Text of Sen. Edward Kennedy's 1978 speech at Ole Miss

Address of Senator Edward M. Kennedy
Commencement Exercises
University of Mississippi
May 14, 1978

Chancellor Fortune, Chancellor Williams, Dr. Holmes, Senator Eastland, members of the Board of Trustees, I am honored to be here at Ole Miss today and to join in these commencement exercises with the faculty, the graduating class and their parents, and the many friends of this outstanding institution.
I am also honored to be here with my colleague, chairman and friend, Jim Eastland. As a Senator for more than three decades, he has worked hard in the service of this State and its people. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate for the past 22 years, he has had great influence on American jurisprudence and the role of the judiciary in our system of government. We have had our share of differences on issues over the years, but we have also shared many areas of agreement.
Few, if any, Senators in Washington have a greater commitment and dedication to public service and to the citizens of their states than Jim Eastland. He has earned the affection and respect of the people of Mississippi, and I am sure that he will cherish those memories in the years of his retirement. Mississippi may be losing a Senator, but seven grandchildren will be gaining a grandfather. In the future, Big Jim will be seeing a little more of Mary Elizabeth, who is here today. He will be seeing a little more of Kyle and Chris, and Lane, and his namesake Jamie and the other Chris and little Benjy. And the farm at Doddsville and the offices in Ruleville will be seeing a little more of Big Jim. He has earned his retirement well by his long and faithful service.
I am here today on a long overdue mission of apology – to concede that on one of the most crucial political issues of an earlier time, a Massachusetts President was in the wrong, and the people of Mississippi were in the right.
I am speaking – as you all must know – of President John Adams and his appointment of another Massachusetts citizen – Winthrop Sargent – to be the first governor of the newly created Mississippi territory.
Mr. Sargent was hardly a man of the people. He prided himself, he said, on not being “So far degraded, as to become the machine of the multitude.” And his high-handed, almost dictatorial manner of governing aroused the independent spirit of the people of Mississippi. Among the leaders of your native opposition was the “West Junto” of Pickering County whose members sent a message to Congress, recalling that many of them were veterans of the American Revolution and had fought to establish as a “Fundamental maxim of American politics … the birth right of every citizen to have a voice by himself or his representative in the framing of laws and the imposing of taxes.”
It was in that same spirit that the Hinds Dragoons of Mississippi fought so gallantly alongside General Andrew Jackson, winning his special commendation for their gallantry in the Battle of New Orleans, which was to propel Jackson to that revolutionary presidency which ended the rule of the eastern establishment and accelerated the western spread of popular democracy – a battle you were fighting while leaders from my state were trying to decide whether to secede from the union.
The citizens of Mississippi and the soldiers of the Hinds Dragoons were more faithful to the spirit and purpose of the new republic than your governor from Massachusetts. But, you must remember, he was a Republican.
In the two centuries which have passed since those dawning days of American freedom, both Mississippi and Massachusetts have often transgressed their founding principles – denied what the men of Pickering County called the “birthright of every citizen” to share in democratic rule. There have been decades of misunderstanding and even hostility between you and the people whom I represent in the United States Senate. But at the same time, and especially in recent years, we have been, gradually, tearing down the barriers which often made us perceive each other as aliens and strangers within common frontiers.
You have begun the laborious, often painful, accommodation to the imperatives of racial justice and equality of economic opportunity – a task more difficult, and thus more heroic, because it demands alteration in deeply embedded elements of social tradition. And we, for our part, have learned that these dame difficulties are our difficulties too; that injustice also wears a northern face.
You have come to welcome the industry and skills which, spreading from the north, are revolutionizing the life of the south. But our lives have also been enlarged by your genius. Artists like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty have not only taught us about the fulfillments and agonies of southern life. They have illuminated the common human condition, creating monuments to human possibility which will remain after the factories have crumbled and our own worldly ambitions returned to dust. And it was your native son, Richard Wright, whose agonized pilgrimage from Mississippi to Chicago and to an exile’s death in Paris, taught us that no group and no section was free of the sin of racial oppression.
All these changes and our more respectful mutual awareness of recent years – indeed, your invitation to me, and my presence on this platform – seem a vindication of the astounding vision which another man from Mississippi, Lucious Q. C. Lamar, expressed in his eulogy of an earlier Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner. Speaking on the floor of the Senate shortly after the Civil War, Lamar called upon north and south to put aside their differences. “Bound to each other by a common Constitution,” he proclaimed, “destined to live together under a common government, forming unitedly but a single member of the great family of nations, shall we not now at last endeavor to grow toward each other once more in heart as we are already indissolubly linked to each other in fortunes.”
We must, he said, understand the war “as a war of ideas – a war in which each section signalized its consecration to the principles, as each understood them, of American liberty and of the Constitution received from their fathers.”
That description is Lamar’s support of his hope for a union – not merely of territory – but a union of purpose, and a union of values. He understood that America was an idea – an idea shaped in the turbulence of revolution, given more formal structure in a constitution. It was that idea which moved the citizens of Mississippi to protest their governor from Massachusetts, as it had – earlier – thrown the crowds of Boston against their own governor from England.
That idea – that set of principles – has been the foundation – the guide and the destination – for two centuries of American history. We have fought over its meaning, defended it against foreign enemies, struggled to adapt it to new conditions. But we have never abandoned it. Nor can we. For it is what we are. Not a continent, not an arsenal, not wealth and factories – but a democratic republic. Call it democracy or freedom; call it human liberty or individual opportunity, equality or justice. But underneath they are all the same – the belief in the right and capacity of every individual to govern himself, and to share in governing the necessary institutions of social order.
To transmute that belief into a workable social order was the goal of the American Revolution. That goal was not reached at Yorktown, nor when the treaty of independence was signed. Ten years after the Declaration of Independence, a citizen of New Jersey wrote: “The American war is over, but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution … It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government.” It was not until 1787, in Philadelphia, that the revolution finally ended with formulation of the Constitution which governs us still. It was then, and only then, that a collection of independent territories became a country.
Two years ago we celebrated the 200th anniversary of our opening the battle for independence. But it will not be until 1987 that we reach the bicentennial of the American nation.
And how shall we celebrate this occasion? Not just with speeches and parades, with television specials or historical pageants. Not by paying tribute to the man who established our form of government, or by congratulating ourselves on having retained it. We can only truly commemmorate the achievements of the past by protecting them, by revising our own conduct of society in obedience to the 200-year-old constitutional principles of self government. For today, as through our history, those principles – the foundation of democratic freedoms – are in danger.
