Your Freedom at Stake


By GEORGE BARTON CUTTEN, President of Colgate University

Convocation Address, delivered at Colgate University, September 18, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 738-742

IN our ears, today, the words of the immortal Lincoln ring with an ominous portent. As he overlooks the field at Gettysburg can you not hear him say, "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth"? We wonder! Battles for freedom are never settled: eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and periodically the war has to be re-fought.

A few years ago it would have been a safe prophecy to predict that autocracy had received its death blow, and that the American way of life, with its foundations rooted in democracy, was joining hands with its sisters across the oceans and gathering the world in its kindly and hospitable arms. Take another look at this same world today. Dictators have arisen everywhere: they have grasped the reins of government and regimented and enslaved their people, abolished free speech, free press, and free religion, dictated every movement of every citizen; even Russia in the days of the Czars would have been an independent and unrestricted people compared with the totalitarian puppets of today.

Not content with extracting the last drop of freedom from their own people, their felonious fingers have reached over to their smaller and weaker neighbors, and with no consideration for the laws of God or the rights of men, by means of invasion, murder, plunder, and rapine, they have reduced these peace-loving peoples to the same serfdom as they had imposed on their own subjects. Might has triumphed—there has been no right. Terror has reigned in every European heart. Justice, if not dead, has been sleeping; kindness, humanity, and sympathy have become obsolete words; ferocity, barbarity, and hate have taken their place.

The slimy dragon has grown by what 'twas fed on, and its rapacious appetite has become insatiable as one country after another has been devoured. Freedom is having its last stand with the British Commonwealth of Nations and this country as the main bulwarks of liberty. Is it any wonder that our own security is questioned, and fear clutches our hearts?

Having partially recovered from the debauch into which the pacifists and isolationists have seduced us, we are now emerging from the dream of sweetness and goodwill into the real world of strife and greed. It is just too bad, but we simply did not live in that kind of a world. Our diplomatic protests attracted as little attention as Robert's Rules of Order at Macy's bargain counter. We are now spending billions for defense, we are devoting all our energies to provide instruments of war, we are prepared to sacrifice our lives in order to salvage our ideals and to combat any incursion on our freedom. We are warning the dictator nations to stay away.

In the midst of this confusion and bewilderment and fear there is one question which continually intrudes itself upon us. It is this: Is it worth while to fight the regimentation of European dictators if in the meantime we lose our freedom at home? This danger haunts us!

Trace, if you will, the history of man from the time his ancestors were one-celled mechanisms in the primordial slime, and what is the direction of his advancement? Always toward freedom. First, an immobile organism unable to move from place to place, later with a much confined movement, and then developing limbs so as to become acquainted with the localities surrounding him, until at last by coach, train, and automobile he conquered the land; by oars, sails and propellers he conquered the sea; and by balloon, dirigible, and airplane he conquered the air, and his last restriction to physical freedom was removed.

Analogous to that has been his political advancement. Only a few days ago in the biological history of man, he was a serf attached to the land with no more control of his destiny than the ox which he drove. He obtained a glimpse of a free life, and King John was compelled to attach his seal to the Magna Charta. Then the struggle, of which man had received the first glamorous taste, was continued through the conflict between crown and barons, the common people and the aristocracy, until finally the people, not to be denied, demanded complete freedom, and, climaxing their strife in our own revolution, they became really free.

Lincoln began his imperishable Gettysburg address by saying that "our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in liberty," and that is true; let us see how they did it.

The earliest white settlers on this continent were undoubtedly adventurers, but adventurers always had freedom in their blood. When tales of the returned wanderers were heard, the appeal of a new continent stirred the souls of the oppressed—religious liberty appealed to all non-conformists, the call of the land challenged the serf, political freedom summoned the oppressed. Here was the land of opportunity, without restriction or regimentation, except that which was self-imposed.

The result exceeded even the dreams of the most optimistic. No man became a chattel tied to the land and conveyed with it, but each man had his own plot or farm; no man was a slave of another man's business, but conducted his own, if nothing more than as the village blacksmith, shoemaker, or tailor; no man was ruled, but each went to the polls with head erect and voted for his own representative to conduct the public affairs; no man was forced to accept any religious creed or control, but each worshipped God according to the dictates of his own conscience. The fruits of each man's initiative and perseverance were his own, the results of his skill and labor no one could wrest from him, the profits of his foresight and efficiency were his to control and to spend. If he gained by his planning and industry his was the gain, if he lost through lack of wisdom and application his was the loss—that was the keynote of the independence and freedom of the American way of life, that was and must always be the central point of social justice—reward of the efficient, but no bonus to the impotent. Truly it seemed as though in the American way the words of the prophet Micah had been fulfilled when he said, "But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it."

