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Inspirational speech finds a modern echo
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On October 3, 1946, Chancellor Samuel Capen gave a speech on "Academic Frontiers" during the universityís centennial convocation. As part of this ceremony, the university unveiled a plaque honoring alumni who had died in World War II.

Photo: Courtesy University Archives, University at Buffalo


Chancellor Samuel Capen (left) and Walter P. Cooke, chair of the UB Council, lead the academic procession preceding Capenís 1922 inauguration held at the Teck Theatre in downtown Buffalo.

Photo: Courtesy University Archives, University at Buffalo
Inspirational speech finds a modern echo


Chancellor Samuel P. Capen
The University of Buffalo
June 7th, 1942

    What is the most successful productive accomplishment of the United States? We should all give the same answer after a moment's reflection. It is the making of Americans. History records no comparable achievement. Rome dominated all the civilized world and huge areas inhabited by so-called barbarians. But the Franks and the Goths and the Greeks and the Arabs did not become Romans. Spain held in subjection the Netherlands, the West Indies, and the major portions of North, Central, and South America. But the people of these regions never became Spaniards, and all in time threw off the Spanish yoke. England has controlled large parts of every continent. The great dominions which are peopled largely by persons of British origin are loyal to the Motherland and the Crown, but they call themselves Canadians and Australians and New Zealanders, not Englishmen; and no one in England thinks of them as English. No nation, except America, has ever absorbed vast numbers of people of different racial stocks and within a few years renationalized them.

    Nazi spokesmen have referred to us as a mongrel nation. They are right; we are. A mongrel is a blend of several strains. Thoroughbreds are specialists, showing a high development of a small range of qualities or characteristics.

    Let us think of some of the characteristics of the strains that are blended in our mongrel nation. The dash and vitality of the Poles; the tenacity and democratic instincts of the Scandinavians; the originality and flexibility of the Italians; the mysticism, the loyalty and the aggressiveness of the Irish; the imagination and managing genius of the Scotch; the industry, the sense of order and the sentimentality of the Germans; the creativeness and philosophic insight of the Jews; the adaptability, the practicality and the talent for devising institutions of the English; the individualism and realism of the French; the patience and invincible gaiety of the Negroes; the straightforwardness, the enterprise and the steadfastness of the Dutch; and so we might go on.

    Of these qualities, blended in our national organism, which would we willingly spare? Are we stronger or weaker, richer or poorer, more or less versatile as a people in consequence of this mixture? The record of a hundred and fifty years gives the answer. A continent explored, settled and brought to yield its resources to human use. A homogeneous civilization spread from edge to edge of one of the earth's greatest domains. Comfort and convenience of living more widely distributed among the population than in any other land. Inventiveness and ingenuity deployed on an unexampled scale. Universal popular education carried to a higher level than anywhere else. And out of a soil thus fertilized, a recent luxuriant flowering of science, art and literature surpassing in quantity and comparable in importance to the products of much older civilizations. Had we been of a single stock, could all this have been accomplished in so short a time? It seems improbable. At any rate, its like has never elsewhere been achieved. If this is what a mongrel nation can do, the designation can hardly be considered a term of reproach.

    And who is responsible? Not Englishmen, or Germans, or Irishmen, or Italians, or Poles. Americans are responsible; Americans who came, or whose ancestors came, from England and Germany and Ireland and Italy and Poland and a score of other countries. They did all this, and are now doing even more remarkable things, as Americans; for, whatever their origins, in every root and fibre of their beings that is what they have been and are.

    Foreigners have never understood the melting pot, having had no experience of anything of the sort. They cannot believe that nationals of another land can be remade into Americans, that their loyalties and their whole outlook can be reoriented. Some short-sighted Americans whose forebears came early to these shores have been equally skeptical, which is no tribute to their powers of observation.

    No one could claim that the melting pot produces nothing but pure metal. There is always some slag. Since the slag represents unassimilable matter, we notice it. In times of national stress, whether of peace or war, we have some trouble with it. On the whole the trouble has never been very serious. It is not now. The marvel is that with literally millions of emigrants from foreign lands the American melting pot has done its perfect work.

    Just what is the melting pot? It is not the classes in English for foreigners, or the Americanization courses conducted by the schools, useful and important as those may be. It is not the Immigration Service and the courts, which issue citizenship papers. It consists rather of a set of ideas, a system of social institutions, a battery of opportunities, and a collection of habits of national behavior. Which is as much to say that the melting pot is America itself. Nevertheless some of its constituent elements are worth looking at for a moment.

