THAT THE THINGS WE CHERISH SHALL NEVER PERISH
By GOVERNOR J. HOWARD McGRATH, of Rhode Island
Delivered at the Annual Dinner of the Providence Chamber of Commerce, February 11, 1942
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 369-371.
THERE is something satisfying—something reassuring —yes; perhaps something selfish—that we enjoy upon a night such as this, amid fellowship and friendship. Whatever the community of interest that brings us together —whether it be business or government—it is gratifying to all of us, not in the sense that such a night permits us to set aside our problems, nor to forget them, but rather that it reminds us that we are not alone in working out our destiny.
Tiny though our corner of the world may be—restricted though our vision—occasions like this let us know that other men are ready to share our problems with us. The cares that we marshal on our desks—that we take down each day and put back again on our shelves—are made a little lighter when we find other men as companions with an interest in those problems, and a willingness to talk them over—to take them over—and to help us make them over. Thus, we come more and more to realize that neither man's problems more than his profits are strictly his own, and this is so even in a democracy which exalts man's personality to the highest and defends his rights of property and privacy to the fullest.
Associations such as the Providence Chamber of Commerce accept as a privilege the task of sharing and solving the problems of business in this community. The necessity for our organization and the value of the service this chamber has rendered proves the inevitable fact that business is not, and cannot be, an isolationist. The opportunities of business are entwined in our way of life; and, correspondingly, the responsibility of business to pay is also part of that way. Business must pay its portion on the insurance policy that guarantees safe and adequate government through which we are all protected in our pursuit of happiness, no less than of life and liberty.
Under our democracy, it is the privilege of each of us to take in our Government as intimate a part as we will. And if we will, we may side-step any immediate and personal participation. It remains in our personal power to avoid and evade all the rights and responsibilities of selecting those by whom the Government is administered. But Government, nevertheless, will not withhold its privileges and its protection from such delinquents, nor will it withhold fromdelinquent or dutiful the burdens, the costs, the contributions, and the sacrifices which are vital to the existence and growth of government. Officials, who are the temporary trustees of your way of life, will exact these costs and contributions and sacrifices. They have both the right and the responsibility to impose such burdens, to the end that government may function in a manner that will best protect, preserve, and make permanent the fundamental principles and beliefs upon which that Government was founded.
Imperfections will always exist in those who govern, and will usually be magnified by those who are governed. We seek, therefore, only the perfection that allows discounts for human frailties and misunderstandings. We are not strangers to the soft impeachment that the best men do not seek public office. We would be too modest to deny the further assertion that the better men available are not always selected.
Let us say that it seems to be the prerogative of a democracy to make some errors. But out of a century and three-quarters of trial and error we have fashioned a government that has made life a little sweeter, a relationship between mankind that is really something to defend, a philosophy of life which to retain for others men have gladly and nobly surrendered their own lives.
Within this kind of government men have risen to its highest honor—both from Kentucky log cabin and Massachusetts mansion. And mansion, cabin, and cottage have each in turn earned the decoration of the golden star, that mark of the highest service and sacrifice supreme. It has been earned by the sons of emigrants, no less than by the sons of the purple; in its earning they have all been sons of what we like to call the average American man. Sons of the average man are rising to hero stature from Pensacola to Pearl Harbor, from Iceland to India, so that they may preserve our form of government for the average men that are to come after us.
If I were asked to describe this type of government—that is, government of the average man—I could not better define it than in the simple terms of "the rule of the majority, the dignity of the minority, and the sanctity of the individual." Out of these are born the opportunities and theliberties, the pride of citizenship, and the power of personal possession, which we term the happiness we pursue. Out of this happiness rises the love of country which, when cherished, we term patriotism. For patriotism is the high resolve that the things we do cherish shall never perish. What are these things we cherish?
In times like these we are just re-learning what the fundamentals are. Often we wonder if we have not been the victims of our own civilization, with its illusions of luxury, and the confusions wrought by our very genius.
Today we are commemorating the birthday of Thomas Edison. His genius is recalled in every brilliant lamp in all these gorgeous chandeliers. And yet throughout the continents of the world men cudgel their brains to devise the perfect black-out. Oftentimes their very lives depend on their ability to shut out the last tell-tale electric ray.
Shut out from what? From another brain child of man, from the airplane that inventive America has fostered for a generation. This ungrateful child has turned its blast of death upon the parent. We have conquered the elements of the air; and yet, tonight, everywhere, men, women, and children cower from the terror of the clouds.
We have annihilated distance and the speeding motor has each year assumed new uses and new beauty. Today it appears a hideous thing of steel, on the endless chain of crushing wheels of cruelty-—the tank emerges to smash the puny defense of mere man who created it.
The submarine returns to its native waters and off the very shore of the beloved land of its inventor it spawns danger, destruction, and death.
The headlines of our newspapers have become as fantastic as the movie ads that spread the inside pages. To the eye of the average reader, dulled by the daily piling of tragedy upon tragedy, of heroic last stands, of thousands of miles of fighting front, and millions of fighting men, the headlines seem almost as unreal as the flickering shadows of the movie screen itself.
Slowly but surely, however, the throbbing realities sift down into the little shell of isolationism that is the average man. Gently, it is cutting into his complacency—he who seemed so far off—secure in the thought that drama happens to other people but not to me—he is finding himself touched by events that leave him no longer independent, but with a growing share in a great and frightful adventure.
Even here, as yet, fate is treating him gently. The sugar for his breakfast table is not quite so plentiful. His cream now will be delivered only every other day. A trusted employee leaves to join the armed service. Some one else has a prior claim to a new tire. He will have to get along longer with the old car. The installments that he looked upon as a natural part of his budget will go now—not for new cars but for new taxes.
Thus we are learning that when a voice says that we must pay for victory that voice is talking to us. That when it permits just a tone of doubt to creep into it, when it says that it is cheaper to pay for victory than give tribute in defeat, when it even suggests the idea of defeat, it may mean us, too, if we are not sufficiently aroused, and soon. We tremble a little when we are told that the soft days must be taken from our calendar, for there may be on that calendar hard days beyond our ken to count or bear.
There must be people in responsible places to say those harsh things when they are true, and such people are charged by us with the task of learning their truth, the further task of making us believe them, the still further task of preparing us for them and protecting us from them, and the hardesttask of all, getting us to do part of the preparing, part of the protecting, and part of the paying.
In the piping days of peace things that disturbed us, conditions that annoyed us, were eliminated by laws, laws made by average men like ourselves. Mostly they were concerned with maintaining rights and neighborly relations and improving the general lot. As we were average lawmakers, no one expected miracles. In the difficult days of war we must still meet our problems by law, by-laws made by average men like ourselves, but men who are groping with problems so unrelated to our experiences or customs or manners of thinking that the difficulties of the times are immeasurably increased, and we should not in this more difficult situation expect the laws of average men to assume the dignity of miracles, that of and by themselves will solve our problems.
Out of the minds and souls, the thoughts and aspirations of generation after generation of average lawmakers, we have succeeded in lifting ourselves to a place of light that is at once the admiration and the envy of other nations. We are not yet able to analyze the envious minds of peoples we have long befriended, nor the hatreds of nations we have helped. Just as we are not too able to take apart the machinery of our neighbor's mind to find the why of the lawbreaker who comes in the darkness of night to steal our treasure or violate our home.
We have come to understand that there are gangster nations who pillage and plunder; who rape and rob, who seem to know not the meaning of the words "fair play" or "fair fight." Our understanding is a trifle slow, it is true. Under our policy of live and let live, we have been slow to regiment our people against people who like to be regimented. We have been slow to arm for defense against people who joyfully suffer every hardship so that they might be armed for plunder.
Too often we have waited for a stab in the back. On our part such action does not denote softness. To that we are giving an answer on every field of battle, however out-numbered. It does not mean disunity, though aggressor nations may have mistaken our tolerance stretched almost beyond endurance because of our insistence on personal freedom. It does not denote selfishness, for we shall not ask of anyone more than we are all required to share. And it is our purpose not to permit the weak to be exploited for the profit of the few. But these weaknesses, which are inherent in a democracy must be counterbalanced, as I believe they are, by a determination of our people when once aroused, to leave no stone unturned to achieve ultimate victory and lasting peace.
This determination now has taken hold. Our people realize that this is war, that it is a struggle to survive, and that our way of life may survive. That it is not an enterprise of profit for any man or monopoly—that it is not a great adventure to which we invite our youth to go blindly and bluntly, untrained or unarmed, while we maintain as closely as we can the unhurried ways of our pleasures. These youth represent a generation for which we have plotted and planned the better things of life, and now we are expecting that they shall risk that life itself to atone for our mistakes, our unpreparedness if you will, our gullibility; or perhaps it was only our belief in life as we lived it, liberty as we found it, opportunity as we made it, belief that all these would be an inspiration to the world, as a blessing to be sought, not as booty to be pirated.
Men who have willed to be free have reduced their principles to writing, as have those who willed others to be free.
Such writings were the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. Men who willed to remain free realized that theirs must be a determination set forth in writing, and their writings are their laws—laws are written that blessings gained may be retained. Laws are not static Though they are based on the past, they look to the future. They invite change, or they themselves would never have been written.
Our laws today represent the things for which we fight—the rights of ourselves and neighbors to be improved in our earthly lot, that the land may be ours to possess and to transfer to others, that the home may be further sanctified and the birthright of children protected, that the exploitation of women may be prevented, and the health and happiness of mankind generally be protected against conditions of economic slavery.
We can make all of the sacrifices that the present emergency calls upon us to make and still preserve intact these basic principles of the written law by which we declare our purpose to be free; and we will find these fundamentals fully alive when the luxuries are temporarily removed by our voluntary action or by the compulsion of law. And it is alone for the fundamentals, and not for the luxuries only for the home and family and human things and human rights and human relationships, that we have a right to expect men to fight and die to preserve. And if these are the fundamentals of a nation at war, they should be the measure by which we guarantee the maximum human effort in this desperate task, the all-out effort on the home front, where preparation and production, morale, and manpower are as definitely the needs as they are needs on the distant fighting fronts.
Rather there is no longer a distant fighting front. This is a Nation on the alert in a world that is at war. We are back to the hour of the Rhode Island pioneer, who took the musket from its place above the door and set out to protect his home from the savage of the nearby forest.
Today the savage may be no farther away. The forest that conceals him could well be the tolerance, the complacency, the refusal of our smug attitudes to understand and to undertake to do our part.
The day of the pioneer has gone, perhaps, but the day of the patriot is still here. In the district school, in the parish church, in the nearby firehouse, and spreading out from those observing and listening posts to every home and fireside of our State you will find those patriots, trainingand trained, teaching and preaching, and bringing home to everyone of us the danger, the real, present, imminent danger, shaking us out of the inertia, the cocksureness of safety for which there is no guaranty, shocking us out of a belief in easy victory for which, heaven knows, there is so little assurance.
Yes, we have taken so much for granted, the superiority of everything we do and make. Yes, this is all fine if we do them, and if we make them, but it's all wrong, and will be fatal if we let George do them, and if we let George make them.
And all these things that we blithely consider America—the table of contents of our volume of freedom that was ours to enjoy. Are you sure that you are going to be able to hand them along to a free people? Hand along what? The right of your son to pick his own vocation, your right to choose your own business career, to speak your own mind, to choose your own church, to trial by jury, to the sanctity of your home against invasion, to the freedom of the press to criticize our Government and public officials, to your right to peaceably petition that Government, and to change that Government and its make-up, if need be.
What is there to lull us, to hold to our easygoing ways? Let each man answer for himself—what am I doing that is "all out" for defense? What is there in the headlines that tell us we can have business as usual, life as always, leisure at will? Our hearts are going to be heavier before they are lighter. History is going to make new names to take their places with Belleau Woods, Valley Forge, and Gettysburg.
It is fourscore years since Lincoln stood at Gettysburg. On that dramatic day he spoke of our country founded "fourscore and seven years" before. Gettysburg is now the halfway mark in our present history. It could be the halfway mark in our complete history if our Nation is not united, if it does not gird itself for this struggle that is life or death.
The answer lies in our own hearts. There can be no division there. There can only be decision. If the spirit of Abraham Lincoln is hovering over this gathering tonight, as I am sure it is, it may well feel at home. And he who gave his love, his labor, and life for an undivided land must know that he has not died in vain. For tonight we borrow his words to make our own personal pledge:
"We are here highly resolved that this Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."