This is a great university. It is named after a remarkable man.
I don’t know if you have studied his history. If not, this is a good time.
George Mason has been called the “forgotten founder” of this country. But he should not be forgotten, certainly not on a day when you pick up a degree with his name on it.
As it turns out, his ideas are highly relevant today.
George Mason drafted the Declaration of Rights for Virginia. That became the model for the Bill of Rights.
If you want to understand what has made our country genuinely exceptional, look to the Bill of Rights.
And yet George Mason, who played a central role in writing the U.S. Constitution, never signed that document. He refused — on grounds that might resonate today.
Number 1: The Constitution, as first approved in 1787, did not have a Bill of Rights. Mason insisted it should have one.
Years later, a Bill of Rights was introduced, largely reflecting what Mason had proposed all along. He deserves much of the credit for the liberties we all enjoy today. These are liberties we too often take for granted. We cannot afford to do that.
Number 2: Mason felt the Constitution created a federal government that would be too powerful. His fears, as the National Archives has put it, led him “to conclude that the new government was destined to either become a monarchy or fall into the hands of a corrupt, oppressive aristocracy.”
If you are concerned about potential abuse from a government that gains too much power – or is dominated by special interests — you have a lot in common with George Mason.
And number 3: The Constitution did not end the slave trade. Mason called slavery a “slow poison, which is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People.”
He identified the country’s original sin, an evil whose repercussions for race relations and equality are felt still today.
Yet here is the paradox: Mason was an owner of slaves. And when he died, he did not free them.
“Slaves,” he said, “bring the judgment of heaven on a Country.”
He, like all of us, is subject to judgment as well, from heaven — and from history.
We can be individuals of great accomplishment. We can profess strong values. But we are not always the people we should be.
Commencement suggests we begin again. It is a good time to reflect on how we begin to do better — as individuals, as a people, as a nation.
George Mason’s values offer some guidance.
He wanted order in society but not through obedience to a monarch; rather, through civic responsibility to one another. The Virginia Declaration spoke of “the mutual duty to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”
What might such principles mean in practice? Perhaps the following:
We would practice civility in our public discourse, starting at the highest level, repudiating the plague of personal vilification.
We might embrace acceptance for all people because each member of the human race is entitled to respect and dignity.
We might feel obliged to help the least fortunate, because the blessings available to some are not equally shared by all.
We might stop treating opponents as enemies – and let ideas compete on merit without seeking to humiliate or belittle or destroy those who see things differently.
We might, from time to time, find actual common ground, conceding that none of us can have everything we want – in our relationships, in our workplaces, or in our nation.
We might first find common ground by agreeing on fundamental, verifiable facts, rejecting conspiratorial fantasies and deliberate falsehoods. We would not define “truth” as only that which is good for us – while labeling as “fake” that which does not serve our politics or our interests. When statements are not true, we would not call them “alternative facts.”
Another principle of George Mason is naturally close to my heart: freedom of the press. His Virginia Declaration of Rights called it “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.”
This gave rise to the First Amendment, which allowed not just freedom of the press but freedom of expression of every variety — and for everyone. Today, it permits free expression in music, movies, advertising, social media. In the everyday conversations with friends, family, and colleagues.
There is freedom of speech. And freedom to peaceably assemble. And to petition the government about any grievance.
What is the purpose of those freedoms? It is to hold our government to account.
Ours is a country that makes a moral demand on every citizen – all of you — to speak up. When people talk of self-governance in this country, that is what they’re talking about.
Self-governance does not end at the ballot box. It is an obligation that persists every day.
Speaking up is no threat. Suppression of speech is the threat. Silence is the threat.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927 that “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty.”
This year, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, declared:
“For our democracy to work, we are not just free to express ourselves. We are obligated to express ourselves. If the public square falls silent, the whole system is at risk.”
And John Lewis, the congressman and courageous civil rights pioneer, said: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”
Those of us in the press have a special obligation to speak up –through reporting, analysis and commentary. If, for example, the White House tells us to shut up – as it has — the answer must be no. That is the only ethical response, especially when it involves scrutiny of the most powerful person on earth.
If we in the press fail to do our jobs for fear of retribution by a president — or anyone else — we will betray the very idea that brought us the First Amendment in the first place.
And when a president vilifies us (calling us, say, “enemy of the American people”) — or pressures the FBI director to put reporters in jail — we must keep in mind a revered predecessor, James Madison, who championed “the right of freely examining public characters and measures” and who called free expression “the only effectual guardian of every other right.”
Anthony Lewis, the late New York Times columnist and First Amendment scholar, once wrote words we should live by today: “The American press has been given extraordinary freedom by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment. In return, it owes society courage.”
In short, we in the press need to do our jobs. And we will. Neither words of condemnation nor acts of intimidation will stop us.
Finally, there is another quality to George Mason that bears remembering, particularly now.
The National Archives cites “his belief in the rule of reason.” It says he was the “American manifestation of the Enlightenment.”
The Enlightenment period, from the late 17th century through the 18th, opened the way for huge advancements from which every one of you benefits — on this very day.
Its political theories led to our own system of democracy, where divine authority is not the basis for governance; only the consent of the governed is. It valued reason and objective truth over myths and mysticism and authoritarianism rooted in religious doctrine.
It was a time of confidence in science — a conviction that it was necessary to progress and improving lives. It recognized the value of knowledge. It embraced the idea of education for all.
“Dare to know,” the philosopher Immanuel Kant said in summarizing the meaning of that time. “Have the courage to use your own reason.”
You are the beneficiary of those ideas. You would not be here without them. You would not be on your way to becoming physicists, chemists, biologists, doctors, engineers, economists, entrepreneurs, educators, computer scientists, historians, linguists, or specialists in other fields that require deep study.
We value education because society needs knowledge. We need expertise. We need people with experience.
Your expertise deserves to be treasured, not ignored or denied solely because it conflicts with someone’s superstitions or ideological agenda. So, too, with the experience you gain over time. It should be at least as highly valued, if not more so.
The modern world has urgent problems. Without your expertise and experience, we will not solve them.
And when we debate — as we should — how to address the challenges faced by our country and our world, the anchor to our arguments will need to be facts, genuine evidence. Judgments are difficult enough without the subversive intrusion of fabrications and crackpot conspiracy theories that are all too common today.
As a journalist, I believe there is such a thing as truth. Every day, when I walk into our newsroom, the first principle of our organization is what I see first: “to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”
On the epitaph for English philosopher John Locke, the great political theorist of the Enlightenment – a man who inspired our founders, including George Mason — there is this line:
“Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth.”
I hope people will say the same of all of you.
Thank you for listening, thank you for this honor.
Congratulations and good luck.