The Qualities of the Early Americans


By GEORGE W. MAXEY, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania

Delivered at the Commemoration of the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the Swedish Settlement on the Delaware, Philadelphia, Pa., November 5, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 170-173.

WHY do we celebrate these anniversaries and glorify men and women long since dead ? It doesn't do them any good. Nor does it do us any good, unless we learn something from their careers. A political philosopher once said: "What history teaches is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, nor acted on principles deduced from it." Wise individuals do profit by the experience of others, and sound statesmen are those who comprehend the histories of nations, past and present, and heed the lessons to be learned from other nations' mistakes. When Madame Chiang Kai-shek was here she built a large portion of one of her addresses on the Chinese proverb:

"Watch the cart ahead." The point she made was that nations should avoid the pitfalls into which earlier nations have fallen.

All will agree that the people who colonized this new land made a great success of it in spite of many "set-backs". What qualities made them successful? Their chief characteristics, whether they were Cavaliers in Virginia, or Puritans or Pilgrims in Massachusetts, or Swedes along the Delaware, were initiative and industry, self-reliance and courage. They had no paternalistic government to lean on. They were not a protected people; they were a resistant people. They never dedicated themselves to the cult of comfort.

The entire development of this country has depended on the existence of the same qualities which characterized the early settlers. These were the qualities of those who hewed paths through trackless forests and over mountains, who bridged rivers and conquered barren stretches of sand. They were individualists. They faced hostile elements and hostile men with equanimity and fortitude. They had character enough both to respect authority and to resist its abuse.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence and, a little later, of the Constitution, were largely the descendants of hardy pioneers. None of them were born idlers and all of them were contemptuous of a "leisure class." Like all Anglo-Saxons, ever intolerant of governmental strait-jackets, they renounced the rule of George III because it went beyond legitimate bounds in curbing their individual and economic freedom. They asked little of the government except to mind its own business as long as they lawfully minded theirs. They established a Republic where to every man there was opened the rough path to fame and fortune if he had the courage and vigor to tread it, and where above the humblest cradle there ever shone the star of hope. They swept away the aristocracy of idleness and established the nobility of labor. They found their chieftain in a frontier surveyor and pathfinder. His formal education was limited; the halls of higher learning never echoed to his footfalls. But from honest, hardy ancestors who believed that well-doing was the only way to well-being there came to him the best of all inheritances, character; and in a youth and early manhood replete with arduous toil and dangerous tasks, he proved himself dependable and steadfast, and developed what Tennyson calls "the wrestling thews that throw the world". The staunchest timber is ever found in oaks that have defied and survived the storms. Neither Washington nor any of his associates had any illusions about establishing a government strong enough for everybody to lean on or rich enough for everybody to live on. They made no pretence of being able to create wealth or happiness by law. What they fought for and won was the right of men and women to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They made no extravagant promises and raised no vain hopes.

Theodore Roosevelt well said: "No education, no refinements of civilization can compensate a people for the loss of their hardy virtues. The greatest danger of a luxurious civilization", said he, "is that it is likely to lead a people to lose their fighting edge." These hardy virtues are essential to individual and national progress. Life always has been and always will be a trial and a struggle. "To him who will hear the clarions of the battle call and on Greatheart forever ring the clanging blows."

Any man of authority who promises a people that through legislative magic the struggle of life will be abolished and that there will he equal rewards for the indolent and the industrious Is not a leader but a misleader of his people. The Greater made life a competitive game and wherever there is competition there will be those who succeed and those who fail. To promise an end to struggle is like promising a man climbing a mountain an end of the law of gravitation. With out the law of gravitation we would have celestial chaos; without the law of struggle we would have weakness anddecadence.

Civilization has been built by the hardy races. Dr. Alexis Carrel in his book "Man the Unknown", says: "Men need a way of life involving constant struggle, mental and muscular efforts, and some privations." He says further that "Prosperity and leisure weakens the mind and body" and that "while it is natural for a man to strive to satisfy his physiological needs that when he has done so deterioration begins." He says, further, that the development of human beings has not kept pace with the material developments of life, and that it is the moral and mental deficiency of political leaders which have most endangered modern nations. This was written before Hitler and Mussolini had demonstrated the truth of Dr. Carrel's words. He says further: "Our way of life has not developed great individuals", and he points out that "a work of art has never been produced by a committee of artists, nor a great discovery made by a committee of scholars". It was the scholars of Columbus's day who placed the greatest obstacles in his path as he went from capital to capital arguing that by sailing west he could reach the East. Columbus was an individualist; Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Lincoln were individualists; so have been all the great inventors; so have been all the other human beings to whom this Nation owes its progress. Individualists are produced in an environment where every day is a day of struggle, where "flags of truce" are seldom sent and even darkness does not always stay the combat.

During the last decade there were proposed many legislative measures promising to insure everyone a life with little or no work. From the "abundant life" so promised us there is to be excluded fear. When fear is excluded ambition and all individual effort will be excluded, thereby nullifying the laws of nature. For ages it has been the activity resulting from fear that has given the deer in the forest its fleetness of foot and the birds in the air their strength of wing. It has been the fear of want and the ambition to excel that has brought the human race up from the degradation of prehistoric man to the present high standards of civilization.

