September 20, 1940 – As Europe was plunged into War, and as America’s neutrality towards the conflict was put to the test almost daily, President Roosevelt, in an address to the University of Pennsylvania on the occasion of its bicentennial, spoke about the issues of democracy and freedom of thought. The address was broadcast nationwide. Below is an excerpt of the speech:
President Roosevelt: “The very foundation of this University was concerned with freedom of religious teaching, and with free learning for the many who could not pay for higher education. As I understand my history, this was originally proposed as a place where the good and Reverend Doctor George Whitefield who, incidentally, used to go to my little County of Dutchess on the Hudson River—might preach his religion without certain difficulties which the old conservatives of Philadelphia at that time threw in his path. Indeed, it was desired to make it unnecessary for the good gentleman to preach in the sun and the rain of the open fields, when the doors of the established churches were closed against him. And it was the dream of the founders to make it a ‘source of education to the children of the poor who otherwise might have gone untaught.
The survival and the growth of the University through these two centuries are particularly symbolic of the eternal strength that is inherent in the American concept of the freedom of human thought and action. Here is living proof of the validity and force of single-minded service to the cause of truth.
Events in this world of ours today are making the vast majority of our citizens think more and more clearly about the manner of the growth of their liberty and freedom, and how hard their people in the olden days fought and worked to win and to hold the privilege of free Government.
With the gaining of our political freedom you will remember that there came a conflict between the point of view of Alexander Hamilton, sincerely believing in the superiority of Government by a small group of public-spirited and usually wealthy citizens, and, on the other hand, the point of view of Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of Government by representatives chosen by all the people, an advocate of the universal right of free thought, free personal living, free religion, free expression of opinion and, above all, the right of free universal suffrage.
Many of the Jeffersonian school of thought were frank to admit the high motives and disinterestedness of Hamilton and his school. Many Americans of those days were willing to concede that if Government could be guaranteed to be kept always on the high level of unselfish service suggested by the Hamiltonians there would be nothing to fear. For the very basis of the Hamiltonian philosophy was that through a system of elections every four years, limited to the votes of the most highly educated and the most successful citizens, the best of those qualified to govern could always be selected.
It was, however, with rare perspicuity, as time has shown, that Jefferson pointed out that, on the doctrine of sheer human frailty, the Hamilton theory was bound to develop, in the long run, into Government by selfishness or Government for personal gain or Government by class, that would ultimately lead to the abolishment of free elections. For he recognized that it was our system of free unhampered elections which was the surest guaranty of popular Government. Just so long as the voters of the Nation, regardless of higher education or property possessions, were free to exercise their choice in the polling place without hindrance, the country would have no cause to fear the head of tyranny.
At all times in our history of nearly a century and a half since then, there have been many Americans who have sought to confine the ballot to limited groups of people. It was a quarter of a century ago that President Eliot of Harvard University summarized this view when he said to me something like this: “Roosevelt, I am convinced that even though we have multiplied our universities in every State of the Union, even though higher learning seems to have come into its own, nevertheless, if the ballot were to be confined to the holders of college degrees, the Nation would go on the rocks in a very few years.” It may seem ungracious for a very new degree-holder to say this to this audience of older degree-holders, but my authority for that view is a great educator, noted for his efforts to disseminate college education throughout the country.
I must admit that I agree with him thoroughly in his estimate of the superior ability of the whole of the voters to pass upon political and social issues in free and unhampered elections, as against the exclusive ability of a smaller group of individuals at the top of the social structure.
On candidates and on election issues—and remember that I am trying to think of this year as being 1939—I would rather trust the aggregate judgment of all the people in a factory—the president, all the vice presidents, the board of directors, the managers, the foremen, plus all the laborers—rather than the judgment of the few who may have financial control at the time. On such questions the aggregate total judgment of a farm owner, of the farmer and of all the farm hands will be sounder, I think, than that of the farm owner alone. I would rather rely on the aggregate opinion, on matters affecting Government, of a railroad president and its superintendents, its engineers, foremen, brakemen, conductors, trainmen, telegraphers, porters and all the others, than on the sole opinion of the few in control of the management, or of the principal stockholders themselves.
Only too often- and we know many examples—in our political history, the few at the top have tried to advise or dictate to the many lower down how they should vote.
Even today in certain quarters there are, I regret to say, demands for a return of Government to the control of a fewer number of people, people who, because of business ability or economic omniscience are supposed to be just a touch above the average of our citizens. I took four years of economics when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, and everything I was taught is outside of all the textbooks today. The older I grow, the less omniscient I become in regard to economics, and I think most of us do. As in the days of Hamilton, we of our own generation should give those who demand government by the few all credit for pure intention and high ideals. Nevertheless, their type of political thinking could easily lead to Government by selfish seekers for power and riches and glory. For the great danger is that once the Government falls into the hands of a few elite, curtailment or even abolition of free elections might be adopted as the means of keeping them in power.
I can never forget that some well-meaning people have even recently seriously suggested that the right to vote be denied to American men and women who through no fault of their own had lost their jobs and, in order to keep the family and the home going, were working on work relief projects. As long as periodic free elections survive, no set of people can permanently control Government. In the maintenance of free elections rests the complete and the enduring safety of our form of Government.
No dictator in history has ever dared to run the gauntlet of a really free election.”
Here is that complete address, as it was given on September 20, 1940.