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Back Grover Cleveland's "Principles of Democracy" Speech
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 8, 1891
As I rise to respond to the sentiment which has been assigned to me, I cannot avoid the impression made upon my mind by the announcement of the words "true democracy." I believe them to mean a sober conviction or conclusion touching political topics, which, formulated into a political belief or creed, inspires a patriotic performance of the duties of citizenship. I am satisfied that the principles of this belief or creed are such as underlie our free institutions, and that they may be urged upon our fellow countrymen, because, in their purity and integrity, they accord with the attachment of our people for their government and their country. A creed based upon such principles is by no means discredited because illusions and perversions temporarily prevent their popular acceptance, any more than it can be irretrievably shipwrecked by mistakes made in its name or by its prostitution to ignoble purposes. When illusions are dispelled, when misconceptions are rectified, and when those who guide are consecrated to truth and duty, the ark of the people's safety will still be discerned in the keeping of those who hold fast to the principles of true democracy.

These principles are not uncertain nor doubtful. The illustrious founder of our party has plainly announced them. They have been reasserted and followed by a long line of great political leaders, and they are quite familiar. They comprise: Equal and exact justice to all men; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliance with none; the support of the state governments in all their rights; the preservation of the general government in its whole constitutional vigor; a jealous care of the right of election by the people; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expenses; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; the encouragement of agriculture, and commerce as its handmaid, and freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of the person.

The great president and intrepid Democratic leader whom we especially honor to-night, who never relaxed his strict adherence to the democratic faith nor faltered in his defense of the rights of the people against all comers, found his inspiration and guidance in these principles. On entering upon the presidency he declared his loyalty to them; in his long and useful incumbency of that great office he gloriously illustrated their value and sufficiency; and his obedience to the doctrines of true democracy, at all times during his public career, permitted him on his retirement to find satisfaction in the declaration; "At the moment when I surrender my last public trust, I leave this great people prosperous and happy and in the full enjoyment of liberty and peace, and honored and respected by every nation of the world."

Parties have come and parties have gone. Even now the leaders of the party which faces in opposition the Democratic host, listen for the footsteps of that death which destroys parties false to their trust.

Touched by thine
The extortioner's hard hand foregoes the gold
Wrung from the o'erworn poor.
Thou, too, dost purge from earth its horrible
And old idolatries; from the proud fanes,
Each to his grave, their priests go out, till none
Is left to teach their worship.

But there has never been a time, from Jefferson's day to the present hour, when our party did not exist, active and aggressive and prepared for heroic conflict. Not all who have followed the banner have been able by a long train of close reasoning to demonstrate, as an abstraction, why democratic principles are best suited to their wants and the country's good; but they have known and felt that as their government was established for the people, the principles and the men nearest to the people and standing for them could be the safest trusted. Jackson has been in their eyes the incarnation of the things which Jefferson declared. If they did not understand all that Jefferson declared. If they did not understand all that Jefferson wrote, they saw and knew what Jackson did. Those who insisted upon voting for Jackson after his death felt sure that, whether their candidate was alive or dead, they were voting the ticket of true democracy. The devoted political adherent of Jackson who, after his death, became involved in a dispute as to whether his hero had gone to heaven or not, was prompted by democratic instinct when he disposed of the question by declaring, "I tell you, sir, that if Andrew Jackson has made up his mind to go to heaven you may depend upon it he's there." The single Democratic voter in more than one town who, year after year, deposited his single Democratic ballot undismayed by the number of his misguided opponents, thus discharged his political duty with the utmost pride and satisfaction in his Jacksonian Democracy.

Democratic steadfastness and enthusiasm, and the satisfaction arising from our party history and traditions, certainly ought not to be discouraged. But it is hardly safe for us because we profess the true faith, and can boast of distinguished political ancestry, to rely upon these things as guarantees of our present usefulness as a party organization, or to regard their glorification as surely making the way easy to the accomplishment of our political mission. The Democratic Party, by an intelligent study of existing conditions, should be prepared to meet all the wants of the people as they arise, and to furnish a remedy for every threatening evil. We may well be proud of our party membership; but we cannot escape the duty which such membership imposes upon us, to urge constantly upon our fellow citizens of this day and generation the sufficiency of the principles of true democracy for the protection of their rights and the promotion of their welfare and happiness, in all their present diverse conditions and surroundings.

There should, of course, be no suggestion that a departure from the time-honored principles of our party is necessary to the attainment of these objects. On the contrary, we should constantly congratulate ourselves that our party creed is broad enough to meet any emergency that can arise in the life of a free nation.

Thus, when we see the functions of government used to enrich a favored few at the expense of the many, and see also its inevitable result in the pinching privation of the poor and the profuse extravagance of the rich; and when we see in operation an unjust tariff which banishes from many humble homes the comforts of life, in order that, in the palaces of wealth, luxury may more abound, we turn to our creed and find that it enjoins "equal and exact justice to all men." Then, if we are well grounded in our political faith, we will not be deceived, nor will we permit others to be deceived, by any plausible pretext or smooth sophistry excusing the situation. For our answer to them all, we will point to the words which condemn such inequality and injustice, as we prepare for the encounter with wrong, armed with the weapons of true democracy.

When we see our farmers in distress, and know that they are not paying the penalty of slothfulness and mismanagement, when we see their long hours of toil so poorly requited that the money-lender eats out their substance, while for everything they need they pay a tribute to the favorites of governmental care, we know that all this is far removed from the "encouragement of agriculture" which our creed commands. We will not violate our political duty by forgetting how well entitled our farmers are to our best efforts for their restoration to the independence of a former time and to the rewards of better days.

