Preserving the Roots of Liberty


By H. W. PRENTIS, JR., President, Armstrong Cork Company, Lancaster, Pa. Past President, National Association of Manufacturers

Before the Joint Dinner of the Association of American Colleges and the American Association of Junior Colleges at Baltimore, Maryland, January 2, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 258-262.

THE honor and privilege of addressing you tonight convinces me that, despite the sweeping changes we are witnessing in the world these days, the law of compensation is still effective. Forty years ago, when I was in college, I had to listen to many a speech by college deans and presidents but little did I dream that I should ever have such a chance as this to get even with them en masse!

I am happy to be here for two reasons: First, because I am glad, as a citizen who is keenly interested in education, to make whatever contribution I can—modest though it will be—to the deliberations of this distinguished organization of yours; and second, because I am, like many of you probably, a beneficiary of the American public school system from kindergarten through college, and my father—a public school man himself—used to tell me that everyone who was educated at public expense owed a peculiar debt to his country. I have no illusion about ever being able to pay off that indebtedness. However, the tragic events in Europe in the last twenty years and the grave crisis that we now face in America move me with the earnest desire to do what little I can to promote a wider popular understanding of the foundations of our freedom. So I come to you to talk about some of the things I was not taught in college; some of the things that I am convinced every citizen must learn and come to believe in very quickly and very sincerely if we are to preserve the blessings of American liberty to oncoming generations.

Our country has spoken in unmistakable terms in these recent fateful weeks. The die is cast. We go forth once again to make the world safe for its self-governing peoples. Regardless of consequences, we have decided as a nation to offer "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" on the altar of the liberty of mankind. Our first duty is to give full support to our government and its military forces at this hour of crisis. Granted that, our ability to win through to

a decisive victory cannot be questioned. In that connection, it is imperative that we should rekindle the ancient altar fires of freedom in all our people because men fight valiantly only for ideals which they understand and in which they believe. Physical armaments are never adequate in themselves alone. Intellectual and spiritual ramparts are equally essential. You will hear from me tonight, therefore, not about airplanes and tanks and battleships and the multifarious problems of mass production involved in modern war but, instead, regarding the cultivation and preservation of the eternal principles on which our freedom rests.

A Definite Political Philosophy Needed

In this connection a terrible indictment can be justly drawn against American business and professional men, including many teachers and preachers. We have been so smug and complacent. We have assumed so carelessly that our liberties were sacrosanct. We have so flagrantly neglected the duties of citizenship in a republic. We have so completely forgotten that the maintenance of representative democracy requires an exceptionally high degree of intelligent understanding and active cooperation on the part of all its citizens. We have been so busy with our personal affairs— so absorbed in material things—that we have tried to live without a political philosophy, and that cannot be done successfully in this country or anywhere else in the world. If the average American businessman knew as little about his product, if the average American teacher knew as little about his chosen subject, as he does about his governmental and economic system, the businessman would soon be in bankruptcy and the teacher would not long remain at his professional post of duty. We all recognize, of course, that to wage modern war successfully requires the temporary relinquishment of many of our cherished freedoms. The devilmust be fought with fire. Hence it is doubly important that at a time like this every citizen should be on guard and alert lest, when the present emergency is over, we find ourselves with only the empty shell of the Republic we are now giving our lives and treasure to defend. History shows that liberty has been lost far more frequently by the complacency, indifference and ignorance of the citizenry themselves than by executive fiat or military conquest. Daniel Webster said: "God grants liberty only to those who love it and will always guard and defend it."

Unfortunately freedom and physical luxury seem to be congenitally incompatible. They have never remained long in political wedlock, but are soon divorced in the court of dictatorship. The love of liberty, we must ever remember, was not born in an automobile, lullabied with radio, nourished with quick-frozen foods, raised in central-heated houses, clothed in synthetic fabrics, entertained by movies or educated in palatial structures of granite and marble! It was born in a dungeon—in the fetters of tyranny. The time-worn historical cycle has been: From fetters to faith; from faith to freedom; from freedom to folly; from folly to fear; then from fear back to fetters once more. We in 20th century America are now about midway in the process. Let it not be written of us that having eyes, we saw not, and having ears, we heard not, the plainly written warnings of the past!

