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The Magnificent American Proposition

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

Americans would be wanting in a proper bump of association if the ghost of Woodrow Wilson did not walk through this fateful summer of 1944. War news, peace plans, and the presidential election campaign will be suggesting the “pale, lean scholar of the White House” who commanded in the other war and dreamed of a peace. With a sufficient bump we shall be remembering him not only for his foreign policy but for his domestic one, not only for the League but for the New Freedom. There was a difference between the New Freedom and the New Deal. The “freedom” spells it. Both were humanitarian, both for the masses, but one was for liberation and the other was mostly for habilitation and protection. Habilitating was necessary and protection needed to be given, but now that the New Deal is dealt and the signs say there isn’t to be any more, the New Freedom comes to mind as something more permanent and much more American.

The New Deal was not a philosophy. It was everything but the kitchen stove. It was everything an altruistic, high-hearted, utterly brave, venturesome, and opportunistic President could think of to put down a depression and make guarantees against another. Mr. Roosevelt said in the beginning that he would try this-and-that, and if it didn’t work, he would try something else. There was no limit to the money he was willing to spend or the mountain of control he was willing to set up if these would feed our people and put them to work. Freedom was something else. There was no time to talk of freedom when men were starving.

This summer, however, people in America will not be starving. They will be feeding themselves and a part of the world. They will have more jobs than they can take. And they will be winning a war against a brutal and blanketing totalitarianism. Freedom will be in their minds again. The political reaction which has gone on for many months now and which will make this the first close election since the New Deal began, is fundamentally in favor of the thing for which the war is being won. No matter whether it comes to a good end or a bad, its origin is the very healthy and American prejudice against being ordered around, either by a tyrant overseas or an overgrown government at home. It is a reaction in favor of the individual, of his importance as such and his right to be as free as he can in a small and social world.

The reaction will come to no good end, obviously, and the victory at arms will not be real, unless somehow we associate the individual’s right to be free with his need to be excellent and his duty to be good. But freedom’s banner is out and flying again anyhow. And that is where Wilson comes in.

In my library is a faded copy of his book about it, published by Doubleday, Page and Company in 1913. That was a long time ago. “The New Freedom” is the title, “A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People.” In a brief preface Mr. Wilson explains that he “did not write this book at all. . . . It is the result of the editorial literary skill of Mr. William Bayard Hale, who has put together here in their right sequences the more suggestive portions of my campaign speeches. . . . It is a discussion of a number of very vital subjects in the free form of extemporaneously spoken words. . . . It is an attempt to set forth what must be done if we are to restore our national life to its purity, its self-respect, and its pristine strength and freedom. The New Freedom is only the old revived and clothed in the unconquerable strength of modern America.”

The political point of the New Freedom was that the government must set men free of restraints on their trade and economy. A government which had belonged overmuch to those who imposed the restraints was to be transformed into one actively removing them and keeping them removed, an umpiring government devoted to preserving and making productive and fair the competition which is the law of life and the basic principle of America.

Wilson’s Forgotten Man was the original one, who is also the 1944 one, the middle-class entrepreneur. “American industry is not free, as once it was,” he said. “The man with only a little capital is finding it harder to get into the field, more and more impossible to compete with the big fellow. Why? Because the laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak. . . . What this country needs above everything else is a body of laws which will look after the men who are on the make rather than the men who are already made. . . . The originative part of America, the part that makes new enterprises, the part into which the ambitious and gifted workingman makes his way up, the class that saves, that plans, that organizes, that presently spreads its enterprises until they have a national scope and character,—that middle class is being more and more squeezed out by the process which we call prosperity. Its members are sharing prosperity, no doubt, but what alarms me is that they are not originating prosperity. No country can afford to have its prosperity originated by a small controlling class. . . .”

He was eloquent for the decentralization that will be remembered this summer. He spoke against “a network of control that will presently dominate every industry in the country, and so make men forget the ancient time when America lay in every hamlet, when America was to be seen in every fair valley, when America displayed her great forces on the broad prairies, ran her fine fires, of enterprise up over the mountainsides and down into the bowels of the earth, and eager men were everywhere captains of industry, not employees; not looking to a distant city to find out what they might do, but looking among their own neighbors, finding credit according to their character, not according to their connections. . . . You cannot begin such an enterprise now as those which have made America until you are . . . authenticated, until you have succeeded in obtaining the good-will of large allied capitalists. Is that freedom? That is dependence, not freedom.”

