The Reign of Law (excerpt)

Washington, D.C. | May 30, 1925

Full speech available here.

[…] [W]e need to have in mind the Federalist’s analysis of our constitutional system:—The powers delegated to the Federal Government are few and defined; those to remain in the hands of the State government are numerous and indefinite.

That statement can not be too much emphasized. The country’s growth has compelled the Federal establishment to exceed by far the Government plants of even the greatest States. With this growth in physical extent, in revenue, in personnel, there has inevitably been the suggestion that the Federal Government was overshadowing the States. Yet the State governments deal with far more various and more intimate concerns of the people than does the National Government. All the operations of the minor civil divisions, parishes, wards, school districts, towns, cities, counties, and the like, are dependencies of the State. The maintenance of order through police, the general business of enforcing law, is left to the States. So is education. Property is held and transferred on terms fixed by the States. In short, the structure of social and business relationship is built chiefly about the laws of the States. It depends upon the exercise by the States of that vastly greater share of Government power which resides in them, to the exclusion of the Federal Government. In ordinary times nearly the entire burden of taxation represents State and local demands. Even now, despite the enormous increase of Federal taxes from pre-war years, State and local taxes far exceed the Federal requirements. Moreover, the national burden is being continually reduced, while that of the local units is growing and likely to continue to grow.

Such is the real distribution of duties, responsibilities, and expenses. Yet people are given to thinking and speaking of the National Government as “the Government.” They demand more from it than it was ever intended to provide; and yet in the same breath they complain that Federal authority is stretching itself over areas which do not concern it. On one side, there are demands for more amendments to the Constitution. On the other, there is too much opposition to those that already exist.

Without doubt, the reason for increasing demands on the Federal Government is that the States have not discharged their full duties. Some have done better and some worse, but as a whole they have not done all they should. So demand has grown up for a greater concentration of powers in the Federal Government. If we will fairly consider it, we must conclude that the remedy would be worse than the disease. What we need is not more Federal government but better local government. Yet many people who would agree to this have large responsibility for the lapses of local authority.

From every position of consistency with our system, more centralization ought to be avoided. The States would protest, promptly enough, anything savoring of Federal usurpation. Their protection will lie in discharging the full obligations that have been imposed on them. Once the evasion of local responsibilities becomes a habit, there is no knowing how far the consequences may reach. Every step in such a progression will be unfortunate alike for States and Nation. The country needs, in grappling with the manifold problems of these times, all the courage, intelligence, training, and skill that can be enlisted in both State and national administrations.

One insidious practice which sugar-coats the dose of Federal intrusion is the division of expense for public improvements or services between State and National treasuries. The ardent States-rights advocate sees in this practice a vicious weakening of the State system. The extreme federalist is apt to look upon it in cynical fashion as bribing the States into subordination. The average American, believing in our dual-sovereignty system, must feel that the policy of national doles to the States is bad and may become disastrous. We may go on yet for a time with the easy assumption that “if the States will not, the Nation must.” But that way lies trouble. When the National Treasury contributes half, there is temptation to extravagance by the State. We have seen some examples in connection with the Federal contributions to road building. Yet there are constant demands for more Federal contributions. Whenever by that plan we take something from one group of States and give it to another group, there is grave danger that we do an economic injustice on one side and a political injury on the other. We impose unfairly on the strength of the strong, and we encourage the weak to indulge their weakness.


What America needs is to hold to its ancient and well-charted course.

Our country was conceived in the theory of local self-government. It has been dedicated by long practice to that wise and beneficent policy. It is the foundation principle of our system of liberty. It makes the largest promise to the freedom and development of the individual. Its preservation is worth all the effort and all the sacrifice that it may cost.

It can not be denied that the present tendency is not in harmony with this spirit. The individual, instead of working out his own salvation and securing his own freedom by establishing his own economic and moral independence by his own industry and his own self-mastery, tends to throw himself on some vague influence which he denominates society and to hold that in some way responsible for the sufficiency of his support and the morality of his actions. The local political units likewise look to the States, the States look to the Nation, and nations are beginning to look to some vague organization, some nebulous concourse of humanity, to pay their bills and tell them what to do. This is not local self-government. It is not American. It is not the method which has made this country what it is. We can not maintain the western standard of civilization on that theory. If it is supported at all, it will have to be supported on the principle of individual responsibility. If that principle be maintained, the result which I believe America wishes to see produced inevitably will follow.

There is no other foundation on which freedom has ever found a permanent abiding place. We shall have to make our decision whether we wish to maintain our present institutions, or whether we wish to exchange them for something else. If we permit some one to come to support us, we can not prevent some one coming to govern us. If we are too weak to take charge of our own mortality, we shall not be strong enough to take charge of our own liberty. If we can not govern ourselves, if we can not observe the law, nothing remains but to have some one else govern us, to have the law enforced against us, and to step down from the honorable abiding place of freedom to the ignominious abode of servitude.

If these principles are sound, two conclusions follow. The individual and the local, state, and national political units ought to be permitted to assume their own responsibilities. Any other course in the end will be subversive both of character and liberty. But it is equally clear that they in their turn must meet their obligations. If there is to be a continuation of individual and local self-government and of State sovereignty, the individual and locality must govern themselves and the State must assert its sovereignty. Otherwise these rights and privileges will be confiscated under the all-compelling pressure of public necessity for a better maintenance of order and morality. The whole world has reached a stage in which, if we do not set ourselves right, we may be perfectly sure that an authority will be asserted by others for the purpose of setting us right.

But before we attempt to set ourselves up as exponents of universal reform, it would be wise to remember that progress is of slow growth, and also to remember that moderation, patience, forbearance, and charity are virtues in their own right. The only action which can be effective in the long run is that which helps others to help themselves. Before we assume too great responsibilities in the governing of others, it would be the part of wisdom very completely to discharge our responsibilities for governing ourselves. A large amount of work has to be done at home before we can start in on the neighbors, and very considerable duties have to be performed in America before we undertake the direction of the rest of the world. But we must at all times do the best we can for ourselves without forgetting others, and the best we can for our own country without forgetting other nations.