Self Control and Liberty in Law
Royal Furgeson Commencement Address Part 1
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Royal Furgeson Commencement Address Part 2
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United States District Judge, Western and Northern Districts of Texas
Tech graduates, because of your families and your teachers, you are here today in celebration of a significant accomplishment. So please rise and give them a standing ovation. I have a long connection to Texas Tech. My father, the original Royal Furgeson, enrolled here in 1927, after growing up on a farm near Lubbock. Two years later, the Great Depression hit, and he was forced to drop out of school to help his family survive. For the next eight years, on and off, my father continued to go to Tech, until he graduated in 1937, ten years after he started. He would be the only one of his twelve brothers and sisters to earn a college degree.
For most of his life, except for duty in World War II, my father was a county employee. The best opportunity for a college education for his children, just as it had been for him, was Texas Tech. And so it was that I graduated from Tech in 1964, my sister Peggy graduated from Tech in 1969, my brother Jim graduated from Tech in 1971, and my sister Sally graduated from Tech in 1975. Since Tech’s inception in 1925, it has been this way for generations across the western two-thirds of Texas. The best opportunity for a college education has been Texas Tech. I imagine that the story of my father, my brother, my sisters, and me is not unlike your story. Tech has given all of us our start.
You might understand then why I have such a strong affection for and appreciation of this university. I owe it a lot. Therefore, when my good and great friend Kent Hance asked me to speak here, I immediately agreed. This is a very special honor for me. That being the case, I promise not to abuse your trust. This will be a short speech. Regardless of content, there has seldom been a bad short speech. But, since you are my people, and since I’ve been around for 68 years, there are some things I want to share with you.
The subject of my speech comes from a visit with my mother, Alyene Hardwick Furgeson, in her nursing home. For all 90 years of her life, my mother has been a committed Methodist. By her side is an ancient Cokesbury hymnal, worn down by years of devoted attention. I noted it on my last visit and decided to read some hymns to her. As I did so, I turned to that iconic ode to our nation—“America the Beautiful”—and these lines jumped off the page: “Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.” I could not resist the message. And so today, may I talk to you a few minutes about self-control, liberty, and law? It is axiomatic to me that self-control, liberty, and law go hand-in-hand. All three are necessary ingredients for a thriving democracy. Without all three, it is unlikely that a democracy can even exist.
First, let us consider self-control. One disclaimer to begin with: I did not choose the topic of self-control to caution you against riotous behavior at the conclusion of this happy occasion. I know that you will be prudent.
In my view, self-control means maturity and delayed gratification. Be slow to anger. Don’t fly off the handle. Embrace Aristotle’s Golden Mean: avoid extremes and seek the middle path.
People with self-control also realize that they are not perfect, that they can be wrong, and that they have an obligation to listen to opposing viewpoints and to give them careful attention. In such circumstances—indeed in all circumstances—civility matters. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Civility is not a sign of weakness.”
Self-control means not jumping to conclusions. Gather the facts and then decide. John Adams counseled that facts “are hard things.” Recall also what Patrick Moynihan said: “We are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.” Self-control means that a person strives for wisdom, and while wisdom does not require graduation from a great university like Texas Tech, education and learning can only be accomplished through self-control. Regarding wisdom, the Talmud reminds us that, “The highest wisdom is loving kindness.” Another type of wisdom is the ability to discern the false gods in our presence. Today, at almost every corner, there seems to be someone selling a new secret to success or happiness or fulfillment for only $9.99 down and $9.99 a month for 12 months. They want us to worship their gods. Turn them away. Remember that Emerson’s instruction is correct: “It behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” We only get one life, so it should be the life we choose, not what others would choose for us.
Self-control means a healthy lifestyle. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don’t forget broccoli and Brussels sprouts. They may be an acquired taste, but you can do it. Eat smaller portions, because it is a fact that today our caloric intake is 20 percent higher than it was twenty years ago. A few beers on the weekend or maybe a glass of wine or two is certainly acceptable, but moderation is important here. As the songwriter in the movie Crazy Heart wrote, “There is such a thing as too much fun.” Exercise as much as possible. You only get one body. Take good care of it. As Mary Schmich has advised, use sunscreen and always floss. And as I advise, to the men in the audience, don’t forget to wear socks with your shoes.
