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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37

"Compulsory Education."

"Compulsory Education."

[Substance of an address to the First Independent Society of Toledo, Oct. 1,1871.]

"But, Jove all-bounteous, who, in clouds
En wrapt, the lightning wieldest!
Mayest thou from baneful Ignorance
The race of men deliver!
This, Father, scatter from the soul,
And grant that we the wisdom
May reach, in confidence of which
Thou justly guidest all things.
Cleanthes, Hymn to Jupiter.

"The discipline of our Public Schools, wherein punctuality and regularity are enforced and the pupils are continually taught to suppress mere self-will and inclination, is the best school of morality. Self-control is the basis of all moral virtues, and industrious and studious habits are the highest qualities we can form in our children. A free, self-conscious, self-controlled manhood is to be produced only through universal public education at public cost; and as this is the object of our government, it is proper for our government to provide this means and at the cost of the people."

william T. Harris. How Far may the State Provide for the Education of her Children at Public Cost? An Essay read before the National Educational Association, St. Louis, Aug. 23,1871.

One of the three fundamental principles upon which the Toledo Liberal Alliance was organized last summer is—"Free and universal education to be provided and enforced by the State." This is the essential meaning of what is commonly called' Compulsory education"—a phrase which, as used by enlightened men, is too often misunderstood, and page 2 therefore is in some respects an unfortunate one. It is the purpose of the present essay to consider this whole subject in a broad light, and, so far as is possible, to remove some of the misconceptions which now obscure it. One of the "Fifty Affirmations" states that—"The great practical means of Free Religion is the integral, continuous, and universal education of man;" integral, as embracing the cultivation of all the powers and capacities of human nature in their due proportions; continuous, as never ceasing while life lasts; universal, as being extended to all members of the human race. In no other way, I conceive, will it be possible to realize the great end of Free Religion—"the perfection or complete devolopment of man." The subject on which I intend to speak, therefore, is one strictly and peculiarly appropriate to this platform; for I know of no question which better deserves to be called religious, if the true essence of religion is the active effort to develop and perfect humanity in all directions. Only by education can the individual be brought to realize the ideal of personal harmony with the great, universal system of Nature; and only by education can society be brought to realize the ideal of a social system which shall aim first and last at the universal prevalence of such harmony throughout the world. Each for all—all for each; education is the road to this grand consummation of human life.

The most dangerous enemy of republican institutions is ignorance. Even crime is a smaller peril. Educated criminals are comparatively rare, and their power for mischief would be slight but for their influence over the uneducated. The great majority of educated men and women are peaceable, orderly, well-behaved citizens; and the occasional Ruloffs are only the exceptions making good the rule. But ignorance is of itself the precursor to crime, and almost the necessitator of it, in a community where the average intelligence is high. All doors to wealth and distinction being shut to the ignorant man, he is doomed by his very ignorance to poverty, and poverty, with its privations and heart-burnings and despairs, drives him too often into crime. In fact, the higher you raise the average of education in any community, the more dangerous and demoralizing page 3 you thereby make the influences, of ignorance. Crimes, it is said, are rare among the uncivilized, careless, uniformly ignorant tribes of Africa; they have multiplied with our so-called civilization because our civilization has only reached a part of our people. Wherever you find high civilization and low barbarism co-existent in one place, as in Paris or New York, there you find a very hot bed of crime. The only safety to any social system lies in making the people homogeneous, undivided into classes of wide extremes, and unracked by social jealousies. There is no future for a stratified civilization. If the great law of solidarity is broken, Nature revenges herself in social outbreaks and upheavals. Hence the terrible peril to our republic, if we suffer the gradual formation of a large minority within it who are sunk in poverty and ignorance. We shall doom our government to sure destruction, unless we can discover and apply some means of making our people homogeneous—to a reasonable extent equalized on a high common level of intelligence and competence. Of course there will be disparities; but there must be no despairs.

