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Rosewell Page

Well-Ordered Freedom

An Abstract of the Address of the Honorable Rosewell Page, of Richmond, Virginia, to the Graduating Class, June 18, 1913

In an address made a few months ago by a distinguished foreign diplomat (Mr. James Bryce), the following expression with reference to government was used, "Well-ordered freedom."

These words made a deep impression on me and I have taken them as the text of the message I bring you-the Graduating Class of this great College.

Each age must translate freedom into its own terms. The age of Pericles made it Art; that of Augustus, Conquest; that of Constantine, the Church; that of Alfred, Domestic Happiness; that of Elizabeth, National Pride; that of Cromwell, Protestantism; that of Washington, a Republican Form of Representative Government.

The question for us is, What does our age stand for?

To define freedom is like defining life, or love, or truth. It is like the definition of the infinite. It is undefinable.

It is known by its attributes. Its presence is easily recognized and its lack is always evident. The great Law-giver, Justinian, laid down the principles of a well-ordered government to be, to live rightly, to injure no one, and to give to every one that which belonged to him.

The best summary of it that we know is the expression in the Virginia Bill of Rights, asserting certain inherent rights, of which when they enter into a state of society, men cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. But these declarations of right are all to be construed along with the conditions which constitute the social compact and form the basis of civilized society. That is a well-ordered freedom which is based upon the fundamental idea that each individual, by surrendering certain natural rights to a common fund, enjoys a benefit therefrom. The individual, finding it impossible to exercise all the functions which we call government, makes an agreement with his neighbors whereby certain individual rights are surrendered in exchange for certain benefits. And the rights so contributed by all become a common means of happiness and safety.

Having thus contributed this power for the common good, or the common weal, or the common health, or the common wealth, all of which mean the same thing, the question arises, what shall be done with this Commonwealth?

The original surrenderers of their respective shares say, "We will determine this; and we will begin by saying that as each one has surrendered something, each one shall have the right to say what its disposition shall be." But unless there be some agreement and harmony, there can be no result, and it is found best to say that the greater number of those interested, or the majority, shall determine the disposition of this Commonwealth.

Then the question arises: How shall it be administered? One age says, in popular assembly by the direct vote of all the people. Another age says, by the agents which the popular assembly shall appoint. Another age says, not by agents appointed by the popular assembly, but by the agents appointed by the votes of all those interested as they pursue their daily vocations and without bringing them into a common assembly for the purpose of appointing their agents or acting in their own capacity, directly for themselves.

The first is called a pure Democracy; the second is called a representative Democracy, of which the third has been deemed a more efficient form.

In all cases another provision of the above mentioned Bill of Rights must be clearly recognized: that all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; and that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.

It is the disregard of this provision which has at times had a tendency to make men doubt the perpetuity of that well-ordered freedom of which I speak. When those who are trustees and servants assume the mastery, then a well-ordered freedom is endangered.

So, too, when that other provision, "that government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community," is violated, and any guild, society, church, order, or association, undertakes to hold that the protection and security mentioned is for the benefit of its or their respective organization, then there is no well-ordered freedom.

Leaving the terms of the Bill of Rights, but observing its spirit, let us consider what this well-ordered freedom should mean to us as individuals. It should mean freedom from affectation and all its train of ills, of sham and shallowness, and a desire to appear to be something different from what we are. It should mean freedom from care about those things that amount to nothing in reality, but out of which so much unhappiness arises when men begin to take trouble on interest and to anticipate evils that may never arise. It should mean freedom from disease, both to bodies and to minds, that should be healthy and sane and clean and strong. It should mean freedom from sorrow, such as men and women bring upon themselves by that which is so often mistaken for freedom—uncontrolled passion, unbridled license. which from a word so glorious as liberty becomes libertine. It means for the individual, obedience to law, not only the law on the statute books, but the law of good manners and good morals, which mean the same thing. It is that obedience of which a great poet has spoken. when he says:

Three roots bear up dominion: knowledge, will,—
   These twain are strong, but stronger yet the third,
Obedience. 'Tis the great tap root.
   Which knit to the rock of duty, is not stirred,
Though Heav'n-loose tempests use their utmost skill.

