April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
Woodrow Wilson broke more than a century of custom by appearing before a joint session of Congress on April 8. Thomas Jefferson had abandoned the practice of addressing Congress in person because it smacked of monarchy, and succeeding administrations had followed his example.
Congress bridled at Wilson’s departure from precedent. “I am sorry to see revived the old Federalistic custom of speeches from the throne,” said Sen. John Sharp Williams of Tennessee. “I regret all this cheap and tawdry imitation of English royalty.”
“I am very glad indeed,” said Wilson in his opening remarks, “to have this opportunity to address the two houses directly and to verify for myself the impression that the President of the United States is a person, not a mere department of the Government hailing Congress from some isolated island of jealous power.”
Wilson’s subject was tariff reform. Tariff rates had grown monstrously high during the previous sixteen years of Republican rule. As a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey, Wilson had blasted the infamous 1909 PayneAldrich Tariff Act. The bill was originally aimed at moderating tariffs, but in the hands of the Republican-controlled Senate it became wholly protectionist in character.
Now President, Wilson was thoroughly committed to reversing the protectionist trend. “We must abolish everything that bears even the semblance of privilege. … The object of the tariff duties henceforth laid must be effective competition, the whetting of American wits by contest with the wits of the rest of the world.”
William Jennings Bryan raised eyebrows, but not glasses, when the tee-totaling Secretary of State declined to serve alcohol at a dinner in honor of the retiring British ambassador James Bryce on April 21. Religious fundamentalists and prohibitionists toasted Bryan’s policy of “grape juice diplomacy,” while many observers abroad were appalled. Commented the London Daily Express : “W. J. Bryan not only suffers for his principles and mortifies his flesh, as he has every right to do, but he insists that others should suffer and be mortified. This would be well enough if Mr. Bryan were a private citizen, but he is a minister of State, his guests are the diplomats of foreign embassies, and official invitations must be accepted lest continued refusal involve some suspicion of international discourtesy.” Another London newspaper lamented, “Official life in Washington under the Wilson-Bryan regime holds out little prospect of gaiety.”