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German Day - Principle of Governmental Restriction

The words “Principle of Governmental Restrictions” have been handwritten on the cover of the copy of “German Day” owned by the Dayton Metro Library.









Thursday Evening, October 2nd, 1890


Dayton Volkszeitung Print.






This day has been set apart by our German fellow-citizens for social reunion, and to commemorate German immigration. It is the purpose, while keeping alive the customs and traditions of the Fatherland, to inspire themselves with renewed zeal for the interest of their adopted country, — a country which contains all the future has of hope, for them, their children, and their children’s children to the end of time. They meet, not as Germans, but as German-Americans, proud, indeed of their German ancestry and their German civilization, as well they may be, but still more deeply concerned in the progress and prosperity of their American descendents. They meet, as they have met in times of gloom and despondency, to renew their pledges of devotion to the country; and to unite themselves more closely in promoting its real progress.  They are today, as their descendents forever will be, a part of the American people; and they must in the nature of things exert an important influence on our common development and destination.

Is this influence likely to be for good or for ill? - is it likely to promote or retard our progress as a Nation? -  will it count in favor of a higher or a lower form of civilization?

These are interesting and important questions; but they cover too broad a field to admit a general discussion of the subject in the time at my disposal   I shall content myself with a few thoughts on a single phase of the subject — the influence of the German element in determining the limits of governmental interference in the private affairs of the people, or their habits and personal indulgence.

German immigration has been, of late, so evenly distributed over the Northern states that there is to-day scarcely any considerable section in which this element is preponderant. There is no legislative body in which it has control. There is no municipal corporation, even, large enough to attract attention, in which it is predominant. In smaller communities, and in rural districts, the most striking characteristic is thrift. German communities are proverbially thrifty communities. Land which is too poor to support an American farmer suffices for a German to grow rich. A business which an American abandons in disgust as involving much hard work and poor pay, supports in comfort his German successor, and may be the beginning of a fortune. Indeed, whether in city or country, German economy and persevering industry are notable; and German communities, or communities in which Germans form a considerable element in the population, are, almost without exception, thrifty communities. Plain, simple, unostentatious - not given to create much stir, or attract much attention — not progressive, in the sense of picking up quickly any new-tangled notions — not venturesome in the effort to get rich suddenly without hard work—not given to make much display even where there is abundant substance — such communities are marked by steady growth steady accumulation, and the absence alike of great wealth and extreme poverty, or the absence of any marked social distinctions founded on such differences

But the most striking characteristic of our German population, whether in city or country, whatever their occupation or surroundings, whatever their religious social or political creed, and whatever branch of the race they represent, is their firm, consistent, unswerving opposition to governmental dictation in matters of personal liberty. This, to some, may seem to be a question of small concern — a mere matter of personal indulgence — but it is in fact of vital importance to the American people. Whether a man shall be permitted to observe Sunday according to the dictates of his own conscience as a holy day, or a holiday, as a day of fasting and prayer, or a day of amusement and recreation - whether he shall be permitted lo eat and to drink according to his taste and his own judgment, so long as he does not interfere with the equal liberty of his fellow-citizens - or whether in all these things his life shall be subject to governmental control, according to the views of a majority of the people, may be a matter of small personal concern in our own case; but the principle involved lies at the root of all progress and all liberty

There is no special virtue in popular government, or majority rule, to relieve it from the obligation of doing right. A majority is not omnipotent. The power of the community over its individual members is just as strictly limited in a popular government as in any other. The dictate of a majority of the people, in matters not properly within its control, is just as arbitrary, and just as despotic, as the dictate of a self constituted master. The limits of just government are determined, not by the governing power, or even by the will of the people, but by the eternal laws of right and wrong.

All men are created equal; and are entitled to equal rights and equal liberty. This is the fundamental principle on which all government rests; and no possible authority, human or divine, can violate it, without trampling on the principles of justice.

If one section of the community, that believes drinking beer to be unnecessary and injurious, and its results harmful to the community, has a right to prohibit its manufacture and sale, another section that believes eating meat to be unnecessary and injurious, and its results harmful to the community in breeding cruel and blood-thirsty habits, has an equal right to enforce its views through legal enactment. If not, then the extent of a man's rights depends on the number of his confederates. Right to-day becomes wrong to-morrow. The change in a few votes changes the Moral Law.             

This is not a matter of constitutional construction or limitation. Government cannot by any possible agreement, not even by universal consent, acquire powers which the community as individuals do not possess. You cannot delegate to another a right you never had; and no man has the right, or ever can have the right to dictate to another what he shall think, or how he shall live, or what he shall do, except so far as his doing shall infringe the equal liberty of others. None may do what in the nature of things, all cannot do. If the indulgence of my taste necessarily infringes the equal liberty of others, they may justly defend themselves. And what they may do themselves, they may do through their properly authorized agent-government. But government cannot do for you what, in its absence, you could not justly do for yourself. The organization of a community does not create any additional rights  The State under whatever form it may exist, is the mere agent of the people, to do for them what, in its absence each might do for himself. The right, of the community are the rights of its individual members. The powers of the community are the powers which, in a state of nature, pertain to each individual. The talk of public rights and public wrongs is, strictly speaking, an absurdity.  There is no such thing. An act which does not infringe the rights of some particular person cannot infringe the rights of the community as a whole.

This is the fundamental principle which determines alike the limits of individual liberty and of governmental authority. If my conduct necessarily interferes with my neighbor and restricts his equal liberty he may justly defend himself; and what he may do himself he may do through his agent, the State. That my conduce is immoral, or injurious to myself, or pernicious as an example, is certainly not an infringement of his rights and is no ground for interference; else conduct which I think immoral, or debasing, is an infringement of my rights.

