Read CHAPTER X - THE WAY TO RESUME IS TO RESUME of The New Freedom, free online book, by Woodrow Wilson, on

One of the wonderful things about America, to my mind, is this: that for more than a generation it has allowed itself to be governed by persons who were not invited to govern it. A singular thing about the people of the United States is their almost infinite patience, their willingness to stand quietly by and see things done which they have voted against and do not want done, and yet never lay the hand of disorder upon any arrangement of government.

There is hardly a part of the United States where men are not aware that secret private purposes and interests have been running the government. They have been running it through the agency of those interesting persons whom we call political “bosses.” A boss is not so much a politician as the business agent in politics of the special interests. The boss is not a partisan; he is quite above politics! He has an understanding with the boss of the other party, so that, whether it is heads or tails, we lose. The two receive contributions from the same sources, and they spend those contributions for the same purposes.

Bosses are men who have worked their way by secret methods to the place of power they occupy; men who were never elected to anything; men who were not asked by the people to conduct their government, and who are very much more powerful than if you had asked them, so long as you leave them where they are, behind closed doors, in secret conference. They are not politicians; they have no policies, except concealed policies of private aggrandizement. A boss isn’t a leader of a party. Parties do not meet in back rooms; parties do not make arrangements which do not get into the newspapers. Parties, if you reckon them by voting strength, are great masses of men who, because they can’t vote any other ticket, vote the ticket that was prepared for them by the aforesaid arrangement in the aforesaid back room in accordance with the aforesaid understanding. A boss is the manipulator of a “machine.” A “machine” is that part of a political organization which has been taken out of the hands of the rank and file of the party, captured by half a dozen men. It is the part that has ceased to be political and has become an agency for the purposes of unscrupulous business.

Do not lay up the sins of this kind of business to political organizations. Organization is legitimate, is necessary, is even distinguished, when it lends itself to the carrying out of great causes. Only the man who uses organization to promote private purposes is a boss. Always distinguish between a political leader and a boss. I honor the man who makes the organization of a great party strong and thorough, in order to use it for public service. But he is not a boss. A boss is a man who uses this splendid, open force for secret purposes.

One of the worst features of the boss system is this fact, that it works secretly. I would a great deal rather live under a king whom I should at least know, than under a boss whom I don’t know. A boss is a much more formidable master than a king, because a king is an obvious master, whereas the hands of the boss are always where you least expect them to be.

When I was in Oregon, not many months ago, I had some very interesting conversations with Mr. U’Ren, who is the father of what is called the Oregon System, a system by which he has put bosses out of business. He is a member of a group of public-spirited men who, whenever they cannot get what they want through the legislature, draw up a bill and submit it to the people, by means of the initiative, and generally get what they want. The day I arrived in Portland, a morning paper happened to say, very ironically, that there were two legislatures in Oregon, one at Salem, the state capital, and the other going around under the hat of Mr. U’Ren. I could not resist the temptation of saying, when I spoke that evening, that, while I was the last man to suggest that power should be concentrated in any single individual or group of individuals, I would, nevertheless, after my experience in New Jersey, rather have a legislature that went around under the hat of somebody in particular whom I knew I could find than a legislature that went around under God knows who’s hat; because then you could at least put your finger on your governing force; you would know where to find it.

Why do we continue to permit these things? Isn’t it about time that we grew up and took charge of our own affairs? I am tired of being under age in politics. I don’t want to be associated with anybody except those who are politically over twenty-one. I don’t wish to sit down and let any man take care of me without my having at least a voice in it; and if he doesn’t listen to my advice, I am going to make it as unpleasant for him as I can. Not because my advice is necessarily good, but because no government is good in which every man doesn’t insist upon his advice being heard, at least, whether it is heeded or not.

Some persons have said that representative government has proved too indirect and clumsy an instrument, and has broken down as a means of popular control. Others, looking a little deeper, have said that it was not representative government that had broken down, but the effort to get it. They have pointed out that, with our present methods of machine nomination and our present methods of election, which give us nothing more than a choice between one set of machine nominees and another, we do not get representative government at all, at least not government representative of the people, but merely government representative of political managers who serve their own interests and the interests of those with whom they find it profitable to establish partnerships.

