Speech at Elizabeth, NJ


Speech at Elizabeth, NJ


Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924




1913 May 1


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


Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924--Correspondence


The President, at Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is very pleasant, it is very interesting, it is very natural, to be here again. I see so many familiar faces before me that I amay be embarrassed to attempt any flight of eloquence, knowing that there are so many persons here who are familiar with the best that iI can do. I wish that I had come upon a less anxious and a less weighty errand. It would have been very delightful to me if I could have come merely to compare notes with you as to public affairs, and to congratulate you upon the way in which your own affairs and ours have been going. I am sorry that I should have had to come back to speak words orf criticism. And yet I must say it is rather familiar to have the warppaint on in New Jersey. A very dignified and, I believe, very distinguished fellow citizen of mine, of one of the Indian tribes of the West, gave me the most gorgeous headdress the other day I have ever seen, and I thought of bringing it with me, for I understood that it was intended to go with warpaint. What is it that we are on the warpath for? Is it not a singular thing in your conception, my fellow-citizens, that we should always be fighting to get and retain control of our own agffairs? Does it not seem to you odd that when we give a distinct mandate to a legislative body, we have afterwards to gather in crowds of thousands to remind them what the mandate was? Is it not singular that our friends from far and near must come together in public concourse to make protest against what their own chosen representatives are doing? There are some circumstances about the present situation which confuse and puzzle me; because some very honest and upright men are allowing themselves to be used as catspaws for men whose control has already debauched the politics of this state, and is now about to debauch it again if you do not assert your sovereign rights. There is one of the representatives from this county, for whom I have not only a very deep respect but, I want to give myself the pleasure of saying, a very great affection, for I believe him to be an absolutely honest and straight man, and yet he is voting against jury reform. I have not had a chance yet to ask him why; but I want to aky him, why, because I can not imagine. I know where his heart lies. I know that he believes in and is ready to fight for the cause of the people. It must be that he does not recognize the cause of the people in the thing that we are now trying to do. And yet it is a matter of amazement as well as of distress to me that he does not see that this is the cause of the people. He has stood by me many a time; I have felt the warmth of his shoulder against mine in some of the most trying contests of politics in this state; and now I wonder why my comrade is not beside me again. I want to tell him in an affectionate warning that some very deep men who do not love the people are trying to use what they believe to be his convictions to mislead him and to disappoint the people of New Jersey.
Some people say that the people of New Jersey did not consciously vote for jury reform at the last election. I do not consider that a very high compliment to the people of New Jersey, because they voted for a party that ldistinctly declared in its platform for jury reform. And even those in the Legislature ewho declare themselves for jury reform allow themselves to be used by being told that the form proposed for this change is not the particular form for which they have declared a preference. So by every subtle method of setting honest men against one another, as well as binding dishonest men with one another, it is made impossible to administer justice without regard to persons in the great commonwealth of New Jersey.

What do we want? We want to redeem the jurisprudence of this state from the stain not only of the suspicion, but of the certainty, that men are not treated equally in the courts of justice in respect of the criminal law. I will not say that they are not treated equally in the courts of justice, but I will say that the approaches to the courts of justice are not used in the same way with regard to all persons. In some of our counties there are some men standing in with the political machine who can do anything they please in the confidence that they will not have a true bill found against them by the Grand Jury of the county; and I have known sheriffs who were not allowed to have their office until they had declared themselves by way of promise with regard to the way in which they were going to select their Grand Juries, and the lists of persons from which they were going to select those Grand Juries. The political machine where it is misused in this state, as in every other state, is misuesed because it controls the sheriff’s office and is not afraid of the hand of justice. So that again and again I have had this mortification as Governor, the mortification that every Governor of this state must have suffered under, that he is put under a solemn oath to see that the laws of this state are carried into effect, and yet not given any instrumentality by which it can be made sure that they will be.

What did we have to do in Atlantic County? We had to have a special jury commission called an elisor jury commission, because the sheriff of the county himself had made himself subject to indictment. We had to take out of the hands of a man suspected of being a criminal the right to choose those who were to determine whether he was a criminal or not. And there was not any expectation of justice in the County of Atlantic until we were able to take things out of the hands of the people who controlled the choice of the Grand Juries. Have you heard of no parallel in other cases? Have you not known other sheriffs who, if not criminal themselves, have been used to shield criminals? Do you not know that the office that the machine instinctively fights for and is ready to forget any other object in order to get, is the sheriff’s office? For it is the citadel of power and of immunity from punishment. There is not a county in this state in which the old kind of machine would not give up any time the effort to elect representatives to the Assembly or a Governor in order to keep control of the sheriff’s office. Why are they so in love with the sheriff’s office? Because from that is stretched out, or by that is withheld, the hand which leads vevery man to the bar of justice. If you want to strike at the center and heart of corrupt politics, see to it that you put the control of Grand Juries into impartial non-political hands. I would be ashamed of myself if I wanted a Democratic Grand Jury. I hope any Repiblican who may happen to be here would be ashamed of himself if he watnted a Republican Grand Jury. We want a Grand Jury that does not know anything about politics in the action which it takes. We want a Grand Jury that would feel contempt for itself if it let any question of politics enter into the findings which it makes. We want Grand Juries which are choosen from the impartial righteous citizenship of our various counties, in order to see that justice is done to high and to low alike.

