Remarks of John F. Kennedy, Democratic Party Jefferson Dinner, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 3, 1947

“The Freedom and Happiness of Man”, said Thomas Jefferson, “Are the sole objects of all legitimate government.” This quotation of Jefferson has been the beacon by which the course of the Democratic Party has been chartered. It is the alpha and omega of our existence, and as long as it is followed, America will be free and secure.

The Democratic Party, as intellectually inaugurated by Thomas Jefferson in 1800, stood firmly opposed to a strong centralized government. It stood rather for direct popular control over the government. Its philosophy was based on the fundamental belief that the people are capable of self government. The Democratic Party of Jefferson advocated a wide extension of suffrage and the fullest measure of personal liberty of speech, of religion, and the press, in keeping with the maintenance of law, order, and the over-all national welfare. It championed state’s rights, and strict constitutional interpretation. Founded by Jefferson, the Party was held in trust by Madison and Monroe, until the people themselves in the person of Andrew Jackson were ready to assume the responsibilities for which Jefferson had planned.

The Democratic Party continued in control of national affairs until 1860, except for a brief intervening period, when it was split asunder by the slavery issue. During the remainder of the nineteenth century the Republican Party retained virtual control of the government. Under Woodrow Wilson the Democratic Party fathered legislation during his first term, beginning with the Federal Reserve Act, which for the constructive solution of national problems had been unequaled in any similar period in our history. Under Woodrow Wilson, World War I was successfully fought with distinction abroad and without scandal at home, but Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations was rudely blasted by Republican opposition in the United States Senate.

Of more vital concern is the respective records of the Democratic and Republican Parties in the critical days of the Great Depression of the thirties, and the Global War was just ended.

The Democratic Party remained true to its traditions of personal liberties, and popular control of the government. But the complexity of economic affairs, the growth of the huge enterprises, national in scope, and the complete inter-dependence of our whole economy, made necessary the abandonment of a narrow state’s rights, strict constitutional construction viewpoint. The Commerce Clause proved flexible enough to support badly needed legislation in labor and finance; The Securities Act of 1933; The Securities Exchange Act of 1934; The Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935; The Investment Company Act of 1940; The Wager Act (1935); The Fair Labor Standards Act (1938). Within existing constitutional frame-work came Social Security Legislation. The wage earners of the nation for the first time in our history reached the dignity to which they were entitled.

These constructive internal policies to heal the paralysis of our economic system and to strengthen our social fabric were matched externally by the traded agreements of Cordell Hull and the fight for low tariffs, which was essential to the success of Hull’s program. This was America’s great contribution toward breaking the economic nationalism that was strangling world trade.

Our political nationalism was also shaken by President Roosevelt’s “Quarantine the Aggressor” speech in Chicago. That Speech, belated though it was, marked the beginning of the end of the tradition of nationalism of the American republic. But this new foreign policy was to meet the united opposition of the Republican Party.

As the Japanese drove into the heart of China in the East, and as Nazi Germany rode southward to join with Austria, and eastward to envelop the Sudeten Deutsch at Munich, and rolled over Prague to the Russian border in March of 1939, the lines became drawn between our political parties and between individuals, as to what our policy should be. The Arms Embargo sponsored by Republican Senator Borah in the summer of 1939 was the dying gasp of the traditional nationalism.

With the fall of France, the Administration Policy became more closely identified with the Allies, and the “Destroyer Trade”, Lend-Lease, and other acts implemented that policy. At home the administration worked hard to strengthen our defenses and build our armed forces. All of these measures were bitterly opposed by the Republican Party, and for their opposition they must bear great responsibility.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Air Forces, the conflict between our two parties was ended and they united in the prosecution of the war.

Through this critical period, I believe that the Democratic Party understood the economic and political forces racing through the world far better than the Republicans, who, because they failed to understand the dynamism of these new forces, could only offer blind opposition. Their record for this period remains as a monumental failure.

Disaster to the country in the late 20’s are good enough for the Republicans. The end of the war brought the country head-on with the complete problems of reconversion. The reintroduction of twelve million men to the economic system—the changing from a war economy to a peacetime economy—the severe shortages of essential products which made the maintenance of price control without rationing virtually impossible—all of these by-products of the disastrous war brought great dissatisfaction. For them there was no clear-cut solution. The inevitable defeat of the party then in power was the result, and the republicans swept into control on the sterile program of “had enough”.

The republicans have been in power for five months. They have already clearly demonstrated that the Republican policies that brought disaster to the country in the late 20’s are good enough for the Republicans of today.—Stringent Labor Laws, which strangle labor’s freedom by restraint, tax reductions which benefit the prosperous at the expense of the poor at a time when the buying power in the upper ranges of income is abnormally high, while the buying power in the lower ranges of income is abnormally low. These are deflationary policies that may place this country again on the Republican toboggan to ruin.

The program has been distinguished additionally by the torpedoing of the great power and reclamation projects of the West, which the party in power has cut heavily over the protests of their western supporters.

In international affairs, though Senator Vandenberg has ably supported the bi-partisan foreign policy, the House leadership showed evidences of the old disastrous nationalism when they cut the foreign relief appropriation from $350,000,000 to $250,000,000.

But their greatest failure has been in the field of housing where the majority members of the House Banking and Currency Committee have submerged successfully the only real housing bill which offers hope of relief, the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Bill.

The memorials that the Republican leadership will leave will be the homes that could have been built and were not built due to their allegiance to the building and real estate lobbies.

Their failure to comprehend that the weighty problems they face call for strong solutions has cost the Republican Party a great measure of popular support. Every sign now points to the Democratic Party, under the skillful, humane leadership of President Truman, scoring an overwhelming victory in 1948.

But we should not be content to win by default. To truly merit the strong support of the American people we must put forth a strong program, which will demonstrate to the American people that we are fit to lead. This policy must include a sensible and fair tax policy, which will be in accordance with Jefferson’s wise saying that “widespread poverty and concentrated wealth cannot long endure side by side in a democracy.” This policy must include the raising of the minimum wage level, --the extension of unemployment compensation and social security—the continuation of the great power and reclamation projects commenced in the 30’s—federal aid to solve the crisis in American education, and federal aid to health, recognizing the strength of America is in direct proportion to the physical condition of young men and women. This policy must include the strengthening of trade agreement by doing our part in breaking down the barriers – and a sensible housing program which will recognize we are faced with an extraordinary emergency, which to be solved will require extraordinary measures.

All of these steps are in line with the traditional democratic policy of making this country a better place in which to live. All of these steps are essential to the security of our country at home and to peace abroad. By these policies, the Democratic Party will be acting in accordance with the principles laid out by Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps the methods of securing those principles in America will be different from those he envisioned, but the principles of justice and freedom for all men enumerated by him will be maintained and will be secured. The Democratic Party will be indeed recognizing that “the freedom and happiness of man are the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. House of Representatives Files. Series 2.2. Boston Office Speech Files, 1946-1952. Box 94, Folder: "Democratic Party, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 3 June 1947".