The Shape of Things to Come


By H. W. PRENTIS, JR., Chairman of the Board, National Association of Manufacturers

Commencement Address at Wilson College, Chambersburg, Pa., June 10, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 652-655.

I AM indebted to you, Mr. President, and the faculty for providing a unique experience for me this morning. Although on several similar occasions I have had the honor of addressing groups of young men about to be launched on "life's tempestuous sea," I have never before had such a goodly company of prospective mariners of the opposite sex at my verbal mercy!

My lack of previous experience leaves me almost as appalled and puzzled as to the proper mode of procedure as the cowboy in the Pandhandle of Texas, who knew all about horses but nothing about women; who had latterly acquired a so-called ranch miles back from the railroad; erected a sod-house; joined a matrimonial correspondence club; and successfully inveigled an old maid from Massachusetts who had never been on a horse into agreeing to marry him. On the appointed day, the cowboy met his fiancee at the nearest railroad station. They were married by the local justice of the peace, and after an appropriate send-off by admiring friends, the unlucky bride was perched on a horse that her husband had broken for her, and the long ride to the ranch began.

Four or five months later the bridegroom was seen in town wearing a very dejected look. "What's the matter, Hank," asked a fellow cowpuncher, "ain't you and your wife getting on all right?"

"Naw, it ain't that," was the reply. "You remember that hoss I broke for my wife? Well, we hadn't ridden twenty miles back toward the ranch that day we was married, till that darned hoss bucked and threw that woman off and broke her leg. I sure was sorry to have to do it, but there warn't nothing I could do but to shoot her!"

You can rest assured, though, that even in my inexperience I shall not emulate the eminent divine who spoke at chapel at Wellesley years ago, and concluded his eloquent appeal for Christian service by adjuring all his fair listeners to go forth and "Become fishers of men"! In behalf of the rising generation of my own sex, however, I do want to express the mild hope that you may not entirely discard whatever skill you may have acquired in that extracurricular activity during your four years' sojourn here on the quiet banks of the Conococheague! With the education you have received within these walls, you will no doubt be able to reduce your husbands to the state of that one of whom I heard the other day: He came, he saw, he concurred.

Of course, there was a time in the not far distant past when about the only course open to a young woman was to follow the old preacher's advice of whom I spoke, or to wait with folded hands for some eligible young man to do the fishing! Fortunately for the world in general, Commencement for the college woman today means literally the open-

ing of the doors of well-nigh unlimited opportunity for service in every department of human life. How best you can serve in the troubled times in which you are destined to live, will depend, however, on what Mr. H. G. Wells has termed "The Shape of Things to Come." His book of that title concludes with these two sentences:

"When the existing governments, and ruling theories of life, the decaying religions and decaying political forms of today have sufficiently lost prestige through failure and catastrophe, then and then only will world-wide reconstruction be possible. And it must needs be the work first of all of an aggressives order of religiously devoted men and women who will try out and establish and impose a new pattern of living upon our race."

That new pattern, as envisioned by Mr. Wells, is a cooperative commonwealth—a beneficent socialized state—designed and governed by starry-eyed idealists—men who have been purged of lust for power, although it is not made clear how this cleansing process is to be accomplished. We can now all perceive distinctly the shape of things to come contemplated by Nazism in Germany, and its close blood brothers—Fascism in Italy, pseudo-communism in Russia and old-fashioned, Simon-pure despotism in Japan. None of these conceptions, however, is really new. They all go back to man's earliest days on earth when the cave man was the undisputed lord and master of his family and later of his tribe or nation. In fact, if antiquity and widespread usage are to be the governing criteria, then despotism, feudalism, dictatorship, call it what you will—but in any case government of the people by a single individual or group for their own personal interest—certainly can lay claim to acceptance and respect. The mislabeled new order digs deep into the scrap basket of time, resurrecting and refurbishing the oldest of men's failures in governmental forms. By comparison, government of the people, by the people, for the people—"the new order of the ages," as the great seal of the United States puts it-is a novelty in the long history of government and human relations. It is estimated, in fact, that of the forty billion human beings who have lived on this earth since the birth of Christ, scarcely more than one billion have ever enjoyed the liberty we have in America at this very hour.

In these recent fateful months the United States government has made a momentous decision in passing the Lease-Lend Bill. Its full significance, I am convinced, has not yet penetrated the public consciousness. Its stupendous influence on the shape of things to come cannot possibly be encompassed by any finite mind. What the future may hold—what Armageddons for the nations, what Gethsemanes for the hopes of civilized humanity, what Calvaries for suffering men and women—none can even dimly imagine, let alone foretell.

