The Reign of Law

Title: The Reign of Law

Date: May 30, 1925

Location: Washington, D.C.

Context: Memorial Exercises, Arlington National Cemetery 


For those who are the inheritors of a noble estate and a high place in the world, it is a good thing to pause at intervals and consider by what favor of fortune and of ancestry their lines have fallen in such pleasant places. Thus to meditate upon that course of events, which has given them what they have and made them what they are, will tend to remind them how great is their debt and how little is their share of merit.

This is the day on which the American people each year acknowledged that they have such a debt. It has been set aside that a grateful Nation may do fitting honor to the memory of those who have made the greatest and most voluntary contribution to it. Here about us, in this place of beauty and reverence, lies the mortal dust of a noble host, to whom we have come to pay our tribute, as thousands of other like gatherings will do throughout our land. In their youth and strength, their love and loyalty, those who rest here gave to their country all that mortality can give. For what they sacrificed we must give back the pledge of faith to all that they held dear, constantly renewed, constantly justified. Doing less would betray them and dishonor us.

To such a memorial as exists here we can only come in a spirit of humility and of gratitude. We can not hope to repay those whom we are assembled to honor. They were moved by a noble conception of human possibilities and human destiny. But we can undertake to find what was their inspiration and seek to make it our guide. By that they will be recompensed.

These who are represented here were men in whom courage had reached a high moral quality. They had been brave enough not to shrink from looking at facts and institutions. They had been honest enough to admit that they saw there much that was not good. They glossed over no wrongs, they hid away no skeletons. They did not pretend that wrong was right or ever could be right. They had put much thought to the lessons of hard experience, and had frankly acknowledged that they must deal with a crisis in the Nation’s life. They were sure that union was a blessing, that slavery was a wrong, and that domestic war was the supreme human tragedy. This settled, they saw that one of three courses must be taken. They could have had peace with disunion, or they could have had peace and union, with slavery. Freedom with union, they saw at last, meant war. We know how they decided. We know at what fearful cost they supported their decision.

We live far enough away from those times of test and trial to know that sincerity and honesty did not all lie on either side. We know the conflicts of loyalties, traditions, ancestry, and interest which drew men to one side and the other. I doubt if there ever was another so great and elemental a conflict from which men emerged with so much of mutual respect, with so little of bitterness and lingering hostility. The struggle brought the whole Nation at last to see that its only assurance was in unity. United, it could go its way in all security; divided, both sections becoming the prey of jealousy and intrigue, would have dissipated all the power they now have for good in the world.

Our generation has recently lived through times still so vivid as to seem but as yesterday, which have taught us deeply to appreciate the value of union in purpose and effort. We have come to see as through a crystal that in the national variety of talents and resources, of cultures and capacities, of climates and of soils, of occupations and of interests, lies the guaranty of both our power and our authority. More than that, they have taught us how heavy and important is our responsibility in the world.

Conscious of a strength which removes us from either fear or truculence, satisfied with dominions and resources which free us from lust of territory or empire, we see that our highest interest will be promoted by the prosperity and progress of our neighbors. We recognize that what has been accomplished here has largely been due to the capacity of our people for efficient cooperation. We shall continue prosperous at home and helpful abroad, about as we shall maintain and continually adapt to changing conditions the system under which we have come thus far. I mean our Federal system, distributing powers and responsibilities between the States and the National Government. For that is the greatest American contribution to the organization of government over great populations and wide areas. It is the essence of practical administration for a nation placed as ours is. It has become so commonplace to us, and a pattern by so many other peoples, that we do not always realize how great an innovation it was when first formulated, or how great the practical problems which its operation involves. Because of my conviction that some of these problems are at this time in need of deeper consideration, I shall take this occasion to try to turn the public mind in that direction.

When dealing with the distribution of powers between the General Government and the States, Chief Justice Marshall declared:

“When the American people created a national legislature, with certain enumerated powers, it was neither necessary nor proper to define the powers retained by the States. Those powers proceed, not from the people of America, but from the people of the several States, and remain after the adoption of the Constitution what they were before, except in so far as they may be abridged by that instrument.”

Our constitutional history started with the States retaining all powers of sovereignty unimpaired, save those conferred upon the National Government. The evolution of the constitutional system has consisted largely in determining the line of demarcation between State and national authority. The cases involved are many and complicated, but there is a fairly good popular understanding of this continuing struggle between these contending sovereignties. Because of better communication and transportation, the constant tendency has been to more and more social and economic unification. The present continent-wide union of forty-eight States is much closer than was the original group of thirteen States.

