The Democracy For Which We Fight


By FRANCIS BIDDLE, Attorney General of the United States William H. White Foundation Lecture, Delivered at the University of Virginia,

Charlottesville, Virginia, December 4, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 167-171.

I SHOULD not pause in the work of the war—or permit myself to tempt you to do so—were not the moment propitious for introspection. The progress of our arms drives home more clearly with each passing day the worldwide implications of the task to which we have devoted our country and our lives. What we do or fail to do, what we seek or fail to seek, what we think or fail to think—has potent meaning not alone for ourselves but for the humblest spirit anywhere on the face of the earth. Men have spoken glibly of the future of the world. Not even the hardiest cynic will smile when I say now—in the most measured terms—that its future depends upon ourselves—upon the force and the imagination, upon the intellect and the passion of the democracy we call our own. I repeat, therefore, that the time is appropriate for introspection; and to us who believe in democracy, who are the bearers of the democratic message—for better or for worse—to all the peoples of the earth—it is a time for democratic introspection. If the time is correct, so without a doubt is the place. You who live andwork almost within sight of Monticello know that here the very air and shadows keep watch for our democracy—here where so much of the democratic hope was born, where so much of its creed was written.

Unless I gravely mistake the lesson of events, what we think about ourselves determines in the long run what we are and what we are capable of doing. Hence, my concern in this paper is less with what democracy is than what we —its citizens and workers in its cause—think it is. Not that I have taken pains to conceal my own views. Far from it—I have not. What I have done in these lectures is to forsake a single thesis in favor of a variety of themes—basic themes, it seems to me, in the current of democratic thought. I shall, in short, give you my note-book with occasional comments-—privileged I trust—on what the notes may mean.


It has been said, and often with some heat, that we are derelict in our duty in failing to state the ends for whichwe fight this war. Those who voice the criticism confound the statement of our ends with a catalogue of available means. Our immediate end in righting this war is to win both the war and the peace that is to come. For as the President said on October 12, it "is useless to win a war unless it stays won. . . . We are united in seeking the kind of victory that will guarantee that our grandchildren can grow and, under God, may live their lives free from the constant threat of invasion, destruction, slavery and violent death." This we seek for ourselves, the chance to develop our democracy in our own way, free from external restraint.

What we seek for others was stated by the President and Winston Churchill in August of 1941. As unequivocally as words can tell, they said that "their countries seek no aggrandizement . . . desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned . . . respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live . . . [with] sovereign rights and self-government restored." Nor did the Atlantic Charter, so-called may I remind you from the place where it was written rather than the subject with which it deals, stop with a guaranty of political integrity. Access to trade and raw materials, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security were among the "common principles." Freedom of the seas, abandonment of the use of force, and, correlatively, the establishment of a permanent system of general security are among the stated aims. When to these are added the President's emphasis on the four freedoms everywhere, it is difficult to see how democratic hopes and democratic faith could be articulated in plainer terms. The two phases of our heritage of freedom have here been brought together: the first and the older phase, the protection of individual men and women against tyrants and the tyrant state; the second and newer phase, the protection of individual men and women against what Senator Wagner has called "social and economic conditions in which human beings cannot be free." Projected on the plane of the future, extended to all the corners of the earth—these are our ultimate hopes, the ends for which we fight.

It is in the nature of these hopes that while they add much to the force of our arms many of them cannot be realized by the force of arms alone. The force that holds men in bondage can be broken by superior force; the starvation that makes them slaves can be dissipated by giving them food; the ignorance that binds them to earth can be dispelled by the knowledge that points to the stars. But what men do with freedom depends in the end upon themselves.

The point is the old one, often repeated by Justice Brandeis, with reference to our problems at home. "Democracy," he once said, "is a serious undertaking which substitutes self-restraint for external restraint." Thus, as he told the Commission on Industrial Relations in 1914, speaking of the relation of management and labor, "however much we may desire material improvement and must desire it for the comfort of the individual, the United States is a democracy and we must have, above all things, men. . . . The social justice for which we are striving is an incident to our democracy, not the main end. It is rather the result of democracy—perhaps its finest expression—but it rests upon democracy—which implies rule by the people." His concern over the growth of huge corporations sprang, as all men know, from the fear that the exercise of their power would paralyze individual initiative and thus impair creative strength. And his belief in preserving the fundamental rights protected by the first ten Amendments arose from the judgment, so clearly made by the Founders, that they are essential constituents of "a free climate for individual men."

