As prepared for delivery on June 2, 2015, in the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall
Good afternoon. It is my privilege to participate in this afternoon’s ceremony and to extend my congratulations to the Princetonians who today become graduates of this University and officers of the United States Army. In a few minutes, each of you will make a solemn promise to defend the Constitution of this United States — to defend not our land, nor our wealth, nor even our people, but our Constitution. That remarkable fusion of constitutional authority and military duty is an audacious invention of this nation’s founders. It depends on a radical idea critical to the American tradition: Namely, that military strength and constitutional democracy can reinforce one another, rather than conflict, as they often did in the past and still do in much of the world.
Nassau Hall is an auspicious site for the commitment that you will make. Our constitutional tradition has deep roots here. James Madison, often referred to as the father of the Constitution, lived and studied in this building. George Washington liberated Nassau Hall from the British during the Battle of Princeton. From July to October 1783, Princeton was the nation’s capital and Nassau Hall the home of its government.
To my side and behind you hangs one of Charles Willson Peale’s famous portraits of General Washington after the Battle of Princeton, with Nassau Hall visible in the background. Historian Gordon S. Wood tells us that Washington “electrified the world” when he voluntarily relinquished power to the Continental Congress in December of 1783:
“All previous victorious generals in modern times — Cromwell, William of Orange, Marlbrough — had sought political rewards commensurate with their military achievements. But not Washington. He seemed to epitomize public virtue and the proper character of a republican leader.”
Wood elsewhere refers to Washington’s decision as “his most theatrical gesture, his greatest moral mark,” and “the greatest act of his life.”
Washington’s sacrifice bequeathed to this nation a special legacy. To preserve and extend the tradition he began, we must have civilian leaders who respect military service, and we must have military officers educated in the principles of republican government and liberal learning. That is why I am proud that Princeton University has hosted a United States Army Reserve Officer Training Corps unit on its campus since 1919, and that we also offer Navy and Air Force ROTC programs for our students. And, most of all, that is why I am honored to have the opportunity to address the seven Princeton alumni who receive their commissions this afternoon: Michael Bacon, Robert Dougherty, Joshua Hamilton, Beau Lovdahl, Joshua Lyman, Victor Prato and Sean Webb.
This University takes great pride in you and what you have done. We are proud of your learning. We are proud of your courage. We are proud of your commitment to our Constitution, to the United States Army, and to the intertwined traditions from which they emanate. You are worthy inheritors of the history and ideals that course through this building, and I am pleased to extend to you, on behalf of Princeton University, my best wishes for the future and my most heartfelt congratulations.