The Wilson words of 1913 are so familiar, and so strange, when you repeat them for this summer. Are they for Free Enterprise or the New Deal? Speaking of the government he was about to establish, he said: “America was created to break every kind of monopoly and to set men free, upon a footing of equality, upon a footing of opportunity, to match their brains and their energies.” He vowed that “freedom needs no guardians,” meaning no business paternalism but not overlooking a governmental one, either: “If any part of our people want to be wards, if they want to have guardians put over them, if they want to be taken care of, if they want to be children, patronized by the government, why, I am sorry, because it will sap the manhood of America. But I don’t believe they do. . . .”

To a lady whose husband was his Assistant Secretary of the Navy and who has lately devoted her “My Day” column to a defense of cartels (“if they are good ones”) he had something to say long before experience against private and public totalitarianism had grown so sharp. “I admit the popularity of the theory that the trusts have come about through the natural development of business conditions. . . . This attitude rests upon a confusion of thought. Big business is no doubt to a large extent necessary and natural. . . . But that is a very different matter from the development of trusts because the trusts have not grown.

They have heen artificially created; they have been put together, not by natural processes, but by the will, the deliberate planning will, of men who were more powerful than their neighbors in the business world, and who wished to make their power secure against competition. . . . The reason that the masters of combination have sought to shut out competition is that the basis of control under competition is brains and efficiency. . . . The point of efficiency is overstepped in the natural process of development oftentimes, and it has been overstepped many times in the artificial and deliberate formation of trusts. . . . That is the difference between a big business and a trust. A trust is an arrangement to get rid of competition, and a big business is a business that has survived competition by conquering in the field of intelligence and economy. A trust does not bring efficiency to the aid of business; it buys efficiency out of business. . . . I am for big business and I am against the trusts.”

He established the Federal Trade Commission to umpire American business, to preserve competition by making it fair and keeping it free. “All unfair practices of competition are illegal,” said his law. He had the Clayton Act passed, outlawing discriminations in price “except in good faith to meet competition,” forbidding corporations to buy stock of other corporations where the effect would be “substantially to lessen competition.” He inaugurated the Federal Reserve System to pass credit around the country. He set up the Tariff Commission to eliminate the log-rolling that had multiplied that trade restraint. Beautiful through it all, and beautifully consistent even into the coming days of his League of Nations, was the philosophy of freedom under law, of a government umpiring the competitions and in-dividualisms of men, and of communities and nations, too, saving them for the productive things they can be when a civilized rule is over them.

Franklin Roosevelt had eight more-or-less long years to deal the New Deal before a World War changed the subject. Six years before the war began and eight before we entered. But the New Freedom had no such chance. The First World War began within eighteen months of Wilson’s inauguration, and he had been President only four years when America came in. The New Deal was dealt, but the New Freedom never was.

How related the two are, and how much apart 1 A picture I prize appeared in the Saturday Evening Post a few years ago with Mrs. Wilson’s story of her husband. It shows him making a Flag Day address in Washington in 1919. Only one other person is in the picture, a young man who sits behind the President on the platform with head erect and folded arms, his attention absorbed, intense, exalted. Thin-faced, strong-jawed, intellectual-looking—and infinitely young—he is 37-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the navy. Beside him Mr. Wilson looks old indeed, and mellow, and philosophical. Little could the young man have guessed how his own career was to parallel, supplement, and contradict that of his commander there; how he, too, one day, would lead a domestic revolution and win a World War.

There were Marxists among the New Dealers and there were Wilson Democrats. The Marxists were devoted to the stepped-up government because they thought it meant increased social operation. The Wilson Democrats saw it as more umpiring in the interest of freedom under law. The two philosophies could travel a distance together, but when sure limits were reached they were the most opposed and incompatible in practical existence. From the beginning the New Deal contained within itself these ingredients of explosion. Once the economic crisis ended or was sufficiently modified, the exploding began. It is going on now. It will be detonating through the campaigns of this summer unless the war news cancels all. Equally humanitarian, equally in crusade against unenlightened and selfish power in private hands, the New Deal was only a deal while the New Freedom was an American philosophy. The New Deal associated anybody and everybody who wanted the government to do anything and everything that might end a depression and make safeguards against its return. The New Freedom, never permitted to be practiced, was born in faith that if men are truly free under law they can be both prosperous and happy. It was—and remains—the Magnificent American Proposition.