To accept these views is but to say that the democracy which is our concern at home and abroad is at bottom a concern for individual human beings. It is upon them that we must depend for the fruition of our hopes; it is for them that the hopes are dear. Men cannot be made by having the state give them their ideas, choose their leaders, provide their religion. Government—however efficient—is not an end but a means. The people are the end, the men and women who make their governments to suit their lives. Thought of as an end, set free of the needs of the human beings it is intended to serve, government, turning mechanical, must become either impotent or brutal. Institutions cannot be given a life of their own, divorced from the flesh and blood of men. The inevitable result, when such distortion occurs, is summarized in the dogmas of the totalitarian state.

This bold democratic faith is affirmed not only by liberals but by groups that we think of as properly conservative. A "blue print" for the post-war world was drawn last September at the Inter-American Seminar on social studies called by the National Catholic Welfare Conference. Condemning totalitarianism, calling for the establishment of "a just and free order for all the peoples," the statement speaks of the necessity to make economic life serve the general good of all mankind through the free organization of business, labor, farmers and the professions, assisted and supervised by government. Implicit in the statement is the insistence that the rights of men must be further protected and enhanced. "The crisis of our civilization . . . springs from a false notion of man. . . . Political systems and philosophical systems that deny the equality of mankind and break its unity, the lust for domination and the persecutions founded on racial and religious discrimination are inhuman, anti-Christian and barbarous." The preservation and exercise of individual rights, the Seminar holds, should "obtain recognition and protection in every social order. Democracy, whatever its deficiencies may have been in the past, is certainly opposed to totalitarianism, and when it is directed by the Christian principles constitutes a system under which Christian living can best be achieved. . . . Social reform is necessary immediately . . . people must get their just wage . . . they must have economic security. . . . Access to ownership . . . must be broadened as widely as possible. Free organization of labor must be guaranteed. . . . The poor must live well. . . . The purpose and justification of the war is not vengeance but the establishment of a just and free order for all the peoples of the world." All this is implicit in the Atlantic Charter and the authoritative statements of our ends that have already been made. Those who do not find it there have not yet learned to read.


What I have said comes then to this: It is democracy for which we fight this war—its preservation and enrichment for ourselves and its extension, so far as possible, to those to whom it is now denied. I have no doubt that it is this faith in a democratic future that stirs in England, in China, and in Russia, in the hearts of our soldiers in the field and the soldiers of our Allies. But, I asked myself, is that what we really think—we, the people of America who are here and still at home? Is the sentiment of the public really moved by the vision of a better world or is it merely disturbed by anxiety about increased taxation and the threat of unemployment after the war? Do the people of our land fight only to win the war and have it over—or to use the war for great and democratic ends?

In a recent lecture delivered in England Mr. Archibald MacLeish has addressed himself to these questions with hisusual eloquence. Speaking of the period following our initial defensive reaction to Pearl Harbor, he said:

"There was something new now in the world, something forward in time, and the people felt it. They recognized it in each others' faces, in each others' courage, in the newspaper accounts of the resistance of the people elsewhere, in the radio stories from the many fronts. They knew that the President was right when he told them that the militarists of Rome and Tokyo and Berlin had begun this war, but that they would end it—that the people would end it. They propose to end it and to end it, not by defeating the purpose of the enemies of the people only, but by realizing a purpose of their own—a clear and forming purpose—a purpose to live like men, to live with dignity and in freedom, and like men." Often enough a poet's insight yields the truest measure of the facts. If, as I trust, this sense of democratic purpose has become the spirit of our people as a whole, it is barely revealed in the pages of the daily press. A study of 125 newspapers during the months of August and September suggests a picture far less clear. There is in some quarters an apathy concerning post-war aims compatible only with lack of interest. Some commentators, to be sure, have suggested rather vaguely that we must plan for after the war—but in the ultimate impact of the press their voices do not predominate over the contrary view that consideration of the future is likely to detract from the war effort, and being necessarily visionary may endanger the system of private enterprise. Keep your eyes on the ground!

