The 2019 Baccalaureate address, delivered by The Honorable John Hillen on May 10, 2019:
The American Experiment and The Role of the
Hampden-Sydney Man in Preserving It
President Stimpert, Reverend Leach, trustees, faculty and staff of the College, guests, and most especially, the families and the men who graduate from this historic college tomorrow, thank you for the honor of sharing some thoughts with you at this important ceremony.
As you know, in the collegiate tradition, the baccalaureate ceremony is, of the two big graduation events, the more solemn, reflective, spiritual and religious ceremony. Tonight, we reflect on our place in the greater scheme of things, on our own development over these past years at the College, on wisdom, and on God.
So, why we schedule the Baccalaureate ceremony at cocktail hour and Commencement at the hour for church is just a mystery to me.
Our creator, whom we honor tonight in addition to the soon to-be-graduates, created love, the greatest virtue according to Saint Paul. So I want to start this talk with the story of a love affair—my love affair with America. What do I mean by that? Not the physical America necessarily, although this country is an extraordinary physical place and I’ve traveled over most of it, from climbing its mountains to diving in its seas. And I don’t mean the cultural America necessarily, although I love its sports, music, art, and food more than most anywhere I’ve been. And I’m not talking about the American government, although I’ve served it most of my life. No, I’m in love with the idea of America—a peculiar and particular idea.
The idea of America I love is the idea of a unique experiment in self-government and civil society – set up by founders of this college among others – and left in our hands to perpetuate. More apropos for you graduates, I’m in love with an idea for which you will now increasingly be responsible.
Now, that may seem hopelessly large and impossible to grasp. You might be thinking, “Wait – did he just say I’m responsible for the idea of America? Here’s a guy that two weeks ago would probably not have let me borrow his car, but tonight he’s going to commission me to lead and preserve the idea of America as a Hampden-Sydney alumnus?”
Yes, I am. And yes, you will.
When did I become aware of this idea of America? The first time really was this exact same day for me in my college graduation. The day before I graduated from Duke, I was commissioned as an Army officer, and my late father – after whom the seminar room in the Wilson Center is named – gave me the oath of office. He paused before administering the oath and gave a little preamble to all those assembled about the uniqueness of taking an oath to the Constitution of the United States rather than to a king, or queen, or country, or government—still the dominant traditions for oaths in most other countries.
An oath to support and defend the Constitution—what did that mean to me? Did I just swear an oath to a piece of paper? Well, no, not literally of course. Did I take it to a system of government or some type of political arrangement at the federal level? Closer to the point, so yes, but still not a complete interpretation. In actuality, underpinning that oath to the Constitution was an explicit pledge not just to a governmental system, but rather to a system of self-governing and an implicit pledge to the arrangement of levels of government and roles for civil society that the Constitution assumes will run the vast majority of American affairs.
This Constitution to which I swore an oath, with its Bill of Rights and amendments, is also a view of human nature, an interpretation of natural laws and existence, and a foundational comment on the nature of a good society in America.
Our founders, especially Hampden-Sydney Trustee James Madison, who drew up that Constitution and its Bill of Rights, knew that ultimately America is a country with a government, not vice versa. And by enumerating the powers of the government, and limiting them especially, it was not just laying down a system of government. It was in fact determining the entire arrangement of who does what in a well-functioning, free, and just society. That is the idea of America I fell in love with – not the American government per se – but the entirety of the idea of a free society with hundreds of thousands of free private associations cooperating with multiple levels of government in a messy and wonderful experiment in self-government.
Now, this arrangement has been far from perfect. Those founders denied the enslaved peoples of the U.S. the very same basic human rights they claimed for America and Americans. They made little provision for women’s participation in this system. They made little provision for native Americans as Americans. And other ills. These are among the original sins to which we still apply energies today in order to create a more perfect union.
And that was and still is the job – our task as good men and good citizens – to create a more perfect union. The founders’ job in making the document to which I’ve sworn the oath four times in different capacities was, in their words, to create a more perfect union. We must recognize that a more perfect union is not a destination—it is a journey. And now you will take your place as framers on the journey.
Before I give you with some thoughts on how to be a living custodian of this American experiment, and why being a Hampden-Sydney man gives you a special commission to do so, let me mention the unique, radical, and odd idea that is at the heart of this idea of America.
Despite studying political science at great universities, it never really came to me until I had spent a number of years in places other than America. I have lived, worked, fought, taught, and traveled in 85 countries of every imaginable sort and in every possible state of development. This gave me insight into what makes America wonderfully strange and different.
What makes the American experiment in self-government unique is that no one is in charge—on purpose! And everything still works!
Now, there are plenty of places in the world where no one is in charge, and it’s not on purpose. Or, no one is in charge, and things don’t work. I’ve been to many of those, sadly. But here we have a radical principle of self-organization and distributed responsibilities, and yet at the same time accompanied by broadly shared standards and expectations of good outcomes: order, security, prosperity, advancement, fairness, education, and general well-being. And mostly in the hands of civil society, not government.