But that kind of America for which our forefathers yearned and worked and fought seems to be out of fashion. Liberties so dearly bought are being sacrificed for a mess of pottage, and the results seem to show more mess than pottage. In the name of "planned economy" the individual has been jettisoned. No "planned economy" has resulted, but instead we have accomplished a "planned autocracy." Our national economy is really unimproved, we have simply got used to it, and instead we have accepted the yoke of domination and regimentation, making the sacrifice of cherished privileges and rights in exchange for unfulfilled promises.

The technique by which public power has been appropriated by individuals is a familiar one: an emergency has been the excuse. Oh, emergency! What robberies have been committed in thy name! What promises have been shattered in thy service! What rights have been sacrificed on thy altar! What laws have been repudiated on a hint from thee! Every European dictator owes his power to his use of the emergency bugaboo, and centuries of struggle for liberty are chained to its chariot wheels.

The people of this country recognized that the only way to retain their liberty was to maintain their political power in their own hands. This could be delegated temporarily, but never released. However, during the past few years we have seen this power seductively appropriated—always in one direction—until we have awakened to find ourselves under domination instead of being the free people we claim to be. In four ways we have seen this freedom abducted.

I. Overriding Congress

In the first place by the delegation of undreamed power into the hands of the chief executive. During his first campaign, one of the most bitter and virulent strictures which Mr. Roosevelt made of the previous administration was his criticism of excessive spending on the part of Mr. Hoover, "and his condemnation of the unbalanced budget. The most solemn pledges of governmental economy and thrift were made to the electorate. He even definitely stated that he would decrease the expense of the government twenty-five per cent. It was not long, however, before it was realized that one of the chief sources of power was huge sums of money to spend. This had usually been confined to modest amounts in election years.

Thousands and millions of money were formerly the measure of spending, but not so now. Billions became the standard, much of it borrowed. This was not only demanded of Congress, but the demand included the understanding that it should be expended according to the whims and vagaries of one man. There probably has never in the history of the world been an example of equal waste, extravagance, squandering, and frittering away of other peoples' money, as the orgy of dissipation of the past few years. The paying of people for not raising crops which they never intended to raise, and the destruction of live stock which would have fed hungry people are but gentle reminders of the waste. Whatever other objects may have been indefinitely in mind, it was undoubtedly realized that this lavish use of money must contribute to the strengthening of the political power of the open-handed spendthrift who controlled the waste. The Congresses which subserviently submitted to the demands were as culpable as the dictator who arrogantly made them.

The farmers, the laborers, the veterans, the unemployed, and other special groups, who sacrificed their liberty for the regimentation which was proposed, now find themselves the victims of such action rather than the beneficiaries; after all, it is the people whose incomes are in the lower brackets who ultimately pay the taxes. The fact that the obligations of the government have arisen far above the debt limit seems not to have caused the least hesitation or to have suggested the slightest pause. The Christmas spirit need never be dampened so long as other people's money is available to supply the presents. Of course, we give presents only to those from whom we expect some return.

The matter of the control of vast sums of money directly demanded of Congress is but one illustration of the powers which Congress, because of demand, threat and compulsion, has handed over to the President to such an extent that he, himself, has ceased to think that the will of the nation is expressed through their elected representatives, but, to the contrary, through himself. To quote his own forceful, if not elegant, words after his second inaugural address was completed. "That's not asking them, that's telling them," and, naturally, with that point of view, anyone who differed from him was a public enemy.

Probably no better illustration of the usurpation of power could be given than the bootless appointment of Mr. Myron C. Taylor as an ambassador to the Vatican, an ambassadorship which had been discontinued by Congress and could only be legally revived by Congress—but, in which Congress was entirely ignored. Another example of the usurpation of legislative rights by the president has been the conclusion of executive agreements with Canada on the subject of mutual defense, and with Great Britain on the subject of defense bases and destroyers. Undoubtedly such agreements were desirable—very desirable—but the method is questionable. An executive agreement does not technically bindthe countries whose executives make it, but it has all the moral obligation and practical implications of a treaty, and is a subterfuge by which the executive circumvents the constitutional provisions for treaty making. The constitution provides that all treaties must be approved by the Senate, but in all these cases the prerogatives of the Senate were never recognized, and the executive virtually assumed for himself the treaty making power without the quiver of an eyelash.

