The Essence of America


By THOMAS E. DEWEY, Governor of New York

Delivered at a Regional Meeting of the Council of State Governments, New York City, April 9, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 435-437.

IT is an honor to welcome you to New York, particularly at this time, and I am happy to have that opportunity. The problems ahead of the Council of State Governments are growing more and more acute with every additional man-pound of effort that our country puts into the war. The work will become even more necessary after the victory has been won. We will face problems more exacting and more complex than any of us has ever encountered.

So I welcome you most heartily here to the nerve center of a region which has felt deeply, yet has survived, every crisis in our nation's history and which will be most severely tried after this war is over. It is timely that we devote a meeting to plans for the future. But let us not delude ourselves that this is going to be anything but a long war.

In approaching the problems of the post-war period, it is well for all of us, and particularly this council, to re-examinethe relationships between the people, their states and the Federal government.

In the last ten years, it has been the trend of the Federal government to by-pass the states and attempt to deal directly with the local communities. This trend has extended prodigiously the scope and power of the Federal government, somewhat at the expense of the local communities, greatly at the expense of the states.

Now, with the intensity of total war naturally accelerating that concentration of power, we are getting a clearer picture of what it does and how it works.

"Siphoning" of Funds

There have been a number of results. One such result has been the siphoning of the funds of the people direct to the national government. Thence, after paying large administrative expenses, the balance, other than war expenditures, is distributed according to the varying social and economic philosophies prevailing among the groups which dominate from time to time in the shifting Washington scene. This growing trend is based on the theory that the people in their states are incapable of deciding how best to use their own resources.

Ultimate power remains always with control of the purse. That is one measure of the extent to which the people have been losing power to the Federal government—power, influence and the opportunity to share in working for the common good.

Of course, with power goes leadership. The inevitable result has been the tendency for the promising younger men as well as those of mature experience and ability to be drained off from their cities and their states. Big men become small cogs in a vast Federal machine. The majority find themselves wasted, when they could be doing creative work in the war effort as leaders in their home states.

This is the second result of the present trend. The Federal government now has a civilian staff of more than two and a half million people—two and a half times the number needed in the last war. To put it another way, this is a staff of adults almost as large as the whole population of the Kingdom of Norway.

Aside from the countless numbers in routine work, this great number includes many of the ablest scientists, scholars, business and professional leaders of the nation. At home they were great producers, great leaders. Lost in the catacombs of Washington, their capacity seems to be so sterilized and counter-balanced that their usefulness is lost to their state and also to their country.

This poses not merely a question of the most efficient way to win the war. For the whole future, is it the best way to solve our problems after the war?

Basic Question

The basic question to be decided in the next decade is whether the present trend is sound. Is it wise to divert our resources, our leadership and our technical skills into the bottomless pit of a government far removed from the people themselves? Can a free republic the size of ours operate that way? More important, can it remain free under such a system?

It rates the fundamental question: Do our people want to make their own pattern of life? Or do they want it made for them?

Our recent experience here in New York with the farm problem has afforded us one of our most important lessons and at the same time one of the most costly. Not only herein New York, but in all the adjoining states which you represent, we had for many months foreseen the catastrophe that was facing the country in the production of food. The catastrophe arose simply because the national government never saw the problem—never acted on it until a few weeks ago—never even reversed its crop-restriction program in time. The misfortune obviously arose as a direct consequence of the siphoning of all responsibility and power into the hands of the national government.

There have been many similar lessons which lead to a major conclusion. It is clear that when mistakes are made by a county government, they affect only that county and can quickly be remedied. When mistakes are made by a state government, only the people of one state suffer. But when mistakes are made on a national scale, they become disastrous for the whole people.

The farm catastrophe which is already upon us is one that we cannot erase—we can only attempt to repair it by local effort and by the resumption of local responsibility, as we are now trying to do. It demonstrates the dangers and the difficulties attendant upon the direction of local problems from the seat of national government.

Under the stress of war, we have relearned the obvious truth, that no central government can solve at one time the problem of the Indiana corn grower and the New York potato grower or fruit grower. No power in Washington can fit into the same pattern the needs of the Colorado rancher and the Virginia tobacco grower. No set of national controls, however much they be multiplied, can do anything but hinder total agricultural production.

