JFK’s 1950 commencement address at Notre Dame

Victor Joecks

Guest post by Jared Carl, NPRI’s Development Director

Recently, I read a JFK biography in which the biographer pointed out that then-Congressman Kennedy was “a fiscal conservative who often felt out of sync with the demands of constituents eager for federal largesse.”

As evidence for Kennedy’s conservatism, the biographer cites a few short passages from a speech that JFK gave at Notre Dame in the early days of 1950.

After reading the three tantalizing passages, I set about to find the speech online, but quickly realized it wasn’t available. But thanks to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, I received a hard copy, the searchable PDF of which is available here.

The timing of receiving the hard copy couldn’t be better ahead of tonight’s presidential debate. I’d like to quote a section of the speech at length, without commentary. I believe it speaks for itself, and I invite everyone to read the address in its entirety.

As the problems that face us have become more complex, as the function of government has become enlarged, there has been a corresponding assumption of authority by the State. It is obvious from the history of the past 20 years that whether we like it or not – whether we be Republicans or Democrats – the government will continue to play an increasingly large part in our lives.

The theme of today – the scarlet thread that runs throughout the thoughts and actions of people all over the world – is one of resignation of major problems into the all-absorbing hands of the great Leviathan – the State. This trend is not divisible – we in the United States suffer from it, if less intensely.

It is, therefore, vital that we become concerned with maintaining the authority of the people, of the individual, over the State.

The assurance must be given that “Every man shall be protected in doing what he believes – against the influence of authority and majorities, of custom and opinion”.

Charles Beard, the historian, has pointed out that the American Revolution rested on three premises: that each individual is endowed by God with certain unalienable rights, that governments are instituted to protect these rights, and that when a government takes these rights away, the people must revolt. This is precisely the philosophy which you have been taught at Notre Dame. You have been taught that each individual has an immortal soul, composed of an intellect which can know truth and a will which is free. Because of this every Catholic must believe in the essential dignity of the human personality on which any democracy must rest. Believing this, Catholics can never adhere to any political theory which holds that the State is a separate, distinct organization to which allegiance must be paid rather than a representative institution which derives its powers from the consent of the governed.

In addition, a Catholic’s dual allegiance to the Kingdom of God on the one hand prohibits unquestioning obedience on the other to the State as an organic unit.

We are faced on this cold Sunday afternoon with a world torn by devastation and struggle. We cling precariously to a cold peace, while all about we can hear the muffled drums of war. The battle is on all fronts. Even words like “freedom” and “democracy” have been encaptured and are enslaved by the enemy.

Even here in America we are face to face with possible domestic disaster. A cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand – growing unemployment – with the possibility ever present that it may foredoom a collapse – is of vital concern.

As Peter Drucker wrote recently in Harper’s Magazine: “Prevention of depression and chronic unemployment has become an absolute necessity for any industrialized society”.

The ever expanding power of the federal government, the absorption of many of the functions that states and cities once considered to be responsibilities of their own, must now be a source of concern to all those who believe as did the great patriot, Henry Grattan that: “Control over local affairs is the essence of liberty”.