence when the emergency arises which calls for its use andoperation. My distinguished predecessor has in many speeches and messagesset out with great force and striking language the necessity for maintaininga strong navy commensurate with the coast line, the governmental resources,and the foreign trade of our Nation; and I wish to reiterate all the reasonswhich he has presented in favor of the policy of maintaining a strong navyas the best conservator of our peace with other nations, and the best meansof securing respect for the assertion of our rights, the defense of ourinterests, and the exercise of our influence in international matters. 

Our international policy is always to promote peace. We shall enterinto any war with a full consciousness of the awful consequences that italways entails, whether successful or not, and we, of course, shall makeevery effort consistent with national honor and the highest national interestto avoid a resort to arms. We favor every instrumentality, like that ofthe Hague Tribunal and arbitration treaties made with a view to its usein all international controversies, in order to maintain peace and to avoidwar. But we should be blind to existing conditions and should allow ourselvesto become foolish idealists if we did not realize that, with all the nationsof the world armed and prepared for war, we must be ourselves in a similarcondition, in order to prevent other nations from taking advantage of usand of our inability to defend our interests and assert our rights witha strong hand. 

In the international controversies that are likely to arise in the Orientgrowing out of the question of the open door and other issues the UnitedStates can maintain her interests intact and can secure respect for herjust demands. She will not be able to do so, however, if it is understoodthat she never intends to back up her assertion of right and her defenseof her interest by anything but mere verbal protest and diplomatic note.For these reasons the expenses of the army and navy and of coast defensesshould always be considered as something which the Government must payfor, and they should not be cut off through mere consideration of economy.Our Government is able to afford a suitable army and a suitable navy. Itmay maintain them without the slightest danger to the Republic or the causeof free institutions, and fear of additional taxation ought not to changea proper policy in this regard. 

The policy of the United States in the Spanish war and since has givenit a position of influence among the nations that it never had before,and should be constantly exerted to securing to its bona fide citizens,whether native or naturalized, respect for them as such in foreign countries.We should make every effort to prevent humiliating and degrading prohibitionagainst any of our citizens wishing temporarily to sojourn in foreign countriesbecause of race or religion. 

The admission of Asiatic immigrants who cannot be amalgamated with ourpopulation has been made the subject either of prohibitory clauses in ourtreaties and statutes or of strict administrative regulation secured bydiplomatic negotiation. I sincerely hope that we may continue to minimizethe evils likely to arise from such immigration without unnecessary frictionand by mutual concessions between self-respecting governments. Meantimewe must take every precaution to prevent, or failing that, to punish outburstsof race feeling among our people against foreigners of whatever nationalitywho have by our grant a treaty right to pursue lawful business here andto be protected against lawless assault or injury. 

This leads me to point out a serious defect in the present federal jurisdiction,which ought to be remedied at once. Having assured to other countries bytreaty the protection of our laws for such of their subjects or citizensas we permit to come within our jurisdiction, we now leave to a state ora city, not under the control of the Federal Government, the duty of performingour international obligations in this respect. By proper legislation wemay, and ought to, place in the hands of the Federal Executive the meansof enforcing the treaty rights of such aliens in the courts of the FederalGovernment. It puts our Government in a pusillanimous position to makedefinite engagements to protect aliens and then to excuse the failure toperform those engagements by an explanation that the duty to keep themis in States or cities, not within our control. If we would promise wemust put ourselves in a position to perform our promise. We cannot permitthe possible failure of justice, due to local prejudice in any State ormunicipal government, to expose us to the risk of a war which might beavoided if federal jurisdiction was asserted by suitable legislation byCongress and carried out by proper proceedings instituted by the Executivein the courts of the National Government. 

One of the reforms to be carried out during the incoming administrationis a change of our monetary and banking laws, so as to secure greater elasticityin the forms of currency available for trade and to prevent the limitationsof law from operating to increase the embarrassment of a financial panic.The monetary commission, lately appointed, is giving full considerationto existing conditions and to all proposed remedies, and will doubtlesssuggest one that will meet the requirements of business and of public interest. 

