The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Franklin D. Roosevelt
Address at University of Pennsylvania.
September 20, 1940

President Gates, my friend the Chief Justice of Canada, and all of my friends of the University:

I AM very greatly honored to have the privilege of wearing this hood.

I am very happy with the present University of Pennsylvania. I cannot say that I am wholly happy that the founders of the University chose the year 1740. They might have had that great attribute which I have so long sought of looking ahead and planning. They would have founded the University in 1739, lest the two hundredth anniversary should fall in an election year. Thereby, I, at least, would have been saved much embarrassment. But what I want to say to you today I might as readily and easily have related in the autumn of 1939.

Even then we were in the midst of a strange period of relapse in the history of the civilization of the world—for in some lands it has become the custom to burn the books of scholars and to fix by Government decree the national forms of religion, morality, culture and education. It is more than a mere formality, at a time like this, to join with you in celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of this free and independent institution of scholarship. Therefore, I am doubly honored in becoming an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania.

The very foundation of this University was concerned with freedom of religious teaching, and with free learning for the many who could not pay for higher education. As I understand my history, this was originally proposed as a place where the good and Reverend Doctor George Whitefield who, incidentally, used to go to my little County of Dutchess on the Hudson River—might preach his religion without certain difficulties which the old conservatives of Philadelphia at that time threw in his path. Indeed, it was desired to make it unnecessary for the good gentleman to preach in the sun and the rain of the open fields, when the doors of the established churches were closed against him. And it was the dream of the founders to make it a 'source of education to the children of the poor who otherwise might have gone untaught.

The survival and the growth of the University through these two centuries are particularly symbolic of the eternal strength that is inherent in the American concept of the freedom of human thought and action. Here is living proof of the validity and force of single-minded service to the cause of truth.

Events in this world of ours today are making the vast majority of our citizens think more and more clearly about the manner of the growth of their liberty and freedom, and how hard their people in the olden days fought and worked to win and to hold the privilege of free Government.

With the gaining of our political freedom you will remember that there came a conflict between the point of view of Alexander Hamilton, sincerely believing in the superiority of Government by a small group of public-spirited and usually wealthy citizens, and, on the other hand, the point of view of Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of Government by representatives chosen by all the people, an advocate of the universal right of free thought, free personal living, free religion, free expression of opinion and, above all, the right of free universal suffrage.

Many of the Jeffersonian school of thought were frank to admit the high motives and disinterestedness of Hamilton and his school. Many Americans of those days were willing to concede that if Government could be guaranteed to be kept always on the high level of unselfish service suggested by the Hamiltonians there would be nothing to fear. For the very basis of the Hamiltonian philosophy was that through a system of elections every four years, limited to the votes of the most highly educated and the most successful citizens, the best of those qualified to govern could always be selected.

It was, however, with rare perspicuity, as time has shown, that Jefferson pointed out that, on the doctrine of sheer human frailty, the Hamilton theory was bound to develop, in the long run, into Government by selfishness or Government for personal gain or Government by class, that would ultimately lead to the abolishment of free elections. For he recognized that it was our system of free unhampered elections which was the surest guaranty of popular Government. Just so long as the voters of the Nation, regardless of higher education or property possessions, were free to exercise their choice in the polling place without hindrance, the country would have no cause to fear the head of tyranny.

At all times in our history of nearly a century and a half since then, there have been many Americans who have sought to confine the ballot to limited groups of people. It was a quarter of a century ago that President Eliot of Harvard University summarized this view when he said to me something like this: "Roosevelt, I am convinced that even though we have multiplied our universities in every State of the Union, even though higher learning seems to have come into its own, nevertheless, if the ballot were to be confined to the holders of college degrees, the Nation would go on the rocks in a very few years." It may seem ungracious for a very new degree-holder to say this to this audience of older degree-holders, but my authority for that view is a great educator, noted for his efforts to disseminate college education throughout the country.

I must admit that I agree with him thoroughly in his estimate of the superior ability of the whole of the voters to pass upon political and social issues in free and unhampered elections, as against the exclusive ability of a smaller group of individuals at the top of the social structure.

On candidates and on election issues—and remember that I am trying to think of this year as being 1939—I would rather trust the aggregate judgment of all the people in a factory—the president, all the vice presidents, the board of directors, the managers, the foremen, plus all the laborers—rather than the judgment of the few who may have financial control at the time. On such questions the aggregate total judgment of a farm owner, of the farmer and of all the farm hands will be sounder, I think, than that of the farm owner alone. I would rather rely on the aggregate opinion, on matters affecting Government, of a railroad president and its superintendents, its engineers, foremen, brakemen, conductors, trainmen, telegraphers, porters and all the others, than on the sole opinion of the few in control of the management, or of the principal stockholders themselves.

Only too often- and we know many examples—in our political history, the few at the top have tried to advise or dictate to the many lower down how they should vote.

Even today in certain quarters there are, I regret to say, demands for a return of Government to the control of a fewer number of people, people who, because of business ability or economic omniscience are supposed to be just a touch above the average of our citizens. I took four years of economics when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, and everything I was taught is outside of all the textbooks today. The older I grow, the less omniscient I become in regard to economics, and I think most of us do. As in the days of Hamilton, we of our own generation should give those who demand government by the few all credit for pure intention and high ideals. Nevertheless, their type of political thinking could easily lead to Government by selfish seekers for power and riches and glory. For the great danger is that once the Government falls into the hands of a few elite, curtailment or even abolition of free elections might be adopted as the means of keeping them in power.

