Title: The Price of Freedom
Date: January 21, 1923
Location: Evanston, IL
Context: Coolidge delivers a speech to The Evanston Sunday Afternoon Club, which was started during World War I. Four churches in the town gathered on Sundays for a patriotic service that continued after the war.
It is altogether natural that those who are connected with religious institutions should be interested in supporting good government. Their interest comes not merely from the ethical teachings of their faith, which are always finally on the side of liberty and justice, established through the maintenance of the orderly processes of the law, but it comes from a realization that in its historical development also religion has laid the foundation of government. This is pre-eminently true of our American political system. It neither seeks nor claims any justification for its existence save righteousness. It had its beginning, it found its inspiration, in the religious beliefs of the men who settled our country, made it an independent nation, and established and maintained its Constitution and its laws. If it is to endure, it will be through the support of men of like mind and like character.
The people who laid the foundation of our institutions had seen a great searching out of minds in the sixteenth century. It was during that period that there had been put forth in matters of religion and had come to be acknowledged the principle of private judgment. A remarkable body of men held to this theory with a tenacity which no persecution was able to shake. Along with it went the complementary doctrine of the direct contact of the individual with the Almighty. Here were the standards of intellectual freedom and religious liberty, which have ever since been asserted with increasing acceptance.
It is this principle of individual freedom in religious life, which became established by the final struggles of the sixteenth century, that was carried over into the struggle for individual freedom in political life which took place in the seventeenth century. The settlement of America in increasing numbers was the direct outcome of both of these fundamental developments in the march of human progress. In the impelling force which brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth, the thought of their religious freedom was predominant. While this motive was not absent from the greater and stronger movement which brought many thousands of Puritans to the region at their north, coming at a later time and under different conditions, they were the more strongly influenced by political considerations. But it is impossible to separate the cause of the great migration in those days from the Puritan movement for a free church and a free government which reached a position of temporary power under Cromwell sufficient to be permanently established under William and Mary.
The cause of all this was a great liberal movement, a revolt against authority imposed from without, and the determination to accept for guidance the light of reason which shines from within. It was a groping toward the light of self-government under such free institutions as characterize our republic. In those early days it was the preaching of the clergy rather than the teaching of the magistrates that expounded and maintained the doctrine which, when finally accepted, resulted in our present form of government. Students of that period give a very large credit to that learned clergyman, Thomas Hooker, who first settled with his congregation at Cambridge, but afterward in the pursuit of a larger freedom moved with his parishioners to Hartford. He expressed his faith in free representative government when he said in a letter to Winthrop: “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.” In accordance with the custom of that day, he preached a sermon at the opening of the General Court, in 1638, in which he announced the fundamental principles of democracy which the development of America has established:
The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people,
The choice of public magistrates belongs to the people, by God’s own allowance,
They who have power to appoint officers and magistrates have the right also to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place unto which they call them.
Within a short space of time he and his people were living under a written constitution in the Colony of Connecticut, said to be the first which established a complete form of government, and the seed of the American Republic was sown, of which the but partial harvest has been so prolific of human welfare.
Another clergyman of like mind was John Wise, of Ipswich, who had been imprisoned for protesting against the despotic rule of Andros. Early in the eighteenth century he declared: “The end of all good government is to cultivate humanity and promote the happiness of all, and the good of every man in all his rights, his life, liberty, estate, honor, and so forth, without injury or abuse to any,” a sentiment which it is not unlikely was familiar to Jefferson, as he set out the immortal Declaration of Independence. By a coincidence, not to be wondered at, another clergyman of Ipswich, Manasseh Cutler, was the author of the Ordinance of 1787, which organized the Northwest Territory and excluded from it the institution of human slavery. It would be difficult to cite action of more far-reaching consequences, more productive of human welfare.
These are some of the prominent examples of the direct influence of religion and religious teachers on the establishment of the American Republic. In this accomplishment they did not act alone, nor were they unsupported by their people. Rather, they were representative of prevailing ideals, to which they gave form and expression. They spoke the word that was in the hearts of their countrymen. From their beliefs there flowed naturally and inevitably those principles and those actions which gave us our form of government and raised this nation to the high position it holds in the world.
They believed in the divine origin of mankind. They saw in him the image of his Creator. Out of the mists of doubt and uncertainty there had come to them a revelation of his dignity and glory. Through a common Fatherhood they perceived a common brotherhood.
