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True Americanism – Address of Louis D. Brandeis (1915)

True Americanism

address of Louis D. Brandeis at Faneuil Hall, Boston. July 5, 1915.


Ladies and gentlemen:–

E pluribus unum, Out of many one, was the motto adopted by the founders of the Republic when they formed a union of the thirteen States. To these we have added, from time to time, thirty-five more. The founders were convinced, as we are, that a strong nation could be built through federation. They were also convinced, as we are, that in America, under a free government, many peoples would make one nation. Throughout all these years we have admitted to our country and to citizenship immigrants from the diverse lands of Europe. We had faith that thereby we could best serve ourselves and mankind. This faith has been justified. The United States has grown great. The immigrants and their immediate descendants have proved themselves as loyal as any citizens of the country. Liberty has knit us closely together as Americans. Note the common devotion to our Country’s emblem expressed at the recent Flag Day celebration in New York by boys and girls representing more than twenty different nationalities warring abroad.

On the Nation’s birthday it is customary for us to gather together for the purpose of considering how we may better serve our country. This year we are asked to address ourselves to the newcomers and to make this Fourth of July what has been termed Americanization Day.

What is Americanization? It manifests itself, in a superficial way, when the immigrant adopts the clothes, the manners and the customs generally prevailing here. Far more important is the manifestation presented when he substitutes for his mother tongue, the English language as the common medium of speech. But the adoption of our language, manners and customs is only a small part of the process. To become Americanized, the change wrought must be fundamental. However great his outward conformity, the immigrant is not Americanized unless his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here. And we properly demand of the immigrant even more than this. He must be brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate with us for their attainment. Only when this has been done, will he possess the national consciousness of an American.

I say “he must be brought into complete harmony.” But let us not forget that many a poor immigrant comes to us from distant lands, ignorant of our language, strange in tattered clothes and with jarring manners, who is already truly American in this most important sense; who has long shared our ideals and who, oppressed and persecuted abroad, has yearned for our land of liberty and for the opportunity of abiding in the realization of its aims.

What are the American ideals? They are the development of the individual for his own and the common good; the development of the individual through liberty and the attainment of the common good through democracy and social justice.

Our form of government, as well as humanity, compels us to strive for the development of the individual man. Under universal suffrage (soon to be extended to women) every voter is a partner of the State. Unless the rulers have, in the main, education and character and are free men, our great experiment in democracy must fail. It devolves upon the State, therefore, to fit its rulers for their task. It must provide not only facilities for development, but the opportunity of using them. It must not only provide opportunity; it must stimulate the desire to avail of it. Thus we are compelled to insist upon observance of what we somewhat vaguely term the American standard of living; we become necessarily our brothers’ keepers.

What does this standard imply? In substance, the exercise of those rights which our Constitution guarantees; the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life, in this connection, means living not existing; liberty, freedom in things industrial as well as political; happiness includes, among other things, that satisfaction which can come only through the full development and utilization of one’s faculties. In order that men may live and not merely exist — in order that men may develop their faculties, they must have a reasonable income; they must have health and leisure. High wages will not meet the worker’s need unless employment be regular. The best of wages will not compensate for excessively long working hours which undermine health. And working conditions may be so bad as to nullify the good effects of high wages and short hours. The essentials of American citizenship are not satisfied by supplying merely the material needs or even wants of the worker.

Every citizen must have education — broad and continuous. This essential of citizenship is not met by an education which ends at the age of 14 — or even at 18 or 22. Education must continue throughout life. A country cannot be governed well by rulers whose education and mental development is limited to their attendance at the common school. Whether the education of the citizen in later years is to be given in classes or from the public platform, or is to be supplied through discussion in the lodges and the trade unions, or is to be gained from the reading of papers, periodicals, and books, – in any case freshness of mind is indispensable to its attainment. And to the preservation of freshness of mind a short workday is as essential as adequate food and proper conditions of working and living. The worker must, in other words, have leisure. But leisure does not imply idleness. It means ability to work not less but more — ability to work at some thing besides breadwinning — ability to work harder while working at breadwinning, and ability to work more years at breadwinning. Leisure, so defined, is an essential of successful democracy.

Furthermore the citizen in a successful democracy must not only have education; he must be free. Men are not free if dependent industrially upon the arbitrary will of another. Industrial liberty on the part of the worker cannot, therefore, exist if there be overweening industrial power. Some curb must be placed upon overweening industrial power. Some curb must be placed upon capitalistic combination. Nor will even this curb be effective unless the workers cooperate, as in trade unions. Control and cooperation are both essential to industrial liberty.

