Speech at Jersey City, NJ


Speech at Jersey City, NJ


Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924




1913 May 2


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


Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924--Correspondence



At Jersey City, New Jersey.

Mr. Chairman and fellow-citizens: Judge Hudspeth, as an old friend of mine, knows just exactly how to make me feel at home. He has given me just the introduction that I should have wished to have; and your very generous reception of me tonight, my dear fellow-citizens, makes me feel very much more comfortable than I did this forenoon, for example, in another part of the city, where the tender sensibilities of one of the Assemblymen of this county lead me to conclude that he considered it an affront to his personal dignity that I should have, without his invitation, come into the county over which his influence so beneficently presides. You do not make me feel that I come with so cold a welcome and to face so direct a rebuke.
I wish that you might do two opposite things tonight. I wish that you might forget that I am President of the United States, and that at the same time you might remember that I am President of the United States. I want you to forget it because I come here as a Jerseyman, fulfilling old promises that I made to Jersey men, and I want you to remember it because it is the business of the President of the United States to see to it, wherever he can, that the people get what they had a right to expect. I am not the servant of the Democratic party. I am the servant of the people, acting through the Democratic party, which has now undertaken some of the most solemn obligations that a party ever undertook; for it has stepped forward at a moment of universal disappointment and said, “We pledge you our honor as men and as patriots that you shall not be disappointed again.” This is the situation in which the Democratic party finds itself, and in the midst of this situation there are particular promises which the Democratic party, --for example in New Jersey,--has given to the people. One of the things which have made thoughtful men in this country most uneasy is that criminal justice was touched at its sources by perverting political influences; that when a man stood in with the sheriff’s office he was safe against prosecution, and that when he did not stand in with the sheriff’s office he was in the position in which we all ought to be,-- responsible for everything that he did against the law of the land. This has not always applied. I would be ashamed of myself if I brought indictments against honest sheriffs. In every county there have been sheriffs honest and dishonest, but what I want you to remember is that the political efforts of those men who wish to work their own private wills are always centered upon the capture of the sheriff’s office; and that when they have captured the sheriff’s office, then they feel at liberty not to be too scrupulous about the methods which they employ to work their own private purposes; and that here, there, elsewhere, this heat of suspicion, if not of curruption, has touched the administration of criminal justice in this state, in which we should like to believe that all men’s liberties are safe and that every man stands upon an equal footing before the judges who sit upon the bench.
The Democratic party undertook in its platform to see that that suspicion was removed. If it does not do it, it ought not again to be trusted by the people of New Jersey. But gentlemen have their pet schemes. Gentlemen have their personal pride in their own proposals of reform; and unscrupulous persons play upon that pride, encourage and nurse the vanity that lies behind it, and say, “Go on and push your plan, for it will not be universally accepted; it will come into contest with other men’s favorite projects; and we in the long run will prevent anything from being done.” For it is proverbial, they remind you, that the Democratic party can not get together. And so it is brought about that once more Hudson county is being played by the managers of Essex county. How long are you going to play second fiddle? How long are you going to elect men, who, whether they intend to do it or not, manage your affairs in such fashion that they are, as a matter of fact, subordinated to the purposes entertained by the managers --let us say, the governors--of the party in the County of Essex?
I was present at a conference today in which one of the gentlemen in the Assembly from the County of Essex asked me if I had said that the greater part of the delegation of that county exercised no choice of its own, but took orders. He did not ask me in those words, but the words do not make any difference. That is what I said. And I said it not because I suspected it. I have lived in this state a good many years. I was an observer, a very close observer, of the course of politics before I ventured upon that uneasy sea. And when I ventured upon that uneasy sea, I was not the landlubber that I looked. And I knew the gentlemen who controlled the politics of Essex county. Knew them, Why, the whole United States knew them. They were not hidden from anybody. Their names are synonyms of corrupt management of politics from one end of America to another. And because of the way in which your representatives have allowed themselves to be tied up by private platforms of their own, they have, no matter how honest they are, no matter how unintentioned they are, put themselves in the usual position of playing second fiddle to the managers of Essex. Look into the thing for yourself. The Democratic party had a platform, but these gentlemen had a little private platform of their own, in which they undertook to say how the Democratic party in this state should do the things which the Democratic party all over the state had promised to do. Because you elected them as Democrats, they told me today that you also voted for their private platform. Did you? Do you not want the Democratic party to be an efficient body for giving the people what they demand? And do you not want these men to embark their fortunes with the great party which is now trying to serve the whole United States? Very well then, tell them so. And tell them so out loud, so there can be no mistake about it. Because I have not come here to speak what is not in my heart, the least bitterness or the least criticism against these men personally. I think they have done mistaken things in some respects; but then, like every man who has reached my years, at any rate, of discretion, I look back upon occasions when I also made mistakes; and the best friends I ever had were those who most emphatically told me that I had made a mistake. The best friendship you can show for men who are not pursuing the practicable course of action to get what the people desire is to tell them that they are not pursuing the right course, whatever their right purposes may be.
