Actor Sam Waterston, known to the nation as Jack McCoy on the long running TV series Law & Order, recently delivered one of the best commencement speeches anywhere — at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, on July 4th, as part of the annual ceremony for new citizens.
With wit, history, and splendid twists of phrase, Waterston earned what may have been the only standing ovation in 25 years of Monticello Independence Day speeches.
You can read the full text here, or listen to an audio podcast here.
(Technical note: Visitors presently need to click on the “streaming audio” link on the right, as the mp3 version on the “left” mysteriously cuts off 4 sentences from the end…. I’m hoping Monticello may yet place the full 22 minute streaming video of this speech on its web too.)
The entire speech is worth the effort to read/hear/view in full. Savor it. With one of the most recognizable voices in all of America (his past roles include Abraham Lincoln and yes, Thomas Jefferson), “old guy” Waterston breathes new life into the art of citizenship. He alerts citizens, new and old, that citizenship in a democracy requires not mere passive “pursuit of happiness” but “active interference” in how our politicians protect our “lives and liberty.”
Waterston puts “the participation back into ‘participatory democracy’.”
Rejecting the misplaced hope that “America is the all-time greatest self-correcting nation” or that ordinary citizen mistakes will “gum up” the magical functioning of our government, Waterston instead cites Jefferson’s ultimate faith in the people:
“The evils flowing from the duperies of the people [— that is, the ignorant errors of folks like you and me —] are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents [ — that is, the arrogant errors of those who speak and act for us].”
Rather than relying on agents, lobbyists, or any opinion dictator:
“America has been marvelously able to correct its course in the past because the founding idea — of individual freedom expressed through direct representation — has stirred its citizens to participate, and interfere. Information from the people makes the government smarter. Insufficient information from us makes it dumber….
In our country, things are ‘normal’ only when your voices are clearly heard. The old model of our citizenly relation to politics was of a group of people under a tree, taking turns on the stump all day, discussing the issues of the time. The old model was the town meeting where every citizen can have their say. Old citizens like me hope that between you and the Internet the old model will get a new lease on life.”
I especially appreciate Waterston’s rebuke of the God-like status being given to mind-numbing public opinion polls:
“We can’t let ourselves become mere units of statistical analysis. It appears to be so, that if you ask any 1000 Americans their views on anything, you’ll have a pretty good idea what all Americans think. You might almost conclude that individuals didn’t matter at all anymore.
Yet individuals can prove the opposite, that we’re potentially more than the “mere grain of sand in a vast statistical ocean.”
“Men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master,” as Jefferson predicted. But will we, by our silence, indifference, or inaction, give the trust away, cede it to the wealthy, present it to the entrenched, hand it off to the government, entrust it to any process or procedure that excludes our voices? It could happen.”
Waterston then spins his own quote for the ages:
“As graduating citizens, you will know how the government is set up: the justly familiar separation of powers, the well-known system of checks and balances, and the famous three branches of government: the executive branch, the judicial branch, and the legislative branch.
If these are the branches, what is the tree? Do not think it’s the government.
We are the tree from which the government springs and spreads into its three branches. Every citizen is part of the root system, part of the trunk, no mere twig or leaf. Help our government never to forget it.”
The conclusion then follows for the new citizens at Monticello and for us all:
“So it turns out citizenship isn’t just a great privilege and opportunity, though it is all that, it’s also a job. I’m sorry to be the one to bring you this news, so late in the process. But don’t worry, it’s a great job. Everything that happens within this country politically, and everywhere in the world its influence is felt, falls within its province. It’s a job with a lot of scope. You’ll never be able to complain again about being bored at work. As we multiply our individual voices, we multiply the chances for our country’s success.”