I can never forget that some well-meaning people have even recently seriously suggested that the right to vote be denied to American men and women who through no fault of their own had lost their jobs and, in order to keep the family and the home going, were working on work relief projects. As long as periodic free elections survive, no set of people can permanently control Government. In the maintenance of free elections rests the complete and the enduring safety of our form of Government.

No dictator in history has ever dared to run the gauntlet of a really free election.

Fundamental truths like these have been stated so often that they are perhaps commonplace among Americans, but it is well constantly to keep them in mind in order to understand what has happened in other lands. A decade ago, for example, in 1930, the German people despaired of the processes of their democracy, which were based on the free use of the franchise. They were willing to lend ear to a new cult called "Nazi-ism"-a minority group which professed extraordinary patriotism, and offered bread and shelter and better Government through the rule of a handful of persons boasting of special aptitude for Government. In those days loudly professed emphasis was placed by that special group on their own purity of purpose. Nothing was ever said by them about abolishing free elections. Many people of large business affairs, influenced by several factors, and dissatisfied with the democratic system, as it was working out, formed political and economic alliances with this new small group.

You and I know the subsequent history of Germany. The right of free elections and the free choice of heads of Government were suddenly wiped out by a new regime, still professing the same purity of purpose. It is a travesty on fact to claim that there is any free choice of public officials in Germany today, or that there ever has been one since 1933.

What Jefferson prophesied might happen in this country, if the philosophy of the restricted vote and of Government by special class were adopted, did actually happen in Germany before our very eyes.

Many years ago, speaking in San Francisco, I pointed out that new conditions imposed new requirements upon Government and upon those who conducted Government. As Jefferson wrote a long time ago: "I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. . . . As new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times."

We must follow that rule today as readily as then, always with the condition that any change in institutions or in economic methods must remain within the same old framework of a freely 'elected democratic form of Government.

I have pointed out many times that western migration and the free use of unoccupied lands have ended with the advent of the industrial age; that with the changes wrought by new inventions of steam and electricity, new relationships have arisen between units of finance and industry on one side and the great mass of workers and small businessmen on the other; and that certain Government controls have become necessary to prevent a few financial and industrial groups from harming or curbing the threats of other groups that are smaller in size but much greater in number.

We have at the same time developed new beliefs in governmental responsibilities to humanity as a whole. It is a relatively new thing in American life to consider what the relationship of Government is to its starving people and to its unemployed citizens, and to take steps to fulfill its governmental duties to them.

A generation ago people had scarcely given thought to the terms "social security," "minimum wages" or "maximum hours." It is only within recent years that Government has given its attention in a serious, effective way to the insurance of bank deposits, to soil conservation, relief to farmers and to farm tenants, development of cheap electric water power, reclamation of soil by proper use of water and forests; to the prevention of fraud and deceit in the sale of securities; to the assurance of the principle of collective bargaining by workers in industry; to Government assistance to the blind and the handicapped; or to the need of taking care of elderly people without throwing them into the poorhouse.

These are some of the new instruments of social justice that America has forged to meet the new conditions of industry, agriculture, finance and labor—conditions which had been neglected too long and which were beginning to endanger our internal security. These many new instruments are the means that our own generation have adopted to overcome the threats to economic democracy in our land—threats which in other lands led quickly to political despotism.

Benjamin Franklin, to whom this University owes so much, realized too that while basic principles of natural science, of morality and of the science of society were eternal and immutable, the application of these principles necessarily changes with the patterns of living conditions from generation to generation. I am certain that he would insist, were he with us today, that it is the whole duty of the philosopher and the educator to apply the eternal ideals of truth and goodness and justice in terms of the present and not terms of the past. Growth and change are the law of all life. Yesterday's answers are inadequate for today's problems—just as the solutions of today will not fill the needs of tomorrow.

Eternal truths will be neither true nor eternal unless they have fresh meaning for every new social situation.

It is the function of education, the function of all of the great institutions of learning in the United States, to provide continuity for our national life- to transmit to youth the best of our culture that has been tested in the fire of history. It is equally the obligation of education to train the minds and the talents of our youth; to improve, through creative citizenship, our American institutions in accord with the requirements of the future.

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.

It is in great universities like this that the ideas which can assure our national safety and make tomorrow's history, are being forged and shaped. Civilization owes most to the men and Women, known and unknown, whose free, inquiring minds and restless intellects could not be subdued by the power of tyranny. This is no time for any man to withdraw into some ivory tower and proclaim the right to hold himself aloof from the problems and the agonies of his society. The times call for bold belief that the world can be changed by man's endeavor, and that this endeavor can lead to something new and better. No man can sever the bonds that unite him to his society simply by averting his eyes. He must ever be receptive and sensitive to the new; and have sufficient courage and skill to face novel facts and .to deal with them.

If democracy is to survive, it is the task of men of thought, as well as men of action, to put aside pride and prejudice; and with courage and single-minded devotion- and above all with humility—to find the truth and teach the truth that shall keep men free.

We may find in that sense of purpose, the personal peace, not of repose, but of effort, the keen satisfaction of doing, the deep feeling of achievement for something far beyond ourselves, the knowledge that we build more gloriously than we know.

Citation: Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Address at University of Pennsylvania.", September 20, 1940. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15860.
 
© 1999-2011 - Gerhard Peters - The American Presidency Project