A Better America
THE GREAT GIFT OF CITIZENSHIP
By COLONEL HERMAN W. STEINKRAUS, President and General Manager of The Bridgeport Brass Company
Delivered at Harding High School, Bridgeport, Conn., on "I Am An American" Day, May 21, 1944
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 558-561.
IT is an inspiring occasion for us here in Bridgeport today. On this national "I Am An American'.' Day 996 members of our community become American citizens. All over this land today similar groups are meeting to honor their citizenship in this greatest country on earth. I believe we can be particularly proud in Bridgeport, because it was here, five years ago, when representatives of our 32 different nationalities got together and started the movement that makes those four words among the proudest words in the English language,—"I Am An American."
It is a significant day. From now on, from this very hour on, you own a share of democracy. It is one of the most valuable things you will ever possess, yet it doesn't cost you a penny, only your own free will, and your true faith in our country.
Because it is free, it is none the less valuable. In ancient times citizenship had to be bought. It cost dearly to be made a Roman citizen, or to be made a citizen of Athens, that famed seat of learning and culture. It cost real money, often the labor and savings of a lifetime. But citizenship in our great country is given to all, rich and poor alike, one share for each.
Your share is just like mine, no more, no less. When we go to the polls together to cast our vote, your voice is just as important as mine, or of your neighbor next door, or that of anybody else. It carries as much weight as that of a senator, or of a judge, or of the President himself. How foolish we would be if we did not value this priceless gift!
In a practical sense, why is a share in democracy so valuable? Because of the simple truth that there is no place in the world today where the individual has so much liberty. It is a place where the poorest boy and girl can get a free education to whatever height they are capable of going, right through college, if desired; where circumstances of birth have no bearing upon how high the individual may climb. In our country the thing that determines success is not "What were you born with?" or "What did you inherit?" but "What are you? What are your abilities and ambitions?"
Here is the only great nation of the world where every boy, no matter how poor, can some day hope to become mayor, or governor, or even President of the United States. You all know of many cases where sons of poor, foreign-born parents have become distinguished doctors, lawyers, add heads of great business organizations. Some of them are in this audience today.
And how proud we are when we learn about such success stories. There is no jealousy felt—only a sense of pride. We are glad such things can happen here.
As we each own a share of democracy in our country, we own a share of the responsibilities as well. The trouble is, when we sit down and think about our country, most of us picture a vast expanse of land, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, vague and far-off. But is that our country, really? No. It isn't some place far removed from us. It is here. Our country is our farms and factories, cities and towns, places like Bridgeport, Shelton, Trumbull, Long Hill, Milford, Stratford. That is our country.
It is you, your next-door neighbor, the boy who sells you your morning paper, the conductor on the bus, the grocer on the corner. As these people are, so is America. The way they think and act makes the kind of country we shall have. It is as simple as that. Multiply this by thousands of communities, and then you have America.
So our responsibilities to our country are not vague and distant and far-off, but are simple, definite things, right before us. You all know the greatest responsibility of all, something which is also our greatest privilege, and that is, the right to vote. I think that this privilege is frequently not recognized. May I illustrate what I mean by a rather familiar illustration?
Probably each one of you belongs to some sort of club or organization. You attend meetings at which you discuss what you want to do in your club, and once a year or so you elect your officers to carry out a program. You may vote on a great variety of matters. After you have declared what you want to do, then you see to it that the officers carry out those policies.
In the same way, as a part owner of the democracy of our country, you also help elect officials and choose a program. However, it cannot be done at one large meeting, or at one place, so there are voting spots designated where you go to cast your ballot. But the principle is the same; first you choose from the candidates for office those you want to see elected, to serve you; second, you vote on policies, or programs.
Most of these are very definite things, such as, "Will you vote yes or no on the bond issue?"—"Will you build the new school or not?"—"Do you want this particular civic improvement or not?" Also, and this is very important, there can be no changes in the Constitution of our land without the approval of the majority of all the voters. Of course, voting on questions of such gravity come up rarely. By far the great majority of all the voting you will be called upon to do will be selecting officials for public offices, local, state, and national.
I am mentioning all this because I wish to emphasize how simple, but how very important it is that you exercise your right to vote. Unfortunately there are millions of citizens who are thoughtless and do not take the time to inform themselves about these important matters, and therefore do not vote. The great danger in this practice is that organized groups who use elaborate methods and sometimes large sums of money to bring out the vote in favor of their own selfish interests tend to defeat the real purposes of our democratic system.
But we know our democracy is growing in power and strength every year, and it will grow in greater power and strength when we all exercise the great privilege of voting intelligently and honestly. That will encourage the best citizens to run for office, and it is the most direct way to insure good government. How our country develops depends upon what we, as voters, put into it, and what we make of it.