What more frightful warning could we have had of our growing danger, than the present condition of New York City? The ignorant classes have so multiplied there as to hold supreme political power. Knaves and rogues have fastened upon their natural prey; and the Tammany King is the result. The same fate awaits every other city in America in which the same conditions shall obtain. A mob like that so fortunately put down in New York last July exists in embryo in every town of considerable size throughout the land. This fact, so full of menace to our institutions, is partly due to the great flood of immigration from the Old World, but also in part to our own deficient system of education. What right have we to allow a whole generation of "street Arabs" to grow up in our cities? These boys and girls are American born and bred; but instead of growing up to be worthy American citizens, they are ripening for the penitentiary and the gallows. The roughs and rowdies of the metropolis have been the body-guard of Tweed and Sweeny, Connolly and Hall and their accomplices; but it is the vast mass of uneducated voters of the city, in- page 4 nocent of great crimes, that has given them the power. Without the ignorance of the many, the crimes of the few could never have grown to such monstrous and horrible proportions. Let us recognize the fact that it is general ignorance, far more than occasional criminality, that is sapping the foundations of our American commonwealth. Remove the ignorance, and the crimes will be very easy to suppress.

Now our system of free schools is the only weapon we have with which to conquer this gigantic demon of ignorance. It is worth infinitely more than whole armies of policemen and militia-men; for, instead of shooting down rioters and hunting down public peculators, it prevents the development of their crimes by educating the masses into citizens too orderly and intelligent to be made tools. Free and universal education will flank the moral evils that are now invading the republic as the hordes of Huns and Goths and Vandals invaded the Roman Empire. Yet, sad and alarming as is the confession, there is a great and rapidly increasing opposition to our free school system which must be put down, or our future will be black as ink. A recent writer in Harper's Weekly has made the following statements:—

No more alarming fact appears in the condition of our city—not even the gross corruption of its rulers and the total decay of public morality—than that its free school system has received a fatal blow. Its children are ceasing to attend school. Each year the usual increase in attendance has been three or four thousand; but since 1868 has scarcely been as many hundred. Population advances, but the number of pupils in the public schools remains nearly unchanged. Should this condition of things continue, it is easy to see that in a few years the system of general education must sink into decay, and wholly fail to supply the basis of intelligence and virtue upon which all free government must rest. To destroy our free schools, and perhaps our free institutions, has been for many years the constant aim of the extreme section of the Romish Church. The Romish Church has become identified with the society of Loyola; the Jesuits rule at Rome; the daring and aggressive spirit of that singular body has found a suitable instrument in the Irish Catholics; the Irish Catholics govern New York. Such is the unhappy condition of our free city that the priestly influence which has page 5 been cast off with abhorrence in all foreign lands—except perhaps, in distracted France—has thrown its blight upon the very sources of our advancing intelligence and prosperity. In Italy a vigorous free school system has been introduced in defiance of the intrigues of the priests or the anathemas of the Pope. In Rome itself, beneath the shadow of the Vatican, education is open to all. Spain is slowly imitating Italy. It is scarcely three years since fifteen hundred school-masters, the most valuable and progressive portion of the Austrian population, met in an assembly at Vienna, and demanded from the government the perfect freedom of the public schools. Their request was granted; education was relieved from the intolerable burden of priestly interference; the Pope in vain hurled anathema or allocution against the rising intelligence of the people.

"But while Vienna, Madrid, and Rome have, with signal courage, defied the spiritual and temporal power of their former tyrants, the Irish Catholics, the last adherents of the infallible Pope, have made haste to lay New York at his feet. Of all the great capitals ours is the only one that is priest-ridden. The Jesuits and the Irish appoint our Mayor and Controller, our judges and Police Commissioners, the Board of Aldermen, the Board of Education; and the Results of this Catholic rule have become apparent in such enormous peculation, such a wide system of daring robbery, such a rapid growth of crime, such rulers and such officials, as have scarcely been known in the worst governed capitals of Europe. The poor are ground down by an intolerable taxation; corrupt officials in uncounted numbers plunder the people at will; the Romish Church grasps its full share of the spoil. In Madrid, Rome, and Florence, so recently the centres of priestly intolerance, the indignant people have confiscated the ill-gotten gains of the Church, sold monasteries, convents, Jesuit colleges, and abbey lands, and applied their proceeds to the relief of the embarrassed nation. In New York, within a few years, Romish colleges, and convents, churches, hospitals, and cathedrals, have sprung up startling numbers, and were paid for, either secretly or openly, from the already bankrupt treasury of the city. Already we need a Henry VIII, to break up our monasteries, and may well imitate the example of Italy or Spain.

