David Rubenstein’s Commencement Address

Posted: May 17, 2014 at 4:23 pm

David M. Rubenstein, Patriot Center, May 17, 2014.

Congratulations to all of you who will shortly receive a degree as a result of your hard work, dedication, and intellectual achievement over many years. And even greater congratulations to the parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and friends who may have worked even harder to bring this day to fruition–and who may have thought that this day would never come.

To the new graduates, in addition to your degrees, you will inevitably find that for the rest of your life you will be asked at least three questions by those you meet for the first time–what is your name, where are you from, where did you go to school. You will be asked the third question because, rightly or wrongly, people judge other people to some extent by where they went to school. And that is a good thing for you because the school from which you have just earned a degree has, in a relatively short time for universities, earned an excellent reputation for providing a world-class education and for producing intelligent, motivated and focused graduates, very eager and fully ready to make their mark in the world.

Your President, the University’s Faculty and Administrators and the University’s Board of Visitors deserve enormous credit for ensuring that your degree has the value it today enjoys. And for these reasons, you should always answer the question of where you went to school by saying the words George Mason University with enthusiasm and with pride.  And you should do so not only because you received an excellent education, but also because the university from which you graduated is named after one the greatest of Americans, George Mason, a man who is as much responsible for the country we have today as any of the other Founding Fathers.

Let me explain what I mean for those who may not know as much about George Mason as you might know about his somewhat better known good friends George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. No doubt all three of those men would say they were in George Mason’s debt, for all he did to help and influence them, rather than the other way around.  Why would they have said that?

George Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the finest expression at the time of the rights that colonial citizens should expect from their governments. While Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, there is no doubt that many of his memorable – indeed, now immortal – words were taken very freely from George Mason’s earlier work.  For instance, it was George Mason who wrote in that Declaration “that all men are equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights including the enjoyment of life, liberty…and “pursuing happiness and safety”.

Jefferson, later wrote, in his famous Preamble that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all me are created equal and are endowed by certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Jefferson may have been a more succinct writer, but he clearly was heavily influenced by George Mason in writing a sentence now widely seen as the most famous in the English language.

After the Revolution was won, George Mason attended the Constitutional Convention, and his effective leadership there–his powers of persuasion–on so many matters helped give us the extraordinary Constitution we have lived with for over two centuries. But George Mason did not sign the Constitution as drafted. He felt the omission of a Bill of Rights could not be overlooked, and he refused, against pressure from his colleagues, to sign. Only two of the other fifty five delegates to the Constitutional Convention refused to sign.

The result was that James Madison–and other proponents of the Constitution, including George Washington – ultimately realized that the Constitution needed a Bill of Rights. And so in the very first Congress, James Madison led an effort to have a Bill of Rights amended to the Constitution.  The language of this Bill of Rights borrowed very freely from the language George Mason had earlier placed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  And so the Bill of Rights which now serves as such an essential part of our Constitution relies heavily on the precise wording earlier used by George Mason in Virginia.

What is relevant for you is not the specific actions that George Mason took several hundred years ago. What is relevant for you, as graduates of a university named after George Mason, is what life lessons can be taken from what George Mason did. There are three lessons that I hope you will remember as you embark on your own life journey, on your career, on your effort to realize your life dreams and your ambitions.

The first lesson: give back to your community and country. George Mason loved Virginia and the new country that he helped to create. He fought to make certain that Virginia could operate as an effective democracy–independent of England–and he fought to create a whole country that also could operate as a democracy and also survive independent of England. You, fortunately, do not have to help create a state, a country, or a democracy. But you have been helped by the taxpayers of Virginia and the United States in getting your education. Never forget that the cost of your extraordinary education, while seemingly expensive, was heavily subsidized.

You hopefully will feel, at some point in the not too distant future, an obligation to repay your debt to Virginia and the United States by doing something which makes your community, your state, and your country a much better place than you found each of them. If you are fortunate to at some point have more money than you truly need for yourself and your family, giving back some money to some organization or cause related to your community, your state or your country would be a particularly appealing way to show the gratitude you have for the education you have received.  And, if you do not have more money than you comfortably need, you can always give back with your time, your energy, and your ideas.  These types of contributions can often be far more valuable than your money.

I have called this type of repaying a debt to your society and your country, for all of our blessings and freedoms, “patriotic philanthropy.” And what could be a more appropriate way of giving back for those who are, as graduates of George Mason University, forever known as Patriots. But whatever you call your philanthropy, and however you do it, please try to give back, to do something to make your society and country better than you found it.  Whatever you choose to do in giving back to society, remember that George Mason did give back extraordinarily well. And his life was made much fuller for doing that, and so will your life. Truly, the greatest happiness in your life will come from giving back to others, not from accumulating material possessions.

The second lesson: follow your conscience and do what you feel is the ethically and morally right course to take, even if there are short term personal costs or consequences. In George Mason’s case, he was severely pressured to sign the Constitution, on which he worked so hard for those four months in Philadelphia in 1789. But he refused. He felt that the absence from the Constitution of a Bill of Rights made the Constitution a fatally flawed document. And so he returned to Virginia without having signed the Constitution.

In doing so, George Mason essentially severed his close life-long friendship with George Washington, and that was personally and professionally painful for George Mason.  After all, George Washington was the country’s most popular political figure, someone certain to soon be the country’s first president.  But George Mason felt that a Constitution without a Bill of Rights was not a real or worthwhile Constitution.  And George Mason therefore stood his ground.  He worked hard to have the Constitution, upon its ratification, have a meaningful Bill of Rights. And that of course happened.  But the relationship with George Washington never actually recovered.