I do not blame our schools and colleges for failure to inculcate the philosophic and religious principles on which our government was established in the minds of the present and, shall I say, the past two generations of American citizens. After all, the degree of leadership that education can provide in a republic is determined by the current temper of the people. We Americans have been so engrossed for the past one hundred years in our physical affairs that we have simply not been interested in government. Hence it is no wonder that the study of religion, political philosophy and classical history has gone largely into the discard. With all our emphasis on materialism, education has been compelled to follow the crowd and teach concrete facts designed to help us make a living rather than emphasize the abstract principles that underlie and in the long run determine the whole course of human existence. But if our Republic is permanently to survive, I am convinced that our schools and colleges must now impregnate the minds of our citizens not only with knowledge of our political institutions, their history and how they work, but also with faith and pride in what these institutions stand for, whence they came and with how much travail of body and spirit they were created.

Does the Average College Graduate Understand the American System?

Montesquieu said: "A government is like everything else. To preserve it, we must love it." How, I ask you, can any human institution be created in the first place and then continue to exist if no one takes the trouble to acquire faith in it and then is willing to fight for its principles? How can any college or university represented here tonight expect to prosper if its students and its alumni, its faculty and its trustees are not constant crusaders in its behalf? How can any business institution, any church, let alone popular self-government, hope to remain in existence unless its adherents are active and articulate in its support? Yet how many college and university graduates of your acquaintance could in public debate tonight with Earl Browder, Norman Thomas or some well-meaning New Liberal, make even a sketchy defense of the faith of our fathers? The truth of the matter is that the average American has never taken the time to study and understand the principles on which ourRepublic was founded. Meanwhile, the collectivists have been crying their theories from every housetop. As a result a host of our people have become easy prey for the social theorist who takes them up on a high mountain and shows them the kingdoms of easy living and the will-o'-the-wisp economic abundance that they allegedly can have if they will only follow his fatuous leadership. Too many of us take an attitude toward public questions akin to the newly married husband "who came, who saw, who concurred!" Now, as always, an intelligent, believing and vocal citizenry is the Vitamin A of representative democracy. Obviously, the only way in which that type of citizenry can be developed and the roots of American liberty preserved is through carefully organized and well-directed effort on the part of our schools, colleges and churches, aided and abetted by the motion picture, radio and press.

The free institutions that we enjoy are the products of a culture which, as one historian has put it, "is essentially the culture of Greece, inherited from the Greeks by the Romans, transfused by the fathers of the church with the religious teachings of Christianity and progressively enlarged by countless numbers of artists, writers, scientists and philosophers from the beginning of the Middle Ages up to the first third of the 19th century." How many of our college and university graduates have any adequate, overall conception of that culture and of the religious and philosophic concepts from which our freedom stems? Speaking from my own experience, I know that although I was graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Arts from a state university, I was never taught anything specific about the foundations of our freedom nor was it ever made clear to me that our various liberties stand or fall together. What little I have learned of these subjects has been the product of reading and study over the last decade. The mental stimulation, the spiritual uplift and the patriotic pride in my country and its institutions which this study has yielded me, is worth all the effort that it has cost. I know, moreover, from personal experience in addressing scores of audiences, how keenly the average, intelligent American today hungers and thirsts for knowledge of the fundamental concepts on which American freedom depends, from which alone he can derive that burning faith in the ideals of the American Republic which inspired our forefathers. The time is ripe; the field is ready for harvest. The fruits of dictatorship lie stark and hideous before our very eyes—no longer hidden in dusty history books on our library shelves. Will not the colleges and universities of America rise to the opportunity that now presents itself for patriotic service? Will they not effectively meet the challenge of preserving the roots of American liberty to oncoming generations?

