Toward A Federal World


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University Delivered at the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, Long Island, September 3, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. 5, 714-718

THIS year of grace marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary both of the French Revolution and of the organization of the government of the United States under the Federal Constitution. It is therefore an anniversary of commanding importance in the history of man's attempt to arrive at a form of government which shall be both effective and just.

It is not generally realized that the government of these United States, which came formally into existence a century and a half ago, is now the oldest of all the governments existing in the world. It is the only one which has not been changed in essential principles or revolutionized during the past century and a half. This fact is, of itself, a tribute to the wisdom and the foresight of those whom we so gladly call the Founding Fathers. On the continent of Europe every government which has not been wholly made over since the World War, came into being in its present form only after the Napoleonic Wars, or, as in the case of France, after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. The government of Great Britain, responding to the pressure of the steadily growing liberal movement during the 18th and 19th centuries, was substantially changed both as to its center of gravity and as to its governmental procedure following the Reform Bill of 1832, the Parliamentary Representation Act of 1867 and the Parliament Act of 1911. The last-named act gave the relations between the House of Commons and the House of Lords their present form. Still later in 1931, the Statute of Westminster, an act of the greatest importance in the history of constitutional government and public law, brought into existence the British Commonwealth of Nations as now constituted. This act applied the federal principle to legislatively independent members of a great empire scattered all around the world. The governments of the Central American and South American peoples are all younger than the government of the United States. The governments on the continents of Africa and of Asia have been and still are in a constant state of flux, and it remains to be seen what their more permanent form is to be.

When the Federal Constitution had been agreed upon by the Philadelphia Convention on September 17, 1787, and submitted to each of the thirteen independent and sovereign states for their consideration and hoped-for ratification, Benjamin Franklin, most far-seeing of men, wrote these words to Monsieur Grand, a friend in France, under date of October 22, 1787, sending him at the same time a copy of the proposed new Federal Constitution for the American states:

If it succeeds, I do not see why you might not in Europe carry the project of good Henry the Fourth into execution, by forming a federal union and one grand republic of all its different states and kingdoms, by means of a like convention, for we had many interests to reconcile.

It would seem plain, therefore, that those men who planned with so much wisdom and so much foresight the Constitution of the United States felt that they were dealing with forces and ideals which might well be not only American but world wide. They were the very opposite of isolationists.

Something of the same sort characterized the chief spokesmen of the French Revolution. They too, believed that they were building not for France alone but for all Europe. The quick outburst of reaction which marked the twenty years of the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte pushed any such hope and ambition far into the background.

As a result of these happenings of one hundred and fifty years ago and their influence, the civilized world seemed far on the way toward becoming a world in which the principles of Democracy ruled and would express themselves either in the form of a democratic monarchy, as in Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, or in that of a democratic republic, as in the United States, France and Switzerland. In almost every other country of the world, even in Germany and in Russia, there were clear signs that the principles of liberalism were, in one form or another, finding steadily increasing expression and influence.

When the Great War came a quarter-century ago, it was quickly interpreted by the President of the United States as fundamentally a contest between democratic and antidemocratic principles of government. His famous phrase, a war to make the world safe for democracy, was heard in every land and was almost universally accepted as both the explanation and the justification of that stupendous struggle. The contradictory and unhappy result is now so obvious as to need no comment. The passions and ambitions which were set loose by that great war have been operating and still operate to do the principles of Democracy greater damage than has ever heretofore been inflicted on them from any source. The story of that war is now written large in history. Every single cause for which the allied nations fought and for which they made such enormous sacrifices, and which on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, they thought had been finally gained, is now seen to have been lost. On the other hand, every cause for which their opponents contended and which was thought to be lost, is now clearly seen to have been gained. In short, that great war, with all its terrible sacrifice of life, of the comfort and happiness of tens of millions of human beings and of the world's savings for generations, was absolutely futile.