Let me give you an example about the uniqueness of the American experiment to make the point. In most other countries around the world, there are government departments or ministries around culture, sports, youth affairs, religion, and the like. Many other governments have a ministry for industry or technology—to direct traffic, not just to make policy. Many governments own part or all of the most important companies in those countries. In the U.S. can you imagine if we had a ministry of culture? Or technology and manufacturing? Or government ownership of our leading companies? How long would it take a government ministry to design McDonalds? Or Uber? Or Amazon? Or make Avengers Endgame for that matter? No, we leave those things – and much more – in private or civic hands in ways very different from much of the rest of the planet.
So, too with religion. Thanks to the wisdom of our founders, and unlike many other countries, we do not have an official religion. Instead we have a diverse and fascinating array of faith traditions. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom I once went on a men’s retreat, used to tell of a French jurist who said that the essential difference between the United States and France was that France had two religions and three hundred cheeses while the U.S. had two cheeses and three hundred religions. Diversity in our belief systems gives this country great strength and reinforces its freedoms.
This combination of a self-governing democracy, vigorous non-governmental civil society, economic freedom, religious freedom, and the role of private life has led, over the time this college has been in existence, to the most extraordinary acceleration in prosperity and well-being history has ever seen. Long may this semi-directed orchestra and unplanned symphony play on.
So here is the hook for you. I’ve said, glibly of course, that the secret to the American experiment is that no one in charge. So, who’s in charge, really? Answer: You are in charge! All of you.
Now, President Stimpert is a noted management scholar and he will tell you that this is a terrible answer in management theory and practice. In the management consulting world when you ask a suffering organization who is in charge of some broken process and the answer is “everybody,” then that organization is doomed. But for a large, vigorous, free, and diverse society, it’s the only answer, as James Madison reminded us in Federalist 10.
Of course, at some level in society, when it comes to tasks, someone is always in charge, but at the idea of America level – the creating a more perfect union task level – no one is in charge. Rather, many are. We are! We are not only shareholders in the idea, we are also the management, employees, and customers—all at the same time!
So, what does that mean for you – leaving here and taking charge of this radical American experiment? Well, here is the bad news: This radical – radically successful – idea is also an incredibly fragile one. Preserving the American experiment, let alone improving it, requires wisdom and engagement from its citizenry. It requires us to have virtue, education, energy, and good will. The founders of Hampden-Sydney College knew that and baked it into our purpose and mission.
Why do you need to take this on—you 210 soon-to-be graduates of Hampden-Sydney College? There are tens of thousands of students graduating from thousands of colleges all over America this May. Why you?
Well, firstly, you are heirs to a unique tradition and legacy in this school. From the very men for whom this historic college was named, to the American founders involved in its development, to its unique mission— you are singularly charged. You are not just joining a brotherhood of alumni. You are heirs to a distinct heritage and mission. The mission of this ancient college is to seek to form good men and good citizens in an atmosphere of sound learning. You are linked through time and space to all that went before you here by what President Abraham Lincoln called the mystic chords of memory.
Secondly, you are also heirs to a unique atmosphere, and nowadays a unique style of education. I heard President Stimpert say recently that Hampden-Sydney teaches you how to think, not what to think. This is critical in forming the citizens of a free society. Not the accumulation of specialized knowledge by which you might get a job or make your living, but rather the ability to understand how it all connects in forming a good, just, and free society.
You’ve likely been focused on creating what we can call professional man, trained for the workforce and looking forward to jobs and careers. Or, perhaps, scientific or technical or educational man—taking on a specialized role in graduate schools or elsewhere to learn more about the scholarship in your field or push the boundaries of knowledge in a certain subject area. All that is great.
But among others, the great theologian and educator John Henry Newman told us that the real purpose of your education in college is to create civilized man. And by that I don’t mean minding your manners and not taking fraternity circle habits with you to meet your future mother in law. Although, that is a really good time to act civilized!
No, what I mean by civilized man is the graduate who is equipped to lead for and care for his civilization—in our case the slice of it that is the unique and peculiar civilization of the American experiment. Yours is not simply to get a job, raise a family, and all the rest. You have a broader calling than those noble pursuits.
Regardless of what was your major here, at Hampden-Sydney – more so than at many so-called elite colleges – you’ve received the kind of well-rounded college experience that thinkers from Plato to Newman told us was necessary to sustain self-governing democracies. A truly free people must also be a wise people. As we heard just now in our reading about wisdom, you must be able to see the broad picture and to take the long view. Smarts and wisdom are two different things. They even use different parts of the brain. You analyze with your smarts: break things down. On the other hand, you synthesize with your wisdom: You pull things back together to make connections and simple sense of complex or even conflicting ideas.
I know some of you look back with little love on some of the required courses you took here that were far outside your chief field of study or your personal interests. But you may well, later in life, come to treasure those the most. Literature, philosophy, history, science, art, religion, economics, mathematics. All are needed by all to equip the good man and the good citizen to lead in a free society.
So, to your specific commission tonight. Your job, in a nut shell, is to go forth and create a more perfect union. Preserving and improving on the American experiment.
