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FDR and history

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Armistice Day Address
Before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

November 11, 1940

On this day which commemorates the end of fighting between human beings in a world war, it is permissible for me to search back in the history of civilization, in order to visualize important trends.

On the Great Seal of the United States, which, for a century and a half, has reposed in the loving care of a long line of Secretaries of the State, appears these words: "Novus Ordo Seclorum" which means: "A New Order of the Ages."

But in the scheme of civilization from which ours descends, I suppose we can properly recognize that in 2500 years there have been only a few "New Orders" in the development of human living under a thing called government.

Without question, the philosophy of orderly government, in which the governed had some voice in civilized society, goes back to the days of ancient Greece.

We must remember, however, that while the philosophy of democracy was first expressed in words and on paper, the practice of it was by no means consistent, and was confined to a relatively small number of human beings, and to a relatively small geographical area.

We come to the Age of Rome – an age of a strange admixture of elections and laws and military conquest and personal dictatorship.

It was an age which extended the civilization of the period to the greater part of the then known world. It was an age which forced its own conception of laws and way of life on millions of less civilized people, who previously had lived under tribal custom of centralized direction.

With Rome's collapse and the overrunning of Europe by vast population movements from farther east, orderly progress deteriorated, and the sword drove learning into hiding.

That dark period could hardly be called an Age, because it was an interim between Ages.

Then, with the reawakening of a thousand years ago, with the crusades, the feudal system, the guilds, the kings and the renaissance, that Age which immediately preceded our own was born and grew and flourished.

That was an era of enormous distinction – arts and literature and education and exploration – marching armies, barons, and empires.

Human security was still non-existent. Democracy was not permitted.

Toward its close, however, the appearance of tiny movements in tiny places, led by tiny people, forecast the next vast step forward – the era of 1776 – the Age in which, thank God, we still live. Those beginnings originated, it is true, in the old world – among the philosophers, among the seekers of many kinds of freedom forbidden by those who governed.

There, by processes of trial and error, democracy as it has since been accepted in so many lands, had its birth and its training. We must accept that as fact because, fundamentally, nothing like it had ever existed before.

There came into being the first far-flung government in all the world whose cardinal principle was democracy – the United States of America.

With the gaining of our political freedom came the conflict between the point of view of Alexander Hamilton, sincerely believing in the superiority of government by a small group of public-spirited and usually wealthy citizens, and the point of view of Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of government by representatives of the people, an advocate of the universal right of free thought, free personal living, free religion, free expression of opinion and, above all, the right of free universal suffrage.

The New Order spread into almost every part of the civilized world. It spread in many forms – and over the next century almost all peoples had acquired some form of popular expression of opinion, some form of elections, of franchises, of the right to be heard.

The Americas and the British Isles led the world in spreading the gospel of democracy among peoples great and small, and the world as a whole felt, with much right, that it had discarded feudalism, conquest, and dictatorship.

People felt that way until 1914, when a definite effort was made in a part of the world to destroy this existing "New Order of the Ages" – to destroy it after its relatively short trial, and to substitute for it the doctrine that might makes right.

A hundred years from now, historians will say rightly that the world war preserved the "New Order of the Ages" for at least a whole generation.

I, for one, do not believe that the era of democracy in human affairs can or will be snuffed out in our lifetime. I, for one, do not believe that the world will revert to a modern form of ancient slavery, or to controls vested in modern feudalism, or modern emperors, or modern dictators, or modern oligarchs in these days. The very people under iron heels will themselves rebel.

We, alive today, live and think in terms of our grandparents, and our own parents, and ourselves, and our children – yes, and our grandchildren.

We, alive today – not in the existent democracies alone, but also among the populations of the smaller nations already overrun – are thinking in the larger terms of the maintenance of the "New Order" to which we have been accustomed, and in which we intend to continue.

We recognize certain facts of 1940 which did not exist in 1918 – a need for the elimination of aggressive armaments – a need for the breaking down of barriers in a more closely knitted world – a need for restoring honor in the written and spoken word.

We recognize that the processes of democracy must be greatly improved, in order that we may attain those purposes.

Excerpts from FDR's speech to a Joint Session of Congress
January 6, 1941

"Since the beginning of our American history we have been engaged in change – in a perpetual peaceful revolution – a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions, without the concentration camp or the quicklime in the ditch.

"The 'World Order' which we seek is the co-operation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.

"Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.

"Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights, or to keep them."

Note: Armistice Day is now known as Veterans Day.

Historical content is based on the official history of the Great Seal.
GreatSeal.com is not affiliated with the U.S. Government.
Author and webwright: John D. MacArthur