Words That Men Live By
William Edgar Borah (1919)
WASHINGTON, D. C., Nov. 19, 1919 - The death sentence of the League of Nations - however much debate may be protracted - was written here today by one towering, lion-maned orator from the wide spaces of Idaho, who tore to shreds with the whip of national pride the gossamer fabric woven by Woodrow Wilson into the pattern of the League.
It is too soon to know whether Borah did the right or the wrong thing, but of his sincerity there can be no doubt. As an orator, he seemed to have been mustering all the force of experience, since he took his seat in the Senate in 1907, for this day.
As he spoke, he knew that for a generation more, at least, he would be reviled in some quarters as well as venerated in others, for the stand he bespoke. But he obviously did not care any more for the expected criticism than for the prospective adulation. To many, he recalled the personality displayed in other arguments and in other causes by William Jennings Bryan, arch political opponent of Borah but still best known today for his resignation as Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State in protest against entry by the United States into the steps precedent to formal participation in the late World War.
To pluck any single quotation from Borah's speech would be only to give a fragment out of context. The text is given at some length because it sums up all the replies of his colleagues to the many speeches heretofore given by the spokesman for the master plan.
Excerpts from the speech, delivered in an historical moment before packed galleries that included alike Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, on a rare absence from her stricken husband's side, and Mrs. Nicholas Longworth, wife of the Speaker of the House and daughter of the late President Theodore Roosevelt who died earlier this year, embittered by Wilson's policies, follow:
If the league includes the affairs of the world, does it not include the affairs of all the world? Is there any limitation on the jurisdiction of the council or of the assembly upon the question of peace or war? Does it not have now, under the reservations, the same as it had before, the power to deal with all matters of peace or war throughout the entire world? How shall you keep from meddling in the affairs of Europe or keep Europe from meddling in the affairs of America?.
Mr. President, there is another and even more commanding reason why I shall record my vote against this treaty. It imperils what I conceive to be the underlying, the very first principles of this Republic. It is in conflict with the right of our people to govern themselves free from all restraint, legal or moral, of foreign powers. It challenges every tenet of my political faith. If this faith were one of my contriving, if I stood here to assert principles of government of my own evolving, I might well be charged with intolerable presumption, for we all recognize the ability of those who urge a different course. But I offer in justification of my course nothing of my own-save the deep and abiding reverence I have for those whose policies I humbly but most ardently support. I claim no merit save fidelity to American principles and devotion to American ideals as they were wrought out from time to time by those who built the Republic and as they have extended and maintained throughout these years. In opposing the treaty I do nothing more than decline to renounce and tear out of my life the sacred traditions which throughout fifty years have been translated into my whole intellectual and moral being. I will not, I cannot, give up my belief that America must, not alone for the happiness of her own people, but for the moral guidance and greater contentment of the world, be permitted to live her own life. Next to the tie which binds a man to his God is the tie which binds a man to his country, and all schemes, all plans, however ambitious and fascinating they seem in their proposal, but which would embarrass or entangle and impede or shackle her sovereign will, which would compromise her freedom of action, I unhesitatingly put behind me.
Sir, we are told that this treaty means peace. Even so, I would not pay the price. Would you purchase peace at the cost of any part of our independence? We could have had peace in 1776 - the price was high, but we could have had it. James Otis, Sam Adams, Hancock, and Warren were surrounded by those who urged peace and British rule. All through the long and trying struggle, particularly when the clouds of adversity lowered upon the cause there was a cry of peace-let us have peace. We could have had peace in 1860; Lincoln was counseled by men of great influence and accredited wisdom to let our brothers - and thank heaven, they are brothers - depart in peace. But the tender, loving Lincoln, bending under the fearful weight of impending civil war, an apostle of peace, refused to pay the price, and a reunited country will praise his name forevermore-bless it be- cause he refused peace at the price of national honor and national integrity. Peace upon any other basis than national independence, peace purchased at the cost of any part of our national integrity, is fit only for slaves, and even when purchased at such a price it is a delusion, for it cannot last.
But your treaty does not mean peace - far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war. Is there any guaranty of peace other than the guaranty, which comes of the control of the war-making power by the people? Yet what great rule of democracy does the treaty leave unassailed? The people in whose keeping alone you can safely lodge the power of peace or war nowhere, at no time and in no place, have any voice in this scheme for world peace. Autocracy which has bathed the world in blood for centuries reigns supreme. Democracy is ever excluded. This, you say, means peace.
Can you hope for peace when love of country is disregarded in your scheme, when the spirit of nationality is rejected, scoffed at? Yet what law of that moving and mysterious force does your treaty not deny? With a ruthlessness unparalleled your treaty in a dozen instances runs counter to the divine law of nationality. Peoples who speak the same language, kneel at the same ancestral tombs, moved by the same traditions, animated by a common hope, are tom asunder, broken in pieces, divided, and parceled out to antagonistic nations. And this you call justice. This, you cry, means peace. Peoples who have dreamed of independence, struggled and been patient, sacrificed and been hopeful, peoples who were told that through this Peace Conference they should realize the aspirations of centuries, have again had their hopes dashed to earth. One of the most striking and commanding figures in this war, soldier and statesman, turned away from the peace table at Versailles declaring to the world, "The promise of the new life, the victory of the great humane ideals, for which the peoples have shed their blood and given their treasure without stint, the fulfillment of their aspirations toward a new international order and a fairer and better world are not written into the treaty." No; your treaty means injustice. It means slavery. It means war. And to all this you ask this Republic to become a party. You ask it to abandon the creed under which it has grown to power and accept the creed of autocracy, the creed of repression and force.
