Address Before the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Washington, D.C.
Madame President General:
Because this society is a patriotic organization formed to perpetuate the principles established by the American Revolution, it is a satisfaction to join in your devotions. The human race through the medium of organized society, no less than the individual, has to learn through experience. The record of that experience is embodied in history. It is a record full of meaning. It is impossible to comprehend the problems of the present without being informed concerning the problems of the past. We have no method by which we can project our progress into the future, unless we understand the principles and the actions which contributed to past success. Without clear comprehension of the direction from which we have come, we can not chart the direction in which we should go. It is for these reasons that it becomes so important constantly to contemplate the ideals of the formative period of our Nation. It was a time when pretense and fiction had to be cast aside, in order that the people might bestow their entire attention upon the essential and the genuine. They came into close contact with the great realities.
We do not grasp the full import of the American Revolution unless we consider it in its double aspect. In the first place, it was a struggle for independence. But the victory which, after long years of sacrifice crowned that effort, gave to the Colonies little more than an opportunity. They soon found that independence of the Crown of England was of small import unless they could establish themselves under a national government of their own. In the second place, therefore, the Revolution meant the adoption of the Federal Constitution. The war would have been of little value if the peace had not been used to create a nation.
Prior to this period our institutions had been in the making, public opinion had been shaping. It was then that final decisions were made and the definite form of our fundamental law was declared. From time to time it has been broadened and strengthened, but in its main principles it has not been much changed. The Republic which it created is the Republic under which we live.
No more enticing subject for discussion exists than the success with which our country has been blessed from the Revolutionary period down to the present hour. Our growth from 3,000,000 people, inhabiting 13 detached Colonies lying on the Atlantic seaboard, poor in almost everything save character and spirit, to the flourishing Nation of 118,000,000 people, extending across the continent, possessed of extensive material resources and endowed with all the facilities of science and art, education, and charity is a record known to all the world and very thoroughly appreciated by everyone but ourselves. While we are all vaguely conscious of this development, too many of us do not realize the great advantages which it confers upon all our people in comparison with those enjoyed in any other locality on earth.
We have every reason to be content with the progress we have made, and yet as we look about us and see the ignorance that still exists, the crime that still flourishes, the distress that so often overtakes the deserving, and the disease which still afflicts so many, we can not escape the conclusion that in spite of all our successes we have much more to do to secure a truly enlightened civilization. Society is made up of individuals with all their strength and all of their high possibilities, but still with all their imperfections. The most that could be hoped for is not perfection, but the best that can be made of a people in our present state of development. Measured by that standard, the results are exceedingly satisfactory.
Admitting that there yet remains much to be done, but believing that the progress we have made indicates that we have been taking the right course, we reach the conclusion that it is desirable to understand the principles and policies which have contributed to our success and attempt to continue to keep them in operation. One of the most important institutions which became more firmly established as the result of the Revolution was the old theory of local self-government. The race experience of those who took such a prominent part in the affairs of that day, and the whole body of the people that supported them, had always been prone to identify the cause of liberty very closely with the cause of local self-government.
The Colonies claimed that system as a right recognized by their royal charters and naturally inherent in their right as freemen. They cheerfully admitted the sovereignty of the mother country over them while at the same time asserting the long-established privilege, which was theirs under the constitution of the realm, to pay no taxes except those which were the self-imposed levies of their own legislatures. The essentials of government, and especially control of the purse strings, unless they were to relinquish their freedom, they knew they must keep in their own hands. If it was to be delegated at all, they wished to delegate it only to representatives of their own choosing. It was obvious that the father away from them the power of government was located, and the less control they had over it, the more danger there was that it would be exercised arbitrarily and despotically. Rather than submit to these dangers they resorted to the war which gave them independence.
What they were contending for was primarily the rights of the individual, the security of life, of liberty, and of property. They wished him to be provided with an assurance of justice near his own home and to be protected from all unreasonable impositions by the hand of authority. They sought to make him free to manage his own affairs, whether they were economic, political, or religious. This was the heaviest responsibility that was undertaken by any people in the world. But they knew, as we know, that there is no other foundation in which liberty and equality can rest. The history of the past 150 years has demonstrated that so far our country has been able to discharge this responsibility. At certain times and in certain places we have been neglectful of it, and the power of self-government, instead of being retained by the people, has been exercised by those who were serving their own private interest rather than the public welfare. But the people have always aroused themselves and recaptured the control of their own affairs. Sometimes they have been tempted by specious presentations to believe that in some way they could live off the Government and get something for nothing, without having to make compensation through their labor or their loss of freedom.
It is the righteous duty of society to assist the disproportionately weak and afflicted. That is the meaning of charity. The same duty requires the protection of the individual against crime and wrongdoing. That is the meaning of security. But the average run of the people must be personally responsible for their own affairs and their own succcess. Under our institutions they can not evade this duty by attempting to shift it upon the Government, for they are themselves the Government. Unless they discharge this obligation themselves, there is no one that can discharge it for them. To attempt any other method is to deny that the principle of freedom, equality and self-government is sound.
If the American Revolution had one note that was more dominant than another, it was the principle that the people were competent to run their own business and manage their own government. That was the paean of emancipation that rang high and clear through the whole period. It was an appeal to the people to emerge from their weeakness and their servitude and rely on their own strength and courage to conquer for themselves a place of power and freedom. The determination of the individual to stand alone, unaided and independent, required a high degree of character. The colonists had had enough of aristocracy, of monopoly, and of tyranny, so that they were willing to take their chances with ordered liberty.