Self-control requires thoughtfulness in personal relationships. It’s not always about us. What Maya Angelou has noted is true: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Instructive here is a story about the two great nineteenth-century rivals in British politics: Gladstone and Disraeli. One of the grand ladies of London society was reported to have had successive dinners with the two men and then observed: “After dining with Mr. Gladstone, I concluded that he was the most clever person in all the world. After dining with Mr. Disraeli, I concluded that I was the most clever person in all the world.”
Pass along an encouraging word to others, especially those who make our lives better. Dave Barry has put it another way: “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” Self-control is the opposite of self-indulgence. Just as Galileo understood that the earth was not the center of the universe, we must understand that we are not the center of the universe either. Self-control is also the opposite of arrogance. Even our best minds still struggle to understand the mysteries of life and of intergalactic space. Knowing how little we truly know, how can any of us be arrogant about anything? Humility should always be the order of the day.
When I think of self-control, I think of the people who built this magnificent country of ours. Some were famous, but most were not. To paraphrase George Eliot, “The growing good of [America has been] partly dependent on un-historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” We should never forget that we have benefited from the efforts of so many that have labored so diligently and in complete obscurity to make our lives better. That’s why there truly are no self-made men or self-made women. Those who have gone before us have paved the way for us.
The second part of the referenced stanza in “America the Beautiful” requires that we confirm our liberty in law. To me, after long years at court, it is self-evident how liberty is confirmed in law. Think about it. If we are not secure in our person, in our home, and in our property, then we have no liberty. If there is no law to protect us, then we are not free, because everything can be taken from us. Law, therefore, matters. It allows us to deal with those who commit crimes, who breach contracts, and who perpetuate fraud. It is an unfortunate fact that not all our citizens keep to the straight and narrow path. Per capita, we have more people in prison than any other nation in the world. And some of those people are much worse than others. Yet, it is crucial that even they be judged under the law, because as Robert Bolt has observed, we should give even the Devil the benefit of the law, for our own safety’s sake. John Marshall put it another way in Marbury v. Madison when he wrote that the “very essence of civil liberty certainly consists in the right of every individual to claim the protection of laws.” And James Madison put it yet another way when he observed that if “men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Nor would laws be necessary. But not one of us is an angel, so we need government and the law to make us accountable to each other.
James Madison also wrote that, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty itself be lost in the pursuit.” It bears repeating. If there is no law and no justice, then there is no liberty.
By the way, it is important to note that in America, we do justice with juries. When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he gave as one reason for our rebellion that we had been denied the right to trial by jury. Two of the first ten amendments to the Constitution guarantee Americans the right to trial by jury. Indeed, to me, the greatest institution of democracy in our nation is the jury, because it is the only time when our citizens make the final decision in our governmental structure. From time-to-time you will hear criticisms of juries. I tell you that most are ill-founded. I have personally observed hundreds of juries during my 43 years in the justice system. In almost every instance, the jury verdict has been the right verdict. After all, juries are us, and if we can’t trust ourselves, then we are indeed on the road to perdition. I hope you get the chance to serve on a jury someday.
But, don’t take all of this from me. Take it from Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal. [It is not idealistic] to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal, . . . it is a living, working reality.”
So, my dear friends, that’s it. “Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.” Please understand that I am not asking you to lead a dull and boring existence. Not so at all. Be of good cheer. Laugh and be joyous. And anyway, have you ever met a dull and boring Red Raider? Such a person does not exist.
Follow this formula with a good and abiding spirit. It will lead you along the path of good citizenship and sound achievement. And when you get to your senior years, you will be confident in the knowledge that you did your best for your family, for your community, and for your nation. It is a legacy to strive for.
Now could we all stand to sing “America the Beautiful”, by Katharine Lee Bates.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law!
Congratulations, Red Raiders. God bless you, and God bless Texas Tech.
About the Author
Royal Furgeson serves as United States District Judge, Western and Northern Districts of Texas. He is a 1964 Texas Tech graduate with a Bachelor of English degree and a 1967 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law. While at Texas Tech, Furgeson lettered on the men’s basketball team and served as student body president. In 2007, he was named as a Distinguished Alumni by the Texas Tech Alumni Association and named as a West Texas Legal Legend by the Texas Tech School of Law in 2008. He is a former shareholder of the law firm of Kemp, Smith, Duncan & Hammond, and a former U.S. District Judge in the El Paso, Midland, and San Antonio Divisions. This paper is based on his commencement address May 14 and 15, 2010 to Texas Tech University graduates in Lubbock, Texas.