The Future of Our States and Cities in Our Governmental Structure


By GEORGE F. BARRETT, Attorney General of Illinois

Delivered before the National Association of Attorneys General, at the House Chamber at the Indiana State Capitol inIndianapolis, September 30, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 52-55.

MY subject—the "Future of Our States and Cities in Our Governmental Structure", is one of great importance to us as Attorneys General. But it is of even greater importance to the citizens of our states. It is vitally important to all citizens of the United States, not because of its academic significance, but for the reason that out of it may come the answer to the problem which is bothering so many of us, the problem which is our prime concern in these days of world-wide uncertainty. That problem tersely stated is—Which Way America?

Today in the face of international calamity—in the face of world confusion and hopeless despair, the citizens of America are wondering to what distant destination the pathon which we are traveling leads us. Some are wondering whether the goal that their forefathers sought and thought they had reached here was only a snare and a delusion. Others are wondering whether the journey which they made from the dark and dismal prospects of the Old World to the bright and shining prospects of the new was a brilliant reality or was rather the siren call of a tempting and illusory mirage.

This country of ours in the short period of its history, and it is now only one hundred and sixty-five years old, has come to be known as the greatest and freest of all nations.

It has been envied by all of the peoples of the world andsilently ridiculed by most of the governments of the world.

During all of its existence it has been the Mecca of those who desired freedom. Many thousands have come to our shores, settled here and established homes. They have become as American as the Founding Fathers. They are America.

You and I are attorneys general of separate states comprising a great union. Our duty as attorneys general is that of pleading the cause of the people of our respective states before the courts and tribunals which are the custodians of their liberty. But the final court—the last tribunal of appeal in America—is the people themselves. Therefore it is our duty, as attorneys for the people, to speak plainly and candidly to those who are the judges of their own cause upon the important issues which bear upon the future of their own country.

I shall attempt today to do just that. The choice then that our people have is between three general types of governmental structure. One—a decentralized government; two—a government based on a distribution and balance of powers; and three—a centralized or autocratic government.

The closest approach to a decentralized form of government in our history is that which existed under the "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union". By the Articles the thirteen states entered into a "firm league of friendship" with each other for the purpose of defense and offense. Each state retained "its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled." The Confederation possessed few of the attributes of a national government. There was no central authority, no proper federal executive or judiciary. There was no method of raising money except by contributions from the states, and such contributions were reluctantly and grudgingly given. There was no power to compel obedience to Congress, either on the part of the states or the individuals.

The result was a loose, unwieldy, unworkable government. It was a decentralized government which, if it was workable at all, was suited only to a society of the most primitive and simple sort. The result in the colonies was a condition which was no better than anarchy.

For an example of a government with a distribution and balance of powers, we need only look at the form of government which came into being in America with the ratification of our Federal Constitution. It is useful for that purpose to look also at the conditions surrounding the drafting of that Constitution.

Such a decentralized form of government as existed under the Articles of Confederation brought an awareness throughout the colonies that changes were not only desirable, but were vitally necessary.

In 1787 the delegates met at Philadelphia for the purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation. Instead of proceeding to revise the Articles, they boldly set about the preparation of a new constitution.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were desirous of welding the thirteen states into a nation, and yet they knew that if the states were submerged and disappeared in the new government, the constitution would never be ratified by the people of those states.

We must bear in mind that the people had only recently been freed from the yoke of an oppressive and autocratic government. Each state was jealous of its own power and prerogatives. Each state had its own government. The people in each state felt a definite loyalty to that state. In addition the people of each state were united in the fearof possible oppression which might be forced upon them by the heavy hand of an all powerful central authority.

In order to obviate objections and make ratification possible they created a dual or federal system of government. It was a government of distributed and balanced powers. Thus there was set up a national government to co-exist with the states. Certain powers were granted to the national government. Certain powers were reserved to the states. Certain powers were reserved to the people. The federal government is therefore one of delegated or enumerated powers. It may do only those things which are expressly authorized by the Constitution, or those things which are reasonably implied from the powers definitely granted. The states have the residual powers and may do all things except those which have been conferred on the federal government and prohibited to the states.

