The Worth of Our Past


By FELIX FRANKFURTER, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

Commencement address at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass., June 18, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 601-603

COLLEGE Commencements have long been more than local festivities touching only on the interests of local college communities. They have become a national occasion to celebrate and fortify the national spirit. In the recent past this great event in the lives of young men and young women was a symbol of hope in youth. The generations mingled to take heart, one with another, to promote the promises that lay ahead. But never before, I believe, have college Commencements been so appropriate to the times, nor so symbolic of all that we hold dear. For events compel us to reconsider the significance of our history.

Circumstances which even the most ostrich-like can no longer disregard, challenge the worth of our past, the validity of the faith that founded this nation, and our power to vindicate it. This issue concerns the very basis of our history and the underpinning of our civilization. Of this view of our life and of the means for its pursuit an institution like Radcliffe is the most emphatic expression. For our colleges and universities are the distinctive product of what we cherish as western civilization. They shelter and bring to fruit the purposes which must again be the ideals and the pursuit of the whole world if civilization is to maintain itself. The human spirit cannot here have that security and serenity essential to its dignity and achievement while the soul of man is everywhere else enclosed.

Thomas Jefferson understood this fully. And the epitaph which Jefferson wrote for himself cannot be recalled too often. Here was a man who held all the high offices of state. Yet when he came to commend himself to posterity, this is how he wished to be remembered:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson,
Author of the Declaration of Independence.
Of the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom,
And Father of the University of Virginia.

In that epitaph Jefferson made clear the relation of Radcliffe College and every other college and university in the land to the awful issue that now confronts the world. Man is without dignity unless he has freedom. And there cannot be freedom without the right to pursue truth. The university which Jefferson founded in Virginia and the university which the builders of Massachusetts founded more than 200 years before, almost contemporaneously with the establishment of the colony, and all the other institutions of learning throughout the country are the special instruments for the unremitting pursuit of truth. You therefore represent to a peculiar degree of trusteeship of civilization.

Just as colleges as we know them are at once the fruit and the necessary condition of a civilized society, so democracy is its indispensable political expression. Democracy is neither a mystical abstraction nor a mechanical gadget. In the long course of human experience it has proven itself the only form of social arrangement which adequately respects, and by so doing helps to unfold the richness of human diversity. All the devices of political machinery—votes and parties and parliaments—are merely instruments to enable men to live with one another, with full respect for one another, under conditions eliciting the maximum gifts of each for the amplest enjoyment of all.

Colleges and universities are the recognized guardians of the life of reason. Democracy furnishes the political framework within which alone reason can thrive most imaginatively on the widest scale—least hampered by the accidents of personal antecedents and most regardful of the intrinsic qualities in man. Nature herself is democratic in that she plants gifts and graces in ways that defy the devisings of all of man's artifices. Therefore, we must have political institutions which allow these mysterious gifts and graces their fullest outlet.

Until recently men were either too shy or too cynical to talk about these great simple themes. The pace of material development not only preoccupied the energies of men; it overawed their thought. The deficiencies of democracy became a favorite jibe of the worldly wise. And thus the faith that gave us birth and has maintained us was subtly undermined. Even those from whom better things were to be expected erected impatience with Congress into a political philosophy. A certain university president in the Babylonian twenties added his voice to the chorus urging the elimination of politics and gleefully reported that his students were turning away from sociological studies.

Civilization Our Business

It seemed strange then and it seems appalling now that men should forget that politics is the free exchange of opinion regarding the wisest policy for the life of a society, and as such is the essence of a free people. These men forgot that in the last analysis we are governed either through talk or through force. Now at least they must realize that a dictatorship means precisely the prohibition of politics. So completely were the governing minds of America under the powerful illusions of materialism during this era that a President of the United States could say that "the business of America is business" and believe he was uttering a truism.

The business of America is civilization. Our professed realists had lost sight of the wisdom of the most hard-headed political realist of the 19th Century. It was Bismarck who gave currency to the term "imponderable," for he, however unsympathetically, was alive to those spiritual needs of man which are the ultimate forces of an enduring society. The things not made by hand nor seen by eye are the things that rule. Beauty and truth, reason and justice—these unattainable but ever to be striven for longings of men are now seen to be man's most indispensable needs. By these needs the most gifted and the humblest are bound into a common brotherhood. I am unashamed to speak of these longings of mind and heart today. They are the only themes worthy of your concern.

These needs are so immediate that we take their satisfaction for granted until we are threatened with their denial. And the imagination is so narrow that too many of us are blind to threats that are wrapped in euphemisms. To acclaim the worth of democracy is not to deny the inadequacies and injustices of our society. It is merely to insist that in striving for the better we should not discard the good. The ultimate justification of democracy is that it affords the only opportunity for continuous social improvement.

What we have already achieved, what is ours to preserve and to defend, has been set out in words by one of the finest spirits of our time. It is the utterance of a great historian who has lived and not merely written about those aspirations of men which have found immortal expression in the Declaration of Independence, the French Rights of Man, and the Gettysburg Address.

