Go back to Inaugural Address, 1909

William Howard Taft (1857 - 1930)
Inaugural Address, 1909

Thursday, March 4, 1909

My Fellow-Citizens:

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

The office of an inaugural address is to give a summary outline
of the main 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 should be
untrue to myself, to my promises, and to the declarations of
the party platform upon which I was elected to office, if I did
not make the maintenance and enforcement of those reforms
a most important feature of my administration. They were
directed to the suppression of the lawlessness and abuses
of power of the great combinations of capital invested in
railroads and in industrial enterprises carrying on interstate
commerce. The steps which my predecessor took and the
legislation passed on his recommendation have accomplished
much, have caused a general halt in the vicious policies which
created popular alarm, and have brought about in the business
affected a much higher regard for existing law.

To render the reforms lasting, however, and to secure at the
same time freedom from alarm on the part of those pursuing
proper and progressive business methods, further legislative
and executive action are needed. Relief of the railroads from
certain restrictions of the antitrust law have been urged by
my predecessor and will be urged by me. On the other hand,
the administration is pledged to legislation looking to a proper
federal supervision and restriction to prevent excessive issues
of bonds and stock by companies owning and operating
interstate commerce railroads.

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

I hope to be able to submit at the first regular session of the
incoming Congress, in December next, definite suggestions in
respect to the needed amendments to the antitrust and the
interstate commerce law and the changes required in the
executive departments concerned in their enforcement.

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

The work of formulating into practical shape such changes is
creative word of the highest order, and requires all the deliberation
possible in the interval. I believe that the amendments to be
proposed are just as necessary in the protection of legitimate
business as in the clinching of 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 the Dingley Act. This should
secure an adequate revenue and adjust the duties in 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 the difference between the cost of production abroad and
the cost of production here, and have a provision which shall
put into force, upon executive determination of certain facts,
a higher or maximum tariff against those countries whose
trade policy toward us equitably requires such discrimination.
It is thought that there has been such a change in conditions
since the enactment of the Dingley Act, drafted on a similarly
protective principle, that the measure of the tariff above stated
will permit the reduction of rates in certain schedules and will
require the advancement of few, if any.

The proposal to revise the tariff made in such an authoritative
way as to lead the business community to count upon it
necessarily halts all those 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 with promises
made before the election by the party in power, and as promptly
passed as due consideration will permit. It is not that the tariff
is more important in the long run than the perfecting of the
reforms in respect to antitrust legislation and interstate commerce
regulation, but the need for action when the revision of the tariff
has been determined upon is more immediate to avoid
embarrassment of business. To secure the needed speed in the
passage of the tariff bill, it would seem wise to attempt no other
legislation at the extra session. I venture this as a suggestion
only, 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
the securing thereby of a revenue. Due largely to the business
depression which followed the financial panic of 1907, the
revenue from customs and other sources has decreased to
such an extent that the expenditures for the current fiscal
year will exceed the receipts by $100,000,000. It is imperative
that such a deficit shall not continue, and the framers of the
tariff bill must, of course, have in mind the total revenues likely
to be produced by it and so arrange the duties as to secure
an adequate income. Should it be impossible to do so by import
duties, new kinds of taxation must be adopted, and among
these I recommend a graduated inheritance tax as correct
in principle and as certain and easy of collection.

The obligation on the part of those responsible for the
expenditures made to carry on the Government, to be as
economical as possible, and to make the burden of taxation
as light as possible, is plain, and should be affirmed in every
declaration of government policy. This is especially true when
we are face to face with a heavy deficit. But when the desire
to win the popular approval leads to the cutting off of
expenditures really needed to make the Government effective
and to enable it to accomplish its proper objects, the result is
as much to be condemned as the waste of government funds
in unnecessary expenditure. The scope of a modern government
in what it can and ought to accomplish for its people has been
widened far beyond the principles laid down by the old
"laissez faire" school of political writers, and this widening
has met popular approval.

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

The importance of supervising business of great railways
and industrial combinations and the necessary investigation
and prosecution of unlawful business methods are another
necessary tax upon Government which did not exist half a
century ago.

