Warren G. Harding photo

Address in Denver, Colorado

June 25, 1923

My Countrymen:

It has been said that "Of the making of books there is no end." Quite as truthfully it might be paraphrased, "Of the making of laws there is no end." We Americans undoubtedly hold all records for the making of a multiplicity of laws, state and national. If we were as assiduous about obeying and enforcing obedience to them as we are in demanding and enacting them, there would be no particular occasion for me to address you to-day on the general subject of law enforcement. We all recognize that to secure effective administration of the laws, to establish in the public mind an attitude of willing acceptance and obedience to law, is the most impressive mark of a civilized community.

Laws, of course, represent restrictions upon individual liberty, and in these very restrictions make liberty more secure. The individual surrenders something of his privilege to do as he pleases for the common good, and so organized society is possible. It is successful just about in proportion as laws are wise, as they represent deliberate and intelligent public opinion, and as they are obeyed. Civilization had to travel a long way before it came to be commonly accepted that even an unwise law ought to be enforced in orderly fashion, because such enforcement would insure its repeal or modification, also in orderly fashion, if that were found desirable.

At this point it is worth while to raise a voice in protest against the vast volume of half-baked criticism that is constantly aimed against Americans, on the ground that they are alleged to be an undisciplined and rather lawless community. The criticism, of course, arises out of the fact that during the period of a very short national life, during which the currents of human affairs and interests have moved more rapidly than in any other period of history, we have been under the necessity to establish institutions, laws, modes of administration, which would meet not only the requirements of a new community established in a new world, but would permit adaptation to rapidly changing conditions. It comes also of the very erroneous impression of many nationals that our liberty is a license, instead of guaranteed freedom under the law.

Older countries have had the privilege of developing laws and institutions slowly, gradually, painstakingly, through multiplied centuries in which change was commonly extremely slow. America had to build on the foundation of long-established European models not always adaptable to our requirements, and therefore necessitating many experiments in modification and readaptation. Moreover, we started our experiment just at the time when the old medieval order was being changed at high speed by the processes of the industrial and social revolution which marked emergence from the later middle ages into the onrushing era of modem industrialism, modem science, and modern democratic procedures in government.

The founders of our country were compelled to establish institutions here in a time when their whole inheritance of intellectual, moral, political, and industrial traditions was being wrenched by the most amazing revolution that human society has known. In the circumstances, their achievement in laying the foundation, and our later one in building our present superstructure upon it, represents an accomplishment I believe without parallel. Thus viewed, I think we will find all justification for satisfaction in our progress thus far, and confidence in an assured future.

Our problems are the problems of a relatively new country, and of a new form of political organization, in a time of social flux. We shall not succeed if we attempt to solve them all at once; but no more shall we succeed if we assume to ignore their existence, to shut our eyes to the fact that they are before us. The very basis of our political establishment is the idea of a dual sovereignty of the states and the nation; the idea of concurrent authority and concurrent responsibility. That is so elemental in our system that to do away with it would amount to demolishing our whole scheme of government.

Certain functions and responsibilities have been imposed upon the national Government, while others have been reserved to the states. Between these two authorities there will always be unavoidably something like a twilight zone. Personally, I have never liked that phrase.

I have regarded it as a peculiarly unfortunate and misleading description. The intermediate zone which receives light from two sovereign luminaries ought to be the best, not the worst, illumined region. I believe it can be made exactly that if we will but realize the necessity for real cooperation between national and state authority, if we will only develop effective means for the exercise therein of concurrent jurisdiction.

The problem of concurrent jurisdiction is not a new one brought to us with the eighteenth amendment. It is as old as the federal Government. It has required to be dealt with by Congress and legislatures, by executives and by courts, in a multitude of relations to commerce, finance, transportation, and indeed the whole realm of concerns in our complex society. It has demanded our attention in all the multitude of issues ranging from the regulation of trusts and transportation, and even of certain relations with foreign governments, to the proposal for a uniform statute of marriage and divorce.