What is the lesson to be learned from all this? Surely it is now the clear demonstration of more than a thousand years of nation-building that the doctrine of national sovereignty is both unsound and dangerous. That doctrine can only lead, as

it has led, to the notion that each and every established government is a law unto itself and not subject to any limitations or control in its dealings with other governments. Put bluntly, this means that when two of these so-called sovereign governments cannot agree upon any matter which affects them both, then recourse shall be had to force, which is war. Constituted as they are, human beings in control of the administration of governments that claim to be sovereign will be constantly at war, regardless of the loss of life or of property which must always accompany war, whether successful or unsuccessful.

From a situation such as this there are but two paths of escape. The one is universal world domination by a single government. On a larger or a smaller scale, this end has been sought time and time again for fully three thousand years. Oriental people sought it; Alexander the Great sought it; Julius Caesar and his successors at the head of the Roman Empire sought it. Charlemagne would have been glad to seek it, as would Napoleon Bonaparte a thousand years later. The German Reichfuehrer of today has it plainly in mind. Surely after all these illuminating experiences it ought to be obvious to everyone that the world cannot be unified under a single social, economic and political control. This could not be done when the world was relatively a very simple place, but now that invention and modern science have made it so complicated, as well as so interdependent in its every part, world domination by a single power has become more impossible than ever. The search for world domination or even for domination over a considerable part of the earth's surface means and must mean constant and almost continuous war. Different backgrounds of national history, of language, of social and political experience, to say nothing of climate and of the conditions of life, have made any such form of world unification as the ancient empire builders sought, a purely imaginary aim. It has and can have no relations to reality.

If, then, sovereignty be denied to governments of any kind, what is it that in last resort should rule and guide the action of men and shape the public policies of the governments which the several nations may from time to time set up? Obviously, it is the moral law.

This moral law is not difficult to understand. Everyone, however great, knows when he is telling the truth, when he is acting in unselfish regard for the welfare of his fellow-men and when he is subjugating the gain-seeking or the power-seeking motive to higher and more constructive principles. The practical-minded man will see this. The theoretical person who loves to deal only with words and with the impressions of the moment, may take some time, perhaps a long time, to learn it. Unless it be learned, however, there is no escape from that barbarism which is return to the jungle.

The alternative to the hopeless attempt at universal world domination by a single government is that world-wide application of the federal principle which has already played so influential a part in modern political history and which alone has the power to make it possible for modern man to solve in permanent fashion, through the cooperation of nations, his unbelievably difficult and complicated problems, both economic, social and political.

The federal principle and its application upon an increasingly large scale have been before the minds of men for hundreds of years. One seer after another and one far-sighted statesman after another have proclaimed and interpreted the federal principle as essential to the peaceful, orderly maintenance and development of civilization. Few declarations of this principle are more significant or more definite than this prophecy written in autograph by Victor Hugo on the wall of the room in the Place des Vosges, Paris, where he died:

I represent a party which does not yet exist: the party of revolution, civilization. This party will make the twentieth century. There will issue from it first the United States of Europe, then the United States of the World.

This federal principle must not be confused with group or regional alliances between governments for their own aggrandizement, no matter what may happen to the rest of the world. The federal principle, as supremely manifested in the Federal Constitution of the United States and in the Statute or Westminister which created the British Commonwealth of Nations, makes it not only possible but natural for a Vermont, a South Dakota, an Idaho and a Utah, or for a New Found-land, a Union of South Africa and a New Zealand to enter a political partnership upon equal terms with a New York, an Illinois and a Texas in the one case, or with a Canada and an Australia in the other. Under a properly organized federal system, the population or the wealth of a political partner gives no advantage in all that is essential to citizenship and to political liberty. The influence of the more populous and the richer peoples will always be dominant or nearly so, but that dominance will be exercised under the limitations of the articles of federation. This will involve no injustice and no discrimination against the less populous and the less wealthy members of the federation.

The practical question is, How can this tremendous and crucial problem be lifted from the region of discussion to that of early and definite action? It is plain that the world cannot wait.

