The Foundation of Our Institutions

Title: The Foundation of Our Institutions

Date: April 13, 1923

Location: Albany, NY

Context: The speech was given before a state convention of the Young Men’s Christian Association. It speaks to the idea of our institutions i.e. government, education, and prosperity are all founded on the principle of religious beliefs

These ought to be days of abiding satisfaction for the American people. There should be steadily accumulating evidences of a deeper devotion to religion, a firmer adherence to the government, a broader acquisition of education, and a wiser use of the resources of an abounding prosperity. Such evidences would establish conclusively the continuing and increasing righteousness of our country and justify a faith in its security and perpetuation.

But instead of this there is a disposition on the part of many observers and students to be disturbed, if not alarmed and discouraged. They think they discover a growing tendency to disregard religion, to violate the law and abandon the government, to substitute for the fundamentals of education catchpenny devices, and for that accurate scholarship which is the product only of sustained discipline a mere superficial knowledge of a scattering range of disconnected facts, to despise sound investment and a constructive expenditure of money, and to seek excitement in wild speculation, wanton extravagance, and all kinds of dissipation. In their opinion they find insufficient reverence and respect on the part of youth, and insufficient loyalty and devotion on the part of maturity. To them there is an apparent lack of moral courage and a decaying spiritual power in the nation. They perceive a decline in the morale of the people which results in a weakening of the forces that bind society together and sustain civilization.

It is never the part of wisdom to minimize the power of evil, but it is far less the part of wisdom to forget the power of good. In the position which those critics of the times have outlined there is altogether too much truth, but it is not the whole truth, it is not even the important truth in respect to conditions as they now are and will continue to be. It was a premature and artificial exaltation which carried us through the war. Some may have expected that it was to be permanent and that we were about to step into the millennium. But war is a destructive force. It not only uses up the material resources of a nation but exhausts its spiritual power. It is sure to be followed by a reaction which can only be remedied by recuperation and reconstruction. It is that process in which we are now engaged.

The world moves in seasons, in periods, in cycles. It advances and recedes. It tries out a certain course only to abandon it. Much it produces is cast aside as unfit. But the fittest always survives, progress always goes on, growth continues. After the entire catalogue of shortcomings is complete, after the worst is candidly recognized and admitted, it does not appear from any reliable assembling of facts or any accurate compilation of statistics that there now exists any permanent condition which justifies alarm or discouragement, but that there is, rather, an abundant justification for faith. The important truth remains that the forces of good, now as always, surpass the forces of evil.

It is not in the results of a day or a year that the Eternal Purpose is revealed. To judge by such short intervals only would result in being lost in particulars. If we are to avoid being dismayed by the accidental, and if we are to contribute anything, it is necessary to take a larger view, to make a wider survey, and work in harmony with those ever-invincible forces which are always advancing the base-line of progress. No one can tell what a day or a year may bring forth. No one can forecast the fortune of an individual or a township. It may be good or ill. But the evidence is all about of what time and mankind, working together, can accomplish. Both experience and reason give warrant to our faith, both what the past has done and what we know human nature to be. There will be no cause to be disturbed by what is superficial if that which is fundamental remains sound.

The fundamental principles on which American institutions rest ought to be clearly understood. Being so understood, they can never lack for defenders. They had been thought out and fought out by the original settlers of the colonies, and whenever they have been in jeopardy they and their successors have not failed to rise and make whatever sacrifice was necessary for their preservation and, from time to time, for their extension. It would be idle to claim that our country has yet reached the goal toward which they plainly lead, but more idle still to deny that the path is open and that the people are continuing to make progress in that direction.