From this conception there resulted the recognition that freedom was a birthright. It was the natural and inalienable condition of beings who were created “a little lower than the angels.” With it went the principle of equality, not an equality of possessions, not an equality of degree, but an equality in the attributes of humanity, an equality of kind. Each is possessed of the divine power to know the truth.
It is in accordance with these standards that the American people adopted their Constitution and set up their government. In the possession, maintenance, and enjoyment of these rights the individual has the guarantees of public law. Freedom is secured by every means that legislative ingenuity can provide. There are no class distinctions. The government deals with its citizens on the basis of equality. The high estate of mankind is not disregarded. The government and society provide ever-increasing facilities for education, better living conditions, and around the weak there is thrown the protection of humanitarian legislation. The power to legislate is executed through representative bodies, the greatest safeguards of liberty, chosen directly by the people. The administration of justice has been intrusted to courts as free, impartial, and independent as it is possible for human nature to devise. The ultimate decision of all questions of law and justice rests with the people themselves. They have the complete authority to enlarge or diminish, to support or to overthrow. The government is their government, the laws are their laws, the decisions of the courts are their decisions. All speak with their voice. They are in the possession of complete sovereignty.
Along with the solemn assurance of freedom and equality goes the guarantee of the right of the individual to possess, enjoy, and control the dollar which he earns, and the principle that it shall not be taken away without due process of law. This necessarily goes with any theory of independence or of liberty, which would be only a mockery unless it secured to the individual the rewards of his own effort and industry.
These are the ideals which supply the foundation of American institutions. It would be idle to claim that they are always perfectly carried into effect. Before action can be perfect, knowledge must be perfect, and that state has by no means been reached; but it is easy to see what a change in these standards would imply. If we are not to proceed on the assumption of the innate nobility of mankind, then there must be an assignment of some lower estate. If freedom and equality are not to be maintained, then there must be servitude and class distinction. If all the people are not to be permitted to rule, then there must be a rule of a part of the people. If there is not to be self-government, there must be some form of despotic government. If the individual is not to have the dollar which he himself earns, then he must be forced to hand it over to some one who has not earned it. Those who advocate a change in our standards, a change in our ideals, a change in our institutions, a change in our theory of government, can only proceed in this direction. No other course is open to them.
The general results of our institutions would appear to be so obvious as to need little defense. If by the increase of civilization we mean the strength and welfare of organized society, the protection and security of the individual, the growth of self-government, the general diffusion of knowledge, a wide distribution of property, the effective direction of productive industry, and the advance of science and invention, there can be no hesitation in declaring that under the system which America represents there has been a most gratifying progress. This is not to say that in the days of old there were not intellects as keen, nor the perception of truths as profound as any which characterize the modern mind, but no one can deny that at present there is far greater intelligence and a much wider scope of knowledge.
It cannot be disputed that at times the old barbarities break out, and there blazes up the ancient ferocity of the cave and the forest, but these are no longer matters of indifference. Generally they meet with retribution, always with condemnation. The humanity of a common brotherhood asserts itself in the relief of the oppressed and the rescue of the imperilled.
There is not wanting criticism of the character of society and the effectiveness of our laws because the general community has not reached a golden age of indolence and profusion. The truth is that most of the generations which have gone before, could they be transplanted into present surroundings, would feel that they had gone far toward that unattainable goal. When we compare the toil and privations which were in former times the lot of the great mass of mankind, the universal marks of old age which came not from years but from hardship and exposure, and the narrow and contracted plane of existence, the meagre returns for great effort, with the present limited and moderate hours of employment under healthful and sheltered conditions, the broad outlook, the generous compensation, the progress in this direction is abundantly apparent.
The great mistake which is here made is in supposing that under some form of government, or in some advanced state of civilization, people can exist without effort and live wholly at ease. The opposite conclusion would be more nearly correct. It requires less intelligence, less skilful effort, to live among a tribe of savages than to maintain existence under the average conditions of modern society. Independence, liberty, civilization-these are not easy to bear; they are hard to bear. It is not sloth and ease but work and achievement which are the ideals of the present day. It was not long ago that the men who had a competence thought it required them to support themselves in idleness. They sought for lives of leisure removed from any kind of toil. That practice, which tended to breed a class which were selfish, greedy, and cruel, has, for the most part, been discontinued by common condemnation. There came a realization that such an existence led to no opportunity, and furnished no real satisfaction. These are now sought in a higher aim. More and more men are seeking to live in obedience to the law of service under which those of larger possessions confer larger benefits upon their fellow men. The greater their power, the greater their service. The great apostle of this creed was Theodore Roosevelt, who stated it most accurately when he declared: “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardships, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”
Civilization is the bearer of great gifts, the source of ever-enlarging opportunity. It is not the result of a self-existing plenty, but rather the product of a high endeavor. It does not rob life of all that is noble, but inspires it to all that is heroic.