When I had to asnswer the question whether I would leave very complicated matters which need my real attention at Washington, and which it is imprudent for me to absent myself from, to come and speak in favor of jury reform in New Jersey, my own beloved state, it was like being asked, ”Will you go back and take a hand again at some critical point in the fight to which you have devoted your life, the fight for the rank and file of the American people?” Did I come? Did I hesitate? I got on that train today with a light heart. I do not know whether it is that I love to fight or not; I have never suspected myself of being of a sanguinary or bellrigerent nature; but if you will tell me that there is something afoot which is going to cheat the people, and that you do not know how to get it for yourselves, then I am your man enlisted for the battle. And I want to ask the men, without exception, who have honest and exalted purposes in the Legislature which is to convene again next Tuesday to rally to this standard without regard to private differences of opinion. I challenge them to show what they are ready to give up in matters of personal pride and personal preference in order to serve a common cause. We ought not to stand apart upon private scruptle. We ought not to set ourselves up as judges of eaxactly the best way in which to do a good thing. We ought to sink minor differences of opinion and join in what is obviiously the thing which we are challenged to do by every impulse of patriotism and righteous action that is in us.

We had a conference of the members of the present Legislature before I left the Gubernatorial office, and before Mr. James Nugent took charge of the Legislature. (Hisses from the audience)I do not know whether the hisses are for me or for HJim Nugent, but I hand them over to Jim Nugent, to whom they belong,-- a sinister private agent openly conducting the affairs of New Jersey upon the floor of the Assembly, who did not dare to do it so long as he knew that there was somebody at hand who would go to his very home and point him out as the man not commissioned to speak for the people of New Jersey, but commissioned to submit to the processes of public opinion which he fears and dare not submit to. I say that before this gentleman resumed his control of the Legislature of New Jersey there was sa conference of the legislators. I was explaining to an audience in Newark a few minutes ago the difference between a conference and a caucaus. A caucus is a private conference of the members at which the Governor is not present. A conference is a public meeting and debate of those members where the Governor is present. You can go to a conference and say one thing to the Governor and then go to the House of Assembly and vote another thing by private understanding with somebody else. A conference is, I suppose, a dress parade, where the motions of political candor are gone through very solemnly, and iwhere gentlemen parade the best reasons they have for being unfaithful to the charge imposed upon them at the polls. For I have found that some gentlemen pay no regard to the obligations they impose upon themselves at conference. It was said before that conference that no particular form of jury change had been agreed upon. Well, we agreed upon a form at that conference by a very substantial majority; and then we did not get it in that form or in any other. There is a game of hide and seek being played with the people of New Jersey. They had better take the bandages from their eyes and catch these fellows in the open. Until you have jury reform, the government of the state eludes your extended grasp. You have encamped at a distance from the citadel until you have got within the processes which make you secure in your ballot, in your property, and in your very personal liberty. For nothing less than the liberty of the individual and the sacredness of individual property is involved in the processes of criminal justice. If you do not control them, then you are yourselves controlled.I have heard -- I do not believe everything I hear -- that the workingmen of this state are opposed to jury reform. I would need a very good deal of evidence to have it proved to me that the workingmen of this state had been so imposed upon. I have not found it possible to impose upon them, and I do not believe they have been imposed upon in this instance. I doubt if the workingmen of this state believe that the men now trying to run the politics of this state are better friends of theirs than I am. The workingmen of New Jersey are very astute men; they know that their fortunes are linked with the fortunes of the rank and file of their fellow-citizens; and anything that touches the rank and file of our citizenship touches at the very sorest spot of all, the great toiling masses of our people. The whole study of government, as I look at it, is a study of the means of enabling those who bear the heat and burden of the day also to carry the conquest and glory of the day, when it comes to the declaration of their rulership and the setting up of standards of rightessousness and judgment.

