Click here to return to index
Welcome to the Giant Killers, the home of David's Call

THE TRUE MEANING OF LIBERALISM
1 9 3 8

Address At The University of Indiana
Bloomington, on May 4th, 1938

By Wendell Willkie

According to custom, those who are invited to attend the celebrations of a university are usually men or women who have attained eminence in scholarship. I come to you today with no such distinction. I did, indeed, graduate from Indiana, but I am afraid that much of what I learned here I have forgotten, and since those days my life has been spent in the market place, entirely remote from academic cloisters.

The question may well arise, therefore, as to why I am here at all. I am certainly not here because I like to speak. And I am certainly not here because I think you like to hear me speak. Frankly, the real reason I come back is because I haven't been back to an academic function since I graduated twenty-four years ago, and I have now a very keen interest in finding out what has been happening on this campus in the past twenty-four years.

In the world at large, a great deal has happened during this period. In fact, I don't believe you could find another quarter-century in history so packed with momentous events in the life of mankind. For example, we have lived through a world war in this twenty-five year period. We have lived through one major depression and two minor ones. We have seen the governments of at least half the people in the world drastically altered in character. We have witnessed the development of half a dozen big industries, several of which- -the automobile, the radio and the airplane--have had a major effect on the way we live. We have seen the social customs of a hundred years' standing rejected by a generation that wanted to make its own rules.

On the basis of these considerations, you may be expecting me to say that at the end of these twenty-five years I find the world very greatly changed. As a matter of fact, although there has been considerable rearrangement of men, methods and masters, fundamentally I don't think we have changed very much. Whether for good or for ill, the principles by which men live remain the same as when I sat where you are sitting and heard someone tell me that my classmates and I were the hope of the world.

As one gets older, one becomes a little skeptical about the quick reforms that are designed to create the perfect state in a short period of time. We are continually tempted by catchwords to think of nations standing at the crossroads, with their fate depending on which road they choose. But the destiny of mankind is neither as simple nor as fragile as that. I cannot tell you how many "new world" we have been building in these twenty-five years, for example, nor have I time to enumerate the many "grave crises" the world has managed to survive. Any man who has lived through this quarter-century is apt to develop a certain immunity, like that of the adult world toward measles, to the crises, cataclysms and catastrophes which we are called upon to face every year.

The last war, of course, was "the greatest in history," and so was the depression, and so was the boom period. A dozen times, I am sure, we were warned of "a great moral breakdown in the character of our people," and a revolution to be led by one group or another has been at our doors off and on many times. According to commentators both here and abroad, we have witnessed "the collapse of democracy," just about as often as we have witnessed "the downfall of the capitalist system." New Deals and New Freedoms, Red perils and the iron hand of militarism have confronted us day in and day out, and we have managed to carry on.

One of the things you will learn in your careers is that the world has a habit of emerging from soul-shattering conflict with its soul still unshattered. I suspect that the campus of this University has maintained a similar basic immutability amid the excitements of the pat twenty-five years. Frankly, I don't expect it to be very different, and I don't expect that you are any more heroic or less heroic than the young men and women who sat here twenty-five years ago.

In other words, I don't think you are a lost generation any more than you are a saved one. I don't think the world will stand or fall depending upon what your decisions in life may be. The world is a pretty tough organization, and even if this year's graduates from the University of Indiana should embark on careers of assault and battery, the world would, I think, be able to shake off your depredations without any very great harm. Similarly, if every one of you should carry a sword as fearless and honorable as Galahad's, I doubt if the world would thereupon enter the millennium.

If I should make a careful inspection of the University, therefore, after this lapse of twenty-five years, I should undoubtedly find, in addition to the new buildings, some new maps in the geographies, some new chapter in the histories, some new courses never heard of in my time, some new activities on the campus, some new customs. But I should be very much surprised if I found that your outlook on the world that lay outside these things was very different from mine. Even if I happen to have lost touch with the substance of the University, I do not think I have lost touch with its spirit.

I am aware that the phrase, "the spirit of an institution," is a vague one, and I should like to define what I mean by it. I would say that the outstanding characteristic of the spirit of Indiana was--and, I think, still is--its liberalism.

We have heard a great deal about liberalism in recent years, which is a pretty good sign that the people are a little concerned about it. Just as we don't talk much about bread and water unless we foresee a scarcity, so we are apt to take liberalism for granted until it shows signs of disappearing. In Europe several of the major country have very frankly decided that liberalism isn't worth it. And even in America we have bandied the word about rather loosely until it has lost some of its meaning and has vague political implications.

Of course, liberalism is not the property of any one political party nor the product of any one political platform. It is not a fixed program of action nor a vote on this or that particular measure. Liberalism is an attitude of mind. The liberal, for example, might be opposed to regulation of business in one instance and in favor of it in another. The criterion of the liberal philosophy is this: in the faith of the liberal the emphasis is upon individual freedom, while in the ideologies of either the Right or Left it is upon social control.

