National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 4/The Oldest Free Assemblies

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The Oldest Free Assemblies[edit]

By Right Hon. Arthur J. Balfour

An address before the United States House of Representatives, May 5, 1917


Mr. Speaker, Ladies and Gentlemen of the House of Representatives:

Will you permit me on behalf of my friends and myself, to offer you my deepest and sincerest thanks for the rare and valued honor which you have done us by receiving us here today?

We all feel the greatness of this honor but I think to none of us can it come home so closely as to one who, like myself, has been for 43 years in the service of a free assembly like your own. I rejoice to think that a member—a very old member, I am sorry to say—of the British House of Commons has been received here today by this great sister assembly with such kindness as you have shown to me and to my friends.

Ladies and gentlemen, these two assemblies are the greatest and the oldest of the free assemblies now governing great nations in the world. The history indeed of the two is very different.

The beginnings of the British House of Commons go back to a dim historic past, and its full rights and status have only been conquered and permanently secured after centuries of political struggle.

Your fate has been a happier one. You were called into existence at a much later stage of social development. You came into being complete and perfected and all your powers determined, and your place in the Constitution secured beyond chance of revolution; but, though the history of these two great assemblies is different, each of them represents the great democratic principle to which we look forward as the security for the future peace of the world.

All free assemblies modeled after the British Parliament and American Congress[edit]

All of the free assemblies now to be found governing the great nations of the earth have been modeled either upon your practice or upon ours or upon both combined.

Mr. Speaker, the compliment paid to the mission from Great Britain by such an assembly and upon such an occasion is one not one of us is ever likely to forget. But there is something, after all, even deeper and more significant in the circumstances under which I now have the honor to address you than any which arise out of the interchange of courtesies, however sincere, between the great and friendly nations.

We all, I think, feel instictively that this is one of the great moments in the history of the world, and that what is now happening on both sides of the Atlantic represents the drawing together of great and free peoples for mutual protection against the aggression of military despotism.

I am not one of those, and none of you are among those, who are such bad democrats as to say that democracies make no mistakes. All free assemblies have made blunders; sometimes they have committed crimes.

Pursuing the appalling object of dominating civilization[edit]

Why is it, then, that we look forward to the spread of free institutions throughout the world, and especially among our present enemies, as one of the greatest guaranties of the future peace of the world? I will tell you, gentlemen, how it seems to me. It is quite true that the people and the representatives of the people may be betrayed by some momentary gust of passion into a policy which they ultimately deplore; but it is only a military despotism of the German type which can, through generations if need be, pursue steadily, remorselessly, unscrupulously, the appalling object of dominating the civilization of mankind.

And, mark you, this evil, this menace under which we are now suffering, is not one which diminishes with the growth of knowledge and the progress of material civilization, but, on the contrary, it increases with them.

When I was young we used to flatter ourselves that progress inevitably meant peace, and that growth of knowledge was always accompanied, as its natural fruit, by the growth of good will among the nations of the earth. Unhappily, we know better now, and we know there is such a thing in the world as a power which can with unvarying persistency focus all the resources of knowledge and of civilization into the one great task of making itself the moral and material master of the world.

It is against that danger that we, the free peoples of western civilization, have banded ourselves together. It is in that great cause that we are going to fight, and are now fighting this very moment, side by side.

In that cause we shall surely conquer, and our children will look back to this fateful date as the one day from which democracies can feel secure that their progress, their civilization, their rivalry, if need be, will be conducted, not on German lines, but in that friendly and Christian spirit which really befits the age in which we live.

Mr. Speaker, ladies and gentlemen, I beg most sincerely to repeat again how heartily I thank you for the cordial welcome which you have given us today, and to repeat my profound sense of the significance of this unique meeting.

Source: Arthur J. Balfour (April 1917), “The Oldest Free Assemblies”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(4): 368–371.