In your own life, at many points, you will be faced with moral dilemmas. Your conscience and moral fiber will tell you to take or not take a certain course. And expediency and short-term financial or personal goals may argue to you to ignore your conscience and ethical beliefs. Please think in those circumstances of George Mason and what he did in a similar situation. Regard yourself as one of the progeny of George Mason. His name will be attached to yours for the rest of your life.  So follow his lead.

Do as he did.  Take the right course. Avoid the path of least resistance. Remember that your reputation and your self-respect are your most valuable commodities. When you lose them, and they can be lost in minutes even though years were taken to build them, you will rarely be able to easily recover your reputation or your self-respect. In short, follow your conscience, and not short-term considerations. You will never regret doing so. But you will almost certainly regret taking the opposite course.

And the third and final lesson: communicate effectively what you believe, for doing so can ensure that you become a leader in life rather than a follower, and as a leader you can really make a real difference in the world. And that should be your real goal – make the world you live in a far better place – if not only for you, but for your children and your grandchildren. That is not easy to do. But you have it within your grasp to do so by truly working to become a leader, by truly working to persuade others to follow your lead. How can you do that?

Life is largely about persuading others to do what you think they should do–persuading your spouse, your children, your siblings, your parents, your friends, your colleagues, and your rivals and competitors. How does one persuade? How does one communicate effectively? How does one lead?

There are probably three major ways, and George Mason mastered each of them. And they are within your ability to master if you work hard to do so. And you certainly have the ability to do so if you are getting a degree from here today. You persuade and lead by learning how to write effectively. George Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution, and he did so with words that were clear, to the point, meaningful, precise, powerful and yet–for all of those qualities – also brief and succinct. His words resonated with so many others. This skill did not come easily, but George Mason worked at it. He practiced. He read how others wrote. He listened to what others said. You can do the same. Whether he could have mastered the language of Twitter is unknown. But he mastered the art of writing at that time, and he influenced future generations as a result. And you can as well, with some hard work and focus, with some practice and imagination.

George Mason also persuaded and communicated effectively through his manner of speaking. At the Constitutional Convention, where he was perhaps of the most frequent and effective of speakers, and during his time in various Virginia legislative bodies, George Mason learned to talk in a way that made others listen. He used logic. He used his life experiences. He used simple words. He used his intelligence. And he found others were willing to listen. And you can do the same. Practice your public speaking. Figure out what methods work best for you. And use and perfect those methods. Have others want to hear what you have to say because what you have to say is well said and well-reasoned.

And finally–communicate and persuade by example. Nothing can be more effective. George Mason’s then friend, George Washington, led by example. He stayed with his troops at Valley Forge through the bitter winter of 1777-1778. He could have easily avoided that but he wanted to lead by his example. George Mason led by example by refusing to sign the Constitution. His refusal spoke volumes to everyone about the importance of having a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Had George Mason signed the original Constitution, perhaps others would not have taken as seriously his view that the Constitution really needed a Bill of Rights.  And perhaps there never would have been a Bill of Rights, and thus we might not have a country with the rights and freedoms that we all enjoy today.

You too can lead by example. The actions you take and the way you conduct yourself, in social and professional settings, can readily persuade others to follow your lead. Take advantage of this phenomenon and lead by example. Recognize that others are prepared to listen and to follow if your own actions send the right message. And do your best to send the right message whenever the opportunity arises.  People will always be watching what you are doing, and setting the right example by your actions will influence others even more than will your written or spoken words.

Now I have told you what George Mason said and wrote and did, and have held him out as an appropriate–maybe the most appropriate–example for you–the graduates of this university–to follow.  But, until just recently, I honestly cannot say that I knew George Mason would agree with me, for I never met or talked with him. And, therefore, I wondered whether any of you would actually listen today to my views of George Mason and my views of what he would think you should do with your lives.

But, yesterday, on my iPad, an unexpected message appeared.

It read—

Dear Mr. Rubenstein,

I appreciate very much your speaking at the commencement of the university named in my honor. I greatly wish that I could be there, but for the last two hundred and twenty two years, I have been consigned to listening and watching rather than appearing and talking. But through the wonders of the internet, and the help of new friends more skilled in technology, I am now in a position to at least send occasional messages.

And here is one message. Today’s graduates have the ability to change the country and the world far more than I did, and certainly far more than I am given credit for doing. They need to seize the initiative, support their communities and country, follow their conscience, and lead in whatever manner works best for them. I have learned that life is far shorter than it appears when one is in his or her twenties.

Do not waste your limited time, and do not wait until the end of your life to focus on what you can do to help your country. Do something meaningful with your life. Make your parents, children and friends proud. And make me proud. You now carry my name with you forever. I will be watching always.  And rooting for you.

Your Friend and Fellow Patriot.

George Mason

So if you do not believe me, believe George Mason.  Your life will forever be intertwined with his.  Live up to the legacy he created for you.  Nothing will please him more.

And so, please remember that no material possessions, no amount of money will give you as much happiness as will giving back to society, as will following your principles or as will becoming a real leader of people.  And it is the pursuit of happiness, after all, which George Mason saw as an ultimate life goal.  Personal happiness is surely elusive, but – two centuries after he lived – you can achieve personal happiness through the same ways that George Mason did.

Remember what he did, and how he did it. You now carry George Mason’s name with you for the rest of your life. Wear that name proudly. And do the kinds of things that would make George Mason proud. And, with some luck, you may get an email message from him thanking you for what you have done for society and perpetuating his name.

But start all of this tomorrow.  Today, celebrate and remember to thank all of those who made it possible for you to graduate today.  They will never forget your expressing thanks for today. Nor will you. Congratulations.

Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu

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