This increasing unification has well-nigh obliterated State lines so far as concerns many relations of life. Yet, in a country of such enormous expanse, there must always be certain regional differences in social outlook and economic thought. The most familiar illustration of this is found in the history of slavery. The Constitution did not interfere with slavery, except to fix a time when the foreign slave trade should be abolished. Yet within a generation the country was confronting a sharp sectional division on this issue. Changing economic conditions made slavery profitable in the South, but left it unprofitable in the North. The resulting war might have been avoided if the South had adopted a policy of ultimate abolition. But as this method was not pursued the differences grew sharper until they brought on the great conflict.

Though the war ended forever the possibility of disunion, there still remain problems between State and Federal authority. There are divisions of interest, perhaps more apparent than real, among geographical sections or social groups. The seaboard thinks it has interests in maritime transportation and overseas commerce which differ greatly from those of the interior, which is peculiarly dependent upon railroads. Difference in climate and physical conditions throughout so great a territory tend to varied social habits and modes of living which react upon the economic and political attitudes. The industrial development of some sections contrasts with the agricultural character of others. Obviously, these differences give rise to many problems in government, which must always be recognized. But it is hardly conceivable that a really menacing contest between the sovereignty of the States and of the Union could ever again arise.

Our country, having devised this dual system of government, and lived under it longer than any other, is deeply concerned to perfect and adapt it to the changing conditions of organized society. A community comprising half a continent and more than a hundred million people could not possibly be administered under a single government organization. We must maintain a proper measure of local self-government while constantly making adjustments to an increasing interdependence among the political parts.

Our national history has presented various phases of this problem. Slavery showed one; the complexities of interstate commerce have kept others constantly in mind. On the day the Constitution was finished, probably more people would have seen seeds of conflict and dangers to the Union in future commercial relations than in slavery. But commerce became a source of strength, while slavery became a cause of division. It brought the Union into danger; and in the end was destroyed itself. Where there was sincere acceptance of the dual sovereignty theory, where the States sought to do their full part, and accepted the determinations of the National Government as to the rest, the plan worked. Where the States sought more from the Federal authority than it could give, and resisted national demands—then came dissension and, at length, war.

It would be folly to deny that we still have problems of interstate relations to handle. We boast that this is a land of equal opportunity for all. We insist that there is one law for all the people. But that equality suffers often because of the divergencies between the laws of different States. So long as some can go to a distant State for divorces which others are denied at home, there is not equality in this regard. When some States grant valuable exemptions from taxation which other States impose, one person may enjoy while another is denied these benefits.

A few years ago a majority of the States had adopted prohibition or rigid restrictions on the traffic in intoxicating liquor. But other States did not cooperate in advancing this policy, and ultimately by national action it was extended to all the Union. By failing to meet the requirements of a national demand the States became deprived of the power to act. If questions which the States will not fairly settle on their own account shall have to be settled for them by the Federal authority, it will only be because some States will have refused to discharge obvious duties.

There is another responsibility of the States. It is quite aside from this one of jurisdiction. It is the subject of law enforcement. We are not a lawless people, but we are too frequently a careless one. The multiplicity of laws, the varied possibilities of appeals, the disposition to technicality in procedure, the delays and consequent expense of litigation which inevitably inure to the advantage of wealth and specialized abilityall these have many times been recounted as reproaches to us. It is strange that such laxities should persist in a time like the present, which is marked by a determined upward movement in behalf of the social welfare. But they do exist. They demonstrate a need for better, prompter, less irksome, and expensive administration of the laws. They point the necessity for simplification and codification of laws; for uniformity of procedure; for more accurate delimitation of State and Federal authority.

All these problems constantly come in the work of political and social development. But they stand for a vast progression toward better conditions, a better society, a better economic system. In approaching them, we need to have in mind the Federalist’s analysis of our constitutional system: The powers delegated to the Federal Government are few and defined; those to remain in the hands of the State government are numerous and indefinite.

