Last Updated June 20, 2008

Winter 2002 Commencement

Anthony Lewis
Pulitzer Prize-winning author & former columnist for the New York Times
January 27, 2002

Graduates! How I envy you this day of beginning, of possibility. You are among the luckiest people on earth. You have been to a wonderful university, in a city and a country that offer all the wonders of modern technology and culture. Now you face the exhilarating challenge of life, either in graduate school or on your own.

Of course I understand that luck is not all that has brought you to this happy moment. Making your way into a university and through its demands is hard work, requiring real commitment. It is also true that your circumstances vary enormously. You come from all over this vast country, and from all around the globe. Many of you had to struggle to reach this day. And all of you are going into a less comfortable world than the one faced by graduates a year ago or for many years past.

The world after Sept. 11 presents a particular challenge to you, indeed to all of us. We have to deal with a shadowy enemy that lets nothing, not even human life, get in the way of its terrifying aims. It is a cliché to say that now; we know it too well. But the challenge of dealing with terrorism includes another aspect that we may not understand so well: we have to fight an unprincipled enemy without losing our principles.

I say we may not understand that because of what happened at another commencement last month, across the continent at California State University in Sacramento. A newspaper publisher made a speech there about how we should be sure, under the stresses of the fight against terrorism, to preserve the rights to free speech and fair trial. Or, rather, she tried to make that speech. She did not finish because she was booed, heckled and shouted down. Many in the audience did not want to hear about, or think about, civil liberties. They wanted to fight the terrorists without worrying about such niceties.

But they are not just niceties, ladies and gentlemen. The right to say what we believe, to disagree with officials, is what we Americans are all about. That and the right to be treated fairly when officials try to put us in prison—the right to have a lawyer, to be confronted by any evidence against us and so on. Those strands are woven into our Constitution and into our system of belief. Moreover, they are a powerful part of America’s influence in the world. It is bound to impress the world that U.S. weapons can so quickly rout the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, freeing the Afghan people from its cruelties. But over many years millions of people have admired our freedom, and the constitutional system that protects it.

Shortly after Sept. 11 an Israeli friend of mine, paraphrasing James Madison and the others who invented our system, said American democracy was an experiment in government based not on fear but on freedom. Then, speaking of the anthrax attacks, my friend said, “It is the spread of fear, much more than germs, that can undermine America as a democracy.”

On this issue, as on so many, we need to know some history. For the fact is that fear has driven us away from the path of the Constitution again and again in American history. And right from the beginning. The First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech and a free press in the broadest terms, was added to the Constitution in 1791. Just seven years later Congress passed a Sedition Act that sent editors to prison for criticizing President John Adams in their newspapers. How could that happen? The reason was a war scare. The terror that followed the French Revolution, the bloody march of the guillotine, led Americans to fear a French attack on us. Adams’s party, the Federalists, played on that fear to pass a law really intended to suppress critics in the run-up to the Presidential election of the year 1800.

The Civil War became the occasion for another incursion on a precious liberty: the right, explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution, of any person taken to prison to challenge the lawfulness of the imprisonment by seeking a writ of habeas corpus in court. President Lincoln simply suspended habeas corpus.

In World War I, President Wilson sought and Congress passed an Espionage Act that, among other things, made it a crime to object to military conscription. Eugene Debs, who had been the Socialist Party’s candidate for President, expressed sympathy for men jailed for opposing conscription. For that passage in a speech, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He ran for President in 1920 from a Federal penitentiary.

In World War II—I do not think I have to tell you—Americans of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their farms and homes on the West Coast and held in detention camps in the deserts of Utah. No individual was charged with disloyalty or had a chance to contest the suspicion.

The Cold War produced a pervasive fear. Fear of Communism cost numbers of Americans their jobs, not just in Government offices but in Hollywood movies. And again, there was little if any opportunity to contest what some nameless person had said about possible disloyalty.

Now there is one striking thing about all those historical examples of what fear can do in this country. America in time faced up to the injustices that had happened, and regretted them.

The Sedition Act of 1798 boomeranged on its sponsors, the Federalists. The supporters of Thomas Jefferson, who ran against Adams in 1800, charged that the act was designed to create a dictatorship—and they convinced the voters. Jefferson was elected, and the Federalist Party disappeared.

Eugene Debs and the others prosecuted during World War I have been justified in history and in what has happened in law since then. One of those prosecutions brought the first great statement in the Supreme Court of the case for free speech, a dissenting opinion by Justice Holmes. “When men have come to realize that time has upset many fighting faiths,” Holmes wrote, “they may come to believe . . . that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market . . . That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution, It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment . . . While that experiment is part of our system I think we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death.”

Those great words of Holmes, dissenting, have become the majority view in law. Judges across the legal spectrum now protect the most critical speech.

As for the Japanese-Americans, we have officially apologized for what was done to them in a time of fear, and offered the survivors modest compensation.

Ladies and gentlemen, what that history tells me is that this is an extraordinarily resilient country. We are subject to excesses of zealotry in times of fear. But in time we turn back to our better angel—our constitutional angel.

Other countries may have cultural traditions or symbols that hold them together: a monarchy, say. We have law and the Constitution. Forget them, and we are in real danger. The Framers of the Constitution were worried about the tyranny of the majority—worried about what could happen to individuals if majority passions were not constrained by law. That is why I was worried about that graduation in Sacramento, California.

When I began by saying I envied you your new lives, I meant it. Men and women have invented no better system of government than constitutional democracy—that is, majority rule with protections for the rights of individuals. For all the troubles in the world right now, that system is more widely accepted on earth than ever before. And even where it has not taken hold, millions long for it. Wherever you are going now, you will have a chance to help preserve or secure that freedom. Just remember what Benjamin Franklin said: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”