The putting into force of laws which shall secure the
conservation of our resources, so far as they may be within
the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, including the most
important work of saving and restoring our forests and the
great improvement of waterways, are all proper government
functions which must involve large expenditure if properly
performed. While some of them, like the reclamation of arid
lands, are made to pay for themselves, others are of such
an indirect benefit that this cannot be expected of them. A
permanent improvement, like the Panama Canal, should be
treated as 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 future generations in accordance
with the benefits derived. It may well be submitted to the
serious consideration of Congress whether the deepening
and control of the channel of a great river system, like that
of the Ohio or of the Mississippi, when definite and practical
plans for the enterprise have been approved and determined
upon, should not be provided for in the same way.

Then, too, there are expenditures of Government absolutely
necessary if our country is to maintain its proper place among
the nations of the world, and is to exercise its proper influence
in defense of its own trade interests in the maintenance of
traditional American policy against the colonization of European
monarchies in this hemisphere, and in the promotion of peace
and international morality. I refer to the cost of maintaining a
proper army, a proper navy, and suitable fortifications upon
the mainland of the United States and in its dependencies.

We should have an army so organized and so officered as
to be capable in time of emergency, in cooperation with the
national militia and under the provisions of a proper national
volunteer law, rapidly to expand into a force sufficient to resist
all probable invasion from abroad and to furnish a respectable
expeditionary force if necessary in the maintenance of our
traditional American policy which bears the name of President

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 mainland and in the dependencies, will
make them sufficient to resist all direct attack, and by that time
we may hope that the men to man them will be provided as a
necessary adjunct. The distance of our shores from Europe and
Asia of course reduces the necessity for maintaining under arms
a great army, but it does not take away the requirement of mere
prudence? that we should have an army sufficiently large and
so constituted as to form a nucleus out of which a suitable force
can quickly grow.

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

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

In the international controversies that are likely to arise
in the Orient growing out of the question of the open door
and other issues the United States can maintain her interests
intact and can secure respect for her just demands. She will
not be able to do so, however, if it is understood that she
never intends to back up her assertion of right and her
defense of her interest by anything but mere verbal protest
and diplomatic note. For these reasons the expenses of the
army and navy and of coast defenses should always be
considered as something which the Government must pay
for, 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. It may maintain them without the
slightest danger to the Republic or the cause of free institutions,
and fear of additional taxation ought not to change a proper
policy in this regard.

The policy of the United States in the Spanish war and since
has given it 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 prohibition
against any of our citizens wishing temporarily to sojourn in
foreign countries because of race or religion.

The admission of Asiatic immigrants who cannot be amalgamated
with our population has been made the subject either of
prohibitory clauses in our treaties and statutes or of strict
administrative regulation secured by diplomatic negotiation. I
sincerely hope that we may continue to minimize the evils likely
to arise from such immigration without unnecessary friction and
by mutual concessions between self-respecting governments.
Meantime we must take every precaution to prevent, or failing
that, to punish outbursts of race feeling among our people
against foreigners of whatever nationality who have by our
grant a treaty right to pursue lawful business here and to 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 by treaty the protection of
our laws for such of their subjects or citizens as we permit to
come within our jurisdiction, we now leave to a state or a city,
not under the control of the Federal Government, the duty of
performing our international obligations in this respect. By
proper legislation we may, and ought to, place in the hands
of the Federal Executive the means of enforcing the treaty
rights of such aliens in the courts of the Federal Government.
It puts our Government in a pusillanimous position to make
definite engagements to protect aliens and then to excuse
the failure to perform those engagements by an explanation
that the duty to keep them is in States or cities, not within
our control. If we would promise we must put ourselves in
a position to perform our promise. We cannot permit the
possible failure of justice, due to local prejudice in any State
or municipal government, to expose us to the risk of a war
which might be avoided if federal jurisdiction was asserted
by suitable legislation by Congress and carried out by proper
proceedings instituted by the Executive in the courts of the
National Government.

One of the reforms to be carried out during the incoming
administration is a change of our monetary and banking laws,
so as to secure greater elasticity in the forms of currency
available for trade and to prevent the limitations of law from
operating to increase the embarrassment of a financial panic.
The monetary commission, lately appointed, is giving full
consideration to existing conditions and to all proposed
remedies, and will doubtless suggest 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 those who believe that the sole purpose of
the new system should be to secure a large return on banking
capital or of those who would have greater expansion of
currency with little regard to provisions for its immediate
redemption or ultimate security. There is no subject of economic
discussion so intricate and so likely to evoke differing views
and dogmatic statements as this one. The commission, in
studying the general influence of currency on business and
of business on currency, have wisely extended their investigations
in European banking and monetary methods. The information
that they have derived from such experts as they have found
abroad will undoubtedly be found helpful in the solution of the
difficult problem they have in hand.