When we see the extravagance of public expenditure fast reaching the point of reckless waste, and the undeserved distribution of public money debauching its recipients, and by pernicious example threatening the destruction of the love of frugality among our people, we will remember that "economy in the public expense" is an important article in the true democratic faith.

When we see our political adversaries bent upon the passage of a federal law, with the scarcely denied purpose of perpetuating partisan supremacy, which invades the states with election machinery designed to promote federal interference with the rights of the people in the localities concerned, discrediting their honesty and fairness, and justly arousing their jealousy of centralized power, we will stubbornly resist such a dangerous and revolutionary scheme, in obedience to our pledge for "the support of the state governments in all their rights."

Under anti-democratic encouragement we have seen a constantly increasing selfishness attach to our political affairs. A departure from the sound and safe theory that the people should support the government for the sake of the benefits resulting to all, has bred a sentiment manifesting itself with astounding boldness, that the government may be enlisted in the furtherance and advantage of private interests, through their willing agents in public place. Such an abandonment of the idea of patriotic political action on the part of these interests, has naturally led to an estimate of the people's franchise so degrading that it has been openly and palpably debauched for the promotion of selfish schemes. Money is invested in the purchase of votes with the deliberate calculation that it will yield a profitable return in results advantageous to the investor. Another crime akin to this in motive and design is the intimidation by employers of the voters dependent upon them for work and bread.
Nothing could be more hateful to true and genuine democracy than such offenses against our free institutions. In several of the states the honest sentiment of the party has asserted it self, in the support of every plan proposed for the rectification of this terrible wrong. To fail in such support would be to violate that principle in the creed of true democracy which commands "a jealous care of the right of election by the people," for certainly no one can claim that suffrages purchased or cast under the stress of threat or intimidation represent the right of election by the people.

Since a free and unpolluted ballot must be conceded as absolutely essential to the maintenance of our free institutions, I may perhaps be permitted to express the hope that the state of Pennsylvania will not long remain behind her sister states in adopting an effective plan to protect her people's suffrage. In any event the democracy of the state can find no justification in party principle, nor in party traditions, nor in a just apprehension of democratic duty, for a failure earnestly to support and advocate ballot reform.

I have thus far attempted to state some of the principles of true democracy, and their application to present conditions. Their enduring character and their constant influence upon those who profess our faith have also been suggested. If I were now asked why they have so endured and why they have been invincible, I should reply in the words of the sentiment to which I respond: "They are enduring because they are right, and invincible because they are just."

I believe that among our people the ideas which endure, and which inspire warm attachment and devotion, are those having some elements which appeal to the moral sense. When men are satisfied that a principle is morally right, they become its adherents for all time. There is sometimes a discouraging distance between what our fellow countrymen believe and what they do, in such a case; but their action in accordance with their belief may always be confidently expected in good time. A government for the people and by the people is everlastingly right. As surely as this is true so surely is it true that party principles which advocate the absolute equality of American manhood, and an equal participation by all the people in the management of their government, and in the benefit and protection which it affords, are also right. Here is common ground where the best educated thought and reason may meet the most impulsive and instinctive Americanism. It is right that every man should enjoy the result of his labor to the fullest extent consistent with his membership in a civilized community. It is right that our government should be but the instrument of the people's will, and that its cost should be limited within the lines of strict economy. It is right that the influence of the government should be known in every humble home as the guardian of frugal comfort and content, and a defense against unjust exactions, and the unearned tribute persistently coveted by the selfish and designing. It is right that efficiency and honesty in public service should not be sacrificed to partisan greed; and it is right that the suffrage of our people should be pure and free.

The belief in these propositions, as moral truths, is nearly universal among our country men. We are mistaken if we suppose the time is distant when the clouds of selfishness and perversion will be dispelled and their conscientious belief will become the chief motive force in the political action of the people.

I understand all these truths to be included in the principles of true democracy. If we have not all times trusted as implicitly as we ought to the love our people have for the right, in political action, or if we have not always relied sufficiently upon the sturdy advocacy of the best things which belong to our party faith, these have been temporary aberrations which have furnished their inevitable warning.

We are permitted to contemplate tonight the latest demonstration of the people's appreciation of the right, and of the acceptance they accord to democratic doctrine when honesty presented. In the campaign which has just closed with such glorious results, while party managers were anticipating the issue in the light of the continued illusion of the people, the people themselves and for themselves were considering the question of right and justice. They have spoken, and the democracy of the land rejoice.

In the signs of the times and in the result of their late state campaign, the democracy of Pennsylvania must find hope and inspiration. Nowhere has the sensitiveness of the people, on questions involving right and wrong, been better illustrated than here. At the head of your state government there will soon stand a disciple of true democracy, elected by voters who would have the right and not the wrong when their consciences were touched. Though there have existed here conditions and influences not altogether favorable to an unselfish apprehension of the moral attributes of political doctrine, I believe that if these features of the principles of true democracy are persistently advocated, the time will speedily come when, as in a day, the patriotic hearts of the people of your great commonwealth will be stirred to the support of our cause.

It remains to say that, in the midst of our rejoicing and in the time of party hope and expectation, we should remember that the way of right and justice should be followed as a matter of duty and regardless of immediate success. Above all things let us not for a moment forget that grave responsibilities await the party which the people trust; and let us look for guidance to the principles of true democracy, which "are enduring because they are right, and invincible because they are just."
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