The Price of Democracy


By J. HILLIS MILLER, President, Keuka College

Delivered at the "New Citizen Dinner" sponsored by the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, October 24, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 73-75

IT is freely assumed that old Americans have something significant to say to new Americans. I warn you that this is not always true. In many cases foreign-born Americans have something of far more significance to say to native-born Americans. Passionate devotion to this country, we are pleased to think, transcends time and place and racial heritage.

Because of world conditions the United States is now threatened with a more insiduous scourge of racial intolerance than has been our lot over the years. It is easy now to fear, dislike and distrust the stranger. This danger has been brought home to us with cataclysmic force by the recent statement entitled "Message to America" made public by the National Institute of Immigrant Welfare. There is "increasing evidence," said the report, "that well-meaning private citizens are developing baseless prejudices against whole groups of loyal Americans of foreign birth; that they are inflicting upon them, without reason or discrimination, unjust hardships and abuses."

The danger to which I refer was also given expression in a well-timed and well-written editorial in the New York Times of recent date entitled "Not Strangers." In composite America accents cannot matter. "We all have accents," declared the Times, "it is the word and deed that matter." This significant editorial went on to say:

"The accent against which we must guard ourselves and our country is the sinister intonation of prejudice, intolerance, bigotry and cynicism, which is to be heard as frequently in sentences that will parse as in those that will not. No one is a stranger in this country if he clings to the ideals of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; if he believes in human freedom; if he respects the rights and dignity of his fellow-men."

The real strangersóthe spies, the conspirators, the renegadesómay be foreign-born or native-born. In neither case are they entitled to fellowship. But a sincere faith in America and its aspirations makes brothers of those who hold it. Let us not misjudge our brother because his coat is ragged, his grammar imperfect, or his preference in food, or entertainment or religion are different from our own. We need his help as much as he needs ours."

As was said editorially of Professor Albert Einstein after he took oath of allegiance to the United States, "He came, like many others, bringing gifts." Throughout the history of America immigrants have been concerned to help build a superior society on American soil. In this land of freedom they have always been inspired and encouraged to contribute, in the words of Emory S. Bogardus, "all that is wholesome and constructive in what they bring and in what they hold precious and dear, hence all that is socially valuable in all the cultures of the world."

After these words of introduction, intended as much for ourselves as for you, I should like to say to you specifically that one does not inherit or accept democracy. One merely inherits or accepts the opportunity to live democracy, and thereby to make it stronger and better. We go on building a democratic society from generation to generation. Our democratic form of government is, therefore, but a reflection of our way of life.

Dictatorship is the cheapest thing in the world so far as the average citizen is concerned. Democracy, on the other hand, is bought with a price which must be paid by every citizen, whether native-born or foreign-born. It is a high price, a price we have been careless about paying in America. We, like other nations of the world, have tried to buy democracy and all its fruits over the bargain counter. We have made cheap commerce of it, traded for it, altered and deflated the currency by which it is bought.

What price are you as new citizens willing to pay for democracy? It is my intention to help you answer that question, theoretically, but you alone can answer it practically and first of all you must pay the price of understanding its essential elements. To do that you must understand the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States to which you have so recently sworn allegiance.

The Declaration proclaims that you are now equal with all other men. That establishes your individualism. It proclaims that you were born, under God's providence, with certain inalienable rightsórights that could not be reasonably transferred to another. They were really inalterable rightsólife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It proclaims that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. That makes you a part of the government, and gives you the right to help alter that government in peaceful cooperation with your fellow citizens if it becomes destructive of these ends. Those were revolutionary doctrines in the early years of the Republic and they were lifted up against European cultures which were founded upon force and prescriptive privileges. They are still revolutionary doctrines, and they are still lifted up against social organizations which are based upon force and prescriptive privileges.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution placed the responsibility of liberty squarely upon you as an individual. You cannot shift it to your government. You cannot shift it to the foreign-born or the native-born. It rests upon all individuals who have sworn allegiance to the American flag.

Under the Constitution, as a citizen of the United States, you must assume the freedom of the human spirit to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. You must exercise freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to own property. You must foster free institutions. You must support free education rather than regulated propaganda. You must stand for free enterprise. You must practice freedom to spread knowledge, to teach moral values, and to foster social responsibility. These freedoms are not static. They are not to be enjoyed vicariously. They are not to be transferred to another. They are required in your pursuit of happiness in a democracy. They are still revolutionary, and you must be prepared to participate in any intelligent effort to preserve and promote them. They must be more dear to you than life itself!