There are two broad theories which have held sway in the world. They have developed with the development of the race. One is the system of class and caste, the system of servitude of body and of mind, of a claim of divine right of rulers by inheritance-a system where the individual is nothing and the government is all supreme. Under such a conception there can be no real freedom, no independent choice, and therefore no responsibility. The people look to the rulers. They do what they are told to do; they believe what they are told to believe. A bureaucracy will grow up under which will be rigid supervision of every activity, whether public or private. Paternalism will flourish in its worst form. Carried to its logical conclusion, such institutions might provide, for a short space of time, a machine of apparent great efficiency. But such a result could be but temporary. Either the life will go out of such a community, its initiative will vanish, and its society will fossilize into a state where there is neither hope nor progress, or, undertaking to extend its dominion by aggression in accordance with its principle, it will be beset from without and overcome, or, responding to an irresistible urge, its own subjects, casting down this artificial edifice, will assert their true nature in a declaration of their right to be free. Governments apparently stable and a seeming civilization have been reared on this theory, but always their end has been destruction.
There is another system with which every American should be familiar, a system of equality and of freedom, not without the claim of divine right but recognizing that such right reposes in the people; a system where the individual is clothed with inalienable rights, the people are supreme, the government is their agent. Under this conception there is real freedom, real independence, and grave personal responsibility. The rulers look to the people. Their authority is the public will, ascertained in accordance with law. There will be the least possible interference with private affairs. Realizing that it is the people who support the government and not the government which supports the people, there will be no resort to paternalism. Under such institutions there may appear to be a lack of machine-like efficiency, but there will be no lack of character. Private initiative will be stimulated. Self-reliance and self-control will be increased. Society will remain a living organism sustaining hope and progress, content to extend its dominion not by conquest but by service. Such is the system of self-government, the orderly rule of the people, carrying within itself a remedy for its own disorders and the power of self-perpetuation. This is the ideal of America.
No one would say that existence under these conditions is effortless. Independence is exceedingly exacting, self-control is arduous, self-government is difficult. Always there is the temptation that some element of these should be surrendered in exchange for security and ease. The appeal to passion and prejudice always lies in this direction. The proposal to despoil others of their possessions is a manifestation of the same spirit. This is the reason that to certain of our native-born, and more often to our foreign-born, the American Republic proves a disappointment. They thought that self-government meant the absence of all restraint, that independence meant living without work, and that freedom was the privilege of doing what they wanted to do. It has been a hard lesson for them to learn that self-government is still government, that the rule of the people does not mean absence of authority, that independence means self-support, and that complete freedom means complete obedience to law. They are disappointed more than ever when they learn, as ever they do, that these are so, not because they have been decreed by some body of men, but that they are so by the very nature of things, and all the governments in the world are powerless to change them.
Here again it is perfectly obvious that if the American system is to be cast aside there is only the one other system which can be adopted. The call of the old life of ignorance, of fear, of superstition, of every savage instinct is all toward the old system. The call of the new life of learning, of courage, of enlightened reason, of faith, of religion is all toward the new system. In a contest between these forces it does not seem difficult to judge which are finally to be supreme.
Nevertheless, there is in our country a considerable body of thought which looks upon present tendencies with a great deal of apprehension. Pointing out the high estate of modern civilization, the complicated organization required for its support, the forces which are working against it, they have come to doubt the existence of sufficient intellectual force for the maintenance and advance of progress. Lately they have attempted a quantitative analysis of a cross-section of the people to determine by the application of scientific methods the amount of their intelligence. They have thought that it does not test very high, and that, therefore, civilization is in grave peril of failure. It cannot be denied that there are dangerous tendencies. The fact that one great empire broke down is not to be ignored. But self-government did not break down.
The diffusion of knowledge and the increase in general intelligence are very important. To some it may appear very inadequate. But does any one suppose that it was greater in the sixteenth century, when it was sufficient to sustain a profound spiritual awakening? Does any one suppose that it was greater in the seventeenth century, when out of its abundance there was accomplished a great political revolution which established the sovereignty of the people? Does any one suppose that it was greater in the eighteenth century, when it was adequate for the creation of the American Republic?
