Remarks at a Dinner Honoring George W. Goethals


Remarks at a Dinner Honoring George W. Goethals


Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924




1914 March 3


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


Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924--Correspondence


The President at the National Geographic Society dinner,
presenting medal to Colonel Goethals; the New Willard,
Evening of March 3, 1914.

Mr. Toastmaster, ladies and gentlemen:

I am now so accustomed to public speaking that it was with genuine hesitation on my own account that I accepted the invitation of this evening; but I accepted it as a matter of course when the great compliment was paid me of extending it to me, because it seemed to me that it was not only a personal privilege which was offered but a duty incumbent upon me as a representative of the Government of the United States. It seemed to me that speaking for that Government, as well as for the distinguished society in whose name I am now presenting this medal, it was my duty as it was my privilege to be here.

I am here to do what I suppose is an unusual thing for a society of this sort. It generally confers its honours upon those who have disclosed geography rather than upon those who have altered it. It is a sort of advertiser and custodian of the globe, but it is now about to honour a gentleman who has had the audacity to change the globe. The engineering profession is one of the few creative professions. Those of us who have attempted to be literary men conceive that we have created conceptions of the mind, but we never can produce them in court. They are never visibly upon exhibition. But the magic of the engineer is that he can change the face of nature and show the work of his hands, and that it is in some deep sense creative in character. The life of mankind on the globe is altered, for example, by the cutting and the use of the Panama Canal.

It fills the imagination to think of what this work will accomplish. It will create new neighbors. It will generate new friendships. It will make a new atmosphere of rivalry and of generous association. The whole tendency of the routes of trade will be changed, and the routes of trade are the routes of enlightenment. Only when neighbors touch one another do they cease to be provincial and look out upon the great tasks of humanity instead of confining themselves to the relatively selfish tasks of their own domestic development, and it is only as we export and import ideas that civilization becomes thoroughly established.

We have, therefore, to honour tonight the greatest living representative of this extraordinary profession. It seems to me to be natural, if I may say so with apologies to some of our friends present, that the greatest engineer should come from the United States. The United States has made the world very uncomfortable, but it has at least done so by the exercise of extraordinary dynamic qualities. It is not one of the statical nations of the world. It is one of the nations which has disturbed equilibrium, which has cut new paths for thought and action of mankind. And now there is to be elevated and kept always on high at this new gate upon which men are to enter the roads of new experience a name which will not be blotted out until and unless the whole civilization of the world should change, the name of Colonel Goethals. The Government of the United States lent him to the world and he has done this thing for the world. For it is our proud boast that we have cut this highway for all the seagoing ships of the world.

I take it for granted that we do not tonight forget that distinguished group of men who have been associated with Colonel Goethals, –– that gallant and devoted soldier who gave his very life to see that the great work was done at Culebra Cut; that man who made so much of this work possible, ––Surgeon General Gorgas, ––by knowing how to hold disease off at arm’s length while these men were given leave to work; Colonel Seibert, who built the walls of Gatun Dam and created Gatun Lake, making it look to the eyes of the beholder as if nature had done the work over which he himself presided; and Colonel Hodges, who made the locks and the machinery by which these great things are administered. But we are merely acknowledging the presiding character and genius which drew all the elements of this work together, which made it a work done by co-laborers, not by rivals, ––work done as if it were the conception of a single mind, and work done in the spirit of service and self-effacement which belongs to a great service of a great Government. There is nothing selfish in the eminence of Colonel Goethals. It is representative of a great profession; it is representative of a great Government; it is representative of a great spirit.

I am glad that this thing was not done by private enterprise and that there is no thought of private profit anywhere in it, but that a Government put itself at the service of the world and used a great man to do a great thing. That is the ideal of the modern world, ––that the services to mankind shall be commonly shared.
So I esteem it a real privilege, acting on behalf of this society, to present to you, Colonel Goethals, this very beautiful medal. It is made of mere gold, and gold is of no consequence in this connection, but it speaks in the most precious medal we know, the gratitude and the admiration of the world.


Original Format




Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924, “Remarks at a Dinner Honoring George W. Goethals,” 1914 March 3, WWP18393, First Year Wilson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.