Final Exercises 1994: Allen Speech

Governor George Allen
Commencement Address, May 22, 1994
University of Virginia

President Casteen, members of the Board of Visitors, members of the graduating class of 1994, proud and relieved parents, visitors to our Commonwealth, and my fellow Virginians:

It’s great to be here with you Wahoos. Twenty years ago I sat where you now sit on the Lawn, as President of the Graduating Class of 1974. And 17 years ago as a graduate from the Law School.

Now that may seem like a long time to you, but it has not been so long that I cannot recall what it was like. I remember the feeling of accomplishment and relief, the excitement and anticipation, and yet also the feeling of great regret to be parting ways with so many good friends and enjoyable, memorable escapades. Most of these escapades you would wish - some day - were forgotten.

Although you may not yet realize it, you will look back upon your years at the University of Virginia as one of the most formative and positive influences on your entire life. You are so fortunate to have had this opportunity to learn in such a unique and historically blessed place.

Regardless of whether you came here from another country; or from Texas, Florida, New Jersey, California; or from the Commonwealth of Virginia - with this learning and training, much opportunity is available to lead and contribute, not only to your own well-being, but in service to your fellow citizens.

The great Virginian who founded this University also served, before that, as the Commonwealth’s second governor. Since then, a president and vice president; four current governors nationwide; three Supreme Court justices; and scores of senators and congressmen have claimed the University as their alma mater. And I return today with a profound sense of gratitude to the many people here who helped teach me, who shaped my outlook, who challenged me as a student, and who prepared me for the career I have chosen in law and public service. Undoubtedly. A few here wish I had just stuck to being a lawyer.

Like so many who have come here from other places and been captured by the natural beauty of this countryside as well as the quality and character of life here, I eventually decided that this was the place that I wanted to make my stand. True, I’ve taken a couple of job that require me to be away a fair amount, but in my heart - I have never left.

This is my home. And it’s sure good to be back home.

I want to share with you for a few minutes this morning my views about public service, and the role of citizens and government in a free society. And especially your duty as future leaders.

As you know, this was a topic that consumed much of Mr. Jefferson’s time and attention.

When the University’s Board of Visitors met under his leadership on March 4, 1825, it pronounced that it was:

The duty of this Board…to pay special attention to the Principles of government which shall be inculcated therein.

The Board went on to specify four documents which it said supplied the "best guides" to the distinctive principles upon which Virginia’s government and the government of the United States were founded. These four documents were:

  1. The Declaration of Independence, which the Board minutes describe as the "fundamental act of union" by the states; and which I believe best captures the spirit of our secession from the monarchy and our formation as sovereign states;
  2. The Federalist Papers, which were said to reveal the intent of the framers of The Constitution;
  3. The Virginia Resolution of 1799, which espoused the principle that the states enjoy equal sovereignty with the federal government and can declare federal acts unconstitutional; and finally,
  4. The Farewell Address of President George Washington, which was thought to be then the most cogent statement of political lessons for the young nation.

Considered together, these documents establish a vision for constitutional self-rule, for shared federal and state responsibilities and prerogatives, and for peaceful relations among citizens and among nations. But, most important, the first of these works - the Declaration of Independence - included these familiar words, which constitute the Jeffersonian vision of the relationship between people and their government:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

In Mr. Jefferson’s time, and indeed today, these were revolutionary words - for at no other time and no other place in human experience have the people been deemed sovereign, with government possessing only that authority which it derived from the people by their consent.

In other societies, the monarchy or the government was the master, while the people were the servants. But not so here.

The challenge today is to make this abstract concept real again for our citizens - to empower them, by placing back in their hands the reins of a government that now seems too large, too distant and remote, too bureaucratic, and too dominated by partisan preoccupations to be responsive to the wishes of the hard-working, tax-paying people.

The words of the Declaration of Independence were revolutionary also because they proclaimed the fundamental equality of man - a truth described as self-evident by Mr. Jefferson, but which, even today, means different things to different people.

While some view the principle of equality as a promise of proportional results and entitlements for distinct groups, Mr. Jefferson’s vision was of individual liberty and an aristocracy of ability in which each person would be judged according to his or her individual merit. Extrapolating this principle to the present, it’s the government’s role to provide all people - regardless of their race, religion, ethnic origin or gender - with an equal opportunity to achieve and succeed to the best of their abilities and efforts. But it’s not the government’s role to guarantee equal results.

In our time, the Jeffersonian vision has been best captured in the ringing words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed aloud of a day when his children, and all God’s children, would be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration was revolutionary for yet another reason. He saw government not only as the greatest potential threat to individual civil rights, but also as the people’s most valuable instrument for preserving those rights. Remember the words: People are endowed with "certain unalienable rights…[and] to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Mr. Jefferson put it best in his first presidential inaugural address when he offered this enduring postulation:

A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government….

These words are as applicable today as they were 200 years ago.

In my administration, we have set out to fulfill this fundamental obligation - the foremost obligation of government - which is to secure the right of the people to live in freedom without being victimized by violence and lawlessness.

John Locke, whose inspirational ideas on liberty and natural rights, said: "liberty without law Is impossible, for without law society is not free, but a jungle in which the strong devour the weak."

