Guest Essayist: David J. Bobb, Director, Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, Hillsdale College, Washington, D.C.

“Commencement Address at Howard University”

Lyndon B. Johnson

At the end of the United States Civil War, a century before President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Commencement Address at Howard University, the ex-slave turned American orator and statesman Frederick Douglass concluded that the best thing the federal government could do for Americans of African descent was to leave them alone.

In his most popular speech, which he delivered first in 1859, and repeated more than fifty times before his death in 1895, Douglass reflected on the idea of “Self-Made Men.”  While careful not to assert man’s autonomy from what the Declaration of Independence calls “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” Douglass argued that the self-made man’s soul is refined and made great only by extraordinary effort.  “If they have ascended high,” he says of these noble human beings, “they have built their own ladder.”

Douglass’s idea of high achievement was tied to his idea of human nature.  “Man,” he said, “is too closely related to the Infinite to be divided, weighed, measure and reduced to fixed standards, and thus adjusted to finite comprehension.  No two of anything are exactly alike, and what is true of man in one generation may lack some degree of truth in another, but his distinctive qualities as man, are inherent and remain forever.”

In reflecting on the state of black America at Howard University, a historically black institution founded in 1867, President Johnson articulated an idea of progress—and of justice—very different from that endorsed by Frederick Douglass.  Whereas Douglass saw progress for human beings rooted in their natural desire for self-improvement of the soul, Johnson insisted upon an unending progress defined by the government’s transformation of the individual’s material well-being.

President Johnson’s idea was Progress with a capital “P.”  As he said in this commencement speech, “We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”  This redefinition of equality from one of opportunity to results required a redefinition of what was possible for human beings.  Justice, Johnson claimed, “is to fulfill the fair expectations of man.”

Redefining human beings mainly by the way they can be organized collectively, and redefining justice as fairness (as seen in the eye of the beholder), Johnson disregarded the longstanding American emphasis on the capacity of the individual for self-government, and on justice defined by an equal possession of natural rights.  Favoring the Progressive’s new democratic ideal, Johnson parted ways with the plan America’s Founders, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass endorsed for the fulfillment of the American promise.

Motivated by this new understanding of justice and the place of government, Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” a year and a half before the Howard University commencement speech.  The war’s launch was marked by the establishment of dozens of Great Society programs aimed at ending poverty in America.  Today, after nearly fifty years, the rate of poverty in America is no better than when Johnson started his grand campaign.

Frederick Douglass held that government handouts were not the way to lift anyone out of poverty.  “A man may, at times, get something for nothing,” he said in “Self-Made Men,” “but it will, in his hands, amount to nothing.”  This Douglass held not because he lacked compassion for those in poverty, but because he, having known enslavement and poverty of the worst kind, believed that real progress can come only when crafted according to enduring principles and personal sacrifice.

Read Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commencement Address at Howard University here:

David J. Bobb, Ph.D., is director of the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C.  He is author of the forthcoming book, Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue (Thomas Nelson).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 

1 reply
  1. barb zakszewski
    barb zakszewski says:

    We blame Obama for the Marxist view he has of our United States government, when in fact this marxist view of government has been in place since Woodrow Wilson’s earliest days. Presidents following Wilson refined that view, expanding on it and diminishing the importance of the individual while elevating the importance of government. We have been told for the last 110 years that we, ordinary citizens, are incapable of thinking for ourselves or providing for ourselves and now so many people believe that. Obama is taking the marxism of the last 110 year to its logical conclusion by desolving the importance of the individual completly and replacing with government. Can we rise above 110 years of history and reclaim our Nation as our Founding Fathers intended?


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