The power thus nefariously acquired by the Catholics has been steadily and remorselessly directed against our free school system, and with alarming, success, as shown by the relative decrease of attendance in New York. The Catholic papers I read are page 6 fall of denunciations of our free schools. They clamor for a division of the school funds, which would be the destruction of the entire school system. They dread the enlargement of knowledge, because it breaks the fetters of ecclesiastical rule. They oppose all schools in which the Catholic religion is not drilled into the children's minds. They anathematize all free thought, as sure to lead to perdition. They oppose all real education and independence of intellect, because these cannot be made subservient to Catholic supremacy. They seek to foster and spread public ignorance, that the Church may gain in America the power it had in the Dark Ages, but is losing in Europe day by day.

Now this assault by the Catholics on our free schools, which are almost secular in character, is blindly seconded by most of our Protestant sects. They insist on retaining the Bible in the schools, and have nearly as great a horror of strictly secular education as the Catholics. Even the Christian Union, the organ of Henry Ward Beecher, who is surely as liberal an Evangelical preacher as can well be found, thus denounces the exclusion of religious exercises from our colleges:—"If, to avoid offending the Christian denominations, it be necessary thus to minify or dismiss spiritual culture from our higher schools, it were better that each church endow its own school, build high walls, raise its flag bravely, cease to apologize for, and begin to inculcate religion. Colleges that are stridulously sectarian were a less evil than colleges without piety and without God." When the most liberal of Protestants is thus found echoing the Catholic cry against secular education, what clear mind can resist the conclusion that such education is opposed by the very genius of Christianity itself, and that the secular system of instruction, the only possible system that can be really free, must depend for its defence at last upon those who have practically ceased to be governed by Christianity? I cannot help seeing that the issue is slowly making up between Christianity and ignorance, on the one hand, and Free Religion and knowledge on the other. Men may think me wild and fanatical and absurd in coming to this conclusion but not many years hence I believe that thousands upon thousands will agree with me in it. The page 7 great battle between free, universal education and the Catholic Church is growing every day more and more imminent; and it will cleave the Protestants into two distinct parties. One portion must side with the Catholics against our free schools, the other with us in defence of them.

Ignorance, then, is the great foe of republican institutions; and Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, is on its side. All that are free and freedom-loving in this nation, all that are in favor of republican principles and republican goverment, will be called to battle with this terrible enemy as never before. Nay, the hour has already come; and if we would not be surrounded and captured, we must grapple the foe to-day. What shall be our tactics—what the plan of our campaign in defence of a commonwealth based on freedom and knowledge and virtue?

The remedy for misgovernment by ignorance proposed by many radicals is the limitation of suffrage by an educational qualification. "Let no one vote who cannot read and write, and let us thus preserve the nation from the vast wave of ignorance that is about to break over it." I am sorry to see that even so able and clear a thinker as Mr. Conway joins in this demand:—"Democracy in America has shown itself to have been the effort of society to pass from an arbitrary to a natural classification. No sooner has the last vestige of the unreal aristocracy disappeared with the slaveholding class, than Radicalism starts forward with the demand for an educational qualification in the suffrage. To demand that every voter shall be able to read is little; but when readers alone are electors, the standard must ascend." [The Earthward Pilgrimage p. 393.] If I rightly understand this passage, Mr. Conway favors the reading-and-writing condition of suffrage—not as sufficient, it is true, but as at least advisable so far as it goes.

On the contrary, I consider this supposed demand of "Radicalism" as a very great and dangerous error. I have several reasons.

1. The educational test cures nothing. It does not abolish the great evil of ignorance, or even tend to abolish it. It rather tends to perpetuate it, for no disfranchised class is properly cared for or edu- page 8 cated by a dominant class. So long as the ignorance of the masses visibly endangers life and property and the stability of society, as is the case so long as ignorance votes, vast efforts will be made to educate ignorance. But deprive it of all political power, and it will be left to its own devices, to grow more and more ignorant and wretched still. The educational test would have the effect of leaving the cancer to grow unchecked in the body politic until death or violent revolution should become inevitable. The danger of having a disfranchised class in the community is enormous; and it is a great mistake to suppose that the desire of voting would be a sufficient motive to induce the ignorant voters in our cities to learn to read and write. Once having been enfranchised, they would now be embittered and exasperated by subsequent disfranchisement; and a large body of politically discontented people in any community is most perilous to its peace. The limitation of suffrage would not cure the evil of ignorance. At most this would only confine it for a season, oblivious of the certainty of its ultimately wreaking a dreadful revenge for its temporary repression. What is wanted is a radical cure, not a momentary and shallow expedient.

