Graduation Speech: Why You Need to Know More than You Learned in Kindergarten

Jun 17, 2014 by

Today we honor your achievements and look forward to your bright futures. But before looking forward, it is often instructive to look back. So let’s time-travel to some key moments in our history.

It’s a funny thing, but during World War II, movies and popular songs expressed the spunk and spirit of Americans far better than did most novels, which tended to focus on the horrors of war, thereby neglecting the important reasons the war was being fought, and so missing much of the heroism and triumph of virtue over evil. Fortunately, “Prelude to War,” the first segment of Frank Capra’s astonishing film documentary “Why We Fight,” sets out with inimitable clarity the contrast between America and the collectivist, totalitarian states we fought against.

In fact, apart from a possible occasional Dr. Strangelove type, no one likes war. We all want to live in peace. We wish there would never be wars at all, so in that sense, we’re all anti-war. But one must consider whether it is right to remain passive in the face of any and all situations. If someone broke into your home and lunged at your mother, weapon in hand, wouldn’t you do whatever it took to save her life? To save your own? Such examples from the microcosm of our lives can be extrapolated into the world of nations. Should a nation stand by passively and let a hostile group attack it? Should it let its allies fall to a violent and ruthless aggressor?

What of the Jews in Germany whose rights were being slowly eroded by racial laws targeting them, who were eventually forced to live in prescribed “Jewish ghettos” and who were persecuted by the Gestapo even prior to being sent to concentration camps? I’ve heard people say the Jews should have rebelled. Well, some of them did! But it was too late—the Germans had confiscated most of their weapons long before Kristallnacht.

What about the British in WWII? Should they have stood by and let Hitler bomb their people and gobble up Europe? Should America have stayed out of the war once the British were in danger of losing? If you consider the big picture, you must not only weigh the cost of war on people’s lives, but also factor in the cost of not going to war. How many more would have died if we hadn’t fought? How many would have lost their freedom? Once we examine the issue from both sides, we can see it is an oversimplification to take the position that one should be always purely “anti-war”. After all, peace alone is no guarantee of happiness. Prisons are peaceful. And after they slaughter enough of their citizens, vicious dictatorships are “peaceful”—once no one dares protest any injustice any longer.

What about the American Revolution? The war that gave us our independence and set us up for becoming, in a dazzlingly short time, the envy of the world for our ingenuity, prosperity, and burgeoning growth and happiness. Should that revolution, which cost many lives, not have been fought? Or can there be a just war, a necessary war, to preserve what men and women hold most dear: their freedom and their opportunity to live freely, while protected under the rule of law.

Consider America’s founders. Do you know how many men signed the Declaration of Independence? Most of us would only recognize a few names: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison…, but fifty-six men signed that hallowed document. And do you know what they pledged? Let’s hear it in their own words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” They pledged their lives! They formally stated they were willing to die for this cause—for creating an independent nation based on liberty. They risked their lives for their families, and for all future generations of Americans. They did this not only so they could live as free people in a free nation, but so you could live in freedom and pursue your personal happiness.

Just how serious were they with this pledge? Recall that the British were ruthless towards these men they considered treasonous. They kidnapped New Jersey delegate William Clark’s two sons, stuck them in their most infamous prison, and refused to release them unless he recanted. In such circumstances all bets are off, right? Wrong. Clark remained steadfast. Another New Jersey delegate, John Hart, lost his wife and all 13 children. Twenty-nine of signers lost their homes or everything they owned; many died in poverty. So how many, including those beaten and starved in prison and those whose wives or children were taken prisoner—how many yielded to the British? Not one of them. They stood by their pledge: their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Their legacy is not without an implicit demand of you. Their enormous sacrifices were not made so you could play computer games or send text messages on your iphones, they were made so you would become the next generation of standard-bearers: the next generation of proud and brave Americans to continue the tradition of freedom, of individual liberty, and of equality under the law of the land, the Constitution. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” And the first step toward fulfilling that vigilance is to understand why it is required.

Do you know why? I, for one, agree with Anne Frank’s remarkable assertion during the Holocaust, that most people are good at heart. Most, but not all. In fact, some people are not interested in primarily making a nice and happy life for themselves and their loved ones, but instead have an unquenchable thirst for money and power. Such people, especially if rich and/or well-connected, tend to direct their ambition to the seat of power: the government. Working either from behind the scenes or within the government itself, such powerful individuals and dynastic families have historically led nations down the path to tyranny. In other words, the potential for accumulating power is a constant temptation for those who long to lord it over others. And because such men exist, we must remain vigilant and preserve our freedom. Remember, Hitler came to power in a flurry of changes to German laws. We can again turn to Thomas Jefferson for words of wisdom regarding power-mongers: “In questions of power… let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

Now, how will you know if persons or groups are engaging in such mischief? Well, you’ll know if you study history and study the principles of America in particular: the importance of strictly limited government, individual freedom, and the free enterprise system through which people freely engage in trade with one another. So if you see government interfering with people’s lives, if you see personal freedoms being restrained or attacked, if you see free enterprise capitalism under attack and/or being micro-managed, i.e. “regulated”, by the government, you’re seeing mischief—and make no mistake, that’s the sort of mischief that can and typically does lead to tyranny.

Do you know what tyranny is? Let’s take a quick look at it up close. Tyranny means that an all-powerful state, like that of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s USSR, has complete control over you and your life. That includes every detail of your life—your every move. Such a State can literally kill you at will, with or without a reason. Such a State can legally torture you. Such a State can confiscate your property, your money, your car, even your iphone. Tyranny is so roundly hated by human beings that the Founders, and others throughout history, were willing to die fighting against it. So the vigilance that liberty requires is not optional. You and your generation don’t get to skip that part. The stakes are as high as they ever were—maybe higher.

Why did the Founders say that for America to work as a free republic, it would need to cultivate a moral people? Because only a moral people, only a people who know the difference between right and wrong, who live by the Golden Rule as set forth in the Judeo-Christian tradition, who understand their basic rights to be God-given and “unalienable”, only such a people will continually withstand the inevitable attacks of the predatory, pathological and rapacious few, who use their wealth and power to corrupt others in their quest for absolute control over a government and a people.

So you need to study history, to study the literary classics, to watch classic American movies from the golden age of cinema, to read and reread the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, to learn what America stands for, what it represents, indeed what America is, and therefore who you are as American citizens. And then you need to pick up that standard, that flag, that emblem of the great nation that was handed to you at such cost, and start on your own path of alert and fearless vigilance, as brave, proud and free Americans—free to pursue your happiness. I can wish you no greater gift than that.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.