While the teaching of ideals has had its source in institutions of higher learning, the motive power of progress and reform has not come from the high and mighty but from the mass of the people. Such movements have their origin close to the soil. The support for religious freedom came from the people. The army of Cromwell was altogether wanting in a tinge of nobility. The leaders of his military force and the prominent figures of his government were tradespeople and artisans, reaching even to the servant class. The Pilgrims were humble people. For the most part, the wealth and aristocracy of the colonies did not follow Washington, but the support of the Revolution came from the farm, from the men of the town meeting.
The truth would appear to be that only a part of the power of the people is revealed in any quantitative analysis of their intelligence, however accurate it may be. It is not the quantity of knowledge that is the chief glory of man. Great as have been the accomplishments through invention, large as are the attainments of science, thoroughly established as are many great principles, it is altogether probable that compared with the discoveries that are yet to come they will be, in many respects, surpassed. The strength and the glory of man is not to be sought in quantity but in quality. It is in the moral power to know the truth and respond to it, to resist evil and hold to that which is good, that is to be found the real dignity and worth, the chief strength, the chief greatness. This power, even in the humblest and the most unlettered, rises to a height which cannot be measured, which cannot be analyzed. It is this strength of the people which can never be ignored.
Of course it would be folly to argue that the people cannot make political mistakes. They can and do make grave mistakes. They know it; they pay the penalty. But compared with the mistakes which have been made by every kind of autocracy they are unimportant. It is well also that the people have the power to organize for their industrial protection and advantage. Here too there may be serious errors, but here too such errors have been matched by the errors of those charged with the responsibility of management. Oftentimes the inconvenience and loss fall on the innocent. This is all a part of the price of freedom. We have to bear one another’s burdens whether we will or no. We have to make personal sacrifice for the common good. We cannot have what is good unless we pay the price. Unless the people struggle to help themselves, no one else will or can help them. It is out of such struggle that there comes the strongest evidence of their true independence and nobility, and there is struck off a rough and incomplete economic justice, and there develops a strong and rugged national character. It represents a spirit for which there could be no substitute. It justifies the claim that they are worthy to be free.
This is very far from saying that civilization can be maintained without any effort, or that the institutions of our government can exist without the exercise of constant vigilance. We have come to our present high estate through toil and suffering and sacrifice. That which was required to produce the present standards of society will ever be required for their maintenance. Unless there is an eternal readiness to respond with the same faith, the same courage, and the same devotion in the defense of our institutions which were exhibited in their establishment, we shall be dispossessed, and others of a sterner fibre will seize on our inheritance. But this is to say that in the teachings of history and in the divine nature of mankind there is every warrant for the profoundest belief that faith and hope are justified and that righteousness will prevail.
We need to learn and exemplify the principle of toleration. We are a nation of many races and of many beliefs. The freedom of the human mind does not mean the mere privilege of agreeing with others, it means the right of individual judgment. This right our government undertakes to guarantee to all without regard and without punishment to any for following the dictates of their own consciences. It is on this principle that speech is free, the press is free, and religion is free.
But it must be remembered that there are standards of morality, customs of intercourse, and the laws made in accordance with the public will of the people which must be observed if such freedom is to be enjoyed. It ought to be plain enough that what is wrong for the individual to do, it is wrong, by word or writing, for him to advise others to do. There can be no basis for society on the theory that a person may claim the protection of the laws and yet refuse all obedience to the laws. That would not be toleration but anarchy. This situation always yields to the application of the Golden Rule. We should treat with reverence and respect those things which we hold sacred. We need have no fear but that out of such conduct the truth will prevail.
There is an ever-increasing need for teachers who can inspire and lead. They are needed in the schools, in the pulpit, and in the editorial room. Education is the result of contact. A great people is produced by contact with great minds. The requirement for training under those who can see into the heart of things grows greater and greater. Too often the appeal is to weakness, not to strength.
Lieber expressed the correct principle when he said to his former pupils: “You can bear me witness that I have endeavored to convince you of man’s inextinguishable individuality, and of the organic nature of society, that there is no right without a parallel duty, no liberty without the supremacy of the law, and no high destiny without perseverance-that there can be no greatness without self-denial.” Civilization and freedom have come because they are an achievement, and it is human nature to achieve. Nothing else gives any permanent satisfaction. But most of all there is need of religion. From that source alone came freedom. Nothing else touches the soul of man. Nothing else justifies faith in the people.
Citation: The Price of Freedom
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Anne Cherico, who prepared this document for digital publication.