Preserve Our Constitutional System


By THOMAS E. DEWEY, Governor of New York

Delivered at Lincoln Day dinner of the National Republican Club, New York City, February 12, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 306-308.

IT is good that we return, at least once each year, to the wisdom and the character of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a man for the ages; because, throughout all ages, as long as human nature remains the same, the example of his life and conduct will remain a lesson and an inspiration. He was a plain man. Although he towers above his contemporaries, he was very much like his fellow-men. Better than anyone, he knew that he was not perfect, not all wise, not given the ability to solve the problems he faced in easy strokes of brilliance. He would have been the last to call himself indispensable. But he had one quality that made him big enough to save the United States of America in its hour of need—he had integrity of character.

When Lincoln came to the Presidency the nation was torn by bitterness and dissension. His clear, calm vision pierced through the turgid mass of public controversy to see the essential issues. He saw one thing as fundamental—the preservation of our constitutional system.

He knew very well that our founders had devised a Constitution which could bring ordered freedom to expanding and diverse groups. They had the genius to see that sovereignty was not indivisible, but rather the total of all governmental rights.

Some of these rights could best be conferred upon those having broad responsibility to the people as a whole. Others could best be left with those having a localized responsibility. By our Constitution a principle of balance was struck. It enabled and required the people to work together through Federal agencies on matters which were genuinely of national import. All other matters were to be dealt with by the States.

Sees Menace to Our System

In all earlier nations there was, of necessity, a similar division of powers and duties. But always before, the ruler kept such powers as he pleased, leaving local affairs for local administration as a matter of grace or as suited his personal convenience. The new, inspiring concept of America was that all government was solely by consent of the governed, that ail powers resided in the people. That is the true, inner meaning of constitutional government under law.

Lincoln perceived that unless our people remained under that system they would inevitably fall into discord and disintegrate into jealous and disorderly groups. It was his great decision that our constitutional system must be preserved at any price. Many paid that price. They fought and died to make that great decision a reality. That reality is one which can be preserved only by the unwavering diligence of each succeeding generation.

In the past decade, we have fallen upon times which carried a menace to our constitutional system as grave as that of Lincoln's day. The menace Lincoln faced was violent; ours was subtle. But one, as much as the other, carried a mortal threat. He faced secession by the States. In our time, we have seen abdication by the States.

It remained for us to see the day when States and their sub-divisions abdicated their responsibilities in favor of a single, national ruler. As dangerous as secession, abdication has also shown how the institutions of freedom are undermined. For free government must always work from the bottom up, not from the top down.

This was the great principle laid down by Thomas Jefferson. He declared:

"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories."

It is in local units that men and women can most fully sense and practice the responsibilities of citizenship. Once we have ceased to do that, once we concern ourselves merely with a four-year choice between one or another ruler, then we will be a ruled people.

Surrender of Powers Decried

On March 4, 1933, the first attempt to establish an American autocracy took place as the result of the election of what used to be known as the Democratic party. It asked and was given almost absolute powers. In that year the Governors of forty States were also members of the Democratic party. Many of these Governors were accidents. The majority were so untrained in the principles of free government, so willing to surrender them, so satisfied just to be

in office, that the title alone was enough. They were willing to become provincial satraps under the rule of Washington.

I well realize that no detailed and permanent division can be made between the powers of Federal and State Governments. Increasing economic interdependence requires increasing Federal duties. Particularly must Federal power be enlarged when, as now, our nation faced the stupendous tasks of war. Wce give to that effort our unlimited support. We accept without reserve the wartime leadership which devolves upon our President under the Constitution.

Having done so, does this mean that all of the basic responsibilities placed upon the States and every citizen by the Constitution are to be abandoned? Does this mean that the 120,000,000 Americans maintaining the home front should assume that our free system and all of the rest of the Constitution have been terminated or suspended? Surely, if it did, the suspension would become permanent and the war for freedom would be lost at home before it was won abroad.

The amazing thing about the American people is that even before the war they, themselves, sensed that the abandonment of local government was surrender to autocracy. Even before the war they were moving to recapture their freedom and the basic right of local self-government. They sensed that the Democratic party was no longer the party of the people. Both nationally and through its Governors it had become definitely and finally the New Deal party, irrevocably committed to absolutism at the seat of the National Government.

Urges Strong State Governments

The people had no Lincoln to tell them in simple words what the trouble was. Their own instinct guided them. They sensed that they themselves must bring back to State Government competent, experienced men who would do the job of local Government. They sensed that there was a vacuum in State Government into which inevitably the Federal Government was moving.

Only the Constitution with its division of powers and strong State Government has made America a place in which minorities could live. Only the Constitution with the support of the people kept this country united in Lincoln's day and will keep it from autocracy in our time. The ultimate truth is that no man or group of men have ever been wise enough to substitute themselves for the institutions by which freedom is preserved.

So, as in Lincoln's day, our people found once again that the Republican party alone could preserve their constitutional system of freedom. In one State after another the Republican party has been restored to power until today instead of eight there are Republican Governors in twenty-six of the States, embracing three-fifths of the people of the nation.

