'Lead by Example': A Much-Needed Flashback to Clarence Thomas' 2016 Hillsdale Commencement Address

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

As we've noted before, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has gifted us with some classic quotes during his decades of public service, with one in particular that stands out to me being what I call his “Never bend the knee” moment during his highly contentious (thanks to then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden) 1991 confirmation hearings.


There have also been the subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at his critics on the left and in the media (but I repeat myself), including his reference in 2022 to something he said early on as a newly minted Justice in response to media criticism:

"One of the things I’d say in response to the media is when they talk about, especially early on, about the way I did my job, I said ‘I will absolutely leave the court when I do my job as poorly as you do yours—and that was meant as a compliment really."

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Considering the commencement address unrest we've seen in recent weeks, and also keeping in mind the left's relentless attacks in trying to get Thomas impeached for the crime of WrongThink, now is as good a time as any to reference back to one of the many commencement speeches Thomas has given, this one being the one he gave at the May 2016 Hillsdale College graduation ceremony.

Three months prior, Justice Antonin Scalia had passed away. After paying tribute to him during his speech, Thomas, who admitted in so many words that he was old-school, talked about what made America great - and how it could be kept that way:

My words will perhaps seem somewhat vintage in character rather than current or up-to-date. In that context, I admit to being unapologetically Catholic, unapologetically patriotic, and unapologetically a constitutionalist.


Let me offer you, this year’s graduates, a few brief suggestions about making your deposits in the account of liberty. Today is just the end of the beginning of your young lives, and the beginning, the commencement of the rest of your lives. There is much more to come, and it will not be with the guiding hands of your parents—indeed, they may someday need your hand to guide them. Some of you will most assuredly be called upon to do very hard things to preserve liberty. All of you will be called upon to provide a firm foundation of citizenship by carrying out your obligations in the way so many preceding generations have done. You are to be the example to others that those generations have been to us. And in being that example, what you do will matter far more than what you say.


As you go through life, try to be a person whose actions teach others how to be better people and better citizens. Reach out to the shy person who is not so popular. Stand up for others when they’re being treated unfairly. Take the time to listen to the friend who’s having a difficult time. Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness. Treat others the way you would like to be treated if you stood in their shoes.

These small lessons become the unplanned syllabus for learning citizenship, and your efforts to live them will help to form the fabric of a civil society and a free and prosperous nation where inherent equality and liberty are inviolable.



These days, strong unapologetically patriotic messages and the leaders who give them are, unfortunately, in short supply. May the words of Thomas from that day endure well beyond his - and our - time on this Earth.

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