Must Be Free and Strong

I take it as an axiom that in the years immediately following the war our difficulties will be more complex than in the war years. After all, our present task has one simple underlying motive. We subdue all our personal interests, we stop at no sacrifices to win the war. After the war will come the tremendous job of winning and keeping the peace. To that end it is of paramount importance that we keep ourselves not only free, but strong. How best shall we be strong enough to win a new lease on freedom?

It seems to me imperative that we must bear in the forefront of our minds at all times that this war is a struggle to uphold the dignity of the individual. Certainly it would not be worth the candle if it were for a lesser purpose. After total war, with its concomitant total powers, we shall find ourselves faced clearly with the problem of translating victory into reality for the individual.

One of the grave mistakes we can commit in fighting total war is to forget our objectives. Our war objective is to abolish totalitarianism and restore the dignity of the individual. The very thing which brought this war about was the possession of total crushing power in the national governments of our enemies.

The totalitarian trend spread all over the world in the 1930's. One of the questions we must determine for ourselves is: Shall we permit the continuance of the totalitarian trend in our own country or shall we recover the rights of the individual for which we are sacrificing today?

The true relationship of a national government in a free republic of states is too often lost and confused in arguments over symbols. It is not merely a matter of states' rights or of community rights or of national rights. It is a question of the human rights which keep a people free to live the kind of lives they choose in the varied types of communities which exist across the breadth of a continent.

Cites Need of National Power

It is basic that the national government must have the power to deal with national problems. In many fields there exist problems which overflow the borders of states. Combinations of financial, industrial or political power become national and cannot be met by any state or even by a group of states. There must always be in the Federal government power and authority to deal adequately and decisively with any amalgamation of financial, industrial or political power which exists on an interstate basis.

Such broad national powers are essential to freedom of the individual.

By the same token, these powers which are essential to the freedom of the people can be endangered when polluted by the exercise of control over essentially local matters.

The exercise of powers which infringe upon liberty can cause revulsions against all delegated power. We must clear our thinking for. the days ahead so that there shall be no revulsion against the proper exercise of full power by the national government in national problems. We can preserve such necessary national power by recovering for the states and for the localities the authority to deal with the vast majority of problems which are essentially local.

After the long years of war, therefore, our first problem will be to reverse the reactionary trend as exemplified by the growing exercise of total power over local problems by the national government. We must revive the rights of the individual—the strength, the character that is the essence of America. That strength and that character lie in the independence, the intelligence and the initiative of the individual.

We have learned that lesson all over again in the war. For example, we have learned from our armed forces that however great the mass of troops, however powerful the mechanization, in a crucial moment we depend on the individual strength, the hardihood and the initiative of every single soldier. Granted equal ammunition and firepower, the final protector of our destinies is the individual soldier, his discipline, his courage, his intelligence. We have seen it in Tunisia; we have seen it on Guadalcanal; we have seen it in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea; we have seen it in every theater of the war.

Vigilance Needed

The same is true of the difficult process of keeping alive freedom. Its vigor depends on the devotion of each individual who shares it. Only by continuous vigilance and positive exercise of our rights as free men in the state and local government can we continue to practice and keep fresh the rights we have taken for granted.

As we shape our thinking for the peace to come, let us determine whether we shall again bring government close to the people. Shall they make their own decisions as robust, clear-thinking free men or shall they abandon their rights to an aggressive oligarchy at the seat of National government? There is only one course by which we can retain and bring to its full flower the freedom which shall again be so hard-won at such great cost.

The natural evolution of a free society is a constant process of trial and error—a constant competition between men of ability, a constant contest between ideas welling up from within our communities.

There is nothing fixed about a free society. If it is healthy, it is always fluid. That is fundamentally the secret weapon of freedom.

One of the great advantages of the freedom for which we are fighting is that it makes it possible for all of the people to receive the benefit of the thought and the productive genius which society produces. Neither power nor opportunity is confined to the selected few. Where opportunity and freedom of expression are available to all the people, there is the structure of a free society. But it is not truly a free society until opportunity and freedom of expression become not only available to all the people but become natural to them. Then they are not only free to try out the products of their minds, but they actually do so. The sound contributions are successful. The mistakes, having been tried out, fall into the discard. Then and only then does the mass of the people receive the benefits of a liberal society. Only then do such benefits spread throughout the nation.

That must be the ultimate purpose of any good government, of a government that wishes to remain strong, the free government of a free people.