What Democracy Means


By STYLES BRIDGES, U. S. Senator, Republican, of New Hampshire

At the Westminster College Political Forum, Fulton, Missouri, January 16, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 246-248.

THE fundamental test of any government is the value which it places upon the human soul. The totalitarian state—whether Communist, Nazi, or Fascist—is repugnant to us because it places so little value upon the dignity and worth of man. Whatever form it may take, man is the slave of the state because he is deemed unworthy of any rights, incapable of using freedom wisely. Decisions must be made for him, his future must be planned by the state, because he is either a fool or a scoundrel, and cannot be trusted to think or to plan for himself.

Such a conception is a tragic repudiation of human progress and thought, and abandonment of human hope and struggle for over a century and a half, a reversion to the days when a few were born to rule and the many to follow. This doctrine is at war today the democratic ideal of man, not only on the field of battle but in the hearts and minds of men. Today, as never before, it is essential that we in America inspect our foundations and rededicate ourselves to the fundamentals of our faith if we to preserve the democratic way of life.

American democracy is based upon the belief that man, as a child of God, is capable of self-perfection; that he is therefore endowed with certain sacred rights; and that government is instituted of man to protect these rights and to free him that he may attain the destiny that is his. It isman's quest for liberation—physical, mental and spiritual— not only from the bondage of oppression, but from the human weaknesses of hatred, greed and fear. It is his quest for self-fulfillment, born of the conviction that every individual has some contribution to make to the enrichment of life, and that the progress of human civilization and culture lies in the release of the creative of men. It is freedom not merely for freedom's sake, but for the use that men will make of it. Inspired by man's sense of the dignity of his race and by a vision of his own potentialities, it was born when he stood determined to be master of his fate. Such a conception takes account of human weakness as well as human strength; but it is founded upon the faith that the divine spark in man can conquer the beast in him, and the belief that government must encourage his highest and restrain his baser instincts.

Our forefathers knew that no government could make its citizens equally rich or successful, any more than it could endow them with equal physical or intellectual gifts; but the equal dignity of men and the equal right to self-fulfillment— these it was the duty of their government to preserve.

The civil liberties the American citizen cherishes—freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, press and assembly, freedom of his person and property from unwarranted search or seizure, equal justice under the law, an equal voice in the conduct of his government—these are his by right asessential to his dignity and development. The opportunity to rise as high as he is fairly able, which has made America the Mecca of the oppressed of other lands, is the right of every man to carve his own destiny.

This was the equality, this was the opportunity which men sought to establish in the new world not only for themselves, but for future generations of their race. This was the equality and opportunity which made America a symbol of hope to all mankind. Such was the faith of early Americans in themselves and in their fellow men to succeed under a government based upon these ideals that they did not ask that security be bestowed upon them by the government, but rather the chance to make their own future secure. This, I am confident, is all that Americans ask today.

Conscience demands that we care for those unable to care for themselves. Yet our crime against the unemployed has been not that we failed to render them aid, but that we have failed to enable them, through a revival of our system of economy, to regain the independence of working for themselves in private industry, the dignity of caring for themselves and their loved ones, and the opportunity to rise as high as their toil and their talents will permit. There is no greater task before us today. It is a task we must accomplish if freedom and opportunity are not to become hollow words.

Because American democracy places the highest value upon the individual, it requires in return the highest and best in men. It demands that he be capable of that self-government which is self-restraint; that he accord the same justice, respect and tolerance to others that he asks for himself; that he use his freedom not merely for self-advancement but for the benefit of his fellow men. Thus, the democratic evaluation of man embodies more than a conception of his rights. It emphasizes no less his responsibilities. It is no less a conception of his duty toward his neighbor. It can succeed to the extent that men meet the democratic test of manhood. It is a challenge to life at its richest and fullest, and to that undaunted spirit which rises above defeat and surges forward to new conquests for all the race.

Upon this rock was our government founded as the supreme law of the land. Not satisfied to specify the fundamental rights of man in the Constitution, our forefathers provided a system of checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government as a further guarantee that these civil liberties would not be denied to any citizen. Thus, the government they established is not a system empowering the Chief Executive to control the judiciary by enlarging it at will, or to dictate "must" legislation to the Congress. Thus, it is not, in the words of Jefferson, an "elective despotism," not is it one of license by a majority of the people to disregard the rights of any minority. Thus, election by a majority of the people does not bestow a "mandate" upon any President, nor does it entitle him to "purge" representatives of the people who dare to disagree. It is rather a government of laws designed to safeguard liberty and prevent its abuse, laws deriving their force from the consent of the governed, laws written and administered by representatives elected by the people and responsible only to them.

In a democracy the people are the master of the state, which is their instrument of achieving justice and order which are necessary to their quest of truth and their attainment of self-fulfillment. The justice they seek is equality of all men before the law. The laws which they seek to establish are not laws to restrict, but laws to free. They know that man cannot be free to advance if he lives in fear of the arbitrary decree of rulers and uncertainty as to his rights. They therefore seek to limit the power, both public and private, of men over each other, by defining his rights bylaw. The function of public officials is the protection of those rights by the fair and impartial administration and enforcement of these laws.