Of all the colonists none had a greater inborn adherence to liberty and independence than those Dutch traders who first settled New York. Their history and tradition run back to the island of Batavia and beyond. They were never conquered by the Romans, but became their independent allies. It was the horsemen of Batavia that saved the day for Caesar at Pharsalia. Fortunately situated for political and commercial development, they grew up through the centuries with a genius for self-government and commercial prosperity. The arts flourished, culture was abundant. Their land was the home of the illustrious Erasmus, a scholar of profound accomplishments, and of Grotius, one of the most famous names in jurisprudence. The ancient liberties of the land were set out in a charter called the Great Privilege, wrung from the sovereign about 1477. This not only reserved to the provincial estates jurisdiction over new taxes and war, but, what was of chief importance, brought the sovereign under the authority of the law. Haarlem still contests with Gutenberg for the honor of having invented printing, which was rapidly developed. The first English Bible was published in Antwerp, in 1535. Public schools gave opportunity for a diffusion of education. Not only was the country thus early the centre of biblical scholarship, but there then developed a more general reading of the Bible among the common people than in any other land.

It was chiefly during this century that took place the long-continued effort of Spain, which was then the most powerful empire in the world, to destroy the liberties of the Netherlands. It is a story of persecutions and pillage, the destruction of entire cities, the execution of tens of thousands charged with treason and heresy, and of a heroic defense. They gave their lands to the flood and their bodies to torture, but they did not yield. It is estimated that about one hundred thousand people sought refuge in England. The defeat of the Invincible Armada, in 1588, marked the beginning of the downfall of this great power. The absolutism of that day, represented by the King of Spain with the mighty armies of Europe, with the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru, could not break the spirit of freedom and independence which was the ancient heritage of the people of the Low Countries. In 1609 Spain ceased her efforts, and in signing a temporary truce acknowledged defeat. Despotism lost. The material power of the sword, of riches, and of arbitrary rule was vanquished. The spiritual power of freedom of conscience, of personal judgment, of personal responsibility, of religious and political liberty was victorious. These preparations having been made, in that same year Henry Hudson sailed up the river which bears his name. A little later the Dutch began their settlements along its shores.

These settlements were at first trading-stations. They required little in the way of government and absolutely nothing in the way of protecting themselves against any infringement of their rights by the authorities at home. They needed no independent establishment to guard their liberties. They were not unmindful of religion. It is related that after holding a council of peace with the Indians, where the tomahawk was buried, the Dutch promised to build a church over it so that it could not be dug up, an evidence that, in their opinion, peace was supported by religion. Sunday services by reading the Scriptures and the creeds were begun in 1626, and when Van Twiller came, in 1633, he brought with him Bogardus the first clergyman, and Roelandsen the first schoolmaster. When Stuyvesant arrived, in 1647, he at once asked money for schools and for finishing a church, which was granted. Religion was followed by education.

Some time after the colony had passed under British rule the first General Assembly of New York, meeting in October, 1683, adopted a Charter of Liberties, in which it was declared: “The supreme legislative authority … shall forever be and reside in a Governor, Council, and the people met in General Assembly.” This charter provided for freedom in the exercise of the franchise and in religion, and prohibited in express words any kind of taxation “but by the consent of the, governor, council, and representatives of the people in General Assembly.” These important principles the people asserted again and again, even when at the outbreak of the Revolution a majority of the Assembly was inclined to disregard them.

Coincident with the development of the rights of the people in the Netherlands went on their establishment in England. They secured their Great Charter at an earlier date, due to an earlier breaking out of a similar conflict. A corresponding ecclesiastical conflict occurred in the sixteenth century, which had a like result. England had its struggle against the forces and gold both of Spain and France. It, too, became a Bible-reading country and asserted its right to national independence in matters of religion, established the supremacy of parliamentary government, and brought its sovereign under the authority of the law, but it had not yet followed the Dutch in adopting the broad principles of toleration. It was for this reason that while Hudson was on his voyage of discovery the Pilgrims were seeking refuge in Holland where the conscience of man was free. When they had determined to plant a settlement of their own on the shore of America, they sought for permission to join the Dutch settlement in New York. While they were willing to harbor them at Leyden, the Dutch Government, fearing the displeasure of the English King, was unwilling to promise them military protection in a distant land. The Pilgrims therefore proceeded under a patent secured from the Virginia Company. It was thus that New England was dedicated to freedom. The narrowness of tyranny and bigotry in England broadened the territory of liberty in America. The right redressed the balance of the wrong. How they established their church, started their town meeting, adopted a system of representative government, opened their schools, and founded their college is known to all students of American history.