You can make out quite a case for social control. Mussolini and Hitler have apparently convinced their people that it is desirable. You can say that a democracy which permits too much individual freedom moves too slowly. There are a number of people who are willing to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of what they believe will be greater efficiency and prosperity. Personally, I am convinced that there is no possibility for continuing prosperity for the great mass of people except in a free political society and under a free, if supervised, economy. Perhaps this is wrong, but even so, in the words of Newton Baker, "there are still many who would prefer to be poor, if necessary, but, in any case, free."

The liberal movement therefore strikes at the forces of autocracy whether they bear the label of business or government or society. It may thus be opposed to a business program at one time, and to a government program at another. And nothing illustrates this more effectively than the parallel between the liberal movement when I was your age and the true liberal movement today.

Those of you who are undergraduates will not recall the liberal movement of the first fifteen years of this century, which was in full tide at the time I was in college. I can assure you, however, that the cause was an exciting one. As undergraduates we were certainly as much interested in it as you may be interested in current political and economic trends.

The early twentieth century represented the period in which the great industrial organizations reached their fullest development and influence. Gigantic combines had been built in Banking, in Oil, in Tobacco, in Steel, in Meet Packing and in other industries. In particular, the Railroads, which by that time covered the continent, were the representatives of enormous financial power.

In the development of many of these industries political influence had played an important part. The big corporation worked through political bosses in obtaining favorable government decisions. To a degree which we have never witnessed since. American business not only participated in the people's government, but frequently played a dominant part therein.

By their political power the industries of the East were able to get the franchises they wanted, to establish monopolies, to control legislation, to fatten themselves on high tariffs at the expense of the agricultural West and the South.

It is not surprising that the American people began to resent this corporate supremacy over government. The leading liberal publications denounced the vested corporate interests that were in control of American politics. The leading figure in national affairs began to demand freedom for the average man against big business and high finance. And the average man himself, in increasing numbers, began to think that that was a good idea.

For its leadership this movement was fortunate in getting three of the greatest of Americans--all three men of very different backgrounds, inclinations and talents--Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette and Woodrow Wilson. I think we should also include in the list of those who inspired the pre-war liberal movement the name of a man from Indiana-- Senator Albert J. Beveridge, who gave the keynote speech at the National Convention of the Progressive Party in 1912, calling for "a representative government that represents the people," and urging his party to "battle for the actual rights of man."

Well, there is no time here to go into that long and colorful campaign which led to anti-trust prosecutions, to new legislation, to the quarrel between Roosevelt and Taft, to the split between Republicans and Progressives, to the election of Woodrow Wilson, and then came to an end with the world war.

The objectives of the movement were largely achieved. The oil trust, the tobacco trust, the beef trust and the other monopolies were dissolved. What Wilson called "the money trust" was ended by the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. The great corporate hand of the monopolies was pushed out of the State and Federal Legislatures, and the effort to re- establish popular control led to the direct election of Senators, the giving of votes to women, and the enactment of income-tax legislation on the principle of adjusting the tax to the ability to pay. By 1914, in his message to Congress, Woodrow Wilson was able to state: "Our program of legislation with respect to business is now virtually complete. * * * The road at last lies clear and firm before our business."

That, briefly, was the cause that enlisted the enthusiasm of the liberals of my time--the cause of the people against corporate domination. Perhaps if there had not been a war, the road would have remained clear for business. But the war gave to business all over the world the highly artificial character of a war activity, and the governments of the world took control of business in order to administer it for military purposes.

The moral and economic dislocation thus caused by the war must be regarded as a primary cause for the extravagant speculation, the abuse of industrial power, the neglect of industrial trusteeship that followed it. By the time the depression crept like a cloud over the world, the people had plenty of abuses to charge against industry and plenty of arguments for government regulation. In a desperate haste to achieve reforms they turned more and more to the government to run their affairs. In Germany, Italy and Russia the power given to the government is today complete. In England, France,* Canada and the United States the people still retain the ultimate power, but have encouraged the government to assume more and more responsibility for their jobs, their health, their old age, their security.

The cause of liberalism today, therefore, has changed. In the pre-war years we fought against domination of the people by Big Business. We now face the domination of the people by Big Government. I am not speaking of the United States alone, but of the trend which is apparent throughout the world. The liberal who fought against one kind of domination thirty-five years ago should find himself fighting against this new kind of domination today.

The liberal will, of course, be sympathetic with the principles of much of the social legislation of recent years, but the liberal will also be on his guard lest this trend go too far and suppress the individualism and initiative which are the basic factor in the continuing advance of any civilization.

Remember that almost every time you have a necessarily complex law regulating an industry nowadays, you must set up a commission to administer it. We started with the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 and gave it new powers under Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Then we had the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Power Commission under Woodrow Wilson, and expanded the Federal Power Commission under Hoover. Since then, we have rapidly added others....

So numerous are the departments, bureaus and commissions of all kinds now dominating the life of America that a year or so ago the United States Government began issuing an annual special directory for the guidance of the public. It names and describes eighty-two such departments and agencies, affecting almost every factor in the nation's life. WE have more than one million Federal office-holders--and at the last count they were increasing at the rate of 100 an hour a month or so ago. The salary list of the Federal Government now amounts to billions of dollars a year.

