- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from the speech given by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Tuesday night at the American Enterprise Institute annual dinner:

Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 78, "It would require an uncommon portion of fortitude in the judges to do their duty as faithful guardians of the Constitution where legislative invasions of it have been instigated by the major voice of the community." This point is rarely stressed. The trait that Hamilton singles out, fortitude, is fundamental to my philosophy of life both as a judge and, more fundamentally, as a citizen of this great nation …

On July 1, 1991, when I arrived at President Bush's home in Kennebunkport, he invited me to join him in the sitting area of his bedroom. During that brief meeting, he asked me only two questions. First, could my family and I endure the confirmation process? Not knowing what was in store for us, I answered yes. The second question was simply whether I could call it as I saw it when I became a member of the court, whether I could rule on the law and not my personal opinions. To that, I also answered yes.

In a perfect world, the second question would be the only one members of the court should ever have to answer either to a president or to the legislators who confirm their appointments. Judges could then focus their energies on the substance of their decisions, which is more than enough to occupy anyone's spirit or intellect. I wish it were that simple.

In my humble opinion, those who come to engage in debates of consequence and who challenge accepted wisdom should expect to be treated badly. Nonetheless, they must stand undaunted. That is required, and that should be expected, for it is bravery that is required to secure freedom …

It goes without saying that we must participate in the affairs of our country if we think they are important and have an impact on our lives. But how are we to do that? In what manner should we participate? Today there is much talk about moderation. It reminds me of a former colleague of mine at EEOC who often joked that he was a "gun-totin' moderate," a curiously oxymoronic perspective. Just think of that dying over half a loaf …

This tendency, in large part, results from an over-emphasis on civility. None of us should be uncivil in our manners as we debate issues of consequence. No matter how difficult it is, good manners should be routine. However, in the effort to be civil in conduct, many who know better actually dilute firmly held views to avoid appearing judgmental. They curb their tongues, not only in form but also in substance.

The insistence on civility in the form of our debates has the perverse effect of cannibalizing our principles, the very essence of a civil society. That is why civility cannot be the governing principle of citizenship or leadership. As Bea Himmelfarb observed in her book, "One Nation, Two Cultures," "To reduce citizenship to the modern idea of civility, the good-neighbor idea, is to belittle not only the political role of the citizen but also the virtues expected of the citizen, the civic virtues as they were known in antiquity and in early republican thought."

These are the virtues that Aristotle thought were necessary to govern one's self like a free man, that Montesquieu referred to as "the spring which sets the republican government in motion," and that the Founding Fathers thought provided the dynamic combination of conviction and self-discipline necessary for self-government.

Bea Himmelfarb refers to two kinds of virtues. The first are the caring virtues. They include respect, trustworthiness, compassion, fairness, decency. These are the virtues that make daily life pleasant with our families and with those we come in contact. The second are the vigorous virtues. These heroic virtues transcend family and community and may even, on occasion, violate the conventions of civility. These are the virtues that characterize great leaders, although not necessarily good friends: courage, ambition, creativity.

She notes that the vigorous virtues have been supplanted by the caring ones, though they are not mutually exclusive or necessarily incompatible. Active citizens and leaders must be governed by the vigorous rather than the caring virtues. We must not allow our desire to be decent and well-mannered people to overwhelm the substance of our principles or our determination to fight for their success. Ultimately, we should seek both caring and vigorous virtues. But above all, we must not allow the former to dominate the latter.

Again, by yielding to a false form of civility, we sometimes allow our critics to intimidate us. As I have said, active citizens are often subjected to truly vile attacks. They are branded as mean-spirited, racist, Uncle Tom, homophobic, sexist, etcetera. To this we often respond, if not succumb, so as not to be constantly fighting by trying to be tolerant and nonjudgmental. That is, we censor ourselves. This is not civility. It is cowardice, or well-intentioned self-deception at best.

Immanuel Kant pointed out that, to escape shame and self-contempt, we must learn to lie to ourselves. These lies create a formidable obstacle to action on behalf of truth. And one of the greatest human accomplishments is to find a way to shatter those lies. We've learned how easy it is to deceive ourselves, even when the truth is luminously clear.

Listen to the truths that lie within your hearts, and be not afraid to follow them wherever they may lead. Those three little words hold the power to transform individuals and change the world. They supply the quiet resolve and unvoiced courage necessary to endure the inevitable intimidation.

Today we are not called upon to risk our lives against some monstrous tyranny. America is not a barbarous country. Our people are not oppressed and we face no pressing international threat to our way of life, such as the Soviet Union once posed. Though the war in which we are engaged is cultural, not civil, it tests whether this nation, conceived in liberty, can long endure.

President Lincoln's words do endure. "It is for us, the living, to be here, dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The Founders warned us that freedom requires constant vigilance and repeated action. It is said that, when asked what sort of government the Founders had created, Benjamin Franklin replied that they had given us "a republic, if you can keep it." Today, as in the past, we will need a brave civic virtue, not a timid civility, to keep our republic. So this evening, I leave you with the simple exhortation: Be not afraid.

God bless you.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide