Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa, June 3, 1956

It is a great pleasure to be here and I am thus deeply gratified for the honor that Loras College has bestowed upon me in presenting me with an Honorary Degree.

Much is different between Iowa and Massachusetts. We live on a beachhead on the cold Atlantic; you live in the heartland of America. We harvest the sea, you the rolling prairie.

Yes, much is different, but much is the same – the same sense of self-reliance, the mutual recognition of the responsibilities as well as the privileges of self-government.

I have not been entirely unfamiliar with the history Iowa and her statesmen – and I think one episode is of considerable relevance to those of us commemorating this Commencement Day. It was little more than 88 years ago today that Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa faced a decision more difficult than any he had ever known and more far-reaching in its consequences than any he would ever have to make. That issue was the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson by the radical Republican movement dedicated to his destruction and to the exploitation of the defeated Southern states. Senator Grimes had first made his reputation as a Governor of Iowa known for his vigorous opposition to slavery. He increased that reputation in the Senate as a bitter foe of Andrew Johnson’s conciliatory policies for the South. But when it came to convicting the President of the United States for high crimes and misdemeanors, James W. Grimes placed his conscience and his Constitution above his dislike for Johnson’s public policies and personal traits.

Senator Grimes was only 52 years old as the impeachment trial approached its climax in May of 1868; but the strain of that trial, and the constant pressures and intimidations heaped upon him by his extremist colleagues, brought on a stroke of paralysis. As he lay in pain and suffering in the bedroom of his home in Washington, Senator Grimes knew that not even the most fervent supporters of Andrew Johnson would criticize him if he failed to vote on the impeachment charges. He knew, too, that his absence from the Senate Floor, on that crucial day would soften the wrath of the people of Iowa who were demanding that he vote to convict the President. Friends who had turned their back on him might return; and associates in the party he had helped to build might cease their abusive assaults upon him.

But James W. Grimes was a man of great physical as well as moral courage, and just before the balloting was to begin on May 16, four men carried the pale and withered Senator from Iowa into his seat. He later wrote that Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, another of the seven Republicans who refused to convict the President, had grasped his hand and given him a "glorified smile… I would not today exchange that recollection for the highest distinction of life." The Chief Justice suggested that it would be permissible for him to remain seated while voting – but with the assistance of his friends, Senator Grimes struggled to his feet and in a surprisingly firm voice called out "not guilty."

For his courage, he was repudiated by the State of Iowa and censured by his life-long friends in his home town of Burlington. One newspaper charged that his illness had brought on "idiocy"; and in the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley wrote: "It seems as if no generation could pass without giving us one man to live among the Warnings of history. We have had Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, Jefferson Davis, and now we have James W Grimes."

His spirit and strength gone, Senator Grimes resigned his seat within a year and failed to recover from his paralytic stroke. But before he died he declared to a friend: "Perhaps I did wrong not to commit perjury by order of a party; but I cannot see it that way… I became a judge acting on my own responsibility and accountable only to my own conscience and my Maker; and no power could force me to decide on such a case contrary to my convictions, whether that party was composed of my friends or my enemies… I shall ever thank God that in that troubled hour of trial, when many privately confessed that they had sacrificed their judgment and their conscience at the behests of party newspapers and party hate, I had the courage to be true to my oath and my conscience." It is interesting that neither Sen. Fessenden or any of the other six remembers who voted with Sen. Grimes.

The career story of Sen. Grimes is a classic example of a political leader defying popular fury for what he thought to be right. But this case and similar cases in our history throw a special light on the responsibilities we have as citizens in a democracy: We must not forget that is not just the leaders who bear the burdens of government – We all do to a greater or lesser degree

It seems to me that, as the people of Iowa and indeed the nation look back upon the courageous but tragic career of Senator Grimes, they will better appreciate the special contribution to our society that can be made by Loras and similar institutions. For in 1956, as in 1868, the individual as citizen has an urgent but difficult responsibility to determine the facts and the policy decisions to be based upon those facts. And yet he knows that his political leaders, and most of his newspapers, are stating the facts from their own point of view – not dishonestly, not carelessly, and frequently not even knowingly – but simply because their role is in the role of the advocate not the judge. The peoples themselves are the judge – in them is the awesome responsibility. Even government finds it difficult to present the truth in an age when "truth" has become a weapon in the struggle for power – truth that is bent, twisted and subverted to fit the pattern of national policy. Frequently, we in the West feel ourselves forced by this drum beat of lies and propaganda to be "discriminating" in our selection of what facets of the truth we ourselves will disclose.

Thus, the responsibility of a free university to pursue its own objective studies, to carry on the continuing search for the truth – both for its own sake and because only if we possess it can we really be free – is even more important today than ever before. Loras College has succeeded in carrying out this mission, so that today it stands as a bulwark on the North American continent in the battle for the preservation of Christian civilization.