The incoming Congress should promptly fulfill the promise of
the Republican platform and pass a proper postal savings bank
bill. It will not be unwise or excessive paternalism. The promise
to repay by the Government will furnish an inducement to savings
deposits which private enterprise can not supply and at such a
low rate of interest as not to withdraw custom from existing banks.
It will substantially increase the funds available for investment
as capital in useful enterprises. It will furnish absolute security
which makes 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
should be, to the importance of our foreign trade and of
encouraging it in every way feasible. The possibility of increasing
this trade in the Orient, in the Philippines, and in South America
are known to everyone who has given the matter attention. The
direct effect of free trade between this country and the Philippines
will be marked upon our sales of cottons, agricultural machinery,
and other manufactures. The necessity of the establishment of
direct lines of steamers between North and South America has
been brought to the attention of Congress by my predecessor
and by Mr. Root before and after his noteworthy visit to that
continent, and I sincerely hope that Congress may be induced
to see the wisdom of a tentative effort to establish such lines
by the use of mail subsidies.

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

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

The work on the canal is making most satisfactory progress. The
type of the canal as a lock canal was fixed by Congress after a
full consideration of the conflicting reports of the majority and
minority of the consulting board, and after the recommendation
of the War Department and the Executive upon those reports.
Recent suggestion that something had occurred on the Isthmus
to make the lock type of the canal less feasible than it was
supposed to be when the reports were made and the policy
determined on led to a visit to the Isthmus of a board of competent
engineers to examine the Gatun dam and locks, which are the key
of the lock type. The report of that board shows nothing has
occurred in the nature of newly revealed evidence which should
change the views once formed in the original discussion. The
construction will go on under a most effective organization controlled
by Colonel Goethals and his fellow army engineers associated with
him, and will certainly be completed 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 must not now, therefore, keep up a fire in the rear
of the agents whom we have authorized 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 propose to devote
all the energy possible and under my control to pushing of this
work on the plans which have been adopted, and to stand
behind the men who are doing faithful, hard work to bring about
the early completion of this, the greatest constructive enterprise
of modern times.

The governments of our dependencies in Porto Rico and the
Philippines are progressing as favorably as could be desired.
The prosperity of Porto Rico continues unabated. The business
conditions in the Philippines are not all that we could wish them
to be, but with the passage of the new tariff bill permitting free
trade between the United States and the archipelago, with such
limitations on sugar and tobacco as shall prevent injury to domestic
interests in those products, we can count on an improvement in
business conditions in the Philippines and the development of a
mutually profitable trade between this country and the islands.
Meantime our Government in each dependency is upholding the
traditions of civil liberty and increasing popular control which
might be expected under American auspices. The work which
we are doing there redounds to our credit as a nation.

I look forward with hope to increasing the already good feeling
between the South and the other sections of the country. My
chief purpose is not to effect a change in the electoral vote of
the Southern States. That is a secondary consideration. What
I look forward to is an increase in the tolerance of political views
of all kinds and their advocacy throughout the South, and the
existence of a respectable political opposition in every State;
even more than this, to an increased feeling on the part of all
the people in the South that this Government is their Government,
and that its officers in their states are their officers.

The consideration of this question can not, however, be complete
and full without reference to the negro race, its progress and its
present condition. The thirteenth amendment secured them
freedom; the fourteenth amendment due process of law, protection
of property, and the pursuit of happiness; and the fifteenth
amendment attempted to secure the negro against any deprivation
of the privilege to vote because he was a negro. The thirteenth
and fourteenth amendments have been generally enforced and
have secured the objects for which they are intended. While the
fifteenth amendment has not been generally observed in the past,
it ought to be observed, and the tendency of Southern legislation
today is toward the enactment of electoral qualifications which
shall square with that amendment. Of course, the mere adoption
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,
irresponsible element can be prevented by constitutional laws
which shall exclude from voting both negroes and whites not
having education or other qualifications thought to be necessary
for a proper electorate. The danger of the control of an ignorant
electorate has therefore passed. With this change, the interest
which many of the Southern white citizens take in the welfare
of the negroes has increased. The colored men must base their
hope on the results of their own industry, self-restraint, thrift,
and business success, as well as upon the aid and comfort and
sympathy which they may receive from their white neighbors
of the South.