The Roots of American Liberty

As you know better than I, the roots of American liberty are sunk deep in philosophic and religious soil. They go down to those far-off days in ancient Greece when men sought to discover the requirements for living a good life in a republic of free men, and to those brief years of Christ's ministry in Judea, proclaiming the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. At the very base of the taproot we find Socrates and Aristotle. Then the life-giving sap of their basic thinking vitalizes successively the minds of Cicero and Lucian, St. Augustine, William of Ockham, John Wyclif, Erasmus, Calvin, Montaigne, Thomas Hobbes, John Milton, John Locke, Adam Smith, most of the founders of our government here in the United States and, more recently, Emerson and William James. These philosophers have always held in broad terms that there is a vital relation between freedom and reason; that an act is voluntaryif the person concerned is not coerced by anybody and is old enough to understand the meaning of what he is doing. Freedom, in other words, is intelligent behavior. Thus emphasis is placed on understanding and on the development of reason and intelligence. And society has been organized on the basis of a meeting of minds and of mutual respect.

Three great historic currents of thought combined to foster and develop this concept among the English-speaking peoples: First, the Nominalist philosophy of the 14th century; second, the British Reformation two hundred years before Luther; and third, the revival of classical learning in England in the 16th century.

Neither the time nor the occasion permits an extended discussion of these three momentous movements and it would be presumptuous for me to attempt to do so anyway before this audience. Suffice it to say that the English monk, William of Ockham, the founder of the Nominalistic school of philosophy, postulated the fundamental tenet of English and American liberalism—individualism—about the year 1325 when he taught at Oxford. Applying that concept to government, the English speaking peoples have said ever since that the reality of the individual and his concrete experience in a real world must be respected. Here is where British thought stands out in stark contrast to the romanticism of German philosophy.

John Wyclif placed translations of the New Testament in the hands of the common people all over England; set up "conventicles" where the populace got together for prayer and worship; and taught that the sacraments of the church meant nothing unless the individual who accepts them knows what he is doing and what they signify. As a result, our forefathers came to the shores of the American continent impregnated with the principles of personal moral responsibility, the right of private judgment and the right of free assembly which, together, filled them with a fervent passion and unshakable belief in the inward spirituality of the individual. They based their political philosophy and their economic system on the concept that there is something about the human spirit that is sacred; that there is a place in the human soul that no government and no man may justly enter, where reside those inalienable rights that the Declaration of Independence later thundered so eloquently to the world.

The Tripod of Freedom

With this religious principle as the foundation, our forefathers erected the tripartite structure—the tripod—on which our individual freedom rests today. First they maintained that if man did possess a sacred personality, he had the right to choose who should rule over him. On that thesis they reared the first supporting tower of our edifice of liberty— representative constitutional democracy. Again they argued that since man possessed a sacred personality, he had the right to think, speak, assemble and worship as he saw fit. On that concept they erected the second tower of the structure of American liberty—civil and religious freedom. And finally they reasoned that any man endowed with a sacred personality had the right to possess for himself such portion of the God-given resources of the earth as he could win by honest toil and effort. Thus they asserted every individual's right to private property and economic activity of his own choice, and on that basic tenet they built the third supporting tower of their temple of liberty—free private enterprise. These three towers stand or fall together. Destroy any one of them, and the whole structure of freedom soon collapses.

This whole process was not accomplished haphazardly. It was not the result of chance or circumstance. On the contrary, it was the fruit of generations of thought and sweat and tears and blood. That tripod of freedom is our most precious heritage in America today. How rarely blessed we are as a people may be realized from the fact that of the approximately forty billion human beings who have lived on this earth since the birth of Christ, less than three per cent have ever enjoyed freedom that even approaches the liberty that we enjoy in the United States at this very hour. And all of it goes back to that spiritual principle of the sacredness of the individual soul which is common to all three of our great religious faiths—Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism—a principle for which the church has fought through the centuries.