Obviously, this is something that goes to the root of the whole matter. Back of all reform lies the method of getting it. Back of the question, What do you want, lies the question, the fundamental question of all government, How are you going to get it? How are you going to get public servants who will obtain it for you? How are you going to get genuine representatives who will serve your interests, and not their own or the interests of some special group or body of your fellow-citizens whose power is of the few and not of the many? These are the queries which have drawn the attention of the whole country to the subject of the direct primary, the direct choice of their officials by the people, without the intervention of the nominating machine; to the subject of the direct election of United States Senators; and to the question of the initiative, referendum, and recall.

The critical moment in the choosing of officials is that of their nomination more often than that of their election. When two party organizations, nominally opposing each other but actually working in perfect understanding and co-operation, see to it that both tickets have the same kind of men on them, it is Tweedledum or Tweedledee, so far as the people are concerned; the political managers have us coming and going. We may delude ourselves with the pleasing belief that we are electing our own officials, but of course the fact is we are merely making an indifferent and ineffectual choice between two sets of men named by interests which are not ours.

So that what we establish the direct primary for is this: to break up the inside and selfish determination of the question who shall be elected to conduct the government and make the laws of our commonwealths and our nation. Everywhere the impression is growing stronger that there can be no means of dominating those who have dominated us except by taking this process of the original selection of nominees into our own hands. Does that upset any ancient foundations? Is it not the most natural and simple thing in the world? You say that it does not always work; that the people are too busy or too lazy to bother about voting at primary elections? True, sometimes the people of a state or a community do let a direct primary go by without asserting their authority as against the bosses. The electorate of the United States is occasionally like the god Baal: it is sometimes on a journey or it is sometimes asleep; but when it does awake, it does not resemble the god Baal in the slightest degree. It is a great self-possessed power which effectually takes control of its own affairs. I am willing to wait. I am among those who believe so firmly in the essential doctrines of democracy that I am willing to wait on the convenience of this great sovereign, provided I know that he has got the instrument to dominate whenever he chooses to grasp it.

Then there is another thing that the conservative people are concerned about: the direct election of United States Senators. I have seen some thoughtful men discuss that with a sort of shiver, as if to disturb the original constitution of the United States Senate was to do something touched with impiety, touched with irreverence for the Constitution itself. But the first thing necessary to reverence for the United States Senate is respect for United States Senators. I am not one of those who condemn the United States Senate as a body; for, no matter what has happened there, no matter how questionable the practices or how corrupt the influences which have filled some of the seats in that high body, it must in fairness be said that the majority in it has all the years through been untouched by stain, and that there has always been there a sufficient number of men of integrity to vindicate the self-respect and the hopefulness of America with regard to her institutions.

But you need not be told, and it would be painful to repeat to you, how seats have been bought in the Senate; and you know that a little group of Senators holding the balance of power has again and again been able to defeat programs of reform upon which the whole country had set its heart; and that whenever you analyzed the power that was behind those little groups you have found that it was not the power of public opinion, but some private influence, hardly to be discerned by superficial scrutiny, that had put those men there to do that thing.

Now, returning to the original principles upon which we profess to stand, have the people of the United States not the right to see to it that every seat in the Senate represents the unbought United States of America? Does the direct election of Senators touch anything except the private control of seats in the Senate? We remember another thing: that we have not been without our suspicions concerning some of the legislatures which elect Senators. Some of the suspicions which we entertained in New Jersey about them turned out to be founded upon very solid facts indeed. Until two years ago New Jersey had not in half a generation been represented in the United States Senate by the men who would have been chosen if the process of selecting them had been free and based upon the popular will.

We are not to deceive ourselves by putting our heads into the sand and saying, “Everything is all right.” Mr. Gladstone declared that the American Constitution was the most perfect instrument ever devised by the brain of man. We have been praised all over the world for our singular genius for setting up successful institutions, but a very thoughtful Englishman, and a very witty one, said a very instructive thing about that: he said that to show that the American Constitution had worked well was no proof that it is an excellent constitution, because Americans could run any constitution, a compliment which we laid like sweet unction to our soul; and yet a criticism which ought to set us thinking.