So I have come here tonight to plead with you to help us to see that the special session of the Legislature, which convenes next week, does not end in disappointment and failure, but in the accomplishment of the great purposes for which it is called together. That is what we held a conference about this afternoon and this morning, and I think I can tell you that things are going to shape themselves and the party is going to get together. I have constantly to remind myself, so brief has been the interval since I moved away from New Jersey, that I am not a part of the government of New Jersey, and that, therefore, it is not my business to make specific suggestions in public. I have a little plan of my own; but I am not going to imitate the example of the numerous other gentlemen who have little plans of their own. I am perfectly willing to take any workable plan that accomplishes the substantial object we have in view. Any sensible, patriotic man ought to be equally willing to do that thing.What is it that the Democratic party is expected to do? Is there a Democratic criminal justice in the United States? Is there a Republican criminal justice in the United States? Is there a Bull Mosse criminal justice in the United States? Is justice measured by the standards of party difference? Why, what is the object we are talking about? It is the very heart and core of human liberty. It is the central object for which society was established. Society was established to see to it that every man had the same chance that every other man had, and that he was treated as every other man would be treated. So we are not dealing with a party question here at all. We have gone back to the rudiments of human society. And the supreme test which the Democratic party has now to respond to is this, Is it ready to give the citizens of New Jersey the final guarantees of disinterested justice? Did you ever hear a bigger question than that stated? Is there any suspicion abroad that equal justice is not administered in the United States? If there is such a suspicion, who ought of all others to remove it? The men who are retntlemen get together in those chambers down in Trenton. There is the temple in which is worshipped the god of justice or the god of intrigue. And there is a high priest of intrigue, who is to be seen lurking about the corridors of that temple. He did not lurk in very obvious bulk a few months ago, but he lurks to the view of every casual observer now. Are you going to burn incense to his god? or are you going to burn incense to the god of mankind, the god of love and of justice and of purity and of righteousness?
You see, I want you to realize that this is no trifle that has made me feel that it was my duty to come up, perhaps to the neglect of important duties in Washington, in order to speak to my neighbors here in New Jersey, to tell them what was up, what was involved, what it was necessary for them to speak out about before next Tuesday. I wish I could go around from county to county of this state and expound this great theme. If there was ever anything to make a man’s red corpuscles jump through his veins, it is this thing, in behalf of which men have not hesitated to shed their blood and to forfeit everything that they held sacred, in order that their fellows might be free, whether they themselves were liberated or not. Somebody told me that things were so tangled up here that jury reform was going to lose anyhow, and said, “Why go up and fight for a losing cause?” Well, I know my fellow-citizens of New Jersey, and I deny that it is a losing cause. But suppose it was! I would rather have my body one of the first to fall by the wall than one of the last. Anybody can come on with the battalions that marshal millions strong before the war is over, but only men of steady courage can go with the little handful that starts the battle. And whether we win or lose, the battalions are coming on, and the eventful outcome of the day omnment is how you are going to do it; because no sane men will sit down long and soberly debate what ought to be done. Everybody admits that,--at any rate in public. But what we want to debate is how to get the thing done. You know it was my pleasure at a time when it was not very popular to do so to go into various parts of this state and speak for the commission form of government in cities, and I did so because I said I was tired of hide and seek government. I was tired of not knowing what man to put my finger on when things went wrong. I was tired of boards without number that were independent in function and sphere, some of which were appointed, some of which were elected; some of which had this function, and some of which had that; and over whom there was no common authority at all, except at the polls, when you had such a long ticket to vote that you did not know which man you were punishing and which man you were rewarding. I did not see how to run a machine that you could not start without moving a hundred cranks at once, because I was not a centipede and had only two hands. I wished a real mechanical genius such as characterizes this country, would show us how to make a machine that one crank started and contro;titutions. I believe as profoundly as any man can believe in the ordered course of government under definite constitutional regulations, but I do not regard it as rebellion against constitutions to desire constitutions that we can work. I do not regard it as a reaction against constitutional government that we should desire to simplify responsibility and put the people more immediately in connection with their own affairs and the control of those affairs.