Thus it has been that the powers which our fathers planned should be retained by the people through their representatives have been demanded by and surrendered to the President. Starting as the chief servant of the people, he has emerged as the chief ruler.

II. Commissions and Authorities

The second method by which power has been wrested from the people was more through indirection. A few years ago the President warned us that there had recently been built up great instruments of power. These, he modestly implied, were so gigantic that they could not be trusted to anyone else. He was referring, of course, to the Commissions or Authorities which had been created by Congress at his demand and endowed with more powers than Congress itself possessed. After the formation of these "authorities" (and really the word was well chosen) they were responsible only to the President.

The constitutional convention and accepted American procedure provided a series of checks and balances—Congress to make the laws, the executive to enforce them, and the Courts to decide on their constitutionality and just enforcement. These "authorities," however, outwitted and short cut these wise precautions. After their formation, they made the laws, they prosecuted supposed offenders, they sat as judge and jury, and they decided on the punishment. Nothing so autocratic and subversive of people's rights was ever before conceived in this country. Even the courts were powerless!

This, of course, was directly in line with the demand of the President that he should control the Supreme Court. Well, there is a limit beyond which even a "yes" Congress cannot be driven and a boundary to "must" legislation, and Congress, seeing the last citadel of liberty threatened, did rebel, when it finally realized the malicious and insatiable attempt to destroy constitutional government in this country. This final show of independence on the part of our elected representatives gave encouragement to those whose spirits rise above dictatorship and whose dream of freedom is not for sale.

III. Usurping the Power of the States The third method of destroying our freedom has been by seizing the powers and prerogatives of the states and municipalities.

There are still people in the South who believe that "Damned Yankees" is one word and who always spell "Black Republican" with a hyphen. In their presence they never permit anyone to refer to the unpleasantness of 1861-5 as "the rebellion" or "the civil war" but only as "the war between the states." Children are taught to talk and usually learn their letters from the true and uncontaminated history of the war, and Richmond is still the capital of the Confederacy. Notwithstanding the fact that the outcome of the war definitely settled the fact that this nation was to be known as The United States, it is still referred to as These United States. Their grandfathers gave their last penny and their last drop of blood, fought in rags, and even permitted their women and children to starve to preserve state sovereignty and yet these grandchildren surrender without a murmur the most fundamental rights of states and even ofmunicipalities to the federal government, so long as the demand is made by a so-called democrat. Strange, isn't it?

It was during the presidency of that great democrat, Grover Cleveland, that, except as a war financing measure 1862-73, the first attempt was made to wrest from the states the privilege of levying income taxes, but this law was judged unconstitutional. Finally, by a constitutional amendment, the right was consummated during the administration of Wood-row Wilson. The importance of this action has hardly been recognized, for without this our freedom could not be so easily crushed. It is because of the income taxes and its borrowing power that Washington is in a position to buy, coerce, and control the states, as has been so clearly demonstrated and so brazenly accomplished during the past few years. The federal government very frankly took the position that any state which refused to take orders from the Washington autocracy would be thereby deprived of the grants of federal largess in which the subservient states were wallowing.

It was while the people were still stunned by the depression and were willing to try anything on a chance of getting out of it, that the National Recovery Act was foisted on them. This was the most impertinent attempt at a wholesale invasion of state rights ever undertaken by a frontal attack. The most petty businesses were to be controlled from Washington: garages, bakeries, barber shops were threatened with most dire consequences if they failed to walk the line marked out by the New Deal; this act was primarily the New Deal. Was it not a suit instituted for selling sick chickens that finally determined the unconstitutionality of the Act? Nothing was too petty for the New Deal to endeavor to dominate.

The frontal attack having failed, the flanking maneuver was tried with greater success, and control by indirection, far more insidious and dangerous, was ordered. Social security, an invitation to ease and uselessness, was the bait used to cover the hook. For example, in order to receive a share of taxes which the federal government demanded that they levy, the states were forced to enact unemployment insurance legislation. Prior to this only one state had unemployment insurance, now every state has and must have it or else be penalized by having all funds for this purpose withheld. These state laws must pass the detailed scrutiny of the federal government; even the accounting system is prescribed and the qualifications of the clerks are dictated by Washington. I am not arguing at this time whether or not such a program is desirable or distasteful, I am simply trying to show how the rights of the states have been broken down in order to augment central power.

Not content with larger game, the New Deal even descended to robbing the municipalities of their prerogatives in order to gather power into the hands of the Washington autocracy. The municipality is the unit of purest self government and freedom, because there the individual can more definitely and directly make his demands and register his desires and see that they are carried out. But not so, even the smallest municipality must be on the leash.

The responsibility of caring for the needy of a community was one of the first Anglo-Saxon municipal duties and prerogatives. English poor laws are among the earliest statutes. To place this obligation upon the municipality was both sensible and sane. Every family and every individual was known, and there was no difficulty in separating the unfortunate and worthy from the lazy and shiftless. Jobs could be found or made, accommodations of different kinds could be provided, or, in cases of extreme need, private charity and neighborly goodwill rushed to the rescue. This was as it should be.

But this did not accomplish the desired result. The simple technique of purchasing votes by lavishing money upon the indigent is Tammany's monumental contribution to the New Deal. Even those Democrats who have always fought against Tammany influence at Washington have accepted the Tammany pattern. Hidden behind a variety of activities and the bigness of the program they failed to realize that they were swallowing Tammany in one mammoth dose. They awoke to find a completely Tammanyized Washington so strongly intrenched within the party as to be impregnable. To give or loan money to the municipalities for local distribution, would miss the point. Take, for example, the bucolic village in which we live. We have always taken care of our poor and unfortunate, were glad to do so, needed no help and asked for none. We were perfectly capable and willing to look after our own affairs. Unfortunately we were not permitted to do so. With an arrogance which would resist the action of acids, the federal government insolently interfered and spent money here in a way to injure rather than to help, except, of course, in the matter of influencing votes.

Any attempt to remove power from the small unit and transfer it to a larger unit cripples our freedom and weakens democracy. When Washington steps in and compels us to pay our money, and then condescendingly gives back what politicians consider will accomplish their own purposes, we are robbed not only of our money but of our freedom, and not our wishes but those of a ruling bureaucracy are fulfilled.

It cannot be too emphatically noted at this critical moment that before Hitler could assume the dictatorship of Germany, it was necessary to amend the constitution so as to destroy the sovereignty of the states. Weak local units sap political freedom and invite dictatorship. Concentrated central power is too great a temptation to certain types of mind.

IV. The Third Term

Now the President's fourth method for shattering the provisions made by our fathers shows the extent to which the greed for power may capture a soul. This assumes a more serious aspect when we note the progressive and cumulative trend toward the increase of power into the hands of the President year after year during his two administrations. Probably no provision which was made by our fathers for continued freedom was more important than the two term tradition and practice. You may ask, "Why two terms, and if two why not three?" Of course, the two term limit is an arbitrary one, but, having been set, it marked the boundary of safety, and we can afford to sacrifice much rather than to run the risk of this final encroachment on our freedom.

Starting with General Washington, and continuing with other presidents who had served two terms, the tradition has been loyally kept and vigorously maintained. Only one attempt to break it has appeared in our century and one-half of history, and that was not for a continuous service. However, the third term yearning seems to be a family trait. So great is the threat to liberty in this unprecedented action on the part of the President that one prominent writer ventures the opinion that if there is a third term, there will be no further elections in the United States. While this opinion may seem extreme, it at least calls attention to the dangers to our liberties and the possibility of a climax to the building of a power machine. Certainly no European dictator ever controlled an organization more completely than the President bossed his so-called Convention in Chicago this year, and his previous continued silence concerning his attitude toward the third term absolutely bound and gagged every other potential candidate.

One dislikes to refer to another matter, but it seems to show to what extent the urge to power can possess a man. If Senator Barkley correctly quoted President Roosevelt in his statement before the Convention when he declared that Mr. Roosevelt authorized him to say that he "had never had, and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue in the office of President, to be a candidate for that office, or to be nominated by the convention for that office," then the only comment one can make appropriate to the occasion is that Mr. Roosevelt has a unique way of expressing himself, either in this statement or in his actions and attitudes the whole year previous to making this statement. At any rate, his chore boys did not so interpret him. Somebody seems to have been warbling off tune.

However humanitarian, altruistic, and benevolent the planners of the first term of the New Deal may seem to have been, even though at other people's expense, the objectives of the second term have been very thinly veiled. During these past three years, their passion for charity and their devotion to the downtrodden have not glowed with a pure flame. Politics, looking steadily toward a third term, has protruded at every pore.

There are only two arguments in favor of this unparalleled menace to our freedom and they are far from convincing. The first one is our old friend emergency, found so useful by all dictators—ancient or modern. In fact, there is not only one emergency, but two. I do not refer to the world crisis brought about by the European and Asiatic wars; that is only interesting as emphasizing the real emergencies. Neither do I refer to the domestic debacle, for even New Deal hysteria finds it difficult to prolong an emergency beyond seven years. The two real emergencies are of another character. In the first place, there is the emergency in the New Deal party so severe that it is considered that only one man has any chance to continue the party's domination.