The thought is not limited to the press. "We must not as a nation" said Senator Harold W. Burton "spend our precious fighting time on preparing detailed terms of peace before we have won that peace." Obviously no "detailed terms" can be prepared. But the underlying spirit, the general principles in terms of which details will be appraised, are the very spirit of the war itself; they must necessarily become part of our lives. If we bury our heads in the sand until the martial winds have passed, we shall not raise them at the end with vision unimpaired. Speaking in Boston on October 8, the Under Secretary of State, Mr. Sumner Welles, made emphatically clear that the Administration is no party to the discouragement of constructive thought "One hears it said," he observed, "that no thought should be given to the problems of the peace, nor to the problems of the transitional period between war and established peace, until after the war has been won. The shallowness of such thinking, whether sincere or sinister, is apparent."

For most of the purposes of thought there is in truth no sharp break between the peace and the war. In the continuum of time and history a new order does not emerge from a picture book; it is necessarily a part of what has gone before. In that sense the peace is a part of the war, just as the war was fed by the failures of the unsolid peace that ended the last great war. Yesterday Pearl Harbor, and with the treacherous attack the end of divergence and doubt. Today North Africa with its face turned toward tomorrow in Southern Europe, the next sure step. The force of arms and the establishment of order shortly to be followed by the patient work of relief and rehabilitation. Even while the soldier stands guard, the doctor, the engineer, the relief worker will point to the tasks of peace—releasing as they work the pent constructive energy of newly liberated lands. Compartmentalized thinking about war and peace will not keep pace with the march of such events. Ancient fears of entangling alliances, the traditional instinct to view the problems of the Old World as essentially dissimilar from our own will not compete with the pressing realities of hope and need that will accompany and follow the war.


If, as Mr. MacLeish has said, "there is something new now in the world," I believe that it is the sensed chance and the formed will to view the long future in the largest democratic terms. What this may mean concretely—whether at home or abroad—we cannot yet foretell. Clarity on ends does not produce an equal clarity on means. But I can illustrate the challenge we must face at home by figures close at hand. Alvin H. Hansen and Guy Greer tell us in a recent article that in 1941, when there was already a very large output of armaments, consumers expenditures in the United States for privately produced goods and services was $75,800,000,000 as compared with $70,800,000,000 in 1929—the great boom year; and that after allowing for price changes and increase in population "the amount available per capita for consumption was about ten per cent higher than in 1929." The gross national product for 1943 was estimated at 165 billions—against 100 billions in 1929. How shall we read such statements—as a prophecy of doom after the war is won or, rather, as a promise of a peace economy geared to the same productive proportions, its potentialities almost unimaginable for the satisfaction of consumers' needs? Those who grasp the breadth of democratic aspiration will certainly see a promise and not a doom.

This is not to say that there are no difficulties in the road ahead or that we can underestimate what difficulties there are. Some of them, indeed, involve recurrent issues in the patterns of democratic thinking. To state them now may, at the least, assist us in appraising their scope.

There is, first, the fear of change and with it the failure to realize that while the democratic purpose is constant the special functions of democracy are constantly being transformed. Where once men forgot to protect themselves against Star Chamber, to be represented if they were taxed, to hold their own religion or resist one foisted on them by the state, so they fought another day to protect themselves against exploitation by industry and finance. Yet such change, destructive as it may be to accustomed ways of thinking, is of the essence of a democratic life. If, as I have said, democracy is ultimately rooted in a positive demand for a broader distribution of individual happiness; if, as I believe, the democratic urge springs from the insistence on life as an end in itself as opposed to the negation of state-worship—then change is the breath of its nostrils, growth and variety its welcome resources. Democracy can be no more static than life. It must move and grow in order to endure at all. This, if anything, we have learned in the years that have passed. We shall need to believe it firmly in the years that will come.

I have spoken of the fear of change; along with it is the fear of planning. Some among us tremble at the word, sensing a regimentation foreign to our fundamental concepts. Yet we have always planned—Franklin and Hamilton, Webster and Clay. What, indeed, has had a greater power to stir the national spirit than plans, clearly formulated and honestly expressed, pointing the promise of our democratic hopes? Yet you must have heard, as I have, the shudders that accompany mention of a "planned economy"—followed as they always are by whispers of "socialism" and the destruction of the American System. The truth is that all economy is planned, as is successful business enterprise or any other form of intelligent life. For planning is nothing more nor less than an attempt to face problems and to solve them. The important question you may be sure is not whether there will be planning—there is bound to be so long as people think—but who is to make the plans and what they will be like. What is important to the people of a democracy is that the plans that are made promote theirinterests and that they have a part in their formulation and execution. But unless wise planning occurs—it is democracy itself that will ultimately be set adrift.

