John Ben Shepperd: Rapid City Chamber of Commerce

October 24, 1957

Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet (Rapid City, South Dakota)


This afternoon I stood once again and viewed with overflowing heart that gratifying scene at the National Shrine of Democracy. As I studied the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln, my mind went back to their day in history, their contribution to the American way of life, and to the many things which they said and did in admonishing their posterity to preserve the fundamentals of freedom.

Sometimes I wonder whether they and your fathers would have spoken so proudly of their posterity if they had known that we were going to be it. We have departed from their ways. By some perverse evolution, many of the fundamentals which they wrote into the Constitution, even before their revolutionary wounds had stopped aching, have become distorted beyond recognition.

We are not as free as our fathers were, nor as free as they intended we should be. And the cause of this is not that we are more populous or crowded, or that our society is more complex, or that we are circumscribed by a greater number of necessary laws. I will admit that the body of law which surrounds us constitutes a considerable restriction. Nowadays everything that isn’t compulsory is forbidden. It has been proposed that Congress and the State Legislature should confine their efforts to passing laws telling us what we can do instead of what we can’t.

But the reason that we are less free than our fathers is that we are less independent. And because we are less independent, we want the Federal Government to reach down the long arm of patronage. But what it patronizes it must also control, so it takes our small liberties and our privileges away. It became an entity separate from the people and begins to do our thinking for us. Every little desire of our hearts it endeavors to provide. The pursuit of happiness is not enough for it to guarantee; it wants to make us happy. It is not enough that God created us equal; the government wants to improve upon that creation. It is not enough to guarantee the citizen a fair shake; the government will see to it that every citizen a fair shake; the government will see to it that every citizen gets the same shake, even if he doesn’t want it.

And our government—the creation of our hands, which is our own responsibility—will accomplish these miracles by acting upon certain theories which we actively propagate among ourselves through wishful thinking and the desire to escape responsibility.

You have heard the expression “Double-think”, a process by which political dialecticians convince us that black is white. Consider a few examples of our own double thinking. Consider them well, for these are the principles upon which our country is largely being governed. The way to establish prosperity is to discourage thrift.  The way to help the poor is to destroy the rich. The way to help the wage earner is to tear down the wage payer. The way to make all men free is to make all men just alike. We can keep out of depression by constantly spending more than we earn. We can maintain prosperity by overtaxing the people and shipping the surplus money out of the country. We can build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence. And the quickest way to divest the population of its initiative is to convince half of the people they need not work because the other half will support them; and to convince the other half that work is useless because someone else will reap the fruit of their labor.

There is nothing wrong, I suppose, with centralized, socialized government as long as it does not undermine the citizen’s character, rob him of his liberties or take away his ability to govern himself. But that is like saying it’s all right to play around with temptation as long as you don’t get embroiled in sin.

My chief objection to the centralization of government is not the expenditure of money but the destruction of the moral fiber of the people. Big government teaches the working man to spit on his boss instead of his hands. It treats private enterprise like a temporary, necessary evil. It teaches by precept and practice that there is nothing on the moral or spiritual plane that is worthy as much as higher material standard of living. It deludes the citizen into thinking that he can vote for prosperity instead of working for it.

But I know of no evil half so deadly as that which, at the present time, takes one-third of the average citizen’s income and spreads it around at home and abroad with such reckless abandon that our Federal Government now spends more money than all of our state and local governments put together. Already from the purely economic standpoint, the United States government is out-socializing the most completely socialized economies in the world. As a matter of fact, it is supporting most of them with forty-cent dollars. Our money is so inflated that telling a woman she looks like one million dollars is no longer a compliment.

And how is this possible? Americans, historically, have been the most antagonistic of all people toward this philosophy of high taxation. It is primarily an abdication of personal responsibility. Americans want to grow nothing but cotton and wear nothing but silk.  We have mastered the art of being prosperous though broke, and safe though insecure.

But there is a more present, more acute reason for the spiral of taxation and inflation which today is wiping out the collected savings of millions by eating up the value of the dollar faster than it collects interest. That reason is fear – fear of many things. Fear of old age, insecurity, failure, social inferiority, sickness and many other facts of life. But most of all and most reprehensible of all, we are afraid of Communism.

We are fretfully conscious of what the Communists will say about us if we don’t do this or that. Our every move, domestic or foreign, is calculated on the basis of whether the Communists will make propaganda hay out of it. For fear of Communism, we are destroying the Constitution. The Government feels that it has to be out-socialize the master Socialists, otherwise the other countries of the world will not like us. The danger of Communism is only this – that it forces those who fear it to imitate it.

It is time for Americans to utter a new Declaration of Independence. It is time for each of us to stand up and say, “I am not afraid of Communism and for fear of Communism, I will not lay down my basic American Freedoms, nor will I suffer my fellow countrymen to be abused by hysterical politicians and bureaucrats, nor will I be taxed into oblivion, nor will I be smothered to death with the kisses of the welfare state. I will not allow my country’s domestic affairs to be governed by considerations of what Communist propagandists may say about it. I will not permit my country to be made a fool in the embassies of the world for fear that other countries without honor or pride may consort with Communists if we do not buy them off.” The pirates of Tripoli were men of better caliber. Billions for defense, if necessary, but not one cent for tribute to Communism.

But then you say “What have all these things got to do with the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce?” The primary reason is this. If we cannot stop the things that are happening in this country, Rapid City will be given a number and the last thing you will need is a Chamber of Commerce. In America, we must once again rededicate ourselves to the fundamental principles of thinking local and living local. Community leaders must put courage in the local government by serving in offices and executing policies consistent with our basic beliefs. Bankers must give loans to young people who are just getting a start so that they won’t have to turn to the Federal Government.