One of the lessons which experience teaches is that in large matters of this kind too much must not be attempted at once. The overwhelming majority of men have to be taught, and it takes a long time to teach them. The Federal Government of the United States stands before the whole world as instructor in what the federal principle may accomplish over an enormous area with a huge and varied population. Nevertheless, if the attempt were made to organize the entire world in a satisfactory federation at once, it would probably fail, either wholly or in large part. The differences of background, of inheritance, of experience and of language might be found too great to permit an effective world-wide federal union at one stroke. The path of progress, obviously, is to promote the early organization of a world federation which would include, if not all European and Asiatic peoples, then those which are sufficiently self-controlled and like-minded to make a beginning possible. In due time and after the value of the federal principle had received new illustration, it would become practicable to go a step farther and begin to bring more of the national governments into a still larger union. There is no reason why those states which are called totalitarian should not be included in such a federal union, provided they will cease striving to extend their areas and their control by force, and will accept, honestly and completely, the principles upon which such a federal union is built. We need have no concern with the form of government which any independent people adopts for itself, if only it keeps its word and respects its international and federal obligations.

There is nothing new about this proposal to extend the federal principle. If mankind had shown itself capable of learning by experience, great progress would have been made centuries ago in developing a world system of federal unions which might easily have become a single world-wide union long before this 20th century. The story of these attempts and of the measure of success which they severally achieved will be found in very succinct form in the little volume entitled Federations: A study in Comparative Politics, written, by D. G. Karve, Professor of History and Economics at

Fergusson College, Poona, India, and published seven years ago. It will surprise many readers of the present day to learn how clearly this idea of federation was in the minds of men almost from the very beginning of political organization. The Dutch Union between the provinces of the Lowlands, which lasted for more than two centuries, and the Swiss Federation, which is the oldest of all the existing federal states are particularly rich in opportunity for study. In fact, the Swiss Federation and the United States of America may be regarded as the two most productive research laboratories in which the student and the builder of new federations may best carry on his work.

The history of Switzerland offers abundant material for guidance in dealing with this problem today. That country has many small towns and cities of only moderate size. Its physical formation, with high mountains, deep valleys and many streams, provides almost compelling invitation to the development of many small communities, living largely in isolation and in independent social and political life. Some two-thirds of the population speak German and most of the remaining one-third speak French, although there is very considerable number of those whose language is Italian. The population is divided almost equally between Protestants and Catholics, with a greater number of Protestants. These people, so placed and with such diverse backgrounds, have been successful, it would appear, in working out a plan for national unity which is wholly consonant with civil liberty and with local self-government. If the people of Switzerland have been able to achieve this great end, why should not others be able to follow their example and go and do likewise? Switzerland, of course, has passed through its difficult periods. These were in part due to religious strife, and in part to the rivalry between urban and rural cantons. But, taken as a whole and looking back over more than five hundred years, it is clear that Switzerland has a most important lesson to teach this modern world.

Had the Republic of Czechoslovakia, at the time of its organization in 1919, been based upon the cantonal system, its history during the past twenty years might have been very different and far happier. A Czechoslovakia composed of, say, five Czech cantons, two Slovak cantons, two German cantons, one Polish canton and one Hungarian canton, following the example of Switzerland, might well have been able to weather the storms which have marked the attempt to give to this splendid people the independent economic and political organization which they desire and should have.

In relation to this vitally important matter we have reached a point where the responsibility of the people of the United States is outstanding and imperative. As economic and political theories have developed and found expression in various governments, whether in Europe or in Asia, it has become impossible, at least for some time to come, for any other government than that of the United States to give the leadership for which the world is waiting. Had our American political acts during the past generation been true of our professions, and had the elected representatives of the two great political parties, when in office at Washington, kept the pledges which those parties had made to the American people in one political campaign after another, this world would today have been far on the way toward successful organization to promote prosperity and to preserve peace.