The third difficulty I would mention I shall call the difficulty of the over-simplified choice. We have encountered it often in the past as the choice between communism and fascism, or again, between laissez-faire and benevolent socialism, or still again, between not enough food and too much state. In times of economic stress, or over-rapid social organization there is a tendency to set up the non-existent dilemmas posed by such absolutistic choice. Often enough the exponents of government control tend in this way to put all their eggs in a single basket, forgetting that human strength and cohesion can frequently express itself in the natural groupings of self-interest moving behind the cloak of government more naturally than through the government itself. By the same token, the opposing school, viewing with alarm a law which impinges on their interests, yield readily to articulate horror at what they assert to be the approach of totalitarian rule. What is overlooked in such over-drawn conclusions, is that Government, with its role reasonably defined in relation to the facts of human living, is not incompatible with a just society—anymore than a country reasonably free from those who govern it is incompatible with one that is also reasonably free from want. To put the matter in another way, the fault with such dilemmas is that they overlook the basic assumption of any democratic society, the assumption of compromise. If, as has been said, life is but a compromise with our environment, how can its political expression avoid an entirely comparable pattern? Were not life the give and take that it is, necessarily imperfect in any abstract terms, there would be no need for government at all. What is, in the end, of the essence of dictatorship and of the spirit of those who could accept it—is the insistence on one set of ideas, formulated from one source of power, controlling all alike. Such insistence and nothing more is involved in these absolutes of choice.

A fourth difficulty—closely related to that of the oversimplified choice—is the notion of a rigid distinction between the function of the Government and the function of private enterprise. This, indeed, has been the central theme of our political controversies for half a hundred years. I do not deny that uppermost in the minds of the Founders was the concept of a limited government, limited by inherent weakness as well as by law. They were determined to prevent the abuses of power which they had experienced in dealing with George the Third. The less government, they thought, the better. Yet this intended weakness, designed to strengthen the individual, speedily threatened to sanction his destruction at the hands of enterprise itself. So it was that the powers of unregulated business had to be checked by transferring much of their control from private to public hands. The shift occurred not under pressure of theory but in response to practical need. Where theory pointed to the status quo of governmental negativity, shippers and tradesmen, farmers and consumers and finally labor as well—insisted on redressing the balance that theory would have denied. This is familiar history, to be sure, but it is history that we must constantly keep in mind.

It is this history that is denied by such assertions as that made a few years ago by a former president of the United States Chamber of Commerce when it had become clear that the New Deal did no intend to confine itself to saving the railroads and the banks: "The best public servant," he said, "is the worst one . . . A thoroughly first-class man in public service is corrosive. He eats holes in our liberties. The better he is and the longer he stays the greater is the danger." It is the same history that is denied when, abouttwo years ago, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of one of our greatest industrial giants published as a full-time advertisement in Fortune what he was pleased to call "An American Primer." There were seven "items" of the interesting declaration, "set down," as the distinguished executive expressed it "in simple language." "Remember," the second item ran, "that government belongs to the people, is inherently inefficient, and that its activity should be limited to those which government alone can perform."

It is not the past alone that is denied when, as I read on November 17, the President of the National Association of Manufacturers asserted that the task of industry is to prevent "the continuance of Government control after the war" because "the time will come when patriotism is no longer stimulated by the present emotional impulses" or when the Governor of a great state suggested, if the New York Times is to be believed, that the nation is in greater danger of losing its democracy through the expansion of Federal bureaus than through a military defeat. I suppose that there are men who, reading such stuff at breakfast, nod over their orange juice and say to their wives "By George, he's right." That's sound stuff." But is it a contribution to the solution of the problems we face?

You will not think, because I have used strong words, that I ignore or underestimate the danger that governmental powers may be abused. My point is, rather, that the problem of the over-concentration and the misuse of power involves government and enterprise alike; corporate organizations, labor monopolies—any other grouping of human beings—may acquire more power than they should have or may use such power as they have for purposes inimical to the general good. The misuse of power is neither more likely nor more necessarily harmful in the case of the government than it is in the case of the other social organisms where power has been or may be lodged. Yet as Mr. Ordway Tead observed last September in a penetrating article in the Survey Graphic called "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Power:" "It is worth noting that no one has ever seriously proposed that business corporations be run on the two-party system. The Government system of checks and balances would be felt by practical business, administrators and by experts in the principles of business administration to be a completely archaic and haywire way to proceed." I have no doubt that the many businessmen now participating in government would heartily endorse this view.

