February 16, 1957
Daughters of the American Revolution luncheon (Nacogdoches, Texas)
In the last half century modern communications and transportation have reduced this country to a fraction of its former size and have brought people very close together. We can fly from here to the nation’s capital in a few hours or reach it by telephone in a few seconds.
That fact is both good and bad. It is good because it brings us close to our government and makes us more familiar with those who are running it. But it is also bad because proximity breeds complacency.
For example, consider how a mother will fret and worry over a child playing in the next block, but may not give it a thought for hours if she knows it is playing in the back yard. But for the classic example, consider how, in the early days of our republic, people were scattered over distances that it took weeks or months to traverse—yet they were vitally interested in what was going on in their government. They were extremely patriotic and understood the meaning of the word “citizenship”.
But today when government is within easy reaching distance of all of us, the average citizen not only doesn’t seem to know much about it, but doesn’t seem to care. Every time an hour is chopped off the flying time to Washington, some citizen stops worrying about government, another stops reading the editorials and another settles back into an easy chair and says, “Everything is all right; the child is in the yard”.
This same American who is so quick to cut himself off from the responsibility of concern is also too inclined to separate himself from the great traditions of the past. We are so busy and so wrapped up in our modern age that we tend to forget or ignore the ways of our fathers that were long ago tried and found to be good.
This complacency complex and isolation from the past began back in the 1880’s. At that time the percentage of voters who took the trouble to vote began to fall off. People began to lose interest in personal participation in government—not just nationally, but also on the local level. It has since become well known that a large part of the public never votes and of those people who do, a great number never vote for anyone but the governor and the sheriff.
It is significant that the Daughters of the American Revolution came into being at the same time as this tendency toward complacency and modernism and that its purpose was to fight it. Those who founded the organization must have had penetrating vision and a deep understanding of the trends of the day and the needs of the future.
Since it was founded, the D.A.R. has been an active organization with a constantly growing membership and an influential factor in our national life. But more important than its membership is the great number of young Americans it directly influences through its Junior American Citizens Clubs.
The D.A.R. is active and vigorous because it is a fighting organization. It is fighting some of the most destructive tendencies that have appeared among us in decades, among them the cheap and cowardly fad of debunking the great leaders and patriots of history. Any day in the week you can pick up cheap magazines and sometimes books with some such title as “The Truth About Washington”, in which a clumsy author has tried to make a little money by ripping to shreds the reputation of a hero whose boots he is not worthy to lick. Reverence for national heroes is one of the most vital and necessary factors in the patriotic education of youth. The Communists are the first to vilify and debunk any historical personage whose stature commands respect.
Another important fight being waged by the D.A.R. is that of keeping history and civics at the core of every American student’s curriculum. Anti-American forces have long sought to reduce our understanding of our own history and judging by the apparent knowledge of the average citizen, they have not altogether failed. The National D.A.R. Society supports two schools and gives financial assistance to a number of others and I know the teaching of history and government in those schools is given maximum emphasis.
But the job cannot be left to the schools alone. What is there that we should all do to put the light of freedom in a youngster’s eyes? Is that the teacher’s job alone? Can the teacher do it with textbooks full of such tongue-twisters as “Bicameral Legislature” and “Executive Department”? What do these terms mean to young people who have never seen the State Capitol or watched the Senate in action? Should it disturb us if high school students write on their exam papers that a lobbyist is a hotel clerk and a filibuster is a kind of bomb? If a child is never taken to church, you can expect him to give such answers as those now famous definitions “A Deacon is the lowest kind of a Christian” and a “False Doctrine is when the doctor gives the wrong stuff to a man”. But when a child hasn’t the vaguest idea what offices are in the courthouse, you cannot assume that he hasn’t been to school. You can only assume that his father has never taken him along when he went to pay his taxes, get his car license or register a title with the County Clerk. Sometimes it’s the simplest things in life that make the biggest difference.
Sometimes children are wiser than grown people and any child can tell you that not every man or woman who yells “God Bless America” is a patriot. One kind will buy a child a ten-cent flag and stand with him to watch a parade on a holiday (which is commendable) but the other kind will take the time and trouble to march a youngster up the courthouse steps to watch a jury trial on a working day, which is a real sacrifice.
Many parents and teachers have thrown up their hands and lamented that civics, history, government and related subjects have to be taught in school before children are old enough to be interested in such things. That isn’t altogether true. When the City Council passes an ordinance requiring all dogs to be chained or fenced in, my children want to know all about the City Council. That’s the time to take them to a meeting. When the whole country is singing about Davy Crockett and every kid in the block has a coon-skin hat, that’s the time to bring up that phase of Texas history in the classroom. When election day is coming and long-winded candidates have pushed the Lone Ranger off television, that’s the time to bring sample ballots to school and hold a mock election, letting the kids choose which candidate they like best—or resent least. At every election hundreds of ballots are voided because people were never taught the extremely simple procedure of marking them correctly.
An almost illiterate immigrant was asked to define Democracy during his citizenship examination and he scribbled, “Democracy means one man one vote”. A third-grade child can give a more complete definition but he will never be as good a citizen as that simple immigrant if he is not taught that one man has one obligation to vote and to vote intelligently. Children cannot learn obligations from a book; they learn them by watching their parents and teachers fulfill them. The man or woman who ignores the issues and votes his prejudice is not exercising a constitutional right, but perpetrating a constitutional wrong. When you sit down at the end of the day and read the comics and the sports page, skipping the editorials, you’re not exercising a privilege—you’re taking a liberty and your children are losing one.
Your interests make you better able than others to benefit from the lessons of the past and to recognize in the affairs of the nation any departure from the principles that have made us and kept us a free people. Your devotion to preserving the ideals and traditions of our fathers, heightened by your unique qualification as the descendants of great Americans, imposes on you a responsibility not only to lead, but to stand sentry duty over a slumbering nation. Our country too often has little hindsight and less foresight. To have one is have the other. The future can be read in the lessons of the past if only we will look for them.
You ladies of the D.A.R. must help us all to do what Patrick Henry said we must do if we are to remain free—to return frequently and re-examine our beginnings and reconsider the fundamentals of our freedom. It is people like you who give character to a nation—who know the meaning and value of our ways and our heritage. You must continue to rise to your responsibility to guide a nation of people who seem to think Aaron Burr was a kind of haircut, who think Benedict Arnold was some old-time movie actor and who think “Fifty-four Forty or Fight” is the ultimatum of a bill collector.
There is great need of your guiding hand in this country, if we hope to keep it the kind of place where a rail-splitter can become president . . . where a Philadelphia printer can be ambassador to France . . . where a supposedly crazy little boy who set fire to the schoolhouse can grow up to invent moving pictures, the electric light and sound recording . . . where the size of a man or woman is not measured from the feet to the head, but from the head to the sky . . . where individuality is applauded above cheap collectivism . . . where men and women are free to rise to whatever heights God will lead them and where strong people still dare, as Washington put it, “To walk upright, masterless, doff a hat to none and choose their God”.
There are those who say that members of the D.A.R. are idealistic dreamers who live in the past—this is 1957, they say, we must move forward, never looking back in this country.
Let’s stop and take stock and see if we need idealistic dreamers who recognize the need for a knowledge, love and devotion of the past. This nation needs such idealistic dreamers today more than ever before in our history: We need them as long as there are closed doors in public office, public meetings held in secret and public files marked “confidential”. We need them as long as there are antiquated, harmful laws on the statute books, remaining there only because they suit somebody’s political or financial convenience, and as long as there are loopholes in the law, left there by lawyer-legislators for the benefit of their private practice.
We need idealists as long as we live under big, bloated governments feeding on the lassitude of a citizenry that wants everybody to have a benefit at everybody else’s expense. We need them as long as this nation is trying to live high on money borrowed from our children’s unborn children. We need idealistic, courageous men and women as long as we have judges who cannot or will not lay aside their politics when they put on the judicial robes.
Yes, we need idealistic dreamers as long as we have people in this country who believe that the best things in life can either be bought with money or voted into existence. We idealistic dreamers must constantly remind them that: nobody can go down to the bank and file away a title to an American sunset. Nobody can lay gold on the counter and purchase cherished friendships nor can we purchase at any price the love and companionship of a loyal wife or husband. And all the dazzling wealth of the universe is not half so beautiful as the sound of a mother’s lullaby or the laughter of a strong, free man.
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, but strong; 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 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.]