2. The knowledge of mere reading and writing, even if made a condition of suffrage, would not secure us from ignorant suffrage. Millions of ignorant people can read and write, while not a few intelligent people cannot. No conceivable test of intelligence would exclude ignorant voters from the polls, unless you should make it so stringent a one as to exclude a very large per cent. of the population—an evil even greater than that which now exists. The impracticability of applying the reading-and writing test in any fair or efficient manner does but enhance the difficulty.

3. The "Radicalism" which fails to perceive that this country is irrevocably pledged and committed to strictly universal suffrage (including woman suffrage in the near future) is not worthy of the name. This country is destined to be ruled by the whole people, and we may as well recognize the fact early as late. Revolutions do not often go back; and to expect a voluntary surrender of political power by any portion of the population is preposterous. Who page 9 will be the Sir Archibald Bell-the-Cat to attempt to disfranchise the Irish voters of New York city? All speculations and propositions to limit suffrage in any way beyond its existing limitations are utterly visionary. The tendency is all the other way, and ought to be. Women must vote before very long; and the talk about an educational qualification for the ballot either for men or women is wasted breath. Not thus can the perils to our political future from wide-spread ignorance be averted.

4. All people, in fine, who conduct themselves as well-behaved citizens, whether ignorant or not, have a right to a voice in the country's government. The virtuous have no inherent right to govern the vicious, nor the educated the ignorant; so long as the vicious or the ignorant keep out of jail, they have a right to a share in the government, and we must make the best of it. The injustice of usurpation is a very poor remedy for the evil of ignorance. Those who can read and write are not a divinely constituted aristocracy to govern the rest of mankind. Criminals who break the laws may be disfranchised as a penalty; but the worst criminals frequently escape all punishment, because they cannot be caught or proved guilty. Yet a test of character would be far less unjust than a test of intelligence, as a condition of suffrage. Neither, however, would be just; and we must make up our minds to universal suffrage as the people's right, and therefore as a fixed fact for all time. The strongest argument against the educational condition is its intrinsic injustice; and the next strongest is the absolute impossibility of establishing it.

No—the remedy for the public evils of popular ignorance lies in an entirely different direction. Political power must, by natural justice and the logic of American ideas, be diffused throughout the whole people; but the safeguard against the great perils of its abuse must be sought in universal education. The whole people must be raised to such a level of intelligence that they shall use their power wisely. Suffrage must be universal; but Education Must at All Costs be Made as Universal as Suffrage. Whatever stands in the way of universal education, whether private caprice and selfishness and stupidity or organized hostility from foreign page 10 excrescences on our civilization, must be trampled under foot. If the Catholic Church, or the Protestant Church, or both combined, get in the way of the free, universal education of the American people, so much the worse for them. Such opposition is the worst possible treason against the Great Re-public; and whether it attempts to justify itself by the authority of the Church or Bible,—whether it makes its assault in the name of God or man,—it must be put down as sternly as the Slaveholders' Rebellion was put down. And it will be. Once convince the people that they must fairly choose between Christianity and Freedom, between the Church and Education, and the issue is fore-ordained by the nature of things. The contest may be long and sharp; but the result is sure. This continent is sacred to Liberty, to Knowledge, to Virtue; and they will triumph over all their foes.

It may seem that I have had very little to say about "compulsory education" thus far. But I could not really treat the subject till I had dwelt on the great evil of ignorance that threatens us, and the absolute necessity of applying at all hazards an adequate remedy to it. It is popular ignorance that necessitates universal education; and the promised panacea for the mischiefs of ignorant government which is now in high favor with some liberals, namely, limitation of suffrage by an educational qualification, needed first of all to be exposed, it is a quack medicine which has been hastily and unwisely recommended by some of our noblest and best thinkers. What is wanted is not medicine, but hygiene—the knowledge and practice of the laws of national health. The evils of wide-spread ignorance cannot be got rid of by excommunicating the ignorant, but by educating them. Let us have no new aristocracy of brain—no new "divine right" of the cultivated to rule the uncultivated. Instead of this, let us have such a system of education as shall ensure to all but born idiots a degree of cultivation sufficient to make it safe to trust them with the ballot. The experiment of strictly universal suffrage has got to be tried fully on this continent; it is idle vaporing to talk of limiting suffrage now. Let us face the difficulty like men, and, banishing forever all dreams of an educational qualification, abolish page 11 all necessity for such a qualification by ensuring the universality of education.