The wise and sagacious clergyman Thomas Hooker declared the principle that “the foundation of authority is laid firstly in the free consent of the people,” and in a letter to Governor Winthrop he said: “In matters which concern the common good, a General Council chosen by all to transact businesses which concern all I conceive most suitable to rule and most safe for relief of the whole.” The voice of a clergyman in the Connecticut wilderness, in 1638, speaking the words of empire! Here is that same clear and unmistakable declaration of the principle of democracy and the representative system not only asserted but put into practice at the very outset of the establishment of a government in New England, as it was done a little later in the government of New York.

Joined to these Dutch and English defenders of liberty, differing from them in particulars but agreeing in the broad essentials of human freedom, were the French Huguenots. America became the common meeting-place of all those streams of people, great and small, who were undertaking to deliver themselves from all kinds of despotism and servitude, and to establish institutions of self-government and freedom.

These stupendous results had their source in the great liberal movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was the principle of personal judgment in matters of religion for which the English and Dutch were contending, and which set the common people to reading the Bible. There came to them a new vision of the importance of the individual which brought him into direct contact with the Creator. It was this conception applied to affairs of government that made the people sovereign. It raised up the common man to the place which, heretofore, had been reserved for a privileged class in church and state. It ennobled the people. The logical result of this was the free man, educated in a free school, exercising a free conscience, maintaining a free government. The basis of it all, historically and logically, is religious belief.

These are the fundamental principles on which American institutions rest. When the perception of them was growing dim to European eyes, in the eighteenth century, and the old absolutism, measurably supreme on the Continent, was reasserting itself in England, it was the American colonies that defended and re-established these everlasting truths. They set them out in resolutions and declarations, supported them on the battle-field, wrote them into their laws, and adopted them in their Constitution. The broader freedom which they acquired in that century was supplemented by the broader equality which they established in the nineteenth century.

The great struggle of the twentieth century is still smouldering in the mind of the world. A new kind of absolutism, but with the old method of military force, challenged the existence of liberty everywhere. In the greatest conflict of all the ages freedom was again victorious with a resulting completeness which had never before been secured. No responsible authority now exists in any jurisdiction which would dare to deny that it is derived from the consent of the governed. What further effects it will produce on the fortunes of mankind, time only can disclose.

It would seem as though this broader survey might answer some of the perplexities of the hour. No doubt present existence seems somewhat tame after the lurid events of the Great War. There is not the same thrill in ministering to the starving victims of the Russian Soviet that there was in going to the support of the defenders of Verdun. The enormous toil and effort of endeavoring to pay the debt of the nation, or even of meeting its obligations to its defenders, are not so romantic as arming and sailing away to the battle-fields of France. But there is no reason for discouragement when our country is doing what may seem to be drudgery with equal completeness with which it performed deeds of glory.

The great achievements of the past have always been the result of a long, slow, and toilsome process filled with disappointments, attended by unavoidable reactions. Human liberty did not perish in the Netherlands, in England, in America, or in France. In the great hours of its peril unexpected reserves, unknown resources have come to its rescue. Because the evil of our own nation or of the world does not all at once yield to the efforts of good intentions or of righteousness furnishes no cause for being alarmed or disturbed. The putting forth of great effort, the making of great sacrifices have never failed to return in due season abundant rewards of human progress. It does not seem unlikely that the world is gathering itself now, in spite of seeming discouragements, for such a forward step.