The Constitution in its final form sought to create a sufficiently strong central government and still retain a wide sphere of influence for its State governments. But withal it was based upon the premise that the fountain-head of all power in America was the individual. Its prime purpose was the protection of the freedom of the individual from the power and oppression of government.

The third general type of government is that of centralized power. It is the form which embraces the principle that all powers should be lodged in an all powerful central government. All of the autocracies of the Old World were governments of centralized power. The dictatorships of today are based upon that doctrine.

These then are the forms of government from which the American people must take their choice. No one today seriously advocates return to a decentralized form of government because our society has become too complex. But there are some who are insistent in their demand that we abandon the traditional principles which have defined the nature and the powers of our government from its earliest beginnings. These persons seek, by gradual but powerful means, to transform the states into administrative provinces of a national autocracy.

We are told—and not only by demagogues, but by sincere people who earnestly believe their own words—that business is no longer able to govern itself; that the laboring man is no longer competent, alone or in union with his fellows, to secure for himself his legitimate rights; that the farmer can no longer be trusted to determine what crops he will plant, and harvest or to set the price at which he will sell that which he has produced in his own earth by his own toil; and finally that you and I and other men and women can no longer hope to bargain fairly for ourselves in a free market.

Life in America, say those who are so pessimistic about the old ways, but so optimistic about the new world, is now too complex for men and women as individuals. The plain person is so insignificant a figure upon the modern stage that we must rewrite the play for him. We must revise the roles of the individual men and women who were the stars of the old drama. They are to be relieved of the burden of pursuing their own destinies in their own way and according to their own ideals. They are to be assigned less responsible parts in the new theatre. The parts formerly taken by the individual actors will be assumed by directors and their technical advisors. The script will be written for us by unseen authors. The individuals will be manipulated by unseen hands in like manner as marionettes.

It is an ironic paradox that those who have the least trust in the traditions and institutions of the past are those who have the most naive and credulous faith in the new order which is to be established by political, economic or socialrevolution. Those who discern in the history of their country nothing but greed, selfishness and ruthless depravity do not doubt the future. They would have us understand that the impulses of our private wills are abject, base and selfish in a democracy of individualism. But they do not doubt that these passions of selfhood will be transfigured by national socialization. The selfishness of individual striving will be exalted into a lofty consciousness of common sharing in a great new brotherhood. So say the prophets of the new order.

Let us state the doctrines of these social theorists in plain language. If we but destroy individual undertaking and our system of free local government, we are told—if we but substitute for individual labor and sacrifice the totalitarian principle of exploiting everyone for the good of everyone else—if we but obliterate those imaginary and archaic lines on the map which now divide the vast territory between Mexico and Canada into separate commonwealths, then, say the apostles of the new faith, we shall have achieved the basis for a planned "social and economic order" of the resources of the nation and the energies of its citizens.

Now we must remember that the tenets of this new creed are not professed only by politicians who express them for sinister purposes of their own. There are many of our citizens—honest and sincere—who, enchanted by the vision of a new paradise, are persuaded by the promise of the speedy realization of that paradise to advocate the destruction of our form of government. They are earnest, even passionate champions of the new age.

The present is the harvest of the past. The future will be founded upon the present. The history of the past gives us imperious warning of what happens when a free people relinquishes its liberty to gain some transient advantage or temporary relief from immediate difficulties.

Liberties can be lost as well as won. They have been lost in Europe. That freedom under a republican form of government which was only a dream in Europe has become real and vital in American life. Our American ideal of a free society is acquired so early in childhood that we in America are likely to take our feeling for freedom and justice to be an instinct. But liberty is not instinctive. It is not a native intuition. It is the product of a great civilization—of a high culture. Europe has never known our kind of liberty except in the dreams of its patriots. While Europe bequeathed to us a hope, it is we who have realized that hope.

Why do I mention the past of Europe, when my subject is the future of states and cities in America? It is because, when we survey ruin of liberty and justice on that continent, when we see freedom devoured by autocracy, we are assured that our destinies lie within our own hemisphere—within our own nation—and within our own independent states and free cities.