With the exception of the eight years of Woodrow Wilson's administration, the Republican party was in power at Washington from 1896 to 1932. Beginning with President McKinley's notable statement, "The period of exclusiveness is past," made at Buffalo, September 5, 1901, the Republican party made one declaration after another in favor of definite and progressive policies of international cooperation to prevent war. It would be difficult to find a more definite pledge to the people than this which was contained in the Republican National Platform of 1920:

The Republican party stands for agreement among the nations to preserve the peace of the world. We believe that such an international association must be based upon international justice, and must provide methods which shall maintain the rule of public right by the development of law and the decision of impartial courts, and which shall secure instant and general international conference whenever peace shall be threatened by political action, so that the nations pledged to do and insist upon what is just and fair may exercise their influence and power for the prevention of war.

We believe that all this can be done without the compromise of national independence, without depriving the people of the United States in advance of the right to determine for themselves what is just and fair when the occasion arises, and without involving them as participants and not as peace-makers in a multitude of quarrels, the merits of which they are unable to judge.

Even more striking is this extract from a speech delivered by Senator Warren G. Harding at Marion, Ohio, on August 28, 1920, when a candidate for the presidency. It is probable that it was this speech which ensured his election. Here are his words:

The other type is a society of free nations, or an association of free nations, or a league of free nations, animated by considerations of right and justice, instead of might and self-interest, and not merely proclaimed an agency in pursuit of peace, but so organized and so participated in as to make the actual attainment of peace a reasonable possibility. Such an association I favor with all my heart, and I would make no fine distinction as to whom credit is due. One need not care what it is called. Let it be an association, a society, or a league, or what not, our concern is solely with the substance, not the form thereof.

The Republican National Platforms of 1924, 1928 and 1932 contained like declarations, varying somewhat in language, but essentially one and the same. What was done by the Republican senators and representatives to keep those solemn pledges to the American people in reference to all which concerned their highest interests?

The record of the Democrat party is similar. Quite apart from the vision and the influence of Woodrow Wilson, here is the language used by Governor James M. Cox at Dayton, Ohio, on August 7, 1920, when candidate for the presidency in opposition to Senator Harding:

Organized government has a definite duty all over the world. The house of civilization is to be put in order. The supreme issue of the century is before us and the nation that halts and delays is playing with fire. The finest impulses of humanity, rising above national lines, merely seek to make another horrible war impossible.

Four years later on August 11, 1924, the Democrat candidate for the presidency, John W. Davis, spoke these words at Clarksburg, West Virginia:

We favor the World Court in sincerity. . . . We wish to see America as a nation play her part in that reconstruction of the economic life of Europe which has proven itself so indispensable to our well-being and prosperity.

The Democrat National Platforms of 1928 and of 1932 reflected the same point of view and recorded the same purpose.

Why is it, then, that nothing has been done? What has become of responsible government in a democracy if those great ends which the people have been asked to support, and which they have so earnestly supported, are left to die by parliamentary ineptitude and parliamentary cowardice? What wonder is it that the dictators point with scorn to what they describe as the inefficiency and the uselessness of Democracy? It must be evident that Democracy is only playing into the hands of the dictators when it writes for itself a record such as this. Surely, every public interest of the American people, whether moral, economic or political, calls for their quick leadership in organizing what in President Harding's words may be an association, a society, a league or what not, of nations, to take over the solution of the worlds grave and most disturbing problems.

Let me once again call attention to the amazing resolution which passed both Houses of Congress in June, 1910, without a single dissenting vote, and which must remain a high-water mark in the record of the professions, at least, of the American people:

RESOLVED—That a commission of five members be appointed by the President of the United States to consider the expediency of utilizing existing international agencies for the purpose of limiting the armaments of the nations of the world by international agreement, and of constituting the combined navies of the world an international force for the preservation of universal peace, and to consider and report upon any other means to diminish the expenditures of government for military purposes and to lessen the probabilities of war.

What I am pointing out is that nothing remains to be said on behalf of the United States in respect to this greatest of all problems. What remains is to do something. It is for public opinion to compel members of the legislative branch of the Federal Government to keep the pledges which their several parties have made to the American people.