While it is true that when American forces are awake they can conduct American processes without serious departure from the ideals of the Constitution, it is nevertheless true that we have had many shameful instances of practices which we can absolutely remove by the direct election of Senators by the people themselves. And therefore I, for one, will not allow any man who knows his history to say to me that I am acting inconsistently with either the spirit or the essential form of the American government in advocating the direct election of United States Senators.

Take another matter. Take the matter of the initiative and referendum, and the recall. There are communities, there are states in the Union, in which I am quite ready to admit that it is perhaps premature, that perhaps it will never be necessary, to discuss these measures. But I want to call your attention to the fact that they have been adopted to the general satisfaction in a number of states where the electorate had become convinced that they did not have representative government.

Why do you suppose that in the United States, the place in all the world where the people were invited to control their own government, we should set up such an agitation as that for the initiative and referendum and the recall. When did this thing begin? I have been receiving circulars and documents from little societies of men all over the United States with regard to these matters, for the last twenty-five years. But the circulars for a long time kindled no fire. Men felt that they had representative government and they were content. But about ten or fifteen years ago the fire began to burn, and it has been sweeping over wider and wider areas of the country, because of the growing consciousness that something intervenes between the people and the government, and that there must be some arm direct enough and strong enough to thrust aside the something that comes in the way.

I believe that we are upon the eve of recovering some of the most important prerogatives of a free people, and that the initiative and referendum are playing a great part in that recovery. I met a man the other day who thought that the referendum was some kind of an animal, because it had a Latin name; and there are still people in this country who have to have it explained to them. But most of us know and are deeply interested. Why? Because we have felt that in too many instances our government did not represent us, and we have said: “We have got to have a key to the door of our own house. The initiative and referendum and the recall afford such a key to our own premises. If the people inside the house will run the place as we want it run, they may stay inside and we will keep the latchkeys in our pockets. If they do not, we shall have to re-enter upon possession.”

Let no man be deceived by the cry that somebody is proposing to substitute direct legislation by the people, or the direct reference of laws passed in the legislature, to the vote of the people, for representative government. The advocates of these reforms have always declared, and declared in unmistakable terms, that they were intending to recover representative government, not supersede it; that the initiative and referendum would find no use in places where legislatures were really representative of the people whom they were elected to serve. The initiative is a means of seeing to it that measures which the people want shall be passed, when legislatures defy or ignore public opinion. The referendum is a means of seeing to it that the unrepresentative measures which they do not want shall not be placed upon the statute book.

When you come to the recall, the principle is that if an administrative officer, for we will begin with the administrative officer, is corrupt or so unwise as to be doing things that are likely to lead to all sorts of mischief, it will be possible by a deliberate process prescribed by the law to get rid of that officer before the end of his term. You must admit that it is a little inconvenient sometimes to have what has been called an astronomical system of government, in which you can’t change anything until there has been a certain number of revolutions of the seasons. In many of our oldest states the ordinary administrative term is a single year. The people of those states have not been willing to trust an official out of their sight more than twelve months. Elections there are a sort of continuous performance, based on the idea of the constant touch of the hand of the people on their own affairs. That is exactly the principle of the recall. I don’t see how any man grounded in the traditions of American affairs can find any valid objection to the recall of administrative officers. The meaning of the recall is merely this, not that we should have unstable government, not that officials should not know how long their power might last, but that we might have government exercised by officials who know whence their power came and that if they yield to private influences they will presently be displaced by public influences.

You will of course understand that, both in the case of the initiative and referendum and in that of the recall, the very existence of these powers, the very possibilities which they imply, are half, indeed, much more than half, the battle. They rarely need to be actually exercised. The fact that the people may initiate keeps the members of the legislature awake to the necessity of initiating themselves; the fact that the people have the right to demand the submission of a legislative measure to popular vote renders the members of the legislature wary of bills that would not pass the people; the very possibility of being recalled puts the official on his best behavior.