The question is always before us of whether we are to have the capacity, the courage, and the character to maintain the high ideals which they established. There are always those who are willing to surrender local self-government and turn over their affairs to some national authority in exchange for a payment of money out of the Federal Treasury. Whenever they find that some abuse needs correction in their neighborhood, instead of applying a remedy themselves they seek to have a tribunal sent on from Washington to discharge their duties for them, regardless of the fact that in accepting such supervision they are bartering away their freedom. Such actions are always taken on the assumption that they are a public benefit. Somewhere, Lincoln said something to the effect that tyrants always bestrode the necks of the people upon the plea that it was for their good. He might have added that the people suffered the rule of tyranny in the hope that it would be easier than to rule themselves. We have built our institutions around the rights of the individual. We believe he will be better off if he looks after himself. We believe that the municipality, the State, and the National will each be better off if they look after themselves. We do not know of any other theory that harmonizes with our conception of true manhood and true womanhood.
We have long since realized that we have become one nation. But it is a nation founded on the individual States. Their rights ought always to be scrupulously regarded. Unless their actions are such as to violate the Constitution and seriously interfere with the rights of other States, they should be left to solve their own problem in their own way under the pressure of public opinion, rather than have outside authority step in to attempt to solve it for them. If we are going to have local self-government with all of its advantages, we can not escape from some of its limitations. When authority is located afar off, it is necessarily less well informed, less sympathetic, and less responsive to public requirements. When it is close at hand, it is more likely to be executed publicly and in the public interest. Having a personal contact, it is more humane and more charitable. On the other hand, rights can not be long preserved unless they are accompanied by a discharge of obligations. States’ rights can not be used indefinitely to perpetuate national wrongs.
Our country to some extent tends to depart from these ideals. We are especially prone to call on the National Government to take over our burdens, and with them our freedom. Through regulations and commissions we have given the most arbitrary authority over our actions and our property into the hands of a few men. Some of this has been necessary to prevent those who are weak from being overcome by those who are strong. But it is a procedure fraught with considerable danger and should only be adopted as a last resort. There is one field, however, which belongs to the people, upon which they have uniformly insisted that the Federal Government should not trespass. That is the domain of private business. Society requires certain public activities, like highways and drainage, which are used in common and can best be provided by the Government. But in general the country is best served through the competition of private enterprise. If the people are to remain politically free, they must be economically free. Their only hope in that direction is for them to keep their own business in their own hands.
Our theory of society rests on a higher level than communism. We want the people to be the owners of their property in their own right. We recognize that they are all capitalists by nature. We want them to be all capitalists in fact. That result is being approached rapidly. Our system is demonstrating by practice that it works.
The theories which are advanced to entice the people in handing their private affairs over to the Government do not take into account all the facts. The fundamental characteristics of humanity are not going to be changed by substituting Government action for private enterprise. The individual who manages the one, with all his imperfections and his selfishness, will have to be employed to manage the other. The very essence of business is the expectation of a profit on the part of those who conduct it. Government is conducted from an entirely different motive. When business is in private hands, it is expected to be run for the benefit of the owner. When the Government steps in, the purchasers, users, and beneficiaries of what the Government undertakes to supply insist that the concern should be conducted for their benefit. It does not estimate selfishness; it simply transfer it in part from the seller to the purchaser. Under these conditions it ceases to be a real business, becomes lacking in enterprise and initiative, and does not have any motive to provide improved service.
Flowing out of these unavoidable conditions, if the Government gets into business on any large scale, we soon find that the beneficiaries attempt to play a large part in the control. While in theory it is to serve the public, in practice it will be very largely serving private interests. It comes to be regarded as a species of Government favor an those who are the most adroit get the large part of it. Men in public life are besought to secure places of employment for some persons in their locality and favorable contracts for others. The situation rapidly develops into a position of intrenched selfishness, where a great body of public employees and large outside interests are in virtual control, with the general public paying a high cost for poor service. With all the care that it is possible to exercise, a situation of this kind becomes entangled in favoritism an is always in great danger of causing corruption and scandal.
If it is desirable to protect the people in their freedom and independence, if it is desirable to avoid the blighting effects of monopoly supported by the money of the taxpayer, if it is desirable to prevent the existence of a privileged class, if it is desirable to shield public officials from the influence of propaganda and the acute pressure of intrenched selfishness, if it is desirable to keep the Government unencumbered and clean, with an eye single to public service, we shall leave the conduct of our private business with the individual, where it belongs, and not undertake to unload it on the Government. We shall constantly remember the society can not take any short cuts. It can not escape from itself. It can not get something for nothing. What it has, it must pay for. It can not shift, it can not dodge, it can not avoid meeting its own responsibilities. Any scheme to evade, however specious it may appear, will prove to be only a delusion.
The immediate results of the American Revolution were very great. Their indirect influences have been felt in every region of the world down to the present hour. Fundamentally, it was an attempt to give the people unrestrained opportunity to proceed with their own development. It was not a promise of immediate perfection, but the establishment of institutions under which the people with the greatest promise of success might work toward perfection. In spite of every discouragement that has arisen, the general results have demonstrated that the correct theory was adopted. Everyone should know that the way will be long and the task hard, but everyone should know that the general welfare of the people is steadily increasing. Those who are in any way connected with the great events that gave our country its independence and liberty and set it on the way to happiness and success may well cherish such relationship with great pride, and through association one with another help to create a public opinion determined to perpetuate what has been so well begun.
Calvin Coolidge, Address Before the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Washington, D.C. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/267605