Mr. President, I turn from this scheme based upon force to another I scheme, planned one hundred and forty-three years ago in old Independence Hall, in the city of Philadelphia, based upon liberty. I like it better. I have become so accustomed to believe in it that it is difficult for me to reject it out of hand. I have difficulty in subscribing to the new creed of oppression, the creed of dominant and subject peoples. I feel a reluctance to give up the belief that all men are created equal-the eternal principle in government that all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. I cannot get my consent to exchange the doctrine of George Washington for the doctrine of Frederick the Great translated into mendacious phrases of peace. I go back to that serene and masterful soul who pointed the way to power and glory for the new and then weak Republic, and whose teachings and admonitions even in our majesty and dominance we dare not disregard.
I know well the answer to my contention. It has been piped about of late from a thousand sources-venal sources, disloyal sources, sinister sources - that Washington's wisdom was of his day only and that his teachings are out of fashion-things long since sent to the scrap heap of history - that while he was great in character and noble in soul he was untrained in the arts of statecraft and unlearned in the science of government. The puny demagogue, the barren editor, the sterile professor now vie with each other in apologizing for the temporary and commonplace expedients which the Father of our Country felt constrained to adopt in building a republic!.
What is the test of statesmanship? Is it the formation of theories, the utterance of abstract and incontrovertible truths, or is it the capacity and the power to give to a people that concrete thing called liberty, that vital and indispensable thing in human happiness called free institutions and to establish over all and above all the blessed and eternal reign of order and law? If this be the test, where shall we find another whose name is entitled to be written beside the name of Washington? His judgment and poise in the hour of turmoil and peril, his courage and vision in times of adversity, his firm grasp of fundamental principles, his almost inspired power to penetrate the future and read there the result, the effect of policies, have never been excelled, if equaled, by any of the world's commonwealth builders, Peter the Great, William the Silent, and Cromwell the Protector, these and these alone perhaps are to be associated with his name as the builders of States and the founders of governments. But in exaltation of moral purpose, in the unselfish character of his work, in the durability of his policies, in the permanency of the institutions which he more than anyone else called into effect, his service to mankind stands out separate and apart in a class by itself. The works of these other great builders, where are they now? But the work of Washington is still the most potent influence for the advancements of civilization and the freedom of the race.
Reflect for a moment over his achievements. He led the Revolutionary Army to victory. He was the very first to suggest a union instead of a confederacy. He presided over and counseled with great wisdom the convention which framed the Constitution. He guided the Government through its first perilous years. He gave dignity and stability and honor to that which was looked upon by the world as a passing experiment, and finally, my friends, as his own peculiar and particular contribution to the happiness of his countrymen and to the cause of the Republic, he gave us his great foreign policy under which we have lived and prospered and strengthened for nearly a century and a half. This policy is the most sublime confirmation of his genius as a statesman. It was then, and now is, an indispensable part of our whole scheme of government. It is today a vital, indispensable element in our entire plan, purpose, and mission as a nation. To abandon it is nothing less than a betrayal of the American people. I say betrayal deliberately, in view of the suffering and the sacrifice which will follow in the wake of such a course.
But under the stress and strain of these extraordinary days, when strong men are being swept down by the onrushing forces of disorder and change, when the most sacred things of life, the most cherished hopes of a Christian world seem to yield to the mad forces of discontent - just such days as Washington passed through when the mobs of Paris, wild with new liberty and drunk with power, challenged the established institutions of all the world, but his steadfast soul was unshaken - under these conditions come again we are about to abandon this policy so essential to our happiness and tranquillity as a people and our stability as a Government. No leader with his commanding influence and his unquailing courage stands forth to stem the current. But what no leader can or will do, experience, bitter experience, and the people of this country in whose keeping, after all, thank God, is the Republic, will ultimately do. If we abandon his leadership and teachings, we will go back. We will return to this policy. Americanism shall not, cannot die. We may go back in sackcloth and ashes, but we will return to the faith of the fathers. America will live her own life. The independence of this Republic will have its defenders. Thousands have suffered and died for it, and their sons and daughters are not of the breed who will be betrayed into the hands of foreigners. The noble face of the Father of his Country, so familiar to every boy and girl, looking out from the walls of the capitol in stem reproach, will call those who come here for public service to a reckoning. The people of our beloved country will finally speak, and we will return to the policy, which we now abandon. America, disenthralled and free, in spite of all these things, will continue her mission in the cause of peace, of freedom, and of civilization.
~ Postlogue ~
If there was a winner or loser in this contest, the victory was Borah's.
For 21 more years he held a dominant position in the Senate, achieving the seniority in 1925 by which he could become, under Republican organization, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate.
In this commanding position he likewise defeated attempts by his own party leadership - exerted by Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover - to obtain adherence by the United States to the World Court.
On the other hand, he sparked the idea for the so-called Washington Conference on naval disarmament, held in 1921-22, and the five year "naval holiday" adopted by the Hoover Administration in 1931.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt won the Presidency, and with it the Democratic party again captured control of the Congress, Borah had to relinquish in 1933 his powerful committee chairmanship, but even in the shadows as a minority spokesman he rose to roar and growl his opposition on such occasions as promised either to enlarge the control of the Federal Government over the States or to involve the United States in foreign intrigues.
He died in 1940, after 33 years in the Senate. By that time, the League of Nations lay in another grave, dug by its erstwhile supporters. In their widowhood, Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Borah ("Little Borah" as she called herself) were the closest of friends, and inseparable companions.Printable version