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National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 3/The Ties That Bind

The Ties That BindEdit

Our Natural Sympathy with English Traditions, the French Republic, and the Russian Outburst for Liberty

By Senator John Sharp Williams

An address to the U.S. Senate on April 4, 1917, specially revised by Senator Williams for the National Geographic Magazine.

I join the President in having no hostility to the German people. I spent two and a half years of my life with them and I love them—a whole lot of them. The man who inhabits the borders of the Rhine, the man who inhabits Bavaria and Wurttemberg—easily moved to tears, and easily moved to laughter, and easily moved to rage—is a man whom I have learned to love; and I have always believed that this war in Europe, brought on by the obstinate refusal of the Kaiser to leave either to a tribunal of arbitration or to a concert of Europe the question at issue between Austria and Serbia, and inspiring Austria to refusal, is a proof of the truth of the adage, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

I am a little tired, Mr. President, of utterances like that of the Senator in denouncing the Entente powers. Who are the Entente powers? France, “La Belle France,” “Sunny France,” sweet France—the most companionable people on the surface of the earth; the country of Lafayette and Rochambeau and De Grasse; the country of Victor Hugo and Mollière and Racine; the country of the men who imitated our American example when they flung to the breeze banners with “Liberty, equality, fraternity” inscribed upon them, although they carried the banner to a bloody end that was not justified—to a Reign of Terror against those whom they deemed traitors at home—which has been exceeded by the German Reign of Terror in Belgium, greater in atrocity and less provoked.

Then the gentleman undertakes to “twist the British lion's tail.” We have had a whole lot of demagogues who habitually do that. It started soon after the Revolution, but not with those of us whose forefathers fought under George Washington in the Continental line to establish American independence.

The War of Independence was really carried on against the will of the English people by the German king, who happened to be then the King of Great Britain, with hired Hessians, who were also Germans, against the leadership of that greatest Englishman that America ever produced—George Washington.

Edmund Burke, the elder Pitt, who was then Lord Chatham, and Charles James Fox came much nearer representing real English sentiment than the Hanoverian King George III.

Our debt to EnglandEdit

I have a hearty contempt for the man who does not know his environment and his kindred and his friends and his country. It may be narrow, but I love my plantation better than any other plantation, my county better than any other county, my State better than any other State in the Union, and my country better than any other country in the world, and my race—the English-speaking race—better than any other race.

Whence do we get our laws? Whence do we get our literature? Whence do we get our ethical philosophy? Whence do we get our general ideas of religion? From the people who sired our fathers before they came here.

I am tired of men telling me—Welshman, Scotchman, Englishman in blood, as I am—that “the hereditary enemy of the United States is England” or Wales or Scotland—that it is Great Britain. Magna Charta, the Declaration of Rights, the Bill of Rights included in the Constitution in its first ten amendments—the very principles embodied in the Constitution derived from colonial experience under English rule—all come from Britain, a country whose high priest was John Milton, whose sweet singer was Burns, whose great intellect was Shakespeare, whose great warriors for liberty were Hampden and Sidney and Simon de Montfort.

I would rather have heard the Senator eulogize the best offshoots of that branch, and those offshoots right here in Canada and Australia and in South Africa, than to have heard his eulogy of Prussia. They are the branches of the old stock that had the courage to leave their neighborhood and environment and seek out a new habitat and adapt themselves to it, and who won the American fight for liberty and equal opportunity—who, like our ancestors, plowed the field with the rifle on their shoulder, while they held the plow with the other hand. They were English and Scotch and Welsh and Irish.

George Washington was EnglishEdit

It was an Englishman of the Englishmen, as far as his blood is concerned—George Washington, of Mount Vernon—who would have preferred to have the people speak of him as “George Washington of Mount Vernon,” his plantation name, rather than by some other name—who led the American forces that fought against the dictates of a German-blooded king, backed up by Hessian hirelings. George Washington warned against entangling alliances and warned against another thing—an infuriate and insensate hatred of some particular people—because a man with that poison in his blood is incapable of being a real, good American citizen in a country where the melting pot will finally operate.

I do not like the arraignment which the Senator made of the English people or the English Government, even more democratic than our own. I do not like it because it was not correct historically, because it was not true in sentiment, and because it was an insult to the gentlemen from whose loins I sprang, when they themselves fought against people of like blood who wanted to oppress them. What did they fight for? They fought for this—Thomas Jefferson and old Samuel Adams were pretty nearly the only ones of them who then had a larger vision—George Washington and Lincoln and Greene and the balance of them fought for “the inherited rights of Englishmen, belonging,” as they contended, “to Englishmen in America as well as to Englishmen in England.” Those “inherited rights of Englishmen” were expressed in the Constitution of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams had a bit broader vision and view; they went a bit farther; and Thomas Jefferson's vision went into the Declaration of Independence, which includes not only the rights of Englishmen, but “the rights of man,” which were later embodied in the Declaration of the French Republic.