We do know, however, that as a country we have once more decided to dedicate "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" to making the world safe for its self-governing peoples. Hence as we gird on the panoply of war, as crusaders of old venturing across sea and desert, not knowing where our quest may eventually lead us, is it not appropriate and fitting—in fact, our bounden duty—to renew our allegiance to American ideals, and to resolve firmly that when the present storm is over and past, those same ideals shall determine the shape of things to come for our children and children's children?

We stand at the close of one era and the opening of another in the Epic of America. Let our imagination sweep back over the past three centuries. What do we see? Small determined groups of venturers actuated by a daring desire for political, economic, intellectual and religious freedom, struggling for a foothold on the edge of a great continent; the coalescence of their colonies into an infant nation; the setting up of a new form of representative democracy with a written constitution; the march of pioneers to the waters of the Pacific; the fusing of the nation in the flaming forge of civil war; the spanning of the continent with communication systems which threaded through the barriers of sectionalism to bind the people into an America of a single heart; a lusty age of steam and steel; the development of electric power and mass production; the lifting of the standard of living to a level never reached before in the history of mankind; the appalling destruction of material and moral values in the first World War; an ensuing period of national manic-depressive insanity accompanied by the crass selfishness that always characterizes such mob madness; the demand for a scapegoat in the form of American business to expiate our collective national sins; the search for short-cuts to prosperity; feverish zeal in setting up remedies for accumulated social ills; the encroachment of government into the detail of every citizens daily life; the entrenchment of the bureaucrats; and now the frantic cries for "production, more production and still more production" from an aroused people eager to get the materials needed for national defense. Such is the background of the American scene as we gather here today.

All intelligent Americans recognize, however, that the shape of things to come will be determined by things of the mind and spirit as well as by physical armaments. Our national future will be determined by internal no less than by external factors. How vital it is, therefore, that we strengthen those cementing elements that have held us together as a nation in the past! The binding ingredients of this nation—any nation—are weak and tenuous at best. Prostrate France tells the story of what happens when class jealousies and loss of confidence in time-tried systems become gnawing cancers in the bone and sinew of any organized society. Faith in our unique governmental system—federal, state and local—and faith in our highly developed system of free private enterprise have been the two major factors that have held us together in national unity here in America.

The history of every one of those peoples which for brief periods have enjoyed the blessings of freedom, proves that liberty for the common man has invariably been the collateral result of free business enterprise. The need, in fact, for constitutional self-government has seldom, if ever, arisen except in societies sustained by substantial and well-organized industry and commerce. In other words, the experience of that small fraction of the human race that has enjoyed the blessings of personal freedom clearly demonstrates that constitutional representative democracy, civil and religious liberty and free private enterprise are inseparable. As I havesaid on so many previous occasions, these three factors together constitute the tripod upon which all human freedom depends for support. Destroy any of the three legs of this tripod and the entire structure of liberty soon collapses.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me make crystal clear that when I use the term, free private enterprise, I do not mean the old laissez-faire of Adam Smith. I mean free private enterprise with reasonable umpiring on the part of government to ensure fair play and to prevent abuses that lead to oppression and monopoly. But we must keep in mind that there is a vast difference between umpiring, i.e., government regulation, and outright government control. For when government ceases to be an umpire and with the full force of its dominating authority, steps into the business game itself, many a private player concludes that his chances of winning are so greatly diminished that a seat on the side lines is preferable. So individual initiative disappears, and the well-springs of economic progress dry up.

The only alternative to private enterprise is public enterprise. Public enterprise means state socialism—national economic planning. National economic planning requires individual conformance to long-range governmental programs, and to ensure individual conformance, independent spirits are subjected to official browbeating and ostracism as the minimum of coercion; to imprisonment and execution as the maximum. Simultaneously, the masses, and particularly the rising generation, must have their minds and spirits conditioned by government control of all five means by which public opinion is formed—newspaper, radio, movie, school and church. The present shape of things in Germany, Italy and Russia lies hideous before our eyes. In molding the shape of things to come in America, therefore, let us, even in the throes of the present emergency, be on guard and alert lest we find ourselves eventually armed to the teeth but shorn of the intellectual and spiritual blessings that are the very essence of freedom.

