“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” was the biggest applause line of Barry Goldwater’s speech accepting his party’s nomination as a presidential candidate.
It is probably also the most misunderstood, ripped-out-of-context line in a speech that stands, even today, as a succinct definition of conservatism.
Surprisingly, in 3,186 words, Goldwater never used any form of the word “conservative” in this famous speech. This stood in contrast to four years earlier, when he scolded supporters who threatened the cohesion of the Republican Party by saying, “Let’s grow up, conservatives.”
Fifty years ago today, on July 16, 1964, grown-up conservative Barry Goldwater spoke to the GOP convention in San Francisco.*
Most Bearing Drift contributors – and, I’d wager, a greater fraction of Bearing Drift readers – are too young to remember Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, yet it is almost universally credited with launching both the modern conservative and the modern libertarian movements. The principal founders of the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation worked on Goldwater’s campaign. The founding members of the Libertarian Party were Goldwater campaign volunteers, and Virginia’s current Republican National Committeeman, Morton Blackwell, was the youngest Goldwater delegate at the 1964 convention.
The campaign set the stage for a transformation of the Republican party and Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. As George F. Will has put it, Goldwater won the 1964 election but it took 16 years to count the votes.
Something of a précis of his 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater’s convention speech endeavored to explain conservatism – or what he called “Republicanism” on that occasion, eschewing specific references to the C-word – to listeners who had not yet learned much about it and who unfairly feared it.
In the same speech, Goldwater displayed a certain amount of prescience regarding the course of human history and offered advice to his fellow Republicans who, then as now, often found themselves among bickering factions.
In one, brief paragraph about halfway through the speech, the Arizona Senator summarized the conservative view of individual liberty and the proper role of government.
We see, in private property and in economy based upon and fostering private property, the one way to make government a durable ally of the whole man, rather than his determined enemy. We see in the sanctity of private property the only durable foundation for constitutional government in a free society. And beyond that, we see, in cherished diversity of ways, diversity of thoughts, of motives and accomplishments. We do not seek to lead anyone’s life for him – we seek only to secure his rights and to guarantee him opportunity to strive, with government performing only those needed and constitutionally sanctioned tasks which cannot otherwise be performed.
Goldwater also drew a contrast explicitly to the communist, totalitarian vision and, implicitly, to big-government liberalism then in vogue, and recognized the tensions inherent in simultaneous pursuits of liberty and equality.
Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.
In a line that could be welcomed equally today by the Tea Party and by the Occupy movement, Goldwater said that conservatives must “resist concentrations of power, private or public, which enforce such conformity and inflict such despotism. It is the cause of Republicanism to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people.”
And, as if envisioning the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Empire a quarter-century later, Goldwater made remarkably accurate predictions in this paragraph:
I believe that we must look beyond the defense of freedom today to its extension tomorrow. I believe that the communism which boasts it will bury us will, instead, give way to the forces of freedom. And I can see in the distant and yet recognizable future the outlines of a world worthy our dedication, our every risk, our every effort, our every sacrifice along the way. Yes, a world that will redeem the suffering of those who will be liberated from tyranny. I can see and I suggest that all thoughtful men must contemplate the flowering of an Atlantic civilization, the whole world of Europe unified and free, trading openly across its borders, communicating openly across the world.
Toward the end of his speech, just before the famous line about “extremism,” Goldwater pointed out the factionalism in the Republican party was not necessarily new, but also was not necessarily bad.
The GOP, he said, is “a Party for free men, not for blind followers, and not for conformists.”
Then he quoted Abraham Lincoln in 1858 “because he probably could have said it during the last week or so: “[The Republican Party] was composed of strained, discordant, and even hostile elements.’”
As if warning the Tea Party and “establishment” branches of the conservative movement of the 21st century, or the social conservative and the libertarian factions, Goldwater admonished: “Let our Republicanism, so focused and so dedicated, not be made fuzzy and futile by unthinking and stupid labels.”
Explaining that the Republican Party should require no litmus tests, Goldwater explained:
the beauty of this Federal system of ours is in its reconciliation of diversity with unity. We must not see malice in honest differences of opinion, and no matter how great, so long as they are not inconsistent with the pledges we have given to each other in and through our Constitution. Our Republican cause is not to level out the world or make its people conform in computer regimented sameness. Our Republican cause is to free our people and light the way for liberty throughout the world.
It was in that context – between “stupid labels” and the beauty of the American system – that Goldwater added:
“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” — the second part being so often forgotten while the first part so often misinterpreted.
He concluded with the modest thought that conservatives have “a very human cause for very humane goals.”
Perhaps suggesting that he knew victory in November was unlikely, Goldwater went on to note that his 1964 campaign was a first step in a long journey.
This Party, its good people, and its unquestionable devotion to freedom, will not fulfill the purposes of this campaign which we launch here now until our cause has won the day, inspired the world, and shown the way to a tomorrow worthy of all our yesteryears.
Barry Goldwater’s nomination acceptance speech of July 16, 1964, can be viewed in its entirety (or below) on the C-SPAN web site, where you can see people smoking openly on the convention floor.
*Twenty years later, when the Democrats chose the same city for their nominating convention, then-UN Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick repeatedly dripped with contempt the phrase “San Francisco Democrats” in her own GOP convention speech.
My good friend and great Republican, Dick Nixon, and your charming wife, Pat; my running mate, that wonderful Republican who has served us so well for so long, Bill Miller and his wife, Stephanie; to Thurston Morton who’s done such a commendable job in chairmaning this Convention; to Mr. Herbert Hoover, who I hope is watching; and to that — that great American and his wife, General and Mrs. Eisenhower; to my own wife, my family, and to all of my fellow Republicans here assembled, and Americans across this great Nation.
