Basic Principles of Our Country
MORE PRECIOUS THAN LIFE ITSELF
By PELHAM ST. GEORGE BISSELL, President Justice of the Municipal Court of the City of New York
Over Station WNYC, April 30, 1940
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 466-467.
WE celebrate today the 151st Anniversary of the inauguration of the first President of the United States. Many changes in the world have taken place since that time, but the essence of that stabilizing force, which we call Americanism, is as vital today as when George Washington assumed office.
In these days when we realize the value of liberty more highly than ever before, the principles upon which this land of ours is founded have a deeper significance for us all. In this changing world today it is well for us all to look at the abiding basis upon which Americanism is founded, so that we may the more readily recognize attacks on its principles.
Basically Americanism has been defined as a desire to see one's country right and to be right one's self. I think Americanism is far deeper and more specific than that. As I see it, it is bedded deep in the doctrine of the old common law, "So use that which is yours that you wrong no man."
This doctrine that each should so use that which is his that he wrongs no man is the rock upon which our political and legal faith is founded. Subject to this the individual is free to act as he will and government exists for the benefit of the man and not man for the benefit of the state. It makes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness more than a battle cry. Above all it preserves to the individual, however humble or unpopular, the right to be wrong.
America respresents the work of no one race or creed. It is a temple of liberty erected by the joint efforts of those who have been and are its citizens, and which will only stand as long as our citizens are living stones of its fabric.
Throughout the world today compulsion is at war with liberty. Make no mistake about it. Not only do the authoritarian dictatorships impose their will on their own helpless minorities, but they seek to impose their will by war on weaker nations and bring them to an economic and political serfdom. Dictatorships do not differ in their essence. Whether it be a dictatorship of the classes, as in Italy and Germany, or whether it be a dictatorship of the masses, as in communist Russia, in each instance the will of the individual is overborne under the pernicious doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number. There is no good for the greatest number, or for any individual, whether of a majority or a minority, if the liberty of that individual is taken away from him. The greatest good is not a matter of comfort, is not a matter of satisfying the physical needs, but a matter of seeing that the individual is able to act as he will, provided that in so doing he wrongs no man.
The greatness of America has always been this ideal of freedom and liberty of the individual. It is not the wealth of mineral deposits that has made America great, it is not her mighty cities, it is not her farms and her industries, butthe spirit of the people united in support of the ideal that a man shall have freedom to worship God as he will and to act as he will, provided that in so doing he wrongs no man. Liberty is ever the enemy of bureaucracies and dictatorships and liberty is only kept by a constant struggle. It is always measured by the way in which it guards the rights of the minorities, for a majority needs no guardian of its rights but ever needs a hand to restrain its untrammeled rule, so that the rights of minorities may not be trampled under foot. In every instance where a dictatorship has been set up there has been suppression of the right to worship, of freedom of press, of freedom of speech, of freedom to protest and of freedom to assemble. Those who have founded this country came here not for gain, for comfort or safety, but in quest of a life under an ideal. They endured pain and hunger and cold for this ideal of liberty. I trust that the day will never come when the Statue of Liberty which stands in the harbor of New York will be a monument to a dead thought and not an inspiration for a living ideal.
The basic principles upon which our country is founded are the guaranty of the rights of the individual against encroachment by the state; the federal system of dual sovereignty, which guarantees each community the right of self government in local affairs; and the division of the powers of sovereignty among the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of government. Usurpation by any branch spells disaster.
Our constitution stands as a rule and guide for rulers and people in peace as in war and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men at all times and under all circumstances. It stands against the power of the majority to crush the humblest and most unpopular member of a minority. Never forget that the majority of one yearmay be the minority in the next year and that an uncontrolled majority can be the greatest curse of a Republic and a democracy.
The independence and rights of people are always first imperiled by a despotism which seems benevolent. Guard those freedoms given us by the Bill of Rights as more precious than life itself. It is an easy thing in time of war to offer one's life for one's country, but it is a much harder thing in time of peace to live one's life for one's country. That is an opportunity that each patriotic citizen has today. He can best preserve the spirit of our institutions by seeing that each individual, no matter how humble his origin, no matter what his race, his creed or color, has kept intact for him freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience, and that freedom of press, freedom of speech, and freedom to assemble and protest are held as sacred for even the most unpopular. To be one with the majority is a simple matter, but to see to the preservation of the rights of the minority is a more important matter. This spirit of freedom and liberty is what has sustained this land of ours for the last 160 years. As long as we keep that spirit an active living thing, this country of ours will continue to progress.
We in America today hold in our hands the fate of the world, the hope of the coming years, and shame and disgrace will be ours, if in our eyes the light of high resolve is dimmed, if we trail in the dust the golden hopes of men.
Loyalty to our forefathers, loyalty to the ideals of America, call on us to maintain that liberty and freedom without which no one lives in honor, in dignity and peace.
With faith in the ideal of personal liberty we humbly pray,
"Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget."