The Search for Presidents

Dr. David Marion Weighs In

By Angus McClellan '05

David Marion

Both Hampden-Sydney and the United States are in transition. The College and country are searching for presidents and representatives, advancing into new eras, and the choices made both on campus and at the ballot box will have long-lasting effects on national and local policies. Sorting, weighing, and finally choosing candidates can be a fastidious endeavor, but as one might expect at a traditional college, people often look to the constants, to the enduring, to the fixtures on campus, for direction in changing times.

With marked acumen in both politics and the collegiate community, one such constant is Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs Dr. David Marion, who has lived nearly 40 years at Hampden-Sydney and is now in semi-retirement. He has spent the better part of his life studying and teaching the nature of the American Republic. He also has maintained a physical presence in the Hampden-Sydney community, living and raising a family in the area since the mid-1970s.

Here we take a few moments to reflect on Professor Marion's political admonitions, the importance of these lessons, as well as his urging for the faculty, the staff, and the incoming administration to preserve and revitalize the College's culture during the presidential search and in the coming years. Regardless of one's political leanings or preferences for the new College or national president, his words may at least help re-sharpen the tools of critical reasoning forged long ago on the third floor of Morton Hall.

Lessons from GVFA 

The GVFA (formerly political science) department, whose classes include political philosophy and constitutional law, is one of the cornerstones of the Hampden-Sydney academic program. Even those who choose professions without seeking law degrees learn how to be productive, informed, engaged, and good citizens through the lessons and discussions in the department's classes. Having students understand and appreciate American principles of governance is paramount in fulfilling the College's mission "to form good men and good citizens." After all, a good citizen is typically defined as one who obeys the law, who accepts and operates within the foundational principles of his republic, and who is an informed and engaged participant in the administration of justice (The Record, October 2015).

As Dr. Marion explained, "We should recognize that we are blessed. We live in a self-governing republic. We are the sovereigns, and so we are responsible for protecting the foundational principles of the Republic. And what are those? They're not the principles of the North Korean regime, or the Saudi regime, or the Iranian regime. They're the principles that go back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution-these are the principles that define who we have been as a people and the kind of people we should want to be.

"We must protect property rights and protect contract rights; we must protect due process of law; we've got to promote coalition politics-we've got to know all that stuff. We need to know the principles of the political community we are in and the elements of the self-governing republic that make it healthy.

"Knowing how to think through public policy and governance issues is a skill that everybody has to have in a self-governing republic. It's not just for politicians. We've got to know how to judge people. Everybody needs that skill, because we're the ones who choose the people who represent us.

"Theodore Roosevelt makes the argument that a self-governing people must emphasize duties rather than rights. But the fact is, we live in a rights-oriented democratic republic, and rights are primary. That's the character of our republic. But we often forget about the very important duties that come with U.S. citizenship. It's our duty to protect these rights and principles."

Looking back, alumni who took Dr. Marion's constitutional law class surely remember the amount of raw data they had to memorize-lists of Supreme Court cases often filled out the chalkboard-and much of that information fades from memory as alumni grow older. But memorizing and regurgitating material falls second to the skills acquired in the classroom, as Dr. Marion explained. He specifically wants alumni to remember the skills they acquired and to continue to use them today.

"I want them to remember that politics is a complicated business. There are important responsibilities that fall to all citizens. Students need to learn how to take a public policy issue that's being debated, and feel it, touch it, smell it, and come to intelligent judgments about what we should be doing in that area. That's what we try to do in the government department: we try to teach the students that when they're confronted with something we didn't talk about in the classroom, that wasn't on our radar, to know how to make sense of it. They'll be able to say, ‘We need to be doing the following, and I'll tell you why.' They need to work backward from a dilemma or problem they're confronted with and work it down to foundational principles.