If you think it is ideal already, you will be disappointed. If you think you can make what is right come quickly, you will be disappointed. Sometimes the man you know is the best may not win, issues you believe in may fail, but don't let that discourage you. The democratic process is a slow one, and we must not expect perfection over night.
It would be much quicker and easier to follow the edicts of a dictator, if quick results are all we are looking for; but that is also the quickest way to destroy the happiness of the individual citizen. Democracy is slow, but it lasts, and brings steady betterment of conditions for all.
The world for many centuries has tried plenty of other things, monarchy, despotism, and all kinds of dictatorships. A very interesting one was the trial of oligarchy, in Greece —the rule of the superior class, or as they were called, the "Eupatrids"—which means, the "well-born ones." "What could be better," said the people of Athens, "than that those among us who are wisest and best educated, those well-born ones, govern us?"
They tried this plan in Greece in the seventh century B. C. It was an awful failure. Why? Because this superior class became so drunk with their own power and importance that they soon forgot the common people who put them into power, and became, themselves, the worst kind of oppressors.
We read in history of more failures—kings, czars, emperors. Then in Rome they tried still another idea. This was something new. "Is not this the best," they said, "the rule of a benevolent despot? Let him be Emperor, who is the wisest and most able man. Let him govern us." Fortunately, they had just such a man in Rome, and he was near to the throne.
I refer to Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of the Great Roman Empire in the second century; he who was called just and wise, and good, and true. Those are fine qualities for a leader to have. But they weren't enough. We know now that no leader is greater than the men he must work with, and the organization he must build to carry out his ideas. Marcus Aurelius was able, wise and just, but his organization was corrupt.
Now we almost forget that he was an Emperor at all. He left no influence whatsoever on the social or economic progress of the world. When we think of him today, we think of him not as an Emperor, but as a writer, who took the pains out of his busy days to leave us a small volume which we treasure, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Empire soon crumbled, like the rest. We in America in the last 300 years have demonstrated that the only thing that holds up and doesn't fail is democracy, the rule of the common people. Here we act in the belief that God created men with equal rights, and that the function of government is to be the servant of the people, not the master. We express our approval, or we express our disapproval, when we go to the polls and vote.
Of course there are many ways in which a democratic form of government may function, and over this period of 300 years we have worked out something of our own, which seems to be doing pretty well. Let us view this operation still more closely.
The actual operation and, in large measure, the progress of our democratic system rests on what we call the party system. That may be a little confusing, and I should think it would be, especially so to new voters. Let us consider for a few moments just what that means.
Starting with the simplest fact, there are two sides at least to every question. Sometimes there are more, and it is not always easy to know which one is best. So there aretwo or more candidates as a rule for every office. One usually stands for one set of ideas, and the other for a different platform. When put to a vote, the majority vote carries. However, in the case of political voting, the minority is also very important. They do not remain idle, they too have a place to fill, and work to do.
If the minority is strong and well-organized, it offers the necessary safeguard to see that the majority does not abuse the rights it has gained, or the office it holds. If the majority in power does abuse those privileges, then the minority points out those facts, and at the next election they gain enough strength to take away power from the other party, and assume the reins of government themselves.
Thus this check system of two or more parties, called "the party system," is a great safeguard to our liberties.
At present we have the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and others. More may develop. However, too many parties are a bad thing. May I point out that France, before its collapse, was operating on the party system too, but there were so many parries—over thirty, in fact—and they were so divided that not one of them was strong enough to form a stable government, and so France became an easy prey to destructive forces.
When Andre Maurois spoke in this country during the past winter, he told about writing a little booklet on courtesy as a guide to the American soldiers in dealing with the French people. One of the points he put in was, "Don't talk to a Frenchman about his politics," and added, "They have so many parties, they don't understand them, themselves."
Let us have few parries, but keep them strong. Personally, I believe it is a good thing for a citizen to become a member of one of the major parties, and work to keep the party of his choice active and vigorous. If he joins a party, he can go to the party meeting, or caucus, and help select the very best possible candidates for office. I think this is extremely important.
The so-called independent voter does not have this influence. As he belongs to no party, he can go to no party meetings, and so has no say at all in selecting the candidates who are to run for office. He must be content with the men other people select. It seems to me he loses more than he gains.
When it comes to voting on men who are up for office, we are in a better position to make wise choices than ever before, for today we enjoy more means to know the facts, through the radio, our newspapers, and the free speech of the platform. We have every means to know the truth about men, and what they stand for.
In this respect we are particularly fortunate in Bridgeport, for here we have a very open-minded and progressive press, forward-looking in their attitude, and always careful to give the public the full facts on political issues.