It is coming back this summer. It is recognizable in what that happy young phenomenon of business liberalism, Eric Johnston, says, (and he says it with bows to Wilson). It is in the heart of what Wendell Willkie means when he stops being a best-seller long enough to let us know his One World isn’t the Wallace one at all, but a world of individuals made in an Image and subject to an umpire over their blessed differences. (When Mr. Willkie explains this to Southerners, his theory is that he is a Wilson Democrat, after all.) It is in what Thurman Arnold is saying. It is in much of what President Conant, of Harvard, has in mind when he calls for an American Radical, even though he frightens people with a word his erudition tells him means “root,” but which the public reads as “red.” It is the Third Thing to which so many of us are looking now without leaders, neither the anarchy of laissez faire nor the socialism to which perpetual New Dealing would lead, but liberty under a law.

The Magnificent American Proposition ! Wilson made it, and Jefferson before him. And in reverence it may be said that it was made in the beginning by the Lord God. If Wilson were living now with benefit of the history that has happened since he died, he would include big government and big labor as well as big business in the totalitarianism against which he made war, but it would be the same war. He would oppose the business monopolies to which his attention was given in 1913 and also the governmental monopolies that have come so dangerously into fashion through years of New Dealing and war. He would oppose the suppression of inventions by business and the suppression of economies by organized labor. He would bring shining words to bear not only against the tyrannies over the minds of men which Jefferson abjured, but against those over the economies of men which Eric Johnston names.

He could use his old speeches if he wished. Much in them is modern to the post-war minute. He could use the speech in which he vowed that “every impediment to business is going to be removed, every illegitimate kind of control is going to be destroyed,” and “every man who wants an opportunity and has the energy to seize it is going to be given a chance.” With men like Eric Johnston in mind, he could say again that “happily, the general revival of conscience in this country has not been confined to those who were consciously fighting special privilege. . . . I thank God that the business men of this country are beginning to see our economic organization in its true light.” In the interests of his third thing, which is really a first thing, he would hold it important that our liberals stop turning into socialists and equally important that our business men begin turning into liberals.

What is it that will set business really free today, make free enterprise a fact? There must be release from big government, yes, and from the mounted and mounting bureaucracies that have developed in natural result of big government. But there must be freedom, too, from other things. There must be freedom after the war from timidities and inertias that may hold business men from vast producing in anticipation of vast consuming, from adventurous chance-taking, from faith that stored demands and developed capacities are about to make the greatest market in history. And there must be freedom from the slaveries that business men themselves impose, and labor union men, too. There must be freedom from all the walls and restraints that limit the flow of (1) raw materials to manufacture, (2) goods to market, (3) production to demand, (4) prices to competitive levels, (5) inventions to use, (6) economies to bear, and (7) capital to investment. These Seven Pillars of Free Enterprise are the New Freedom brought to date. They entitle Woodrow Wilson—and Jefferson before him— to an honorary membership in the National Association of Manufacturers which has never yet been granted.

At the Gare des Invalides in Paris on February 15,1919, I was among the crowd that watched Woodrow Wilson leave for America. Clemenceau and his cabinet were there, England’s dignitaries, General Pershing, President Poin-care, and many others. I remember the red carpet the French had spread from the curb at which the Wilson car stopped. It ran across the sidewalk and into the station, through the wide waiting room, down the steps to the train level, along the platform and up into the train itself. It was red plush all the way for Wilson, even though five years from that February he was to die a broken old man, his war victories annulled, his domestic revolution forgotten. It seems to me that the red carpet is down again this summer, at home as well as abroad. Red plush for Wilson all the way, for the New Freedom that is still so new and yet so old. Red plush for the Magnificent American Proposition that, no matter what the Old Guard says, there can be a decent standard of living for our people, and, no matter what the Perpetual New Dealers say, there can be liberty with the living, political and economic liberty under a law.


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