There was a time when Northerners who sympathized with
the negro in his necessary struggle for better conditions sought
to give him the suffrage as a protection to enforce its exercise
against the prevailing sentiment of the South. The movement
proved to be a failure. What remains is the fifteenth amendment
to the Constitution and the right to have statutes of States
specifying qualifications for electors subjected to the test of
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 had not passed, it might be difficult now to adopt
it; but with it in our fundamental law, 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 amendment and
are not otherwise in conflict with the Constitution and laws of
the United States, it is not the disposition or within the province
of the Federal Government to interfere with the regulation by
Southern States of their domestic affairs. There is in the South
a stronger feeling than ever among the intelligent well-to-do,
and influential element in favor of the industrial education of
the negro and the encouragement of the race to make themselves
useful members of the community. The progress which the negro
has made in the last fifty years, from slavery, when its statistics
are reviewed, is marvelous, and it furnishes every reason to hope
that in the next twenty-five years a still greater improvement in
his condition as a productive member of society, on the farm,
and in the shop, and in other occupations may come.

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

But it may well admit of doubt whether, in the case of any
race, an appointment of one of their number to a local office in
a community in which the race feeling is so widespread and
acute as to interfere with the ease and facility with which the
local government business can be done by the appointee is
of sufficient benefit by way of encouragement to the race to
outweigh the recurrence and increase of race feeling which
such an appointment is likely to engender. Therefore the
Executive, in recognizing the negro race by appointments,
must exercise a careful discretion not thereby to do it more
harm than good. On the other hand, we must be careful not
to encourage the mere pretense of race feeling manufactured
in the interest of individual political ambition.

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

There is one other matter to which I shall refer. It was made
the subject of great controversy during the election and calls
for at least a passing reference now. My distinguished predecessor
has given much attention to the cause of labor, with whose
struggle for better things he has shown the sincerest sympathy.
At his instance Congress has passed the bill fixing the liability of
interstate carriers to their employees for injury sustained in the
course of employment, abolishing the rule of fellow-servant and
the common-law rule as to contributory negligence, and substituting
therefor the so-called rule of "comparative negligence." It has also
passed a law fixing the compensation of government employees
for injuries sustained in 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 commerce railroads and their
employees, and laws for the application of safety devices to save
the lives and limbs of employees of interstate railroads had been
passed. Additional legislation of this kind was passed by the
outgoing Congress.

I wish to say that insofar as I can I hope to promote the
enactment of further legislation of this character. I am strongly
convinced that the Government should make itself as responsible
to employees injured in its employ as an interstate-railway
corporation is made responsible by federal law to its employees;
and I shall be glad, whenever any additional reasonable safety
device can be invented to reduce the loss of life and limb among
railway employees, to urge Congress to require its adoption by
interstate railways.

Another labor question has arisen which has awakened the
most excited discussion. That is in respect to the power of the
federal courts to issue injunctions in industrial disputes. As to
that, my convictions are fixed. Take away from the courts, if it
could be taken away, the power to issue injunctions in labor
disputes, and it would create a privileged class among the
laborers and save the lawless among their number from a
most needful remedy available to all men for the protection
of their business against lawless invasion. The proposition
that business is not a property or pecuniary right which can
be protected by equitable injunction is utterly without foundation
in precedent or reason. The proposition is usually linked with
one to make the secondary boycott lawful. Such a proposition
is at variance with the American instinct, and will find no support,
in my judgment, when submitted to the American people. The
secondary boycott is an instrument of tyranny, and ought not
to be made legitimate.

The issue of a temporary restraining order without notice has
in several instances been abused by its inconsiderate exercise,
and to remedy this the platform upon which I was elected
recommends the formulation in a statute of the conditions under
which such a temporary restraining order ought to issue. A
statute can and ought to be framed to embody the best modern
practice, and can bring the subject so closely to the attention of
the court as to make abuses of the process unlikely in the future.
The American people, if I understand them, insist that the
authority of the courts shall be sustained, and are opposed to
any change in the procedure by which the powers of a court may
be weakened and the fearless and effective administration of
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 take in recommendations to Congress
and in my conduct as an Executive, I invoke the considerate
sympathy and support of my fellow-citizens and the aid of the
Almighty God in the discharge of my responsible duties.

All Rights Reserved.