To come down to concrete illustrations. Does my work on Sunday infringe the right of my neighbor to attend church? That I need a day of rest may be true. It is equally true that I need wholesome food and dry underclothing. Is it the part of the state to see to these also?  If not, why not?

Again, does a Sunday picnic disturb the neighborhood anymore than a revival meeting? If not, why is one prohibited, the other permitted? Are a man's rights less, because his opinions are unorthodox, according to the prevailing Protestant standard?

Whether my conduct is right or wrong, from a moral stand-point, or whether it is injurious or beneficial to myself, is certainly none of my neighbors business, so long as it does not interfere with his equal right to manage his own affairs in his own way. Some of us think that the American weakness of trying to appear a millionaire on a business of a thousand a year, is quite as injurious to the individual, and quite as pernicious in its influence on the community, as a Sunday beer hall or a Sunday picnic. The effort to "keep in the swim", as the slang phrase has it — the effort to make a display and attract attention — to "put on style", and "create a swell" in social life—probably exerts a more pernicious influence on the individuals themselves, and the community generally — it leads to more lying, cheating, hypocrisy, and embezzlement, than all the beer halls in the country. Is it, therefore, the right and the duty of Society, to limit by law the style of a man's living according to his income? Shall the wearing of silks and diamonds, or keeping a carriage and a coachman in livery, be limited to those who can show a clear income of sufficient amount to support the display? If not, why not?                                  .

These are matters which to many may seem trivial; but they involve in fact the fundamental principle of government — how far the just authority of the community extends, or may by the will of a majority extend, in controlling individual liberty.

In older times the people, as such, were not supposed to have any rights at all. They were scarcely recognized by the law as individuals. They were the vassals, the liegemen, almost the property of some great lord or chieftain, who alone had a voice or an individual recognition in the government. Gradually, after many years of oppression, suffering, and bloodshed, some of the stronger burgher communities wrested from the governing power a limited control of their own affairs. From that day to this all progress has been in this direction — the curtailment of governmental authority, the increase of individual liberty. Every step of progress in the past has been marked by striking off the shackles of the people, and restricting the power of the government. Every real reform, which the wisest and best men of our day are now contending for, is a reform in the same direction — to confine the government to its legitimate functions, and prevent the controlling element from using it to promote their own selfish interests.

It is to the credit of the German people of all creeds and of all classes that they have generally been found in the advanced ranks in this great reform movement. In the dawn of modern civilization, following the long night of the dark ages, it was the German burgher towns that first wrested from despotic power a recognition of the rights of the people. It was the Dutch burghers of half submerged Holland that made the grandest and most heroic struggle of modern times in the same great cause; and in their triumph first established, since the downfall of the ancient republics, a recognition of the people as a source of authority. It is the German-Americans of our own country to-day who present the most solid front in defense of our hard-won liberties.

It is, I believe, a critical period in the struggle. There is to-day a strong reactionary movement, which seems to be growing stronger, and which threatens serious consequences. It is the movement, which looks to government for help in every emergency, and to State control as the panacea for all ills. This movement shows itself not only in our sumptuary and sunday laws — laws which are intended, whatever their expressed purpose may be, to control the habits and the morals of the people; but it is equally manifest in the increasing demand, largely on the part of farmers and working people, for governmental interference in trade, in transportation, and in business generally. It is not a demand for greater freedom; it is a demand for less freedom. It is not a demand for more efficient protection of individual liberty; but a demand for the restriction of individual liberty. It is not a demand to withdraw governmental supervision, and make men more independent and more self reliant; but a demand to extend governmental supervision, and to treat the people as infants, or idiots, who are not capable of managing their own affairs, or making their own contracts.

I am sorry to say that a small element in this reactionary movement is from our German fellow-citizens of the so called socialist party. Doubtless these people would be much surprised to find themselves classed with temperance fanatics and long-haired religious cranks; but they are really enlisted in the same cause, and are working for the same end — the restriction of individual liberty, the extension of governmental authority. It is true they would extend governmental supervision in one direction, the temperance people in another: but the principle is the same. If it is the right and the duty of Society to see that I make no foolish contracts, that I am always provided with work and proper compensation, it is equally its right and its duty to see that I do not squander the money I earn, or unfit myself by dissipation, or other bad habits, from doing the work provided. You cannot separate the two. If one is right, the other is right. If it is the duty of Society to provide me with a comfortable support, it is its unquestionable right to see that I do not neglect my opportunities, or impose unnecessary burdens on my more industrious or more successful fellow-citizens. If you adopt the principle of State supervision, you must accept all its logical results. But it will be a sad day when the American people does accept that principle, and our German-American citizens as a rule, are the least likely to accept it.

After ages of struggle, and sweat, and blood, to release the clutch of the government from the throats of the people, it is the saddest sight I know to see a large section of these people seeking to strengthen a power, and extend its grasp, which has always, and under all circumstances, without one single exception, proved their oppressor. Aside from the question of right, nothing could be more impolitic. Doubtless these people think they can turn the tables now, and themselves become the master. No dream can be more chimerical. The people will get the husk, the favored few the kernel. The people may pass the laws, the favored few will execute them.

The only safety for the people, the only hope of progress for the Nation, the only chance for the development of a higher and better civilization, is in the restriction of governmental interference, and the cultivation of individual independence and self reliance.  To this end, let us unite as one man in demanding from all creeds and from all classes, and for all creeds and all classes, simple, exact, unswerving justice, equality of rights, and equality of privileges.


The End