    The ideas are simple, like all great ideas. They are recorded in deathless documents; in the Declaration of Independence, in the Bill of Rights, in the addresses of Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, in certain decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, in inspired sentences uttered by soldiers and statesmen and poets and essayists. Simple but grand ideas: that all individuals stand on an equal footing; that they have equal rights before the law; that through their chosen representatives they make the law; that all are free to worship as they will, to speak their minds, to print their opinions, to gather for public discussion; that all are secure in their persons, their property and their domiciles; that none are subject to penalties imposed by the government, except after fair trial; that government officials are the deputies and servants of the people; that the law recognizes no classes, no races and no hereditary privileges; that every individual is free to choose his occupation or to change it; that access to knowledge and to facilities for self-improvement are common rights of all citizens; that honor and influence depend on an individual's quality and usefulness; that human life and human welfare are precious and that the community has a responsibility for the life and welfare of all its members.

    These ideas, and others equally familiar to us, are embodied in a vast network of social institutions designed to give them force and effect. The Federal and State constitutions and the charters of municipalities not only translate many of them into fundamental 1aw, but also provide the machinery of government for carrying them out: legislatures, courts and executive officers. Political institutions, however, represent only the protective bulwark inside which the agencies that give American life its distinctive character have taken shape and flourished.

    For years we have taken these agencies so much for granted that few of us could remember on the spur of the moment what they are. We can no longer afford to be so casual about them, since all of them are to a certain extent peculiar and some of them unique. Suppose we remind ourselves of the peculiar features of a few of them. A mammoth system of industry and commerce developed wholly by private initiative, and-in spite of the recent increase in government regulation demanded by the public interest-still essentially a free enterprise system. A press unmatched in magnitude and variety, served by journalists who have no peers in ability, courage, resourcefulness and technical skill; the freest press in the world. Countless voluntary organizations designed to improve the status or foster the common purposes of groups within the population: labor organizations; professional associations; societies of artists, craftsmen, merchants, residents of a particular section; groups to promote this or oppose that; social organizations of every imaginable composition; all free to form and to act as they will, provided only that they do not violate the laws enacted by the people's representatives. A dual establishment of schools and colleges, the one paid for by public funds and open to all without charge, the other created by private philanthropy and furnishing education to students at less than cost, open to all who have the intellectual capacity to profit by its offerings. Religious establishments of every kind, all voluntary, none either favored or penalized by the state. Charitable institutions to care for the sick, the destitute, the unfortunate, spread throughout the land and supported largely by the free contributions of millions of people.

    These are samples; by no means a complete catalogue. They represent a few of the principal beams and struts that carry the immense institutional framework of American life. But we need to remind ourselves especially in this present time of crisis, that they have no exact counterparts. We alone among the great nations of the earth have developed all the major activities of our society by voluntary effort. They have sprung from the people spontaneously. They are the expression of the people's initiative, the people's creative power, the people's good will. Ours is the supreme example of a voluntary civilization, owing next to nothing to official direction or control, nothing whatever to a stable privileged class, evolving its own leaders, forging its own ever rising standards of value.

    The freedom of a people may be either static or dynamic. By static freedom I mean a collection of individual rights protected by law and fortified by tradition. The peoples of all the nations that we describe as free have enjoyed a static freedom. To provide a static freedom is the most that the law can do. With this, and with the slow extension of individual rights, the peoples of many of the older free nations have been measurably satisfied.

    But for Americans this has never sufficed, nor for Canadians and Australians and New Zealanders. We, the nations with a pioneering present or a recent pioneering past, have demanded much more. Our individual rights we will tenaciously defend and as fast as possible we will enlarge. That is, we insist on maintaining those political safeguards which ensure a static freedom. But we regard these legal rights as merely the necessary foundation for a truly free national life. Freedom for us means in addition freedom to act, to move, to break up old patterns, to shatter traditions when traditions tend to paralyze us, to beat records, to tackle the impossible and make it possible, to create. It is offensive, not defensive. We are an offensive nation, although by habit a peaceful one, a nation of chance takers, of enterprisers, of builders.

