Address of President David O. McKay

at Brigham Young University

February 22, 1944

This address was delivered before the students of the Brigham Young University at Provo, Utah, with members of the Armed Forces enrolled at the school as special guests on George Washington’s Birthday, Tuesday, February 22, 1944.

Righteousness exalteth a nation;

but sin is a reproach to any people."

[1] If one of you students in geometry were requested to demonstrate that the square on the hypotenuse of a right angle triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, you could prove the proposition in a few minutes. You students in chemistry can perform a chemical experiment, the results of which are plainly apparent to all, in the brief time of a class period. But to prove that "righteousness exalteth a nation, and that sin is a reproach to any people" may take centuries, yet the latter is just as inevitably demonstrable as your proposition in geometry or your chemical experiment. Two principal factors contribute to the "righteousness" of a people: (1) sterling integrity in the citizenry and in officials who are above corrupting influences; and (2) the fundamental ideals for which the Nation stands.

Today we join with one hundred thirty million other United States citizens to honor the father of our country born two hundred and twelve years ago. In his boyhood and youth, George Washington, as hundreds of other British subjects, living in a new world, found himself free to choose whatever mode of life seemed most desirable. He and others in the new world found few if any restraints in their getting a livelihood by any legitimate means they chose. They were conscious of any individualism, and independence of spirit. Their souls were their own. Thus almost unconsciously, but inevitably the Colonists imbibed the spirit of individual freedom. When, therefore, they perceived an attempt to deprive them of this inherent right and privilege, they could, in keeping with their own honor, do nothing else but resist.

Washington loved the peace and the tranquil joys of his Mt. Vernon estate; but duty called him into the turmoil of public life. From youth he grew up to be a man of peace; yet he was [2] given the appellation of "First in War." He was not so brilliant in intellect as others of his brilliant contemporaries; "he had no pretensions to that vivacity which fascinates or to that wit which dazzles, and frequently imposes on the understanding"; yet, in the words of General Henry Lee who knew him intimately, and who loved him almost to adoration: "When our monuments shall be done away; when nations now existing shall be no more; when even our young and far-spreading empire shall have perished; still will our Washington's glory unfaded shine, and die not, until love of virtue cease on earth, and earth itself sinks into chaos."

Why did this peace-loving, even-tempered man take to war, and win undying fame as a general?

Wherein lies the secret of his greatness?

Two Conflicting Ideologies

To answer these question intelligently, it will be well for us to recognize in humanity's struggle to achieve happiness two conflicting ideologies:

One,--Government by Force; the other--Government by Popular Consent.

The first is the law of the jungle; the second, the law of mutual consideration. The first, is the application of selfishness; the second, an attempt to apply Christ's law of "love your neighbor as yourself."

Illustration of the First

Some of you on a quiet summer evening in the past have sat on benches provided for spectators at the feeding grounds of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. As trucks withdrew after unloading the garbage, you saw a dozen or more black bears scold, scratch, and struggle for the food thus provided. Then a proud grizzly appeared on the scene. As he approached with the air of a conqueror, the black bears scampered, leaving to him and his grizzly associates all the spoils of the garbage feast. Might was conqueror, the weak subdued and frightened.

That is the law of the jungle.

Illustration of the Law of Helpfulness

A few years ago, after years of intensive research, laborious labor, and extreme self-denial, Pierre and Madame Curie discovered a new element in the universe. There came a moment in their lives when they faced the ques- [3] tion whether they should use their discovery for their own aggrandizement or whether they should give it gratuitously for the benefit of mankind. Said Pierre one Sunday morning to Madame Curie: "We have a choice between two solutions. We can describe the results of our research without reserve, including the processes of purification..."

Marie made a mechanical gesture of approval and murmured:

"Yes, naturally."

"Or else," Pierre went on, "we can consider ourselves to be the proprietors, the `inventors' of radium. In this case it would be necessary, before publishing exactly how you worked to treat pitchblende, to patent the technique and assure ourselves in that way of rights over the manufacture of radium throughout the world."