One has only to lift his eyes from the ground to see that the path which our government should quickly follow lies open before it. The Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague, originally brought into being by the leadership of the American government, will naturally be the judicial branch and organ of a newly organized or reorganized family or society of nations. The League of Nations at Geneva is the natural point of beginning for that reorganization and readjustment which the past twenty years have shown to be essential in order that it may become the consultative and legislative center of that form of federal union or grouping of nations which has simply got to come into being. The reorganization of the League of Nations must be such as to separate it completely from the Treaty of Versailles and from any unqualified defense of the status quo in Europe.

The lesson taught by the League of Nations since its history began is that it was without the power to provide an effective police force to preserve order in the world out upon which it looked. Even the most law-abiding of peoples require a trained and ready police to meet those emergencies which no one can foresee and which, if not met, become invitations to new disorder and new crime. The resolution of the Congress of the United States passed in June, 1910, clearly grasped this fact and presented it to our country and to the world. That fact remains as fundamental and as incontrovertible today as it was then.

If the government of the United States has the good faith and the courage to go forward with this leadership, it will find that the very first problems to be solved are monetary and economic. Peace of mind and prosperity cannot be restored to the world until the uncertainties and perplexities

which now attach to monetary matters and to trade relations are constructively dealt with. The world does not thrive through international speculation in money. It will thrive if there be established an international monetary standard as definite as the meter and the kilogram. The constant shipment of gold from one country to another and the present accumulation of some 60% of the world's gold in solitary confinement in the United States are simply a joke. They mark complete incapacity to deal with one of the most pressing problems which the world offers, failure to solve which is a steady temptation to international friction and international ill-will.

Much light will be thrown upon the whole problem of building an international stabilized monetary system by study of the history of the Latin Monetary Union, established in 1865 through the cooperation of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Greece. This Union lasted for some sixty years. The causes of its discontinuance are as illuminating as are those which led to its organization.

Together with the establishment of a fixed international monetary standard, international trade relationships must be dealt with, and promptly. The spread of violent and predatory economic nationalism is certainly the chief cause of the economic depression which holds the whole world in its grip. Indeed, this has come down from economic nationalism to economic localism to such an extent that one would suppose it to be wrong to buy anything whatever not produced by the community in which one lives. Even the states of the American Union are, in flat violation of the provisions of the Federal Constitution, finding ways to levy taxes which are, in effect, taxes on imports from other states. The fact that these are taxes on imports is concealed by their form, but they are none the less the forbidden import taxes. They are as harmful and as dangerous as they are anti-constitutional. Unless this practice be promptly stopped by court action or legislative discontinuance, the federal system in the United States will receive a severe and wholly unexpected blow.

On the other hand, compacts between the states, which are permitted by the Federal Constitution provided they have the approval of the Congress, are increasing in number and are exceedingly helpful. These compacts prove once more the elasticity of a properly organized federal system. Since 1935 thirty-six states, beginning with New Jersey, have set up permanent commissions for interstate cooperation. Some of the more important compacts now in effective operation are those which established the Port of New York Authority, Colorado River Control, Jurisdiction over Oregon-Washington Fisheries, the Palisades Park Agreement and the New York-Vermont Bridge Agreement. It may well be that in the United States this movement within the framework of the Federal Constitution will grow steadily in significance and usefulness.

For five years past, Secretary Hull and his associates in the Department of State have been patiently and persuasively at work reducing the trade barriers which so grievously affect American industry, transportation and commerce. While much has been done, much more yet remains to be done, and through an organized society of nations, established in conformity with those sound federal principles which would be applicable to a world-wide situation, genuine and rapid progress might well be made. The gain to the people of the United States would be very great.

