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Here's Why What Clarence Thomas Said Was Important

Clarence Thomas
(Video Screenshot Image)

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Clarence Thomas gave the commencement address at Hillsdale College this past weekend, and his address is definitely worth watching in its entirety.

As Campus Reform pointed out, Thomas was one of the few conservative speakers asked to address students during this year's round of graduations. The conservative organization said that 40 of the announced commencement speakers at this year's top 100 schools have liberal leanings. Only 10 such speakers are identifiably conservative.

Justice Thomas said he wanted to avoid the formulaic graduation speech where the speaker instructs graduates to go out and fix the world's problems or change the world.

So it should surprise no one that to the extent that Justice Thomas' remarks were covered in the establishment media, the coverage seems to have focused on his criticism of political correctness: "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," he told the students.

But Justice Thomas' remarks offered several important insights beyond the headline-grabbing criticism of political correctness.

"Much that once seemed inconceivable (is) now firmly established. Hallmarks of my youth such as patriotism and religion seem more like outliers, if not afterthoughts. I admit to being unapologetically Catholic, unapologetically patriotic and unapologetically a constitutionalist," Justice Thomas told them.

"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. These small lessons become the unplanned syllabus for becoming a good citizen. Your efforts to live them will help to form the fabric of a civil society, and free and prosperous nation where inherent equality and liberty are invaluable," Justice Thomas continued.

"At risk of understating what is necessary to preserve liberty in our form of government, I think more and more it depends on good citizens discharging their daily duties and obligations. Sadly, today it seems as though grievances rather than personal conduct are the means of elevation," the justice advised. "We must be reminded there is work to be done. The world increasingly embraces all that is wrong, false and ugly. We are among the lonely few who have all the right questions."

The notion of "an unplanned syllabus for becoming a good citizen" is a truly unique contribution to today's discussion about the state of our civil society.

Citizenship and the relationship between being a good citizen and having a good country certainly aren't topics the Left wants broached, because the idea that one must be a good citizen to have a good country undercuts the foundation of the Leftist criticism of America and their anti-American "social justice" campaign.

In the ideology of the far-Left, such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, all of their grievances are based on the idea that a faceless impersonal "they" lies at the root of all of society's ills and this "they" can be identified by simple external markers—being white, having a certain level of income, living in a certain neighborhood and so on.

"I am of a different time," Thomas told the graduates. "Today there is much more focus on our rights as citizens and what we are owed, it is not often that one hears of our obligations or duties as citizens." He then gave students some lessons about giving back to society.

"At risk of understating what is necessary to preserve liberty in our form of government, I think more and more it depends on good citizens discharging their daily duties and obligations," Thomas said, according to Hillsdale student Breana Noble's reporting for The College Fix. "Sadly, today it seems as though grievances rather than personal conduct are the means of elevation."

Thomas referenced the idea of grade-point average redistribution, which would take points from a hardworking, high-achieving student to that of a low-achieving one.

"Apparently, we all deserve the same reward, the same status notwithstanding the difference in our efforts or our abilities," Thomas said. "It is no wonder, then, that we hear of what is deserved or what one is entitled to."

The justice emphasized lessons he learned from his grandfather.

"He knew that though not nearly perfect, our constitutional principles were perfectible if we worked to protect them rather than to undermine them," Thomas said.

In arguing for good citizenship as the building block of a good country, Justice Thomas picked up where de Tocqueville left off in arguing that America's greatness derived from the goodness of its citizenry and conversely that if America, and Americans, ceased to be good the country would cease to be great.

But our favorite line in Justice Thomas' Commencement Address at Hillsdale College was not the seemingly controversial one that the media led with, or the concepts with their roots in de Tocqueville's prescient analysis of early 19th-century America.

It was this one-line gem: "If we are not making deposits to replenish our liberties, then who is? Are we content to let others do the work?" Justice Thomas said.

One might be tempted to trace the lineage of rhetoric in that thought to Thomas Jefferson's letter to William Smith (Paris, Nov. 13, 1787) wherein Jefferson wrote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants."

In reality, Justice Thomas appears to propose an entirely new formula for describing constitutional liberty; a storehouse of goodness.

In this regard Justice Thomas is certainly correct, as both history and our present state of civil society demonstrate. Certainly history provides no example of a nation of debased and corrupt citizens who lived in harmony and prosperity. And just as certainly, our country has become less free and less prosperous and less harmonious as Americans have forgotten the lessons in good citizenship that Justice Thomas learned in his youth, and which he commended so eloquently to Hillsdale's graduating seniors.

George Rasley is editor of ConservativeHQ, a member of American MENSA and a veteran of over 300 political campaigns, including every Republican presidential campaign from 1976 to 2008. He served as lead advance representative for Governor Sarah Palin in 2008 and has served as a staff member, consultant or advance representative for some of America's most recognized conservative Republican political figures, including President Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. He served in policy and communications positions on the House and Senate staff, and during the George H.W. Bush administration he served on the White House staff of Vice President Dan Quayle.

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