Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Commencement Exercises of Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, June 13, 1956

View related documents here: folder icon

I am deeply honored at being admitted to the ranks of the alumni of Boston College. Boston College has played a notable part in the life of this community and it carries on a most distinguished and ancient tradition of Jesuit education.

This college has the function of producing men who, whatever their fields of endeavor, will become leaders. I do not mean leaders in the narrow sense of personal success. This great school, manned by dedicated religious and lay-teachers, was not built and is not maintained, quite obviously, merely to give its graduates an advantage in the life struggle. No, the object, as you well know, is more complex. The first thought, of course, is towards the City of God, but there is also cognizance of our obligations to the City of Man. I would like to emphasize today the civil obligations you have towards the government of this City of Man.

I do not mean by this that it is necessary that all of you should take up politics or government as a career. That may be possible for many of you, I hope, if by temperament and opportunity you should feel equipped and inclined.

But, I would like to emphasize the obligation of all who have had the benefit of your training, to assume their proportionate share of the burden of self-government. The phrase "self-government" has fallen into disuse these days. The center of government seems so far removed from us that we tend unconsciously in our minds to divide ourselves into two groups, the governors and the governed.

In spite of the elaborate solar system of local, state and national units of government that encircle our lives, most of us tend to regard ourselves as the objects of governmental policy and not the makers. This state of mind has resulted in the feeling of great uninterest and faint distaste with which so many Americans view the governmental process. We tend to look with disfavor at a political structure which seems to emphasize party and factional disputes, where compromise runs rampant, where indirection seems to have become the shortest distance between two points. But, to look at the political process in this superficial fashion is misleading; it is like looking at an anthill as merely a bit of sand and failing to see that it is the cover for a whole labyrinth of life.

The important thing to remember is that your uninterest in politics will not mean that the various tasks will not be done; they will be done, and usually in a way unsatisfactory to you. There are a great many Americans who do take an intense interest in politics; they recognize that at stake is control of the most powerful and richest country on earth. It is governed by one of two political parties; if a group or a combination of interests can master the parties or can become a dominate influence in one of them, the stakes are well worthwhile.

Thus, underneath the clash of personalities, the serious struggles go on. In City Halls, in State Houses, in the nation's Capitol, struggling groups, labor, business, agriculture and all the infinite subdivisions within each group contend; all bringing the maximum pressure to bear on the party, the politician and the administration.

In the Federalist papers, Madison foresaw these contending factions, but, he expressed the hope that they would, to a great extent, cancel each other out. This happens to a degree - the society for the protection of the taxpayer fights the efforts of the society for the liquidation of the taxpayer, (not always successfully,) and a kind of struggling equilibrium is maintained.

But I would like, after a decade of observing this curious business of self-government, to stress the need for greater participation by men like you. I do not think you can always rely on this mutual canceling out to protect the public interest. With your training here you have had an opportunity to realize that self-government involves responsibilities as well as rights, duties as well as privileges. As Pope Pius XII has said, "Direct action is indispensable if we do not want sane doctrines and solid convictions to remain, if not entirely of academic interest, at least of little practical consequence."

To play your proper role in government, the role for which your education and training equips you, I would first emphasize to you the necessity for using your own cool judgment. Do not forget that there are few wholly objective sources of information. Nearly everything you read and hear is part of a polemic on one side of a question or another. The final responsibility of the people to deem where truth and error lie is correspondingly greater in a system such as ours. Because you have been trained by skilled teachers to think independently and to make your judgments based on a strict moral code, your contribution here can be most important.

Secondly, politics is like any other profession, to be effective in it you must first understand it. You should be discriminating enough to know that there are occasions when a politician must compromise in order to prevent conflicting groups from tearing the country apart. All legislation, as Henry Clay reminded us, is founded upon the principle of compromise. But, the politician has the responsibility of not confusing compromise for the public interest with compromise for the sake of his own personal advancement.

Actually the people get, by and large, the kind of political representation that they desire and deserve. If the people will support politicians of courage, will recognize and reward political courage, even when it may be employed against what they conceive to be their own immediate interest, then the quality of our public service will be correspondingly increased. Too often at the present time when the politician, obeying his conscience refuses to give way to an unreasonable pressure, he stand nearly defenseless, the great mass of the people uncomprehending and uninterested, as a revengeful minority turn to destroy him. The shores of our history are littered with the wrecks of the careers of men who stood for their country against the storms of partisan fury and prejudice only to founder on the shoals for want of help from the beach.

Never before in our history has there been a greater need for men of integrity and courage in the public service. Never before in our history has there been a greater need for the people to take up willingly the responsibility of free government. Certainly you as educated Catholics are committed to bear your share of the burden, for the philosophy that you have been taught here at Boston College is needed in the solution of the problems we face. With the issues of war and peace, with the fate of Western civilization hanging in the balance - the somber question indeed of the survival of our Faith and country at stake, each man among you can afford in some degree, at least, to answer the call to service.

High on the wall of the House of Representatives in Washington, above the Speaker's chair so that everyone can see, are written words we should remember. They were from a speech by a distinguished Senator from our native State of Massachusetts, Daniel Webster, "Let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions and promote all its great interests and see whether we, in our day and generation, may not perform something worthy to be remembered."