Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the University of Montreal, Montreal, Canada, December 4, 1953

This is a redaction of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. One draft of the speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library. Page images can be found here.

I appreciate this opportunity to speak to you at this celebrated university in this ancient and famous city. The functions of the private university, particularly those that are Roman Catholic, are basic and fundamental today for its task is a continuing search for the truth, both for its own sake and because only if we possess it can we be really free. Never has been the task of finding the truth more difficult. In the struggle between modern states "truth" has become a weapon in the battle for power - it is bent and twisted and subverted to fit the pattern of national policy.

Frequently, we in the West are forced by this drumbeat of lies and propaganda to be "discriminating" in our selection of what facets of the truth we ourselves will disclose. Thus the responsibility of a free university to pursue its own disinterested studies is even more important today than ever before. The University of Montreal has succeeded in carrying out this mission, so that today it stands as a bulwark on the North American Continent in the battle for the preservation of Christian civilization.

I appreciate also this opportunity to express once again the respect and friendship with which the people of the United States regard their neighbors in Canada. The ties that bind our two nations together are many and indissoluble. We have a similar background in that both of our nations have people from many dissimilar backgrounds. Although this is my first journey to Canada, Canadians are by no means strangers to me. For, of all the many residents of my state of Massachusetts who were born outside of the United States, a much larger percentage - more than 1 out of 4 - were born in Canada than in any other country. Those of you who are of French extraction would feel at home in Lowell and Lawrence, New Bedford and Fall River, and in dozens of others of our cities and towns where the French language and culture are maintained with vigor by the thousands and thousands of your former neighbors who now are American citizens, and thus they have kept open an important link with Canadian and French culture - its literature and its arts, which otherwise might have been lost. They have maintained singular devotion to the Catholic religion in an age of growing cynicism and indifference.

Perhaps most fundamental of all, the roots of our similarly free political and economic institutions may be traced back to a common seed, and the peaceful maintenance of the Canadian-American border has been a symbol all over the world for those who believe that a just and lasting peace can be achieved.

Today, our economic ties are made closer by international trade between our two countries. Last year, Canada bought nearly $3 billion worth of goods from the United States, representing approximately 20% of our sales to other countries. More than $7 out of every $10 Canadians spent to bring goods into their country was spent in the United States, indicating the importance of my nation as a source of supply to your industries and consumers. On the other hand, the United States bought nearly $2.4 billion worth of goods from Canada. We were your best customer, buying one-half of all goods you exported. Out of all the dollars spent by the United States for goods to be imported from other countries, more than $1 out of every $5 [was] spent for Canadian products. Many Canadian securities are bought in the United States; many United States firms have subsidiaries or plants in Canada; and many other economic ties are equally strong.

The bonds between our two countries, then, are beneficial to both. We export professional football players to you; and you export professional hockey players to us. The example of cooperation which Canada and the United States have set - in the economic, military, political, cultural and other spheres - is one for all the World to admire.

Unfortunately, from time to time tensions arise between the United States and Canada, just as tensions will arise between any close friends. Today such tensions have received a disproportionate amount of headline space in the newspapers of both of our countries; disproportionate not because such tensions are unimportant, but because this negative side of the balance sheet is greatly smaller than the positive side which I have previously mentioned. Nevertheless, it is well to understand exactly what these tensions are, and how they might best be reduced. Today, the charged atmosphere of suspicion and fear which has resulted in my country from the external and internal threat of communist imperialism has caused a number of incidents which have caused alarm and resentment among Canadians and Americans alike. The proposed St. Lawrence Seaway has been frequently postponed, much to your disappointment, because of the failure of the United States to get Congressional approval for participation in its construction, and the proposed St. Lawrence Power Project has not yet cleared its final hurdle in the United States Court of Appeals in order that the power authority of the State of New York may join with Canada in the construction of that project.

Perhaps of more importance, several questions have been raised with respect to international trade between the two countries. The U. S. Tariff Commission has held hearings at which American producers requested restrictions on the importation of Canadian oats, fish, lead, zinc, and oil. Bills for the same purpose have been introduced in Congress. Last March a year-long embargo on all Canadian beef cattle, imposed because of a local outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease, was lifted, after costing Canada about $50 million dollars.

