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Justice Thomas on National Identity

On March 31, 2009, United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas spoke to the students, parents, teachers, and other educators who had gathered at the Bill of Rights Institute’s Being an American Essay Contest Awards Gala. Justice Thomas discussed the Bill of Rights, as well as the responsibilities of citizenship. He challenged students with his provocative remarks, and took time to respond to questions. This week’s Bill of Rights in the News lesson focuses on Justice Thomas’s speech and an analysis of his ideas.


Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions

Read each of the following quotations from Justice Thomas’s speech, and then answer the questions that follow. “I think that the framers and especially Madison, who gave us our Bill of Rights and Jefferson, who gave us our Declaration of Independence, they understood that for liberty to exist, the populace needed to be educated enough to understand liberty and to be able to defend liberty. They also understood that liberty was not on automatic pilot, that liberty would not exist simply because it was once started and that having won it, it was very delicate and had to be protected.”

  • How would you put this phrase in your own words?
  • Do you agree with Justice Thomas that liberty is not on “automatic pilot”? Why or why not?

“I think that there is a way to disagree and these young people will learn it from us, that we can constructively say I respectfully but firmly disagree without acting out a disagreeable attitude and reaction to other people.”

  • Why is the ability to “respectfully but firmly disagree” without being “disagreeable” important in a free society?

“I found it perplexing as a young man that so many of the people I knew who never made it beyond being domestics and day laborers clung tenaciously to the promises of this country. So no matter that they have been denied opportunities because of race or lack of education or other difficult circumstances, they passed on the hopes and the dreams that they once had, or that they still have and equally important, they passed on that sense of obligation that is necessary to see the dream become reality.”

  • What do you think Justice Thomas means by the “promises of this country”?
  • What “obligation” is he referring to in the last sentence of this excerpt?

“Today there’s much focus on our rights, indeed I think there is a proliferation of rights. I don’t deny that these rights are important, they are. But I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances. At least it seems to me that more and more people are celebrated for their litany of grievances about this or that. Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our “bill of obligations” and our “bill of responsibilities”? What is required of us?”

  • How did the Founders define “rights”? Is that definition still relevant today?
  • How would you respond to Justice Thomas’s assertion that there should be a “bill of obligations” or “responsibilities”?
  • What kinds of responsibilities would be included?

“That balance [between liberty and security] is in the Constitution… the balance is struck in the Constitution and in the laws that we have and my job is to figure out as best I can what those balances are, and that is imprecise I admit, but it has the benefit of being legitimate as opposed to saying I have because I’m in a robe, I can make up a new balance because I think the world has changed, that’s not my job. That’s what you elect people for and that’s what you vote for. You don’t assign that role to a new regal institution up at the Supreme Court.”

  • How does Justice Thomas describe the role of a judge?
  • Why does Thomas make a distinction between the elected branches of government and the judiciary?