And that is what we should expect. For political freedom and democratic self government are not a final goal, a resting place. They are a challenge to be faced, a prize to be won anew by every generation of Americans. Nor is the Constitution a guarantee of self government. It is exactly what George Washington intended when he said before the constitutional convention, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.” It is that standard which constitutes their accomplishment.
The framers were confronted with urgent and immediate dangers – the disruption of internal commerce, growing hostilities and divisions among the states, large overseas debts, ominous pressures from the European powers which occupied the rest of North America, and potential civil war within several states. As Washington wrote to Madison in 1786, “No morn ever dawned more favorably than ours did; and no day was ever more clouded than the present.” Only an effective central government, one with significant authority, could hope to protect the freedom and well-being of the weakened and fragmenting states, or ensure that the independence so dearly won would not be destroyed.
Because they were men of great practical skills – gifted at accommodation and compromise – they devised a structure of government equal to those needs of the day. But they were also men of belief, wise in the dangers of power, determined not to sacrifice freedom in the name of efficiency or even self-preservation. They designed their constitutional structure to accord not simply to necessity but to principle – to the continuation of their great experiment in democratic government.
There is not a single institution described in the Constitution which functions today precisely as the framers intended. Nor could they have envisaged the circumstances of twentieth century America – rising from depression to world power, wealthy beyond their imagination, burdened with unparallelled (sic) responsibilities. However, the enormity of change is also a measure of their achievement. For their understanding of public power and its dangers to democracy is as true today, as it was in 1787. And it is our departure from that understanding which threatens to erode our freedom.
“The way to have good and safe government,” wrote Jefferson, “is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to everyone exactly the functions he is competent to do.” And the individual citizen, Jefferson explained, must “feel that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day … it is not by the consolidation or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected.”
Jefferson was not present at the Philadelphia Convention. But his observations state the themes which underlay its deliberations, and which therefore became the primary and essential principle of the nation it created. If one finds little mention of this subject in the debates, or in the Constitution itself, that is because it was embedded in the common understanding which preceded discussion. The careful division of powers among the branches of the national government – the elaborate system of checks and balances which you have all studied – were not designed to protect the President against the Congress or the Judiciary against the President. They were to prevent a concentration of national authority which might jeopardize the rights of states, of communities and of the individual citizen. Proposals for a bill of rights were rejected, not because those rights were opposed, but because their affirmation seemed unnecessary, since they were already secured by declarations of rights in the state constitutions. And Madison’s proposal for a national negative – a kind of veto – over state laws was summarily rejected, although, in time, the Constitution would be interpreted to give the federal government much of this same authority which had been explicitly denied.
Under the new constitution, the power to govern was dispersed – to states, to communities, to private associations, and to the individual citizen. This was not a political judgment. It was not a design intended to make government operate more efficiently, or to solve problems more effectively. For the purpose of America – the justification for its creation – was not wealth or power, expansion, or even self-preservation.
The purpose was freedom – the right of every person to share, as fully as possible, in the conduct of society, to shape his own destiny, and to pursue the opportunities of our abundant continent.
And to those who founded the nation, freedom and power were opposite sides of the same coin. Self-government was not simply the right to vote for a President or Congressman, but the ability to influence public decisions, to help shape the conduct of society, to resist abuses of authority. The closer and more intimate the bonds between the citizen, his institutions, and his representatives, the greater his own power – that power which was the source of individual freedom whose sum constituted the fabric of a free society.
The experience of our early years proved that without an effective central government, the freedom and well-being of every citizen was in danger. Yet the men who experienced those years also knew that too power a government would also be a deprivation of freedom. The Constitution was their answer – not a balance between freedom and authority, but a distribution of power which would protect and enlarge freedom to the fullest extent permitted by the conditions of the time.
For two centuries we have struggled to protect their achievement, shifting and revising the structure of politics as the new necessities and dangers required.
And today, once again, that is America’s challenge. For a changing world now assaults our founding principles.
None of you needs proof of the enormous accumulation of power by the federal government over the past few decades. It is the most substantial and visible reality of political life. Much of this is inescapable. Only the national government can, for example, provide for the national defense or ensure the rights of minorities. But today federal authority extends to almost every aspect of our social existence – the structure of our cities, the price of our groceries, and the conduct of our schools. Governors and mayors must now go to Washington for permission and help to solve the problems of their own states and communities.
As public affairs become more centralized, as personal and local responsibilities are absorbed, the individual’s confidence in himself – in his mastery over the conditions of his own life – has been eroded. And for good reason. For his power to govern has, in fact, been diminished, the inescapable consequence of concentration. If people are suspicious and estranged from politics, it is, at least in part, because the individual’s control over public life has become increasingly remote and abstract. In this time of “participation politics,” we can – unlike the men of 1800 – vote directly for nominees and candidates to almost every public office. But it is also true that our ability to influence those decisions which determine the conditions of daily life is less than that in America’s first generation. And the consequence of this sensed futility is to turn people inward, making them anxious to protect themselves against the uncontrollable future, and depriving us of the energy and confidence which can alone resolve our difficulties.
It is clear that the future of American freedom rests on the readiness of our citizens to engage in the great enterprises of society. And that cannot be accomplished by exhortation or by command. People will act when they believe their action has meaning – that is, when they have power and the responsibility that goes with power. “That’s what I’m talking about,” Faulkner once said, “responsibility. Not just the right, but the duty, of man to be responsible, the necessity of man to be responsible if he wishes to remain free.”
This will not be a simple accomplishment. But we have a two hundred year old guide. We need only invoke the animating spirit of our Constitution to help us develop new structures – new ways of regulating society – which will permit individual citizens a larger share in the American enterprise. This may come by giving increased power to state and local governments, or through the creation of entirely new institutions – for community action, for example, or educating the very young.