Free Enterprise—A Requisite of American Freedom

Of course, by freedom of enterprise I don't mean license to trample upon the rights of others any more than freedom of speech means that a man can be legally permitted to stand up in a crowded theatre and yell, "Fire!," when there is no fire. But free private enterprise with reasonable governmental regulation to insure fair play is an irreplaceable part of our American system of liberty. Without it, none of our other freedoms will long exist. The only alternative is economic planning by government which, as we all know, is far older than free enterprise. In fact, it was the revolt against the older planned economies which gave birth in 1776 and 1789 to both political and economic freedom in America. Despite all the wishful thinking of our doctrinaire planners, the indubitable fact remains that, just as oil and water will not form a chemical mixture because God made them that way, so national economic planning backed by compulsion, and political, intellectual and spiritual freedom is basically repellent and cannot co-exist. For, to carry out any economic program takes time and those in charge would necessarily have to keep themselves in control during the lengthy period required to bring their plans to fruition. To accomplish that objective those in power—in other words the government—obviously would have to influence or control what was printed in the newspapers, said on the radio, taught in e schools and preached in the churches—at least so far as any doctrine advocated was at variance with the set program of the state. Then, I ask you, what would become of the sacred guarantees embodied in the Bill of Rights? And when they were undermined, what would happen to political freedom—representative democracy? The three legs of the tripod of freedom stand or fall together. Like the Three Musketeers, "It is all for one and one for all!"

If there is one lesson that the history of man's struggle for liberty seems to prove, it is this: The individual who desires the intangible yet very real blessings of political, intellectual and religious liberty must assume a very large portion of the responsibility for his own economic well-being. If he is unwilling to do so and places that burden on the shoulders of government, he will soon find that he has reared a Frankenstein monster whose appetite for control is literally insatiable and which sooner or later will devour all his freedoms in the process of expanding its power. Parenthetically may I add that the private institution of higher learning that seeks the solution of its financial difficulties by securing government support will soon discover that "he who pays the piper calls the tune." As a trustee of two such colleges and one public institution, I am a firm believer in our dual system of higher education, and I earnestly hope that none of us who share that faith will weaken the sources of our intellectual and spiritual strength by selling the birthright of academic freedom of our private colleges for the red pottage of public subsidies.

The Classic Origins of Liberty

The third factor which I mentioned some moments ago as being responsible for the development of English liberalism was the revival of classical learning in England in the 16th century. To round out this point, we must now turn back to ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks appear to have developed a love of liberty very similar to that which has characterized the English-speaking peoples. In the 5th century B. C. they drove the Persians back across the Aegean Sea and for the first time felt free of the threat of foreign domination and able to develop their own peculiar civilization. Almost the first question they asked was: "How can we live a good life?"—meaning by that phrase how they could be most happy and free to attain a full measure of intellectual and spiritual maturity. This question led to another: "What is good?" And since these people could not fall back on tradition or custom or tribal religion for an answer, they were obliged to try to think the question through on their own initiative and make answer on the basis of personal judgment, pioneer thinking and good taste. The fruit of their attack on fundamental questions, such as these, lies at the source of the liberal culture of western Europe and America.

In Plato's famous parable of the cave in the Seventh book of "The Republic," he drove home the point that the mental processes of a free mind and those of the herd are as far apart as the poles. Such thinking consists not merely in what men believe, but how and why. The free man deals with his life in wholly different fashion than does the man whose mind has not been set free. Such a man has, as Aristotle points out, mastered his passions; tempered his judgment; will either doubt or believe on the basis of evidence only; will neither seek nor shun danger; and in all his relationships exhibit temperance and poise. Such is the man, according to the ancient Greek philosophers, who has found freedom through the exercise of wisdom. Wherever this concept of the free man has held sway, human life has found dignity and freedom; force has been reduced to a minimum; mutual respect and common counsel have been substituted for coercion; and democratic self-government has developed. Aristotle warns us, however, that democracy tends to evolve into revolution and tyranny. The demagogue eventually appears who excites the passions of the crowd and then lures the people with promises that an abundance of material things will be theirs, if only the existing order be overthrown. How this process Aristotle so accurately describes, is repeating itself in this present day!