In addition to the monetary problem and the problem of trade relationships, there are a thousand and one questions of world-wide importance to be constructively dealt with through a federal organization of nations. These affect

education and philanthropy, standards of living, social security and protection against dependent old age, the conditions and rewards of manual labor, the public health and many other like topics which call for and must have, not isolated and contradictory, but centralized and uniform treatment. Strong appeal will be made to public opinion everywhere by all that concerns improvement in the standard of living of the mass of any of the world's populations. This improvement is essential to the steady and forward-facing development of international trade relations. It must never be forgotten, however, that it is very misleading to judge the standard of living in terms merely of monetary wage or salary. A wage or salary of $50 a day is very inadequate if the daily cost of living be $49.50. On the other hand, a salary of $5 a day might be very comfortable if the cost of living were $2.50 a day. Monetary wages or salary alone have no significance. They must always be judged in terms of and in comparison with the cost of living. Quite as important as the monetary compensation of the worker are his housing and his physical comfort and health. Literally enormous progress has been making in respect to these questions all over the world. In the large cities of the United States, in Great Britain, in Berlin, in Vienna and in Italy, the housing problem has been advanced toward solution by leaps and bounds. No doubt a great deal remains to be done, but men have learned now how to do it.

In approaching all the pressing international problems which deal with money and with trade, the world of today could have no better guidance than that given by Alexander Hamilton in his epoch-marking Papers on Public Credit, Commerce and Finance, written while Secretary of the Treasury of the United States in 1790, 1791 and 1795. Hamilton saw clearly the ways in which public credit and manufactures might be most wisely and most helpfully built up, as well as the ways in which they might be harmed by undue government interference and control. The wisdom of those great Public Papers is as pronounced today as when they were written. Nothing could be more contrary to fact than to cite Hamilton as the creator or, indeed, as even a defender of the present system of excessively high protective tariffs, which are one of the chief manifestations of that economic nationalism which is wrecking the prosperity of the world and day by day endangering its peace. Why the United States should become a manufacturing nation and how it might become so were plainly demonstrated by Hamilton, but in terms of the freest possible trade for the various obvious reasons which he was careful to set out in detail. It is no exaggeration to say that if the world could produceanother Alexander Hamilton, with the vision, the knowledge and the persuasive eloquence to do for it what Hamilton did for the American people a century and a half ago, some, at least, of the world's troubles would be at an end.

When one observes those troubles and reflects upon them and their obvious causes, he is tempted to ask whether perhaps modern man has not grown tired of civilization and become bored by it. There are not a few happenings which would lead one to think so. We are surrounded in every land by clamorous and vigorous radicals who have no knowledge of the past and whose only concern for the future is that it shall be as different as possible from the present. All radicals are reactionaries. Their aim is to tear up everything by the roots, to destroy all that has been done and to begin everything all over again. Such a program is as unintelligent and as unpractical as it is dangerous.

A liberal is just the opposite of a radical. A liberal is one who builds upon the foundation of what has been accomplished through the centuries in a growing and widening and deepening civilization, and who goes forward in an open-minded, constructive spirit to guide the development of all this so that it will serve man's highest and finest needs and ideals, and be kept in conformity with changing facts and new deeds.

There is every sign that if the world is to be turned over to the radicals it will for an indefinite period be a regimented and government-controlled world, ruled by force, either economic or military or both. If the liberal is to rule, then the world will be one of steady progress toward carrying economic, social and political liberty forward to a still higher plane of excellence and practical human service. Man's highest and finest needs and ideals would then be recognized and, so far as human power goes, met. The choice of today, which will determine the character of the world of tomorrow, is between the radical and the liberal.

An evidence that even a wise man does not always see the end of things is found in the title of a volume by the distinguished English historian, Edward A. Freeman. The full title of that work reads: History of Federal Government from the Foundation of the Achaian League to the Disruption of the United States, Volume I. Needless to say, this work was published in 1863, when the American Civil War was at its height. Volume II never appeared.

May it not perhaps be that the failure which now seems to have attended all the recent noble projects for a federal world is not as complete as radical observes would have us believe, and that Volume II of their history of that failure will never be written?