Our dislike of arroganceEdit

Somebody said to me the other day, “You seem to be angry and in a passion about this German question,” and I said, “I am.” Next to the indignation of God is the righteous indignation of a true man with a soul in him and red blood, instead of bluish milk, in his veins, against the German assumption of German superiority and arrogance and injury and insult; but, above all, insult.

I know it will sound to a lot of you curious, but the thing I believe that I resent most is what Germany said to us about painting our ships like the display window of a barber shop, when we could go, by her allowance, once a week into one port in one country, more than I do even the sinking of our ships and the drowning of our citizens. I think nearly every gentleman resents insult more than he resents injury. A man who comes upon my place and goes through a pathway that is not a public highway, or who incidentally destroys some property that is growing, I can forgive; but one who comes up to me and tells me that he is going to do it whenever he pleases, because he is stronger than I am, is a man whom I cannot forgive.

Germany thought she was stronger than we; and she is right just now. These ready nations assume a great deal in connection with the unready nations. We two branches of the English-speaking race—across the sea and here—have always been unready for war, thank God, and shall remain so, because we think it is better to call out the full power of the people when the emergency comes than it is to keep them weighted down for 20 years in order to do one year's fighting. As a rule, people do one year's fighting out of each 20 years of their actual existence. We have done less, of course.

Which would you rather do—fight Prussia now, with France and England and Russia to help you, or fight her later, when she is foot-loose, by ourselves? You have got to do one or the other.

A whole lot of people tell me that the nations of the Entente are bound to win the war in Europe. I tell you they are not. I tell you that with that line, almost like a right-angle triangle, with a salient here, with Robert E. Lee behind that line, with a capacity to reinforce one part of it from the other, while the enemy has to go all around, he would win that war.

I tell you, furthermore, that the Italian barrier cannot be protected if there are enough German people put in, and when once it is broken France will be attacked upon the south—unfortified and undefended—on the Italian side.

I tell you, moreover, that if Germany does win that fight upon the Continent of Europe—with Belgium already a vassal State, Holland to become one, France likewise, by defeat—with all their forts and naval stations and shipyards open as well as her own, she will begin to get ready to whip us, unless England's fleet prevents it.

Now, Great Britain can, by sea-power, defend herself almost indefinitely—defend herself long enough for us to get ready to help her defend us. You can put it in your pipe and smoke it—this fact: whether you are going to fight Prussia now, with assistance, or whether you are going to fight her later, when we have no assistance, you have got to fight her.

The other neutral nationsEdit

Then the Senator says that “the other neutral nations are not taking the course that we are taking.” No; they are not. But why? There is Norway, the land of the free and the brave, and the true country whence the Normans came and whence almost all the blue blood of Europe's rulers came. Why does not Norway resent these insults? Oh, Mr. President, it is a sad and tragic thing; but Norway is too weak. Why does not Denmark act? Because her very hands are in the mouth of the mad dog.

Why does not Holland act? Again, because she dares not. German troops are lined across her border, ready to walk over her prostrate body as they walked over the body of Belgium; to shoot her civilians if they express sympathy for themselves against the German enemy; to burn down her schools, her libraries, and her cathedrals, as the Germans burned down those in Belgium. Holland is cowed.

A brave race are the Dutch. They faced Spain in its pride and power, with the help of England. They fought and died for liberty to speak and to worship. But, Mr. President, almost any people in the world, no matter how brave, now and then can be cowed and for a time act like whipped slaves. It is the most tragic and pathetic thing in all history when that happens either to a man or to a nation.

I have spoken of France; I have spoken of Great Britain. How about Russia? Up to a short time ago, so far as Russia is concerned, any animadversions that the Senator chose to make would have met with a good deal of sympathy upon my part; but once more I see a people throwing off their shackles, who have at last “declared” that they are free. Time will test the question whether they can prove that they are worthy to be free or not; but they have at least expressed the desire and the intention to be free, and, as a rule, where the desire and the intention go, the fact exists.

We have got to go into this war now, and we are going into it for all we are worth, for all our capital is worth, for all our bodies are worth, for all that we have and all that we are; and I, for one, hope that we will never make peace until the universal decree of the civilized world has gone forth to the effect that the Hapsburgers and the Hohenzollerns have ceased to reign.

The Hohenzollerns have been able; they have been efficient; they have been all that; but a race infected with the poisonous idea that it is ruling by divine ordinance is crazy.

Source: John Sharp Williams (March 1917), “The Ties That Bind: Our Natural Sympathy with English Traditions, the French Republic, and the Russian Outburst for Liberty”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(3): 281–286.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1932, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.