We may hope that the report will embody neither the narrow dew of thosewho believe that the sole purpose of the new system should be to securea large return on banking capital or of those who would have greater expansionof currency with little regard to provisions for its immediate redemptionor ultimate security. There is no subject of economic discussion so intricateand so likely to evoke differing views and dogmatic statements as thisone. The commission, in studying the general influence of currency on businessand of business on currency, have wisely extended their investigationsin European banking and monetary methods. The information that they havederived from such experts as they have found abroad will undoubtedly befound helpful in the solution of the difficult problem they have in hand. 

The incoming Congress should promptly fulfill the promise of the Republicanplatform and pass a proper postal savings bank bill. It will not be unwiseor excessive paternalism. The promise to repay by the Government will furnishan inducement to savings deposits which private enterprise can not supplyand at such a low rate of interest as not to withdraw custom from existingbanks. It will substantially increase the funds available for investmentas capital in useful enterprises. It will furnish absolute security whichmakes the proposed scheme of government guaranty of deposits so alluring,without its pernicious results. 

I sincerely hope that the incoming Congress will be alive, as it shouldbe, to the importance of our foreign trade and of encouraging it in everyway feasible. The possibility of increasing this trade in the Orient, inthe Philippines, and in South America are known to everyone who has giventhe matter attention. The direct effect of free trade between this countryand the Philippines will be marked upon our sales of cottons, agriculturalmachinery, and other manufactures. The necessity of the establishment ofdirect lines of steamers between North and South America has been broughtto the attention of Congress by my predecessor and by Mr. Root before andafter his noteworthy visit to that continent, and I sincerely hope thatCongress may be induced to see the wisdom of a tentative effort to establishsuch lines by the use of mail subsidies. 

The importance of the part which the Departments of Agriculture andof Commerce and Labor may play in ridding the markets of Europe of prohibitionsand discriminations against the importation of our products is fully understood,and it is hoped that the use of the maximum and minimum feature of ourtariff law to be soon passed will be effective to remove many of thoserestrictions. 

The Panama Canal will have a most important bearing upon the trade betweenthe eastern and far western sections of our country, and will greatly increasethe facilities for transportation between the eastern and the western seaboard,and may possibly revolutionize the transcontinental rates with respectto bulky merchandise. It will also have a most beneficial effect to increasethe trade between the eastern seaboard of the United States and the westerncoast of South America, and, indeed, with some of the important ports onthe east coast of South America reached by rail from the west coast. 

The work on the canal is making most satisfactory progress. The typeof the canal as a lock canal was fixed by Congress after a full considerationof the conflicting reports of the majority and minority of the consultingboard, and after the recommendation of the War Department and the Executiveupon those reports. Recent suggestion that something had occurred on theIsthmus to make the lock type of the canal less feasible than it was supposedto be when the reports were made and the policy determined on led to avisit to the Isthmus of a board of competent engineers to examine the Gatundam and locks, which are the key of the lock type. The report of that boardshows nothing has occurred in the nature of newly revealed evidence whichshould change the views once formed in the original discussion. The constructionwill go on under a most effective organization controlled by Colonel Goethalsand his fellow army engineers associated with him, and will certainly becompleted early in the next administration, if not before. 

Some type of canal must be constructed. The lock type has been selected.We are all in favor of having it built as promptly as possible. We mustnot now, therefore, keep up a fire in the rear of the agents whom we haveauthorized to do our work on the Isthmus. We must hold up their hands,and speaking for the incoming administration I wish to say that I proposeto devote all the energy possible and under my control to pushing of thiswork on the plans which have been adopted, and to stand behind the menwho are doing faithful, hard work to bring about the early completion ofthis, the greatest constructive enterprise of modern times. 