The second emergency is found in the fear and dread of an anti-climax. There are some people who can never be less than at concert pitch. How could the central political figure of the past few years continue in the limelight in retirement? He could neither go hunting in Africa like his illustrious cousin, nor could he visit the Kaiser and the European kings—the Kaiser is not receiving this year, and dictators have supplanted kings in most countries. Only a third-term, which smashes all traditions and all theories and all practices of our government, can really supply the publicity conditions—that is a real emergency.

An emergency situation confronted George Washington and pressed him to serve a third term, but he evidently recognized a greater threat to liberty in a third term than in the combination of events, as serious as they were, and he heroically refused. The emergency demand has been similarly repulsed by others. Has not England been meeting an emergency, and a momentous one? Yet the English have changed leaders, undoubtedly to their profit.

The other argument, and apparently the real one, is that of all the 130,000,000 people in the United States there is only one capable of filling the office of president. All this psychological patter about the danger of an inferiority complex seems to have been overdone. Of course, we do not believe that only one person in our great country is capable of filling this position, and we resent the implication. The rule in business is that when a man thinks he is indispensable it is time to get rid of him. The President, to whom the Democratic Party evidently belongs, could find there a galaxy of able, trained, patriotic men, any one of whom could be trusted with the responsibilities of any known government. It is really fatal to take oneself so seriously.

And Now—

We have heard a lot of high sounding twaddle about the more abundant life which was to be brought to us by a planned economy and pinned upon everyone by act of Congress. Congress cannot create a more abundant life in any man any more than it can create beauty in the soul of a flower, or an invigorating tang in the heart of a November morning. The more abundant life is the product of a free spirit, and to enact laws to regiment men into a more abundant life is not only a futility—but an absurdity. There are more abundant lives in cottages than in palaces, and the saints who fasted knew more of abundance in living than the kings who feasted.

Is there a real man anywhere who would not rather be free in a hovel than regimented in a castle? Freedom is the very breath of the spirit. A man should be free to think his own thoughts and to express them, free to choose his own work so as to give substance to his ideals, free to initiate new plans and to fulfill them, free to sell his services, be he peasant or merchant, free to join his companions in their enterprises or free to travel alone, free to sell his products when he wills and to whom he wills—free to be a man.

When we abstract from men their freedom, when we regiment them into things and numbers, when we kill ambition and the enterprising spirit we put an end to progress, we ring the knell on advancement. Even if we contend that there may be some temporary advantage to regimentation, the stunting or curbing of individuality, initiative, and endeavor is too large a price to pay for it. One invention produced by the genius of an untrammelled intellect may be of more advantage than the labor of slaves for a century. Freedom brings its own rewards in material gains, the spiritual results are extra dividends. To quench the spirit is to roblife of its vitality. Regimentation has never been the spirit of this country in the days of its greatness.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized, and we cannot be too frequently reminded that the freedom to live our American way is not ours to dissipate. It is a costly treasure held by us in trust. Having been achieved by the longings and sacrifices and sweat and blood and tears of our ancestors, they transferred it to us to be carefully guarded and to be passed on, in turn, to our children and to their children. When our descendants claim their inheritance, not one jot or one tittle shall be missing, but like the faithful steward, whom Jesus praised, we shall deliver to them their own with interest. No one must charge us with being dishonorable or delinquent, but our children and our grandchildren must think of us as men of honesty and integrity—as we revere our fathers and grandfathers—because we, like them, are willing to sacrifice ourselves in order that our children might enjoy the liberty which is the birthright and inheritance of every American child, however humble. No finger of scorn shall be pointed at us for betraying our trust, for we shall stand unmoved and steadfast before the proffered bribe, whether it be thirty billion dollars or thirty pieces of silver.

From the day the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth to the present moment all our great national crises have been concerned with liberty to maintain the American way of life— whether it was with Wolfe at Quebec, Washington at York-town, Grant at Appomattox, Sampson at Santiago, Pershing at Chateau-Thierry, or wherever it might be, freedom has been the issue. Another crisis in our history has arrived: this time the threat is not from abroad but from home, it is insidious and consequently more dangerous, but the American people are not to be hoodwinked on that account. They will, they must, decide to combat any threat to their freedom so that government by the people shall not perish from the earth.