Last week, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the 2016 commencement speech at Hillsdale College — the highly respected liberal arts school famed for its adherence to conservative principles — garnering national attention as he declared, “Much that seemed inconceivable is now firmly or universally established.”
Justice Thomas’s speech was a clarion-call for a resurgence in traditional American values of patriotism, reverence for the Constitution, and admiration for religious faith. He touched upon all three when he identified himself to the assembled crowd as, “unapologetically Catholic, unapologetically patriotic, and unapologetically a constitutionalist.”
He has built a storied reputation on all three fronts during his quarter-century on the nation’s highest court, including being the most consistent “originalist” on the Supreme Court—believing that the Constitution (like any other legal text) should be interpreted in accordance with the original public meaning of its words.
Addressing thousands of graduating students and their family members, the 67-year-old jurist observed that, “Hallmarks of my youth, such as patriotism and religion, seem more like outliers, if not afterthoughts. So in a sense, I feel out of place doing this, or any, commencement. My words will perhaps be more of a vintage nature than current in context.”
Thomas referred to black Americans during World War II, shining a light on their selfless service. “They will willing to fight for the right to die on foreign soil to defend their country, even as their patriotic affections went unreciprocated and unrequited,” he said.
In what he referred to as relics of “a bygone era,” Justice Thomas recalled that growing up, “when we heard the words ‘duty,’ ‘honor,’ ‘country,’ no more needed to be said.” His words conjure the ghost of President John F. Kennedy declaring, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” And indeed, Thomas quoted those famous words during his speech.
In stark contrast to those days, “Today, we rarely hear of our personal responsibilities in discussions of broad notions such as freedom or liberty.”
Instead, in contemporary America, “there is much more of a focus on our rights as citizens and what we are owed,” and lamented that “not often [does] one hear of our obligation or duties as citizens, unless of course there’s talk of our duty to submit to yet another new policy being suggested or proposed.”
Thomas was raised by his grandparents in Georgia because his mother could not earn enough money to provide for her children, as he tells in detail in his moving memoir, My Grandfather’s Son. Recounting growing up in the Deep South during an era of widespread racism, Thomas said that he and his brother “were taught that despite unfair treatment, we were to be good citizens and good people.”
In terms of his own personal struggles against injustice as a younger man, and confessing that his resolve sometimes wavered during those times, he explained that his grandfather strengthened him by replying with a simple solution: “Son, you have to stand up for what you believe in.”
He extrapolated a civic lesson for Hillsdale’s graduates from those childhood experiences and instructions, explaining to them:
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 their daily obligations. In addressing your own obligations and responsibilities in the right way, you actually help to ensure our liberties and form of government.
Pushing back against the rising tide of secularism in America, the justice also specifically focused on Hillsdale’s upholding of the value of religious faith, adding, “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.”
Thomas surveyed the history of America, quoting Benjamin Franklin among the Founders, and Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, explaining the purpose and structure of the Constitution and of the American experiment, tracing its principles as far back as Magna Carta in 1215.
He spoke with profound admiration of the grandfather who raised him, holding him up as an exemplar of citizenship.
It is telling that during this discourse on civic duty and patriotism, Clarence Thomas put American exceptionalism on a pedestal. “In the arrogance of my early adult life,” he recalled, “I challenged my grandfather and doubted the ideals of our nation. He bluntly asked, ‘So, where else would you live?’”
He made clear that the young Thomas gleaned from that exchange an optimistic vision cherished by American statesmen, coming to understand what his grandfather already recognized: “Though not a lettered man, he knew that, though not nearly perfect, our constitutional ideals where perfectible, if we worked to protect them rather than to undermine them,” he explained.
Justice Thomas called all this “the unplanned syllabus for becoming a good citizen,” and encouraged the graduates, impressing upon them that living by these values and principles “will help form the fabric of a civil society, and free and prosperous nation, where inherent equality and liberty are invaluable.”
Watch the entire speech here.
Ken Klukowski is legal editor for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @kenklukowski.