Do you remember in Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" how Marius, the Napoleon worshiper, eulogizes the "Little Corporal" as Hannibal, Caesar, Charlemagne, all in a single man? How he told of the dynasties destroyed, of the grenadiers made kings, of the glories bestowed on France; Then closed his peroration with this stirring question: "This is sublime, and what could be more grand?" "To be free!" replied M. Combeferre.

The shape of things to come in America will be determined very largely by the manner in which free private enterprise adjusts itself to a defense economy so that industry operated by private management will win against foreign totalitarianisms the most desperate economic conflict the world has ever endured. Throughout the decade of 1930 business and industry were the whipping-boys of social theorists and politicians. In certain cases there had been, of course, real culpability, a sad lack of social stewardship in places high and low in the business world. Indiscriminate vilification of business, however, was also one of the byproducts of the debunking process applied by the intelligentsia to many of our national heroes and to practically all our cherished political, economic and religious beliefs—starting in the early twenties.

Of course, the terrible events in Europe in recent years, the fate of the great German universities, the plight of public education in Russia which is now no longer financially free, have made many such critics of our American system sit up and take notice, and in some cases to beat their breasts publicly in repentance. In fact, several of the most radical members of the faculty of a distinguished eastern university recently subscribed—at loner last—to a statement in which these stirring sentences appear:

"One of the primary obligations of the American educational system is to provide the most effectual condition for the young to attain the equipment in knowledge and attitude required to carry on our democratic way of life. American education should make no pretense of neutrality about this great social objective. Our schools should be deliberately designed to provide an education in and for democracy."

In trying to perform the task of preserving our liberty, we Americans now face a combination of circumstances that might well appall the most stout-hearted among us. Unless God in His providence intervenes, our country faces years of ruthless warfare, a period of destruction and economic attrition that in its ultimate results in Europe may well be comparable to the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century. War, as we all know, means disruption of homes and community life; the loosening of moral and religious ties; the complete dislocation of our normal peacetime economy; vast migrations of workers; a stupendous debt; staggering taxes; and during its duration—at least—a progressively lower standard of living. In five years of defense production—and possibly actual war—our national expenditures might easily average thirty billion dollars per year and even though half of this enormous sum were raised by taxation, we should still have to face the advent of peace with a debt of perhaps a hundred and fifty billions of dollars. Even though the country is not yet officially at war, all industry—particularly the heavy goods industries—finds itself already operating under conditions of virtual dictatorship: Hours of work fixed by law; relations with employees bound in the labyrinthine coils of legal procedure; wages determined in large degree by governmental influence; ceilings on prices set by executive edict; profits confined in a straight-jacket of unscientific taxation. What of the shape of things to come? What of the aftermath when our armies are demobilized and hosts of industrial workers in armament plants have to seek peacetime employment? Freedom, let us remember, thrives in an expanding economy; dictatorship thrives in the contracted economy of poverty, suffering and despair.

No sensible person will deny that crises in a country's existence require temporary emergency treatment, but if we are successfully to mold the shape of things to come so as to preserve the blessings of freedom for future generations, it is now doubly important that we understand clearly the principles on which this nation was founded and on which the permanence of its institutions depends. The woof of our American way of life includes many components but the warp, the basic idea underlying our entire system, is the religious principle of the sacredness of the individual human soul in the eyes of God. Under that majestic concept the state exists for man, not man for the state. Government is the servant of its citizenry; the citizenry is not the servant of government. In that concept we find the philosophic justification for the common man's right to choose his own rulers; to select his own form of private enterprise; to speak, write, assemble and worship God as he sees fit. As old John Adams said when the Constitution was under discussion: "You have rights antecedent to all earthly government; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe."

Thus we find in the popular government that our forefathers set up here in America the political expression of Christianity. They called their system not a democracy but a republic. They knew that no pure democracy in history had ever lasted very long. For pure democracies are governments in which every important decision is determined by vote of the current majority. Hence pure democracies are always easy prey for demagogues.

The men who set up our American democracy had, first, the problem of how to adapt popular self-government to a large geographical area and, second, how to make that form of government endure. They endeavored to solve these problems by setting up a republic possessing four distinguishing characteristics: First, it incorporates the principle of representative rather than direct action by the people themselves; second, it protects the minority from the tyranny of the current majority by a written Constitution which purposely can be amended only by a slow process; third, it insists on the separation of legislative, executive and judicial functions; and fourth, it provides for the careful distribution of power between the federal and state governments.