And if the American is to be fitted for his task as ruler, he must have besides education and industrial liberty, also some degree of financial independence. Our existing industrial system is converting an ever increasing percentage of the population into wage earners; and experience teaches us that a large part of these become at some time financial dependents, by reason of sickness, accident, invalidity, superannuation, unemployment, or premature death of the breadwinner of the family. Contingencies like these which are generally referred to in the individual case as misfortunes, are now recognized as ordinary incidents in the life of the wage earner. The need of providing indemnity against financial losses from such ordinary contingencies in the workingman’s life, has become apparent, and is already being supplied in other countries, The standard worthy to be called American implies some system of social insurance.

And since the child is the father of the man, we must bear constantly in mind that the American standard of living cannot be attained or preserved unless the child is not only well fed, but well born; unless he lives under conditions wholesome morally as well as physically; unless he is given education adequate both in quantity and in character to fit him for life’s work.

Such are our ideals and the standard of living we have erected for ourselves. But what is there in these ideals which is peculiarly American? Many nations seek to develop the individual man for himself and for the common good. Some are as liberty-loving as we. Some pride themselves upon institutions more democratic than our own. Still others, less conspicuous for liberty or democracy, claim to be more successful in attaining social justice. And we are not the only nation, which combines love of liberty, with the practice of democracy and a longing for social justice. But there is one feature in our ideals and practices which is peculiarly American. It is inclusive brotherhood.

Other countries, while developing the individual man, have assumed that their common good would be attained only if the privileges of citizenship in them should be limited practically to natives or to persons of a particular nationality. America, on the other hand, has always declared herself for equality of nationalities, as well as for equality of individuals. It recognized racial equality as an essential of full human liberty and true brotherhood, and that it is the complement of democracy. It has, therefore, given like welcome to all the peoples of Europe.

Democracy rests upon two pillars; One, the principle that all men are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and the other, the conviction that such equal opportunity will most advance civilization. Aristocracy on the other hand denies both these postulates. It rests upon the principle of the superman. It willingly subordinates the many to the few, and seeks to justify sacrificing the individual by insisting that civilization will be advanced by such sacrifices.

The struggles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both in peace and in war were devoted largely to overcoming the aristocratic position as applied to individuals. In establishing the equal right of every person to development, it became clear that equal opportunity for all involves this necessary limitation: Each man may develop himself so far, but only so far, as his doing so will not interfere with the exercise of a like right by all others. Thus liberty came to mean the right to enjoy life, to acquire property, to pursue happiness in such manner and to such extent only as the exercise of the right in each is consistent with the exercise of a like right by every other of our fellow citizens. Liberty thus defined underlies twentieth century democracy. Liberty thus defined exists in a large part of the western world. And even where this equal right of each individual has not yet been accepted as a political right, its ethical claim is gaining recognition.

America, dedicated to liberty and the brotherhood of man, rejected the aristocratic principle of the superman as applied to peoples as it rejected it as applied to individuals. America has believed that each race had something of peculiar value which it can contribute to the attainment of those high ideals for which it is striving. America has believed that we must not only give to the immigrant the best that we have, but must preserve for America the good that is in the immigrant and develop in him the best of which he is capable. America has believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress. It acted on this belief; it has advanced human happiness, and it has prospered.

On the other hand the aristocratic theory as applied to peoples survived generally throughout Europe. It was there assumed by the stronger countries that the full development of one people necessarily involved its domination over another, and that only by such domination would civilization advance. Strong nationalities assuming their superiority came to believe that they possessed the divine right to subject other peoples to their sway; and the belief in the existence of such a right ripened into a conviction that there was also a duty to exercise it. The Russianizing of Finland, the Prussianizing of Poland and Alsace, the Magyarizing of Croatia, the persecution of the Jews in Russia and Rumania are the fruits of this arrogant claim of superiority; and that claim is also the underlying cause of the present war.

The movements of the last century have proved that whole peoples have individuality no less marked than that of the single person; that the individuality of a people is irrepressible, and that the misnamed internationalism which seeks the obliteration of nationalities or peoples is unattainable. The new nationalism adopted by America proclaims that each race or people, like each individual, has the right and duty to develop, and that only through such differentiated development will high civilization be attained. Not until these principles of nationalism, like those of democracy are generally accepted, will liberty be fully attained, and minorities be secure in their rights. Not until then can the foundation be laid for a lasting peace among the nations.

The world longs for an end of this war, and even more for a peace that will endure. It turns anxiously to the United States, the one great neutral country, and bids us point the way. And may we not answer: Go the way of liberty and justice — led by democracy and the new nationalism. Without these — international congresses and supreme courts will prove vain, and disarmament “The Great Illusion.”

And let us remember the Poor Parson of whom Chaucer says:

“But Christe’s loore, and his Apostles twelve,
He taughte, but first he followed it hymselve.”


How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Brandeis, L. D. (1915). True Americanism. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

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