Statement from Robert P. George

June 2, 2020

Faculty, students, and staff associated with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton represent a spectrum of beliefs and viewpoints. We strive to live by our motto “think deeply, think critically, think for yourself.” So we honor freedom of thought and discussion and other values that are critical to maintaining academic integrity, and we do not as a Program take positions on matters of politics, policy, or public affairs. Nor do we presume to police anyone’s opinions. Rather, we offer programming aimed at illuminating issues that implicate what the late John Rawls described as “constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice.”

At the same time, many of us not only study American ideals and institutions as matters of scholarly interest but also believe in them and are committed to upholding and strengthening them. I myself, for example, while respecting the right of others to hold different views, strongly believe in the right to life—the first and most foundational right mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. It was this right that was so egregiously violated in the case of the killing of George Floyd while in police custody. Its violation is always a grave injustice, but it is particularly heinous—and forcefully to be condemned—when the right is violated, as it was in Mr. Floyd’s case, by persons exercising public authority. The abuse of public authority by those to whom it has been entrusted is always a serious matter, and abusers must be held to account—especially when something inherently and inestimably precious, namely, a human life, has been taken.

We Americans are not bound together as a nation—a people—by ties of blood or soil. We are not united by a common ethnicity, race, or religion or by allegiance to a monarch or dynasty. What unites us—what makes us “out of many, one”—is our shared commitment to principles we believe to be essential to the full flourishing of human beings, the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. If we were to distill those principles to a core idea, it is, in my opinion, this: the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family. When we truly embrace that idea, we know that racism and racial injustice are unacceptable and must be resolutely opposed. Our nation’s history of racial injustice, beginning with slavery, must be acknowledged and its legacy overcome. When we truly embrace that idea, we understand our duty to honor the rule of law, eschewing violence and vigilante justice and respecting due process and the rights to life, liberty, and property of all members of the community, even as we rightly demand justice for any who have been victimized. When we truly embrace that idea, we grasp the importance and non-negotiability of fundamental civil liberties: freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and the right of dissent—including dissent from popular opinion—upon which the very existence of democracy and free institutions vitally depends.

There are today at both ends of the political spectrum honest, intelligent, and important voices asking whether we must now declare the American experiment in ordered liberty and republican government to be a failure. Some say that the persistence of racism and other forms of injustice, others say that the decadence into which much of our culture has fallen, is evidence that basic American principles were unsound or, perhaps, unrealistic from the start. Are they right? Does the killing of George Floyd and similar unspeakable injustices, or do the riots and lawlessness that in so many places have come in their wake, prove they are right?

Speaking for myself, and only for myself, for I have no authority to speak for anyone else, I want to say that we must not give up on American ideals and institutions. I know of no principles of political morality superior to those at the foundation of the American experiment. When our nation has gone wrong, it has never been because of those principles or an excess of zeal in our fidelity to our principles; on the contrary it has always been the result of infidelity to them. It is a grave error to think that justice would come as a result of abandoning them, no matter the good intentions that might prompt such a move. What would come, rather, is chaos followed swiftly by tyranny.

What we need—urgently—is not the abandonment of our principles but a profound national renewal of our dedication to them. That, and that alone, can provide the “new birth of freedom” for which Lincoln, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” worked and prayed, and for which all of us today, whether we are progressives, conservatives, or something in between, should hope and act.

Robert P. George 
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence 
Director, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions