Governor Deval L. Patrick
Boston American Constitution Society’s “Constitution Day” Event
John Adams Court House, Boston
Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I want to acknowledge your founder, Judge Peter Rubin of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.  Thank you, Peter, for your vision in conceiving and launching a counter-weight to those elements in the legal and larger political community who seem determined to take us back to some romanticized idea of the “good old days,” days that for people like me and many of you were not that good.

To Chief Justice Margie Marshall, thank you for your firm and steady leadership of the judicial branch, and most especially, for tonight’s purposes, the courage you showed in your decision in the Goodrich case.  I know for that decision you have been called many things.  I call you a hero.

Thanks to all of you for supporting the American Constitution Society, and I want to thank the American Constitution Society for keeping the lights on when gloom feels like it gathers around us.  In some ways we could not be in a better place to salute the spirit of the ACS.  As you all know, John Adams, after whom this courthouse is fittingly named, wrote the Commonwealth’s own constitution.  The preamble so often quoted; indulge me if I do so again in part tonight:

“The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals:  it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.”

The common good.  So much has been written and debated about what is in “the common good.”  About what it means.  My own idea is a simple one -- I think it evokes a sense of community.

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s on the South Side of Chicago, often a lot of talk about what we didn’t have, but what we did have was a strong sense of community.  Because that was a time when every child was under the jurisdiction of every adult on the block.  If you messed up down the street in front of Ms. Jones, she would straighten you out as if you were hers -- and then call home, so you’d get it twice.  What those adults were trying to get across to us was that they had a stake in us.  And that membership in a community is understanding the stake that each of us has not just in our own dreams and our own struggles, but in our neighbor’s as well.  With that membership in community, comes responsibility. 

In our administration, I have tried my best to govern in that same spirit, in service of the common good.  For that reason, we have invested in the public schools at the highest level in the history of the Commonwealth even when the bottom was falling out of the rest of the state budget.  We enacted the Achievement Gap Act which gives us new rules and tools to reach the kids who’ve been stuck in that gap, poor children, children with special needs or who speak English as a second language.  We placed additional emphasis on science technology, engineering and math education, mindful that these are skills on which our future economic growth depends. 

We have invested in the unglamorous work of rebuilding our roads, rails, and bridges, expanding Broadband, extending health insurance to over 98% of our residents.

We have partnered with local officials and community groups on new strategies to address violence in urban neighborhoods, especially among young people.

And with an emphasis on education, on the innovation industries that depend on an educated workforce, and on restoring our infrastructure, we are growing jobs here in the Commonwealth faster than 44 other states and coming out of recession stronger than we were before.

Those are examples of what we have done.  The reason why we have made these choices is because each serves the common good.  And if your government serves the common good, then we will all of us bear our responsibility to improve the general welfare not just for ourselves, but for those who come behind us.

The common good, in this sense, has also been central to our progress in civil and human rights.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  His notion was very much that we all have a stake in the expansion of freedom and fairness to others.  Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court’s decision that struck down laws prohibiting blacks and whites to marry, was decided when I was about 10 years old.  It didn’t touch me then, not directly, but its principles expanded my freedom.  Those same principles were extended to gays and lesbians in Goodrich some 40 years later.  So we celebrate Goodrich, it seems to me, for the same reasons an earlier age celebrated Loving:  because freedom and justice always serve the common good. 

Today that notion is in jeopardy -- not because the equation is itself in question, but because the factors have been turned right on their heads.

The same folks who today say religious fundamentalism is a danger to freedom abroad are busy trying to promote it right here.  

The same folks who say government should stay out of our private affairs, want to tell women whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy or you and I whom we can marry.

For these folks freedom means freedom from responsibility.  No responsibility for overcrowded or underperforming schools.  No responsibility for crumbling roads or bridges.  No responsibility for urban violence.  No responsibility for the vulnerable and the poor.  In this view, each of us is on his or her our own, and the role of government and of the courts is simply to assure that self-interest trumps the common interest every time.

I reject that notion.  The American Constitution Society rejects that notion.  And so should you.  Indeed, if the hard right is right, Adams is wrong.  I’m with Adams.  But as I see it, what’s at stake is not just a matter of constitutional interpretation or political philosophy, but instead a question of the American character.

Americans believe in equality, opportunity and fair play, principles that define not just what America does but who America is. 

America believes government is about people, not abstract policy, that politics are about vision and values, not winning at any cost. 

America believes in an economy that grows opportunity out to the strivers, not just up to the well connected.

America believes that we owe the next generation a better country than we found, not quick fixes that push the real solutions off to another day.

America believes these principles because these things serve the common good.

Today, when the debate about what freedom is, about what really serves the common good, about the role of government is sharper and less constructive in some ways than it has ever been, I ask you not to treat the debate as a spectator sport.  If the real issue is what kind of America do we still believe in, the question is too important to follow it through the pundits’ commentary and keeping political score:  it’s time to come off the sidelines and get in the game.  America needs your participation.  It needs you vocally to reject the politics of division and fear, of bullying and acting out, and to stand up for the common good.  And America needs you to push me and all others in elective office to act in that spirit and only in that spirit.

I got a letter just yesterday from an 80-something woman who lives in Quincy but who wrote about growing up in the West End, the neighborhood now largely occupied by Boston City Hall.  She described what it was like to wander as a child through the streets and up and onto Beacon Hill and down along the Esplanade, the wide variety of people, language, food, culture.  She wrote about how everyone seemed to be striving for the same American Dream and to respect and support that striving in each other.  She described her community as “America at work.”

I still believe in that America.  I still want others to believe in that America.  Not because I’m not going to get mine.  Not because, you’re not going to get yours.  But because there are thousands and thousands of our own neighbors, children who will never be able to imagine themselves in a space as glamorous and glorious as this.  But it depends on us in our time to act in the common good.  Let’s do that work again.