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OUR ANCESTRAL RESPONSIBILITIES
(Speech of Woodrow Wilson at the seventeenth annual dinner of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, December 21, 1896. Stewart L. Woodford, the President of the Society, said, in introducing the speaker: “ The next toast is entitled 'The Responsibility of having Ancestors,' and will be responded to by Professor Woodrow Wilson, * of Princeton. I know you will give him such a welcome as will indicate that, while we are mostly Yale men here, we are not jealous of Princeton.")
MR. PRESIDENT, LADIES, AND GENTLEMEN:-I am not of your blood; I am not a Virginia Cavalier, as Dr. Hill (David J. Hill. See Vol. II.) has suggested. Sometimes I wish I were; I would have more fun. I come, however, of as good blood as yours; in some respects a better. Because the Scotch-Irish, though they are just as much in earnest as you are, have a little bit more gayety and more elasticity than you have. Moreover they are now forming a ScotchIrish society, which will, as fast as human affairs will allow, do exactly what the New England Societies are doing, viz.: annex the universe. [Laughter.j We believe with a sincere belief, we believe as sincerely as you do the like, that we really made this country. Not only that, but we believe that we can now, in some sort of way, demonstrate the manufacture, because the country has obviously departed in many respects from the model which you claim to have set. Not only that, but it seems to me that you yourselves are becoming a little recreant to the traditions you yearly celebrate.
It seems to me that you are very much in the position, with reference to your forefathers, that the little boy was
Professor Woodrow Wilson was, at the suggestion of the retiring president (Francis Landey Patton) of Princeton University, unanimously elected to fill his place as president, June 9. 1902,
with reference to his immediate father. The father was a very busy man; he was away at his work before the children were up in the morning and did not come home till after they had gone to bed at night. One day this little boy was greatly incensed, as he said, “ to be whipped by that gentleman that stays here on Sundays." I do not observe that you think about your ancestors the rest of the week; I do not observe that they are very much present in your thoughts at any other time save on Sunday, and that then they are most irritating to you. I have known a great many men descended from New England ancestors and I do not feel half so hardly toward my ancestors as they do toward theirs. There is a distant respect about the relationship which is touching. There is a feeling that these men are well and safely at a distance, and that they would be indulged under no other circumstances whatever; and that the beauty of it is to have descended from them and come
so far away.
Now, there are serious aspects to this subject. I believe that one of the responsibilities of having ancestors is the necessity of not being ashamed of them. I believe if you have had persons of this sort as your forefathers you must really try to represent them in some sort of way. And you must set yourselves off against the other elements of population in this country. You know that we have received very many elements which have nothing of the Puritan about them, which have nothing of New England about them; and that the chief characteristic of these people is that they have broken all their traditions. The reason that most foreigners come to this country is in order to break their traditions, to drop them. They come to this country because these traditions bind them to an order of society which they will no longer endure, and they come to be quit of them. You yourselves will bear me witness that these men, some of them, stood us in good stead upon a very recent occasion: in last November. [Applause. “Hear! Hear! ”] We should not at all minimize the vote of the foreign-born population as against the vote of some of the native-born population on the question of silver and gold. But you will observe that there are some things that it would be supposed would belong to any tradition. One would suppose
it would belong to any tradition that it was better to earn a dollar that did not depreciate, and these men have simply shown that there are some common-sense elements which are international and not national.
One of the particulars in which we are drawn away from our traditions is in respect to the make-up and government of society, and it is in that respect we should retrace our steps and preserve our traditions; because we are suffering ourselves to drift away from the old standards, and we say, with a shrug of the shoulders, that we are not responsible for it; that we have not changed the age, though the age has changed us. We feel very much as the Scotchman did who entered the fish market. His dog, being inquisitive, investigated a basket of lobsters, and while he was nosing about incautiously one of the lobsters got hold of his tail, whereupon he went down the street with the lobster as a pendant. Says the man, “Whustle to your dog, mon."
Nay, nay, mon,” quoth the Scotchman, “You whustle for your lobster.” We are very much in the same position with reference to the age; we say, whistle to the age; we cannot make it let go; we have got to run. much like the little boy in the asylum, standing by the window, forbidden to go out. He became contemplative, and said, “ If God were dead and there were not any rain, what fun orphan boys would have.” We feel very much that way about these New England traditions. If God were only dead; if it didn't rain; if the times were only good, what times we would have.
The present world is not recognizable when put side by side with the world into which the Puritan came. I am not here to urge a return to the Puritan life; but have you forgotten that the Puritans came into a new world? The conditions under which they came were unprecedented conditions to them. But did they forget the principles on which they acted because the conditions were unprecedented? Did they not discover new applications for old principles? Are we to be daunted, therefore, because the conditions are new? Will not old principles be adaptable to new conditions, and is it not our business to adapt them to new conditions? Have we lost the old principle and the old spirit? Are we a degenerate people? We certainly must admit ourselves
We feel very
to be so if we do not follow the old principles in the new world, for that is what the Puritans did.
Let me say a very practical word. What is the matter now? The matter is, conceal it as we may, gloss it over as we please, that the currency is in a sad state of unsuitability to the condition of the country. That is the fact of the matter; nobody can deny that; but what are we going to do? We are going to have a new tariff. I have nothing to say with regard to the policy of the tariff, one way or the other. We have had tariffs, have we not, every few years, ever since we were born; and has not the farmer become discontented under these conditions? It was the effort to remedy them that produced the silver movement. A new tariff may produce certain economic conditions; I do not care a peppercorn whether it does or not, but this is a thing which we have been tinkering and dickering with time out of mind, and in spite of the tinkering and dickering this situation has arisen. Are we going to cure it by more tinkering? We are not going to touch it in this way. Now, what are we going to do?' It is neither here nor there whether I am a protectionist, or for a tariff for revenue, or whatever you choose to call me. The amount you collect in currency for imports is not going to make any difference. The right thing to do is to apply old principles to a new condition and get out of that new condition something that will effect a practical remedy. I do not pretend to be a doctor with a nostrum. I have no pill against an earthquake. I do not know how this thing is going to be done, but it is not going to be done by having stomachs easily turned by the truth; it is not going to be done by merely blinking the situation. If we blink the situation I hope we shall have no more celebrations in which we talk about our Puritan ancestors, because they did not blink the situation, and it is easy to eat and be happy and proud. A large number of persons may have square meals by having a properly adjusted currency.
We are very much in the condition described by the reporter who was describing the murder of a certain gentleman. He said that the murderer entered the house, and gave a graphic description of the whole thing. He said that fortunately the gentleman had put his valuables in the safe
deposit and lost only his life. We are in danger of being equally wise. We are in danger of managing our policy so that our property will be put in safe deposit and we will lose only our lives. We will make all the immediate conditions of the nation perfectly safe and lose only the life of the nation. This is not a joke, this is a very serious situation. I should feel ashamed to stand here and not say that this is a subject which deserves your serious consideration and ought to keep some of you awake to-night. This is not a simple gratulatory occasion, this is a place where public duty should be realized and public purposes formed, because public purpose is a thing for which our Puritan ancestors stood, yours and mine. If this race should ever lose that capacity, if it should ever lose the sense of dignity in this regard, we should lose the great traditions of which we pretend to be proud. [Applause.)