It is no novelty to advocate "compulsory education." Prussia has long practised it—with what results can be learned from Sadowa and Sedan. New Hampshire has passed a "compulsory education" law which requires that every parent or guardian shall send his child to school twelve weeks in the year, six of which must be continuous, under penalty of a fine of $10 or $20. Michigan also has passed a somewhat similar law. The Republicans in California have made the following a "plank" of their platform:—"The safety and perpetuity of Republican institutions depend mainly upon popular education and intelligence. We therefore approve and recommend a common school system that shall not only extend its benefits to all, but which shall be compulsory upon all, and we are inflexibly opposed to any application of the public moneys with any reference to the distinctions in religious creeds." How many other States may have adopted the same policy, I do not know. In at least one very important respect, I regard the New Hampshire law as crude and unwise; and I shall presently propose an improvement. But that a strong sentiment is growing up in this country, as well as in Europe, since the marvellous triumphs of Germany, in favor of "compulsory education," is very plain. It is the most hopeful sign in American politics, for it shows that the quick intelligence of the American people leaps to the only sound solution of the problem of ignorant misrule.

The objection to the "compulsory education" in the minds of many liberals grows out of a theory of government which limits all governmental powers to the direct protection of life and property. Herbert Spencer holds this theory. But the same foresight which prompts a government to prevent the outbreak of a threatened riot, instead of waiting to quell it afterwards, should prompt it to forestall ignorance, the cause of all riots. Prevention is the best sort of protection. Here in the United States, according to the last census, are five millions of children, of school age, who never attend school. Is there no danger revealed in this fact? What are we about, to leave such a monstrous peril unprovided against? page 12 If the nation has itself a right to "life," it must have the right to save its life by timely precautions against this multiplying and magnifying ignorance. Prof. Huxley, in a recent address at Birmingham, set aside the narrow theory of Herbert Spencer by repudiating "the idea of the functions of a government being confined to those of a protective constabulary." "Even accepting the proposition that the functions of the State might be all summed up in one great negative commandment—'Thou shalt not allow any man to interfere with the liberty of any other man,' Prof. Huxley said he was unable to see that the consequence was any such restriction as its supporters implied. If his next door neighbor chose to have his drains in such a state as to create a poisonous atmosphere which he breathed at the risk of typhus and dyphtheria. it was just as much a restriction on his just freedom to live as if his life was threatened with a pistol. If his neighbor were allowed to let his children go unvaccinated, he might just as well be allowed to leave strychnine lozenges about in the way of his (Prof Huxley's) children. And if his neighbor brought up his children untaught and untrained to earn their living, he was doing his best to restrict his (the lecturer's) freedom by increasing the burden of taxation for the support of gaols and work-houses for which he had to pay."

In short, it needs only to be made apparent that no State can permanently live which permits any large proportion of its people to grow up in ignorance, in order to convince us that the right to educate its citizens is part of the State's right to protect itself from subversion. There can be no free State without universal suffrage; and there can be no universal suffrage without universal education. That is the whole argument I would urge, put into a nutshell.

But the phrase "compulsory education" is very unfortunate. It misleads. It puts the whole subject in a wrong light. The correction of the error out of which this phrase sprang will do much to remove the popular repugnance to the securing of really universal education.

It was the conception of the ancient Roman law, from which modern law has been in a large meas- page 13 ure derived, that a father's right over his child (patria potestas) was absolute, even including power of life and death. This idea is at the bottom of the objection to "compulsory education." though of course greatly modified. The proposition that the child has a right to he educated which no parent has a right to infringe or violate, has probably never occurred to many people. Yet this is one of the propositions by which I ascribe to the State the duty of enforcing universal education. Children have rights as truly as their parents—none the less so because they neither know them nor know how to maintain them. There is need of a "children's rights movement," quite as much as of a "women's rights movement;" and it is the movement in behalf of universal education. The old tyranny of parents over their children, which has nothing to do with the enforcement of a just authority used for the children's good, but only consists in perverting this authority to the children's harm, should be abolished.

