Title: The New Responsibilities of Women
Date: April 19, 1926
Location: Washington, D.C.
Context: Praise for the purpose and accomplishments of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) and an appeal for them to take a leading role in the responsibilities of citizenship — voter turnout in particular
Coming to address the Thirty-fifth Continental Congress of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution reminds me that I have had that privilege several times in the past. You represent one of the most distinguished patriotic orders of our Nation in cherishing the memory of the people and the record of the events of the great struggle which resulted in American independence. It is a marked honor to be invited to speak in your presence. But I do not wish to be the sole recipient of such opportunity. Perhaps you might profit by some change in the future. In a fresh view of a great period, animated by a great purpose, consecrated by a great result, you are more likely to secure a much larger inspiration.
In Massachusetts the 19th of April is known as Patriots Day. It is honored and set apart. The whole Nation is coming more and more to observe it. As the time lengthens from the occurrences of 1775, its significance becomes more apparent and its importance more real. It stands out as one of the great days in history, not because it can be said the American Revolution actually began then, but because on that occasion it became apparent that the patriots were determined to defend their rights.
The Revolutionary period has always appeared to me to be significant for three definite reasons: The people of that day had ideals for the advancement of human welfare. They kept their ideals within the bounds of what was practical, according to the results of past experience. They did not hesitate to make the necessary sacrifice to establish those ideals in a workable form of political institutions. As I have examined the record of your society, I believe that it is devoted to the same principles of practical idealism enshrined in institutions by sacrifice.
This is but the natural inheritance of those who are descended from Revolutionary times. In this day, with our broadened view of the importance of women in working out the destiny of mankind, there will be none to deny that as there were fathers in our Republic so there were mothers. If they did not take part in the formal deliberations, yet by their abiding faith they inspired and encouraged the men; by their sacrifice they performed their part in the struggle out of which came our country. We read of the flaming plea of Hannah Arnett, which she made on a dreary day in December, 1776, when Lord Cornwallis, victorious at Fort Lee, held a strategic position in New Jersey. A group of the Revolutionists, weary and discouraged, were discussing the advisability of giving up the struggle. Casting aside the proprieties which forbade a woman to interfere in the counsels of men, Hannah Arnett proclaimed her faith. In eloquent words, which at once shamed and stung to action, she convinced her husband and his companions that righteousness must win. Who has not heard of Molly Pitcher, whose heroic services at the Battle of Monmouth helped the sorely tried army of George Washington! We have been told of the unselfish devotion of-the women who gave their own warm garments to fashion clothing for the suffering Continental Army during that bitter winter at Valley Forge. The burdens of the war were not all borne by the men.
Such a record made it eminently fitting that in the course of time there should be founded the Daughters of the American Revolution. Starting in 1890, small in numbers but great in purpose, it is little wonder your society has grown great in membership and influence. From four chapters and 390 members at the end of the first six months, it has reached a total enrollment of more than 156,000, and a chapter roll of over 2,000. In recent years there have been periods when new members have been taken in at the rate of 1,000 a month. Truly, a powerful force for good in our country-such a body of high-minded women with such a heritage of sacrifice and devotion to an ideal! What possibilities for future service rest in such a devoted body of citizens!
I have been reading your constitution and considering the objects of your society there set forth. It declares your purpose:
“To perpetuate the memory and spirit of the men and women who achieved American independence, by the acquisition and protection of historical spots, and the erection of monuments * * *.”
How well this has been carried out is known to all who have visited such spots. That it has been done is a reason for your existence. Who can measure the inspiration that may be drawn from such symbols of heroic deeds!
You have encouraged research into Revolutionary history, published the results, aided in the preservation of documents and relics, of the individual service records of soldiers and patriots. You have promoted the celebration of patriotic anniversaries. Worthy acts of service to the Nation, each and every one!
You undertake to promote institutions for the diffusion of knowledge to the end that there may be developed “the largest capacity for performing the duties of American citizens.” You have added to your endeavors of this character the very practical and necessary work of helping the foreign born to understand and acquire the full benefit of living in America.