We can see too, that what has happened there can also happen here unless we are most watchful.

Every tyranny has its foundation in a concentration of power. Autocracy does not start as autocracy. Dictatorship does not begin as dictatorship. Let me remind you how the independence of individuals, of communities, of smaller governments is lost.

Every despotism in history has begun with a promise. It has begun with a promise of things which a distressed people earnestly desire. It is not difficult for a man who is weary of his private cares to be persuaded to trust his future to those who promise him the good things of life. On the battle fields of Europe today, Germany and Russia are engaged in the most gigantic war of history. The people of each of those countries are enslaved by tyrannies. Youand I, with our inheritance of freedom, cannot imagine the utter blight which dictatorship has laid upon those people. The free states and cities of Germany—not suddenly, but gradually and over a period of years—surrendered their liberties, first to a royal empire under the Kaisers and later to a dispensation of national socialism in exchange for the promise of a strong central government, of a mighty super state. This was the program of the Nazi creed.

The small communities of Russia—groups of little people, of good folk on the plains and in the cities—abandoned the tenor of their ways for the promise of a new life under an all-wise concentrated authority. They were told that national revolution would precede world revolution and that eventually the civilized world would comprise a single great commonwealth. This was the program of Communism.

How false were the promises! How cruel was the deception! But the promises and the non-fulfillment of those promises after the all powerful centralized authority had been granted parallels the history of such experiments down through the ages.

Even when power has been centralized for the purpose of serving temporary and emergency ends its course has been the same. It has always moved relentlessly toward its own continuation and perpetuation. And just as soon as it has become permanently entrenched, just that soon has it become tyrannical and dictatorial.

Let us look at the problem in the cold light of calm and considered judgment and reason. Let us weigh the evidence. Let us apply to the facts the only test which we as Americans have any right to use. Let us consider that which is best for America. When we do that we will see that the proposed new order for America is not in truth a new liberalism, but is as reactionary and tyrannical in substance and form as Naziism, Fascism and Communism.

Such totalitarian philosophies can never be best for America. They are obviously the most convincing argument for the belief that the future of America lies in the retention of our system of distributed and balanced powers.

The formation of such a resolve need give rise to no fear of stagnation. It is true that as technological progress is made in America there must also be progress in the art of government. Our Constitution was drafted in such a manner that it maintains a fluidity and elasticity which permits our government to adjust itself to changing times and conditions. In addition there always remains available the power of amendment. Thus no future circumstance or set of circumstances can arise which will prove insoluble or insurmountable for our people. We can face the future with perfect confidence that our government will prove itself equal to any task which shall be required of it.

With the conviction that our federal system of government should and must be preserved comes of necessity the corollary that there is a definite place in our future scheme of things for our states and cities. In a government of distributed and balanced powers the states, and with them the cities, have positive and essential functions just as does the national government.

The states must, however, awaken to their responsibilities. They must prepare to accept new functions that will inevitably come with advances in other fields of endeavor. In order to meet their new responsibilities the states must adjust themselves both structurally and functionally.

In 1917 Illinois, under its then great Governor, Frank O. Lowden, pointed the way for administrative reorganization of the State governments. The administrative reorganization movement should be continued until all of the states have revamped their governments to meet present day needs. To solve new problems the states must have increased co-operation with each other and increased use of interstate compacts. With cooperative action of the states there can be uniformity in fields of mutual interest. Such cooperative action is desirable in the fields of insurance, marriage and divorce, banking, and some others where there is presently a great lack of uniformity.

There must be an increased effort on the part of the states to obtain legislative and executive uniformity. Much future good can come from an active participation by the states in such organizations as the Council of State Governments and the American Legislators Association.

But criticism and suggestions should not be directed at the states alone. The national government today has forgotten its proper place in our federal system. It is unceasingly searching for more and more needless power. We must serve notice on our national government that it must confine itself to its Constitutional sphere.

Let us seek a common goal. Let us encourage strong municipal governments. Let us help to build strong state governments. Let us strive to maintain a strong national government. The inevitable result will be a magnificent and dynamic America.