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Address to the Graduates Lincoln Memorial University Commencement on December 17, 2011

Secretary Ray LaHood

--Remarks as Prepared--

Address to the Graduates at Lincoln Memorial University Commencement
Harrogate, Tennessee
Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thank you, Chief Justice Frank Williams, for that gracious introduction. You’re an outstanding scholar and an extraordinary jurist. Your writing about civil liberties during a time of war is essential reading, especially today. But I want all the graduates to know: Frank was the one who originally asked me to join you this morning. So, if you find my speech boring, I encourage you to address all complaints in writing to the chief justice.

To President B. James Dawson; Chairman Dr. Pete DeBusk and the Board of Trustees; administrators, faculty, and staff; my fellow honorees; family and friends of the graduates; and, most importantly, the Lincoln Memorial University Class of Winter 2011: Congratulations.

I’m honored that you’ve invited me to share in your special day. I’m humbled to accept the Lincoln Diploma of Honor. I thank you for your warm welcome to this beautiful part of the country. And to all of the parents: Take it from the father of four college graduates, your years of being broke will soon be over.

Truly, graduates, no matter what I say while standing in front of you, nothing will match the wisdom of all those people who stand behind you. So, please, help me thank your parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, teachers and coaches, godparents and mentors, all the people who helped you reach this very special mile-marker in your life journeys. This day belongs as much to them as it does to you.

Let me start with a story. It may be familiar. The year was 1863. The date, September 27. Only a few days earlier, Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States, told his top lieutenants that he believed his armies would soon deliver, and I quote, a “finishing blow to the rebellion.” Little more than a month later, Lincoln would travel to a small Pennsylvania town, where he would resolve that the tens of thousands of soldiers lost on battlefields across the republic didn’t die in vain, but rather in service to a new birth of freedom.

The Civil War wasn’t over. But, clearly, Lincoln was thinking about what kind of country would rise when, what he called, “the mighty scourge” of conflict finally ended.

It was against this backdrop, on a fall day in Washington, that Lincoln met with Oliver Otis Howard, one of the union’s up-and-coming generals. Howard visited the White House ostensibly to discuss the state of affairs in Eastern Tennessee and to review his marching orders. But it’s said that, during the conversation, the intellectual seed was planted for what became Lincoln Memorial University. And the question I ask you to consider this morning is simple: “Why?”

Now, I understand that during your years on this campus, you’ve learned enough about our sixteenth president to earn a minor in Lincolnalia at any other university. Your insights into this are as knowledgeable as mine.

I suspect that Lincoln’s enthusiasm for an institution of higher learning in the Cumberland Gap emerged from something far greater than his desire to dole out political spoils to a region and population that stayed loyal to the union. I suspect that it mirrored something even larger than his belief in the transformational, uplifting power of education.

I cannot know if I am right. But I suspect that Lincoln’s idea for this singular American institution reflected his dedication to a society that does big things as part of a common cause.

Don’t get me wrong. Lincoln was a self-made man. A frontier rail-splitter, he knew better than anyone that individual rights and personal responsibilities are the hallmarks of American character. He understood self-reliance. He recognized the value of hard work.

Yet, at the same time, Lincoln understood that there are some things we can only do together – as a community, as a nation, as a union. And this is a theme we’ve heard often from the current President of the United States.

President Obama is fond of this anecdote. In 1854, Lincoln, then just a former one-term Congressman, committed to paper his faith in a government that does big things. “The legitimate object of government,” Lincoln scrawled, “is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or so well, for themselves.”

For Lincoln, these were no hollow words. This was a creed that informed his every action as our country’s greatest leader – and which, a decade later, came to animate one of the most progressive and productive administrations in our history.

Think about it. Lincoln’s government tied together our distant coasts with a transcontinental railroad. Lincoln’s government made possible the construction of land-grant colleges, our first public universities. Lincoln’s government established the first system of national taxation and national currency.  Lincoln’s government didn’t just win the war; it created a country even more worth fighting for. Each of these achievements was, to borrow Lincoln’s phrase, something that needed to be done, but which individuals couldn’t do on their own.

Graduates, I’m here to say that this is a spirit our nation must rekindle. And who better to fulfill that obligation than you, the newest alumnae of Lincoln Memorial University?

Like Lincoln, I’m a Republican. I’ve been a Republican all my life – when I served in the Illinois legislature, when I worked for members of Congress, and when I represented the district in Congress that once was Lincoln’s. I believe in smaller government, in smarter government, in more efficient government. I believe that states and communities have rights, responsibilities, and important roles to play. Lord knows that Washington D.C. doesn’t have all the answers.

But, here’s the thing: There’s never been a more critical moment to reject those old canards that our country is better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves; that government is always best when it governs least; and, as seems to be the consensus in Congress these days, that the American people are best served when government doesn’t govern at all.

Lincoln phrased it better than anyone, as you might expect. Government’s “leading object,” he said, is to “afford to all people an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” As our own president eloquently put it a week or so ago, “We are greater together than we are on our own. Our country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules.”

And, graduates, this is no partisan dogma. It’s not about left versus right – or Democrat versus Republican. After all, it took a Republican administration, at the turn of the last century, to bust America’s most powerful trusts and to create a national park system that would safeguard our natural treasures. It took a Republican administration, fifty years ago, to envision a system of highways crisscrossing the nation and then to galvanize the support actually to build it. No party has a monopoly on doing the things the people need done.

So, what does this all mean to you? Why does this matter on your graduation day?

It matters because your time here was more than days in the library and dates at the Loose Caboose. It was more than sledding to class or spotting the “lady in red,” someone Frank conveniently neglected to tell me about when he invited me to speak.

You are now ambassadors of Lincoln Memorial University. You are now the embodiment of that big idea for a small school, hatched on a September morning 148 years ago. You are now the couriers of Lincoln’s call that there is work to be done and so, together, we should get about the business of doing it, regardless whether you’ve chosen to become a teacher, nurse, entrepreneur, lawyer, or anything else.

Look at the world you’re entering. Our families, friends, and neighbors need jobs – and we, collectively, have the wherewithal to put them back to work. Our roads, bridges, and airports are in need of repair – and we, as a people, can meet our responsibility to fix them. Our small businesses and big firms need the safest, fastest, most efficient ways to move their people and products – and we all have a stake in pulling together, pitching in, and doing our part to make sure we pass on a union that’s more perfect than the one we inherited. And, yes, like Roosevelt and Eisenhower – like Lincoln – I’m a Republican who believes government is the place we come together to get these things done.

Graduates, four decades ago, I was sitting right where you are and I have no recollection of my commencement speaker. I suspect that, in the year 2051, you’ll have no recollection of yours. But from your years here, I hope you will remember the message: There are some things we can only do as one people – as one nation, indivisible.

President Lincoln and General Howard sought to build a great university for the people of Appalachia for the same reason they saw America as “the last best hope of earth.” Because we’re not a national community that says “you’re on your own.” We’re a people that says “we‘re all in this together.”

I ask you to carry that idea with you. Deliver it to the generations that follow. America’s future depends on it and on you. And looking into your faces, I know that future is bright.

Lincoln Memorial University Class of 2011, we’re proud of you. Congratulations. Good luck. God speed.

Updated: Friday, February 27, 2015
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