Marie reflected a few seconds, then said: "It is impossible. It would be contrary to the scientific spirit."

"I think so, too," replied Pierre, "but I do not want this decision to be taken lightly. Our life is hard--and it threatens to be hard forever. We have a daughter; perhaps we may have other children. For them, and for us, this patent would represent a great deal of money, a fortune. It would be comfort made certain, and the suppression of drudgery..."

"And," as his face lighted up, "we could have a fine laboratory, too."

Marie's gaze grew fixed. She steadily considered this idea of gain, of material compensation. Almost at once she rejected it.

"Physicists always publish their researches completely. If our discovery has a commercial future, that is an accident by which we must not profit. And radium is going to be of use in treating disease...It seems to me impossible to take advantage of that."

Twenty years later Madame Curie said: "Pierre Curie decided to take no material profit from our discovery. In consequence we took out no patent and we have published the results of our research without reserve, as well as the processes of preparation of radium. Moreover, we gave interested persons all the information they requested." Then, realizing how slow true progress is, she said:

"No one of us can do much, yet each of us perhaps can catch some gleam of knowledge, which modest and insufficient to itself, may add to man's dream of truth. It is by these small candles that we see before us little by little the dim outlines of that great plan which shapes the [4] universe, and I am among those who think that for this reason science is ever hopeful, and with its great spiritual strength will in time cleanse this world of its evils, its ignorance, its poverty, diseases, war, and heartaches." That illustrates the ideal of mutual helpfulness.

Evidence of Political Chicanery

Recently a gentleman well informed with regard to the international conflict now raging gave me a glimpse behind the curtain where diplomats use nations as chess players use their pawns. From this point of view there had been duplicity, chicanery, double-crossing on the part of men who held in their hands the destiny of nations.

"What!" I exclaimed, "is there no integrity among the leaders of these mighty nations?" If not, then civilization is doomed, for the law of retribution is as eternally active as the law of compensation. It is as true now as always that "righteousness exalteth a nation, and sin is a reproach to any people." There is but the bright hope shining through the dark clouds of this global war: That it will crush wicked principles, and make more potent righteous ideals.

Washington believed in giving every man a fair chance.

Why, then, did this lover of peace become a warrior? Because George the Third was a tyrant, an enemy to truths, which to the colonists were self-evident: "That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

And for this same ideal--liberty and free agency of man--the Allies are struggling today against the spirit of despotism and the jungle vile.

The Secret of Washington's Greatness

Now we may answer the second question--Wherein is the secret of Washington's greatness?

It was Washington's character more than his brilliancy of intellect that made him the choice of all as their natural leader when the thirteen original colonies decided to sever their connection with the mother country. As one in eulogy the father of our country truly said: "When he appeared among the eloquent orators, the ingenious thinkers, the vehement patriots of the [5] Revolution, his modesty and temperate profession could not conceal his superiority; he at once, by the very nature of his character, was felt to be their leader."

I. Traits of Character Exemplified in Washington's Life

If, in search of the secret of his greatness, we were to analyze Washington's character, I would name as one outstanding virtue--An unassumed modesty.

Though others united in choosing him as the one best fitted for the position to which he was called, he never felt himself as being indispensable. In his letter of acceptance as the commander-in-chief, he said:

"If any event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with."

With a total absence of arrogance he accepted the calling and the appointment as an opportunity to serve his country. He would accept no pecuniary consideration. He refused any compensation, saying that he would keep an exact account of his expenses, which the government no doubt would discharge, and that was all he desired.

II. A Second Outstanding Quality was an Unwavering Strength

To do what He Thought was Right

Says his dear friend, Major General Henry Lee: "Commencing his administration, what heart has not charmed with the recollection of the pure and wise principles announced by himself as the basis of his political life? He best understood the indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the sordid rewards of public prosperity and individual felicity."

III. A Third Value Contributive to his Greatness

Was Moral Uprightness

Said one in eulogy: "His morality was built up in warring with outward temptations and inward passions. Every grace of his conscience was a trophy of toil and struggle. He had [6] no moral opinions which hardened experience and sturdy discipline had not vitalized into moral sentiments, and organized into moral powers. These powers fixed and seated in the inmost heart of his character, were mighty and near-sighted forces which made his intelligence moral and his morality intelligent, and which no sorcery of the selfish passions could overcome or deceive."