It is another matter when we come to the judiciary. I myself have never been in favor of the recall of judges. Not because some judges have not deserved to be recalled. That isn’t the point. The point is that the recall of judges is treating the symptom instead of the disease. The disease lies deeper, and sometimes it is very virulent and very dangerous. There have been courts in the United States which were controlled by private interests. There have been supreme courts in our states before which plain men could not get justice. There have been corrupt judges; there have been controlled judges; there have been judges who acted as other men’s servants and not as the servants of the public. Ah, there are some shameful chapters in the story! The judicial process is the ultimate safeguard of the things that we must hold stable in this country. But suppose that that safeguard is corrupted; suppose that it does not guard my interests and yours, but guards merely the interests of a very small group of individuals; and, whenever your interest clashes with theirs, yours will have to give way, though you represent ninety per cent. of the citizens, and they only ten per cent. Then where is your safeguard?

The just thought of the people must control the judiciary, as it controls every other instrument of government. But there are ways and ways of controlling it. If, mark you, I say if, at one time the Southern Pacific Railroad owned the supreme court of the State of California, would you remedy that situation by recalling the judges of the court? What good would that do, so long as the Southern Pacific Railroad could substitute others for them? You would not be cutting deep enough. Where you want to go is to the process by which those judges were selected. And when you get there, you will reach the moral of the whole of this discussion, because the moral of it all is that the people of the United States have suspected, until their suspicions have been justified by all sorts of substantial and unanswerable evidence, that, in place after place, at turning-points in the history of this country, we have been controlled by private understandings and not by the public interest; and that influences which were improper, if not corrupt, have determined everything from the making of laws to the administration of justice. The disease lies in the region where these men get their nominations; and if you can recover for the people the selecting of judges, you will not have to trouble about their recall. Selection is of more radical consequence than election.

I am aware that those who advocate these measures which we have been discussing are denounced as dangerous radicals. I am particularly interested to observe that the men who cry out most loudly against what they call radicalism are the men who find that their private game in politics is being spoiled. Who are the arch-conservatives nowadays? Who are the men who utter the most fervid praise of the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the states? They are the gentlemen who used to get behind those documents to play hide-and-seek with the people whom they pretended to serve. They are the men who entrenched themselves in the laws which they misinterpreted and misused. If now they are afraid that “radicalism” will sweep them away, and I believe it will, they have only themselves to thank.

Yet how absurd is the charge that we who are demanding that our government be made representative of the people and responsive to their demands, how fictitious and hypocritical is the charge that we are attacking the fundamental principles of republican institutions! These very men who hysterically profess their alarm would declaim loudly enough on the Fourth of July of the Declaration of Independence; they would go on and talk of those splendid utterances in our earliest state constitutions, which have been copied in all our later ones, taken from the Petition of Rights, or the Declaration of Rights, those great fundamental documents of the struggle for liberty in England; and yet in these very documents we read such uncompromising statements as this: that, when at any time the people of a commonwealth find that their government is not suitable to the circumstances of their lives or the promotion of their liberties, it is their privilege to alter it at their pleasure, and alter it in any degree. That is the foundation, that is the very central doctrine, that is the ground principle, of American institutions.

I want you to read a passage from the Virginia Bill of Rights, that immortal document which has been a model for declarations of liberty throughout the rest of the continent:

That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the
people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all
times amenable to them.

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is the best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of mal-administration; and that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community bath an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

I have heard that read a score of times on the Fourth of July, but I never heard it read where actual measures were being debated. No man who understands the principles upon which this Republic was founded has the slightest dread of the gentle, though very effective, measures by which the people are again resuming control of their own affairs.

Nor need any lover of liberty be anxious concerning the outcome of the struggle upon which we are now embarked. The victory is certain, and the battle is not going to be an especially sanguinary one. It is hardly going to be worth the name of a battle. Let me tell the story of the emancipation of one State, New Jersey:

It has surprised the people of the United States to find New Jersey at the front in enterprises of reform. I, who have lived in New Jersey the greater part of my mature life, know that there is no state in the Union which, so far as the hearts and intelligence of its people are concerned, has more earnestly desired reform than has New Jersey. There are men who have been prominent in the affairs of the State who again and again advocated with all the earnestness that was in them the things that we have at last been able to do. There are men in New Jersey who have spent some of the best energies of their lives in trying to win elections in order to get the support of the citizens of New Jersey for programs of reform.

