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EXEMPTION AND POLITICAL PLATFORMS.
Since toll exemption had its origin in the intense feeling against railroads, and in the desire to aid shipping and the ship building industry, it became a most fertile field for political crops.
The exemption bill was appoved August 24, 1912, and the presidential election was not held until the November following. The National Conventions were held that year, one in June, one in July and the other in August. What would a National Convention be without its long drawn charges (against all supposed political offenses and offenders) and called the platform?
The Republican Convention adopted a platform on June the 22nd, but for some inscrutable reason escaped the catastrophe by making no declaration about toll exemption. Senator Root was chairman and his wisdom may have directed the course, or perhaps this political issue as a platform plank had not yet been created.
The Democratic Convention at Baltimore created the invention, which fate compelled its votaries in Congress in 1914 utterly to abandon and destroy. The party received its reward for inserting an extraneous, impolitic plank into the platform. The exemption plank adopted, July 2, 1912, read as follows:
"We favor the exemption from tolls of American ships engaged in coastwise trade passing through the Panama Canal. We also
favor legislation forbidding the use of the Panama Canal by ships owned or controlled by railroad carriers engaged in transportation competitive with the canal."
The Progressive Party at Chicago, August 7, 1912, discussed the toll question in this extended manner:
The Panama Canal, built and paid for by the American people must be used primarily for their benefit. We demand that the canal shall be so operated as to break the transportation monopoly now held and misused by the transcontinental railroads by maintaining sea competition with them; that ships directly or indirectly owned or controlled by American railroad corporations shall not be permitted to use the canal, and that American ships engaged in coastwise trade shall pay no tolls.
These planks were adopted one in July the other in August, and were intended to control the officials elected in November, 1912, and installed in office still later. The exemption bill passed the House May 23, 1912, by an overwhelming majority. On June 11, 1912, the Senate committee reported the House bill with the toll exemption provision, and certain amendments. This bill was most thoroughly discussed and was passed with amendments by the Senate on Aug. 9, 1912, by a vote of 3 to 1. How utterly futile to bring this toll exemption matter into the platforms of 1912!
Under the canal treaties this was a non-partisan, an international question, and not a matter for political exploitation. In America, through custom almost everything is gathered into a National platform, and particularly, personal, local, national, and most unfortunately international concerns. So it was thought in 1912, that a platform would be weak and defective indeed without a toll exemption plank, although it was evident that the law must pass Congress within the space of a few days at most.
As no political party could expect to carry forward
an important national election without more than a score of issues, what difference did it make in 1912, so that there were an abundance of issues, whether they were live or extinct issues? It did make a difference in 1914, to the party who invented the toll plank in 1912, for many in Congress voted to sustain the platform pledge, while many others cast the platform to the winds, and voted to repeal the exemption law which an impolitic platform had supported.
The mystery is, how any could be held by the binding pledge of the platform, when it was throughout the country declared, that a treaty would be revoked and held of no force, through "a change of circumstances" after the signing thereof. Why did not our Congressmen apply the treaty doctrine to the platform, and at once free themselves from the entanglements, by claiming that they were absolved through the "change of circumstances" since the national conventions? But some will loyally follow a platform because of a supposed pledge.
A political platform is neither "law nor gospel," far from it; it is made for the occasion and might be out of date the day after it was declared. Suppose a platform declared for peace with any named nation, and we were attacked immediately, by this same nation; of what binding force, this platform, in such an emergency? Suppose a platform declared for free trade and before the sitting of Congress, universal bankruptcy should fall upon the country and a tariff law would be the only salvation; should we adhere to the platform or disregard it to save the country?
This question must always be met and solved: When should a party platform be thrown aside and when observed? Political expediency makes the platform, but circumstances must absolutely determine
when it may be cast aside as unbinding and impracticable. While honor requires the observance of preelection pledges, still what shall be done when these conflict with the obligations of office?
To avoid the dilemma, platform pledges should be few and far between. Which should prevail, duty to a faction, or duty to the state?
A BRITISH STATEMENT.
In a former chapter we stated that it was impossible to think that any citizen had taken a course in the repeal of toll exemption in favor of England in preference to his own country.
On June 29, 1914, a statement was made by Sir Edward Grey in the House of Commons which has an important bearing on this subject. It was but justice to Americans that the statement was made and given such world-wide publicity. We print the following from the news columns of the Philadelphia Public Ledger of June 30, 1914, by express permission:
London, June 29.-The repeal of the act exempting coastwise shipping from payment of tolls for passage through the Panama Canal was the subject of a portion of a speech by Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons today. Sir Edward was replying after a general debate on the appropriations for the Foreign Office, and he paid high compliments to President Wilson and the motives underlying his action.
The Foreign Secretary remarked that while a settlement had been reached it had not been entirely free from misrepresentation which might have in it the seed of future mischief. He added:
"It is due to the President of the United States and to ourselves that I should, so far as possible, clear away that misrepresentation. It was stated in some quarters that the settlement was the result of bargaining or diplomatic pressure. Since President Wilson came into office no correspondence has passed, and it ought to be realized in the United States that any line President Wilson has taken was not because it was our line, but his own.
"President Wilson's attitude was not the result of any diplomatic communication since he has come into power, and it must have been the result of papers already published to all the world.
"It has not been done to please us or in the interests of good relations, but I believe from a much greater motive-the feeling that a Government which is to use its influence among the nations to make relations better must never when the occasion arises flinch or quail from interpreting treaty rights in a strictly fair spirit.”