IV. He had a Sense of Responsibility to Others

He gave forty-five years of his life to his country, asking nothing in return but the privilege of enjoying his home in peace at Mt. Vernon.

V. He Possessed Calmness in Storms and Fearlessness under Insults, Slander and Misrepresentation

December 17, 1777 Washington's Army was at Winter Quarters in Valley forge, about twenty-two miles from Philadelphia. He had fewer than ten thousand men, three hundred of whom deserted to the British. The soldiers were thinly clad, and some half naked. Others with no clothing but tattered blankets wrapped around them. So many were sick as the result of deprivations, and so many were without coats, blankets, hats, or shoes, that one wonders how the army held together at all.

Under this stress of critical, desperate condition, it must have seemed to Washington that he was abandoned not only by Congress, then in session at York, but also by most of his friends as well. John Adams had turned against him. So also had Richard Henry Lee. General Gates insulted him by sending reports direct to Congress instead of to Washington, his superior officer.

As carrions hover around a dying creature, in Washington's dire calamity came men to seek to crush him--men who formed what has been called the "Conway Cabal," a contemptible attempt to dishonor Washington, and to supplant him by a self-asserting, arrogant blasphemer. Falsehoods most damnable appeared in print. Lies fell like froth from unclean mouths.

In the midst of all this, Washington's imperturbable conduct makes his character shine in immortal glory.

"As some tall cliff that lifts its upward form

Swells the veil and midway leaves the storm

Though round its base, the roaring clouds are spread

Eternal sunshine settles on his head."

[7] Washington's generosity was shown also, for in after years he never let the memory of this plot influence him in his relations with the men who had taken part in it.

Only Justifications for War

Washington took up the sword in defense of the only two principles that justify war.

(1) Justifiable resistance to attempts to dominate and deprive others of their free agency.

(2) Loyalty to one's country.

Man's free agency is fundamental to progress. An attempt to rob him of his free agency caused contention even in heaven.

In that rebellion Lucifer said in substance: By the law of force I will compel the human family to subscribe to the eternal plan, but give me thine honor and power. To deprive an intelligent human being of his free agency is to commit the crime of the ages.

Impelling motives of this arch-enemy to liberty were pride, ambition, a sense of superiority, a will to dominate his fellows, and to be exalted above them, and a determination to deprive human beings of their freedom to speak and to act as their reason and judgment would dictate.

So fundamental in man's eternal progress is his inherent right to choose that the Lord would defend it even at the price of war. Without freedom of thought, freedom of choice, freedom of action within lawful bounds man cannot progress. The Lord recognized this, and also the fact that it would take man thousands of years to make the earth habitable for self-governing individuals. Throughout the ages advanced souls have yearned for a society in which liberty and justice prevail. Men have sought for it, fought for it, have died for it. Ancient freemen prized it, slaves longed for it, the Magna Charta demanded it, the Constitution of the United States declared it.

"This love of liberty which God has planted in us," said Abraham Lincoln, "constitutes the bulwark of our liberty and independence. It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling seacoasts, our army, and our navy. Our defense is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and we have planted the seeds of despotism at our very doors."

Loyalty to Government

A second obligation that impelled Washington, and that impels us to become participants [8] in this world-war is loyalty to the government. The Doctrine and Covenants states that "We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that He holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society.

"We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life."

Responsibility of State to Protect its Citizens

The greatest responsibility of the state is to guard the lives, and to protect the property and rights of its citizens; and if the state is obligated to protect its citizens from lawlessness within its boundaries, it is equally obligated to protect them from lawless encroachment from without--whether the attacking criminals be individuals or nations.

We are informed by competent authority that over twenty years ago the government of the United States entered into an agreement with Japan to maintain peace in the Pacific Ocean, and "keep honorable hands off China." "Before the year was over," writes Mark J. Gayn, in an article "Prelude to Treachery," "The ablest men on the Japanese Naval General Staff went to work blue-printing war on the United States and Britain."