There are only a few counties of this state where the sheriff’s office is not at present to be trusted, and those are the very counties where it is most desired that there should be a referendum. I would be willing to have a referendum on any question if it were a genuine referendum. I am willing to leave the thing to the vote of the people if you will disinterestedly choose the men who are going to count the votes. But it is a beautiful circle. In the counties where the sheriff is controlled, and the Grand Jury is through him controlled, the polls are controlled by the gentlemen who control the sheriff and through the sheriff control the Grand Jury, and the referendum is counted by these gentlemen to ascertain whether they are to keep that hold or to loose it. I have never with my eyes open gone into an open and shut game. In the very counties where this thing cries out to be done there is danger that the people will be cheated, no matter how loud they speak. For, gentlemen, do not suppose that the Geran Act and the electrical changes which we made during the last two years are going to secure to you the proper reckoning of the votes which you cast. They will secure those to you only if the men through whom these things are done are honest. No government is any more honest or safe than the men who administer it. Therefore, you want to be very sure that the machinery of ascertaining whether they are honest or not is machinery which is not controlled by them, themselves.

There is another thing that this same body of men is working against. They do not want us to have an interior and intimate look at our own constitution. They do not want a constitutional convention. The constitution of New Jersey igs in most respetcts a very admirable instrument, but it has got some splendid hiding places in it. It has got some fine rigidities about it that make it impossible to render it elastic in the hands of the people. It has some fine methods of holding power off at such arm’s length from the people that they may look at it and admire it but never venture to touch it. It was made by a very conservative body of gentlemen, who did not think that New Jersey was safe unless they governed it; and, therefore, with the best intentions in the world, they arranged that it should always be most convenient that they should govern it.There are all sorts of irresponsibilities in that instrument; there are all sorts of distributions of power, which make it impossible to tell who did the particular thing that yaou want to get at. There are all sorts of independent power set up which make it necessary that you should catch a hundred men in order to corral a single evil. Most of the constitutions of the states of this Union, now, for example, give the Governor of the state the right to remove officials in the several counties of the state who are notoriously failing to perform their duties, but the Governor of New Jersey has no such power. A sheriff in New Jersey may absolutely ignore the Governor of the state, when the Governor of the state can prove to anybody but the Grand Jury, which that sheriff himself chooses, that he is defying the law at every turn of his administration; and you have got, in order to clarify the responsibilities and so get your hand upon the control of the state, to alter the balances of power and the correlations of authority in this great commonwealth. And here again the tempter is plyaying with you. He says, “You do not want to have a constitutional convention; because you want to have Senators in proportion to your population. There are more people in Union county than there are in some of the southern counties of the state, and Union county ought to have more Senators than a county smaller than itself in puopulation. Now, you do not want to determine that point.” Well, I dare say you do not; but would you not rather determine that point than not get a loolk at your constitution at all? Do you not want to look in? Do you not want a chance to determine some of the most essential characteristics of your own government? And are you not willing to waive that point in order to get it? And you want others that it would be very profitable for you to consider. Do you not want the opportunity to select a body of men who will go to Trenton and debate in serious public consultation the fundamental arrangements of this state, in order that you may bring them up to the year 1913, when there is business to be done which can not be done as it was in the year 1844? 1844 is so long ago in circumstances, though not in time, that you would have to be introduced to your own country if you went back to it. You would think you had moved into another age. You would think there was no familiar circumstance about you. And yet you are living under a constitution admirably adapted to the year 1844, but not adapted in some essential particulars to the year 1913. These gentlemen are saying, “Yes, but you must be jealous of the little counties, and you must not let anybody fool you on that poihnt in order to let you get the essential things.” Is it essential to justice that you should have representation in proportion to your population in the Senate? or is it esential that the Senate should be in such a position that it could render substantial justice to the people of New Jersey?I have come down here not only to argue for jury reform, but to argue for the fulfillmaent of the platform of the Democratic party that there should be a constitutional convention in New Jersey. I do not want to make the new constitution. You would have to use a great deal of persuasion to get me to say what I wanted to see put into it, because I have generally made it a principle of my life to mind my own business; and at present goodness knows I have business venough to attend to. I do not want to tell you what should be in your constitution; but I want to give you the chance to say what you think should be in it yourselves. nIt is a very interesting constitution. It says you must not touch it more than onece in five years. I do not know what is the matter with it that you should not touch it. It does not seem to be a very weak constitution. It seems to be a very tough constitution. But somehow its delicate makeup makes it indispensable that you should not handle it too often. It is yours! Oh, yes! You made it; but having made it, you made it of alabaster. You must put it up on a shelf and look at it. Very good to admire, but not suitable to handle. Very good to live under, but not good to live through. That constitution treats the people of New Jersey as if they were children:-- “This is the instrument of your life, but you must not permit yourself to fool with it. You must not treat it as if it were the instrument of your life, but treat it as if it were the instrument of some exterior sovereignty exercised over you, a guardianship maintained in order that you may not misbehave yourself.”Do you know that America is the most conservative country in the world? There is no other country I know of less inclined to make radical changes, and yet there is no other country the people of which are under such suspicion by those who have made their constitutions. The constitutions are made on the theory that you would play the mischief if you got a chance to. Whenever you had a chance to, so far as playing the mischief, you have shown yourself the most sedate people in the world. An American loves to talk as if he was going to turn the world upside down, but when he has the world in the palm of his hand, he says, “After all, it is a pretty good old world; we will let it jog along just about the way it has been jogging along, and make just a few little changes to suit us and the nleighbors.” We are not going to disturnb the orbit of this planet if we have a new constitution in New Jersey, but we are going absolutely to obliterate the orbit of some gentlemen whom I could mention.Now, how are you going to do it? The play is going to be put on the boards next Tuesday. It is very importatnt that you should all make everybocdy who represents you at Trenton, or who thinks he represents you there, be aware of your presence, if not in body at any rate in thought; so that he will know that the way he votes when those matters come to consideration again will constitute the line of his career for the rest of his life. He can start his course down or he can start it up, but whichever he starts it, it is going to continue. And those who start it down will find that there is more downness than they dreamed of; that there is no obscure chimerian darkness into which they can slide beyond which there is not something a little bit darker. For oblivion in public life is a sea which when it once closes over a man seems to suffocate all the hope that is in him; because there goes with it not merely his retirement from public life, but his retirement from the regard and esteem of his fellow citizens. I would a great deal rather be in jail than at large among people who despised me. At least they can not see through the walls of the jail and I can forget them, and I may pray in my quietness that they may forget me. But to be despised and at liberty is to be in a prison of the soul, which is more deadly than any punishment of the law.