    It is this concept of freedom, almost as much as the enormous material resources of the country, that has made America preeminently the land of opportunity. You who are now graduating are children of the great depression. For a considerable fraction of your lives you have observed, or yourselves experienced, a condition in the national economy in which opportunity was restricted, in which ability and ambition were often unable to find an appropriate outlet. You have seen widespread privation, failure and frustration. You may not be blamed if you have thought that something like this might be the normal condition of America. Of course it was not. And even before the preparations for war gave a powerful stimulus to the productive energies of the nation, we were on the way to mastering the depression. In the process of fashioning a nation committed to the practice of dynamic freedom there have been numerous temporary setbacks, but none of them has checked for long the irresistible forward sweep. Toward what? Toward the development of a society in which all who are willing to strive will have the opportunity to make the most of themselves, to live with dignity and satisfaction.

    The goal has never been reached. Perhaps it never will be. But toward the attainment of the goal we have progressed immeasurably farther than any other people. In most countries which, before 1938, we designated as free an individual was bound by the circumstances of his birth. These circumstances determined largely the education to which he might aspire, the occupations that were open to him. And once having entered upon a vocation, it was next to impossible for him to change to another. Only very exceptional individuals could cross the invisible lines that separated class from class.

    You and I have had no experience to bring the meaning of such a situation home to us. On the contrary, we have an instinctive conviction that there are no limitations on what an individual may achieve, save those imposed by his brains and his character; that a man's origin is not a trap, but a springboard; that an occupation is not a cage, but an avenue leading perhaps to something wholly different; that social classes are fluid and possess no power to confine or exclude individuals.

    These assurances are in the very air we breathe. And they are not just pretty abstractions. They are not cant. All of us have seen them translated into concrete fact over and over again; yes, even in the midst of the economic hurricane which has lately passed over us. Whether we are young or old, all of us have known persons who have risen from routine labor to posts of leadership and responsibility, men and women who from indigent and humble beginnings have attained high distinction in the professions, in business and in the arts. But more important than the achievements of the few who possess unusual gifts are the countless examples of those who have slowly improved the conditions of their lives: modest families that, despite occasional reverses, have gradually added to the comfort and adornment of their homes and provided for their children advantages of education and association which the parents did not enjoy.

    Out of the multitude of such instances, repeated decade by decade in every corner of the land, there has emerged a peculiarly American attitude toward the future and toward destiny, of which few foreigners have ever grasped the full significance. We expect improvement. We are confident that we are going to be better off next year or the year after. We are sure that we are going to accomplish the thing on which we have set our hearts, or that we are going to get a better job, or that we are going to have more influence or social consideration. Hence we can stand reverses. Instinctively we feel that they are temporary. There were some who thought we could not endure a prolonged and severe economic depression, that our country would disintegrate. It did not. In fact, we came through the experience less demoralized and with fewer and far less revolutionary changes in the fundamental structure of our society than appeared in any other great nation.

    These invincible expectations, together with the freedom guaranteed by our political and social institutions, have conditioned our national habits of behavior. We are not a respectful people; some think we are not respectful enough. Typically we treat one another with friendly informality. We refuse to kowtow to anybody, no matter what his position or achievements; and we do not want to be kowtowed to. We like to be neighbors one with another and to meet on an even footing. All of us are aware that orders have to be given, if any joint undertaking is to be carried on. But we resent the unnecessary display of authority. We react violently against either patronage or petty tyranny. We can be led by those who have our confidence. We can be appealed to for any common cause, and we will respond voluntarily and handsomely with service and money and good will. But we want to be asked, not told. Deeply ingrained in us is the feeling that those are the relations which should exist between man and man in a democracy.

    These institutions, these opportunities, these social attitudes are the melting pot. To thousands upon thousands of immigrants down through the years they have come as a revelation. To thousands upon thousands they have spelled release, not only from the tyranny of governments or of circumstance, but also from thralldom of the spirit. These people sought the New World and found a new world indeed. The overwhelming majority of them have given it their loyalty without stint or reservation and it has made them bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh.

    America has been called the hope of the world. It is that now more than ever. For now it stands as potentially the strongest champion of those principles of human dignity and worth which are threatened with violent extinction, if its cause fails. It stands a great composite nation; composite and united, a living symbol of these principles.

    It stands in danger of its life, an active combatant in a world revolution. Far-sighted observers have recognized for a long time that the conflict now raging is an acute phase, perhaps the decisive phase of a world revolution. But to many of us the issues were not plain. At last they are.

    The revolution is not of recent origin. It did not suddenly explode upon the world with the rise of Hitler. It goes back far beyond the formation of the United States. Its roots run so deep in history that they are difficult to trace. It is in essence a mighty movement involving practically all the peoples of European stock or of European tradition. Its progress has been slow and halting, now peaceful, now attended with outbreaks of violence in the form of civil or international wars. The revolution represents a revolt of the rank and file of mankind against their masters, against arbitrary power, against exploitation. It is the struggle of the rank and file to obtain a larger share of the desirable products of organized society, both material products and spiritual products: commodities and wealth, but also justice, scope for individual effort, rights, respect.