All of you here were familiar with the consequences of the abdication by the New Deal party in the State of New York of the State's duties and rights to the National Government. It had been long obvious that the people of our State had not been given a full share in the war effort of the nation. The State Administration had simply left everything to Washington. Civilian Defense had fallen into chaos. Food production was taken for granted while, in fact, its problems cried out for vigorous handling and leadership. The tax structures, State and local, were driving business and employment from our State while war contracts and employment were going elsewhere.

Tells of New York Change

The spirit of the remedies applied by the Republican Administration of New York State was to bring the people back to the practice of self-government, of relying upon ourselves. The strength of a nation is the strength of the people. The strength of the people is where they live—in the cities, villages and farms of America. Without them, as some seem to have forgotten, there would be no Federal Government. By revitalizing the State of New York we have greatly strengthened the National Government for war and for the peace to come.

In all this our State has not been alone. Twenty-five other States, from Massachusetts to California have been doing the same, strengthening our system, preparing to do their part in saving both the system and the nation in the days soon to come.

Why have the people of the United States been so busily engaged in restoring competent, honest government in their States? Is it a mere trend against the party in power? Is is merely petty irritation at war-born sacrifices? Is it merely rebellion against the autocratic rule of a swarm of bureaucrats rivalling in number's and in tyranny those by which our enemies live? I think not. The reason lies at the very root of our form of government and in the nature of the crisis through which we are passing.

We are living in mighty and moving times. We who are alive in the year 1944 are taking part in the greatest struggle of all history. Of this our people are deeply aware.

Within the next year or two we shall bravely win the greatest of all wars for individual freedom, or we shall tragically lose it.

There is no American who has the slightest doubt that we shall win it, and that we should win before too long. By the same token there are few thinking Americans who wish to risk the peacetime chaos of continued New Deal government. And there are few Americans who do not fear what that government might fail to do in the building of a just and lasting peace.

Determined to Build Great Peace

Anyone who gratuitously raises so much as a doubt as to the unswerving determination of our party to build a great peace trifles with the truth and with his country's future. 1 was present at Mackinac Island when the Republican Governors and Republican leaders in the Senate and the House of Congress deliberated upon the principles which must guide us in bringing about a lasting peace. There was not one person present who was not moved by the tremendous opportunity to state the principles by which it was to be approached and inspired by the vision of what lies ahead of us as a nation.

It was that group of Republicans who drew the Mackinac Charter, which was translated into action by our distinguished Secretary of State at Moscow. It was that result which was embodied in the Connally Resolution, adopted by a bipartism majority of the Senate. Here was the first concrete, constructive achievement in our foreign policy of the future, and its framework was advanced by the Republican party at Mackinac Island.

The people of the United States were turning to the Republican party even before the war broke out. They have been turning to it at an accelerated pace since we entered the war because they are so desperately anxious that we shall build well and strongly in international cooperation after this war.

The people know that the Republican party has been devoted since the day of its birth to responsible constitutional government. They know that they cannot hope for world peace unless that peace is built upon the firm rock of truly representative government. They know that with a self-willed executive who wars at every turn with the Congress, they will have a repetition of the same catastrophe which happened in 1919.

The American people themselves are beginning to shape our thinking on things to come. In the last few years they have shown that they want a government which is once more close to the people. It seems manifest that they want to make their own decisions as robust, clear-thinking, free men. They have had enough of the abdication of their rights to a select few in the national capital.

The people realize that the only hope of America for world peace is that it he won by an administration which they know is not seeking power for the sake of power. If the national government is one which our people can trust to serve them alone, to be their servant and not their master, they will trust it to do its full share in the world.

Problems to Be Solved Gradually

In the face of today's complex problems we are apt to think that the difficulties which face the world are beyond the ability of ordinary men to conquer. We are apt to conclude that they can be solved only by extraordinary men —men whose intellectual attainments transcend the range of normal minds. If this were indeed so we should have to despair of the outlook for humanity, for as we look about us it can hardly be said that the world is crowded with such intellectual giants. But the truth is that our problems, by reason of their complexity, will not lend themselves to single, brilliant solutions. They will be solved in the end in the way all difficult tasks are solved, the way a man builds a house, brick by brick, by tackling one difficulty after another in accordance with tried and tested principles.

The strength of our system is that it makes it possible for all the people to receive the benefit of the thought and the productive effort which society produces. Neither power nor opportunity is confined to the selected few.

The wisdom and strength of Lincoln lay in the fact that however high he rose in our national life he remained at all times one of the people. He did not seek to impose upon them ideas which were alien to their thoughts and traditions. Rather he gave expression to the aspirations which existed in their own hearts and minds. So it was when he spoke, he spoke with the voice of the American people.

Lincoln loved and respected the American people. There was nothing in his soul of the paternalistic contempt for their intelligence and their character which has become the prevailing attitude of our present National Administration. Government, for Lincoln, could never be merely government of the people or even government for the people. It had also to be government by the people.

Because the peace of the world cries out for it, it is this government we must regain. It is this government we must preserve. It is this government which shall not perish from the earth.