The great forces of other centuries converged in America. They are working out a new destiny here. It is not for us to view them with too much impatience. It is rather for us to work with them in the full knowledge that there is no easy road to success, no short cut to perfection, and while working maintain our faith.

One of the chief errors of the present day is that of relying too much on the government and too little on our own efforts and on the people themselves. This comes to pass by supposing that, when there is something which ought to be done, we can avoid all personal responsibility by a simple ordinance requiring that hereafter it shall be done by the government. We cannot divest ourselves of our burdens and responsibilities by any such easy method. Where the people themselves are the government, it needs no argument to demonstrate that what the people cannot do their government cannot do.

Another error lies in supposing that great fundamental reforms can be at once accomplished by the mere passage of a law. By law is meant a rule of action. Action depends upon intelligence and motive. If either of these be lacking, the action fails and the law fails. These may be stimulated by rewards or penalties, but whatever else may be their effect, they do not remove the source of evil. It is the mind behind the law that makes it truly effective. Laws are insufficient to endow a nation with righteousness.

Right-thinking people want the results of prosperity, education, and loyalty to the government. The question which is always before us is how these results are to be secured. It is very evident that palliatives fail. The hope of rewards, the fear of punishments do not go very far. There is very little that is really worth while which can be bought or sold. The desire for gain has made many cowards, but it never made a hero. The country cannot be run on the promise of what it will do for the people. The only motive to which they will continue ready to respond is the opportunity to do something for themselves, to achieve their own greatness, to work out their own destiny. It is the motive described with so much eloquence by St. Paul in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. It is the faith of the men who followed William the Silent, Cromwell, Washington, and Lincoln, and who stood at last at the Marne.

When we explore the real foundation of our institutions, of their historical development or their logical support, we come very soon to the matter of religious belief. It was the great religious awakening of the sixteenth century that brought about the political awakening of the seventeenth century. The American Revolution was preceded by the great religious revival of the middle of the eighteenth century, which had its effect both in England and in the colonies. When the common people turned to the reading of the Bible, as they did in the Netherlands and in England, when they were stirred by a great revival, as they were in the days of the preaching of Edwards and Whitefield, the way was prepared for William, for Cromwell, and for Washington. It was because religion gave the people a new importance and a new glory that they demanded a new freedom and a new government. We cannot in our generation reject the cause and retain the result.

If the institutions they adopted are to survive, if the governments which they founded are to endure, it will be because the people continue to have similar religious beliefs. It is idle to discuss freedom and equality on any other basis. It is useless to expect substantial reforms from any other motive. They cannot be administered from without. They must come from within. That is why laws alone are so impotent. To enact or to repeal laws is not to secure real reform. It is necessary to take these problems directly to the individual. There will be a proper use of our material prosperity when the individual feels a divine responsibility. There will be a broadening scholarship when the individual feels that science, literature, and history are the revelation of divine truths. There will be obedience to law when the individual feels that government represents a divine authority.

It is these beliefs, these religious convictions, that represent the strength of America, the strength of all civilized society. They are not a power which is diminishing but a power which is increasing. The standard of conduct which they require was never before so universally recognized and accepted. It sanctifies every place of worship, it is revealed in every institution of learning, it supports every activity of government, it sustains every economic structure. In domestic affairs, in international affairs, it is more and more the reliance of mankind. The evidences of it are increasing, the results of it are accumulating. More and more the people are living under the conviction that it is righteousness alone which exalteth the nation. Surely the recognition of this fact, which stands out above all others, ought to make these days of abiding satisfaction and of continuing faith and determination for the American people.

Citation: The Price of Freedom

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Robert Manchester, who prepared this document for digital publication.

One Response to “The Foundation of Our Institutions”

  1. Robert Manchester

    Vice-President Coolidge spoke to the principle of our public institutions being found in the deep devotion to religion. Dutch settlers came to the colonies seeking liberty and independence. The Pilgrims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony came seeking religious freedom, and they based their principle of governance on the free consent of the governed.

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