Monthly Archives: May 2014

Carter Proposes a Foreign Policy in Pursuit of Human Rights

JimmyCarterPortrait2This week we feature another commencement address that signaled a new president’s intention to depart from previous policy. On May 22, 1977, at the graduation exercises of the University of Notre Dame, President Jimmy Carter spoke on “Human Rights and Foreign Policy.”

Carter announced an approach to foreign policy that would engage international issues with the same openness and sense of fair play that he intended to bring to domestic issues. Instead of defending American interests in a world presumed to be often hostile to those interests, he would pursue a human rights agenda in a world that, he suggested, was becoming open to American ideals:

I believe we can have a foreign policy that is democratic, that is based on fundamental values, and that uses power and influence, which we have, for humane purposes. We can also have a foreign policy that the American people both support and, for a change, know about and understand. . . .

We are confident that democracy’s example will be compelling, and so we seek to bring that example closer to those from whom in the past few years we have been separated and who are not yet convinced about the advantages of our kind of life.

We are confident that the democratic methods are the most effective, and so we are not tempted to employ improper tactics here at home or abroad.

We are confident of our own strength, so we can seek substantial mutual reductions in the nuclear arms race. . . .

Democracy’s great recent successes — in India, Portugal, Spain, Greece — show that our confidence in this system is not misplaced. Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear. I’m glad that that’s being changed.

For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We’ve fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water. This approach failed, with Vietnam the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty. But through failure we have now found our way back to our own principles and values, and we have regained our lost confidence.

LBJ Describes a “Great Society”

Lyndon_B._Johnson,_photo_portrait,_leaning_on_chair,_color_commonsIt is commencement season, and prominent leaders are appearing at colleges and universities across the country to offer words of encouragement and inspiration to new graduates. Few of their speeches will herald so important a shift in America’s public agenda as that made fifty years ago today, when President Lyndon Johnson described his vision of a “Great Society” in a commencement address at the University of Michigan. Nevertheless, Johnson’s speech, in outlining a view of the progressive movement of American history, bears comparison with Franklin Roosevelt’s “Commonwealth Club Address” in 1932. Johnson told young adults coming of age in 1964 that

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. . . .

Leaving Office, Johnson Speaks of the Burdens of the Presidency

Lyndon_Johnson_wiki-commonsAs President Johnson prepared to leave office in January 1969, he delivered his last State of the Union Message to Congress. He used it to review the civil rights reforms and the new programs that had been established during his five years as president, a list that included the Voting Rights Act, the creation of the “Head Start” preschool education program, and the passage of Medicare benefits for senior citizens. But he also alluded wistfully to parts of his agenda he had not been able to accomplish. Largely due to public discontent–especially among those on college campuses–with his Vietnam War policy, Johnson had announced in March 1968 that he would not run for reelection. In retrospect, the most poignant, and arguably the most impressive, section of his speech is its gracious closing:

President-elect Nixon, in the days ahead, is going to need your understanding, just as I did. And he is entitled to have it. I hope every Member will remember that the burdens he will bear as our President, will be borne for all of us. Each of us should try not to increase these burdens for the sake of narrow personal or partisan advantage.

Now, it is time to leave. I hope it may be said, a hundred years from now, that by working together we helped to make our country more just, more just for all of its people, as well as to insure and guarantee the blessings of liberty for all of our posterity.

That is what I hope. But I believe that at least it will be said that we tried.

The 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education


Thurgood Marshall argued for the plaintiffs in the case.

Tomorrow, May 17, is the 60th anniversary of a momentous Supreme Court decision: Brown v. Board of Education. The case reversed earlier Supreme Court rulings on the legality of segregation in public facilities—notably Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a ruling in favor of a Louisiana state law requiring blacks to surrender to whites their seats on trains, and Cumming v. Richmond (Ga.) County Board of Education (1899), in which the Court upheld a school board’s decision to spend money on a high school for whites while closing a high school for blacks.

By 1954, a few judicial victories for desegregated education had been won. Between 1936 and 1950 the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education fund successfully sued in four instances involving higher education (three involving applicants not admitted to law schools and the fourth involving a black student admitted to a doctoral program but forced to sit apart from white students.) But Brown was the first to successfully sue for desegregation of the public schools children attend, and since the Court consolidated five different cases from several states, the decision would have broad impact. However, the Court did not immediately specify the means by which the plaintiffs would be given relief. It invited the “Attorneys General of the states requiring or permitting segregation in public education” to submit new briefs on this question the following fall:


Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion in Brown v. Board of Education.

“Because these are class actions, because of the wide applicability of this decision, and because of the great variety of local conditions, the formulation of decrees in these cases presents problems of considerable complexity. On reargument, the consideration of appropriate relief was necessarily subordinated to the primary question — the constitutionality of segregation in public education. We have now announced that such segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws. In order that we may have the full assistance of the parties in formulating decrees, the cases will be restored to the docket, and the parties are requested to present further argument . . . .”

On May 31, 1955, the Court announced a plan by which desegregation was to proceed.


