Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.



The Honorable Neil M. Gorsuch
Excerpts from speech - Washington DC, 9/28/17 
Presented by Jo Ann Potter

As Justice Kennedy likes to point out, the word civics springs from the Latin word that was also the same root for civility.  And both civics and civility are essential elements of civilization.  Just consider the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, free press, free assembly. Those rights ensure that Americans can say pretty much anything they want, for more or less any reason they want, more or less any time they want.  It's a wonderful thing.  But with every right comes a correlative responsibility, a duty.  And to be worthy of our First Amendment freedoms, we have to all adopt certain civil habits that enable others to enjoy them as well.  When it comes to the First Amendment, that means tolerating those who don't agree with us or those whose ideas upset us.... 

Hamilton sought to remind us of all this, about the duties of the First Amendment, in the very first of the Federalist Papers.  There he wrote that even "wise and good" people disagree on "questions of [the] first magnitude" -- and that fact, he said, should "furnish a lesson in moderation" -- to us all.  In a government by and for the people, we have to remember that those with whom we disagree even vehemently still have the best interests of the country at heart.  We have to remember that democracy depends on our ability to reason and work with those who hold very different views than our own.  We have to learn not only to tolerate different points of view, but to cherish the din of democracy... 

It's no exaggeration to say, I think, that to preserve our civil liberties we have to constantly work on being civil with one another...In a very real way, self-governance turns on our ability to try to treat others as our equals, as persons, with the courtesy and respect each person deserves, even when we disagree.  Our capacity...for civility is in this way no less than a sign of our commitment to equality and in turn democratic self-government. 

While we're talking about the founding and civility, it might not hurt to recall a little bit about the education of George Washington.  He deliberately cultivated habits of civility at a young age, habits that later helped him become so effective at leading our new nation.  As a teenager, we're told, he had copied by hand the 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation published by the Jesuits in 1595.  Many of these rules remain absolutely as true as ever.  Take Rule 86: "In disputes, be not so desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion."  Some are pretty downright funny, too.  Take Rule 12: "Bedew no man's face with your spittle, by approaching him too near when you speak."  In other words, as my teenagers would say, "Say it.  don't spray it."   

Without realizing it, though, perhaps, the Jesuits who wrote them, and the young man who copied them, were outlining and absorbing a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near-equals.  When the company for whom decent behavior was to be performed expanded to the whole nation.  Washington was ready.  Civility is essential for the treatment of people as equals in civilization... 

We should never lose sight that we live in the longest-standing republic in the world.  We live with remarkable success in a richly diverse nation, committed to the enjoyment of the blessings of liberty by the rule of law for all persons.  Americans have risen resiliently to challenges throughout our history -- from our unlikely success in revolution to defending our republic in the War of 1812, from the preservation of the Union in the Civil War to the efforts of our civil rights movement -- to realize the Declaration's promise of equal treatment for all persons.  It is no wonder that so many people around the world rightly consider our republic a wonder of the world.... 

And so it is with our constitutional order today.  We may not notice it every day, but what the Constitution calls our "blessings of liberty" are everywhere about us.  They are what allow over 300 million Americans to go about the daily lives under rule of law. 

Next week:  A Government of Laws, Not of Men.