Those who read history know that the only source of wealth and national power is the industry and enterprise and hardihood of human beings, that all wealth is produced by work intelligently directed and energetically carried on and that it cannot be produced by legislative enactments. Every good thing in life has a price tag on it. If a government can produce wealth why should it levy taxes? There is not a government in the world which cannot pile up debts but when these debts are paid they are always paid by the labor of the mind and heart and hands of individualists, and the individuals who will be able to pay off our present national indebtedness will have to be very rugged ones indeed. Every dollar the Government spends is taken out of some individual's earnings and savings. The reason the people of the thirteen colonies objected to "taxation without representation" was that taxation without an effective taxpayers brake on it will paralyze the enterprise and energy of any people. The Colonists believed that if they were represented in Parliament they could put a brake on taxation. They had no acquaintance with the prodigality of modern legislatures.

Every dollar spent by the extravagance of today must be replaced by a dollar earned by the labor of tomorrow. All history demonstrates that as Taine said in his "Ancien Regime" that "confiscatory taxes are the unmistakable heralds of industrial chaos and national downfall". In his great address at Plymouth Rock in 1820, Daniel Webster observed that "it is on the rights of property that both despotism andunrestrained popular violence ordinarily commences their attacks".

A paternalistic government softens the fibre of any people. The paternalism of any government is always in exact proportion to the feebleness of the people. Only a self-reliant people will long retain their freedom. A government so organized as to do things for everybody is organized to do things to everybody and that is why there never has been and never will be a paternalistic republic. It may be a republic in form but in fact it will be a bureaucracy, and a bureaucracy and a republic cannot co-exist.

If we Americans should ever find the legislative Fountains of Eternal Plenty the Ponce de Leons of today are promising us, we would deteriorate into a race of weaklings and become the prey of any strong people who would have the enterprise to come and take us, as Alexander took the Persians. Fear of want and hope of gain are the main-springs of human ambition. That fear and hope led your ancestors and mine to make the dangerous journeys in sailing ships from the Old World to this. Coal to be mined, forests to be felled, fields to be ploughed, beckoned them. The only "social security" they ever dreamed of was that which they hoped to achieve by hard work and frugality. "The struggle for existence" was to them what it always has been and always will be: not a rhetorical phrase but a biological fact. Life's sweetest reward is achievement after struggle.

No parent should so enfeeble its children and no government should so enfeeble its citizens as to unfit them for the battle of life. No individual ever became strong of body and alert of mind by losing his self-reliance and relying upon somebody else. A feather pillow is a poor substitute for a grindstone in sharpening an axe. No razor ever acquired a cutting edge by being honed on a piece of cheese. Theodore Roosevelt in his address on "The Strenuous Life" said: "I preach not the doctrine of ignoble ease but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife. No country can long endure", he said, "if its foundations are not laid deep in the material prosperity which comes from thrift, from business energy and enterprise, from hard, unsparing effort in the fields of industrial activity."

Biologists tell us that man grows not by his achievements, for they are few, nor by his dreams, for they seldom come true, but that solid progress has its birth in bitter needs. In 1453 Mohammed, the Second, took Constantinople, the gateway of the East, .and barred that gateway to all Christian nations. No longer was the Mediterranean the highway to India and China and the Isles of Spices. The direct road was closed, and it was necessary to find a detour. In 1492 Columbus, urged by "the bitter needs" of the times, into searching for that detour, found a new world. The Swedish settlement along the Delaware three hundred years ago was the result of Sweden's need for wealth after its successful but exhausting wars fought under the leadership of Gustavus Adolphus,

Every distinctive period in our history has been typified by a prevailing philosophy, sometimes expressed in a slogan. "Give me liberty or give me death" was such a slogan. A half century later, "Liberty and Union" was such a slogan. The third and fourth decades of the twentieth century in America have been characterized by a philosophy which may be expressed in the phrase, "We want security without sacrifice". The philosophy underlying this was manifested in the nationwide Wall Street gambling orgy of the 1920s. Millions of Americans thought they had found a way to wealth without work. When that "way to wealth" proved to be the road to ruin- millions turned their eyes from Wall Street to the Nation's capital and demanded that the government make good the losses occasioned by their own follies. "Pressure groups" in this country have succeeded in perverting government beyond its legitimate functions, and have made it something not to live under but to live on. The statesmen who founded this government and those who guided it at various periods during nearly a century and a half never intended it to be a gigantic welfare institution. When Washington and Madison and Hamilton and their associates created the Federal Union they had no idea that the "Uncle Sam" they were bringing into being should some day be a national Overseer of the Improvident.

There is a well-known type of reformer who constantly preaches that poverty and all other evils suffered in this world are due to somebody other than the sufferer. Some people always blame crime not on the criminal but on his environment, despite the fact that thousands of others who had and have the same environment are not criminals. There were, for example, in this country those who blamed "Hitlerism" not on Hitler's own vicious, depraved and bestial character, but on the treaty of Versailles. That treaty was one of the fairest ever imposed by conquering nations on a conquered nation. The mistake that the conquering nations made was that they did not enforce it promptly and vigorously. National peace, like domestic peace, is an order, and there can be no order without compulsion, for the lawless hordes of every community and of the world are ever ready to rise. Without international laws backed by force international order dissolves into anarchy, just as a city without a police force becomes a prey of criminals.