The governments of our dependencies in Porto Rico and the Philippinesare progressing as favorably as could be desired. The prosperity of PortoRico continues unabated. The business conditions in the Philippines arenot all that we could wish them to be, but with the passage of the newtariff bill permitting free trade between the United States and the archipelago,with such limitations on sugar and tobacco as shall prevent injury to domesticinterests in those products, we can count on an improvement in businessconditions in the Philippines and the development of a mutually profitabletrade between this country and the islands. Meantime our Government ineach dependency is upholding the traditions of civil liberty and increasingpopular control which might be expected under American auspices. The workwhich we are doing there redounds to our credit as a nation. 

I look forward with hope to increasing the already good feeling betweenthe South and the other sections of the country. My chief purpose is notto effect a change in the electoral vote of the Southern States. That isa secondary consideration. What I look forward to is an increase in thetolerance of political views of all kinds and their advocacy throughoutthe South, and the existence of a respectable political opposition in everyState; even more than this, to an increased feeling on the part of allthe people in the South that this Government is their Government, and thatits officers in their states are their officers. 

The consideration of this question can not, however, be complete andfull without reference to the negro race, its progress and its presentcondition. The thirteenth amendment secured them freedom; the fourteenthamendment due process of law, protection of property, and the pursuit ofhappiness; and the fifteenth amendment attempted to secure the negro againstany deprivation of the privilege to vote because he was a negro. The thirteenthand fourteenth amendments have been generally enforced and have securedthe objects for which they are intended. While the fifteenth amendmenthas not been generally observed in the past, it ought to be observed, andthe tendency of Southern legislation today is toward the enactment of electoralqualifications which shall square with that amendment. Of course, the mereadoption of a constitutional law is only one step in the right direction.It must be fairly and justly enforced as well. In time both will come.Hence it is clear to all that the domination of an ignorant, irresponsibleelement can be prevented by constitutional laws which shall exclude fromvoting both negroes and whites not having education or other qualificationsthought to be necessary for a proper electorate. The danger of the controlof an ignorant electorate has therefore passed. With this change, the interestwhich many of the Southern white citizens take in the welfare of the negroeshas increased. The colored men must base their hope on the results of theirown industry, self-restraint, thrift, and business success, as well asupon the aid and comfort and sympathy which they may receive from theirwhite neighbors of the South. 

There was a time when Northerners who sympathized with the negro inhis necessary struggle for better conditions sought to give him the suffrageas a protection to enforce its exercise against the prevailing sentimentof the South. The movement proved to be a failure. What remains is thefifteenth amendment to the Constitution and the right to have statutesof States specifying qualifications for electors subjected to the testof compliance with that amendment. This is a great protection to the negro.It never will be repealed, and it never ought to be repealed. If it hadnot passed, it might be difficult now to adopt it; but with it in our fundamentallaw, the policy of Southern legislation must and will tend to obey it,and so long as the statutes of the States meet the test of this amendmentand are not otherwise in conflict with the Constitution and laws of theUnited States, it is not the disposition or within the province of theFederal Government to interfere with the regulation by Southern Statesof their domestic affairs. There is in the South a stronger feeling thanever among the intelligent well-to-do, and influential element in favorof the industrial education of the negro and the encouragement of the raceto make themselves useful members of the community. The progress whichthe negro has made in the last fifty years, from slavery, when its statisticsare reviewed, is marvelous, and it furnishes every reason to hope thatin the next twenty-five years a still greater improvement in his conditionas a productive member of society, on the farm, and in the shop, and inother occupations may come. 

The negroes are now Americans. Their ancestors came here years ago againsttheir will, and this is their only country and their only flag. They haveshown themselves anxious to live for it and to die for it. Encounteringthe race feeling against them, subjected at times to cruel injustice growingout of it, they may well have our profound sympathy and aid in the strugglethey are making. We are charged with the sacred duty of making their pathas smooth and easy as we can. Any recognition of their distinguished men,any appointment to office from among their number, is properly taken asan encouragement and an appreciation of their progress, and this just policyshould be pursued when suitable occasion offers. 

