Justice Clarence Thomas: The Duty of Citizenship
Timothy S. Goeglein
Tim Goeglein is Vice President of External Relations for Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to “Helping Families Thrive.” Its web site is at www.focusonthefamily.com. This essay is adapted from a piece that appeared in Focus on the Family’s Citizen magazine.
“Every right is married to a duty, every freedom owed a corresponding responsibility.” —Russell Kirk
Commencement addresses have become, on far too many American college campuses, predictably star-studded events with equally predictable patterns.
Steven Spielberg, James Franco, Oprah Winfrey, and other Hollywood grandees sweep onto elite universities, offer-up 20 to 30 minute addresses on “hot” trendy topics, and exit stage left to sometimes deafening applause.
In an age of celebrity, ask the typical graduate what they remember from the commencement address a mere two years later and it is common to receive blank stares. Speech after speech, too many commencement addresses leave students and parents alike hollow with superficial and banal rhetoric.
This is a shame and a waste. Commencement addresses should nourish young minds, hearts, and souls with something of the beautiful, the just, and the true.
In preparation for this article I went back through collegiate and academic history to read memorable commencement addresses. I was pleasantly surprised, for instance, that some U.S. presidents vividly recalled not only the commencement speeches but also how the ideas expressed indelibly impacted their lives and key decisions.
For instance, President George H. W. Bush, 50 years after his graduation from Andover, testified to the lasting influence his commencement speaker made on his life: What an example of the power for good of one well-composed speech — of one set of ideas — on the young mind of a future president!
It’s rare now, like finding a diamond in the rough, to witness or read such a commencement speech. Like witnessing Haley’s Comet — its luminosity makes the brilliance of the phenomenon valuable.
Such was the case with Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’ clear and concise commencement address at Hillsdale College this past May. Titled “Freedom and Obligation,” it is a tour de force. It was the 164th such commencement at that small liberal arts college in Michigan, but it will be remembered as one of the finest. It is such an affecting speech, delivered with sincerity, warmth, and brio. It could become part of the curriculum or part of a course on citizenship.
Thomas asserts that the other side of freedom is responsibility — there is a relationship between duty and sacrifice and a thriving constitutional republic on the other. He says liberty comes with abiding obligations, the most important of which is to live with integrity expressed often in small and unrecognized ways.
He says individuals who are committed to responsibility are the glue that keeps a free society thriving.
Citizenship, Thomas says, is rarely flashy, but it is responsible for defending those first and unchanging principles that undergird our national institutions.
“Things that were considered firm have long since lost their vitality,” said Thomas,
“. . . and much that seemed inconceivable is now firmly and universally established. Hallmarks of my youth, such as patriotism and religion, seem more like outliers, if not afterthoughts.”
Throughout the speech, with characteristic insight and subtlety, Thomas weaves his observations with personal experience. He avoids an Olympian pose and chooses a humble approach, articulating what’s important to a self-governing society.
Although he does not mention his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, one of the most self-revealing books written by a Supreme Court justice, Thomas does speak of the most impactful person in his life.
In the segregated South of his youth, he recalls his grandfather having an unwavering view of Biblically ordered relationships: “Being wronged by others did not justify reciprocal conduct. Right was right, and two wrongs did not make a right” —simple, elegant, bold.
“I resist what seems to be the formulaic or standard fare at commencement exercises — a broad complaint about societal injustice and an exhortation to the young graduates to go out and solve the problem and change the world. . . . Having been a young graduate myself, I think it is hard enough to solve your own problems, which can sometimes seem to defy solution.”
What makes this appealing is its recognition that we are all fallen and sinful people, and that we all have inherent limits as fallible men and women of what we can do to impact the world around us.
Instead of asking the graduates to form a utopian vision that is unattainable, Thomas encourages students to be self-reflective and to be accountable for their actions in their families, with friends and neighbors, and in the communities where they live and work. Such actions, he said, will have the net effect of widening the scope of freedom in the place where God has put us.
“Today, we rarely hear of our personal responsibilities in discussions of broad notions such as freedom or liberty. It is as though freedom and liberty exist wholly independent of anything we do, as if they are predestined . . . in addressing your own obligations and responsibilities in the right way, you actually do an important part on behalf of liberty and free government.”
He says personal responsibility and sacrifice is what the Founders of America believed in as they created the freest country in the world:
“There is always a relationship between responsibilities and benefits. . . . If you continue to run up charges on your credit card, at some point you reach your credit limit. If you continue to make withdrawals from your savings account, you eventually deplete your funds. Likewise, if we continue to consume the benefits of a free society without replenishing or nourishing that society, we will eventually deplete that as well. If we are content to let others do the work of replenishing and defending liberty while we consume the benefits, we will someday run out of other people’s willingness to sacrifice.”
Using that simple, graspable illustration, Thomas draws a parallel between liberty and obligation, between freedom and duty.
Near the close of the speech, Thomas personalizes this principle by sharing with the Hillsdale audience how he had gone to his grandfather to convey his frustration over the criticism and calumny hurled at him during one of the most difficult moments of his life in the early 1980s.
He said that his grandfather’s advice was singular, tender, and inspired: “Son, you have to stand up for what you believe in.” For Thomas this was a moment of duty. His grandfather communicated the necessity of empathy and fortitude, as the foundation for faith and grace, amidst his most trying time of life.
“As you go through life, try to be a person whose actions teach others how to be better people and better citizens. Reach out to the shy person who is not so popular. Stand up for others when they’re being treated unfairly. Take the time to listen to the friend who’s having a difficult time. Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness.”
What did all this add up to for the graduates and their families?
Thomas’ own tenure has been an example of this challenge — defined by the eminence of a statesman, a poise unflappable, and a tireless and relentless striving for justice.
On the same day I finished rereading parts of Thomas’ great speech, a friend had sent me an essay quoting the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Just so.
The clarity and brilliance of Justice Clarence Thomas’ Hillsdale commencement address is a reminder that freedom is not free; that by serving God and others first and ourselves last, there is a benefit to the community and the country; and that by better understanding the relationship between virtue and liberty, we come to understand that for freedom to flourish, we have to keep promises, and pursue excellence.
Justice Thomas, a keeper of the constitutional flame, whose life on the bench defines grace and intelligence, has shown us, by example, that by taking responsibility for our lives and by acting with courage we become the indispensable the citizen. *