has been the primary force of American civilization for
three centuries. It is our sort of individualism that has
supplied the motivation of America’s political, economic,
and spiritual institutions in all these years. It has proved
its ability to develop its institutions with the changing
scene. Our very form of government is the product of the
individualism of our people, the demand for an equal opportunity,
for a fair chance.
The American pioneer is the epic expression of that individualism,
and the pioneer spirit is the response to the challenge
of opportunity, to the challenge of nature, to the challenge
of life, to the call of the frontier. That spirit need never
die for lack of something for it to achieve. There will
always be a frontier to conquer or to hold as long as men
think, plan, and dare.
Our American individualism has received much of its character
from our contacts with the forces of nature on a new continent.
It evolved government without official emissaries to show
the way; it plowed and sowed two score of great states;
it built roads, bridges, railways, cities; it carried forward
every attribute of high civilization over a continent. The
days of the pioneer are not over. There are continents of
human welfare of which we have penetrated only the coastal
plain. The great continent of science is as yet explored
only on its borders, and it is only the pioneer who will
penetrate the frontier in the quest for new worlds to conquer.
The very genius of our institutions has been given to them
by the pioneer spirit. Our individualism is rooted in our
very nature. It is based on conviction born of experience.
Equal opportunity, the demand for a fair chance, became
the formula of American individualism because it is the
method of American achievement.
After the absorption of the great plains of the West came
the era of industrial development with the new complex of
forces that it has brought us. Now haltingly, but with more
surety and precision than ever before and with a more conscious
understanding of our mission, we are finding solution of
these problems arising from new conditions, for the forces
of our social system can compass and comprise these.
Our individualism is no middle ground between autocracywhether
of birth, economic or class originand socialism. Socialism
of different varieties may have something to recommend it
as an intellectual stop-look-and-listen sign, more especially
for Old World societies. But it contains only destruction
to the forces that make progress in our social system. Nor
does salvation come by any device for concentration of power,
whether political or economic, for both are equally reversions
to Old World autocracy in new garments.
Salvation will not come to us out of the wreckage of individualism.
What we need today is steady devotion to a better, brighter,
broader individualisman individualism that carries increasing
responsibility and service to our fellows. Our need is not
for a way out but for a way forward. We found our way out
three centuries ago when our forefathers left Europe for
these shores, to set up here a commonwealth conceived in
liberty and dedicated to the development of individuality.
There are malign social forces other than our failures that
would destroy our progress. There are the equal dangers
both of reaction and radicalism. The perpetual howl of radicalism
is that it is the sole voice of liberalismthat devotion
to social progress is its field alone. These men would assume
that all reform and human advance must come through government.
They have forgotten that progress must have come from the
steady lift of the individual and that the measure of national
idealism and progress is the quality of idealism in the
individual. The most trying support of radicalism comes
from the timid or dishonest minds that shrink from facing
the result of radicalism itself but are devoted to defense
of radicalism as proof of a liberal mind. Most theorists
who denounce our individualism as a social basis seem to
have a passion for ignorance of its constructive ideals.
An even greater danger is the destructive criticism of minds
too weak or too partisan to harbor constructive ideas. For
such, criticism is based upon the distortion of perspective
or cunning misrepresentation. There is never danger from
the radical himself until the structure and confidence of
society has been undermined by the enthronement of destructive
criticism. Destructive criticism can certainly lead to revolution
unless there are those willing to withstand the malice that
flows in return from refutation. It has been well said that
revolution is not summer thunderstorm clearing the atmosphere.
In modern society it is a tornado leaving in it path the
destroyed homes of millions with their dead women and children.
There are also those who insist that the future must be
a repetition of the past; that ideas are dangerous, that
ideals are freaks.
To find that fine balance which links the future with the
past, whose vision is of men and not of tools, that possesses
the courage to construct rather than to criticizethis is
our need. There is no oratory so easy, no writing so trenchant
and vivid as the phrase-making of criticism and malicethere
is none so difficult as inspiration to construction.
We cannot ever afford to rest at ease in the comfortable
assumption that right ideas always prevail by some virtue
of their own. In the long run they do. But there can be
and there have been periods of centuries when the world
slumped back toward darkness merely because great masses
of men became impregnated with wrong ideas and wrong social
philosophies. The declines of civilization have been born
of wrong ideas. Most of the wars of the world, including
the recent one, have been fought by the advocates of contrasting
ideas of social philosophy.
The primary safeguard of American individualism is an understanding
of it; of faith that it is the most precious possession
of American civilization, and a willingness courageously
to test every process of national life upon the touchstone
of this basic social premise. Development of the human institutions
and of science and of industry have been long chains of
trial and error. Our public relations to them and to other
phases of our national life can be advanced in no other
way than by a willingness to experiment in the remedy of
our social faults. The failures and unsolved problems of
economic and social life can be corrected; they can be solved
within our social theme and under no other system. The solution
is a matter of will to find solution; of a sense of duty
as well as of a sense of right and citizenship. No one who
buys “bootleg” whiskey can complain of gunmen and hoodlumism.
Humanity has a long road to perfection, but we of America
can make sure progress if we will preserve our individualism,
if we will preserve and stimulate the initiative of our
people, if we will build up our insistence and safeguards
to equality of opportunity, if we will glorify service as
a part of our national character. Progress will march if
we hold an abiding faith in the intelligence, the initiative,
the character, the courage, and the divine touch in the
individual. We can safeguard these ends if we give to each
individual that opportunity for which the spirit of America
stands. We can make a social system as perfect as our generation
merits and one that will be received in gratitude by our
Presidential Library Association
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