There have always been those who insisted that particular policies could not be carried out because of the conflict of jurisdictions; but experience has proved that whenever a given issue became so acute that evasion was impossible, procedures have been devised for dealing with it. Whoever will go back to the debates over the enactment of the antitrust law, or the discussions of the interstate commerce measures, must recognize that these were but varying phases of the same general question that comes before us in connection with the enforcement of the prohibition law.

A good deal of useful accomplishment toward uniformity and clarification of state and national laws has been effected through the efforts of the American Bar Association. This, of course, has been an unofficial effort—a labor of love and patriotism, conducted by men especially qualified for its direction. It has seemed possible that something rather more formal and official might be evolved from these beginnings, which should help in perfecting the coordination. President Roosevelt recognized this possibility when he called a council of governors to consider problems then demanding harmonious and uniform treatment. Under the present administration a similar course has been adopted in bringing together the state executives for consideration of methods to give full force and effect to the concurrent authority of states and nation under the eighteenth amendment.

We have dealt upon the same general principle in fixing a program for the utilization of the waters of the Colorado River. Indeed, I have thought these conferences contained the germ of an idea which may some day grow into a useful auxiliary to our constitutional system: a formal council of coordination, representing state and national Governments; authorized to examine into particular needs in this area, to devise projects in coordinated action, and to propose them formally to the Congress and the legislatures. Without possessing any powers of legislation or of mandatory initiation, such a body might render an advisory service which, if made permanent and continuing, would conceivably be of great advantage.

But for the present there are immediate problems before us which can not await the possible creation of any such slow moving mechanism of philosophic consideration. The prohibition amendment to the Constitution is the basic law of the land. The Volstead Act has been passed, providing a code of enforcement. I am convinced that they are a small, and a greatly mistaken, minority who believe the eighteenth amendment will ever be repealed. Details of enforcement policy doubtless will be changed as experience dictates. Further, I am convinced that whatever changes may be made will represent the sincere purpose of effective enforcement, rather than moderation of the general policy. It will be the part of wisdom to recognize the facts as they stand.

The general policy of the states to support the prohibition program, and to cooperate with the federal Government regarding it, is attested by the fact that almost unanimously the states have passed enforcement laws of their own. A difficulty, however, arises at this point. A good deal of testimony comes to Washington that some states are disposed to abdicate their own police authority in this matter, and to turn over the burden of prohibition enforcement to the federal authorities. It is a singular fact that some states which successfully enforced their own prohibition statutes before the eighteenth amendment was adopted have latterly gone backwards in this regard.

Communities in which the policy was frankly accepted as productive of highly beneficial results, and in which there was no widespread protest so long as it was merely a state concern, report that since the federal Government became in part responsible there has been a growing laxity on the part of state authorities about enforcing the law. Doubtless this is largely due to a misconceived notion, too widely entertained, that the federal Government has actually taken over the real responsibility. The fact is quite the contrary. The federal Government is not equipped with the instrumentalities to make enforcement locally effective. It does not maintain either a police or a judicial establishment adequate to or designed for such a task. If the burden of enforcement shall continue to be increasingly thrown upon the federal Government, it will be necessary, at large expense, to create a federal police authority which in time will inevitably come to be regarded as an intrusion upon and interference with the right of local authority to manage local conceits. The possibilities of disaster in such a situation hardly need to be suggested. Yet it is something that we must recognize as among the menaces in this situation.

The federal Government ought to perform, in connection with the enforcement of this policy, those functions which are obviously within its proper province. These are compliance in all its aspects as it relates to international commerce, the importation and exportation of liquors, # the collection of federal revenue, the prevention of smuggling, and in general the enforcement of the law within the proper realm of federal authority. But the business of local enforcement, by states and cities, ought to be in the hands of the state and local authorities, and it should be executed in all sincerity and good faith, as other laws are presumed to be executed.

What I am saying must not be construed as indicating any relaxation of the national Government's purpose to do its full duty in this matter.

