The Wail of the Children
July 28, 1903 — Coney Island, New York City
After a long and weary march, with more miles to travel, we are on our way to see President Roosevelt at Oyster Bay. We will ask him to recommend the passage of a bill by Congress to protect children against the greed of the manufacturer. We want him to hear the wail of the children, who never have a chance to go to school, but work from ten to eleven hours a day in the textile mills of Philadelphia, weaving the carpets that he and you walk on, and the curtains and clothes of the people.
Fifty years ago there was a cry against slavery, and the men of the North gave up their lives to stop the selling of black children on the block. Today the white child is sold for $2 a week, and even by his parents, to the manufacturer. Fifty years ago the black babies were sold C.O.D. Today the white baby is sold to the manufacturer on the installment plan. He might die at his tasks and the manufacturer with the automobile and the yacht and the daughter who talks French to a poodle dog, as you can see ay day at Twenty-third Street and Broadway when they roll by, could not afford to pay $2 a week for the child that might die, except on the present installment plan. What the President can do is to recommend a measure and send a message to Congress which will break the chains of the white children slaves . . . .
We will ask in the name of the aching hearts of these little ones that they be emancipated. I will tell the President that I saw men in Madison Square last night sleeping on the benches and that the country can have no greatness while one unfortunate lies out at night without a bed to sleep on. I will tell him that the prosperity he boasts of is the prosperity of the right wrung from the poor.
In Georgia where children work day and night in the cotton mills they have just passed a bill to protect song birds. What about the little children from whom all song is gone?
The trouble is that the fellers in Washington don’t care. I saw them last winter pass three railroad bills in one hour, and when labor cries for aid for the little ones they turn their backs and will not listen to her. I asked a man in prison once how he happened to get there. He had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him that if he had stolen a railroad he could be a United States Senator. One hour of justice is worth an age of praying.
You are told that every American-born male citizen has a chance of being President. I tell you that the little boys in the iron cages would sell their chance any day for good square meals and a chance to play. These little toilers whom I have taken from the mills — deformed, dwarfed in body, and soul, with nothing but to before them and no chance for schooling, don’t even have the dream that they might some day have a chance at the Presidential chair
You see those monkeys in the cages. They are trying to teach them to talk. The monkeys are too wise, for they fear that the manufacturers might buy them for slaves in their factories. In 1860 the workingmen had the advantage in the percentage of the country’s wealth. Today statistics at Washington show that with billions of wealth the wage earners’ share is but 10 percent. We are going to tell the President of these things.
Source: Landmark American Speeches, Vol III: The 20th Century, ed. Maureen Harrison & Steve Gilbert (Carlsbad, CA: Excellent Books), pp. 60-62.