But it is the third and last, and the most important, paragraph of your declaration of purpose that arouses the keenest interest. In it you say it shall be your endeavor:
“To cherish, maintain, and extend the institutions of American freedom, to foster true patriotism and love of country, and to aid in securing for mankind all the blessings of liberty.” These are principles worthy of the best support that the country can give. Yet, it is not beyond the capacity of the humblest citizen to make some contribution for their establishment. However exalted is the conception of our institutions, they are not beyond the reach of the common run of people. They are ideal, but they are practical. They rest on the every-day virtues—honesty, industry, and thrift. As the overwhelming mass of our people are thoroughly loyal to these principles, we can feel a warranted assurance that the foundations of our institutions are secure.
But while we are justified in the assumption that the heart of the people is sound, and that they are moved by worthy motives, it can not be denied that we always have and do now suffer from many minor afflictions. That would be disturbing if one did not realize that more serious maladies have been met and overcome in the past, and that there is every reason to believe that our people have sufficient character to meet the requirements of the present day.
Our Republic gives to its citizens great opportunities, and under it they have achieved greater blessings than ever came to any other people. It is exceedingly wholesome to stop and contemplate that undisputed fact from time to time. Then, it is necessary to contemplate the inescapable corollary that the enjoyment and perpetuation of these conditions necessarily lay upon our people the obligation of a corresponding service and sacrifice. Citizenship in America is not a private enterprise, but a public function. Although I have indicated that it is my firm conviction that this requirement will be met, it can not be denied that if it is not met disaster will overtake the whole fabric of our institutions.
Our very success and prosperity have brought with them their own perils. It can not be denied that in the splendor and glamour of our life the moral sense is sometimes blinded. It can not be disputed that in too many quarters there is a lack of reverence for authority and of obedience to law. Such occurrences are sporadic and produce their own remedy. When society finds that its life and property are in peril from evildoers, it is very quick to organize its forces for its own protection. That can not fail to be done in our country, for our people as a whole are thoroughly law-abiding.
It is not in violence and crime that our greatest danger lies. These evils are so perfectly apparent that they very quickly arouse the moral power of the people for their suppression. A far more serious danger lurks in the shirking of those responsibilities of citizenship, where the evil may not be so noticeable but is more insidious and likely to be more devastating.
We live in a republic. A vital principle of that form of government is representation. More and more as our population increases it becomes necessary for the people to express their will through their duly chosen delegates. If we are to maintain the principle that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, if we are to have any measure of self-government, if the voice of the people is to rule, if representatives are truly to reflect the popular will, it is altogether necessary that in each election there should be a fairly full participation by all the qualified voters.
This is very far from being the case in recent years. Since 1880 there has been a marked increase in the tendency to remain away from the polls on the part of those entitled to vote. But, despite a steady decline in the vote in the five presidential elections in the period 1880-1896, there was a voting average of 80 per cent. Out of every 100 persons entitled to vote 80 went to the polls. For the last two presidential elections the average has been less than 50 per cent, and that in the face of a sincere effort on the part of numerous organizations to get out the vote. In this effort it is reported many Daughters of the American Revolution took part. From its early inception the town meeting, featuring New England life, an example of pure democracy, was generally well attended. Although representative government did not originate here, our form of representative democracy is our own product. The national election day was fixed in the Constitution, and most of the States accepted that first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as the day upon which the voters should choose their local officials. Election day in the olden times was generally considered more or less sacred-one to be devoted to the discharge of the obligations of citizenship.
In the intervening years customs and habits have changed. Opportunities for recreation have increased. Our entire mode of life has been recast through invention, the great growth of cities, and for other reasons. Undoubtedly, this has been responsible in no small measure for the widespread disregard on the part of so many of our citizens of the privilege and duty of voting. But back of these conditions there are probably some deeper and more fundamental reasons.
It was hoped that giving the vote to women would arouse a more general interest in the obligations of election day. That has not yet proved to be the case. The presidential election in 1920 was the first after the adoption of the universal suffrage amendment. There is no way to divide the total vote cast by men and women. But, after that election some rather complicated calculations were made based on the assumption that the accession of women might be presumed to double the vote. The calculators reached the conclusion that of the approximate 27,000,000 votes cast only 37 per cent represented the votes of women. Some say the percentage of feminine vote was greater in 1924. Others say it was less.
I am not disposed to accept these conclusions as altogether fair to the women. And it stands to reason that it would take some time for them to become used to exercising the privilege which had belonged to the men of this country for many generations.
It is not my purpose to draw any distinction between the men and the women as to the extent to which they take advantage of their privilege and perform their duty at the ballot box. But rather it is my idea to call your attention to the startling fact that in the last two presidential elections barely 50 per cent of those qualified to vote have done so. In the senatorial elections in off years the voting percentage is much smaller.
A published study of the senatorial vote of 1922 revealed some astonishing facts. In not a few of the States the total vote cast for senatorial candidates was less than 50 per cent of the total possible vote. In not a single case did the successful candidate secure anywhere near a majority of the total possible vote. There was one State in which the percentage was 42 and another in which it was 33. From that it ran down sharply to certain States where the candidates elected received as low as 7, 9, or 10 per cent of the total possible vote.
If we are to keep our representative form of government and to maintain the principle that the majority shall rule, it behooves us to take some drastic action to arouse the voters of this country to a greater interest in their civic duties on election day. Many remedies have been proposed, from disfranchisement to criminal action. The most practical, I believe, however, is for all bodies of men and women interested in the welfare of this country to join together under some efficient form of organization to correct this evil which has been coming on us for more than 40 years, but which within the last decade has become most acute.
Having in mind the poor showing made in the presidential election of 1920, an effort was made to get out a larger participation on election day in 1924. Such prominent bodies as the National Civic Federation, the National League of Women Voters, the American Federation of Labor, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, and a large number of other organizations, business as well as civic, each in its own way, attempted to get people to the polls. Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution took part as individuals but not as an organization, I understand. When the vote was counted it was found the percentage of vote cast was very little greater in 1924 than in 1920. One of those most earnestly interested in the movement writing about it later said:
“Was it a tragedy or was it a farce—the result of the great and more or less spectacular campaign by voluntary organizations to ‘Get Out the Vote’?”
Despite all this effort the percentage of those voting was barely 50. The question naturally arises, Had it not been for all this work would not the decline have reached an extraordinary and a humiliatingly low point? The very fact that there was little net increase after all the self-sacrificing and disinterested work would seem to show clearly the growing strength of the tendency to remain away from the polls on election day.
Led by our example, country after country in various parts of the world has adopted a representative form of government and extended its franchise for the election of parliamentary bodies. There was a time when America led the world in getting out the vote. It is not pleasant to find that now we have dropped far behind some of the other nations in our participation in popular elections. We are told that 82 per cent of the men and women qualified to vote went to the polls in the parliamentary elections in England and Wales in 1922. The British electorate is maintaining a voting average of 60 per cent better than ours. In Germany in 1920 the vote approximated 75 per cent of the total electorate. And it is estimated that in 1924 this was increased to 82 per cent. In 1921 in Canada, in voting for members of the lower House of Parliament, a little over 70 per cent of the voting population participated. Over a period of 21 years Australia has maintained an average of somewhat better than 70 per cent. The percentage in Italy in 1923 was 64.
The perilous aspect of this situation lies in its insidiousness. With the broadening of popular powers, the direct election of practically all public officials, and the direct nomination of most of them, there is no opportunity for an expression of the public will except at the ballot box. It is perfectly evident that all those who have selfish interests will go to the polls and will be active and energetic in securing support for their proposals and their candidates. The average voter supports what he believes to be the public interest. Unless they appear on election day that interest will go unrepresented.
As our resources increase, as the relationship between individuals becomes more intricate, the Government becomes more and more important. We do not need to fear a frontal attack upon it. Whenever the public scents that it is in danger, they will be quick enough to give it adequate support. It is only the approach of some silent and unrecognized peril that needs to give us alarm. Such a situation will develop if the Government ceases to represent the people because the public has become inarticulate. We are placing our reliance on the principle of self-government. We expect there will be mistakes, but they will be the mistakes which the people themselves make, because they control their own Government. But if the people fail to vote, a government will be developed which is not their government.
This is not a partisan question, but a patriotic question. Your society, which is organized “to cherish, maintain, and extend the institutions of American freedom,” may well take a leading part in arousing public sentiment to the peril that arises when the average citizen fails to vote. The women of the country ought to be especially responsive to an appeal from you. I feel quite certain that with the men it would be almost irresistible. The American people have been especially responsive in meeting the requirements of taxation. They ought to be even more responsive in meeting the requirements of voting. The whole system of American Government rests on the ballot box. Unless citizens perform their duties there, such a system of government is doomed to failure.
Citation: Foundations of the Republic
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Joanne Dooley who prepared this document for digital publication.