Commencement 2017

Middlebury College Commencement Address
By Jon Meacham
May 28, 2017

I am honored to be with you today on this glorious occasion. And since I am about the only thing standing between you and the rest of your lives, I’ll be brief. We are together, though, at a remarkable and in many ways troubling moment for the republic that came into being in Philadelphia nearly 250 summers ago, so it’s fitting that we take a moment to reflect on where we are, where we’ve been, and where we might go under the Class of 2017’s ultimate leadership.

Let’s begin at another remarkable and in many ways troubling moment—an hour in American life when everything seemed to be falling apart. It was 1786–1787, and George Washington believed the United States, once so promising, was in peril. The nation’s governing body, the Confederation Congress, was ineffectual. In Massachusetts armed and angry farmers led by a Revolutionary veteran, Daniel Shays, mounted a rebellion after the state legislature levied a burdensome tax. Taxes were also an issue in Virginia, which was suffering from a devastating drought. There was discontent in the land; several prisons, courthouses, and clerk’s offices had been “willfully burnt.” Soon there were even rumors of a return to monarchy, of reaching out to recruit a Hanover as a new American sovereign.

The answer: a convention of the states to draft a new plan of government—one that would secure the hard-fought victories of the Revolution. As General Washington put it: “Without some alteration in our political creed, the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expense of so much blood and treasure must fall. We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion!”

And so, as we can see, fears of American decline are older than the Republic. The imminence of chaos, of a nation torn asunder, of a country irretrievably lost has long been a standard political trope. As John Adams remarked: “Commerce, luxury, and avarice have destroyed every republican government. We mortals cannot work miracles; we struggle in vain against the course of nature.”

And yet we struggle on. Every generation, it is true, tends to think of itself as uniquely challenged and under siege. The questions of the present assume outsize and urgent importance, for they are, after all, the questions that shape and suffuse the lives of those living in the moment. Humankind seems to be forever coping with crisis. Strike the “seems”: humankind is forever coping with crisis, or believes it is, and will until what William Faulkner described as “the last red and dying evening.”

What’s remarkable about America is her durability and adaptability amid the perpetual crises and vicissitudes of history. This is not a sentimental argument. There was a genius about the American founding and the emergence of American democratic politics. That genius lay in no small part in the recognition that the republic was as susceptible to human passions as human beings themselves. The founders expected seasons of anger and frustration; they anticipated hours of unhappiness and unrest. The country was thus constructed with an awareness of sin and a determination to protect the larger republican enterprise from the furies of the moment.

The world has already turned over many times since you have been in it. Many of you were born in the middle of the 1990s. It was the third year or so of the first term of President Bill Clinton. In those days, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was about 5,000. A gallon of gasoline cost $1.15. Mark Zuckerberg, who gave us Facebook and launched a social-media revolution, turned 11. New television shows included Star Trek: Voyager and CNBC’s Squawk Box. And this was the year that gave us the movies Braveheart, Toy Story, The Usual Suspects, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Grumpier Old Men, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie.

You were just about to begin elementary school when terror struck us out of a bright blue sky on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. For well over half of your lifetimes, the United States of America has been at war, something that can be said only of those born during the revolution in the latter part of the 18th century. You were in middle school when the first African American in history was elected president of the United States. And you were students here, at Middlebury, when the most unconventional major-party candidate in American history won the highest office in the land.

So you know what history feels like; you’ve already lived through a fair chunk of it. And you know, at least implicitly, that the only thing we know for certain is that it shall turn over again, and then again, and yet again, even to the end of the age.

St. Augustine once defined a nation as a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of our love. The common objects of our love: a decade and a half into the 21st century, what do we love in common? The painful but unavoidable answer is: not enough. Still, history itself has the capacity to bring us together, for the story of the American journey is ultimately the story of obstacles overcome, crises resolved, freedom expanded. We have always grown in strength the wider we have opened our arms—and the more we have opened our hearts. From Lexington and Concord to Lewis and Clark; from Fort Sumter to D-Day; from Seneca Falls to Selma, we have sought to perfect our Union.

Which brings us to the moral utility of history. It is tempting to feel superior to the past. But as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once said, self-righteousness in retrospect is easy, also cheap. And so while we are right to condemn posterity for slavery, or for Native American removal, or for denying women their full role in the life of the nation, we should also pause and think: what injustices are we perpetuating even now that will one day face the harshest of verdicts by those who come after us? And what then can we do to right those wrongs in our own time?

It is in the answer to those questions—what can we do now—that history, at least as a popular sensibility, can find its motive force in our daily lives. To know what has come before, and to know how to think about seemingly disparate and distant events in relation to one’s own hour, is to be armed against despair. For if the men and women of the past—with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites—could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to form a more perfect union, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and leave the world—the stage—a better place than we found it. And great change does not always come from the top. We live in a nation redeemed by the courage and the blood of African Americans, particularly in my native South, who braved humiliation and death to force white America to face up to the sins and shortcomings of an established order that denied people of color a full part in the life of the country. We must forever remember their sacrifice, honor their achievements, and be inspired by their example.

The great fact of the America in which you and I are living today is passionate partisanship. Too many of us are given to reflexively reacting to whatever unfolds in the public square not according to our reason but to our ideological, even tribal, predispositions. I want to be clear about this. Partisanship is not intrinsically bad. It’s in the nature of things, in the nature of human beings, to hold fast to views and allegiances, to heroes and creeds, to the exclusion of other views and other allegiances, other heroes and other creeds. Such is politics, which is both an emotional and a rational undertaking. What is worth avoiding is reflexive, rather than reflective, partisanship. The point of America is not for all of us to think alike; that’s impossible and undesirable in any event. Autocracies are about total agreement, or at least total submission; the American republic is founded on the notion that even the person with whom I most stridently disagree might have something to say worth hearing and heeding. The only way I can figure out whether that’s the case is by listening to the other guy, by weighing the relative merits of what is said, and by then, and only then, making up my mind. The danger lies in my reflexively dismissing a point because of the person making that point. Such is a foreclosure of reason—and a concession to the primacy of passion.

So be reflective about our public life; make up your mind based on facts and evidence; be open to the very real possibility that you might be wrong from time to time and that people whom you thought beyond redemption might have a point. There is no shame in this. The shame only comes when we take refuge in unjustified certitude rather than fearless openness of mind and soul.

Here is my best counsel to you, from my middle age to your youth. Be curious, be gracious, be hopeful; love your neighbor, take naps outside on summer afternoons; read Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and James Baldwin, and as many detective stories as you can find; go to the movies; subscribe to newspapers and magazines; vote in each and every election; never be embarrassed to put your hand over your heart and join in when a band strikes up the national anthem; write thank-you notes on actual paper—you know, the dead-tree kind. Try to look up from those screens, whether on your phone or on your wrist: yes, technology contains multitudes, but virtual reality is just that: virtual, not real. Above all, remember, in hours of joy and of darkness, that a life well lived is judged not by the bottom line but by the big picture. You are about to make history, and the rest of us can’t wait to see what you do with your hour upon the stage. Godspeed.