Young Men in Action
A GRAB-BAG INSTEAD OF A TREASURE CHEST
By MARK MATTHEWS, President of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce
Delivered at the National Conference on Government, Springfield, Mass., November 18, 1940
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VII, pp. 158-160.
WHEN I received an invitation from the National Municipal League to speak at this conference I had many misgivings, as I knew there would be many here who are much better qualified than I to speak on almost any subject related to government. I decided, therefore, to speak on a subject about which I know at least as much as anyone in this room—my own experiences in my recent travels in every section of the country and the interest of young men in government.
The fact that I have been invited to speak here today on the subject "Young Men in Action" is in itself an indication of the increasing interest of today's young men in good government, as a few years ago I would have had little to talk about. I remember that 20 years ago when my father, a Presbyterian minister, preached a sermon urging young men to take an intelligent, active interest in politics, his views were commented upon editorially and otherwise by many of the New York papers, but his voice was lost in the wilderness of inaction of young men.
Twenty years ago there was no medium through which the young men of the nation could make their voices heardand they were compelled to take a back seat. Individually and unorganized, the young men had little to say in the affairs of their community, state and nation, and could be of little help to them. Today through the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce the collective voice of 120,000 young men in 1,000 communities is being heard.
Many of you who have heard the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce referred to for its outstanding program in many lines of civic endeavor may wonder what connection this organization has with good government. It is true that our primary function has been to improve our communities through civic projects, but our members, in seeking to better understand the problems of their communities, have become actively interested in their local governments.
Just one month ago all of the members of our organization registered for the selective service, as the age limits of 21 to 35 provided for in the conscription law are the exact age limits covered by Junior Chambers of Commerce. Some of you may also wonder why young men of draft age should devote part of their time to community betterment. Theyoung men of the nation have indicated their willingness to make any personal sacrifices in the establishment of an adequate national defense, but they are also vitally concerned with the maintenance of our democratic form of government. Never before in history has our nation been in more need of the intelligent interest of young men in their community problems.
Although these problems may seem unimportant in contrast to the immediate, vital issue of preparedness, for that very reason they should be emphasized, because history has shown that in time of war or threat of war democratic peoples must be particularly on the alert to protect their rights. After all, it wasn't outside aggression which enslaved many of the European nations—their liberties were lost because democracy wasn't working in these countries.
Marshal Petain told France by radio she had lost because "she had to few friends, too few young men, and too few guns" and because she had wasted the victory years since 1914-18.
"Today," he said, "France is a witness to sad days. We will learn our lesson from the lost battle. Since our victory (of 1918) our sense of enjoyment has predominated over our sense of sacrifice."
Marshal Petain's reference to France's need for young men, coming from a man in his eighties, is particularly significant and I believe that you will agree that young, active leadership is needed at this particular time. History has shown that in times of crisis nations have turned to their young men and today this nation is asking her young men to assist in making democracy work.
Perhaps Petain was thinking of the Fifth Column when he said that France "had too few friends." We have a Fifth Column in this country. It may include some foreign agitators, it may include spies and traitors, but the Fifth Column that can do more to destroy the American way of life is not composed of these dangerous elements—it is composed of the so-called good citizens, who, through smugness and complacency, apathy or selfishness, refuse to face facts, refuse to accept community responsibility, refuse to be alarmed by the forces which are undermining our democracy and who believe that all our problems can be settled by enacting a law and writing a check.
During the past few weeks we have heard a great deal about democracy and the leaders of both parties have urged the voters to support their respective candidates to save our American way of life. In the intense rivalry and bitterness of a national campaign, many of us forget that our local problems and our local government affect us just as vitally as our state and national governments.
The young men of the nation, through the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce, have recognized that the basis of American civilization is in her grass roots and they have worked for the future of democracy and the building of a better nation by building better component communities in the nation. Our organization, in dedicating itself to the task of making democracy work, has not held any meetings to discuss the meaning of the word "democracy", nor has it participated in any political debates as to what particular party is best able to maintain our democratic institutions, but, realizing that local government is the foundation of our democratic form of government and that if this foundation is not sound democracy must fail, our members have taken an active interest in local government problems.
During the past four months I have travelled over 25,000 miles, I have had the privilege of speaking to thousands of young men and I have been astounded at the important role the young men of this nation are assuming in furthering our nation's welfare. Young men have been chosen for leadership in every section of the country and they are continuing their unselfish attitude in their public life.
I could give no better example than Minnesota, where the part that young men are playing in solving that State's problems was referred to as "Minnesota's Miracle" in a recent issue of Readers Digest. I would like to quote from an editorial which recently appeared in a Minnesota paper:
"In Junior Chamber of Commerce members Minnesota especially stakes much of its future hopes, for the Gopher State is paralleled by few among the forty-eight in the strength of the Jaycee movement.
"A glance at the last State election shows to what high positions of government Minnesota Jaycees have already risen. The governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, and many of the State legislators are prominent members of their respective Junior Chamber units.
"Young men from 21 to 35, affiliated with the 51 Minnesota chapters, are men with ideas and the enthusiasm and ability to galvanize into action and give birth to these ideas."
Governor Harold Stassen's record as an enemy of corruption and extravagance is typical of the type of young leadership which I have been privileged to observe. I have seen the collection of millions of dollars in back taxes in cities where the whole municipal machine was crippled to a standstill; the destruction of corrupt political machines; the defeat of unsound legislation and hundreds of other activities which required the energy and enthusiasm of young men.
Most of the distinguished speakers on this afternoon's program are more familiar than I am with what the Junior Chambers are doing towards good government in their States. Mr. Sikes, Secretary of the Indiana City Manager Study Commission, will undoubtedly tell you of the Junior Chamber's part in Indiana's fight to free its cities. Mr. Walsh, City Editor of the Springfield Republican, is familiar with the work of many of the members of the Springfield Junior Chamber of Commerce in the campaign for city manager government and proportional representation; and Mr. Pierpont, President of the Association of Omaha Taxpayers, knows of the work of the Nebraska Junior Chambers in assisting in the drive for county home rule. In this connection it is interesting to note that although the United States Junior Chamber has never advocated any particular form of local government, Junior Chambers in nearly twenty States are actively interested in the city manager form of government.
The failure of the average voter to realize that local politics are more important to him than national politics has enabled corrupt political machines to control local governments in hundreds of communities and has resulted in waste, graft and the filling of public office with incompetents. I have heard it frequently stated that a corrupt local political machine cannot exist where the young men in the community take an active interest in their government, and I would like to give a few examples.
Several weeks ago I visited a town in Alabama where the local political machine was supported by vice and racketeering and whose corruption was publicized in a national magazine. The young men in the community through their Junior Chamber of Commerce have elected their own mayor and are now attempting to secure indictments of their local officials.
In one of the largest cities in Florida election corruption and other community evils were public scandal. The business leaders of the community knew of the conditions and deplored them but felt that they could not afford to stand up on the firing line to act as targets for the powerful and corrupt political forces. The Junior Chamber took the leadership and went to battle against the entrenched and arrogant public enemies and today honest elections prevail in this city and disreputable gambling has been controlled.
These examples are typical and Junior Chambers in many cities have been successful in eliminating corruption in government.
Many of these political machines have been successful because of the failure of the voters to exercise their voting franchise. In carrying out our basic public affairs policy to make democracy work by encouraging individual expression by the constituents in the democracy and unified action by the factors within the democracy, our local organizations carry on Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns on a non-partisan basis in hundreds of communities. It is interesting to note that in many cities these campaigns have resulted in record registrations and increases in the vote as high as 85% over previous elections. To make sure that these votes are properly counted the Junior Chambers have been responsible for having voting machines installed in many of these communities.
By these campaigns Junior Chambers have been able to prevent the building up of political machines which thrive on small registrations and have been able to counteract pressure groups. I could also give many examples where Junior Chamber campaigns, carried out under the general slogan, "Vote as you please, but vote", have resulted in the defeat of unsound legislation, both local and State.
As Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of New York in charge of legislation, it was my privilege to act as Legislative Representative of the City of New York in the New York State Legislature where I saw at first hand many of the dangers which are inherent in our democratic form of government. Government is becoming more and more a government by pressure groups, who think and act in terms of their selfish ends only. Too many groups think of America as a great big grab-bag instead of a treasure chest in which to hold the things they value most dearly, and these groups have become one of the greatest threats to our democracy. Like many of the groups represented here today, we are a pressure group for good government. Our entire program is concerned with the general welfare and our refusal to take an active part in partisan politics has greatly increased our prestige and effectiveness when an opportunity to act on a purely governmental issue does arise. I could go on at length relating what young men throughthe Junior Chambers of Commerce are doing in the field of civil service, municipal finance, public education, taxation, and many other fields of government, but the time is limited. High minded, you say. Yes, high minded I but there will never be any permanent solutions of our problems until more and more individuals become high minded. Intelligence and knowledge are not enough, nor will laws solve our problems. You can't legislate goodness or enthusiasm for good government. What we need are more of the type of men I have been speaking about—men who acknowledge and who are paying a debt of gratitude to the country which provides them with homes and the privileges of citizenship. Men whose hands are outstretched to give and not to grab, and who are willing to make any sacrifices necessary to the maintenance of our democratic form of government.
Never before in the history of this nation have we been faced with a more serious or a more challenging situation, or one that will be a greater test of our strength and our solidarity. As one business leader recently stated, "It requires no clairvoyance to see that the next five years will in all likelihood be the most vitally important ones in the history of our nation. The things to be done during that period, the legislation to be adopted, the leadership to be developed, and the reaction and response of the American people to the events which lie ahead in the struggle between dictatorship and democracy, will irrevocably fashion the pattern of life to which we young men, our children and our children's children will of necessity conform."
Democracy is meeting its greatest test and the young men of the nation are working for its preservation. The democratic form of government means rule by the majority, and we will never have sound intelligent government until the majority are intelligent on public affairs and we have a full and fair exercise of the voting franchise. These are dark days but they need not be sad days if we will manifest the same spirit of cooperation, fellowship and unselfishness that has always been so characteristic of the young men of this country.
We have faith and confidence in the future of America. Democracy has more active, vigilant defenders than at any time in recent history, and when radios are worn on the wrist and there are television screens in every parlor, and the dictators of the present are unpleasant memories of the past, the young men of the nation will still be working together in a friendly spirit, building, through their energy, enthusiasm and ability, a greater America for this and coming generations.