Jackson’s Fourth of July words resonate 79 years later
On July 4, 1941, then-United States Attorney General Robert H. Jackson was scheduled to deliver a speech in the shadow of the Washington Monument at the National Sylvan Theater.
Due to rain, the Spring Creek, Pa. native and former Jamestown resident — enthralled in the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt — instead delivered his address to the nation that evening in a Washington radio studio that was broadcast nationwide and played on the National Mall the next day.
It came at a unique time for Jackson: three days before his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, seven before being administered his constitutional oath and unhinged as his days as the leader of the Department of Justice waned.
And nearly eight decades later, his words on that anniversary of the nation’s birth still ring as true today on this anniversary of the nation’s birth and has oftentimes been reprinted by news outlets in Washington and Chautauqua County on Independence days past.
“It really is a great, enduring American speech,” John Q. Barrett, a professor of law at St. John’s University School of Law in New York and Elizabeth S. Lenna Fellow at the Robert H. Jackson Center, told The Post-Journal earlier this week.
“It’s an eve of war speech, it’s a ‘do-we-have-a-president-for-life?’ speech, but it’s an enduring answer that, no, what we have is us, what we have is a democracy, what we have is smart, engaged, participating citizenry caring about the high stuff,” he added.
In the address, Jackson reflects on the intentions of the founding fathers, speaking of the Declaration of Independence as speaking a “strong doctrine in plain words” and painting it as the “world’s master indictment of oppressive.”
“The fervor of its denunciation haunts and challenges dictators everywhere and in every field of life,” Jackson writes. “It sets forth great affirmations as to the permissible foundations of power and political leadership among free men. It lays down a fighting faith in the rights of man — merely as man — a faith to die by if need be, or even bravely to live by.”
“You don’t want to forget that it’s from a time and a place, but it does have a lot of things that fit our time and place,” Barrett said of the address. “Just his idea of this Declaration of Independence as a global creed of human freedom and really the explanation for what the allied nations in Europe and soon, they can feel it coming, the United States is fighting for in World War II.”
He added, “People with muskets in 1776 seem a long time ago. People in 1941 seem a long time ago, but it really is a very accessible, timeless story of the importance of people and independence and law and rights.”
Jackson also makes a powerful statement on taking a stand.
“If the patriots of 1776 risked little by action, we risk much by indifference,” he writes. “Today we risk the loss of a physical, cultural, and spiritual heritage of freedom far beyond the most inspired visions of the leaders of ’76.”
“Indifference — checking out — is really inexcusable and that people have a responsibility to be attentive and smart and engaged and highly aspirational,” Barrett noted of that passage, explaining that modern parallels can be drawn to the current approach to mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
“Nazi comparisons are always dangerous … but what’s attacking us right now?” he said. “What’s a threat to, physically our health and survival, and economically and culturally, our way of life, is a disease. What we should be doing — and I don’t think it is a big leap from this speech — to the modern context is not being indifferent, engaging ourselves in the dimensions of this and avoiding the passive surrender or the willful ignorance and dealing with it.”
“One fact emerges clear above all others,” Jackson writes. “We Americans cannot cease to be the kind of people we are — we cannot cease to live the kind of life we live. Ware not the kind of people the dictators will ever want in the world. They will never have any use for our kind of life, nor we for theirs.”
Added Barrett of this tone by Jackson, “He really is the voice, the thinker, the writer here. This is not a ghostwriter, this is not teleprompter stuff — this is him.”
Barrett also explained that, due to the short intermission between his careers, this address gives readers and listeners a slight glimpse into what a Jackson presidential campaign might have sounded like.
“His candidate moment had passed a year earlier,” he explained, noting that developments in the European Theater led to Roosevelt’s decision to pursue an unprecedented third term as president in 1940.
“That extinguishes the idea that Jackson is running for anything,” Barrett said.
And while the address warns against the dangers of “anti-democratic influence, even more, cynical and sinister and dangerous than Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin combined,” the address proves to be a juxtaposition to Roosevelt’s pursuit of an unprecedented tenure n office.
“This is already a subtle way of Jackson, who is all for Franklin Roosevelt, who is now in his unprecedented third term, maybe allaying fears that Roosevelt is a dictatorial, anti-democratic figure,” Barrett said. “Having a leader who holds office for a long time is not anti-democratic. It depends on how you get that kind of leader. Democracy is the pre-eminent value here… “Jackson is a Democrat,but he’s an even greater democrat. He’s a populist, he’s in favor of electoral participation, community participation from the local government up to national and above, self-government person.”
He added, “The line from the Declaration of Independence forward is, ‘We will choose for ourselves.’ We indict George III, and we affirm that we are better than any type of external, on-high, anti-democratic ideal of leadership. A leader should come from us and be us and be accountable to us and protect and advance our pursuit of happiness, not his own.”
“We must keep our freedoms…” Jackson writes, “…keep them in face of foreign dangers even more tenaciously and jealously than in calmer times — keep them because it is our liberty that lifts our cause above material ends and anchors our efforts in timeless things.”
He adds, “We know that the spiritual strength and the moral power of our democratic tradition, authenticated by a century and a half of progress, will not long yield the field anywhere in the world despite the temporary devastations by enemies of the fundamental philosophy of our Declaration of Independence,” and concludes by quoting the famous poet, Rudyard Kipling’s “For All We Have And Are:”
“Though all we knew depart,
The old commandments stand: –
‘In courage keep your heart,
In strength lift up your hand.'”