As I look out over the audience, I see that some of you are the rear guard of a people who arrived in America searching for freedom from political tyranny and religious oppression, and some of you are the rear guard of a people who arrived in America seeking opportunity, and some of you, like myself, are the rear guard of a people who arrived in America chained and malnourished in the hold of a 350-ton Portuguese, Dutch, or British vessel. And some of you have been in America long before any of us.
We have all shared a common history as Americans. Most of us can trace our ancestry back to a ship's log or an airline manifest. We are all a testament to the strength of the American character and to the resiliency of the human spirit.
I had wanted to come here today to encourage you to have a belief in yourself that is larger than anyone's disbelief; to talk about how your talent, your truths, your belief in yourself, are all in your hands. But there is a greater urgency that commands our attention.
We have turned the corner on the 21st century. Our prosperity is not guaranteed. Our freedom and our survival are not guaranteed. We live in a global community where the majority of our fellow human beings in Africa, South America, the West Indies, Asia and the Middle East are at the bottom of a social system that leaves them chained to a cycle of poverty and oppression.
Away from home we are engaged in a war that robs us of our energies and steals from our national treasury. That it is a war based on false premise and carried out with escalating misconduct and protracted deception is not our immediate concern. A more pressing matter is that the foundation upon which this country has stood from its inception is in danger of crumbling from assaults upon its principles and the articles that guarantee our liberties.
Two hundred and twenty eight years ago, an insurgent band of colonial subjects of King George, responding to a tyranny that reached across the Atlantic, citing a long list of grievances, declared their independence from the Crown. They envisioned a nation, unlike any other, in which every citizen had equal rights to property, equal protection under the laws, and the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of their own happiness. They envisioned a true democracy governed with the consent of the governed.
This nation came into being with that declaration. Its resolve was tested on the battlefield from which it emerged victorious. The courage and bravery of these early patriots, their willingness to die to secure liberty, were the first marks on the American character. With sacrifice, tenacity, an irreproachable sense of honor and high in moral purpose, they emerged from the Revolutionary War united in a loose confederation of states.
But they wanted a more perfect union, so "upon full investigation and mature deliberation," in the words of George Washington, they drew up the Constitution of the United States.
" We, the people of the United States... " Not, "We, the politicians... " Not, "We, the corporations... "
"... the people... in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice... "
Of all the great principles and ideals, having the grace of poetry, and with the dizzying power of its blinding light, justice stands alone. It is the very foundation upon which the house is built. Without justice, the house falls down. Without justice, you cannot have peace. Without peace you cannot have prosperity. The Founding Fathers understood that. That's why they established justice as the moral rule of law.
In order to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, they drew up a document that would provide the nation with the means to accomplish those things — a document that, as a way of safeguarding the nation's honor and earning the respect of nations, called for the observation of justice and the cultivation of peace, by indulging no passions that trespassed on the rights or the repose of other nations.
From its inception, the Constitution was fused with sanctity. George Washington called it "a sacred obligatory upon all." It wasn't perfect. Even in its admiration of justice, the Constitution was a monumental moral failure in its sanction of slavery. (Justice thrown off stride will right itself. Of all the great documents in the history of civilization, the Constitution contains within itself a provision for its own amendment. In 1865, with the 13th Amendment, the Constitution extended those blessings of liberty to black Americans.)
The framers of the Constitution were men of experience. They had seen the hand of tyranny and felt the yoke of oppression. The mark was still upon their neck.
Recognizing the inherent contradictions, they said, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof... "
Today, in 2004, both in policy and practice, the line between church and state has become increasingly blurred — even when we have vivid examples of the dangers to freedom of choice, and the tyranny that occurs when the state becomes fettered with the demands and obligation of religious beliefs and practice. To allow the wall between church and state to erode would be a violation of the blood and sacrifice of those men and women whose perseverance and tenacity have gotten us this far.
In their wisdom, and because of their love of liberty, the framers of the Constitution amended its articles to include the right to free speech. Our Constitution gives me the right to stand here and shout, "The king is a fool," without fear of reprisal, without fear of being jailed, without fear of losing my job, without fear of my neighbor's pitchforks.