Not only must you pay the price of understanding and practicing the elements of democracy, but you must be willing to accept the discretionary power to choose the path you will follow in preserving, transmitting and enriching these essentials of our American culture. I covet for you the belief that there can be no responsibility without the discretionary power to choose the path. There is no doubt, as someone has said, but that an iron fireman may stoke more efficiently than a voluntary fireman, but he is not a responsible person. It is well-known that Sparta inculcated obedience so well that it overcame Athens where philosophers debated moral responsibility. We know today, however, that victorious Sparta has been forgotten, whereas the ideas and ideals of Athens still rule the spirit of man. There is little doubt of the ultimate survival of a government based upon confidence and moral responsibility. Like a great sleeping giant the liberty-loving world has dissipated its powers in soft and easy living. Its rude awakening has startled usbeyond measure but it will yet lay its great hand upon the throttle of nations.

And so, I repeat, the first price one has to pay for the ideals and privileges of democracy, apart from understanding them, is to live for them. There are times when they have to be fought for, but first they have to be lived for.

In addition, you must pay the price of teaching them and promulgating them. This you can do through the many avenues of transmission. Your own family life is first in importance. Free institutions are at your disposal. Cooperative enterprises and community activities invite you to wholesome participation.

Moreover, you must not be afraid. Intellectual, moral and spiritual courage is an indispensable price of liberty. Even physical courage cannot be ruled out when liberty is at stake. Neutrality and indifference represent too low a price. Pacifism is a compromise millions of us are willing to make.

Finally, you will be called upon to give the fruits of your labor, taxes, benevolences, talents acquired over the years-all must be placed on the altar of your adopted country, if you are to preserve your liberty and the freedom of your mind and soul.

What I have said to you might have been said by any loyal American who knows something of the ideals of this land of freedom. I hope I may be pardoned the presumption which leads me to want to make a few personal remarks, not as a spokesman of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, but as one American to another.

As I have already intimated there is danger that native Americans will fear you or distrust you. Do not feel too unkindly toward them. Do not be too intolerant of their intolerance. They are fearfully concerned about the ideals of freedom by which they have lived. Fifth columns have passed like ships in the night before their jealous and determined imaginations. Be kindly affectionate toward them and by your deeds convince them beyond all peradventure of your loyalty and devotion.

You are beginning a new life in America. Many of us do not have such an opportunity. Many of us must live the rest of our lives trying to correct the errors and false impressions we have made in the past. Your opportunities to forget the past and to build a bright future are unlimited. You need carry into your new life only those things that contribute to it. Avail yourself of our high standards of education, our high standards of work, our high standards of living to help you build on new foundations.

Many of you have come bringing gifts. You have also come seeking the good things of this country. Behold you have found only an opportunity to help create them. Come to know our institutions and help them to function as they were intended to function.

Align yourselves with the religious life of the nation. You will find a generous assortment of creeds and organizations. In some of them you will find happy expression for your spiritual longings. Religious freedom and religious practice represent one of the bulwarks of our heritage. Help us to make it still more strong and secure.

May I repeat? You are not given citizenship in this country. You earn it, and come to deserve it. After the courts and Chamber of Commerce have had their day with you, you must go on to deserve American citizenship. Americanization is entering into the spirit of our country through constructive participation in the well-being of our country.

Finally, may I say that many of you have wanted these blessings of liberty for your children. I beg of you to go out and get them for yourselves as well. Do not retire into your own little group. If you do, you will lose our respect;

and what is more important, you will lose your children. Many lonely immigrant parents have missed the joys of American life which their children, even through parental encouragement, have received in full measure.

I find no better words with which to close this address than those in "An American Platform," published in the New York Herald Tribune under date of June 24, 1940, and written by Dorothy Thompson whose writings, as some one has said, are "always high-spirited and sometimes convincing," Miss Thompson said in part:

"We are the children of Europe, and Africa and Asia. We are the new world.

We swear and pledge each other that we shall build on this continent the new world. We swear that on this soil we shall make living reality and use of the religion that came to us from Asia, of the slumbering, innocent vitality, which came to us from Africa, of the manifold talents and gifts that have come to us from all the races and nations of Europe.

We swear that we shall be the hospitable synthesis of that deathless attachment to freedom which is the glory of the British; of that humane dignity which is the ornament of the French; of that mystic imagination which isthe gift of the Slavs; of that robust and truculent poetry which is the characteristic of the Irish; of that superb sense of work and order which is the talent of the Germans; of that furious love of justice which is the mission of the Jews.

We shall say to the English among us: temper your pride; to the French: widen your sympathies; to the Germans: relax your stubbornness; to the Slavs: realize your dreams; to the Irish: forget past wrongs; to the Jews: abandon your fears, which are so easily transformed into arrogance; to the Negroes: give us your innocent faith in life and God. . . .

We swear that the time will never come when Americans will flee in fear from fellow Americans; when terror will be a horror worse than war; when revenge will be visited by neighbor upon neighbor for differences of past or present opinion. . . .

We swear that we shall defend this new world in the makingówith the universal service of work for our youth; with the universal service of defense against all who would destroy us before we are reborn, and in the certain conviction that when this nation stands united in such a faith and working in such a reality it will draw all nations of men unto it."