Editor's note: The following is a transcript of remarks delivered by Eugene Meyer at the 2020 Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner.
I am especially honored to receive the Alexander Hamilton award. This is because the Manhattan Institute exemplifies the type of serious discussion and analysis we desperately need and receive far too little of these days. It is also because the Adam Smith Society, on whose advisory board I have the honor to sit, has tried with considerable success to introduce the principles of a free society to business schools and to business leaders as the federalist society has done in law schools and with lawyers. The federalist society has provided what assistance we could but the adam smith society has done brilliantly with their entrepreneurial efforts and they should make you all proud of the excellent job they do.
I want to focus on something close to the heart of both the manhattan institute and the Federalist Society: freedom of thought. Reason, debate and discussion are rooted in western civilization and constitutional democracy. For america, the first amendment protects not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of religion—in other words the freedom to commit heresy.
Our founding generation adopted the first amendment even though they held strong beliefs about the most important questions in life---beliefs that were far more important to many of them than life and death. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in support of the principles soon enshrined in the constitution. They were committed to the idea that with reason and discussion we could try this experiment in government. In Alexander Hamilton’s famous words: “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”
The Founders wanted these freedoms for all because they believed this is how civilization flourishes. The cornerstones of western civilization and the judeo-christian ethic come in part from hearing opposing views and learning from them. But heresy? Surely that is a step too far. Yes, freedom of speech is all very well, but heresy risks eternal damnation. I think they had two reasons. First, again in the words of Hamilton: “for in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”
The second reason reflects one of the great wisdoms of the constitution. A flourishing society does not coerce its citizens to choose between their most deeply held beliefs and loyalty to the government unless absolutely necessary. To do so risks tearing the society apart. To quote Hamilton again: “remember civil and religious liberty always go together, if the foundation of one be sapped, the other will fall of course.”
Parenthetically, we are perhaps seeing the wisdom of that warning today in some of the events unfolding in our cities across america. So it is no coincidence that the first amendment covers both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Both protect freedom of thought, reason, and discussion—the building blocks for developing and maintaining a flourishing and good society.
I look forward to the Federalist Society and the Manhattan Institute continuing to work to defend freedom of thought, reason and serious discussion. Thank you again for this award.