The following is largely adapted from remarks delivered on September 17, 2010, at the dedication of Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.
Today is the 223rd anniversary of the submission of the Constitution of the United States for ratification. It is the greatest governing document in human history. And on this day we dedicate our Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship near Capitol Hill here in Washington. Let me explain briefly why we are launching this center. The reason has to do with the times in which we live, and it has to do with the purposes of Hillsdale College.
The times are pretty easy to estimate. I’ll just mention two things about them that are astonishing and fearful. The first is that we have managed, in about the last 30 years of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity, to pile up a debt that rivals the one we piled up while winning the Second World War, the most disastrous and largest war in human history. And this debt is of a different character. The Second World War was going to end at some point, and we were either going to win and go back to living and working and pay off the debt—which is what happened—or else we were going to lose and then the debt would never be paid. In contrast, our debt today has become the ordinary way our government and our country operate. As my father, a schoolteacher in Arkansas and a wise man, used to say, it is the kind of debt that means it really doesn’t matter how rich we’ve become, because we can waste money faster.
The second sign of the times that I’ll mention is this: We have now a figure in the American government called the regulatory czar. Not only is it shameful and wrong for anybody in America to let himself be called that, he takes the title seriously. Indeed, he writes that some people should be allowed to regulate speech rights—to redistribute them, much as the government redistributes wealth—in the name of what he and his political allies regard as fairness. His is a far different kind of argument about speech than the one our Founders made, which was that speech is an individual right. His argument not only opposes the prohibition the founders placed in the First Amendment, which says that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech,” it rejects the understanding of human nature that grounds the very idea of constitutionalism. James Madison summarized that understanding when he wrote in Federalist 51 that because men are not angels, they need government, but that government must be controlled and limited for the same reason. Because those in our government are men rather than angels, we must not allow them the kind of power that this regulatory czar desires and claims.
There needs to be an argument about whether Madison and the founders are right or this bureaucratic czar and his allies are right with regard to civil liberties, just as there needs to be an argument about whether our nation should keep piling up unsustainable debt. There is going to be an argument about these and other big questions in this city in coming years, and the Kirby Center will have a hand in that argument.
What then of the purposes of Hillsdale College? Those purposes do not change. The College was built in 1844. Just yesterday we had a meeting of our Board of Trustees, and we began that meeting, as we begin every meeting, by reading from the College’s Articles of Association. Those articles commit us to two things. The first is “sound learning,” learning in the liberal arts. This is the kind of learning that lets us answer such questions as: What do we mean by “the laws of nature and of nature’s God”? Who is this God? What is He like? What is man? What is he like? What do we mean by “nature”? These are the ultimate questions. They are the questions in virtue of which ultimately all of our choices are made. And it just so happens that human beings, ever since they have been writing things down, have been writing beautiful things about these questions, things collected in old books. The founders of our country, like the founders of Hillsdale College, thought that if we were to be able to read the Declaration of Independence, and follow its arguments, we would need to read some of these old books. We have always read them at our College. We are not only devoted, we are chained to the reading of them. They are in our core curriculum. There is no escaping them at Hillsdale.
So that’s one thing about the College. And the second is, as they say in the Bible, like unto it. The College is devoted in the first sentence of its Articles of Association to the principles of “civil and religious liberty.” These principles are America’s gift to the world. We are all of us products of that gift. We are not sons of dukes and earls—or of czars. We are Americans because of this gift. And signs are lately that Americans do not much want to give it up. This is a very hopeful thing.
Hillsdale College has always taught the Constitution and has always fought for it. Our teaching of it is intense, difficult, challenging. As for fighting, we are famous in modern times for a decade-long lawsuit against the federal government, and for the fact that we refuse to take money from that government. It is expensive these days, indeed increasingly so, for a college not to take federal money. But we believe that the price of taking it is dearer still.
No one should think, however, that in refusing money from the modern bureaucratic form of government that exists in this city today, we have forgotten our loyalty to the constitutional form that flourished here for so long.
There is only one way to return to living under the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the institutions of the Constitution. We must come to love those things again. And if we love them, then we will serve them. But we cannot love them until we understand them. And we cannot understand them until we know them. So the first step is to study them and teach them, and Hillsdale College comes to Washington meaning to do that. We aim to create an atmosphere in this city of the study and knowledge and understanding and love of the principles of America.