John C. Danforth
Former U.S. Senator, Missouri
I join countless others, your friends and neighbors, in congratulating you and also thanking you—congratulating you for becoming citizens in this truly exceptional country, thanking you for what you bring to our common life together.
From our earliest days, it has been America's purpose to hold a diverse people together as one nation.That's our motto, e pluribus unum, out of many we are one.Our founders thought of diversity a little differently than we do.For them diversity meant competing economic interests.Now diversity means our rich union of ethnicities, religions and races. Still, America's purpose is, as it has been from the start, to pursue our varied interests and honor our varied backgrounds while being one people, all different, all Americans.
Our founders designed a structure that would hold us together.That is the Constitution.When we think of the Constitution, it is often of what it means to each of us as individuals.It promises that each one of us can speak, write, worship and assemble according to our individual decisions.The Bill of Rights protects you the person and me the person, and its protections of you and me as individuals is essential to what America is.
But the Constitution is about more than you and me as individuals.It's about us as a whole.It doesn't begin, "I the person" or "you the person," it begins, "We the people of the United States."We are more than an assortment of individual persons, we are a people.You and I are a people, no matter how long we have been here or where we come from, or what we look like, together, we are a people.Out of many, we are one, and the structure of the Constitution, not just the Bill of Rights, but the whole structure of the Constitution, binds us together as one.That is the reason for our system of checks and balances.We have our differences, our separate interests compete and conflict, but we hold together, because our balanced system allows us to hold together.
But, and this is the point I want to make today, as well designed as it is, our Constitutional system is not sufficient to hold us together as truly one people.It has never been a matter of designing a wonderful structure of government and ending it there.We are not on automatic pilot.The great American project has always depended on the active engagement of the people.Our founders knew this and they said this.
Our fourth president, James Madison, was the principal author of the Constitution.He was a realist about human nature who knew that each of us would aggressively advance individual interests, and he designed a system to balance and contain those interests. But Madison was very clear in saying that no Constitutional system, however well constructed, no form of government would secure our liberty and happiness without the virtue of our people.
He said that to suppose that even the best form of government would suffice without our virtue was no more than a dream.
"Virtue" was the word Madison used.It was a word used by each of our first four presidents.America's future would depend on our virtue. And it was very clear what they meant by that word.It meant more than personal deportment, honesty, clean living and obeying the law, although it included all of that.Virtue, for our founders meant putting commitment to the public good over the service of private interests.John Adams said that liberty cannot exist without virtue. He defined virtue as "passion for the public good," which he said, "must be superior to all private passions."
Our first four presidents all appealed to American virtue, but, with few exceptions, that appeal died with them.In his inaugural address, President Kennedy picked up the theme of virtue.He said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."That was more than half a century ago.Politicians have long since dropped that message, because they believe that we the people don't want to hear it. Most of us most of the time would rather hear that our private interests come before the public good, so politicians tell us what they think we want to hear.We want more benefits and lower taxes, so our national debt approaches $20 trillion, and the country grows weaker.
It should be even more clear to us today than it was to our first four presidents that America's future depends on the virtue of its citizens.It depends on putting the public good above private interests.It depends on a strong message we the people give our politicians.
So it must be our work, yours and mine, to insist on that message, to state it strongly and repeatedly, to restore it to the lofty pinnacle on which our founders placed it.We are more than a collection of isolated individuals and competing interests who take whatever we can get for ourselves.We are the people.We are committed to our common life together.Our allegiance is not to ourselves, it is to America.It is to this land where, with all our differences, we are one.
My fellow citizens.Thank you for what you bring to our common life together.
May 15, 2015
Last updated: May 22, 2015