    The English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century were one violent episode in the movement. Our own War of Independence and the French Revolution were others. The First World War was deeply motivated by the same causes. And in the long intervals of peace the peoples' movement has continued to win ground in one country after another throughout Europe and the Americas. In all countries, even from time to time in our own, reactionary forces have threatened it and have often set it back.

    Now the movement is met head on by the most formidable opposition that has ever been marshalled against it. The Axis powers are bent upon its complete and permanent destruction. I do not think we can understand the nature of the opposition, however, unless we look separately at the two branches of the Axis.

    The purposes and acts of Japan fit an ancient, primitive pattern, a pattern as old as organized society. Japan seeks resources and the widest possible dominance; and she seized a favorable moment to play the conqueror. Japan is an authoritarian nation, and a ruthless authoritarian rule will be the portion of the lands she conquers. Wherever she wins the movement for human emancipation will be effectively stopped. But that is incidental; her primary aim is national aggrandizement.

    The case of the European members of the Axis is essentially different. They have not only spread tragedy over land and sea on a scale hitherto unimagined; they are themselves the very incarnation of tragedy, the sorriest spectacle on which the sun has ever shone. Think of the steps by which Italy and Germany, two great and once enlightened nations, have become the enemies of four-fifths of the human race! In each of them a small band of unprincipled adventurers, during a period of economic hardship and widespread discontent, gained leadership over large bodies of the people by promising them relief from their troubles. Advocating novel programs of political and economic reform in the people's interest, these adventurers won to power. In effect they captured the age-old popular movement.

    Then they threw off the mask. First they proceeded systematically to subjugate their own peoples as a preliminary to using their nations as instruments for foreign conquest. By dissolution of the existing agencies of government, by decrees suspending civil rights, by the imposition of an iron discipline, by domestic espionage, persecution and terror, they brought their peoples into abject submission. At the same time through ceaseless propaganda and a diabolical scheme of education, they wrought a wholesale perversion of the public mind. In their new code of national and personal morals honor, truth, decency, mercy, justice and belief in the Divine became vices. Calculated lying, treachery, brutality, hate, gross materialism and blind obedience to the will of a self-appointed leader were elevated to the plane of virtues.

    When the process of corruption was complete-and weapons had been assembled-they launched their nations on the career of conquest which has brought such dire misery upon the world. At first the scope of their plans was not clear. Many believed they wanted only a limited amount of adjacent territory. But now we know that their aim has always been world dominion. Their spokesmen no longer make any bones about it. They propose to destroy all free nations and enslave their peoples. And they not only have a blueprint; they have given a demonstration throughout the continent of Europe of the destiny that awaits the lands they overrun.

    Another thing is also patent. Loot and power do not alone motivate their satanic crusade. The concept of freedom itself is the object of their fanatical hatred and dread. There must be no vestige left of any agency or idea that sustains or inspires it. They seek the total eradication of "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report." For on those the spirits of all men who have aspired to freedom have been nourished ever since the days of St. Paul.

    Between us and the Axis the conflict is irreconcilable. No compromise is possible. The end must be our absolute triumph, or no American would hold life worth living. And although America has thus far deployed only a small fraction of its strength, it must inevitably represent to the opponents their most formidable enemy, formidable because of its great resources, but formidable especially by reason of what it stands for. For America is the foremost exponent of those ideals for which the great masses of the Western World have been striving down through the centuries. Not that we have realized the ideals. In ways known to all of us we have fallen far short. But we have openly proclaimed them for a hundred and fifty years, and as a people we have never ceased to press toward their full realization. Today they are as never before a lighted watch tower that shines not alone for us, but for the conquered and oppressed wherever they may be. They give invincible assurance that an organization of human society based on liberty and justice for all is possible.

    The conflict must be waged on the physical plane, to the accompaniment of toil and waste and hardship and death. But the cause is not physical. It is the highest and grandest we can conceive. In that cause all of us here must forego much that has made life sweet. Grief will come to all of us. Some of us here will sacrifice life itself.

    On you who are graduating the heaviest burden will fall. You, more than others, will be summoned to reveal whatever of nobility is in you. We who know you doubt not at all that you will meet the test; the test of war and the no less searching test of peace that is to come. Your Alma Mater bids you go with God.

Used with permission of University Archives
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