Even this problem is not one-way. New Englanders may accuse Canadians of "dumping" groundfish fillets; but Canadians are accusing New Englanders of dumping textiles. Canadians have also expressed concern with respect to United States policies for exporting agricultural surpluses; and of course, Canada and the United States are competing for other export markets in Latin America and elsewhere.

It would not be appropriate for me to attempt to analyze each of these many issues, and discuss in detail their solutions. But I do maintain that much of the confusion and fear results from the unfounded misunderstandings and misconceptions which the citizens of each country hold with respect to the other. Perhaps if I explain some of the factors in the United States which give rise to this uncertainty and confusion, it may be of some help to you in understanding the conflicts we read about today.

I make this statement as a Member of the United States Senate, one of two parliamentary bodies in the Legislative Branch of our Federal Government. It is frequently difficult for citizens of other countries, particularly those with a parliamentary form of government where responsibility and authority are joined more closely together, even for Canadians with a Federal System of their own, to comprehend the full significance of the difference between the two Houses of Congress, between the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch, and between the Federal and State Governments; or to understand that a Congressional Committee is not the same as the United States Government. For example, the editor of the Montreal Star, Mr. G. V. Ferguson, wrote in 1952 that Canadians find it hard to understand that the American Congress can successfully frustrate its own administration in the pursuance of international trade objectives. "In Canada," Mr. Ferguson pointed out, "a government remains a government only so long as it can pass its legislative program." Even more recently, Mr. Attlee of Great Britain raised questions concerning the ultimate source of power in the United States.

Our constitutional founders believed that liberty could be preserved only when the motions of government were slow - the power divided - and time provided for the wisdom of the people to operate against precipitous and ill-considered action. The delegates believed that they were sacrificing efficiency for liberty. They believed, in the words of James Madison, who in his middle thirties was the most vigorous figure in Philadelphia, that they were "so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations ... be the means of keeping each other in their proper places."

In our constitution there are limits placed on both the Federal and State Governments, and there is an area of individual liberty protected against both. Like the reign of law, this is a tenant that has roots deep in Graeco-Roman theory, medieval political theory, in Locke and Montesquieu.

The system of checks and balances set up in our constitution was, of course, also the result of the necessary compromises between powerful interests in all of the thirteen colonies. The most basic dispute of the Convention was that involving the larger states: Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania with the smaller states, Delaware - so small in the words of John Randolph that it was composed of five counties at low tide and three at high - Connecticut and New Jersey. The larger states possessing a majority of the population and revenue were determined that their influence should be in proportion, while the smaller states were reluctant to sacrifice their confederatory status wherein each state as sovereign held veto on action. The result of the Connecticut compromise - "a motley measure" in the words of Alexander Hamilton - are familiar to us all. The representation in the Lower House was based on population, and they alone had the power to initiate legislation dealing with revenue matters; while in the Upper House each state was given an equal vote.

Successive presidents who have had difficulty with the Senate, including President Eisenhower, would be surprised to have learned what our founders perceived the role of the Senate to be. In a famous anecdote, Jefferson after his return from France once asked Washington at breakfast why he had agreed to a second chamber in Congress. Washington asked him, "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" "To cool it," Jefferson said. "Even so," said Washington, "we pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it."

There is no doubt that the framers of the Constitution saw the Senate as a sort of privy council to the President - enjoying a different and more intimate relation with the Chief Executive than did the direct representatives of the people. And thus the Senate was given a powerful voice over foreign affairs and the selection of office holders for the Executive Department. Washington tried to make such use of the Senate. Herbert Agar, in discussing the situation writes, "he entered the chamber one day and took the Vice President's chair, saying he had come for their advice and consent regarding an Indian treaty, and that he had brought with him General Knox, the Secretary of War, who knew all about the treaty. Knox produced the papers which were read; Washington then waited for some advice or consent. The Senate was unwilling to give it in the presence of the President and his Cabinet Minister. The feeling seemed to be that the Senators were under pressure, and that their dignity was being violated. The Senate did not want information from General Knox; it wanted to be left alone to act in its own fashion." "We said for him to withdraw," wrote Senator Maclay, "he did so with a discontented air."

A proper understanding of the system of checks and balances would explain for citizens of other countries the many and seemingly conflicting actions which appear on the governmental scene in the United States. A State Governor may protest the imports of Icelandic fish, but only the President and the Tariff Commission can restrict such imports, even into that State under present law. The United States Department of Agriculture may protest the importation of Canadian oats, and a United States Senator may introduce a Bill to restrict such imports, but, until the House of Representatives takes initial action to amend the Reciprocal Trades Agreement Act, the final decision rests with the Tariff Commission in the Executive Branch. When Congress failed to approve the St. Lawrence Power Project, the Federal Power Commission authorized the State of New York to build it, but only the Federal Courts can remove all legal objections to that decision. A Senator may broadcast all his suspicions of foreign officials; but he speaks only for himself and not the United States Government or our people.

Time has proved that the American Constitution is not, as Macaulay once said, "all sail and no anchor." Sir John MacDonald, speaking in 1865, after the American Constitutional system had received its most severe test in the American Civil War stated, "It is the fashion now to enlarge on the defects of the Constitution of the United States, but I am not one of those who look upon it as a failure. I think and believe that it is one of the most skillful works that human intelligence has created; (it) is one of the most perfect organizations that ever governed a free people. To say that it has some difficulties is but to say that it is not the work of omniscience but of human intellect." Our constitutional system like that of Canada was the result of special circumstances existing at the time of our early development. But like yours, it demonstrated confidence in man as a rational being - in the belief that given an atmosphere - and time - where truth has an opportunity to compete with error in the market place of ideas - in the long run the judgment of the great majority of the people can be trusted to come to the right decision.

The rights of the minority were given special protection in the American Constitution. This freedom for the minority was provided through the Bill of Rights, especially the first eight amendments, which wrote into law the inalienable and God-given rights of man, while the while the 9th and 10th, which dealt with the so-called reserve powers, provided that those powers not exclusively granted to the United States Government were held by the various states and the people themselves. In contrast to the United States, the enumerated powers in the Canadian Constitution are provincial and the reserve and residual powers in theory are federal. And an additional protection was the establishment of an independent judiciary on equal terms with the Executive and Legislative Branch. John Marshall, the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, in a series of fundamental decisions: - Marbury vs. Madison, which established the right of the Supreme Court to hold as unconstitutional an act of Congress, and McCullough vs. Madison in which the court annulled a state law which conflicted with a federal law, set up the Supreme Court to act as "umpire" in our Federal System. This is one of the main adjustive mechanisms in the constitutional framework through the principle of judicial review, which is quite unique in its broad extension and use. For many years - particularly in the early days of the New Deal, the Court was regarded by many, by its constitutional interpretation of the Acts of Congress, as a block to legitimate progress. In recent years, however, the Court has acted generally as a conservator of fundamental values and significantly advanced them in areas, like racial discrimination.

The boldest conception of the delegates to the American Constitutional Convention was that the Federal Government was not superior to the State Government; the State and Federal Governments each had their share of sovereignty; each operated directly upon its citizens; each was supreme in its field.

A famous legal case from the distant past might explain clearly the source of some of our present difficulties. To illustrate the difficulties of comprehending our governmental system, while at the same time illustrating the division of functions in our government, I would like to choose an example - not from the present tensions which mar our near-perfect relationship; but rather from incident which occurred more than 110 years ago.

I would remind you of the very famous case of "the People vs. McLeod." In the years 1837 and 1838, there was considerable difficulty along the American-Canadian border, due largely to the overly-enthusiastic desires of many American citizens to bring democracy to Canada by force against the British crown. The Montreal Transcript for December 23, 1837, summed up the atmosphere as follows:

"The concurrent statements of the Canadian press, the American press, and of private letters, leave no longer any doubt of a hostile feeling along, and within, the American frontier - a cherished hope of perpetuating their own blind prejudices at the expense of the British Government, which, with all its noble characteristics, has in their eyes the damning sin of being a monarchy."

In one of a series of incidents along the border, a group of Canadians sought retaliation against an unauthorized raiding party of American citizens and destroyed the steamer Caroline in a New York port. An American citizen was killed; and three years later, a Canadian by the name of Alexander McLeod was arrested and imprisoned by the State of New York on a charge of murder. Inasmuch as the British Government assumed responsibility for the actions taken as a matter of international relations between the two countries, it was generally agreed by experts in international law that McLeod was being unlawfully detained. At that time the position of Secretary of State - corresponding to your Minister of External Affairs - was held by a very famous American, and a former Senator from Massachusetts, Daniel Webster. Mr. Webster, although using the restraint necessary for the support of Congress and public opinion, practically admitted that the arrest and trial of McLeod was improper; and Presidents Harrison and Tyler (who succeeded Harrison upon his death) agreed.

The British and Canadian authorities assumed that this would be an end to the matter, and that their demand for the release of McLeod would be instantly met. Such, however, was not the case. The President, through Daniel Webster, pointed out that the Executive Branch of the Federal Government was forbidden by the Constitution to interfere with the conduct of the case by the Judicial Branch of the State Government. They also pointed out that, because of the division of functions between local and federal authorities, they could not require the local prosecuting attorney to dismiss the case. The British Ambassador in Washington, Mr. Fox, wrote Secretary of State Webster, however, that his Government could not "admit for a moment the validity of the doctrine that the Federal Government of the United States has no power to interfere with the matter in question and that the decision thereof must rest solely and entirely with the State of New York"; and he talked darkly of further action to free McLeod.

Next, the British wondered, if it was impossible to interfere with the Judicial Branch of the State Government under existing law, could not the U.S. Administration, as leader of the majority party, obtain action by Congress to change the law. (Of course, Congress cannot change the Constitution, which in our country is supreme over all federal and state statutes.) But President Tyler did send a message to Congress urging legislation for the removal of such cases from state courts to federal courts, on the grounds that such incidents embarrassed the Federal Government in its conduct of international relations. But the President, despite his anxiety to conform to the wishes of the increasingly hostile British, could only request such legislation; and, although it was eventually passed, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, to whom the McLeod Case was referred, took a very dim view of any action being undertaken with respect to the case by the Executive Branch. You might also be interested to know that, although the House of Representatives was anxious to review all of the correspondence and documents in the State Department relating to the case, it could not demand that information, but only request it if, it said by Resolution, the President did not feel this to be incompatible with the public interest.

So history presents us with a case 110 years old to remind Americans and Canadians of the dangers in misunderstanding the governmental process of the other country. The McLeod case illustrates the role of the American President and his Secretary of State as the chief spokesmen for my nation in foreign affairs; the role of Congress as the only body with legislative power, a power separate and distinct from that exercised by the President; and the role of states as individual entities within the Federal Government whose jurisdiction in certain matters cannot be infringed by federal action. In addition, the case illustrates the checks and balances which exist not only between the Federal and State Governments, but also between the three branches of Government, Executive, Legislative and Judicial. Finally and most important today, it illustrates how our system of government can appear to others to speak with one tongue but many voices, and thus create misunderstandings which lead to unnecessary tensions.

Incidentally, I didn't mean to leave Mr. McLeod languishing in jail without telling you the final outcome of his case. His attempt at habeas corpus, which the Federal Government supported, failed in the New York Supreme Court as the result of a judicial opinion which has been much criticized in international law circles; but as somewhat of an anti-climax, he was subsequently tried by a local court and acquitted by the jury. All of the trouble caused by his arrest was unnecessary.

A great heritage has been passed on to both of us. Our job now, of course, is to maintain it in a changing world and pass it on with its basic protection for the average citizen, undisturbed.

The responsibility of those who now hold elective office is thus especially great. As one who has served several years in our House of Representatives and in the United States Senate, I must admit that the task of representation is not always as simple as it sometimes seems to students of the legislative process. Those of you who aspire to public office should be reminded that it is not always easy to be on the side of the angels. Indeed, on most issues it seems as though the angels are not with us - at least not politically, as the questions that face us do not involve moral issues of right and wrong - but rather the settlement of conflicting claims of powerful interests. For example, though I believe that the St. Lawrence Waterway would benefit substantial sections of my country as well as yours - yet its effect on New England, and particularly on the Port of Boston which I represent, might be unfortunate. The easy answer on the course to adopt would be for the Representative to vote for the national interest, but am I not sent to the Congress to represent the needs of my people. It is not a moral question, nor is the answer obvious as to whether we should vote twenty million dollars more for hospital construction - even though we have at the same time a heavy budgetary deficit. I am not even as convinced as is Mr. Dulles, our Secretary of State, that foreign policy is a moral issue, for if this is not simply a struggle for survival by the powerful states but a crusade against the evils of the materialistic system that the communists espouse, how can we, to defeat Soviet Communism, ally ourselves closely with the communists of Yugoslavia?