In number of employees, in salary payments, in annual budget, in scope of activities, here is the greatest corporation in the world. This corporation has what you might call a regular operating budget of about $3,332,000,000, but it has a special budget of perhaps four billion dollars a year for public works, for unemployment relief, for agriculture.

The existence of Big Government on such a scale represents as much of a test of the true liberalism as did Big Business twenty-five years ago. The true liberal is as much opposed to excessive concentration of power in the hands of government as to excessive concentration of power in the hands of business. In other words, he maintains his freedom against all comers.

For example, in the period before the War, certain industries in the East grew fat on high tariffs. The liberal was opposed to these high tariffs because they were little more than subsidies given to a favored few. Likewise, today the liberal is opposed to subsidies given by the government to its own agencies for the purpose of competing with the people's business.

In the period before the War it was intolerable to the liberal that the corporation counsel of a railroad or manufacturer should have secret access to the Judge's chamber. Today, the liberal must condemn with equal vigor the statement by the present Solicitor General of the United States that, as Assistant Attorney General, he did his best to take his government cases to "a friendly court."

The true liberal would not tolerate such a thing as corporate efforts to influence the courts before the War. He will not tolerate executive or legislative domination in the courts today.

To the true liberal the attempt on the part of corporations to control legislatures was abhorrent. It must be equally abhorrent to him that a government should use for political purposes the enormous sums appropriated for relief.

The true liberal before the War was opposed to the efforts on the part of corporations to prevent their employees from organizing. And the true liberal today must be equally outraged when the government permits the Mayor of Jersey City to throw union organizations in jail--or eject socialists from the town--merely because the Mayor of Jersey City is Vice Chairman of the National Democratic Committee.

The true liberals today face exactly the same type of enemy under a different name that the liberals faced in the first fifteen years of his century. The difference is that the fight on behalf of liberalism in our times has become all the more important because liberalism has lost in perhaps half of the territory of the world.

When I was an undergraduate in Indiana, there were many nations under an autocratic form of government--many nations in which the rights of the people were respected either not at all or very little. But the trend at that time was toward freedom. Each year the people marched a little further ahead toward that goal. Then the War came, and for a short time freedom seemed to have won a victory. Old monarchies were destroyed. Territories were rearranged. Some half-dozen countries were put on the map which were not on the map in the University of my day. We even were arguing pro and con the advantages of a new principle in democracy--a democracy of nations, which would offer a method whereby the nations could settle their disputes in peace rather than by resort to war.

As I say, the trend was toward freedom; but today the trend has been reversed. At that time the institutions of monarchy and absolute control were under question. Today the institutions of democracy and individual liberty are under question. Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin believe the democratic form of government to be obsolete; they are convinced that their governments are far superior. They deprecate the cause of peace, maintaining that war offers certain advantages. They are opposed to free speech and a free press, claiming that censorship is for the good of the people.

If you are anxious to preserve the American system, therefore, you must be aware of the fact that there are those from outside who expect it to be destroyed and who will be glad to lend a hand in its destroying. "The struggle between the two worlds can have no compromise," states Mussolini. "Either We or They. Either their ideas or ours. Either our state or thiers." It is a question of either "We or They" certainly what "They" have does not compare, in all fairness, with what "We" still retain. We manage to pay our workers more, charge the consumer less, and make a better product than the manufacturers of any European country. Despite all the difficulties of recent years, we still have by far the highest standard of living; not only the highest in material comforts, but the highest in spiritual possessions; not only better machines, but more freedom. And we have achieved this because we have maintained the system of free enterprise under a democratic government. The surrender of liberalism to the theory of the totalitarian state would mean the sacrifice of the free man's achievement for a regulated and second-rate society.

So, just as I left the University of Indiana twenty-five years ago, sworn to defend the liberal cause, I return to it today pledged to the same purpose. The liberal cause is still in need of defense. I do not doubt that you will defend it. You could hardly spend four years here in this University, in this State, without absorbing a faith in the rights of man. Perhaps I should warn you, however, that liberalism is neither easy nor sensational. Very rarely is it called upon to storm the barricades with flags waving, and very rarely can it rely simply upon a good heart to determine the merits of its cause. Frequently you will find yourself in the minority, and sometimes you will find yourself alone.

The fact is that the liberal attempts to do the most difficult thing in the world--namely, to strike a true balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of society. He is like a man rowing a boat who when the boat swings to the right, pulls on the left, and when it swings to the left, pulls on the right. Liberalism sticks to the middle of the road, speaks quietly and insists upon the color of no man's shirt. If its voice seems small in the present tumult of shouting--if its ranks seem thinned among the regiment of uniform--let that be a sign to you, who have been educated in its spirit, to recognize the urgency of its cause.

-30-

* Written May, 1938

Free web design services. Click here.

Web Design by Al Colombo, Thompson Promotions, Canton, Ohio.