"For example, it's easy for some people just to say, ‘Let's curtail this person's personal property rights in the name of the common good, or public welfare, or public interest,' or what have you. It's the same with our other freedoms, such as speech, or privacy, or due process of law. But if you mess up with these things, then you damage the foundational principles of the Republic. A self-governing people need to be self-conscious actors. They need to be thinking all the time of what they're doing and how they're behaving and how to judge things. And then they need guidelines. That's what you get from the study of government."

Few who left with a political science degree bypassed Dr. Marion's classes on constitutional law, and fewer still can forget the in-depth analyses of Supreme Court cases that opened students' eyes to the nature of rights and powers in the American Republic. He was known for prying rough-hewn legal opinions from the coterie of attentive, aspiring jurists. If you were in his class, you had to know the cases, and you had to defend your positions. You had to think. 

Although semi-retired, Dr. Marion is far from winding down, keeping an active schedule aimed at further preparing Hampden-Sydney students for professions in law, public administration, lobbying, and other public policy endeavors. He is still active in the pre-law program, which funds LSAT workshops, trips to the Supreme Court, speakers, moot court competitions, and other activities for students planning to attend law school. It also supports pre-law scholarships for deserving students.

Even at the time of this writing, he was in Washington, D.C., with dozens of students, hosting discussions with alumni who work in the halls of our nation's capital. He has helped shape and build the GVFA into what it is today: not just a department that prepares students for successful professions, but an institution uniquely equipped to educate and mold American boys into thinking, principled gentlemen.

A Look at H-SC

Dr. Marion has had more time than most to reflect on the school's culture, her community, and her students. He shared a few observations and offered a few suggestions as the College transitions to a new president and a new era.

"We all need to work to preserve the intellectual life, the scholarly life, of the College, involving thoughtful interaction on significant issues. It's an academic community. And that's important. I'm afraid we've lost some of that in the 40 years I've been here, and the College needs to work hard to restore the conviction that this is a community defined by a shared way of life, and a very special way of life at that. Everyone here needs to buy into what Hampden-Sydney should be, given its historic mission, its traditions, and its commitments. You can't do that as a part-timer.Justice Marshall

"We can't be Hampden-Sydney unless everyone has bought into the way of life that should define this institution. It requires all-hands-on-deck. It means faculty rooting at football games, faculty at student dinners, and faculty at evening programs with students.

"The next president of the College, like the next president of the United States, needs to understand that culture matters and that it matters a lot-culture defines who we are as a people within national, local, and academic communities. The things that make communities civilized and decent, humane and generous, competitive and strong, are located in the people who inhabit those communities. The next president of the College will need to convince all the institution's stakeholders that the College remains true to its historic mission, a cultural and educational mission, to prepare young men to be good men and good citizens who are well-prepared to live productive and satisfying human lives. The president should recognize that America desperately needs young men who have been shaped by an honor code that emphasizes personal integrity, a liberal education that teaches good habits of mind and soul, and a code of student conduct that promotes civility, service, and leadership. He must remind us that these things remain the hallmark of a Hampden-Sydney education.

"The preparation of men of character for lives of consequence is no less important to the country in 2015 than it was in 1775; the next president must believe this to be true and must be prepared to explain to all who will listen how Hampden-Sydney is doing its part to ensure that the culture that defines us as a people accentuates the noblest traits of human beings."

Civic Education

Dr. Marion helped to construct the department with this blueprint in mind. It's easy to speculate that the government professor found inspiration for this design from a certain political junta that emerged around the time of both our country's founding and the College's creation.

"We often forget that the Founders were, yes, institution-builders: they built the governmental system, deciding to have a single executive, a bicameral legislature, a senate and house. They were in the business of building institutions. But they were also in the civic education business. Madison's Federalist Papers? That was civic education. Washington's Farewell Address? Also, civic education. Marshall's opinions-they were all civic education. They were all in the business of shaping citizens, not just of making institutions. The important thing was the kind of people they were creating.

"And that's the kind of business that Hampden-Sydney should be in."