Dwight D. Eisenhower photo

Remarks at the Washington College Commencement, Chestertown, Maryland.

June 07, 1954

President Gibson, Governor McKeldin, members and friends of the Washington College family:

If you have closely examined your programs for the day, you will see that I am scheduled for no address or talk. Consequently, any time that I take of yours is indefensible and possibly inexcusable. But I am so touched by the compliment paid me by this great and venerable institution of learning, that I have the impulse to attempt in a few moments to give you some of the thoughts that crowd my mind today.

I think, first, of those individuals who have been mentioned several times today who founded this college. I heard it said that there were six young people graduated in 1783. Unquestionably it must have been a simple curriculum that they pursued, if any curriculum could be called simple that included Latin, Greek, and French. But, indeed, they were preparing themselves to discharge their responsibilities under a government which, although not yet formed, was already evidencing before the world the principles by which it should live and exist.

One of its great prophets, of course, was Thomas Jefferson. Again and again he pointed out that liberty could survive only as it was .buttressed by knowledge. No other means could be devised, he thought, other than through real and insistent and persistent and broad education, to prepare people each to carry his burden in the great problem of people governing themselves.

The fortunes of this school, through the intervening 172 years, have had, of course, their ups and downs. But one thing is certain. The principle of the need for education of people in a free government has never been lost sight of, and it has upheld those who have been responsible in the President's chair, and in the trustees' positions, in the faculty, and in the student body, indeed, all through these years. And today we see this magnificent young class come up before their President to receive their degrees in a far more complex age, and they in their turn ready to do their part as citizens.

I hope they will permit me to digress for just a moment, to advert to a statement I heard made here about Washington, D.C. I do want to tell this student body that no matter what they hear about Washington, D.C., I have two United States Senators and one Congressman here today with me to prove that we do need brains. So if you will come down there--so if you will come down there, I am sure that your talents will not be wasted in the service of your country.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, just as this College has come down through the ages, growing larger, inheriting greater responsibilities in this complex age of ours, so has Government done likewise. Starting with a weak form of coalition in a confederacy, we finally evolved a simple form of government which, again in principle, has stood the test of time. It stands today in the same great outlines as it was established in 1787. But, my friends, there all similarity seems to end between the Government of today and that of that far off period.

Sometimes, as I stand outside the White House, I look at it, and I note that the first President that occupied it, John Adams, had his entire office, all his office force, and his living quarters, all within the main part of the building. Succeeding Presidents have built on wings. We have now gone across and taken over one building that used to house three great departments of Government, and we still don't have room for the President's office and the separate offices that are attached to him. This is indicative of what has happened to us in the United States, in the complexities of our economy and industries, and in Government and its complexities. And while this has all happened, that Government and our daily lives have likewise become intertwined.

And so today one of the problems of educated youth and educated adult--every person in the United States who understands--is to determine what is the proper relationship between himself and that Government, and to allow Government to go no further than is necessary, because all governments are greedy. They like to reach out and take everything--indeed, I have found one pamphlet that tells you how to wash the dishes.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, it is perfectly proper, it is perfectly necessary that Government do for us, and with us, many things that at one time in history would have been considered reprehensible and almost a betrayal to our form of government, and these things are done through terms of legislation.

And so we have great social security programs. We have farm programs to prevent the farmer from falling into a disaster concerning which he could have done nothing by himself. We have all sorts of broad tax programs, programs for eliminating slums from the great cities and making certain that every American has a right and an opportunity to get a decent home. All of these things, in health and education, everything we do, are proper spheres for governmental action in working for 160 million people.

But because they are proper spheres, because they come so close to the daily lives of every citizen, it is up to all of us, again 160 million of us, or all of us old enough to understand, to see that all of that service is limited to what must be and what need be--and doesn't overstep and get into something where they are being merely busybodies and taking over those functions of individual life that must be sustained if we are to remain the great country we have become.

These programs are not static things. They are not brought to perfection in any one year, or in any one date. They are constantly evolving things, exactly as your lives, as this country is a gradually evolving thing.

At this moment there is before the Congress a whole series of these things that have been devised to help define this line between the proper function of Government and these fields which it should not enter and should not invade. And it is likewise attempting to establish before all of us that kind of a strength, at home and abroad, that will lead most surely to a life that is secure and peaceful.

And now it would seem improper, I think, my young graduating friends, if I should leave without a word to you directly. During these 172 years your colleagues have heard many commencement orations, none better than you have heard today from your President.

To what he has said, I add just one thought--every one of these 172 commencement addresses, I venture to say, could be summed up in these words: be not afraid to live by those things in which you believe.

My friends, America believes correctly. Has any one of you ever met a man that was willing to say, "I do not love America"? We believe in America. We believe in our system of government. We believe in the American people. We believe in freedom. We believe in liberty. We believe in God.

The only problem is to live up to your own conscience, always having courage to do the thing you believe to be right. The successful American is one that does that.

My friends, again my very great feeling of gratitude for your welcome. To all the faculty, the trustees, the President, the student body of this College, my grateful thanks for the Honorary Doctorate. I am truly complimented.

Note: The commencement exercises were held in the afternoon, beginning at 2:00 p.m. The President's opening words referred to Daniel Z. Gibson, President of Washington College, and Theodore R. McKeldin, Governor of Maryland.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Remarks at the Washington College Commencement, Chestertown, Maryland. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/232129

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