But it may well admit of doubt whether, in the case of any race, anappointment of one of their number to a local office in a community inwhich the race feeling is so widespread and acute as to interfere withthe ease and facility with which the local government business can be doneby the appointee is of sufficient benefit by way of encouragement to therace to outweigh the recurrence and increase of race feeling which suchan appointment is likely to engender. Therefore the Executive, in recognizingthe negro race by appointments, must exercise a careful discretion notthereby to do it more harm than good. On the other hand, we must be carefulnot to encourage the mere pretense of race feeling manufactured in theinterest of individual political ambition. 

Personally, I have not the slightest race prejudice or feeling, andrecognition of its existence only awakens in my heart a deeper sympathyfor those who have to bear it or suffer from it, and I question the wisdomof a policy which is likely to increase it. Meantime, if nothing is doneto prevent it, a better feeling between the negroes and the whites in theSouth will continue to grow, and more and more of the white people willcome to realize that the future of the South is to be much benefited bythe industrial and intellectual progress of the negro. The exercise ofpolitical franchises by those of this race who are intelligent and wellto do will be acquiesced in, and the right to vote will be withheld onlyfrom the ignorant and irresponsible of both races. 

There is one other matter to which I shall refer. It was made the subjectof great controversy during the election and calls for at least a passingreference now. My distinguished predecessor has given much attention tothe cause of labor, with whose struggle for better things he has shownthe sincerest sympathy. At his instance Congress has passed the bill fixingthe liability of interstate carriers to their employees for injury sustainedin the course of employment, abolishing the rule of fellow-servant andthe common-law rule as to contributory negligence, and substituting thereforthe so-called rule of "comparative negligence." It has also passed a lawfixing the compensation of government employees for injuries sustainedin the employ of the Government through the negligence of the superior.It has also passed a model child-labor law for the District of Columbia.In previous administrations an arbitration law for interstate commercerailroads and their employees, and laws for the application of safety devicesto save the lives and limbs of employees of interstate railroads had beenpassed. Additional legislation of this kind was passed by the outgoingCongress. 

I wish to say that insofar as I can I hope to promote the enactmentof further legislation of this character. I am strongly convinced thatthe Government should make itself as responsible to employees injured inits employ as an interstate-railway corporation is made responsible byfederal law to its employees; and I shall be glad, whenever any additionalreasonable safety device can be invented to reduce the loss of life andlimb among railway employees, to urge Congress to require its adoptionby interstate railways. 

Another labor question has arisen which has awakened the most exciteddiscussion. That is in respect to the power of the federal courts to issueinjunctions in industrial disputes. As to that, my convictions are fixed.Take away from the courts, if it could be taken away, the power to issueinjunctions in labor disputes, and it would create a privileged class amongthe laborers and save the lawless among their number from a most needfulremedy available to all men for the protection of their business againstlawless invasion. The proposition that business is not a property or pecuniaryright which can be protected by equitable injunction is utterly withoutfoundation in precedent or reason. The proposition is usually linked withone to make the secondary boycott lawful. Such a proposition is at variancewith the American instinct, and will find no support, in my judgment, whensubmitted to the American people. The secondary boycott is an instrumentof tyranny, and ought not to be made legitimate. 

The issue of a temporary restraining order without notice has in severalinstances been abused by its inconsiderate exercise, and to remedy thisthe platform upon which I was elected recommends the formulation in a statuteof the conditions under which such a temporary restraining order oughtto issue. A statute can and ought to be framed to embody the best modernpractice, and can bring the subject so closely to the attention of thecourt as to make abuses of the process unlikely in the future. The Americanpeople, if I understand them, insist that the authority of the courts shallbe sustained, and are opposed to any change in the procedure by which thepowers of a court may be weakened and the fearless and effective administrationof justice be interfered with. 

Having thus reviewed the questions likely to recur during my administration,and having expressed in a summary way the position which I expect to takein recommendations to Congress and in my conduct as an Executive, I invokethe considerate sympathy and support of my fellow-citizens and the aidof the Almighty God in the discharge of my responsible duties.