The limitations enforced by law upon the citizens are therefore not to dominate or regulate his life, but to define the limit beyond which his actions interfere with the rights and liberties of others. For example, a citizen may drive along a country road at fifty miles an hour without violating the rights of others or the law. As he approaches a city, he is required to slacken his speed. Within the city limits, he may not be permitted to exceed a speed of twenty miles an hour. He is required to wait for traffic lights, that others may enjoy the same privileges. Yet at no time is he told the exact speed at which he must proceed. He is merely required not to exceed a limit beyond which he may endanger the lives and property of others. Within the area of safety, he is permitted to travel at the speed he desires. This is the spirit of law in a democracy. As our lives become more complex, new laws are constantly necessary. But their purpose must remain the same; not to regiment the citizen, but to preserve the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of all the people.

This same principle applies in the relationship of the government to our economic system as well as to our political and personal rights. There was a time when a theory of laissez-faire prevailed, when a man's business was considered his own to do with it as he wished. Today we know that economic license spells chaos. But the alternative is not a planned economy by the government. It is rather to define the economic as well as the personal and political rights of the individual, leaving the citizen free to operate his business within these limits. We believe, for example, that the worker has a right to decent wages and hours and working conditions, and a right to collective bargaining. We believe that the individual should enjoy the opportunity to succeed in any legitimate enterprise according to his own abilities. We therefore seek to prevent monopolistic practices and the unfair competition which arises from sweat-shop conditions. A democratic government may, then, establish minimum wages and hours based upon economic conditions, assure the worker the right to vote for the union of his choice, and regulate the merging of companies. But if by dictating all wages and hours, a government seeks to regulate all production and thus to control supply and dictate demand; if it attempts to dictate the set-up of every corporation, if it dictates the union to which the worker belongs, then there is no longer a free economy which is essential to free men, but a planned economy dictated by government officials. As soon as the government ceases to act as a policeman and regulates every move of the citizen, then democracy is no more. The aim of all reform must be not to change the form of our government, but rather to adopt such measures as prove necessary to preserve its spirit and purpose.

Since the people themselves are responsible for the enactment and administration of legislation, since a three-fourths majority may amend the Constitution at any time, they must look to themselves rather than to any mechanism of government for the preservation of their liberties.

Despite the human weaknesses to which such a government is subject, the achievement that is America has justified the faith of American democracy in man. It has also demonstrated the adaptability of our form of government to changing needs. But that is not enough. The question is whether we of today will carry forward and bequeath to our posterity, as have those who went before us, an enriched democratic ideal. We must face the fact that where it has failed, it is we who have weakened it by indifference, we who have perverted it for private gain, we who have failed to translatethe ideal into the practical solution of our problems. If we have failed to achieve what we have a right to expect of ourselves, it is partly because we have not fully realized that democracy, a thing of the spirit, cannot be preserved at the ballot box alone, but must guide the everyday relationships of man to man.

The faltering in the democratic faith which has been so tragically evident throughout the world has not failed to take its toll in America as well. It has been manifest in a tendency to look to Washington for the solution of every problem, in wishfully thinking that it could be solved by creating another government bureau and vesting it with sufficient power. It has led to the wholesale surrender and delegation of powers of Congress to the Executive department and to numerous government agencies. It has led to attempts at planning our national economy from Washington, to extending the controls of government ever further.

If democracy is to be preserved, we must return to the conception of a government of laws, not to control our lives but to curb new abuses, to prevent the exploitation for personal power of new developments designed to enrich the lives of all. Congress must once more assume the duties entrusted to it by the people. Essential government agencies must be so regulated and so administered that the citizen knows his rights and is confident of justice. A friendly government must encourage the individual in every honest endeavor.

If democracy is to survive, we must meet squarely the objections of its enemies. The charge that men are incapable of self-government can only be met by the progress of men under a democratic system. The charge of irresponsibility of citizen and government official alike can be refuted by men who meet the duties which are theirs in a democracy. The charge of inefficiency can be gainsaid by men united by a common ideal and aim. If the democratic ideal is to survive, we must teach ourchildren not only the blessings but the responsibilities which are theirs as American citizens. We must imbue them with the democratic philosophy of life which is perhaps best illustrated by Christ's parable of the talents. We must teach them to look upon life as a gift that must be used well if it is to benefit oneself as well as one's fellow men.

At this fateful hour in the history of the world, when disheartened men have faltered in the democratic faith and surrendered to leaders who promised Utopia for obedience, the challenge to America is once more to demonstrate the democratic solution of the problems with which men are faced. That challenge is to banish the defeatism which teaches that frontiers and opportunities for individual achievement are gone, and to seek with the courage, faith and vision which led our forefathers onward in the conquest of a new world, to conquer the endless frontiers of science and invention. It is to realize that material advancement will profit man little unless it is accompanied by spiritual progress. It is a challenge to us all—businessman, worker and farmer alike—to attain the greater tolerance, understanding and cooperation demanded as men's lives are more closely interwoven by the vast industrial civilization they themselves have built. It is to demonstrate that mass production can lead to the enrichment of the lives of all, not by the surrender of individualism, but through that higher individualism, born not of selfishness, but of constructive contribution by each to human progress. It is to achieve that unity, not enforced from above by regimentation, but inspired within the hearts of men united of their own free will for the progress of mankind.

Only thus can we meet the challenge of the highest ideal man has ever set for himself. Only thus can America, when nations have turned once again to the ways of peace, be prepared to light the path of human progress to a new and better world.