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26 June, 2013
Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XXIV - The Adamson Law
by Tumulty, Joseph P.


Between the Democratic Convention and the time of his departure for his summer home at Long Branch, New Jersey, the President was engaged in Washington in completing the most important items of his legislative programme, including the Income Tax, Child Labour Law, and the Adamson Eight-Hour Law.

A disastrous strike, involving the whole system of railroad transportation, now seemed imminent. At this critical juncture the President intervened. On August 13th he invited the disputants, before reaching any final decision, to confer with him personally at Washington. His intervention evoked general expressions of relief and approval.

At these conferences the railway men stood firm for an eight-hour day. The railway managers refused these demands. How to meet this grave situation, which if not checked might have resulted in giving Germany a victory, was one of the pressing problems that confronted the President that critical summer. Not only were American business interests involved in this matter, but the Allied governments of western Europe, then in the throes of the great war, were no less anxious, for a railroad strike would have meant a cutting off of the supplies to the Allied forces that were so much needed at this important juncture.

The President sent for the Brotherhood representatives and for the managers, to confer with him at the White House, and suggested arbitration by way of settling the controversy. The labour leaders, conscious of their strength, refused to arbitrate. The railroad managers were equally obdurate. I well remember the patience of the President at these conferences day after day. He would first hold conferences with the Brotherhood representatives and then with the railroad managers; but his efforts were unavailing. It is regrettable that the men on both sides were indifferent to the President's appeal and apparently unmindful of the consequences to the country that would inevitably follow a nation-wide strike.

I remember what he said to me as he left the Green Room at the conclusion of his final conference with the heads of the Brotherhoods. Shaking his head in a despairing way, he said: "I was not able to make the slightest impression upon those men. They feel so strongly the justice of their cause that they are blind to all the consequences of their action in declaring and prosecuting a strike. I was shocked to find a peculiar stiffness and hardness about these men. When I pictured to them the distress of our people in case this strike became a reality, they sat unmoved and apparently indifferent to the seriousness of the whole bad business. I am at the end of my tether, and I do not know what further to do."

His conferences with the managers were equally unproductive of result. Gathered about him in a semicircle in his office, they were grim and determined men, some of them even resentful of the President's attempt to suggest a settlement of any kind to prevent the strike. I shall never forget his last appeal to them. I sat in a little room off the Cabinet room and could hear what went on. Seated about him were the heads of all the important railroads in the country. Looking straight at them, he said: "I have not summoned you to Washington as President of the United States to confer with me on this matter, for I have no power to do so. I have invited you merely as a fellow-citizen to discuss this great and critical situation. Frankly, I say to you that if I had the power as President I would say to you that this strike is unthinkable and must not be permitted to happen. What I want you to see, if you will, is the whole picture that presents itself to me and visualize the terrible consequences to the country and its people of a nation-wide strike at this time, both as affecting our own people and in its effect upon the Allied forces across the sea. For a moment I wish you to forget that I am President, and let us as fellow-citizens consider the consequences of such action. A nation-wide strike at this time would mean absolute famine and starvation for the people of America. You gentlemen must understand just what this means. Will your interests be served by the passions and hatreds that will flow from such an unhappy condition in the country? If this strike should occur, forces will be released that may threaten the security of everything we hold dear. Think of its effect upon the people of this country who must have bread to eat and coal to keep them warm. They will not quietly submit to a strike that will keep these things of life away from them. The rich will not suffer in case these great arteries of trade and commerce are temporarily abandoned, for they can provide themselves against the horror of famine and the distress of this critical situation. It is the poor unfortunate men, and their wives and children, who will suffer and die. I cannot speak to you without a show of emotion, for, my friends, beneath the surface in America there is a baneful seething which may express itself in radical action, the consequences of which no man can foresee. In asking your cooperation to settle this dispute I am but striving, as we stand in the shadow of a great war, to keep these forces in check and under control."

Getting closer to the men, and lowering his voice, he said: "The Allies are fighting our battle, the battle of civilization, across the way. They cannot 'carry on' without supplies and means of sustenance which the railroads of America bring to them. I am probably asking you to make a sacrifice at this time, but is not the sacrifice worth while because of the things involved? Only last night I was thinking about this war and its far-reaching effects. No man can foresee its extent or its evil effects upon the world itself. It is a world cataclysm, and before it ends it may unsettle everything fine and wholesome in America. We of America, although we are cut off from its terrible sweep, cannot be unmindful of these consequences, for we stand in the midst of it all. We must keep our own house in order so that we shall be prepared to act when action becomes necessary. Who knows, gentlemen, but by to-morrow a situation will arise where it shall be found necessary for us to get into the midst of this bloody thing? You can see, therefore, that we must go to the very limit to prevent a strike that would bring about a paralysis of these arteries of trade and commerce. If you will agree with me in this matter, I will address Congress and frankly ask for an increase of rates and do everything I can to make up for the loss you may sustain. I know that the things I ask you to do may be disagreeable and inconvenient, but I am not asking you to make a bloody sacrifice. Our boys may be called upon any minute to make that sacrifice for us."

On August 29, 1916, the President appeared before a joint session of the Congress and recommended immediate legislation to avert the impending strike. Following this, the chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission of the House, Mr. Adamson, of Georgia, brought in a bill, now known as the Adamson Eight-Hour Law, which, after several unsuccessful attempts by members of the House and Senate to amend it, was signed by the President on September 5th.

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