From this moment, united and determined, we will go forward together, dedicated to the ultimate and undeniable greatness of the whole man. Together — Together we will win.
I accept your nomination with a deep sense of humility. I accept, too, the responsibility that goes with it, and I seek your continued help and your continued guidance. My fellow Republicans, our cause is too great for any man to feel worthy of it. Our task would be too great for any man, did he not have with him the hearts and the hands of this great Republican Party, and I promise you tonight that every fiber of my being is consecrated to our cause; that nothing shall be lacking from the struggle that can be brought to it by enthusiasm, by devotion, and plain hard work.
In this world no person, no Party can guarantee anything, but what we can do and what we shall do is to deserve victory, and victory will be ours.
The good Lord raised this mighty Republic to be a home for the brave and to flourish as the land of the free — not to stagnate in the swampland of collectivism, not to cringe before the bullying of communism.
Now, my fellow Americans, the tide has been running against freedom. Our people have followed false prophets. We must, and we shall, return to proven ways — not because they are old, but because they are true. We must, and we shall, set the tides running again in the cause of freedom. And this party, with its every action, every word, every breath, and every heartbeat, has but a single resolve, and that is freedom — freedom made orderly for this Nation by our constitutional government; freedom under a government limited by the laws of nature and of nature’s God; freedom balanced so that order lacking liberty [sic] will not become the slavery of the prison shell [cell]; balanced so that liberty lacking order will not become the license of the mob and of the jungle.
Now, we Americans understand freedom. We have earned it; we have lived for it, and we have died for it. This Nation and its people are freedom’s model in a searching world. We can be freedom’s missionaries in a doubting world. But, ladies and gentlemen, first we must renew freedom’s mission in our own hearts and in our own homes.
During four futile years, the administration which we shall replace has — has distorted and lost that vision. It has talked and talked and talked and talked the words of freedom, but it has failed and failed and failed in the works of freedom.
Now, failures cement the wall of shame in Berlin. Failures blot the sands of shame at the Bay of Pigs. Failures mark the slow death of freedom in Laos. Failures infest the jungles of Vietnam. And failures haunt the houses of our once great alliances and undermine the greatest bulwark ever erected by free nations — the NATO community. Failures proclaim lost leadership, obscure purpose, weakening will, and the risk of inciting our sworn enemies to new aggressions and to new excesses.
And because of this administration we are tonight a world divided; we are a Nation becalmed. We have lost the brisk pace of diversity and the genius of individual creativity. We are plodding along at a pace set by centralized planning, red tape, rules without responsibility, and regimentation without recourse.
Rather than useful jobs in our country, our people have been offered bureaucratic “make work”; rather than moral leadership, they have been given bread and circuses. They have been given spectacles, and, yes, they’ve even been given scandals.
Tonight, there is violence in our streets, corruption in our highest offices, aimlessness amongst our youth, anxiety among our elders, and there’s a virtual despair among the many who look beyond material success for the inner meaning of their lives. And where examples of morality should be set, the opposite is seen. Small men, seeking great wealth or power, have too often and too long turned even the highest levels of public service into mere personal opportunity.
Now, certainly, simple honesty is not too much to demand of men in government. We find it in most. Republicans demand it from everyone. They demand it from everyone no matter how exalted or protected his position might be. Now the — the growing menace in our country tonight, to personal safety, to life, to limb and property, in homes, in churches, on the playgrounds, and places of business, particularly in our great cities, is the mounting concern, or should be, of every thoughtful citizen in the United States.
Security from domestic violence, no less than from foreign aggression, is the most elementary and fundamental purpose of any government, and a government that cannot fulfill this purpose is one that cannot long command the loyalty of its citizens.
History shows us — it demonstrates that nothing, nothing prepares the way for tyranny more than the failure of public officials to keep the streets safe from bullies and marauders.
Now, we Republicans see all this as more, much more, than the result of mere political differences or mere political mistakes. We see this as the result of a fundamentally and absolutely wrong view of man, his nature, and his destiny. Those who seek to live your lives for you, to take your liberties in return for relieving you of yours, those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen must see ultimately a world in which earthly power can be substituted for Divine Will, and this Nation was founded upon the rejection of that notion and upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom.
Now those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. They — and let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions, ladies and gentlemen, of equality. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.
Fellow Republicans, it is the cause of Republicanism to resist concentrations of power, private or public, which — which enforce such conformity and inflict such despotism. It is the cause of Republicanism to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people. And, so help us God, that is exactly what a Republican President will do with the help of a Republican Congress.
It is further the cause of Republicanism to restore a clear understanding of the tyranny of man over man in the world at large. It is our cause to dispel the foggy thinking which avoids hard decisions in the delusion that a world of conflict will somehow mysteriously resolve itself into a world of harmony, if we just don’t rock the boat or irritate the forces of aggression — and this is hogwash.
It is further the cause of Republicanism to remind ourselves, and the world, that only the strong can remain free, that only the strong can keep the peace.
Now, I needn’t remind you, or my fellow Americans regardless of party, that Republicans have shouldered this hard responsibility and marched in this cause before. It was Republican leadership under Dwight Eisenhower that kept the peace, and passed along to this administration the mightiest arsenal for defense the world has ever known. And I needn’t remind you that it was the strength and the [un]believable will of the Eisenhower years that kept the peace by using our strength, by using it in the Formosa Straits and in Lebanon and by showing it courageously at all times.