States’ Rights and National Unity (excerpt)

William & Mary College, Williamsburg, VA | May 15, 1926

Full speech available here.


It is impossible to lay too much emphasis upon the necessity of making all our political action of the Federal Government harmonize with the principle of national unity. For many years now this course has been greatly impeded from the fact that those who substantially think alike have so oftentimes been unable to act alike. Our country ought to be done with all sectional divisions and all actions based upon geographical lines. Washington warned us against that danger in his Farewell Address. Experience has time and again demonstrated the soundness of his advice and the breadth of his wisdom. It would be difficult to suggest anything more likely to enhance the progress of our country than united political action in all parts of the Nation in accord with the advice of Washington for the support and maintenance of those principles of sound economics and stable constitutional government in which they so substantially agree. All sections have the same community of interests, both in theory and in fact, and they ought to have a community in political action. We can not deny that we are all Americans. To attempt to proceed upon any other theory can only end in disaster. No policy can ever be a success which does not contemplate this as one country.

The principle that those who think alike ought to be able to act alike wherever they happen to live should be supplemented by another rule for the continuation of the contentment and tranquillity of our Republic. The general acceptance of our institutions proceeds on the theory that they have been adopted by the action of a majority. It is obvious that if those who hold to the same ideals of government fail to agree the chances very strongly favor a rule by a minority. But there is another element of recent development. Direct primaries and direct elections bring to bear upon the political fortunes of public officials the greatly disproportionate influence of organized minorities. Artificial propaganda, paid agitators, selfish interests, all impinge upon members of legislative bodies to force them to represent special elements rather than the great body of their constituency. When they are successful minority rule is established, and the result is an extravagance on the part of the Government which is ruinous to the people and a multiplicity of regulations and restrictions for the conduct of all kinds of necessary business, which becomes little less than oppressive. Not only is this one country, but we must keep all its different parts in harmony by refusing to adopt legislation which is not for the general welfare.

The resolutions did not stop here. Had they done so, they would have been very far from comprehending and expressing the necessities of the American people. They went on to provide that “the regulation of the internal concerns of each colony be left to respective colonial legislatures.” This was a plain declaration of the unassailable fact that the States are the sheet anchors of our institutions. If the Federal Government should go out of existence, the common run of people would not detect the difference in the affairs of their daily life for a considerable length of time. But if the authority of the States were struck down disorder approaching chaos would be upon us within twenty-four hours. No method of procedure has ever been devised by which liberty could be divorced from local self-government. No plan of centralization has ever been adopted which did not result in bureaucracy, tyranny, inflexibility, reaction, and decline. Of all forms of government, those administered by bureaus are about the least satisfactory to an enlightened and progressive people. Being irresponsible they become autocratic, and being autocratic they resist all development. Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy. It is the one element in our institutions that sets up the pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.

While we ought to glory in the Union and remember that it is the source from which the States derive their chief title to fame, we must also recognize that the national administration is not and can not be adjusted to the needs of local government. It is too far away to be informed of local needs, too inaccessible to be responsive to local conditions. The States should not be induced by coercion or by favor to surrender the management of their own affairs. The Federal Government ought to resist the tendency to be loaded up with duties which the States should perform. It does not follow that because something ought to be done the National Government ought to do it. But, on the other hand, when the great body of public opinion of the Nation requires action the States ought to understand that unless they are responsive to such sentiment the national authority will be compelled to intervene. The doctrine of State rights is not a privilege to continue in wrong-doing but a privilege to be free from interference in well-doing. This Nation is bent on progress. It has determined on the policy of meting out justice between man and man. It has decided to extend the blessing of an enlightened humanity. Unless the States meet these requirements, the National Government reluctantly will be crowded into the position of enlarging its own authority at their expense. I want to see the policy adopted by the States of discharging their public functions so faithfully that instead of an extension on the part of the Federal Government there can be a contraction.

These principles of independence, of the integrity of the Union, and of local self-government have not diminished in their importance since they were so clearly recognized and faithfully declared in the Virginia convention of 150 years ago. We may wonder at their need of constant restatement, reiteration, and defense. […]