The Beginnings of Our Constitution

christyToday and tomorrow, May 14 and 15, are the anniversaries of two linked events in our Founding. On May 15, 1776, the Continental Congress issued a “resolve” to the thirteen colonies: that each “Adopt such a government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the safety and happiness of their constituents in particular and America in general.” This instruction initiated the effort that all the colonies—soon to be states—would undertake by 1780: the creation of state constitutions. Gordon Lloyd, in his website on the Constitutional Convention, notes that:  “Between 1776 and 1780 each of the thirteen colonies adopted a republican form of government. What emerged was the most extensive documentation of the powers of government and the rights of the people that the world had ever witnessed.” He goes on to say that “These state constitutions displayed a remarkable uniformity. Seven attached a prefatory Declaration of Rights, and all contained the same civil and criminal rights. Four states decided not to “prefix” a Bill of Rights to their constitutions, but, instead, incorporated the very same natural and traditional rights found in the prefatory declarations. New York incorporated the entire Declaration of Independence into its constitution.”

The resulting state governments were “robust and healthy,” Lloyd notes. After the Continental Congress created a government linking all the new states—the Articles of Confederation—a conflict arose, becoming particularly noticeable after independence was secured. The state governments were more powerful than the “late arriving, weak and divisive continental arrangement.” Statesmen such as Washington and Hamilton were frustrated that the Articles could not easily compel states to comply with the articles of peace with Great Britain or easily regulate interstate commerce. Madison worried that overbearing majorities in the state legislatures “were passing laws detrimental to the rights of individual conscience and the right to private property. And there was nothing that the union government could do about it because the Articles left matters of religion and commerce to the states,” Lloyd writes. So an initiative began to convene representatives of the states in Philadelphia to discuss ways of improving the Articles of Confederation.

Gordon Lloyd

Professor Gordon Lloyd

The date appointed for the opening of the convention in Philadelphia was May 14, 1787.

Gordon Lloyd’s website on the Constitutional Convention amasses a wealth of information and resources useful for student research. A comprehensive online collection of information on the Convention, it presents the facts of the Founding in multiple ways, adaptable to different learning styles.



Jefferson Explains the Purpose of the Declaration

20120115025846!Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800On this day in 1825, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter in response to a query from Henry Lee on the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was known as the primary author of that document. His account of what the Declaration intended emphasizes that the principles it expressed were shared by all those supporting the Revolutionary cause. It was “an expression of the American mind,” he said, one that synthesized ideas drawn not only from political philosophers read by Americans but also from the colonists’ own experience. The Declaration was to express “the common sense of the subject.” Having been allowed during much of the colonial period to govern their own affairs semi-autonomously, Americans had arrived at an understanding of their own rights. These rights, and America’s assertion of independence, rested on principles that the Declaration made clear.

Lyndon Johnson Fights Two Wars: One on Poverty, the Other on Communist Expansion

LBJ_NARAviaWikiCommonsWhen Lyndon Johnson appeared before a joint session of the House and Senate to deliver his third State of the Union Address, he pressed the need for two different policy priorities: one domestic, and the other military. Two years before, he had announced his determination to fight a war on poverty. Later in the same year he had requested Congressional authorization to increase the US military engagement in Vietnam. By now, Johnson’s critics were pointing out a conflict between the two agendas; the nation did not have the resources to fight a war on poverty and a war in Vietnam at the same time, they said. In his speech on January 12, 1966, Johnson acknowledged the difficulty: “Because of Vietnam we cannot do all that we should, or all that we would like to do.” He promised that his administration would “attack waste and inefficiency” in an effort to stretch the federal dollar. But he insisted on pressing forward on both the domestic and defensive fronts. He argued that the war in Vietnam was necessary to defend American freedom, while the war on poverty, he implied, preserved the justice of the American experiment:

There are men who cry out: We must sacrifice. Well, let us rather ask them: Who will they sacrifice? Are they going to sacrifice the children who seek the learning, or the sick who need medical care, or the families who dwell in squalor now brightened by the hope of home? Will they sacrifice opportunity for the distressed, the beauty of our land, the hope of our poor?

Time may require further sacrifices. And if it does, then we will make them.

But we will not heed those who wring it from the hopes of the unfortunate here in a land of plenty.

I believe that we can continue the Great Society while we fight in Vietnam. But if there are some who do not believe this, then, in the name of justice, let them call for the contribution of those who live in the fullness of our blessing, rather than try to strip it from the hands of those that are most in need. . . . .

King Explains the Strategy of Nonviolence

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._NobelFoundationIn recalling the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, we most often call to mind the moving rhetoric of his sermons and public speeches. But King was also adept at clear and dispassionate analysis, as is seen in this essay published in Ebony magazine in May 1966. Here he reviewed what had been accomplished by the non-violent civil rights movement centered in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he led, describing its philosophy and methods. He also looked ahead to the work he thought the group now needed to undertake:  alleviating poverty, particularly in America’s center cities, where the majority population was generally African American. In King’s view, poverty in the Northern inner city was an injustice equal to the denial of civil rights in the South, and he saw a role for African Americans in changing the conscience of America with regard to this poverty.

For high school classroom analysis, a particularly interesting portion of the essay begins under the heading “Strategy for Change.” This section explains the reasons King insisted on a nonviolent strategy in his movement. It then goes on to outline the new challenges presented by the effort to fight poverty. Here are excerpts:

The American racial revolution has been a revolution to “get in” rather than to overthrow. . . . If one is in search of a better job, it does not help to burn down the factory. If one needs more adequate education, shooting the principal will not help, or if housing is the goal, only building and construction will produce that end. . . . The nonviolent strategy has been to dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of good will in the community and change is produced. . . .

So far, we have had the Constitution backing most of the demands for change, and this has made our work easier . . . . Now we are approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear. . . . The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of 750 billion dollars a year, it is morally right to insist that every person has a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family. Achievement of these goals will be a lot more difficult and require much more discipline, understanding, organization and sacrifice. is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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