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2004 Baccalaureate Address

James M. McPherson
George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History
Princeton University
May 30, 2004

The dictionary defines Baccalaureate as an address in the form of a sermon to the graduating class at a college or university. To me, standing here in the pulpit of this magnificent chapel in the form of a Gothic cathedral, that definition certainly seems appropriate. What I have to say may seem very much like a sermon, although a secular rather than denominational one. As with most sermons, my talk has a title: "The Long View." And also as with sermons, I begin with a text. My text is taken not from the Bible but from nature. The sounds of that nature just barely penetrate the thick stone walls of this edifice, but they will assail your hearing when you emerge from the doors. They will make Class Day tomorrow and Commencement on Tuesday a truly memorable experience. For you are privileged to be among the one-seventeenth of Princeton classes that graduate to the accompaniment of the 17-year locusts. Actually, they are cicadas, but locust sounds much more Biblical. And these insects provide me with the text for this address I am calling "The Long View."

First, consider the short-term prospects of these cicadas. After waiting for 17 years they emerge from the ground and live for only a few weeks. Other species of life -- especially humans -- often consider them repulsive. Even birds do not find them palatable. The male cicadas make their unearthly mating call, the females lay their eggs, and then they die. Not much of a life! Where is the inspiration there for a Baccalaureate sermon?

For that we must consider the long view. After 17 years their children are absolutely guaranteed to get into Princeton. And so are their grandchildren, and their descendants down to the last generation. Talk about legacy admissions! It's no coincidence they are black and orange. And these insect alumni will be even more loyal than the famously loyal human alumni of Princeton -- they will never leave the campus.

So these 17-year locusts provide us with inspiration to take the long view of the future. The present and the immediate past, like the short-term prospects of the cicadas, often do not seem very encouraging. At the beginning of your sophomore year, the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington cast a dark shadow over the next three years. The stock market swoon, corporate scandals and economic recession dimmed your career prospects compared with your predecessors who graduated four years ago. In the eight years before you entered Princeton, the American economy added 20 million jobs; during the four years you have been here, the economy has lost almost 2 million jobs. Both the national government debt and cumulative household debts of Americans stand at record highs, which many economists consider a ticking time bomb for the economy. Health-care costs are rising by double-digit percentages every year, and the number of Americans without health insurance stands at an all-time high. The United States is mired in an ugly and perhaps unwinnable war of its own making. The standing of the American government abroad is at an all-time low and anti-Americanism at an all-time high. A recent CBS poll found that 65 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country -- a degree of negativism that seems unprecedented.

If I stopped here, I would leave you so depressed that you would want to join the cicada larvae and spend the next 17 years underground. But that would be the short-term view. As an historian, I am accustomed to take the long view -- not only of the past, but also of the future. My area of specialization is the American Civil War era. To those who lived through that experience, it must have seemed like an unparalleled disaster. More than 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in that war. This was 2 percent of the American population at the time. If 2 percent of the American people were to lose their lives in a war fought today, the number of American war dead would be 5-1/2 million. The Civil War created 200,000 widows and a half million or more fatherless children. It left large parts of the South a smoking ruin and destroyed more than half of Southern wealth.

But that was only one side of the ledger. The outcome of the Civil War also preserved the United States as one nation, indivisible. It liberated 4 million slaves and their posterity. As Abraham Lincoln said in his dedicatory address for Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg, those soldiers gave the last full measure of devotion to assure that the democratic form of government represented by the United States would not perish from the earth but would have a new birth of freedom. The triumph of the Union in the Civil War, despite its terrible cost, liberated not only the slaves but also the energies of the American people to move toward a better future with greater opportunities for Southerners, both black and white, to improve their lot in society. That did not happen overnight, and the process has not been completed even by our own time, but in the long perspective of a century and a half, the suffering and death of the Civil War gave rise to a stronger and more just society.

But that society, and the larger history of the human race over the past century, have been plagued by many other times of despair, depression and war. The unhappy events during the years you have been at Princeton may be more "normal," if that is the correct word, than the preceding eight years of prosperity that prevailed during your middle school and high school years. Indeed, during the past century there have been more times of war and depression than of peace and prosperity. World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II, the Holocaust, Korea and Vietnam were, of course, far more deadly than anything we have experienced in recent years. The fear of nuclear war that prevailed during my middle-school, high-school and college years -- in the 1950s and early 1960s -- was even more numbing than the fear of terrorism today.

