William Cox Redfield to Woodrow Wilson

Identifier

WWP18226

Source

Wilson Papers, Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Washington, District of Columbia

Text

My dear Mr. President

As I look back at our Cabinet discussion of Tuesday I wonder whether, in the effort to condense into brief and clear form my views on the attitude of the Administration toward the business world, I did not after all leave a vague impression and perhaps an erroneous one.
No one of your adviseors has more complete sympathy with the policy of our party toward monopoly. Perhaps none of them has in the commercial arena dealt more closely at first hand with it. As a municipal officer I have beaten two great combinations without invoking the law, and in business the concern in which I was interested defeated the formation of a third. I probably go farther even than others in thinking these great aggregations more dangerous today in the current state of public opinion and conscience to themselves and their owners than to anyone else.
Our public action, however, must adjust itself to facts and the discussion of monopolies has dealt too much with adjectives and too little with the actual facts under which businessmen work.
I said the other day that the situation was a psychological one and this goes to the root of the matter. All business, as I need hardly tell you, rests upon credit, and credit is only another form of confidence. This confidence is not merely in men in their willingness and power to pay but in conditions. In every factory, bank, and commercial office confidence is the sole basis on which work can be done and progress made, and to doubt is to destroy. Uncertainty to a businessman is substantially as complete a bar to progress as is certitude of evil.
A real and great wrong has been done the business world in past years through the uncertainty of the meaning of the Sherman law. Many men anxious to obey that law have asked, What does this law mean? and have been told only that they would find out after they broke it. Many of these men have not meant to break that law. They have sincerely desired and endeavored to find what they might do or were thereby prevented from doing but there has been no one to tell them. Repeated requests have been made to the Attorney General: Is this lawful or is this unlawful? but he has replied to many with one answer, which was that he did not know and could not say. It is a fact that no business house has been able to go to its counsel for years past and get definite knowledge of what the law permitted or prohibited. I personally know upright, sincere, and lawabiding men who have thus innocently been brought under the ban of the law because they were unable to find out what that law meant. This one phase of uncertainty had been a burden against which the business world has cried out in vain and which I hope may now be raemoved.
But to this just complaint as to what the law specifically meant in the daily transactions of business the answer of the legislator has too frequently been in a threatening spirit to say, You break it and you will find out. We dont tell you what it means but we will punish you if you break it.This and no less than this is the situation in which many an honourable businessman has found himself. I do not minimize the misdeeds of the deliberate sinners, but they are relatively few compared with the thousands who desire to avoid sin but have found no clear path set for them.
To this situation both psychology and practical sense call for us to address ourselves and in a certain way. The thing that should be done is to make the law so plain that he who runs may read; and second, but quite as important, to make it thus plain because the enlightened conscience and judgment of the business world cries out to have it so and not because the business world is a mass of malefactors needing to have rigid rules set to confine them within the limits of proper behavior. Therefore, this proper thing can be done either in a proper or improper way. In my judgment, it should be done so as to put you in the position of the leader of the business conscience and honor of the land in doing away with a wrong that has too long been done to that same business conscience and honor. It is to my thinking essential, therefore, not only that the right thing be done but that it be done in the right spirit; not as dealing with criminals but as defining the paths of action for gentlemen.
Furthermore, the law has advanced through decisions to a certain crude definition. But while this has gone on the public conscience has advanced quite as much and we shall err unless we deal not with the state of facts that prevailed ten years ago but with the psychological situation as it is now. Business opinion today in my judgment condemns the methods which we may call the brutalities of the trusts. It regards them as no longer to be tolerated. It will welcome their repression, and the business conscience wants to be a factor in that repression. It will welcome the leader who speaks for it just as in my judgment it will disapprove the leader who ignores the fact that it is a strong and active force in the business world.
The position of what has been called the predatory interests is not today that of intrenched power but that of cringing cowardice. They know they are wrong. They know that business opinion condemns them. They know that financial opinion doubts the profitableness of their processes. They are not to be feared but rather to be controlled. The day of their power is past. To treat the business situation as if these socalled predatory interests were regnant is not only an anachronism but an error of judgment which leaves out one great force and deprives us of its aid, namely, the fact that the business judgment of the world condemns these things. It would irritate both you and me if we were assumed to be a part of that which we disapproved and seek to have done away.
Therefore, it seems to me our attitude should recognize the advance to power of the enlightened business conscience and should align ourselves with it. This means again your taking the leadership with and on behalf of the business conscience, not in further condemnation of things already tried and found guilty, but in the calm assurance that the sober judgment of the business world unites with the conscience of the political world in saying these things shall exist no more.Practically, therefore, it seems to me that aggressive speeches filled with denunciatory adjectives in our legislative discussions are as much out of date as he would be who tried now to form a new trust, and that a new atmosphere should surround our discussion of this subject. This atmosphere should be that of frank association of ourselves with all that is best in business and industrial life, of candid recognition of the primacy of business conscience in commerical affairs, and of assurance of our purpose to affirmatively help the commercial world within the limits of law and honor in extending its scope and enlarging its borders till it shall inclose the whole wide earth.
I should like to see you, whom I trust I may call my beloved leader, standing at the forefront of the great mass of highminded American gentlemen in our factories and offices who aim to cease to do evil and to learn to do well.
I should like to see that position taken with the strength and dignity of him who recognizes the security with which he may depend upon the informed judgment of the business world and with the certitude of a victor in a struggle against monopoly, which all thoughtful men know has been won, and which needs now not adjectives, not the stirring up of fresh resentment or the longer cry of indignation but the quiet, clear definition of the things which may not be in order that the business world may address itself to the things which are to be.
I ought not to close this without a word about the railroads. The fact, probably true, that the railroads are conducting a press campaign, however we may regard it as a wise or unwise policy on their part, should not blind us to the real facts of the situation. Either they need the increase they ask or they do not, and in either case it should be determined promptly.
It is a truly intolerable situation that this should be allowed to drag along month after month without decision. A businessman looking at this matter sees first and clearly that time is an essential thing. The decision must of course be sound and well matured. But this being so it is only of second importance thereto that it should be rendered quickly. Here, to be candid, is where I dread the lawyers attitude of mind. I never knew one yet who visualized the human and financial value of time.Quite apart from what the decision shall be it may make a fatal difference whether it is rendered early or late. The right decision rendered too late may be only second in harmfulness to a wrong decision. This has practical bearing because I venture to think the Interstate Commerce Commission has made a grave mistake in adjourning further hearings in the rate case until January. Had it been composed of men who had the business sense they would have seen that when factories are running short because of the lack of railroad orders and men are being laid off because of the lack of railway net earnings this is not the time to delay. I think the commission should have grasped the importance to the community apart from the railroads sufficiently to have continued their hearings as nearly without interruption as possible until the case is closed.

Yours very truly,
William C. Redfield
Secretary.


The President,
The White House.


HO

Original Format

Letter

Files

http://resources.presidentwilson.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Temp00690.pdf

Citation

Redfield, William Cox, 1858-1932, “William Cox Redfield to Woodrow Wilson,” 1913 December 18, WWP18226, First Year Wilson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.