How Many Valedictorians Today Could Write This 1957 Commencement Speech?

How Many Valedictorians Today Could Write This 1957 Commencement Speech?

The author, who recently passed away, gave this commencement speech at her graduation in 1957. It is reprinted here with the permission of her family.
Mary Reid McIlwain
By

Fellow American Citizens:

Many times you’ve probably felt thankful that you live in this country. But have you really ever stopped to think of why you’re grateful to be a citizen of America and why you enjoy the freedoms and privileges that you do? As I stress a few ideals of Americanism, I hope you’ll realize how proud you should be.

Our country is proud to be called a Christian nation and we certainly have a right to be proud. Those first pilgrims settled here to have religious freedom, although for many yours [sic] religious freedom was not complete. Many early settlers had to fight for their religious beliefs before religious freedom was given. Many new territories were formed by people who fled from some other part of the country because of religious persecution. But now, through the Bill of Rights which was added on to our Constitution, Americans have, for many years, been free to worship God as they please. This I consider as Americans’ greatest privilege. I hope you will always honor it.

“I am an American.” This is a statement that every citizen of the United States is proud to make. These four simple words mean more than many volumes can explain. When the average citizen says, “I am an American,” he actually means that he is a part of the government and therefore is not subject to the whims of any dictator. An impressive number of rights and privileges which have been fought for and won are his, and they are guaranteed to him by a Constitution which is the supreme law of the land.

One of the essential things which has kept our country supreme is our homes joined together by love. The home is the best place to teach youth to have a genuine respect and love for the law. If a child has not been taught in some home to respect the law, he seldom becomes a willing, cheerful law-abider in after years.

Home life develops the most intense patriotism. Men who could never be induced to shoulder arms in any other cause will fight in defense of their homes.

No earthly power can break down this nation unless some insidious, undermining doctrine shall first trike at its very roots and destroy its foundation: THE AMERICAN HOME.

America became great for the simple reason the early colonists founded and developed their homes in the new world. American homes are built on a solid foundation of love and of mutual respect and esteem, with a mutual sharing of the joy and happiness of home life and equal sharing of its burdens and sorrows. No earthly power can break down this nation unless some insidious, undermining doctrine shall first trike at its very roots and destroy its foundation: THE AMERICAN HOME.

We as young people owe our parents our love, devotion, and loyalty because of all they have done for us. Tonight as I graduate, I can look back through the years and see how much my mother and my father have loved me and taken care of me. They helped me when I had troubles and cheered me when I accomplished something—big or little. I love my parents and I would like to pay tribute to them as I am sure all the Seniors would, on this night as we leave our high school days and go on to higher levels of education and to make new homes.

Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and trial by jury are a few examples of the many rights and privileges which belong to American citizens. Americans are so accustomed to these civil rights that they give them little thought; yet they are rights and privileges that do not exist in many countries of this world. Not one of these rights is to be found in Russia. You find them completely honored and respected only in the United States and some of the countries making up the Western world.

The American of today has the duty of preserving these rights and liberties so that his children and their children through all time may also enjoy them.

When these facts are considered, it suddenly becomes clear that these rights which mean so much to the American citizens were not passed out by the gods, but instead they have been won by the struggles and sacrifices of millions of men throughout the long history of the world. The American of today has the privilege of enjoying these rights and liberties because his ancestors in America and England had the courage to fight for the ideals of liberty and democracy.

The American of today has the duty of preserving these rights and liberties so that his children and their children through all time may also enjoy them. Rights and liberties as valuable as these must not be taken for granted and carelessly neglected. They are the bases of democracy, and we must guard them as we do our lives.

I believe in Americanism. No country is so glorious as America in her traditions and ideals. The spirit of liberty and freedom for which our forefathers fought in the Revolution is still implanted in the hearts of the millions of citizens who live in this great land. As for me, I am happy that I was not born in a country where no liberty prevails. I am praying earnestly that I can pass on to my children, undiminished, the spirit of Americanism in which I believe.

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