John Ben Shepperd: Post Chamber of Commerce Banquet

January 10, 1957

Chamber of Commerce Banquet (Post, Texas)

I have been vitally concerned for a number of years about the steady and unnecessary encroachment of a centralized federal bureaucracy upon the historic rights of our state and local governments.

The forty-eight stars in the constellation of American states are being eclipsed by the sun that rises out of federal bureaus and sets behind the Capitol dome. The Lone Star of Texas was never meant to be a mere satellite to this painted balloon manipulated by socialists and bureaucrats. How was this balloon inflated? It was blown up with the hot air of individual citizens who swear by the Constitution without living by it. For a long time we have been sitting around drawing interest on our forefathers’ original investment without adding to the capital. When a new face appears in Heaven, you can be sure somebody has died on the ground and when a new power turns up in Washington, it’s because somebody gave it up back home.

You know, not every man who yells “God bless America” is a patriot. There’s the parade patriot who waves the biggest flag on the Fourth of July and goes to the country club that night instead of the political rally. There’s the push-button patriot who limits his participation in government to pushing a legislator or button-holing a congressman. And then there’s the tax-paying patriot who lays his financial sacrifice on the line, stamps the words “good citizen” on his conscience and lets his relationship to government end right there. Nobody can prove his patriotism with a cancelled check.

And what shall we say of the modern tendency toward “corporate citizenship”? Businessmen incorporate for the purpose of limiting liability. Can men and women limit their responsibility to their country? Can a business or professional man hang out a sign saying “citizen limited”? There is no exemption from the tax on time and talent. If you sit down at the end of the day and read the comics, the sports or the woman’s page and skip the editorials, you’re not exercising a privilege—you’re taking a liberty. If you ignore the issues and vote your prejudice, you’re not using a Constitutional right—you’re exercising a Constitutional wrong. If you are ever in the position of having to flip a coin at the polls, you’re gambling the fate of your country on heads or tails.

We can fret and worry about federal encroachment and the decline of local powers, but nothing is going to be done about it until we remember that Democracy grew from the bottom up and our responsibilities to it begin at the base of the mountain—on the local level. It’s not any man’s duty to sit grooming himself for an appointment to a state board or a national council. Duty begins when you’re wanted on the civic committee, the school board, in the Chamber of Commerce and in the P-TA in Post.

There are plenty of people who dream of doing great things, but there are very few who can go ahead and do little things in a great way. When you pull yourself out of an easy chair in the evening and drag your tired feet down to a precinct convention, you’ve done a greater thing than most Americans ever do. When you get up on Sunday morning and drive to church, you have preached a great sermon to the neighborhood. But if you think you’re going to keep your country free by tipping your hat to the church on your way to the golf course or out to the farm, you’ve flipped your lid.

Yes, it is the iron-clad duty of every citizen to work for Democracy at home, on the local level; to build up attendance at the meetings of local governmental bodies, to get out the vote; to serve on Chamber of Commerce committee; to support your candidates after election as well as before; and above all, to serve in public office when qualified and when called upon.

I’ve known many talented and experienced business and professional men, farmer and rancher, who belonged in public office and who answered the urging of their friends and neighbors by saying, “I don’t want to get into politics and be subjected to a lot of criticism and political slander.”

I’ve heard others say, “Politics is too dirty—too full of crooks.” If politics is full of crooks, why do we put the reins of government in their hands? How long will freedom be ours if we cling to this convenient excuse for staying at home, drawing the interest and adding nothing to the capital?

We need more responsible businessmen, farmers, professional men—members of our Chambers of Commerce—taking part in local and state government and executing policies consistent with our basic beliefs—efficiency, economy and integrity.

We need men in public office who won’t send for the federal government every time they have a problem. We need men who won’t get in public office through pull and then stop pulling, who won’t sacrifice a dot or dash in the Constitution to get a dollar sign on the ledger—men who won’t submerge a principle to win a point, who won’t let Constitutional government die of cold feet because they are afraid to get into hot water, who are never so concerned with the left and right that they get it mixed up with the above and below.

The greatest fault of the American people is our materialism and lack of real concern for good government. Half of us are trying to buy all the good things of life with money and the other half are trying to vote them into existence. But who can open a safety deposit box and file away a title to a West Texas sunset? Who can lay gold on the counter and buy the look of trust and innocence in a child’s eyes? Can anybody dig into his pocketbook and buy a good conscience or a lifetime of proud accomplishment? No man can trade hard cash for the companionship of a true friend nor purchase at any price the love and devotion or a good woman.

Because freedom is old, not young, yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak, yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him who is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;
It is not small, but great; yet once lost, it is never, never found again.
Yes, to be born free is an accident;
To live free is a responsibility;
But to die free is an obligation.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]