The attributes of this well-ordered freedom in individuals as in states must be

Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lead life to sovereign power.
Yet not for power (power of herself
Would come uncall'd for) but to live by law,
Acting the law we live by without fear;
And, because right is right, to follow right Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence.

This well-ordered freedom must include freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of action. This freedom of thought does not mean the free thinker in the religious definition of the word, but it means that free range of the mind which is able to encompass the whole of a subject and see all sides of it. It is the opposite of narrowness. of pettiness, of littleness; it really is broad-mindedness. Freedom of speech means the right to express in clean language one's ideas on all subjects connected with public affairs, and to write about them, subject. however, to the limitation that to injure another by going beyond the proprieties of right conduct, carries a liability to anyone thus injured. Freedom of action is that power which the individual citizen has, called respectively an inherent and an inalienable right, to live and to enjoy liberty and to acquire and own property, and pursue and obtain happiness, subject only to that maxim, that one must so use his own as not to injure that of another.

In order to arrive at the system of well-regulated freedom which we are now discussing, it is necessary that the individual or the community shall have the benefit of education. Mr. Jefferson says, in one of his wisest observations, that it is not possible for any nation to be ignorant and free. What a lesson is this to us. This fact, fortunately, is being recognized by all the nations of the earth. Virginia to-day is spending much of her vast resources upon the education of her people. Of the $7,051,641.00 collected last year by the Auditor of Public Accounts from the revenues of the Commonwealth, 26.6 per cent. went to the public schools of the Commonwealth. Nor does this include the amount raised in the counties by local taxation for county school and district school purposes.

When Mr. Jefferson said that he had sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of error, he was proclaiming a doctrine which was fundamental in the establishment of a well-ordered freedom.

They who recognize the true meaning of well-ordered freedom are not those who would take the law into their own hands. They are not those whose time is spent in abusing a system of laws, but who take no steps to remedy existing evils. They are not those who believe that the labor of all the wise men of all the previous ages has been for naught; but they are those who with knowledge of the past and with wisdom for the present are forecasting the future, and building upon the foundations which have been properly laid, while rejecting whatever is worthless and using only whatever is of value. They who stand for a well-ordered freedom believe in law as the rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme law-making body commanding what is good and forbidding what is bad. They believe

That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.

It has been well said that rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God. And this same well-ordered freedom takes note of that, when the following language is used in the above-mentioned Bill of Rights, "Whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes [of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, etc.] a majority of the community hath an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or to abolish it in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal."

To you graduates of this great school, going forth to do the work of the world, the lesson of a well-ordered freedom is well worth consideration. It is that which has established and made possible the freest and best government ever known among men. The system of government under which we live is theoretically perfect in that it gives the right of government to the community at hand, its powers being commensurate with the needs of the locality, however small, and with the all-embracing scope of the general government, however large that may be. One of the greatest dangers that can beset a free government is the apathy with which intelligent men act towards it. To think that any function of government, however insignificant, is unworthy of the best attention is as if some anatomist should declare some process of the human frame useless because of its littleness. To you educated men, the State and the country have a right to look for leadership and guidance. Not only so, but your magisterial district and the school hard by your dwelling, and the road that runs around your plantation, have each a claim upon you. The world is looking now for experts, men who know something perfectly, and when it finds such a man it will gladly call him to do its work. This work is to be done under law directed by the intelligence and wisdom such as you have become possessed of in the time that you have spent in this great institution.

In one of the greatest eulogies ever pronounced, the following language was used of one of the greatest Virginians, whose whole life stood as an exemplar of what I have undertaken to describe herein as well-ordered freedom—"He was as obedient to law as Socrates." This was said after his death of Robert E. Lee. May this be said of us. And may that law be the well-ordered freedom which I have attempted to describe to you this morning.


From the Bulletin of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute -- The State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Commencement Number, Vol. 6, No. 3, July 1913, pp. 32-36.

Rosewell Page served on the board of visitors from 1912 to 1913. He was from "Oakland," Hanover County, a lawyer in Richmond, a writer, a member of the General Assembly of Virginia, and second auditor of Virginia from 1912-1928. He died in 1939.