The people had voted for such things very often before the autumn of 1910, but the interesting thing is that nothing had happened. They were demanding the benefit of remedial measures such as had been passed in every progressive state of the Union, measures which had proved not only that they did not upset the life of the communities to which they were applied but that they quickened every force and bettered every condition in those communities. But the people of New Jersey could not get them, and there had come upon them a certain pessimistic despair. I used to meet men who shrugged their shoulders and said: “What difference does it make how we vote? Nothing ever results from our votes.” The force that is behind the new party that has recently been formed, the so-called “Progressive Party,” is a force of discontent with the old parties of the United States. It is the feeling that men have gone into blind alleys often enough, and that somehow there must be found an open road through which men may pass to some purpose.

In the year 1910 there came a day when the people of New Jersey took heart to believe that something could be accomplished. I had no merit as a candidate for Governor, except that I said what I really thought, and the compliment that the people paid me was in believing that I meant what I said. Unless they had believed in the Governor whom they then elected, unless they had trusted him deeply and altogether, he could have done absolutely nothing. The force of the public men of a nation lies in the faith and the backing of the people of the country, rather than in any gifts of their own. In proportion as you trust them, in proportion as you back them up, in proportion as you lend them your strength, are they strong. The things that have happened in New Jersey since 1910 have happened because the seed was planted in this fine fertile soil of confidence, of trust, of renewed hope.

The moment the forces in New Jersey that had resisted reform realized that the people were backing new men who meant what they had said, they realized that they dare not resist them. It was not the personal force of the new officials; it was the moral strength of their backing that accomplished the extraordinary result.

And what was accomplished? Mere justice to classes that had not been treated justly before.

Every schoolboy in the State of New Jersey, if he cared to look into the matter, could comprehend the fact that the laws applying to laboring-men with respect of compensation when they were hurt in their various employments had originated at a time when society was organized very differently from the way in which it is organized now, and that because the law had not been changed, the courts were obliged to go blindly on administering laws which were cruelly unsuitable to existing conditions, so that it was practically impossible for the workingmen of New Jersey to get justice from the courts; the legislature of the commonwealth had not come to their assistance with the necessary legislation. Nobody seriously debated the circumstances; everybody knew that the law was antiquated and impossible; everybody knew that justice waited to be done. Very well, then, why wasn’t it done?

There was another thing that we wanted to do: We wanted to regulate our public service corporations so that we could get the proper service from them, and on reasonable terms. That had been done elsewhere, and where it had been done it had proved just as much for the benefit of the corporations themselves as for the benefit of the people. Of course it was somewhat difficult to convince the corporations. It happened that one of the men who knew the least about the subject was the president of the Public Service Corporation of New Jersey. I have heard speeches from that gentleman that exhibited a total lack of acquaintance with the circumstances of our times. I have never known ignorance so complete in its detail; and, being a man of force and ignorance, he naturally set all his energy to resist the things that he did not comprehend.

I am not interested in questioning the motives of men in such positions. I am only sorry that they don’t know more. If they would only join the procession they would find themselves benefited by the healthful exercise, which, for one thing, would renew within them the capacity to learn which I hope they possessed when they were younger. We were not trying to do anything novel in New Jersey in regulating the Public Service Corporation; we were simply trying to adopt there a tested measure of public justice. We adopted it. Has anybody gone bankrupt since? Does anybody now doubt that it was just as much for the benefit of the Public Service Corporation as for the people of the State?

Then there was another thing that we modestly desired: We wanted fair elections; we did not want candidates to buy themselves into office. That seemed reasonable. So we adopted a law, unique in one particular, namely: that if you bought an office, you didn’t get it. I admit that that is contrary to all commercial principles, but I think it is pretty good political doctrine. It is all very well to put a man in jail for buying an office, but it is very much better, besides putting him in jail, to show him that if he has paid out a single dollar for that office, he does not get it, though a huge majority voted for him. We reversed the laws of trade; when you buy something in politics in New Jersey, you do not get it. It seemed to us that that was the best way to discourage improper political argument. If your money does not produce the goods, then you are not tempted to spend your money.