Nor have the domestic issues of injustice, crime, drug abuse, AIDS and other social problems been worse in recent years -- indeed, nowhere near as bad -- as they have been at times in the past. To mention just a few examples, ethnic riots in American cities killed scores of people in the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the South during Reconstruction, 2,500 Americans were lynched during the last 16 years of the 19th century, poverty, disease and misery in large American cities around 1900 became a national scandal, crime and gang warfare during the Prohibition era caused more fear and social disorder than drug wars do today. Yet through it all, the republic survived, the social contract did not break down, the economy recovered from depressions, life expectancy steadily increased, infant mortality declined, epidemic diseases that had been the scourge of humanity for millennia were vanquished, opportunities and rights for women and minorities expanded, America grew and prospered. Human beings are remarkably resilient; most of us believe in a better future in the long run, we behave and plan on that assumption, and for most of us that better future eventually comes to pass.

It is not only my perspective as an historian that tempers pessimism with a conviction that we will meet and surmount difficulties. Several experiences in my own lifetime have reinforced that conviction. In fact, my very existence standing before you today is testimony to the optimism of the long view taking by my parents three score and eight years ago. I was born in 1936, the middle of the Great Depression and also a time when the volcano that would erupt in a world war only three years later was already rumbling underfoot. My parents had married a year earlier, when my 21-year-old father had just graduated from a tiny college in North Dakota and had taken his first teaching job in a small-town school in a state that was so broke that it could pay its public employees only with warrants -- that is, promises to redeem these certificates with real money when -- and if -- the state ever had any real money. It took a special kind of faith in the future to get married and start a family at such a time. If my parents had not had this faith, I wouldn't be here.

Let me tell you another Depression story that makes the same point. In 1964 a Princeton alumnus named Shelby Cullom Davis, class of 1931, a history major, gave the Princeton Department of History a gift of $5.3 million -- the equivalent of more than $20 million in today's dollars. We have used the income from that gift for all kinds of academic and scholarly purposes that have benefited students and faculty alike. Shelby Davis, who became an investment banker in the 1930s, said many times that it was his knowledge of history that had made him rich. If, he said, he had been an economics major, or had listened to the advice of economists, he said, he would never have invested at what turned out to be the bottom of the Depression; it was history, he said, that gave him the long view, that enabled him to look beyond the despair of his present in the 1930s and foresee a brighter future.

Another example: I'm sure that all of us here remember where we were and what we were doing on that September morning three years ago when we learned of the planes that hit the twin towers and the Pentagon. Similarly, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing -- I was in the old Chancellor Green cafeteria getting ready to have lunch -- on that November day 41 years ago when I learned of John F. Kennedy's assassination. That traumatic event issued in several years of despair and pessimism that included the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, the quagmire in Vietnam and devastating racial riots in American cities. Yet those were also the years when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the years when Princeton went co-educational in 1969 and also made a successful effort to recruit substantial numbers of minority students -- achievements that have made this best old place of all even better. So also may we hope that the current blight of terrorism and war will be mixed with and eventually give way to better things.

One more personal example: Exactly six years ago to the day, I gave the Commencement address at my alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Two months earlier, the college had been devastated by a category-four tornado that broke virtually every window on campus, knocked down 90 percent of the trees, destroyed some buildings beyond repair and seriously damaged others. There was scarcely a square foot of grass on the campus not filled with broken glass. Only the fortuitous circumstance that spring break had started two days earlier and that the campus was virtually empty that Sunday afternoon prevented what might have been a disastrous death toll; nobody was killed. Yet, recovery seemed impossible in time for Commencement. Nevertheless, the students pitched in to clean up the debris, helped by volunteers from other colleges every weekend, glaziers donated their time and labor to replace thousands of windows, nurseries donated trees to replant the campus and, by the time I arrived at the end of May, I was astonished by the changes from the photographs and videos taken immediately after the storm. The spirit of those graduating seniors and the faculty was the most astounding and moving thing I have ever witnessed. And today that college is flourishing; it looks better than ever, except for the absence of the hundred-year-old oaks and maples that once shaded the campus -- but the new trees promise the eventual return of that tranquil scene as well. If I ever needed a lesson on how hope and determination can trump despair, I learned it then.

So, my message to you today is: Take heart. These are perhaps not the best of times to graduate. But neither are they the worst of times. Most of your student days have been lived in the shadow of 9/11. But from that experience you have gained the perspective to endure both the good and the bad times that will come in the future. Twenty years after the American Civil War Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was wounded three times in that conflict and went on to become one of our greatest Supreme Court justices, said in a Memorial Day address: "The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing." I would certainly not go so far as to describe 9/11 as your "great good fortune." But it did touch your hearts with fire and teach you that life is a profound and passionate thing. Generations that have gone before have been similarly touched. They responded to the challenges with courage and creativity. I am confident that you will do the same.

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