Imprimis

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.



But this is Hillsdale College, which is like a shining city on a hill. This College, in the words of your mission statement, “considers itself a trustee of a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law.” The very existence of Hillsdale connotes independence, because Hillsdale, like America, was founded on the idea that liberty is an antecedent of government, not a benefit from government.

Let me offer you, this year’s graduates, a few brief suggestions about making your deposits in the account of liberty. Today is just the end of the beginning of your young lives, and the beginning, the commencement of the rest of your lives. There is much more to come, and it will not be with the guiding hands of your parents—indeed, they may someday need your hand to guide them. Some of you will most assuredly be called upon to do very hard things to preserve liberty. All of you will be called upon to provide a firm foundation of citizenship by carrying out your obligations in the way so many preceding generations have done. You are to be the example to others that those generations have been to us. And in being that example, what you do will matter far more than what you say.

As the years have moved swiftly by, I have often reflected on the important citizenship lessons of my life. For the most part, it was the unplanned array of small things. There was the kind gesture from a neighbor. There was my grandmother dividing our dinner because someone showed up unannounced. There was the stranger stopping to help us get our crops out of the field before a big storm. There were the nuns who believed in us and lived in our neighborhood. There was the librarian who brought books to Mass so that I would not be without reading on the farm. Small gestures such as these become large lessons about how to live our lives. We watched and learned what it means to be a good person, a good neighbor, a good citizen. Who will be watching you? And what will you be teaching them?

After this commencement ceremony ends, I implore you to take a few minutes to thank those who made it possible for you to come this far—your parents, your teachers, your pastor. These are the people who have shown you how to sacrifice for those you love, even when that sacrifice is not always appreciated. 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. Treat others the way you would like to be treated if you stood in their shoes.

These small lessons become the unplanned syllabus for learning citizenship, and your efforts to live them will help to form the fabric of a civil society and a free and prosperous nation where inherent equality and liberty are inviolable. You are men and women of Hillsdale College, a school that has stood fast on its principles and its traditions at great sacrifice. If you don’t lead by example, who will?

I have every faith that you will be a beacon of light for others to follow, like “a city on a hill [that] cannot be hidden.” May God bless each of you now and throughout your lives, and may God bless America.