Longing for domestic and international security without sacrifice, we Americans beguiled ourselves into the belief that we had nothing to fear either internally or from afar. We did not fear Germany because we thought the Atlantic Ocean was a barrier, though it is in fact the world's greatest highway, and any nation which dominates that ocean or the Pacific Ocean can invade the United States. When we yield our seas to the enemy we yield our shores; when we yield our shores we yield our continent. If we do not mean to surrender the citadel we must not give up the outworks.

We were so rich we did not fear "impoverished Japan". Many boasted that "we could clean up those Japs in six months." We did not fear them yet in a space of two hours at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they killed seven hundred more Americans than were killed on either side in the three days battle of Gettysburg. It would have been better had we remembered Edmund Burke's admonition that "Early and provident fear is the mother of safety". The courage of cockiness is on a par with the valor of ignorance. Conceit is a poor substitute for preparedness. "It is permissible," said Napoleon, "to be defeated but not to be surprised." It is an old adage that "he who will not use his eyes for seeing will later use them for weeping."

Herbert Agar in his book "A Time for Greatness" says that the American people have been afflicted before this war with "a progressive inability to take anything seriously". He also says that the United States with all its opulence could not buy either peace or victory, for there is no shop where peace and victory are sold. They have to be won. And now on seventy-two battlefronts Americans are winning them. As President Wilson said in his war address to Congress on April 2, 1917: "The day has come again when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles which gave her birth."

The greatest asset of any nation is strength of character and it is developed only by work, by self-denial and self-discipline. "Advise me how to rear my son", said a mother to General Robert E. Lee. "Teach him to deny himself", replied the great Virginian. No nation of self-indulgentpeoples are under anything like equal conditions a match in war foe a nation of self-denying people. The self-denying Macedonians under Alexander, though over-matched in numbers seventeen to one, quickly conquered the self-indulgent Persians. The old Roman was right who said, "An animal whose hoofs are hardened on rough ground can travel any road."

The soundest society is where the individual works out his own salvation, as the pioneers and colonizers of America worked out theirs. No man ever learned to walk by being carried, and a sure way to soften society is to spoon-feed its individuals. Whenever the leaners outnumber the lifters a collapse is imminent. A people whose quest is for rights without responsibilities, jobs without work, freedom without effort, and a country without fighting for it, will not long have any rights, any jobs, any freedom, or any country. Every worth while possession is an achievementónot an endowment. No legislative gadgets are a worthy substitute for old-fashioned virtues. Economic salvation by statute and international security without sacrifice are twin delusions. The best society is that one which secures to each man a fair Opportunity to pursue his own good but does not pursue that good for him. As a director of individual destiny government has always been a failure. The sustenance for American spiritual and material might has been drawn through the roots of individual initiative and enterprise. Only a deluded people will ever destroy the roots by which they have grown. Montesquieu well said: "The deterioration of every government begins when the principles on which it was founded are repudiated."

There is nothing in nature or in experience which indicates that because one way is easier than another it is the way to go. The difficult way is the way of struggle, and the Creator has decreed that the way of struggle is always and everywhere the way of strength. What happens to a man is never so important as what happens in him. External hurts are seldom as deadly as internal decay.

The early settlers along the Delaware and elsewhere in America knew that there is no wealth of individuals or of nations so secure that it cannot be disintegrated by indolence and destroyed by folly; they knew that no law or scheme of government can make laziness remunerative, incompetence equal to skill, or convert theories instead of work into wealth. While appreciating the importance of the functions of government they had sense enough to know that its range of useful activities is limited by the laws of nature and of human nature. They never made the mistake of confusing government with God. They knew that if individual freedom is to be preserved it must be constantly guarded from the encroachments of government. Liberty is not a gift of government; it has been won by people who possessed the intelligence and courage to resist the aggressions of government and it will be retained only by people who possess that same enterprise and courage. The hall-mark of statesmanship is the knowledge that while any government's capacity for good is limited, its capacity for evil is unlimited. Real statesmen know that for a people while hungering for industrial activity to destroy property, to destroy their nation's reservoirs of capital, is a species of madness equalled only by that of a thirsty population destroying their city's reservoirs of water. It does not take long for ignorance, indolence, and waste to dissipate the fruits of wisdom, work, and frugality. Either individual or national success can be maintained only by faithful adherence to the habits which produced them.

If the Swedes along the Delaware and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and the English at Jamestown three centuries ago could have afforded the luxury of a poet-laureate and if he had expressed in verse the spirit which animated them all, I think he would have written lines such as these:

"Do you fear the force of the wind, the slash of the rain?
Go face them and fight them; be savage again.
Go hungry and cold like the wolf, go wade with the crane.
The palms of your hands will thicken,
The skin on your cheeks will tan,
You will go hungry and ragged and weary,
But, by the gods, you will walk like a man."