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1987 Commencement Speech: Michael Novak, American Catholic philosopher, writer, and diplomat

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

Standing before so many families, and so many happy graduates of the class of 1987, I put before you two themes: First, to recall the poverty in which so many of our families began only a few generations ago; second, to reflect on the great experiment of which all of us are a part.

'87 is a wonderful year to graduate, one's destiny forever linked to the anniversary of one of the five or six greatest documents in the entire “History of Liberty,” as the Catholic layman Lord Acton once put it: the Constitution of the United States.

On the Seal of the United States, designed by the Framers, is an inscription “Novus ordo seclorum: the new order of the ages,” The Framers knew that the system they were establishing was original, that there was no model for it in history, and that they were breaking new ground not solely for themselves, but on behalf of humankind.

Today, much of the world, not least among many Catholics elsewhere, does not understand the meaning of the American experiment. And yet Marquette is a special school, named for one of history's great explorers, a Catholic school. The United States is an experiment on behalf of all humankind, and we Americans are the only Catholics in the world to undergo such an experiment. We have an obligation to report on it exactly. So the graduates of Marquette are called upon to be explorers – explorers of a new and original idea in human history – explorers on behalf of humankind.

Our Framers knew that every other republic in history had failed, usually within a very short time. The outcome of their own attempt, as of May 1787, was doubtful. They were making an experiment, which might well disintegrate.

Suppose, now, I were cruel enough to ask you to take out your blue books, one last time, and to write down on one page: What was the American experiment?

After you had gotten over the urge to stone me to death, what would you write down? How many of you could say, clearly and succinctly, “What is new about our new order?” Not many Americans can.

We have not been a theoretical people. We do not explain well, even to ourselves, who we are. The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote of us:

“You are advancing in the night, bearing torches toward which mankind would be glad to turn; but you leave them enveloped in the fog of a merely experiential approach and mere practical conceptualization, with no universal ideas to communicate. For lack of an adequate ideology, your lights cannot be seen.”

The poor of the world are searching for systems that will work. They look to us. What sort of explorers have we been? What do we have to report to the poor of the world?

Today is a great family day, amply demonstrated by the presence of so many families. Among us today, we form an almost planetary people. The families represented here come from practically all the regions and nations of the earth. All our families, some in living memory, have known tyranny and poverty. The Statue of Liberty says: “Send me your tired, your poor …” and many of our families came. Others, although already here, and although not yet enjoying the full blessings of liberty, shared her dream. The Constitution ensured that all Americans would be “… Free at last. God Almighty! Free at last!“

How did a Constitution a piece of paper help liberty to happen? The Framers gave us a clear image of the new order they dreamed of: that pyramid (look at it), on the Seal of the United States. They designed a system divided into three systems. A political system – an economic system – and, over both, a moral and cultural system, represented by the eye of truth, of conscience, of Providence. Three systems in one. Each independent, each interdependent, each checking and balancing the other two.

Why were there three systems? Because every human being you, I, all of us – sometimes sins. None of us can be trusted with too much power. Please see that the Framers built their new order for sinners. No use building it for saints (there are too few of them). They built, not for angels, but for humans as we are. They built for the only moral majority there is: sinners.

Thus, you should never be dismayed by headlines (such as today’s) concerning scandals and betrayals – of trust. These are always to be expected. The new order is intended to discover them quickly – and to correct them. The Framers carefully chose a motto: “In God we Trust.” They meant “nobody else.” Scandals there have always been, always will be. Our experiment is built on deeper ground. We expose them, and start again. So it is today, so it was yesterday. So, alas, we will always be a pilgrim people starting again.

The American ideas of liberty is unique. Recognizing human weakness, it rests upon institutions. Getting the design right is half the battle. And getting the right idea about liberty. Not just any ideas of liberty. But liberty under law. Liberty under God.

Perhaps no American better understood the Framers than Abraham Lincoln. In an important address in Wisconsin in 1859, Lincoln first linked liberty to education. As President, he was to become signer of the Land-Grant College Act (the Merrill Act), which based the building of the American West on intellect. The cause of the wealth of nations, Lincoln knew, in intellect.

Intellect – and liberty. After 1787, the first four generations of the “new order” in America, Lincoln thought, did prosper.

“All this was not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”–the principle that clears the path for all–gives hope to all – and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.”

This is the principle that brought the families gathered here today three great human liberations, one for each of the three systems of our “new order”:

  1. political liberation from torture, and tyranny;

  2. economic liberation from poverty; and

  3. the religious, moral, and cultural liberation of our consciences.


What, then, is new about the “new order” our families have come to share? Remember that trinity: three systems, like the sides of a triangle – and three liberations. Three liberations, through a three-sided system: political, economic, moral.

How would one know whether the experiment worked? The Framers promised American families two fruits: unparalleled scope for liberty, unprecedented prosperity. Lincoln believed that, by 1862, the fruits of that experiment were already many. And by our time?

Just over a hundred years ago, meeting at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, the Catholic bishops of the United States affirmed that the Framers of this country had shaped its basic documents under the guiding hand of Providence, building “more wisely than they knew.”

Because they did build wisely, we are here today, hundreds of families strong, at a university built by a free people doing our best to make the “principle of liberty” – liberty under law, liberty under God – active in our own lives. We have much to do.

In 1787, there were only 775 million persons on this planet. Most lived under tyranny, in dire poverty, without medical science, many in hunger. The average age at death was 18.


Today, the planet supports 4.8 billion persons. But most today still live under tyranny; two billion still live in poverty; and some 800 million suffer from hunger and malnutrition. The task of liberating
tyranny, poverty, and oppression is far from ended.

You graduates of 1987 have achieved the sort of liberation a university training is meant to provide. Through the use of your minds, you have begun to liberate yourselves (no one else can do that for you). You have reason to hold tight the link between 1987 and 1787: you yourselves are part of one of the noblest experiments that humankind has ever attempted. That experiment in liberty is not over; it has barely begun. Now it is your turn to bear liberty's burdens and to advance its fortunes.

Many sacrifices have already
been made by the generations preceding you – by your parents, by your grandparents, and by their parents, down the ages.
You are part of a very long line of families, that have long struggled to be free. And you are part of a much larger family – the family of all nations, joined to us here by the many invisible threads of family connectedness, that emanate from this assembly to every place on earth, the human family that is still struggling to be free. Your obligations to that whole family have only begun.

We all congratulate you on taking your place among educated adults, to whom so much has been given, of whom so much will be asked.

Will you allow me to conclude with the words of one of your “classmates”, the young James Madison of 1787, who penned these words for you and all posterity in Federalist 14, urging his fellow citizens not to reject the Constitution submitted for their consent.

“Hearken not to the voice which petulantly tells you that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in a political world; that it has never yet had a place in the theories of the wildest projectors; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish. No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language. Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys …”

Imagine Madison looking up from the page as he wrote, thinking of the future:

“Is it not the glory of the people of America that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theater in favor of private rights and public happiness.”

The diminutive Madison, all of five-foot-six, wanted no one to overlook the creation of a novus ordo never seen on earth before, yet of enormous significance for the entire human race:

“Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe.”

Thus was fashioned “a new order of the ages.” It happened in ’87.

The Class of '87 should be unusually faithful to liberty. Yours is the year of the Constitution. The year '87 will always refer to you…and to it.


Love liberty well. The poor of the world depend on you.


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