At the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked what the gathering had accomplished. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.” Nearly a century later, in a two-minute speech at Gettysburg, President Lincoln spoke similarly. It is for the current generation, he said,
to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
So many who have gone before us have done precisely that, dedicating their lives to preserving and enhancing our nation both in war and in peace, taking care that those who have given the last full measure of devotion have not done so in vain.
Being at Hillsdale College, it is appropriate that we should reflect briefly on our ancestors’ understanding of what was to be earned and preserved. America’s Founders and many successive generations believed in natural rights. To establish a government based on the consent of the governed, as the Declaration of Independence makes clear, they gave up only that portion of their rights necessary to create a limited government of the kind needed to secure all of their rights. The Founders then structured that government so that it could not jeopardize the liberty that flowed from natural rights. Even though this liberty is inherent, it is not guaranteed. Indeed, the founding documents of our country are an assertion of this liberty against the King of England—arguably the most powerful man in the world at the time—at the risk of the Founders’ lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. Over the lifespan of our great country, many occasions have arisen that required this liberty, and the form of government that ensures it, to be defended if it was to survive.
At the risk of understating what is necessary to preserve liberty and our form of government, I think more and more that it depends on good citizens discharging their daily duties and obligations. Here 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. And in addressing your own obligations and responsibilities in the right way, you actually do an important part on behalf of liberty and free government.
Throughout my youth, even as the contradiction of segregation persisted, we revered the ideals of our great nation. We knew, of course, that our country was flawed, as are all human institutions. But we also knew that our best hope lay in the ideal of liberty. I watched with anguish as so many of the older people in my life groped and stumbled through the darkness of near or total illiteracy. Yet they desperately wanted to learn and gain knowledge, and they understood implicitly how important it was to enjoy the fullness of American citizenship. They had spent an aggregation of lifetimes standing on the edge of the dual citizenship that is at the heart of the 14th Amendment.