Marcus Cicero, who may be regarded as the last great liberal of antiquity, was a great disciple of Aristotle. As consul of the Republic of Rome he crushed the Catiline rebellion. Not long ago I read some of the harangues made to the populace by the leaders of this rebellion, as reported by Sallust. They sounded most familiar. In fact, in their denunciation of capitalists and their demand for the redistribution of wealth, they might have been delivered in Union Square yesterday. Huey Long with his "Every man a king" or Stuart Chase with his "Economy of Abundance" could scarcely have done a better job.

Although Cicero was voted the title of "Father of His Country," he was unable to save the republic from the proletarian party, directed by one of the shrewdest politicians that has ever appeared in human history, Julius Caesar. Cicero was liquidated in a purge fomented by Mark Anthony and, after that, no man's life or property was safe. Dictatorship succeeded dictatorship, destroying not only the constitution of the republic but eventually all sense of political responsibility among its citizens. More and more planned economy followed, which led to more and more economicconfusion. The currency was inflated; there was great unemployment in all the principal cities; no less than twenty per cent of the population were on the public payroll; taxes were so high that the farmers were compelled to turn their lands over to the government. Collective farming was attempted but the government could not get people to work because the proletariat no longer had the desire or habit of labor. The people lost political interest. Few cared to hold office. They would not even fight to save themselves. Finally the border was opened and the barbarians were brought in to raise crops and man the defenses.

It was not until fifteen hundred years after Cicero, that a group of Italians in Florence were able to set up a new republic. There, in an academy on the hillside of Fiesole, men began again to think and discuss questions as did the free men of ancient Greece and Rome. Interest in Cicero was renewed; they read and re-read his inspiring words about liberty. From this center came a new group of scholars— men like Erasmus of Rotterdam—who brought this old but ever new source of intellectual inspiration to the peoples of northern Europe and thus laid the foundations for the Revival of Learning in the modern world. Erasmus, who came to Oxford University to teach, Thomas Moore and John Milton carried the philosophy of Socrates and Cicero to Great Britain. Cicero became the great exemplar of patrician virtue in the minds of the free thinking liberals of the 17th and 18th centuries in England and America. Roger Williams of Rhode Island and Thomas Hooker of Connecticut were the two men most responsible for bringing the Ciceronian tradition of classical liberalism to America.

It is a significant fact that practically all the prominent New England patriots were educated in the Boston Latin School in Boston; that the Virginia group, Washington, Randolph, Wythe, Henry, Marshall, Jefferson and Madison, all came directly or indirectly under the influence of Dr. Small of Edinburgh University, who taught logic and literature at William and Mary College in Williamsburg for a decade or two preceding the Revolution. In these schools our forefathers became acquainted with Socrates and Aristotle and the great English political philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Nowhere is Ciceronian influence more evident than in The Federalist Papers of Hamilton, Madison and Jay. Jefferson states frankly that the Declaration of Independence contains no new ideas but rests on "the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc." Our founding fathers had a political philosophy. They believed in it and knew how to defend it. As an eminent American educator has said: "The retention of this philosophy of freedom is the issue on which the survival of our republic will be determined."