My objection to the present constitution of New Jersey is this: It says that you cannot even suggest an amendment of it more than once in five years, and that when you have suggested an amendment, you must take at least two years to put it through; for you must put it through one legislature, then you must submit it to the people and elect another legislature and then put it through that legislature, and then at last the instrument which you yourselves made is at your disposal. I am considered radical sometimes because I venture to remind my fellow-citizens of the principles upon which this republic was founded. If it is radical to quote Washington, along with Jefferson, if it is radical to quote Hamilton, along with the leaders of the old Democratic party, then I am a radical, because they all with one accord agreed that the essence of constitutional government was that the people had a right to change their own government when they chose. Some constitution makers, among the rest those who made the New Jersey constitution under which we live, were of the opinion that the people ought to be discouraged from changing their own government, by having it made so difficult for them that they would get tied up into a hard knot if they tried it. I say let us cut the knot; not with any sword of irregular procedure, but by means of a constitutional convention authorized by us to look this instrument over and suggest to us changes which may modify it in the interest of simplicity and directness of popular control.Now, you know what stands in the way. Why, yty is one of the most populous counties in the state, and Hudson is inclined to say, “Oh, no, I’ll go into this scheme if you will promise that Hudson shall be proportionally represented in the Senate as well as in the House of Assembly, but it is not fair that Hu,k with contempt upon the little game of politics, look with absolute condescension upon the men who go about to establish their own fortunes, to press the interests of their own little circle, to see to it that the things they are interested in have the pick in the things that are done and the things that are preferred. They are more and more sitting like a great audience, saying, “We will laugh for a little time at this comedy, we will pretend to shed tears at your mock tragedy, but, after all, we want to see the real thing on the boards at present, the great epoch of mankind.And so I am reminded of some of the extraordinary misrepresentations that have been made with regard to the projects of jury reform. I am told that some of my friends among the laboring men have been told that this was a plan to see to it that they did not get an equal share with the rest in the determination of what should be done in the courts of criminal justice. I ask them to answer me this question, In the game of politics, do they generally get the advantage? do they generally determine in impartial fashion through their own representatives who shall have true bills brought against them and go before petit juries, and who shall not? Is the present arrangement altogether to their liking? I have not heard it praised from their ranks. What we are trying to do is to bring them with all other men, into the partnership. I have never proposed, and I never shall propose, that a special class of society shall have a special preference in what ought to be a general partnership. I have again and again insisted that nobody ought to be excluded from the partnership, and I have again and again pointed out that the men who carry the heat and burden of the day, on our farms and in our shops and in the dull depths of our mines and in the forests and along the sea, constituted the greater part of our population, and were, therefore, among the senior partners of the firm. But the game of politics has never gone in their direction that I have observed. And I have heard laboring men everywhere in this country say that their organizations were now standing outside politics and asking this question, Who is going to perform justly and who is not? What you ought to do, my dear fellow-citizens, those of you who specifically describe yourselves as workingmen, though some of the rest of us work and do not have any limited hours either --if there were more than one PrewWashington from those windows, and I sometimes thank God that I cannot; because Washington behind me is seething with special representatives of little things who are almost storming at the doors of the office itself; whereas, out here are the cool large spaces of the United States. I would rather hear the whispers coming in at those windows than the strident arguments coming in at those doors. That is the enterprise upon which every man should keep his thought concentrated,-- walking as if in a vision, seeing things invisible, hearing voices inaudible, in love not with his own ambitions or with his own interests, but with that thought of the pulsing heart of America, the heart which does not die with the generations, but pulses again as the children grow up, pulses as the new years come in, pulses with a greater and greater might as the population grows from million to millions, pulses in the folds of the flag,-- seems to be symbolized in everything that we look upon, except our own little selves and our own private ambitions; and those who dream of this nation will be able to serve it as those who forget themselves. There are men of this sort, there are a great many of this sort. Seek them out; sustain them; believe in them; swear by them. Do not go back on them if they make incidental mistakes. Just band yourselves together in a great body of Americans and say, “Hudson county is linked by every vital thong of living tissue with the State of New Jersey, and the State of New Jersey with the other states of the Union, and the states of the Union with the great body of struggling mankind; and as we live in New Jersey, so will men live everywhere. As we stand by each other in New Jersey, so will men stand by each other throughout the Union, and those that we trust shall be lifted to places

Original Format





Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924, “Speech at Jersey City, NJ,” 1913 May 2, WWP17727, First Year Wilson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.