Businessmen must use their heads to stimulate local enterprise and thereby keep people from having to depend on the help of a high level of government to develop local resources and finance local improvements. Local governments must cease to be afraid to undertake local projects without a guarantee of Federal aid. We must always keep this fundamental in mind, and that is: When leadership on the local level breaks down, the people are forced into the position of having to vote for prosperity instead of working for it.

You members of the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce are forced into the leadership of your community by the very nature of your position as business and professional men, executives and members of an organization that speaks out for private enterprise in your city.

Why should there be such an organization anyway? Why should there be a voice to speak out for private enterprise?

Private enterprise and constitutional government are as dependent upon each other as the two ends of a seesaw. The big factory, the little shop, the County Courthouse, the City Hall and the Constitution of the United States will all stand or fall together. A silent voice in the ranks of private enterprise is a shout for Socialism or worse. A negative business man is almost as bad as a positive Communist.

But I’m not talking to you so much as members of the Chamber of Commerce—rather as individual Americans who are able to provide personal leadership consistent with your positions in your community. I’m talking about lending your time, talents and resources to your local government. It is your job to build up attendance at meetings of your local government bodies—to get out the vote—to give the city council the benefit of your advice and experience—to give advertising space to explanations of local issues or to call attention to legal problems—to support your candidates for office after election as well as before, and to serve on civic committees in public office yourself when qualified and when called upon.

Too many so-called leaders are sitting around waiting for their country’s call in the form of a big dollar-a-year appointment on a presidential committee and ignoring the call of the school board and the P-TA. Too many are willing to lead only with the safe boundaries of non-partisan and non-controversial fields. Too many are unwilling to get mixed up in politics because they think it will hurt business. I feel sorry for this kind—their business is already lost. Show me a man with no identifiable stand on a public issue and I’ll show you a man with no identifiable character, patriotism and business stability.

By no means would I exclude women. Women are peculiarly equipped for the job of leadership.  Any woman who can keep an eye on the stove, the ironing board, the T.V. set, the Mixmaster and the kids in the yard, and talk to a neighbor on the phone all at the same time, can also keep up with public affairs.  Any woman who knows how to can a jar of pickles and hold it up to the light to see if it’s leaking air and is going to spoil in a few months can do the same to a politician.

We found out in Texas that a man without a woman is only half of a man, and a government without women is only half a government.  In fact, we have boiled it down to a pretty simple formula—in Texas men are men and women are women, and I defy you to improve on a situation like that. Or as the old maid said, “Who’s trying to improve on it?  I just want to get in on it.”

What does it take for a man or a woman to be a leader—to get done the kind of things that strengthen local governments and preserve the constitutional rights of the people within their own reach?

Leadership means doing everything for the good of others, which often means doing it in spite of them. Or it sometimes means you have to be a sponge and absorb a lot of insult and ingratitude.  It means knowing how to face opposition and stiffen your spine instead of arching your back.

Sometimes it means being stubborn—having a strong will and a stronger won’t. Now and then it means getting mad. The man or woman who never gets mad doesn’t give a hoot. Very often it means standing alone in the belief that you are right and the crowd is wrong. It means being a wet blanket and sacrificing your personal popularity on the altar of self-respect.

It isn’t easy to be a leader when every issue has two sides, with good people standing on both of them. To be a leader you have to have the courage of David and the patience of Job, and if you make a mistake a dozen critics will stand up and say you’ve got a rock in your head, like Goliath.

But more than anything, being a leader means doing a lot of little jobs without thought of reward or appreciation. Nobody does great things until he learns to do little things in a great way. When you leave a warm building on a cold day to go and cast a cool ballot in a hot election, you’ve done more than more Americans ever do. When you pack the car full of yelling kids on Sunday morning and drive to church, you’ve preached a great sermon to the neighborhood. But don’t call yourself religious unless you preach a sermon to somebody every day without opening your mouth.

The crying need of the day is to produce good followers who will grow into good leaders—to create an atmosphere in which every mother’s son is a future president, and the size of a man is not measured from his feet to his head, but from his head to the sky—where men and women don’t get to the top by climbing, but by growing—where statesmen are tall enough to achieve the heights and still have their feet on the ground. We don’t need people who can stand on a platform; we need people who can stand on their own two feet and kneel on their own two knees. We need leaders who can be right and be president too.

So as we sit here tonight, what is our greatest need in this country?

We need men and women who follow their conscience and lead the crowd—who will not sacrifice a dot or a dash in the Constitution for a dollar sign on their personal ledger—and who can take the ups and downs of life and never become so concerned with the left and the right that they forget the above and below.

We need men and women who would rather be right than rich; who’d rather be fair than be famous; who’d rather be honest than exalted; who’d rather be free than be secure; and who’d rather die on their feet than see their fellow Americans living on their knees.

They say the best things in life are free. And this blessed fact should be a consolation to all of us who have ever stood before the National Shrine of Democracy and felt the winds of time and the rush of events sweeping past the old landmarks of tradition and seeming to write on the face of all our sacred institutions the message “This, too, shall pass away”.

And as long as we remember what is good in life, no expanse of years can separate us from the ideals of our fore-fathers which transcend time. Their spirit will fill the air wherever men and women are gathered on a public square to hear a man in shirt sleeves campaign for better government. They will be revived in that moment when a busy man or woman stops to read an editorial. They will echo from the walls wherever men and women raise the voice of debate in a precinct convention. They will speak in majestic tones wherever a church organ plays and choir sings, and they will lie firmly at rest under the hearthstone of the family that kneels in prayer.

For if we have learned anything from history, we have learned this.

Freedom is old, not young; yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not weak, yet it must be defended;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is light, but it weighs heaving 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, but once lost 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.]