I have no doubt that if the burden is cast, in undue proportion, upon the national authority the federal Government will, not only under this administration but under whatever others may come in the future, assume and discharge the full obligation. But I am pointing out that this ought not to be made necessary. The national policy ought to be supported by the public opinion and the administrative machinery of the whole country. For myself, I am confident that we are passing now through the most difficult stage of this matter, and that as time passes there will be a more and more willing acceptance by authorities everywhere of the unalterable obligation of law enforcement. The country and the nation will not permit the law of the land to be made a byword.

The issue is fast coming to be recognized, not as an issue between wets and drys, not a question between those who believe in prohibition and those who do riot, not a contention between those who want to drink and those who do not; it is fast being raised above all that, to recognition as an issue of whether the laws of this country can be and will be enforced. So far as the federal Government is concerned, and I am very sure also, so far as concerns the very great majority of the state governments and the local governments, it will be enforced. A gratifying, indeed, it may fairly be said an amazing, progress has been made in the last few years toward better enforcement.

It is a curious illustration of loose thinking that some people have proposed, as a means to protecting the fullest rights of the states, that the states should abandon their part in enforcing the prohibitory policy. That means simply an invitation to the federal Government to exercise powers which should be exercised by the states. Instead of being an assertion of state rights, it is an abandonment of them; it is an abdication; it amounts to a confession by the state that it doesn't choose to govern itself but prefers to turn the task, or a considerable part of it, over to the federal authority. There could be no more complete negation of state rights.

The national Government has been uniformly considerate of the sensibilities of the states about their rights and authorities. But when a state deliberately refuses to exercise the powers which the Constitution expressly confers on it, it obviously commits itself to a policy of nullifying state authority, the end of which we are reluctant to conjecture.

The policy of nullification has never appealed strongly to the American people. There are some historical records regarding efforts of states to nullify national policies; but the spectacle of a state nullifying its own authority, and asking the national sovereignty to take over an important part of its powers, is new. When the implications of this strange proposal are fully understood by people and parties devoted to preserving the rights of the states, the new nullificationists, I venture to say, will discover that they have perpetrated what is likely to prove one of the historic blunders in political management.

I am making my appeal in this matter to the broadest and best sentiments of law-abiding Americans everywhere. We must recognize that there are some people on both sides of this question in whose minds it is absolutely paramount. Some would be willing to sacrifice every other consideration of policy in order to have their own way as to this one. This constitutes one of the most demoralizing factors in the situation.

It was very generally believed that the adoption of the Constitutional amendment would take the question but of our politics. Thus far it has not done so, though I venture to predict that neither of the great parties will see the time, within the lives of any who are now voting citizens, when it will declare openly for the repeal of the eighteenth amendment. But despite all that, the question is kept in politics because of the almost fanatical urgency of the minority of extremists on both sides. Unless, through the recognition and acceptance of the situation in its true light, through the effective enforcement of the law by all the constituted authorities, and with the acquiescence of the clearly dominant public opinion of the country, the question is definitely removed from the domain of political action, it will-continue a demoralizing element in our whole public life. It will be a permanent bar to the wise determination of many issues utterly unrelated to the liquor question. It will be the means of encouraging disrespect for many laws. It will bring disrepute upon our community, and be pointed to as justifying the charge that we are a nation of hypocrites. There can be no issue in this land paramount to that of enforcement of the law.

It is easy to understand the conditions out of which much unrest has developed, but it is not easy to comprehend so much of complacency amid a developing peril. I want to give warning against that peril.

Many citizens, not teetotalers in their habits, lawfully acquired stores of private stocks in anticipation of Prohibition, pending the ratification of the amendment and the enactment of the regulatory law. Many others have had no scruple in seeking supplies from those who vend in defiance of the law. The latter practice is rather too costly to be indulged by the masses, so there are literally American millions who resent the lawful possessions of the few, the lawless practices of a few more, and rebel against the denial to the vast majority. Universal Prohibition in the United States would occasion far less discontent than partial Prohibition and partial indulgence.

