Responsibility of America

Date: June 6, 1924

Location: Washington, District of Columbia

It would not be easy to arrange an occasion more calculated to appeal strongly to thoughtful and serious-minded Americans than this which has brought us here this evening. We have come to hear the last of a series of many thousands of addresses dealing with the Constitution of the United States, prepared and delivered by high school students from all parts of the country. The seven who will speak tonight are the survivors of a process of winnowing and elimination through contests, first in the individual high schools,  then a series of regional contests among the winners in the individual schools; the whole leading finally to this national meeting in which the winners of the primary and secondary competitions are to present their addresses and the final prizes are to be awarded by distinguished judges.

First and last, some thousands of competitions preliminary to this for which we are assembled have been held. The number of individual students who have participated, and through their participation have been moved to a study of the Constitution and the beginnings of constitutional government, is many times greater. It requires little imagination to be moved to contemplate the far-reaching significances of such a series of competitions. It represents the most effective method of enlisting the interests of the young men and women in the study of our governmental institutions. A group of great newspapers has devoted enormous publicity and inspirational effort to make these contests a complete success, and back of these have been many thousands of educators who have given enthusiastic support to the movement, by training, encouraging and taking unselfish pride in the efforts of their pupils. To all of these is due the largest measure of recognition for their contribution to this splendid work. Their reward will have to be chiefly in the satisfaction of having done something thoroughly useful for the nation, for the body of their students and for the perpetration of sound government.

There never was a time when our institutions were so universally being subjected to intimate scrutiny and close consideration as they are today. This is true not only for our own country,but of others in all parts of the world. Even the youngest of these young men and women who are to speak here tonight have lived through one of the great epochs in the evolution of governmental ideals and methods in this world. Their studies preparatory to their appearance here will have impressed them, as it has all of us, with the fact that men and women everywhere are giving an impressive measure of attention to the relations of people to their governments. The substitution of democratic for autocratic forms has made, in the brief first quarter of our century, a measure of progress which is not yet as fully appreciated perhaps as it ought to be, but which the future will recognize as epoch-making. 

Americans in particular cannot but be impressed with the thought of a great responsibility which is upon them, because of their leadership in this work of democratization. It is only a century and a third since the thirteen colonies, following their war of independence, set up here the first government among men that was based on a written constitution. That Constitution contained a series of specific rights to the states and to the individual citizens of the states; and these were protected through our ingenious system of checks and balances. The legislative, executive and judicial departments of the government were made independent of each other, and yet given a status which assured against usurpations by any one or two of them. The Constitution set up the machanism [sic] of our dual government, under which the states controlled in affairs of a local and limited concern, while the nation was supreme as to all interstate concerns and national interests. Looking back from the condition of those men of 1787, we can realize how startling was the experiment which they proposed should be undertaken here in a new country by a scattered population. Since then the nation which they chartered has grown to power, wealth and authority in the world; even more than all this, it has come to know itself, to have confidence in its institutions, to appreciate the genius for democracy which is inherent in a liberty-loving community of intelligent citizens. The nation which was founded in this noble, courageous experiment has had its struggles, and bitter ones, to vindicate the experiment. There have been struggles at home, as well as abroad. But through them all the way of advancement has been steadfastly and confidently pursued. Crises have come and have been dealt with in a fashion which has firmly established the conviction that it is possible for a democracy to be strong enough to sustain itself, and yet not too strong to conserve the liberties of its people. This, we may fairly assume, was the great test of the American experiment. Wise and experienced men, devoted to the ideal of human liberty, had entertained profound misgivings as to whether this thing could be accomplished. There was a vast fund of human experience which seemed to justify these misgivings. The republics and the pure democracies of older times had left historical records which could not but arouse doubts. The fathers of the Constitution confronted the task of making a structure strong enough to support itself against attacks from either within or without, and yet that would not interfere with the reasonable and proper liberity [sic] of the citizens.

Our Constitution, as it was put into operation 135 years ago, was the result of the long series of compromises, accommodations, concessions and adaptations that were necessary in order to meet all these conditions. It represented the first successful effort of men to set up such a balanced and adaptable scheme of institutions.

Our constitutional system has justified itself not only in our own history, but in the fact that it has been accepted as the model upon which so many later experiments in democratic – republican institutions have been based. If imitation is the sincerest flattery, then the men who forged the basic institutions of our government out of their consciences, their aspirations for liberty and their devotion to the ideals of order and permanence, surely would be supremely gratified to know of the progress which democracy the world over has built upon their foundations.

But, impressive as have been the results of our experiment, gratifying as have been the tributes which imitation has paid, we realize that our system is not yet perfect. All forms of human organization must forever undergo the process of change, adaptation, evolution, to fit themselves to the changing needs of a society which can never remain stagnant. Civilization cannot stand still, the institutions under which it develops cannot remain unchanged. Change is inevitable, and there must be intelligent capacity to direct that change in the right way.

If we accept this postulate of the eternal mutability of institutions, then we will be able to realize how great a service is that of the men and women who would train the youth of the nation to understanding of and to interest in these institutions of ours. There is no greater obligation upon the community than that of properly educating its youth, of training its future citizens for the duties which in their time they must assume. The world has always contained a dangerously large proportion of people who have believed that the way of progress was by way of destruction.

They are commonly in a minority, but a distressingly active and determined minority. They would begin the reconstruction of human affairs by tearing down everything that has thus far been erected. It seems as if well-nigh every generation in modern times is destined to try some of these experiments in reorganization by the process of utter disorganization. The eagerness of the extremists, the revolutionists, is unquenchable. The only assurance against their machinations is to be found in the inculcation among the people of sound ideals of government. If we, in our generation, shall succeed in establishing among those who are to come after us the full conception of the obligation to reasonableness and to moderation, the next generation may find reason to thank us for making its way of life easier than ours has been. That, I take it, is the greatest collective wish of humanity in every generation, as it looks to the generations that are to follow.

The purpose of those who have made possible this gathering tonight, and of the long series of competitions which make up its background, was to impress upon the youth of today the full measure of their obligations and responsibilities to tomorrow. The studies, the readings, the researches which have been inspired, represent a real contribution to better understanding of our institutions. They cannot possibly have failed to direct the interest and the intellectual activities of a great number of young people toward the problems of government and society. Those problems require now and will continue to require in the future the best intelligence and effort that can be given to them. Whatever shall serve as inspiration in this direction is a benefaction to the race. Convinced as I am of the value of the studies and interests which have led up to this occasion, and which find their climax in the competition of this evening, I have to congratulate all who have participated in making this occasion possible. Particularly I must felicitate these young and men and women who in the friendly competition of this hour will have opportunity to demonstrate the better understanding, the larger views that have come to them through their preparation for this occasion.

Citation: The Washington Evening Star, June 7, 1924, page 4

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the efforts of Tracy Messer, who prepared this document for digital publication.

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