If our country's foreign policy were based on moral grounds alone - it would be difficult to understand how we can reconcile our favoring freedom for the people behind the Iron Curtain on the one hand and yet opposing freedom for the people of Morocco on the other - merely because in our case we have air bases there. The point is that the questions on which we vote only rarely involve issues that admit an easy solution. Some politicians vote as the result of hoping to appease political pressures at home and stay in office and become, according to Dryden's Epilogue to the Duke de Guise:

"Damned neuters in the middle
way of steering

Are neither fish nor flesh nor
good red herring;

Not Whigs, nor Tories they; nor this
nor that

Nor birds, nor beasts; but just a kind
of bat;

A twilight animal, true to neither
cause

With Tory wings, and Whiggish teeth
and claws

while others like Senator Taft in our country, or Sir Wilfred Laurier or Louis St. Laurent in yours, vote according to their convictions. But their convictions are after all the result of their own lives, their environment, their experience and prejudices, their glands and blood pressure, and thus their convictions may bring them to the wrong conclusion, as occasionally did Senator Taft's, while the politicians who supinely follow the wishes of the people may end up voting right, for under our federal system the needs of the individual state must be given recognition, for the sum of the real interests of the separate states, in those cases where they do not conflict, is the National interest.

But in the final analysis, the only way to national survival is for our political leaders to accept the view-point expressed by Edmund Burke in his famous letter to the electors of Bristol. After stating his position on Britain's relations with the American colonies, he wrote: "Gentlemen, you have my opinion on the present state of affairs...I feel warmly on this subject and I express myself as I feel...Flattery and friendship are very different things and to mislead them is not to serve them. I cannot purchase the favor of any man but council him from what I think is his ruin."

We cannot afford the luxury of irresponsibility in national affairs. Today our economic and political system is competing with that of the Communists.

In 50 years the Communists have moved outward with unparalleled swiftness so that now they control over one-third of the world's population and their shadow hangs over the lives of many millions of men in the free world. Their economic system - rigidly controlled - devoted completely to the aggrandizement of the state, steadily is closing the gap in productive supremacy that once we enjoyed. The troubles and pressures of the 18th Century when our country began pale in significance with those we now face, for basically challenged are all of the suppositions upon which our founders based our government: that there are inalienable rights - rights granted by God and not by the state - that man is a political being - that he is rational - that the state is organized for his welfare and to protect his rights - that rule by the majority is not only more just, but more efficient.

Unless we can prove again the truth of these fundamentals, then time will continue to serve the cause of our enemies.

In conclusion, I would like to address a brief word to the present relations of our two great countries. I am not attempting to minimize the disputes which have caused an unfortunate amount of resentment and distrust on the part of both Canadian and American citizens; neither am I able to offer a simple formula for the solution of these problems. But I know that I speak for the great majority of American people when I say to you that the United States highly values her fraternal friendship and association with Canadians. If you and I, the citizens and officials of our two great nations, and the press, can all emphasize these positive values and traditions which insure the continued amity of the United States and Canada, then there will be less danger of a deterioration in our relationship resulting from temporary insignificant or politically inspired controversies. If the United States and Canada, with their common language, common history, common economic and political interests and other close ties cannot live peacefully with one and other, then what hope is there for the rest of the World. We have a responsibility to demonstrate to all peoples everywhere that peaceful and stable existence by powerful countries side by side, can remain a permanent reality in today's troubled world.

 

It is my hope that the people of Canada, by their careful judgment and clear thinking stability, will refuse to permit the pressures of the day to weaken those foundations laid a century ago. Let us put away the misunderstandings and misconceptions which give rise to uncertainty and confusion at the present time, just as they did over one hundred years ago; and then our two nations will continue to grow in friendship, to grow in prosperity, and to grow in peaceful and democratic achievement.