In recent years social reformers have tried to destroy every factor in our republican system of government which slows up immediate action or which stands in the way of the centralization of federal power. In the past seven years, without constitutional amendment, the whole concept of the power of the federal government has been almost completely altered. The plainly written words of the Constitution remain but the roots of our republican system have been weakened by divorcing in so many ways, local control of local affairs from local taxing power. Thomas Jefferson said: "Our peculiar security is the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction." If Jefferson be right, the present trend of judicial decisions involving constitutional questions holds little hope for "peculiar security" in that quarter. So far as our written Constitution is concerned, therefore, hope for things to come now rests almost exclusively in informed public opinion—the electorate asserting itself through its chosen representatives in Congress.

This fact emphasizes the vital responsibility of education in the maintenance of our American system. As James Madison said: "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." Knowledge, however, is not enough. There must be faith as well. As Goethe said: "What a man inherits from his fathers, he must earn for himself." And that raises a number of vital questions that demand immediate examination by all those patriotic citizens—educators and laymen alike—who would intelligently mold the shape of things to come in America in the aftermath of the present world tragedy.

Is not the teaching of the basic philosophic and religious principles that underlie the American republic of even more importance than mere instruction in economic and social questions? Is not the development of character and patriotism even more essential in a representative democracy than the teaching of current events—desirable though such instruction is? Should education endeavor from the outset to influence the child's thinking about the controversial aspects of our governmental and social system, or should a thorough foundation of facts be provided before children are encouraged to direct their energies toward the examination of as yet undetermined issues? There is real danger that well-intentioned effort to arouse healthy skepticism among students may be so over-extended as to create merely morbid cynicism which destroys all faith and thus serves no constructive purpose. Hence I beg you not to allow yourselves to make the popular mistake of believing that tradition should be suspect simply because it is tradition. In fact, is not such skepticism endangering even today the entire structure of American liberty?

I am convinced myself that the philosophic and religious concepts that underlie our American way of life are the same yesterday, today and forever. The procedures of governmentmay change but the principles of truth and morality and social conduct that underlie republican self-government are firm and immutable. Is not the primary duty of education in the American republic, therefore, to inculcate those concrete concepts in the heart and mind of every student and then, having established suitable mental bench-marks, encourage intelligent appraisal and constructive criticism of the mechanics of our institutions when the student reaches the age of mature judgment?

It is obvious that we cannot hope to shape things to come in America if we are willing to accept our due measure of personal responsibility. So if we continue to place our personal burdens on the shoulders of our elected rulers, we can rest assured that we shall ultimately find our liberties devoured in the maw of a bureaucracy that ever hungers for power and more power. After all, a stream can rise no higher than its source. Representative democracy demands more from its individual citizens than any other form of government but it yields courageous men and women who are willing to pay the price, the untold spiritual satisfactions of freedom. Obviously, therefore, the deeper the intelligence and the higher the character of the men and women who provide leadership in public affairs, the better the government we will enjoy. Since the time of the Civil War, too large a percentage of the best brains of the American people has gone into business and the learned professions. Too few of our most gifted men and women have been willing to make the personal sacrifices involved in active participation in politics and government. The time has now come when this condition must end if the shape of things to come in the American republic is to be so fashioned as to preserve its blessings to oncoming generations.

We can find hope, however, in the fact that a nation after all has a collective memory. It has an inarticulate, but cumulative, passion for the survival of what in its tradition is virtuous. The collective mind of modern man is no different from the collective mind of primitive man. It demands leadership, and courage and integrity from that leadership. The shape of things to come will be either vastly worse than anything at present conceived possible or, over a long period, infinitely better. Tyranny is the glorification of pessimism. Those who are not actively for the American system now, when its life is at issue, are by their very passivity, against it. The call that rings clear today is for the friends of the tripod of freedom to make themselves known. If we would mould the shape of things to come, we must guard against what James Bryce considered one of the great weaknesses of democracy: "The fatalism of the multitude . . . A sense of the insignificance of personal effort."

So even as we contemplate the tragic picture that the world presents today, the knowledge of the Divine source from which our great heritage of freedom derives, brings surging up again a new response in every man and woman of courage. For it is written that the day of Armageddon, the day when the Lord will bring to reckoning his controversy with the nations will be a day that is neither dark nor clear, but greatly clouded. Then it is, that despair will seize upon the hearts of men, save those fearless few who battle ceaselessly for the right. Trumpets will sound on every hand and there will be alarms in the fenced cities. Doubt and confusion and a deepening darkness will prevail. Yet always back of it all and moving forward to a fuller day is the unfailing promise that "it shall come to pass that at evening time it shall be light."