Justice Kennedy lectures to packed Hall of Philosophy
CHAUTAUQUA – The pursuit of happiness ties into the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
That was the message delivered by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at Chautauqua Institution Monday. The lecture, held in the Institution’s Hall of Philosophy, was packed, as hundreds of residents filled the hall and surrounding areas.
Kennedy was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1975. President Ronald Reagan nominated him as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, and he took his seat Feb. 18, 1988.
Kennedy has served in many positions during his career.
He served as a member of the California Army National Guard, on the board of the Federal Judicial Center and two committees of the Judicial Conference of the United States: the Advisory Panel on Financial Disclosure Reports and Judicial Activities.
Kennedy, who last spoke at Chautauqua in summer 2009, spoke regarding the week five theme, “The Pursuit of Happiness.” He tied the concept into the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
“Democracy and the idea of freedom are not in your DNA,” Kennedy said. “You don’t take a blood test to see if you believe in freedom. Freedom is taught, and teaching is a conscious act. The idea of Democracy … is that we are trustees for the next generation. A trustee, or a person trained in the law, is a very serious undertaking of responsibility.”
Over the next 40 minutes, Kennedy discussed the Virginia Declaration of Rights, comparing it to the Declaration of Independence. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted a month before the Declaration of Independence. It encouraged men to rebel against inadequate government.
“The Virginia Declaration of Rights said that there should be a right to life, liberty and to acquire and possess property, and to pursue and obtain happiness,” Kennedy said. “We could ask you, ‘Well, which do you prefer? The longer version or the Jeffersonian edited version?'”
According to Kennedy, the word property is extremely important.
“Property gives you the capacity to plan your own destiny in a world where government is all too eager to plan it for you,” he said. “Property is of immense importance.”
Kennedy said he believed the word “pursuit” was as important as the word “happiness,” and hypothesized the Declaration of Independence deliberately left out the word “obtain,” stating happiness could be pursued, but not obtained.
Kennedy called into question the number of people in attendance who had read the Constitution, calling it “one of the most brilliant documents in the history of human thought.” He encouraged everyone to read the Declaration of Independence, which he said was designed to inspire Americans.
“The primary meaning – and I’m confident, for the founders, the primary meaning – was the sense of self-worth you have by civic participation and civic contribution,” Kennedy said. “That’s happiness. This is something we must remember in a nation which takes freedom for granted, and it ought not to do so. … The essence of freedom is that the power rests in the person, and goes from the person to the government, and not the other way around. Freedom is not your gift from a benevolent government. It’s yours by right.”
The Bill of Rights came into play, Kennedy said, in order to ratify the Declaration of Independence. He discussed various amendments and their impact on the pursuit of happiness as well.
“A nation that is in the grips of moral relativism, as a private philosophic matter, cannot protect basic values,” Kennedy said. “The framers, I think, were well aware the meaning of the words they used would emerge over time. Tolerance, I think, is important to enable us to ensure our freedom, and continue to work for freedom, as we remember that the work of freedom is never done.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will speak at 10:45 a.m. on July 29 on the topic of the Institution’s week six theme, “Crime and Punishment,” with a special lecture on portrayal of the law in opera. The lecture will be held in the Amphitheater.