These gentlemen next week are put up to be tested. Tested as to what? Tested as to their devotion to the cause of justice for the average man and woman in the State of New Jersey. Ah, what a test is there, my fellow-citizens! How do you tell a man from a creature bereft of human sympathies and of human iinstincts? What happens to a man when he goes bad? He cuts all the little threads of sympathy and love and justice which connect him with his fellow-man. Selfishness, pride of individual judgment set against all your neighbors, the determination to do the thing which you were commanded not to do, is the process of death for the human soul. I am not sorry for an egotist because he is a fool. There are a great many varieties of fools. Some of them are highly diverting; I would not dispense with them for anything. It would be a very fdull world if we were all entirely sensible. Any man would be intolerable if he were sensible all the time; and some are intolerable because they are sensible all the time. But there is one kind of fool who is an enemy of himself and of mankind, and that is the egotist. That is the man who thinks he has the absolute by the wool. That is the man who regards his private judgment as the standard of wisdom. That is the man who conceives in his folly that he understands a social situation better than the men whose lives and fortunes are involved.
So I say there is going to be a very nice test of quality and a very sure foundation for prediction in the action of the Legislature which convenes again next Tuesday. I congratulate my distinguished friend, the present acting Governor of this state, that he should have igiven the gentlemen of the Legislature time to visit their constituents and talk these things over, and then an opportunity to go back to Trenton and redeem themselves in the records which will not be temporary, but permanent, so far as they are concerned--permanent only so far as they are concerned. We are going to get jury reform. Do not be nervous about that. We do not need to get it through these gentlemen. There are other gentlemen through whom we can get it. These gentlemen are moths around the candle. All public men are moths around the candle. (I am trying my best to keep my wings out of the flames.) These are incidents in a great communal life which knows no bounds, like the sea itself, and which like the sea itself is ever renewed and ever refreshed, and always old and yet always young. It will carry what fleets and navies it pleases, it will move under the winds of the heavens as God commands; these gentlemen may sink or swim, as the chances go, but the mills of the gods will grind on, and they will grind out justice, they will grind out righteousness, they will see that purity is again enthroned in public affairs; and those little hosts of devoted men and women throughout the United States who have set their faces like the faces of those lifted to the light to see to it that the suffering, the distressed, the downtrodden, the toiling, are served by the laws and policies and constitutions of our time, are a gathering and multiplying army whose songs are not halted by any of the harsh discords of the age, but who are going ton with a battle song that more and more drowns every note that competes with it; until we begin to see peeping over the hills the light which will eventually spread and broaden upon a great host of brothers loving one another, serving one another, understanding one enother, and united, in order to lifdt the human race to the firnal levels of achievement.


Original Format





Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924, “Speech at Elizabeth, NJ,” 1913 May 1, WWP17723, First Year Wilson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.