What I am about to read was meant only for my eyes, but I am taking the liberty without his permission to read from a letter written by someone you all know who, in the autumn of his life became an American citizen of his own free choice.

"There is in this country", he wrote, "a wider area of generosity than in any other country—at least in Europe. It is this feeling that one is at home here that conquers you little by little. And one fine day you feel that you are no longer an exile but a citizen in your own country. When I took my oath I felt that really I was performing a grand function. I was throwing away not my intellectual and moral but my juristic past. I threw it away without any regret. The Ethiopian war, the rape of Albania, the Spanish crime, and this last idiotic crime, had really broken my connection with sovereigns, potentates, and all those ugly things which are enumerated in the formula of the oath. It is a wonderful formula. Your pledges are only juridical and political. You are asked to sever your connection with the government of your former country, not with the people and the civilization of your former country. And you are asked to give allegiance to the Constitution of your adopted country, that is, to an ideal of life.

"Thus I took my oath with a joyous heart, and I am sure I will keep it with the whole of my heart as long as I am alive."

Freedom Needs Effort

Democracy, so conceived as the means by which men can best find his own good, is a subject for interchange of views and humble searching of hearts. The old convention of utilizing an occasion like this for uttering homilies and pronouncements of policy now seems as impertinent as it was futile. A Commencement is really a common confessional. But the old should no more abdicate their experience than the young their ardor. Merely because you are young, you are not necessarily wise. Nor is Miss Comstock, because she is older, necessarily un-understanding.

We are enlisted, old and young, in a common enterprise—the bold experiment of freedom. It involves the most exacting collaborative effort. It demands the exercise of reason on the largest scale and self-discipline of the highest order. For it places ultimate faith for the achievement of the common good in the responsibility of the individual.

We are thus engaged in the most difficult of all arts, the art of living together in a gracious society. For this it is not enough to be literate; it is not even enough to the literary. Mr. Justice Holmes used to speak of the days preceding the Civil War when the eminent men of his father's circle indulged in "tall talk" and averted their minds from grim reality. The issues presented by slavery could not be settled by denying them; iridescent phrases cannot make the most ancient of tyrannies into a "new order." While mankind is literate as never before, the environment for reason is least congenial.

Ours is a civilization of hubbub where raucous voices drown out the still, small voice of reason. We want to get rich quick morally and intellectually. We resort to short cuts and easy ways. But there is no short cut to reason, no Ersatz for morality. The mechanical triumphs of the machine age cannot be transferred to the workings of democracy. All evasions of hard thinking are self-defeating.

One of the most paralyzing evasions of thought is what Lincoln called "pernicious abstractions." Post-war teaching greatly suffered from them, and to them much of our recent bewilderment is attributable. This is not the occasion for didactic exposition. An example or two must suffice.

One of the most current of these evasions of thought is that "war never settles anything." The Civil War settled slavery. This war will settle the quality of your lives and your children's lives. It simply is not true that war never settles anything. I respect the convictions of a conscientious objector to war and I believe I understand the philosophy underlying Gandhi's non-resistance. But the relentless choice events may force on every individual cannot be met by such a fair-sounding pernicious abstractions as that "war never settles anything."

Confluence of Peoples

Another favorite drug for the mind is the claim that a country at war is already under dictatorship. Democracy in this country has expanded despite four wars. And only those unfamiliar with what has taken place in Great Britain since September, 1939, will deny that England is more democratic today than she has ever been. By that I mean very specifically that her present government is more responsive to the common will of her people, although to be sure that will has imposed self-restraint not required in times of peace.

I recommend to any doubter of the alertness of British democracy a reading of the debates in the House of Commons since this war began. What is more heartening, with the enemy at the gates, than to find the government proposing measures for the public security and, after free discussion, to have the representatives of the people rejecting or modifying them in the interest of "the liberty of the subject."

Life is an act of faith. Whatever destiny awaits you, the ultimate question for each to decide is to what unseen powers and to what dimly defined ends we dedicate our lives. The United States has a special destiny because a unique fact gives it moral cohesion. This is the only country without a racially homogeneous population rooted to a particular soil. We represent a confluence of peoples who derive their bond of union from their common, intrinsic human qualities. This is your heritage. And in the confidence that you will maintain it, this nation was founded.

In days of trial and tribulation we go for sustenance to those few whose compassionate hearts and courageous minds lighted the way through past ordeals. Thus it is that Lincoln today lives perhaps more vividly than when he walked among men. A great man's wisdom is always contemporaneous. Inaddressing the Congress of the United States on Dec. 1, 1862, Lincoln was immediately concerned with the problems of slavery. But the view of life which infused his utterance is just as relevant to the issue of freedom that now challenges the world. Familiar though these words may be, I make no apology for bidding you Godspeed with them:

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

"Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history.—No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth."