100 Years Later, Weeks Act is a Lesson in Bipartisanship for Today
By Daniel Weeks
As New Hampshire marks the hundredth anniversary of a landmark conservation bill and the White Mountain National Forest it established, there are a few lessons worth drawing from the decade-long battle that culminated in the Weeks Act of 1911, and from the career of John Weeks himself, as Congressman and Senator from Massachusetts, and later Secretary of War. They bear some relevance to the partisan political maneuverings that define, and too-often defile, our politics today.
The first lesson is the importance of independent reason over partisan ideology, even when it is your own. John Wingate Weeks was a Republican in the New England tradition. His commitment was to a party of pragmatism based on moderation and the facts. True to Burkean form, his conservatism did not contain a particular ideological content so much as respect for what had come before and a commitment to moderation, except where the need for change was urgent and reason-based.
Weeks was less concerned with being right himself than with helping a legislative body–whether the Newton Board of Aldermen, where his political career began, or the United States Congress–come to, and then act on, the facts. After ten years and nearly fifty failed attempts by others in Congress to pass a forest bill, Weeks and his conservation allies sought to shift the debate beyond appeals on the Left to preservation of ‘scenery’ and objections on the Right based on private property alone.
They brought in lumber interests and the owners of factories and hotels. They fashioned utilitarian arguments around the economic costs of forest fires, flooding, and rivers choked by sawdust and silt. Ultimately, they fashioned a modest bill authorizing some $6 million in federal monies to purchase forestlands at the head of navigable streams, and providing cooperation in fire control between federal and state authorities.
House Speaker Joseph Canon, long opposed to the forest bill, trusted Weeks’ business judgment and gave it a hearing in the House, where it passed by seven votes. Senator Jacob Gallinger of New Hampshire passed a companion bill in the Senate, and President Taft signed it into law. In time, the Act would be expanded to protect 25 million acres in 155 national forests nationwide.
Summarizing his commitment to reason over ideology in a letter to his son, John Weeks advised against quarreling with those who disagree with you but rather acknowledging the good they bring. “Agree with [your opponent] when you can, and when you cannot, tell him so frankly and the reasons why.”
He believed that all men and women were entitled to their opinions, but that not all opinions were entitled to the truth–a fact that applied equally to himself as to the other side: “The way to cure a communist is not to suppress his speech but to argue him out of his position,” Weeks wrote. “If you cannot argue him out of it, he may be right and you wrong.”
The second, related lesson is a hard-nosed commitment to knowledge and the facts. Raised on a small farm in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where hard work in the barn and one-room schoolhouse was the order of the day, John Weeks developed an immigrant’s appreciation for industry and education, along with his love of the outdoors. Knowledge, the authority to speak and be heard, were no birthright: they were things you worked to attain.
From these formative experiences came Weeks’ straightforward definition of a leader: “A man is a leader, legislatively, when he knows more than those who are serving with him.” He did not care much for great oration, pleasant though it may be to hear, for it “depends more on verbiage than… a careful and fundamental study” of the subject. Such was his experience with the forest bill which, he concluded, “was not passed by one…or any half dozen men,” but by many “who devoted special attention and talents to this desire.”
At a time when slick commercials, staged events, and a hefty war chest are often the main ingredients in political success, it is difficult to imagine a politician getting ahead with the kind of prerequisites John Weeks had in mind: “[A leader] does not need to be an orator, have wealth or any other qualifications than to have the facts.”
Concluding his letter to his son with a little advice on the latter’s entry into politics, Weeks advised that one study the rules, attend committee meetings, and “above all things, do not attempt to speak unless you know exactly what you are talking about… Do not get the idea into your head that you are working…for future political preferment. That will take care of itself, if you make good.”
It took John Weeks six years since his election to Congress to sufficiently master the facts and ‘make good’ on the legislative achievement we remember today. A century on, it’s a lesson worth considering.