Without responsibility, there can be no freedom. Responsibility and freedom are opposite sides of the same coin.
Such was the unifying theme of Justice Clarence Thomas’s commencement speech at Hillsdale College on Saturday. Slightly revamping the biblical precept of charity beginning at home, the 67-year-old justice emphasized the centrality of responsible discharging of one’s duties as an essential ingredient in the provision of liberty.
Lamenting what he described as a changing culture across college and university campuses, Thomas touched on a growing sense of left-wing entitlement divorced from responsibility.
“Things that were once considered firm have long since lost their vitality. And much that seemed inconceivable is now firmly or universally established. Hallmarks of my youth, such as patriotism and religion seem more like outliers, if not afterthoughts,” regretted Thomas.
“I admit to being unapologetically patriotic, unapologetically Catholic, and unapologetically a constitutionalist,” said Thomas, receiving applause.
Thomas anecdotally illustrated the importance of duty by reflecting on farm work he did as a youth with his family. Without the faithful coordinated execution of responsibilities between himself and his family, Thomas said that he and his family would not eat.
“The only guarantee was that if you did not discharge your responsibilities, there could be no independence, no self-sufficiency, no freedom, no crops,” said Thomas.
Caring for others was also said to be a crucial behavior for the establishment and preservation of thriving communities.
“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. Seemingly, it is our version of predestination, or as our grandfather often told us, ‘Money didn’t grow on trees.’ Perhaps he think liberty grows on trees.”
Warning against left-wing phantom-chasing of various forms of group-based discrimination, Thomas suggested that differences in treatment between individuals are most often justified.
“Apparently we all deserve the same reward, the same status, notwithstanding the differences in our efforts or our abilities. It is no wonder then, that we hear so often what is deserved, or, to what one is entitled. I guess by this reasoning, the student who took full advantage of all the spring break Bacchanalia is apparently entitled to the same success as a conscientious and disciplined classmate who worked and studied while he played. Perhaps we should redistribute the conscientious student’s grades to make the frolicking classmate his or her equal.”
Worried about the future of the United States as a free nation, Thomas recalled Benjamin Franklin’s response to a woman who inquired what type of government the Constitutional Convention had brought forth in 1787: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Americans have a duty to preserve their inheritance, said Thomas, speaking of the ultimate sacrifice made by those who had given “the last full measure” to establish and protect the United States.
On limited government, Thomas spoke of the vision of The Founders. Despite growing up in an era of state-mandated racial discrimination – Jim Crow – in contradiction to America’s foundational values, he added that he and his family always revered of the ideals of the Constitution.
“The Founders, and many successive generations, believed in natural rights. In that, as the Declaration of independence makes clear, to establish a government by consent, they gave up only those rights necessary to create a limited government. They then structured that government so that it could not jeopardize the liberty that flowed from these inherent, or natural, rights,” said Thomas, placing the composition of America’s founding documents on a continuum of continuity connecting back to the Magna Carta.
The promise of the Constitution, conclude Thomas, required good citizens to carry out their personal responsibilities and conduct themselves with honor.
Rejecting that left’s Utopian pursuit of perfecting the human condition through increasing weaponization of the state, Thomas observed that many of humanity’s problems are to some degree eternal, and are often without a perfect solution.
“In addressing your own obligations and responsibilities in the right way, you actually help to ensure our liberties and our form of government,” said Thomas.
Taking the tragic view of the human condition, Thomas noted the imperfectability of society. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, he stated that within the ideal of liberty “lay our last best hope.”
Not fully resigning himself to pessimism or cynicism, Thomas optimistically wished that the 2016 graduating class of Hillsdale would go on to preserve the American values he articulated.
Watch the full speech below.
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