I cannot refrain from adding that in many other respects we have reason to be proud of this city of Bridgeport. It is a city that looks ahead. It has a mayor we all love. It is thoroughly loyal. No city in this nation is making a finer record in this war than our own city of Bridgeport, and that is because of the kind of people who live and work here. Our citizens are splendid Americans and patriotic people who can well set an example to some other sections of our country.
I think this is partly due to the fact that Bridgeport is so rich in the many nationalities that make up its citizenship. These many sources contribute so much to the cultural life of our city, and have a profound influence toward a spirit of tolerance and freedom from prejudice which has been so helpful in our many industrial plants here. It is one of our most valuable assets.
One of the great sources of strength of our country is the fact that its people come from all lands of the world, determined to get away from old-world oppression and anxious to help build a better world here.
All of these things are advantages which should help each one of you become a most excellent voter. There is really nothing difficult about it. You do not need background, position, education. Really, just two things are necessary: first, honesty, and second, good judgment. And those are things within the reach of every person in this room.
When you come to vote on candidates for office, the only* thing you need to ask yourself is, "Is this man the best one to serve my town and country?" or "Is that one the better?" If it is an issue you are voting on, ask yourself honestly, "Is this measure good for my town, my state, or my country?" If so, vote for it. If not, vote against it.
You do not have to vote for anyone or anything because a friend asked you to, because someone puts pressure on you to vote a certain way, or because your family may think you ought to vote thus, although I must confess that sometimes the unthinking voter does do exactly those things.
Your ballot is secret. It is your own, and nobody else's, and let nothing keep you from casting your ballot to express your own honest and true conviction. If everyone will do that, we will eventually have the most wonderful laws and administration of laws that any country has ever seen.
I have the greatest confidence in the judgment of the average citizen who honestly votes as he thinks right.
There was a time when I questioned whether the average public could be trusted to make the right decision, but the older I get the more convinced I am that the opinion of honest voters can be fully relied upon, provided they are given the facts.
I have heard some men say, and intelligent men, too, "The majority is wrong. They are never right. The public doesn't keep their heads. Look at the riots and the violence you read about!" I answer, "That is not the public speaking its opinion; that is the public speaking in terms of emotion. Riots come from uncontrolled emotion, not sound judgment." In fact, wherever there is violence, you always find absence of reason, and honest thinking.
Some of you may think that the judgment of the highly educated would be the best to follow, but let me urge you to learn to think for yourselves. The most inept remark I have heard recently on political matters came from a badly informed, bigoted woman who is highly educated as far as college degrees go. If I repeated some of the things she said, it would make you laugh.
Good judgment seems to come out of daily living, somehow, and it isn't something you can take out of a book. I am glad I feel like trusting the judgment of the average worker, because the average worker knows life, and that is the great teacher.
I would like to mention a man I am thinking of now, one of my neighbors. He is an Italian. I shall have to tell you first that I have a small vegetable garden where we raise enough to carry us through the winter. I really don't get a chance to work on it much, but my wife was brought up on a farm, and seems to know a lot about such things. She says if you have learned to grow things in New Hampshire you can grow them anywhere.
At any rate she and my Italian friend make a pretty good team and turn out a pretty good garden at the end ofthe season. About once a month on a Saturday or Sunday I like to walk around and look things over with our friend. We may start out talking about vegetables, but before we are through we have discussed taxes, and the town hall, and pretty much covered what they are doing down in Washington.
My friend hasn't had much schooling, except a few years he got in Italy, but I would trust his Judgment on about any public question that comes up. I am impressed with his simple common sense. One day he talked to me about Mussolini. "I went to school with him," he said, "Just a big bully, that's ail he was. First a bully as a boy, then a bully as a man."
He loves our country, and would never miss a chance to go down town on election day to vote. I say America is safe in the hands of such honest citizens, even though they may not have had the best of opportunities.
There is just one other thought I would like to pass on to you. I firmly believe that every man and woman, no matter what their station in life, owes it to his community to give a fair share of his time to public affairs. Read and listen to public issues so that you may talk to your friends about them, and vote on them wisely.
I know this takes time, and we ate all so busy, but it is part of the price we must pay if we wish to keep this country as we have received it from her great leaders. Freedom and liberty don't just happen—they must be worked for, and fought for, if necessary, or they slip from us.
At this time especially, many crucial problems face our country. They need our most prayerful and earnest thinking. But it is a wonderful age in which we live. There is no time in world history which will prove to be more interesting than the years lying ahead, when victory is won and peace again returns.
And now, in closing, I would like to extend my congratulations to you who have just become citizens of our country. May you realize that this great gift of citizenship, though free, is a truly deep privilege. Men have fought and bled and died for it. And may you bring to your citizenship such honesty, good judgment, and faithfulness that you will pass it on, an even richer and greater gift, to your children and your children's children.