The reason why the phrase "compulsory education" offends the American ear is because it suggests the idea of compelling parents to relinquish a power they are justly entitled to. The moment it is seen that parents have no right to withhold education from their children,—no more right to starve their minds than their bodies,—it becomes plain that the enforcement by the State of universal education is not compulsion of the parent; but protection of the child. If any parent violates the child's right to be educated—his right to a fair chance in life—his right to enter on a career which shall not have the jail as its fore-ordained terminus,—then the State has as much right to compel respect for this as for any other violated right. Such a parent is a Criminal. Mr. A. J. Mundella, M. P., of Sheffield, England, says that experience has taught him that "where the education of children is wholly dependent upon the parents, the selfishness, indifference, or intemperate habits of many will cause a considerable number to be entirely neglected or only partially educated." This sentence strikes the nail on the head. Thousands of parents keep their children from school for the sake of utilizing their labor, even of making money out of them at the expense of all their subse- page 14 quent happiness in life. But a parent has no right to make a drudge out of his child for his own private advantage. It is his business to support the child till the child has at least received the elements of an education. Nature does not devolve on young children the support of their parents. I repeat it, the parent who so abuses his authority over his child is neither more nor less than a criminal; and he ought to be "compelled" to cease his crime. Let the whole subject be looked at from the side of the child as well as from the side of the parent, and nothing could be clearer than that the State is bound to ensure education to each and every child born into its jurisdiction. Life, liberty, and education—these are the primal rights of man. Let us amend the Declaration of Independence accordingly.

No less has the State a right to secure educated citizens, since ignorance on part of the citizens is death to the State. If the State has a right to exist, it has a right to make sure the conditions of existence. I will not dwell further on this point, having already said enough; but no right views on this subject can be taken which do not contemplate it from the side of the children, on the one hand, and of the State, on the other. The right of every child to be educated, and the right of the State to secure the education of all its citizens,—these are the two pillars on which rests the whole theory of universal or "compulsory" education. In one sense, all education is "compulsory," since no child will work or study if he can play instead; and whoever sends his child to school at all enforces "compulsory education" in this sense. In fact, this is the only proper sense of the word "compulsory" in this connection; for I scout the idea that it is "compulsion" to guarantee to children their native right to be educated. I would "compel" the parents to respect this right only as I would compel a thief to restore the property he has stolen.

One point, however, of great importance remains to be touched upon; and I have never yet seen it mentioned. It is this. While the theory I advocate would oblige the State to furnish, free of all cost to the parent, opportunities for the best possible education for the child, and thus make it impossible for page 15 any one to plead poverty as an excuse for keeping his child from school, I should not approve a requisition that all the children should be obliged to attend the public schools. Make, if you can, the public schools so good that the parents shall use them by preference. But it is the parent's prerogative to choose the mode and means of educating his child. If he prefers to educate him in a private school, or at home, the State has no right to compel him to adopt a different method. All the State has a right to require is the fact of education. Provided the parent does not deprive the child of education itself, he has a right to follow his own judgment in determining the manner of it. I think that a clear understanding on this point would obviate many objections to enforced universal education.

As a consequence of this view of the matter, I would suggest the propriety of establishing Stated Public Examinations for all children, under the auspices of the best citizens of each locality, instead of requiring their attendance at the public schools. If a child can pass a good examination in the various branches announced beforehand by public authority, that fact should be enough; he should not be obliged to bring any certificate of attendance at any particular school. If he fails to pass a good examination, let the reason be inquired into, and if no good one can be given, then let the child be required to attend the public schools, and the delinquent parent be fined. Some such system as this, I am satisfied, will be eventually adopted, as the best way to secure at the same time the best possible education of the children and the largest possible liberty of the parents. The strict Prussian system can never be imitated in America; larger concessions must be made to individuality of choice. But the result desired—the assurance of universal intelligence—must and will be attained in the United States. As thus explained, I believe that the entire future of this country hinges on the adoption of the system of universal or "compulsory" education; and every lover of freedom, knowledge, and virtue will do his part towards hastening the day of its complete establishment.