That statement can not be too much emphasized. The country’s growth has compelled the Federal establishment to exceed by far the Government plants of even the greatest States. With this growth in physical extent, in revenue, in personnel, there has inevitably been the suggestion that the Federal Government was overshadowing the States. Yet the State governments deal with far more various and more intimate concerns of the people than does the National Government. All the operations of the minor civil divisions, parishes, wards, school districts, towns, cities, counties, and the like, are dependencies of the State. The maintenance of order through police, the general business of enforcing law, is left to the States. So is education. Property is held and transferred on terms fixed by the States. In short, the structure of social and business relationship is built chiefly about the laws of the States. It depends upon the exercise by the States of that vastly greater share of Government power which resides in them, to the exclusion of the Federal Government. In ordinary times nearly the entire burden of taxation represents State and local demands. Even now, despite the enormous increase of Federal taxes from pre-war years, State and local taxes far exceed the Federal requirements. Moreover, the national burden is being continually reduced, while that of the local units is growing and likely to continue to grow.

Such is the real distribution of duties, responsibilities, and expenses. Yet people are given to thinking and speaking of the National Government as “the Government.” They demand more from it than it was ever intended to provide; and yet in the same breath they complain that Federal authority is stretching itself over areas which do not concern it. On one side, there are demands for more amendments to the Constitution. On the other, there is too much opposition to those that already exist.

Without doubt, the reason for increasing demands on the Federal Government is that the States have not discharged their full duties. Some have done better and some worse, but as a whole they have not done all they should. So demand has grown up for a greater concentration of powers in the Federal Government. If we will fairly consider it, we must conclude that the remedy would be worse than the disease. What we need is not more Federal government but better local government. Yet many people who would agree to this have large responsibility for the lapses of local authority.

From every position of consistency with our system, more centralization ought to be avoided. The States would protest, promptly enough, anything savoring of Federal usurpation. Their protection will lie in discharging the full obligations that have been imposed on them. Once the evasion of local responsibilities becomes a habit, there is no knowing how far the consequences may reach. Every step in such a progression will be unfortunate alike for States and Nation. The country needs, in grappling with the manifold problems of these times, all the courage, intelligence, training, and skill that can be enlisted in both State and national administrations.

One insidious practice which sugar-coats the dose of Federal intrusion is the division of expense for public improvements or services between State and National treasuries. The ardent States-rights advocate sees in this practice a vicious weakening of the State system. The extreme federalist is apt to look upon it in cynical fashion as bribing the States into subordination. The average American, believing in our dual-sovereignty system, must feel that the policy of national doles to the States is bad and may become disastrous. We may go on yet for a time with the easy assumption that “if the States will not, the Nation must.” But that way lies trouble. When the National Treasury contributes half, there is temptation to extravagance by the State. We have seen some examples in connection with the Federal contributions to road building. Yet there are constant demands for more Federal contributions. Whenever by that plan we take something from one group of States and give it to another group, there is grave danger that we do an economic injustice on one side and a political injury on the other. We impose unfairly on the strength of the strong, and we encourage the weak to indulge their weakness.

When the local government unit evades its responsibility in one direction, it is started in the vicious way of disregard of law and laxity of living. The police force which is administered on the assumption that the violation of some laws may be ignored has started toward demoralization. The community which approves such administration is making dangerous concessions. There is no use disguising the fact that as a nation our attitude toward the prevention and punishment of crime needs more serious attention. I read the other day a survey which showed that in proportion to population we have eight times as many murders as Great Britain, and five times as many as France. Murder rarely goes unpunished in Britain or France; here the reverse is true. The same survey reports many times as many burglaries in parts of America as in all England; and, whereas a very high per cent of burglars in England are caught and punished, in parts of our country only a very low per cent are finally punished. The comparison can not fail to be disturbing. The conclusion is inescapable that laxity of administration reacts upon public opinion, causing cynicism and loss of confidence in both law and its enforcement and therefore in its observance. The failure of local government has a demoralizing effect in every direction.

These are vital issues, in which the Nation greatly needs a revival of interest and concern. It is senseless to boast of our liberty when we find that to so shocking an extent it is merely the liberty to go ill-governed. It is time to take warning that neither the liberties we prize nor the system under which we claim them are safe while such conditions exist.

We shall not correct admitted and grave defects if we hesitate to recognize them. We must be frank with ourselves. We ought to be our own harshest critics. We can afford to be, for in spite of everything we still have a balance of prosperity, of general welfare, of secure freedom, and of righteous purpose, that gives us assurance of leadership among the nations.

What America needs is to hold to its ancient and well-charted course.

Our country was conceived in the theory of local self-government. It has been dedicated by long practice to that wise and beneficent policy. It is the foundation principle of our system of liberty. It makes the largest promise to the freedom and development of the individual. Its preservation is worth all the effort and all the sacrifice that it may cost.