We adopted a Corrupt Practices Act, the reasonable foundation of which no man could question, and an Election Act, which every man predicted was not going to work, but which did work, to the emancipation of the voters of New Jersey.

All these things are now commonplaces with us. We like the laws that we have passed, and no man ventures to suggest any material change in them. Why didn’t we get them long ago? What hindered us? Why, because we had a closed government; not an open government. It did not belong to us. It was managed by little groups of men whose names we knew, but whom somehow we didn’t seem able to dislodge. When we elected men pledged to dislodge them, they only went into partnership with them. Apparently what was necessary was to call in an amateur who knew so little about the game that he supposed that he was expected to do what he had promised to do.

There are gentlemen who have criticised the Governor of New Jersey because he did not do certain things, for instance, bring a lot of indictments. The Governor of New Jersey does not think it necessary to defend himself; but he would like to call attention to a very interesting thing that happened in his State: When the people had taken over control of the government, a curious change was wrought in the souls of a great many men; a sudden moral awakening took place, and we simply could not find culprits against whom to bring indictments; it was like a Sunday school, the way they obeyed the laws.

So I say, there is nothing very difficult about resuming our own government. There is nothing to appall us when we make up our minds to set about the task. “The way to resume is to resume,” said Horace Greeley, once, when the country was frightened at a prospect which turned out to be not in the least frightful; it was at the moment of the resumption of specie payments for Treasury notes. The Treasury simply resumed, there was not a ripple of danger or excitement when the day of resumption came around.

It will be precisely so when the people resume control of their own government. The men who conduct the political machines are a small fraction of the party they pretend to represent, and the men who exercise corrupt influences upon them are only a small fraction of the business men of the country. What we are banded together to fight is not a party, is not a great body of citizens; we have to fight only little coteries, groups of men here and there, a few men, who subsist by deceiving us and cannot subsist a moment after they cease to deceive us.

I had occasion to test the power of such a group in the State of New Jersey, and I had the satisfaction of discovering that I had been right in supposing that they did not possess any power at all. It looked as if they were entrenched in a fortress; it looked as if the embrasures of the fortress showed the muzzles of guns; but, as I told my good fellow-citizens, all they had to do was to press a little upon it and they would find that the fortress was a mere cardboard fabric; that it was a piece of stage property; that just so soon as the audience got ready to look behind the scenes they would learn that the army which had been marching and counter-marching in such terrifying array consisted of a single company that had gone in one wing and around and out at the other wing, and could have thus marched in procession for twenty-four hours. You only need about twenty-four men to do the trick. These men are impostors. They are powerful only in proportion as we are susceptible to absurd fear of them. Their capital is our ignorance and our credulity.

To-day we are seeing something that some of us have waited all of our lives to see. We are witnessing a rising of the country. We are seeing a whole people stand up and decline any longer to be imposed upon. The day has come when men are saying to each other: “It doesn’t make a peppercorn’s difference to me what party I have voted with. I am going to pick out the men I want and the policies I want, and let the label take care of itself. I do not find any great difference between my table of contents and the table of contents of those who have voted with the other party, and who, like me, are very much dissatisfied with the way in which their party has rewarded their faithfulness. They want the same things that I want, and I don’t know of anything under God’s heaven to prevent our getting together. We want the same things, we have the same faith in the old traditions of the American people, and we have made up our minds that we are going to have now at last the reality instead of the shadow.”

We Americans have been too long satisfied with merely going through the motions of government. We have been having a mock game. We have been going to the polls and saying: “This is the act of a sovereign people, but we won’t be the sovereign yet; we will postpone that; we will wait until another time. The managers are still shifting the scenes; we are not ready for the real thing yet.”

My proposal is that we stop going through the mimic play; that we get out and translate the ideals of American politics into action; so that every man, when he goes to the polls on election day, will feel the thrill of executing an actual judgment, as he takes again into his own hands the great matters which have been too long left to men deputized by their own choice, and seriously sets about carrying into accomplishment his own purposes.