The Bell Is Ringing


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University

Delivered at the 186th Commencement, June 4, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 519-520.

A CENTURY and a half ago, as his world-famous History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire drew to its close, Edward Gibbon wrote these remarkable words concerning that which he called "the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind":

The various causes and progressive effects are connected with many of the events most interesting in human annals: the artful policy of the Caesars, who long maintained the name and image of a free republic; the disorders of military despotism; the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity; the foundation of Constantinople; the division of the monarchy; the invasion and settlements of the Barbarians of Germany and Scythia; the institutions of civil law; the character and religion of Mahomet; the temporal sovereignty of the popes; the restoration and decay of the Western empire of Charlemagne; the crusades of the Latins in the East; the conquests of the Saracens and Turks; the ruin of the Greek empire; the state and revolutions of Rome in the middle age.

What will the Gibbon of five hundred years hence have to say concerning those happenings which are now shaping the history of the modern world in this twentieth century?

From the time of Magna Carta, which is more than seven hundred years old, and more particularly from the time of the political revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the process of nation-building on this earth has gone forward with steadily increasing regard for sound principles of public morals and for the welfare, the happiness and the civil, economic and political liberty of the people. Much surely remained to be done, for wars were certainly frequent enough, and anything approaching perfection was still a long way off; but progress was steadily making. Everywhere the intellectual leaders of the world had confidence in the future.

During the nineteenth century, however, seeds of discontent had been sown which, as that century drew to its end, were seen to bear obvious and unfortunate fruits in the conduct of men. The well-established ideals of civil liberty and moral purpose, in accordance with which each individual was given opportunity to do his best to render service to his fellow-men in terms of industry, of character and of intelligence, were undermined and sought to be displaced by a wholly false and reactionary conception of the social order, which divided it into permanent and antagonistic classes. These classes, it was asserted, had competing andconflicting aims, thereby inviting the rule of force instead or the rule of reason and of morals. As the twentieth century advanced and the seeds of this false doctrine continued to bear fruit, it began to affect the policies of governments, and a world of free and cooperating nations, whether great or small, was turned into a world of jealous and competing nations, each making colossal expenditure to arm itself in preparation for an ultimate appeal to force. By words and policies of astounding insincerity, all offensive aims were displaced by those which claimed to be simply defensive. Declared war began to disappear, and in its stead there came acts of cruel and merciless aggression upon smaller and weaker peoples who were trying to live their own independent and happy lives, to the end that a greater and a stronger nation might, under the impulse of blind and super-selfish gain-seeking, immorally increase its authority and strengthen its position at the cost of its neighbors.

This is where the world is today. As a result, the progress of civilization is hanging in the balance, and whether we and our children are to witness another decline and fall of the Roman Empire is something which no man dare yet prophesy with confidence.

What is to be done about it? Is it too late to inform public intelligence and to arouse public feeling to the support and defense of those progressive and liberal institutions which we thought had come to stay and would grow stronger century by century? What would the great English and French liberal leaders and philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have had to say about such a stateof affairs? What would the builders of the American Republic have thought of it? Imagine Washington and Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison and Webster and Lincoln faced by such a crisis as that which now confronts us! Would they not, each and all, have been dazed and stupified by the spectacle of millions of armed men marching about in support of autocracy and the extension of its area of conquest in a world which had accepted the Petition of Right and the Bill of Rights in England, the Declaration des Droits de l'Homme in France, and the Bill of Rights of the Federal Constitution of the United States, as statements of definite and lasting principles upon which world civilization and world progress would rest?

It is for this generation and for that which will soon follow to give answer to these questions. Vast and far-reaching forces of human emotion, human ambition and human greed cannot be lightly dealt with or waved aside with some magic formula. They must be met, conquered and suppressed by calm and reasoned intelligence, and the call is for all men in every land. No one can be isolated from this colossal struggle. Where despots have gained unprecedented authority, those over whom they are so cruelly ruling must unhorse them. Where the forms of civil, religious and political liberty still exist, they must be strengthened and given new power over the hearts as well as over the minds of men. Faith must not be lost, and courage must not be lacking. The call is for every civilized human being who believes in justice, in liberty and in public morals. The bell is ringing!