By the same token and on the other side it will no more do to think of the state as necessarily coercive than to think of enterprise as necessarily free. There is, as Lewis Mum-ford has said, an important difference between the power and the service state—a difference which led him to write that "the real alternative to the empty political patterns of the nineteenth century lies not in totalitarianism, but in just the opposite of this: the restoration of the human scale in government, the multiplication of the units of autonomous service, the widening of the co-operative processes of government, the general reduction of the area of arbitrary compulsion, the restoration of the processes of rational agreement."

What is important in considering the allocation of power between government and private groups is, therefore, a sober appraisal of the potentialities and the effectiveness of each, in the context of the particular job to be done. It is relevant to such an appraisal that business management—however much in our day it has been divorced from ownership and become a type of self-perpetuating control—is essentially stable and continuing and that it may be capable of efficiencies that government is hard put to provide. It is equally relevant that government, being as has been said, "thelargest club to which we all belong" is responsive, and necessarily must be, to the popular will—at the same time that it is capable of marshalling human and material resources that no private agency can supply.

To define the role of democratic government in positive terms is, of course, to imply the necessity of trained and competent personnel. Long ago Mr. Bryce in his American Commonwealth asserted that we have a tendency to belittle our heroes in public life (especially, I suggest, if they are contemporary), a trait which he connected with the admirable virtue of self-confidence. After allowing for what he called the "humorous tendencies of the American mind" he suggested that "the fact remains that, although no people is more emotional, and even in a sense more practical, in no country is the ideal side of public life, what one may venture to call the heroic element in a public career, so ignored by the mass and repudiated by the leaders. This affects not only the elevation but the independence and courage of public men; and the country suffers from the want of what we call distinction in conspicuous figures." I doubt that this appraisal was generally accurate when it was written. Though it is reflected today in occasional statements, such as those I have quoted, I think that it is not now true to the facts. But it suggests the more genuine difficulty posited by A. Lawrence Lowell when he was teaching government many years ago—that the test of democracy is its ability to use experts. The average American nurses a suspicion of the expert function in government, a suspicion frequently exploited for merely political ends.

The suspicion is a healthy one to be sure and it rests on a shrewd instinct. The instinct is manifested by our legal tradition in the use of the jury to counterbalance the specialist judge—the characteristic genius of the common law to develop human correctives against its own instruments of justice. By entrusting the final decision to ordinary folks we "let a little popular prejudice into the administration of law" (as Justice Holmes suggested to Lady Pollock), and thus assure that judges and lawyers keep at least one foot on the ground. So it may be noted on a larger plane that Government, being hardly an art and certainly not a science, must rely on common wisdom rather than on special skill. The underlying issues, involving matters of broad policy, call for a balancing of values as varied as the nationallife itself. The expert, being by definition a man who knows a great deal about a particular subject, has no special competence to make such decisions; they must be made by laymen and they are.

But that is not to say that the layman can function in the intricate ramifications of modern government without the aid of the expert or, indeed, of a corps of experts to deal with the special problems that arise. Data must be assembled and interpreted; technical questions must be stated and explored. Unless this is done the ultimate issues to be resolved by laymen will but rarely be brought to hand. Moreover, administration has more and more become a technical enterprise requiring expert skill for the effectuation of whatever policy is authoritatively made. Thus, without special competence at the service of government democratic choice would have difficulty in reaching decision and the decisions when taken would rarely be put in force. Civil Service and the improvement of merit systems are, in this context, promising developments, tending to raise the quality of the public service without perpetuating the policy makers who must change with a new administration and even with shifts in points of view as a single administration proceeds. Properly administered this framework can meet the double necessity of new blood in public office and the continuity of trained personnel. But the problem is far from solved. It will not be solved unless the country recognizes that the danger for the future is not that the experts will pre-empt the powers of government but, rather, that democratic government will be unable to utilize as much expertness as it needs.


I have spoken of democratic purposes and of some of the difficulties that must be overcome in our own thinking if such purposes are to be genuinely achieved. What in the end will sweep the difficulties away is the tenacity and universality of the democratic hope itself. We shall not return from great work and high adventure abroad and be content with small accomplishments here. When we have seen, in the mirror of war, what allied democratic nations can achieve, we shall not be content, facing the peace, with the unrealistic compromises that have had their part in bringing about the crisis in the history of democratic development.