I say this not because I believe Christianity is a weapon in the present world struggle, but because I believe religion itself is at the root of the struggle, not in terms of the physical organizations of Christianity versus those of Atheism, but in terms of Good versus Evil, right versus wrong, in terms of "the stern encounter" of which Cardinal Newman so prophetically wrote:

"Then will come the stern encounter when two real and living principles, simple, entire, and consistent, one in the church and the other out of it, at length rush upon one another contending not for names and words or half views, but for elementary notions and distinctive moral characteristics."

Cardinal Newman spoke of this conflict as yet to come. Doubtless its climax is yet to come, but in essence the conflict has been going on for 2,000 years. It has not been limited to one nation or to one form of government. The issues, the slogans, the battle flags, the battlefields and the personalities have been different. But basically it has been the same encounter of opposing principles, a struggle more comprehensive, more deeprooted and even more violent than the political and military battles which go on today.

It is easy to envision the struggle as being wholly physical – of men and arms – of stockpiles, strategic materials and nuclear weapons – of air bases and bombers, of industrial potential and military achievements. This is the material struggle, and the central problem here is to be equal to the sacrifices necessary for ultimate survival and victory. But of far deeper significance is "the stern encounter," the very nearly silent struggle, with no din to be heard in the streets of the world, and with weapons far more subtle and far more damaging than cannons and shells. The encounter of which I speak makes no more noise than the inner process of disintegration which over a period of several hundred years may hollow from within some great tree of the forest, until it is left standing an empty shell, the easy victim of a winter gale.

We can barely hear the stern encounter, and thus too often we forget it. Our minds, like the headlines of our newspapers, are intent upon the present and future conflicts of armed might, and upon the brutal, physical side of that ominous war upon which we have bestowed the strange epithet "cold." We tend to forget the moral and spiritual issues which inhere in the fateful encounter of which the physical war is but one manifestation. We tend to forget those ideals and faiths and philosophical needs which drive men far more intensely than military and economic objectives.

This is not to say that we have overlooked religion. Too often we have utilized it as a weapon, broadcast it is propaganda, shouted it as a battle cry. But in "the stern encounter," in the moral struggle, religion is not simply a weapon – it is the essence of the struggle itself. The Communist rulers do not fear the phraseology of religion, or the ceremonies and churches and denominational organizations. On the contrary, they leave no stone unturned in seeking to turn these aspects of religion to their own advantage, and to use the trappings of religion in order to cement the obedience of their own people. What they fear is the profound consequences of a religion that is lived, not merely acknowledged. They fear especially men’s response to stimuli which are spiritual and ethical, not merely material. A society which seeks to make the worship of the State the ultimate objective of life cannot permit a higher loyalty, a faith in God, a belief in a religion that elevates the individual, acknowledges his true value and teaches him devotion and responsibility to something beyond the here and the now. The Communists fear Christianity more as a way of life than as a weapon. In short, there is room in a totalitarian system for churches – but there is no room for God. The claim of the State must be total, and no other loyalty, no other philosophy of life, can be tolerated.

Is this not simply an indication of the weakness of the Communist position? If the ultimate struggle is indeed a moral encounter, then are we not certain of eventual victory?

At first glance it might seem inevitable that in a struggle where the issue is the supremacy of the moral order, we must be victorious. That it is not inevitable is due the steady attrition in our faith and belief, a disease from which we in the West are suffering heavily. The Communists have substituted dialectal materialism for faith in God; we on our part have too often substituted cynicism, indifference and secularism. We have too often permitted the Communists to choose the ground for the struggle. We point with pride to the great outpourings of our factories and assume we have therefore proved the superiority of our system. We forget that the essence of the struggle is not material, but spiritual and ethical. We forget that the purpose of life is the future and not the present.

This emphasis on the material shows itself in many elements of our political life. Too often, in our foreign policy, in order to compete with the power doctrines of the Communists, we ourselves practice what Jacques Maritain has called "moderate machiavellianism." But as Maritain pointed out, in the final showdown this pale and attenuated version "is inevitably destined to be vanquished by absolute and virulent machiavellianism" as practiced by the Communists.

We cannot separate our lives into compartments, either as individuals or as a nation. We cannot, on the one hand, run with the tide, and on the other, hold fast to our principles and ideals.

Here at Loras we are taught that Christianity is a way of life, not a means to an end; that eternal truths and the problems of this world cannot be kept separate. You are graduating from this College today know this to be true; and it is your responsibility as well as your opportunity – by your works and by your example – to stimulate a revival of our religious faith, to renew the battle against weary indifference and inertia, against the washing away of our religions, ethical and cultural foundations.

If our nation will recognize the spiritual and moral element of the "stern encounter" – if it will direct our policies to emphasize this phase of the struggle – if we will refuse those compromises which have cost us so heavily — which have blurred the nature of the encounter between our enemies and ourselves – then we shall find our way easier, and our success more certain.

The cause for which we struggle needs reaffirmation. Its true meaning and significance is found here at Loras, and we count upon you who have studied here to be the vanguard in giving direction and purpose to our lives and to our time.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 895, "Loras College commencement address, Dubuque, Iowa, 3 June 1956." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.