How the American College Can Preserve the Roots of Liberty

Yet as Walter Lippmann pointed out in a cogent address not long ago: "A graduate of our modern schools knows only by accident and by hearsay whatever wisdom mankind has come to, in regard to the nature of men and their destiny." Thus the crux of the appeal that I bring tonight to you—the directing heads of our institutions of higher learning—is this: Dare we leave the preservation of the roots of liberty any longer to accident and hearsay? Is it not high time to plan purposefully and effectively to the end that no man or woman shall be graduated from any institution of higher learning until and unless he or she has acquired an over-all working knowledge of the philosophic and religious principles that underlie the American Republic? To carry out such a plan little or no expense would be involved. No new endowments would be required. Forthere is not an institution in this Association that does not presently offer in its departments of history, government, economics, sociology, philosophy and religion, courses of study that embody all or virtually all of the root principles on which our American system rests. Exploration by a patriotic curriculum committee might reveal a few missing links here and there; certain points that should be emphasized and coordinated with the related facts in other courses. To make room for such a comprehensive program might necessitate some sacrifice on the student's part of certain subjects of less importance at this critical period in our nation's history. By and large, however, the preservation and cultivation of the roots of American liberty, so far as our colleges and universities are concerned, would involve nothing more than the willingness to sink departmental and professional jealousies in a wholehearted, concerted effort to lay out a well-rounded program of required courses that would provide every student with an adequate knowledge of and faith in the eternal concepts on which history shows men may associate themselves to enjoy permanently the blessings of freedom. The mechanics of government change and will continue to change, but the principles on which popular self-government can continue to exist are immutable and unalterable—at least until the millennium doth appear.

The Threat to Academic Freedom

In becoming protagonists of the principles on which the American Republic rests, our institutions of higher learning would not only perform a patriotic duty but protect their own interest as well. This is true not only in respect to privately endowed colleges, but also those that are supported by public funds. The fate of the great universities of Germany, for example, is a sad object lesson for us all. When political or economic freedom disappears, academic freedom goes too. The physical threat to the continued existence of our privately endowed institutions, as the yield on investments grows steadily less, and taxes take more and more from individual incomes, is too obvious to require comment. The intellectual threat—if I may use that phrase—to our publicly supported institutions as the State assumes more and more economic and political power, is equally ominous.

Wanted—Popular Books on the Roots of Liberty

May I call your attention to the surprising fact that there is no single book available today that deals adequately and enthusiastically with the roots of American liberty from a historical, philosophical and religious viewpoint. Scores of volumes setting forth the alleged virtues of collectivism canbe had in any book store. But it is a striking commentary on the complacency of the academic mind in respect to the blessings of freedom provided by the American system that no comprehensive discussion of these principles for popular consumption is presently to be found within the covers of any single volume I have been able to discover. Would that the present crisis might stir as many vigorous patriotic pens into action as have been wielded by the collectivist brethren of the academic world in decrying the achievements of the American Republic and advancing their own starry-eyed theories of government and economic organization!

The Responsibilities of Businessmen

If the roots of liberty are to be preserved in America, we businessmen alumni of the institutions you head, also have a definite responsibility to discharge. Operibus noscimur. We businessmen must be shining examples of civic virtue, using that phrase in its classic sense. We must eliminate unethical practices in our own enterprises so that business can always come into the court of public opinion with clean hands; we must be keenly conscious of the social significance of our day by day decisions; we must be good stewards of the responsibilities with which individual freedom has entrusted us; we must steadily seek ways and means of regularizing employment and cushioning the effect of advancing technology on the lives and fortunes of our workers; we must raise the standard of living by passing along the benefits of improved technique and quantity production through lower prices and higher wages; we must constantly endeavor to create better conditions of employment by the elimination of health and accident hazards; we must take an active part in public affairs; we must seek to be economic statesmen rather than mere businessmen.

We live today in the shadow of war. We live to see helpless civilian populations blotted out as death rains from the sky. We live to see the sanctity of treaties and contracts violated at the caprice of wilful men. We live to see the culture and art of nations degraded by the sort of tyranny and cruelty that characterized the Dark Ages. We live to see old symbols of honesty, sincerity and character mutilated under the heel of brutal military power. In the midst of such chaos, when moral and intellectual ideals are obscured and stained with crass selfishness and overweening ambition; when bewildered peoples eagerly grasp at the tenuous straws of alleged economic security offered by strongly centralized governments; when those who sit in the seats of power are themselves confused and distraught; when, as Emerson said, "Things sit in the saddle and ride men," America must turn again to the root principles of her liberty for national salvation.