Today, we see Locke’s nightmare becoming reality as lawlessness and violence surge. Plainly. We are not free when we huddle inside homes and businesses with barred windows, and when fear stalks us even on a trip to the convenience store or to the corner business after sundown.

The most basic civil right is the right to live free of burden, the right to be left alone, the right to live in peace.

In the recent session of the General Assembly, we were able to achieve broad bipartisan support for some of the most far-reaching changes in our criminal justice laws in recent memory.

And, in September, I will summon the members of the General Assembly back to Richmond to abolish our lenient parole system and to adopt truth-in-sentencing. I’ll do this so that when judges and juries convict rapists, murderers and other violent criminals and send them to prison, they - and we - can have confidence they will stay there for their sentence. We want to ensure that after serving just a small fraction of their sentences - they are not released to once again prey upon law-abiding citizens and law officers.

Today, when government bureaucrats and regulators, judges and legislators, seem intent on issuing rules and orders to control virtually every facet of our lives, we must insist that government meet its most basic responsibility - to protect our right to live in peace and freedom, and otherwise unshackle us to pursue our own dreams and follow our own destinies.

This past week, we launched the Governor’s Commission on Citizen Empowerment. Its mission:

  • to create real opportunity where now there is only dependency on government;
  • to reform welfare and restore the dignity that comes with work; and
  • to seek ways to empower people individually and through private institutions - families, churches, synagogues, and civic organizations of various kinds - which historically have supplied the guideposts for personal development and sustained our shared values from one generation to the next.

Empowerment is a hollow promise, though, without education and economic growth. And, for that reason, it is essential to make these areas a top priority. In fact, one of my first acts as governor was to reverse the recent trend at the state level of robbing higher education to pay for other programs.

Higher education in the Allen administration is a priority. But it also must be affordable.

Students at UVA have endured a 68 percent increase in tuition costs during the past four years. A higher education priced beyond reach is not a real opportunity for middle-income families. That’s why we restored $23 million in funding to the budget that will allow UVA and our other institutions to hold tuition increases for Virginia students to the current rate of inflation - about 3 percent. Now this is good news for students, certainly for parents, and for all Virginians - though, regrettably, it comes too late to help you who are in robes today.

Our institutions of higher learning have had - and will have -- a significant impact on the long-term well-being of our Commonwealth. Education is the bridge between the abstract promise of freedom and the tangible promise of opportunity.

Ultimately, the debate over education funding, like other major public controversies, comes down to a fundamental conflict of visions about the relationship between people and their government - the conflict between Mr. Jefferson’s vision of empowering people, and the modern American impulse to empower bureaucracies and governmental institutions. It is, at its root, a conflict between those who believe that happiness is best produced through personal choice and individual self-determination, versus those who believe the surest route to happiness is through more central government planning.

We must put the people of Virginia back in charge of their own destiny. Restoring personal safety and freedom is an essential part of our administration’s empowerment agenda. But we must also amend our fundamental law, our state constitution, to give our citizens greater protection against tax increases and greater direct control over their own government, through reforms such as initiative and referendum.

Some may believe it dangerous to place power in the hands of the people. But Mr. Jefferson put the matter simply. In a letter to Henry Lee shortly before his death, he wrote:

Men by their constitution are naturally divided into two parties:

  1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all power from them into the hands of the higher classes; and
  2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe…depository of the public interests.

All of us must recognize, however, that the Jeffersonian ideal of liberty is not liberty in the sense of license, but liberty in the sense of personal responsibility.

With civil rights come civil responsibilities:

  • the responsibility of every individual to respect the person and property of others;
  • the responsibility of parents to teach their children the ideals and the values that will make them self-sufficient men and women; and
  • the responsibility of every one of us to give back to our communities, through public service and private charity, a measure of the time and talents and resources that this free society has enabled us to enjoy.

As you leave here today to blaze your own trail on the ever-widening international frontier - to pursue your own dreams and seize the opportunities before you - I ask you to consider the great tradition of which you are a part, the tradition of Jefferson, the tradition of this University in public service. Keep your eye on your personal goals, but take time also to reflect on the larger society of which you are a part and the needs that are around you.

From its inception, this University was designed to inculcate the personal responsibilities and values of honor, integrity and service to others. Your vote this year to keep the student-run Honor System brings credit to your education and to the University. You give guidance to others and show another unique virtue of Mr. Jefferson’s academic village.

Please bring those values with you as you leave and enter the varied worlds of work, with the outstanding academic skills you have learned on the Grounds.

I am confident that, if you do that, you will look back on your life and labors with satisfaction, knowing that you have not only enjoyed the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but have done your part to preserve them for others.

A UVA graduate is a very special person and much is expected of you. It is the great hope of Virginia that you have been prepared to be in positions of leadership; to not just be self-sufficient, but to devote your time and talents to a higher calling - to improve the opportunities of your fellow human beings.

So on this momentous day, I extend my congratulations and offer my very best wishes to each one of you. You have a great future. Remember, with you rests the preservation of the empowering spirit of Jeffersonian principles. Through your service to mankind, may John Adams' dying words continue to ring true: Jefferson lives!