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Freedom and Obligation–2016 Commencement Address

Clarence Thomas
Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court


Clarence ThomasClarence Thomas is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Born in Pinpoint, Georgia, he is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and Yale Law School. Prior to his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991, he served as an assistant attorney general of Missouri, an attorney with the Monsanto Company, a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator John Danforth, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, chairman of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, and a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In 2007, he published My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir.



The following is adapted from a speech delivered on May 14, 2016, at Hillsdale College’s 164th Commencement ceremony.

President Arnn, members of the board of trustees, assembled faculty, families and friends, and, most important, members of the Hillsdale College Class of 2016, I am both honored and grateful to participate in these commencement exercises. It has been some years since my wife Virginia and I have been to Hillsdale together. Of course we have known Dr. and Mrs. Arnn for many, many years, and we have been quite close to Hillsdale throughout his tenure. We admire the work that is being done here to educate young men and women—one of whom, Hillsdale graduate David Morrell, a wonderful young man, served as one of my law clerks a few years back.

This has been a most difficult term at the Court. The difficulty is underscored by the sudden and tragic passing of my colleague and friend, Justice Antonin Scalia. I think it is fitting to say a few words about him. Many will focus on his intellect and his legal prowess. I do not demur on either count. But there is so much more than that. When I think of Justice Scalia, I think of the good man who I could instinctively trust during my first days on the Court. He was, in the tradition of the South of my youth, a man of his word, a man of character. Over the almost 25 years that we were together on the Court, I think we made it a better place for each other. I know that he did for me. He was kind to me when it mattered most. He is, and will be, sorely missed.

As the years since I attended college edge toward a half century, I feel a bit out of place talking with college students or recent graduates. So much has changed since I left college in 1971. Things that were 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. So in a sense, I feel woefully out of place speaking at commencement ceremonies. My words will perhaps seem somewhat vintage in character rather than current or up-to-date. In that context, I admit to being unapologetically Catholic, unapologetically patriotic, and unapologetically a constitutionalist.

In my youth, we had a small farm. I am convinced that the time I spent there had much to do with my firm resolve never to farm again. Work seemed to spring eternal, like the weeds that consumed so much of our time and efforts. One of the messages constantly conveyed in those days was our obligation to take care of the land and to use it to produce food for ourselves and for others. If there was to be independence, self-sufficiency, or freedom, then we first had to understand, accept, and discharge our responsibilities. The latter were the necessary (but not always sufficient) antecedents or precursors of the former. The only guarantee was that if you did not discharge your responsibilities, there could be no independence, no self-sufficiency, and no freedom.

In a broader context, we were obligated in our neighborhood to be good neighbors so that the neighborhood would thrive. Whether there was to be a clean, thriving neighborhood was directly connected to our efforts. So there was always, to our way of thinking, a connection between the things we valued most and our personal obligations or efforts. There could be no freedom without each of us discharging our responsibilities. When we heard the words duty, honor, and country, no more needed to be said. But that is a bygone era. 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.

Related to this, our era is one in which different treatment or different outcomes are inherently suspect. It is all too commonly thought that we all deserve the same reward or the same status, notwithstanding the differences in our efforts or in our abilities. This is why we hear so often about what is deserved or who is entitled. By this way of thinking, the student who treats spring break like a seven-day bacchanalia is entitled to the same success as the conscientious classmate who works and studies while he plays. And isn’t this same sense of entitlement often applied today to freedom?