As I have said on another occasion, from such treachery the state is in duty bound to protect itself, and its only effective means of doing so under present world conditions is by armed force. As a Church "we believe that all men are justified in defending themselves, their friends, and property, and the government from the unlawful assaults and encroachments of all persons in times of exigency, where immediate appeal cannot be made to laws, and relief afforded."

Duty to Combat Evil

Even though we sense the hellish origin of war, even though we feel confident that war will never end war, yet, under existing conditions, we find ourselves as a body committed to combat this evil thing. With other loyal [9] citizens we serve our country as bearers of arms, rather than to stand aloof to enjoy a freedom for which others have fought and died.

Allied Soldiers fighting for an Eternal Principle

My purpose in emphasizing this theme today is to give encouragement to young men now engaged in armed conflict and to reassure them that they are fighting for an eternal principle fundamental to human progress and peace.

Again I say, God bless them and others now registered awaiting the call to duty, and those serving in defense! To each of you we send a message of confidence and trust. Many of you before entering upon your military duties were authorized messengers of peace. Others of you also hold the Priesthood. To all we say, in your personal habits let the same ideals guide you as soldiers in the army as guided you as missionaries. What the Lord said to you then is applicable to you now--"Wherefore gird up your loins, and take upon you my whole armor, that ye may be able to withstand the evil day, having done all, that ye may be able to stand.

"Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace."

Keep yourselves morally clean. Being soldiers or sailors is not justification for indulgence in vulgarity, intemperance, or immorality. Others may be impelled to do these things because of the beastliness of war, but you who hold the Priesthood cannot so indulge with impunity. For your own sweet lives, and for others who believe in you, keep yourselves unpolluted. As you do, your comrades will respect you, your officers will admire you, your loved ones will forever trust you.


America was a great land before Columbus discovered her island outposts; great when the Indian tribes roamed from the Bering Sea to the Gulf. It was a great land when Governor Dinwoodey sent George Washington, only 21 years of age, on the perilous expedition into the Ohio Valley.

Today America is even more glorious than ever! No observer can travel from the sunkissed beaches of the Pacific to the wooded [10] hills and power-producing rivers of New England without being thrilled by the greatness of these United States. The painted deserts of the West, flower-carpeted in springtime, and holding hidden beauty and entrancing the interest in every season--the inspiring monuments of the Rockies, harboring snows as reservoirs for crops in valleys below--the colorful canyons, painted only by the Creator Himself--the fertile food-producing valley of the Mississippi--the mighty forests of the Northwest--the navigable rivers--the climate, varying to suit all seeds and conditions--all these and a thousand other equally glorious and productive features bear witness to the age-old declaration that this is a "land choice above all other lands," and inspire every patriot to say: "This is my own, my native land." Millions of Americans today declare with Winthrop: "Our country to be cherished in all our hearts, to be defended by all our hands."

Today, yielding to the demands of the greatest economic era since the dawn of her creation, America is demonstrating the vastness of her resources and the extent of her natural possibilities as never before. Well may we sing:

"I love thy rocks and rills,

Thy woods and templed hills:

My heart with rapture thrills:

Like that above."

This country is not only the choicest of all lands, but the preserver of true liberty, and the hope of civilized man!

However, a country may be ever so great and fruitful, yet a nation subsisting upon it be impotent and decadent. As Lyman Abbot has truly said:

"The greatness of a nation is measured not by its fruitful acres; not by great forests, but by the men who use those forests; not by its mines, but by the men who work them."

God has made America fruitful; man must make and keep the nation great.

"And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them: therefore, they shall never be brought down unto captivity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever." (II Nephi 1:7)

McKay, David O. "An Enduring Civilization Must Be Built Upon Integrity." In an address delivered at Brigham Young University on George Washington's Birthday, 22 February 1944, by Brigham Young University. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1944.

(See BYU Special Collections, Americana BX 8698. A1a no. 4737)