Without free speech, you are bound and gagged, suffocated by the dictates of government, without recourse to the expression of grievances, and the cry of liberty is reduced to surreptitious whispers and dark-alley intrigue.
The Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law for all citizens. Rich, poor; black, white; men, women; gay, straight; your rights under the Constitution are not abridged. As Americans, we are guaranteed life, liberty and, unless it is injurious to the life or limb of your fellow citizens, how we choose to pursue our happiness is not anyone's business. Not your neighbors' or the government's. The government doesn't belong in the bedroom.
Wise and revolutionary in its principles, the Constitution not only guarantees equal protection under the law for all citizens, it charges the citizens with maintaining it. Sovereignty does not rest with the government. In the United States, it rests with the people. What kind of country are you going to have? Are you going to have rule of law or rule of men? It's your choice. It's your country.
But understand how we got here. Understand what has kept us thus far willingly shouldering the burden of liberty as we bask in its blessings. You must be ever vigilant to the tenets and principles of the Constitution. It is a duty that comes with your inheritance.
Today we are engaged in a war against terrorism. It is a war that must be fought. Anything less than victory is unthinkable and unacceptable. The war against poverty, and the war against injustice, go a long way to winning the war against terrorism. To wage one without waging the others is folly and is doomed to failure.
But our enemies are not mad, bloodthirsty fanatics who exist only to kill. They are intelligent men who believe they have valid political agendas. We ignore that at our peril. It is we who are at the crossroads. This is the history we are making. Each and every day. Millions of children, born and unborn, will travel roads we have hacked out of the underbrush of the events of 9-11.
It takes great courage to struggle on the moral high ground that our forefathers claimed and conquered. We cannot allow the values that were developed by generations of Americans — values that were tested and proven on the battlefield — to be scattered like so much cotton in the wind.
You are either going to have civil liberties as defined and guaranteed by the Constitution, or you're not. You can't have some and not others. You cannot be ambiguous about the Constitution. You cannot assault its articles in the name of patriotism. No matter how dire the circumstances.
It is in the darkest of circumstance that the Constitution is the pillar of strength, the unshakable rock upon which this country stands. Brave and courageous men have given their lives that it not be torn asunder. Because of them you sit here today secure in the freedoms that are its backbone. You cannot sully the Constitution in the name of patriotism. It is un-American.
This country was born out of dissent. Dissent is an American virtue. It cannot be allowed to be driven underground. "My country right or wrong" leads to some dark places. It has to be my country, the America whose moral center has been the beacon of hope for the world's humanity for over 200 years. It has to be my country, the America that cares about whether it is right or wrong. The America whose very foundation is its aspiration to the highest of human ideals.
You are responsible for the world in which you live. The responsibility does not belong to the government, the church, your social clubs, your schools — it is yours. And mine. You cannot outsource responsibility, just as you cannot prioritize justice.
Look around you. Everywhere you see systems of commerce and transportation, systems of law and government, systems of communication and finance and agriculture. You didn't build any of it. You are reaping the harvest. You are heirs to all of it. To all of our history. The glorious and the shameful. It does not come free. It comes with rights and responsibilities.
To "preserve, protect, and defend" — it comes with a duty to vigilance. The price you pay is your lives. Your lives lived in the ennobling aspirations to a higher truth, to a sterling way of living life on this planet, having been gifted with the triumphs and failures, the enlightenment and learned experience of countless generations.
My generation is moving off the stage. Your education has prepared you for the task ahead of you. Do not squander your inheritance.
In the remarkable light of liberty, your ancestors gave voice and vent to the greatest of American virtues. They are left in your care. Build beautiful cities. But build systems of justice. Uphold the principles of free speech. Have equal protection under the law. In those corridors of power and influence that you will soon walk, the greatest of gifts is faith, and our nation's greatest expression of that faith is the Constitution of the United States.
Playwright August Wilson is a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in drama — for "Fences" (1987) and "The Piano Lesson" (1990). He was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 1999, and last year received the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities. He lives in Seattle. This commentary was adapted from his commencement address at the University of Washington on June 12.
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