It can not be denied that the present tendency is not in harmony with this spirit. The individual, instead of working out his own salvation and securing his own freedom by establishing his own economic and moral independence by his own industry and his own self-mastery, tends to throw himself on some vague influence which he denominates society and to hold that in some way responsible for the sufficiency of his support and the morality of his actions. The local political units likewise look to the States, the States look to the Nation, and nations are beginning to look to some vague organization, some nebulous concourse of humanity, to pay their bills and tell them what to do. This is not local self-government. It is not American. It is not the method which has made this country what it is. We can not maintain the western standard of civilization on that theory. If it is supported at all, it will have to be supported on the principle of individual responsibility. If that principle be maintained, the result which I believe America wishes to see produced inevitably will follow.

There is no other foundation on which freedom has ever found a permanent abiding place. We shall have to make our decision whether we wish to maintain our present institutions, or whether we wish to exchange them for something else. If we permit some one to come to support us, we can not prevent some one coming to govern us. If we are too weak to take charge of our own mortality, we shall not be strong enough to take charge of our own liberty. If we can not govern ourselves, if we can not observe the law, nothing remains but to have some one else govern us, to have the law enforced against us, and to step down from the honorable abiding place of freedom to the ignominious abode of servitude.

If these principles are sound, two conclusions follow. The individual and the local, state, and national political units ought to be permitted to assume their own responsibilities. Any other course in the end will be subversive both of character and liberty. But it is equally clear that they in their turn must meet their obligations. If there is to be a continuation of individual and local self-government and of State sovereignty, the individual and locality must govern themselves and the State must assert its sovereignty. Otherwise these rights and privileges will be confiscated under the all-compelling pressure of public necessity for a better maintenance of order and morality. The whole world has reached a stage in which, if we do not set ourselves right, we may be perfectly sure that an authority will be asserted by others for the purpose of setting us right.

But before we attempt to set ourselves up as exponents of universal reform, it would be wise to remember that progress is of slow growth, and also to remember that moderation, patience, forbearance, and charity are virtues in their own right. The only action which can be effective in the long run is that which helps others to help themselves. Before we assume too great responsibilities in the governing of others, it would be the part of wisdom very completely to discharge our responsibilities for governing ourselves. A large amount of work has to be done at home before we can start in on the neighbors, and very considerable duties have to be performed in America before we undertake the direction of the rest of the world. But we must at all times do the best we can for ourselves without forgetting others, and the best we can for our own country without forgetting other nations.

Ours is a new land. It has had an almost unbelievable task to perform, and has performed it well. We have been called to fit the institutions of ancient civilization to the conditions of a new country. In that task the leaders of the Nation have been supported by a deep devotion to the essentials of freedom. At the bottom of the national character has been a strain of religious earnestness and moral determination which has never failed to give color and quality to our institutions. Because our history shows us these things, we dare make honest appraisal of our shortcomings. We have not failed. We have succeeded. Because we have been privileged to rely upon generations of men and women ready to serve and to sacrifice, we have magnificently succeeded.

Our gathering here to-day is in testimony of supreme obligation to those who have given most to make and preserve the Nation. They established it upon the dual system of State government and Federal Government, each supreme in its own sphere. But they left to the States the main powers and functions of determining the form and course of society. We have demonstrated in the time of war that under the Constitution we possess an indestructible Union. We must not fail to demonstrate in the time of peace that we are likewise determined to possess and maintain indestructible States. This policy can be greatly advanced by individual observance of the law. It can be strongly supplemented by a vigorous enforcement of the law. The war which established Memorial Day had for its main purpose the enforcement of the Constitution. The peace which followed that war rests upon the universal observance of the Constitution. This Union can only be preserved, the States can only be maintained, under a reign of national, local, and moral law, under the Constitution established by Washington, under the peace provided by Lincoln.


Citation: Foundations of the Republic

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Hilary Weber who prepared this document for digital publication.

One Response to “The Reign of Law”

  1. Hilary Weber

    It is easy to take for granted something that has always been around. Federalism is described in this speech as an “innovation.” We might think of innovations as something new, and our governmental system is not new to me. Therefore, it is hard to really appreciate the balance and efficiency federalism can bring to a land with “great populations and wide areas.” It allows for those leaders closest to the individual to be in the best position to understand and help the individual – the local and state governments. I do not think this is how government functions today as politics seem to be national first and then state second with local being third. However, I am so grateful for this innovative system that I have inherited which can allow the individual the most freedom possible. The price I need to pay for this individual freedom is my “individual observance of the law” and to take personal responsibility for myself and my family.

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