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Charles Evans Hughes

Charles Evans Hughes
Chief Justice of U.S. Supreme Court

American Democracy's
First 150 Years
Washington, D.C.
(March 4, 1939)

The following speech was given by Charles Evans Hughes, Chief Justice of the United States,
before a Joint Session of the Senate and House of Representatives in celebrating their
Sesquicentennial.  He was 77 years old at the time.
The most significant fact in connection with this anniversary is that, after 150 years, notwithstanding expansion of territory, enormous increase in population, and profound economic changes, despite direct attack and subversive influences, there is every indication that the vastly preponderant sentiment of the American people is that our form of government shall be preserved....

Forms of government, however well contrived, cannot assure their own permanence. If we owe to the wisdom and restraint of the fathers a system of government which has thus far stood the test, we all recognize that it is only by wisdom and restraint in our own day that we can make that system last. If today we find ground for confidence that our institutions, which have made for liberty and strength will be maintained, it will not be due to abundance of physical resources or to productive capacity, but because these are at the command of a people who still cherish the principles which underlie our system, and because of the general appreciation of what is essentially sound in our governmental structure.

With respect to the influences which shape public opinion, we live in a new world. Never have these influences operated more directly, or with such variety of facile instruments, or with such overwhelming force. We have mass production in opinion as well as in goods. The grasp of tradition and of sectional prejudgment is loosened. Postulates of the past must show cause. Our institutions will not be preserved by veneration of what is old, if that is simply expressed in the formal ritual of a shrine. The American people are eager and responsive. They listen attentively to a vast multitude of appeals and, with this receptivity, it is only upon their sound judgment that we can base our hope for a wise conservatism with continued progress and appropriate adaptation to new needs.

We shall do well on this anniversary if the thought of the people is directed to the essentials of our democracy. Here in this body we find the living exponents of the principle of representative government – not government by direct mass action but by representation, which means leadership as well as responsiveness and accountability.

Here the ground swells of autocracy, destructive of parliamentary independence, have not yet upset or even disturbed the authority and responsibility of the essential legislative branch of democratic institutions. We have a National Government equipped with vast powers which have proved to be adequate to the development of a great nation, and at the same time maintaining the balance between centralized authority and local autonomy. It has been said that to preserve that balance, if we did not have States we should have to create them. In our 48 States we have the separate sources of power necessary to protect local interests and thus also to preserve the central authority, in the vast variety of our concerns, from breaking down under its own weight....

We not only praise individual liberty but our constitutional system has the unique distinction of insuring it. Our guarantees of fair trials, of due process in the protection of life, liberty, and property – which stands between the citizen and arbitrary power – of religious freedom, of free speech, against the abuses threatened by gusts of passion and prejudice which in misguided zeal would destroy the basic interests of democracy. We protect the fundamental right of minorities, in order to save democratic government from destroying itself by the excesses of its own power. The firmest ground confidence in the future is that more than ever we realize that, while democracy must have its organization and controls, its vital breath is individual liberty.

I am happy to be here as the representative of the tribunal which is charged with the duty of maintaining, through the decision of controversies, these constitutional guaranties. We are a separate but not an independent arm of government. You, not we, have the purse and the sword. You, not we, determine the establishment and the jurisdiction of the lower Federal courts and the bounds of the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. The Congress first assembled on March 4, 1789, and on September 24, 1789, as its twentieth enactment, passed the Judiciary Act – to establish the judicial courts of the United States – a statute which is a monument of wisdom, one of the most satisfactory acts in the long history of notable congressional legislation. It may be said to take rank in our annals as next in importance to the Constitution itself.

In thus providing the judicial establishment, and in equipping and sustaining it, you have made possible the effective functioning of the department of government which is designed to safeguard with judicial impartiality and independence the interests of liberty. But in the great enterprise of making democracy workable we are all partners. One member of our body politic cannot say to another: “I have no need of thee.” We work in successful cooperation by being true, each department to its own functions, and all to the spirit which pervades our institutions, exalting the processes of reason, seeking through the very limitations of power the promotion of the wise use of power, and finding the ultimate security of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the promise of continued stability and a rational progress in the good sense of the American people.

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