It is the partial indulgence which challenges the majesty of law, but the greater crime is the impairment of the moral fiber of the republic. The resentful millions have the example of law defiance by those who can afford to buy, and are reckless enough to take the risk, and there is inculcated a contempt for law which may some day find expression in far more serious form.

I do not see how any citizen who cherishes the protection of law in organized society may feel himself secure when he himself is the example of contempt for law. Clearly there is call for awakened conscience and awakened realization of true self-interest on the part of the few who will themselves suffer most when reverence for law is forgotten and passion is expressed in destructive lawlessness. Ours must be a law-abiding republic, and reverence and obedience must spring from the influential and the leaders among men, as well as obedience from the humbler citizen, else the temple will collapse.

Whatever satisfaction there may be in indulgence, whatever objection there is to the so-called invasion of personal liberty, neither counts when the supremacy of law and the stability of our institutions are menaced. With all good intention the majority sentiment of the United States has sought by law to remove strong drink as a curse upon the American citizen, but ours is a larger problem now to remove lawless drinking as a menace to the Republic itself.

There is another phase of law-observance to which reference is impelling. I am thinking of the law of the golden rule, a statute from the Man of Nazareth, who brought new peace and new hope to mankind, and proclaimed service to men the highest tribute to God.

Service is both the inspiration and the accomplishment of quite everything worth while which impels us onward and upward. With service which the Nazarene would approve are associated all our ideals and our finer aspirations. We accept the doctrine for ourselves, as we ought, because we must be firmly established and healthfully and hopefully strong ourselves before we can be effectively helpful to others.

But I believe the law of service demands our larger helpfulness to the world. No, I do not mean entanglement in Old World politics or sponsorship for the adjustment of Old World controversies. I do mean the commitment of this nation to the promotion and preservation of international peace, to the judicial settlement of disputes which, unless settled, lead to added irritation, strained relations, and ultimately to war.

I would like the United States to give of our prestige, our influence, and our power to make the International Court of Justice an outstanding and universally accepted agency of judicial determination of justiciable questions and the peaceful way to international settlements. It is too much to say that such a court will give a guaranty against war, but it will prove the longest step toward war prevention and maintained peace since the world began.

In such a thought is concern for our own country no less than anxiety for a world which is finding readjustment difficult. I am thinking of more than our own freedom from conflict, with all its attending burdens and sorrows. I am thinking of our America having a commitment to an exalting enterprise to save us from the reaction to mere sordid existence, and to keep our hearts aglow while we serve as a vanguard in the march of civilization.

The World War was a frightful calamity, from which the earth will not have fully recovered in a century to come. Nearly five years have passed and peace is not yet secure. Our own cost was beyond an understandable appraisal, but I sometimes feel it was worth much of its cost, because it brought an American awakening and revealed the soul of the republic. We experienced the supreme commitment. We saw our America ready to do or die for our concept of civilization and its guaranties. It exalted us and made us a better, a more patriotically devoted people. I would like to go on, with soul aflame in eagerness to aid humankind, while promoting security for ourselves.

This is no under-appraisal of the essentials of material existence. We may rejoice in the flood tides of material good fortune, we may becomingly boast the measureless resources of the republic through God's bounty in creation and man's genius in development, but we aren't living the becoming life unless we are seeking to advance humankind as we achieve for ourselves. I would like the ages of envy and hate, and conquest and pillage, and armed greed and mad ambitions to be followed by understanding and peace, by the rule of law where force had reigned, the decisions of a world court rather than the decrees of national armies, the observance of the golden rule as the law of human righteousness, and the wail of human suffering and sorrow lost in the glad rejoicings of the onward procession of mankind. If we observe the law of service, if we heed our finer impulses, if we keep alive the soul which we revealed in our national defense, we will add to security for ourselves, and give of our strength to this ideal world advancement.

Warren G. Harding, Address in Denver, Colorado Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/329287

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