This effort is not a return to the old debate about “states rights” and “big government.” That was a contest to decide whether public resources should be used to solve social problems. And that battle has been resolved. Injustice and economic decline, the health of our citizens, and the deterioration of our cities, are public problems which require public solutions. The challenge which rely on units of action and government small enough to permit the influence and participation of the individual citizen.

The federal government will have to set standards, provide money or the ability to raise money, and protect the rights of oppressed minorities. Nor will it be easy to reverse the currents of a generation. But it must be done, if we are to restore and strengthen that faith of the individual in himself – in his freedom to influence choice – which is the ultimate source of national direction and national achievement.

I would hope that between now and the bicentennial of 1987, people in towns and communities across the country will meet to discuss and search our ways of restoring the constitutional balance – to distribute authority and responsibility without sacrificing the rights of any of our fellow citizens. If this is done, by the bicentennial year of 1987, it would be possible to have a gathering in each of the fifty states, assembling the now untapped energy and ingenuity of concerned citizens whose deliberations would produce specific proposals for the country’s consideration. The Constitution is still our guide. We need only be true to its intent. If we are, then the document already provides power enough.
But whether or not we make this effort, the challenge to our principles will not go away. I do not come to you with detailed responses. But I do know that it will require important changes in the structure of our institutions. And I do know that it will not be easy to cram these changes into old categories – liberal, conservative, radical or reactionary. Instead, they will bring to our public life, new meanings to old words in our political dialogue – words such as “power,” “community”, “purpose.” “Power – so that individual citizen can regain control over the conditions of his social existence. “Community” – so that each individual can live and work in some kind of shared comradeship with his fellows. “Purpose” – so that Americans can feel the pride of participation in a society whose goals are touched with some kind of nobility and moral purpose.
These are phrases of politics whose emergence and triumph are up to you who graduate today, even more than they are to me. It is a task, and, perhaps, the glory, of your generation of Americans.
But how can you do this? Where do you begin? Why, you don’t have to ask a yankee from Massachusetts. Look homeward to Mississippi. Not long ago, here in Oxford, Mr. Faulkner explained it all to graduating class in words that speak for the ages – “So never be afraid,” he said. “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you, not just you in this room … but in all the thousands of other rooms like this one about the world, today and tomorrow and next week – will do this, not as a class or classes, but as individuals, men and women, you will change the earth.


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