On November 12, 1970, I gave a speech in Miami, Florida to the North American Judges Association. It has a ring of truth for our times. Here it is:
NORTH AMERICAN JUDGES ASSOCIATION
November 12, 1970
Remarks by Thomas E. Brennan
Recently, a group of young people in a suburb of Detroit
circulated in a public building interviewing a cross-section of busy Americans.
Stopping men and women at random, the students handed them a
piece of paper, and asked for comment on the words written there.
The words were these:
"...all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life,liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; and that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
The passage, of course, was taken from the Declaration of Independence. Only a bare majority of those interviewed recognized the passage.
A substantial number disagreed with the passage, and branded it dangerous, subversive propaganda.
Our first reaction, naturally enough, is to be mildly amused at this little survey. It seems to demonstrate that many of us have forgotten our history lessons - that our patriotism has lost something of the flag-waving sentimentality it once may have had, and that our young people are being better educated in the fundamentals than we admit.
In other times, our first reaction would be enough. But this is 1970. And in 1970, the word revolutionl is seen as much in newspapers as it is in history books.
We talk about the social revolution, the technological revolution, and about revolutions in fashions and mores and education.
We accept the fact that sudden and dramatic changes are taking place in so many areas of our lives.
And yet, we read with horrified disbelief about the activities of those persons both in the United States and in Canada to whom the word ‘revolution’ is not merely a figure of speech, but who have deliberately chosen a course of criminal rebellion and armed insurrection as a means of effecting political change.
We are horrified because we have always thought of our nations as democracies - responsible to the needs and desires of the people; incapable of tyranny and enjoying the broad support of the great generality of men.
And yet, I wonder sometimes how secure we really are.I wonder if the seeds of discontent are not sewn more profusely than we dare believe.
Our forefathers asserted that free men have an ultimate right of revolution. That sounds queer to us. We've ruled it out. It’s barbaric. It's inhuman. It's immoral. Most of all, it's unnecessary.
We are fond of saying to the young people, to minorities, to the disenchanted “Work within the system - whatever your complaints, they can be rectified - whatever your grievances, they can be solved. Peaceful protest, persuasion, education and the ballot box – these are all the tools you need.
But our forefathers were also wise enough to recognize that governments are instituted among men to protect their God-given unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It was left to our generation to pronounce that government is designed to achieve happiness for all men. And in that foolish Utopian dream, both young and old; rich
and poor; liberal and conservative have joined hands in our day.
We look to the government to secure our happiness. And we expect others to do the same.
The government must prevent crime. The government must quiet the students. The government must becalm the ghettos, satisfy the teachers, meet the demands of the policemen and firemen. And lower the taxes.
The government must abolish racism. The government must eliminate poverty. The government must heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted and rehabilitate the criminal.
All around us, men look to the government to secure their happiness.
And all around us, men throw up their hands in frustration because happiness remains elusive and dissatisfaction abides.
My friends, a government which is expected to achieve happiness for its citizens is a government which is destined to fall.
No government is eternal. None is all powerful. None is all wise.
Governments are human institutions, guided by trembling human hands, depending on imperfect human wisdom, speaking through halting human voices.
When people delude themselves into believing that government can answer all their prayers, they make that government their God, and they become its creatures and its slaves.
But wishing that government could be God-like, does not make it so. Sooner or later, the people will realize that it is a false idol, a golden calf, more human than divine, more fallible than infallible, more imperfect than perfect.
And they become disenchanted. They become disillusioned. They become disaffected.
So long as government can bestow bounties upon them, they give it their support - but when its power wanes, when its fortunes are reversed, when its money cheapens, they recognize no further cause for loyalty.
And they see that government as an alien power structure, an impersonal establishment, a yoke to be roughly cast off and thrown aside.
We are a free people in imminent peril of losing our freedom. For too long have our people flirted with the deification of civil government.
For too long have we who are in public service flattered ourselves into thinking that if we studied long enough, if we consulted enough experts, read enough reports, held enough hearings, and attended enough seminars, we could adopt perfect
laws, dispense perfect justice, and achieve a perfect social order, in which all wants would be satisfied, and all men would be happy.
There is still time to see ourselves as we really are. And to tell it like it really is.
Neither the United States of America, nor, I am sure,the Dominion of Canada were ever intended to establish a perfect social order.Our constitutions, our statutes, and our common law were given to us by wise and dedicated, perhaps inspired, men.
Still, they were men. With human emotions, and suspicions. Men burdened with self interest and divided by factions.But they knew something about human nature.
They saw themselves as they really were, and they saw government as it really is, and as it must be seen in the eyes of a free people. Not as their master, but as their servant. Not as a triumph of human creativity; but as a compromise born
of mutual weakness and common necessity. Not as the source of benefactions; but as the guardian of Divine Blessings.
If we see ourselves and each other, as we really are, with our strengths and our weaknesses, with our dashes of foolishness and our doses of common sense, then we can begin again to have faith in ourselves and in our common efforts.
And if we see our government as it really is, and expect it to act accordingly, then we shall realize that a government which does what it is supposed to do, can earn the faith and loyalty of a free people.
For just laws are necessary to the governance of free men.
To establish justice.
To insure domestic tranquility.
To provide for their common defense.
To promote the general welfare.
And to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their
These are the priorities of government. They are simple and clear.
The power of taxation, the armed might of the people, the right to pass judgment on personal liberty, and to decide the rights and responsibilities of property ownership, these things are entrusted to public officers for the limited terms for which they are elected, and for the limited purpose of carrying on the constitutional functions of civil government.
That means that we who are elected to public office must govern. Not perfectly, but to the best of our abilities. Not for ourselves, nor to serve our own interests, but for the common good.
We must govern, though it be for a time uncomfortable, unpleasant and unpopular. We must decline to use the power of office entrusted to us to promote the welfare of any special interest.
And if anyone among us be so worried about his pension, or his continuation in office that he would place the desires of constituents, the dictates of party, or the hope of favorable public press ahead of the demands of the common good -
Let him hear this.
If we expect the people to have faith in us - If we expect them to believe that given a choice, we will do what is right - Then we must return that faith. And we must realize, that given a choice, the people do not want a government of special privilege.
They want a government of justice.
They do not want public officials who make every decision with a wet finger held to the wind. They want leadership.
Free men do not choose officeholders who coddle their weaknesses, but leaders who appeal to their strength.
Permissiveness in government or in the family, is self destructive. Sooner or later there has to be a confrontation. Sooner or later there comes a time when young people realize that parents who would buy their love at any cost, do not really love them at all. And politicians who would retain the right to govern them at any cost, do not really govern them at all.
For true public leadership, like true family love, is always striving for virtue; building strength for the future, holding out ideals to be sought, suggesting goals to be attained.
All around us, men cry for justice.
And they shall have it, for it is their birthright.
But perfect justice comes only from the Just Creator who waits at the end of our journey through this life.
The justice that we do to each other in the meantime will only be as good as we want it to be, as fair to all of us as it is fair to each of us.