The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College’s 161st Commencement, held in the College’s Biermann Athletic Center on May 11, 2013.
Last month the world lost Baroness Thatcher, and in her honor I’d like to spend a few minutes discussing with you the miracle of freedom.
In the history of mankind, freedom has been the exception. Governed by kings and queens, human beings were told that power starts at the top and flows down; that their rights emanate from a monarch and may be taken away at the monarch’s whim. The British began a revolution against this way of thinking in a meadow called Runnymede in 1215. It was embodied in the Magna Carta, which read: “To all free men of our kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs . . . .” That revolution reached full flower in Philadelphia in 1787, in a Constitution that began from two radical premises.
The first is that our rights come not from kings or queens—or even from presidents—but from God. As the Declaration of Independence put it, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Second, in the Constitution, America’s Founders inverted the understanding of sovereignty. Power comes not from the top down, but up, from “We the People,” and governing authority for those in political office is limited to set periods subject to elections. As James Madison explained in Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary . . . . In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Even from my short time in elected office, I can assure you there are no angels in Washington, D.C. And that is why Thomas Jefferson said the “chains of the Constitution” should bind the mischief of government. Only when government is limited are rights protected, the rule of law honored, and freedom allowed to flourish.
You who are graduating from Hillsdale are familiar with these ideas. As the late conservative writer and educator Russell Kirk observed, “Hillsdale does not subscribe to the notion that all books published before 1900 are obsolete. Against all odds, the College speaks up—as it did during the nineteenth century—for ‘permanent things.’ ” And with those as our foundation, what has freedom wrought?