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Hear Taft’s Speech “On Popular Unrest”

In the 1912 presidential election, Republican incumbent William Howard Taft faced not one but three opponents: moderate Democratic Governor Woodrow Wilson, former President Theodore Roosevelt leading the breakaway Bull Moose party, and Socialist Party stalwart Eugene Debs, running for the fourth time. Voter interest, already piqued by the unusual campaign and the candidates’ slashing attacks on one another, was further heightened by the availability of sound recordings of campaign addresses. Though his administration had adopted some anti-trust policies, Taft generally embraced a non-interventionist approach to the problems that plagued American society in 1912. When asked by reporters in 1912 how he would relieve the nation’s severe unemployment, Taft replied, “God knows,” a position not calculated to win over many working-class voters. Taft’s attitudes were well captured in this recorded selection from one of his campaign speeches, entitled “On Popular Unrest” (which was recorded in a studio on wax cylinder). When the votes were tallied, Taft placed a distant third behind Wilson and Roosevelt.

Listen to Audio:

William Howard Taft: We are living in an age in which by exaggeration of the defects of our present condition, by false charges and responsibility for it against individuals and classes, by holding up to the feverish imagination of the less fortunate and the discontented the possibilities of a millenium, a condition of popular unrest has been produced.

New parties are being formed with the proposed purpose of satisfying this unrest by promising a panacea. Insofar as inequality of condition can be lessened and equality of opportunity can be promoted by improvement of our educational systems, the betterment of the laws to ensure the quick administration of justice, and by the prevention of the acquisition of privilege without just compensation—insofar as the adoption of the legislation above recited and laws of a similar character may aid the less fortunate in their struggle with the hardships of life—all are in sympathy with the continued effort to remedy injustice and to aid the weak. And I venture to say, that there’s no national administration in which more real steps of such progress have been taken than in the present one. But insofar as the propaganda for the satisfaction of unrest involves the promise of a millenium—a condition in which the rich are to be made reasonably poor and the poor reasonably rich, by law - we are chasing a phantom. We are holding out to those whose unrest we fear, a prospect and a dream, a vision of the impossible.

After we have changed all the governmental machinery, so as to permit instantaneous expression of the people in constitutional amendments, in statutes, and in recall of public agents, what then? Votes are not bread, constitutional amendments are not work, referendums do not pay rent or furnish houses, recalls do not furnish clothing, initiatives do not supply employment or relieve inequalities of condition or of opportunity. We still ought to have set before us the definite plans to bring on complete equality of opportunity, and to abolish hardship and evil for humanity. We listen for them in vain.

Source: Courtesy of the Michigan State University Voice Library.

See Also:Hear TR's Speech "The Liberty of the People"
Hear Wilson's Speech "On Labor"
Debs Attacks "the Monstrous System" of Capitalism