Okay? No problem, Hillen, I’ll put it on my calendar. Friday night, try to stay upright. Saturday, graduate. Sunday, take Mom to brunch for Mother’s Day. Monday, create a more perfect union in America. No worries. I’ve got this, bro.
Well, look: Here’s how to do it.
First, get qualified to be “in charge” of the experiment where no one is in charge.
You have this remarkable running start that I just mentioned with a Hampden-Sydney education, degree, and community. Now you need to commit to be a lifelong student. Last week was the last day of school. Tomorrow is day 1 of your education. I know that’s the last thing you want to hear after the four-year – or was it six-year? – grind at H-SC. But your mind changes as you get older. Your capacity to take in ideas and understand them shifts as you age and encounter more experiences and people. You need to be a student of self-discovery with a self-guided curriculum. I would suggest starting with the simple habit of reading or listening to five to ten books not in your field every year, ranging from fiction to science to biography. And since reading alone is a little bit akin to drinking alone, try to find groups – live or virtual – to discuss and debate what you’ve read. Read, debate, travel, be curious—be interesting!
Second, get involved. Between work, friends, and family, you’ll feel as if you have no time to get involved in anything else. But some kind of sustained civic engagement needs to be built into your plan of life.
Scores of recent studies have shown that, except in some pockets, civic engagement is fading from American life. Participation in almost every aspect of American civic life, from political engagement to religious engagement to free associations of citizenry, is diminishing. And no, your followers on Instagram do not count as a free association of citizens!
Non-involvement by you leaves the playing field to hyper-committed single-minded activists—factions, in the words of founding Trustee James Madison. We need normal people with day jobs who are also out there leading civic, community, religious, and volunteer organizations and insisting on their prominence in the American experiment. Right now, I get the strong feeling that everybody is tweeting but nobody is playing.
Third, give before you ask to get. I’m sure many of you – staring with your parents down the barrel of the student debt cannon – find attractive the recent proposals to forgive or retire college debt in the U.S. I can understand their appeal. But think about what a radically different proposition are these recent proposals than something like the World War II GI Bill or John F. Kennedy’s entreaty to think not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country. These ideas represent not only different value propositions but produce a very different society. Any decent proposal to shift this college debt burden to the public domain needs to be accompanied by a call to service. To give back.
When I say give back—give to whom? I think it’s great if you serve in the military, or Teach for America, or some other government role. I’ve spent over half my adult life in service in the federal government. But I want you to serve the whole project, the entirety of the American experiment. Get involved with an NGO, a community organization, your church, a charity, any one of thousands of independent institutions that make up the real energy and genius of our unique system of political order and self-governance.
When I encourage you to get involved as a citizen, don’t necessarily think that I am talking about political engagement or even political activism—although we need that too, of course. But there is so much more to shaping America than politics. In our times, we have too much politics and not enough civics. One of the keys to the American experiment is that we, we the people, we run things and we fix problems—not wait for politicians to do so. Be a part of the “we.”
Don’t treat politics as a religion. Too many do these days. Politics is not a religion; religion is religion. Our over-emphasis on political solutions to everything in life has crowded out religion from the public square. And the founders’ guarantee of no official religion by which the government could compel Americans has been misinterpreted – not so much by the courts, but by public sentiment – to mean that there is little place for religion in public life. That is wrong-headed on many levels and robs the American experiment of much of what makes it special, diverse, and free.
Fourth, take it upon yourself to develop, practice, enforce, and then teach the skills of creating a more perfect union in a diverse, sprawling society. For that to succeed, we do not need safe spaces from ideas or speech. Rather, we need to rediscover the art of principled disagreements in civil discourse, compromise, and understanding multiple perspectives while sticking to your own. Every good society is composed of a series of values that are constantly in tension with one another. You cannot effectively articulate your own beliefs until you take time to truly understand that of others with different ideas. Demand this of yourself and others. Shouting down, shutting out, or disinviting are not qualities of a free society. They are the qualities of totalitarianism.
Finally, place this experiment in human development and the evolution of a good society in context. We honor here tonight our creator and the different faith traditions we all bring to approaching him. Have the humility, no matter what you believe, to recognize that this – what we see around us and what we can study and understand – might not in fact be all that there is.
CS Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Make space for that mystery, that possibility, in your thinking and actions. It will ground you.
Men of the graduating class of 2019, I want to congratulate you for your achievement. Tomorrow you join the long and illustrious line of the garnet and grey alumni. Parents, congratulations to you on raising these men and seeing them through to this latest chapter in their development.
It has been my great honor and privilege to be associated with this College for a decade, and to join you as a degree holder tomorrow. But with honor and privilege come duty and responsibility. As the apostle Luke tells us, “"For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”
God Bless this College, God Bless our new graduates, and God Bless America. Thank you.
A former trustee of Hampden-Sydney College, The Honorable Dr. John Hillen is an award-winning CEO and leadership expert, former assistant secretary of state, public intellectual, decorated combat veteran, board chairman of several companies, and a popular business school professor. He is the author of several books, most recently What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You, which was recognized as one of the top business books of 2018. He is currently the CEO of Everwatch Solutions.