Miller Center

First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1913)

Woodrow Wilson

There has been a change of government. It began two years ago, whenthe House of Representatives became Democratic by a decisive majority.It has now been completed. The Senate about to assemble will also be Democratic.The offices of President and Vice-President have been put into the handsof Democrats. What does the change mean? That is the question that is uppermostin our minds to-day. That is the question I am going to try to answer,in order, if I may, to interpret the occasion. 

It means much more than the mere success of a party. The success ofa party means little except when the Nation is using that party for a largeand definite purpose. No one can mistake the purpose for which the Nationnow seeks to use the Democratic Party. It seeks to use it to interpreta change in its own plans and point of view. Some old things with whichwe had grown familiar, and which had begun to creep into the very habitof our thought and of our lives, have altered their aspect as we have latterlylooked critically upon them, with fresh, awakened eyes; have dropped theirdisguises and shown themselves alien and sinister. Some new things, aswe look frankly upon them, willing to comprehend their real character,have come to assume the aspect of things long believed in and familiar,stuff of our own convictions. We have been refreshed by a new insight intoour own life. 

We see that in many things that life is very great. It is incomparablygreat in its material aspects, in its body of wealth, in the diversityand sweep of its energy, in the industries which have been conceived andbuilt up by the genius of individual men and the limitless enterprise ofgroups of men. It is great, also, very great, in its moral force. Nowhereelse in the world have noble men and women exhibited in more striking formsthe beauty and the energy of sympathy and helpfulness and counsel in theirefforts to rectify wrong, alleviate suffering, and set the weak in theway of strength and hope. We have built up, moreover, a great system ofgovernment, which has stood through a long age as in many respects a modelfor those who seek to set liberty upon foundations that will endure againstfortuitous change, against storm and accident. Our life contains everygreat thing, and contains it in rich abundance. 

But the evil has come with the good, and much fine gold has been corroded.With riches has come inexcusable waste. We have squandered a great partof what we might have used, and have not stopped to conserve the exceedingbounty of nature, without which our genius for enterprise would have beenworthless and impotent, scorning to be careful, shamefully prodigal aswell as admirably efficient. We have been proud of our industrial achievements,but we have not hitherto stopped thoughtfully enough to count the humancost, the cost of lives snuffed out, of energies overtaxed and broken,the fearful physical and spiritual cost to the men and women and childrenupon whom the dead weight and burden of it all has fallen pitilessly theyears through. The groans and agony of it all had not yet reached our ears,the solemn, moving undertone of our life, coming up out of the mines andfactories, and out of every home where the struggle had its intimate andfamiliar seat. With the great Government went many deep secret things whichwe too long delayed to look into and scrutinize with candid, fearless eyes.The great Government we loved has too often been made use of for privateand selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people. 

At last a vision has been vouchsafed us of our life as a whole. We seethe bad with the good, the debased and decadent with the sound and vital.With this vision we approach new affairs. Our duty is to cleanse, to reconsider,to restore, to correct the evil without impairing the good, to purify andhumanize every process of our common life without weakening or sentimentalizingit. There has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our hasteto succeed and be great. Our thought has been "Let every man look out forhimself, let every generation look out for itself," while we reared giantmachinery which made it impossible that any but those who stood at thelevers of control should have a chance to look out for themselves. We hadnot forgotten our morals. We remembered well enough that we had set upa policy which was meant to serve the humblest as well as the most powerful,with an eye single to the standards of justice and fair play, and rememberedit with pride. But we were very heedless and in a hurry to be great. 

We have come now to the sober second thought. The scales of heedlessnesshave fallen from our eyes. We have made up our minds to square every processof our national life again with the standards we so proudly set up at thebeginning and have always carried at our hearts. Our work is a work ofrestoration. 

We have itemized with some degree of particularity the things that oughtto be altered and here are some of the chief items: A tariff which cutsus off from our proper part in the commerce of the world, violates thejust principles of taxation, and makes the Government a facile instrumentin the hand of private interests; a banking and currency system based uponthe necessity of the Government to sell its bonds fifty years ago and perfectlyadapted to concentrating cash and restricting credits; an industrial systemwhich, take it on all its sides, financial as well as administrative, holdscapital in leading strings, restricts the liberties and limits the opportunitiesof labor, and exploits without renewing or conserving the natural resourcesof the country; a body of agricultural activities never yet given the efficiencyof great business undertakings or served as it should be through the instrumentalityof science taken directly to the farm, or afforded the facilities of creditbest suited to its practical needs; watercourses undeveloped, waste placesunreclaimed, forests untended, fast disappearing without plan or prospectof renewal, unregarded waste heaps at every mine. We have studied as perhapsno other nation has the most effective means of production, but we havenot studied cost or economy as we should either as organizers of industry,as statesmen, or as individuals. 

Nor have we studied and perfected the means by which government maybe put at the service of humanity, in safeguarding the health of the Nation,the health of its men and its women and its children, as well as theirrights in the struggle for existence. This is no sentimental duty. Thefirm basis of government is justice, not pity. These are matters of justice.There can be no equality or opportunity, the first essential of justicein the body politic, if men and women and children be not shielded in theirlives, their very vitality, from the consequences of great industrial andsocial processes which they can not alter, control, or singly cope with.Society must see to it that it does not itself crush or weaken or damageits own constituent parts. The first duty of law is to keep sound the societyit serves. Sanitary laws, pure food laws, and laws determining conditionsof labor which individuals are powerless to determine for themselves areintimate parts of the very business of justice and legal efficiency. 

These are some of the things we ought to do, and not leave the othersundone, the old-fashioned, never-to-be-neglected, fundamental safeguardingof property and of individual right. This is the high enterprise of thenew day: To lift everything that concerns our life as a Nation to the lightthat shines from the hearthfire of every man's conscience and vision ofthe right. It is inconceivable that we should do this as partisans; itis inconceivable we should do it in ignorance of the facts as they areor in blind haste. We shall restore, not destroy. We shall deal with oureconomic system as it is and as it may be modified, not as it might beif we had a clean sheet of paper to write upon; and step by step we shallmake it what it should be, in the spirit of those who question their ownwisdom and seek counsel and knowledge, not shallow self-satisfaction orthe excitement of excursions whither they can not tell. Justice, and onlyjustice, shall always be our motto. 

And yet it will be no cool process of mere science. The Nation has beendeeply stirred, stirred by a solemn passion, stirred by the knowledge ofwrong, of ideals lost, of government too often debauched and made an instrumentof evil. The feelings with which we face this new age of right and opportunitysweep across our heartstrings like some air out of God's own presence,where justice and mercy are reconciled and the judge and the brother areone. We know our task to be no mere task of politics but a task which shallsearch us through and through, whether we be able to understand our timeand the need of our people, whether we be indeed their spokesmen and interpreters,whether we have the pure heart to comprehend and the rectified will tochoose our high course of action. 

This is not a day of triumph; it is a day of dedication. Here muster,not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity. Men's hearts waitupon us; men's lives hang in the balance; men's hopes call upon us to saywhat we will do. Who shall live up to the great trust? Who dares fail totry? I summon all honest men, all patriotic, all forward-looking men, tomy side. God helping me, I will not fail them, if they will but counseland sustain me!