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Great Speeches Still Speak

Think Again's Mary Kate Cary recently received the Citizen of the Year Award from the Jefferson Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. As she accepted the award, she explained the value to be learned from great speaches from history.


Remarks by Mary Kate Cary

Sons of the American Revolution / Jefferson Chapter

Citizen of the Year Award

December 2, 2023


Thanks Phil, and what a privilege to be here. I’ve never received an award like this

before — the closest thing I can think of was winning Safety Patrol of the Year in eighth

grade! Truly, I’m humbled to accept this honor.


When I first started teaching five years ago, I began with two classes. First, “Political

Speechwriting,” which gives students the nuts and bolts skills of writing persuasive,

entertaining, and factually accurate speeches on a deadline.


Second, “The Rhetoric of American Democracy,” later renamed “Democracy Out Loud”

by the students. In that class, we study the 30 or so greatest speeches in American

political history, with an even number from both sides of the aisle.


At first, I was barely able to fill the class of fifteen students. That has changed. Next

semester, the class has expanded to thirty students, and it’s got a very long waitlist, nearly

a hundred.


Clearly the word got out, and there is a hunger among young people for learning about

the great speeches of our democracy from a variety of viewpoints. I’d like to expand the

class size to a hundred or even two hundred students, but I haven’t talked UVA into that

… yet.


In order to get in both classes, students have to apply for my permission to enroll. It’s not

first-come-first-served. Generally, I give priority to fourth year students about to

graduate, and especially those who have a job waiting for them in politics and who will

be writing speeches.


I also carefully balance the class in terms of students’ views — not just a mix of

Republicans and Democrats, but students in the sciences as well as the humanities; instate

and out-of-state; wealthy kids from New England prep schools and working-class students from rural Virginia towns who didn’t have broadband in high school; varsity athletes, artists,

rappers, and Honor Committee members; fourth- and fifth-generation Virginians as well

as new immigrants.


I want them to hear other views different from their own — and together, build our own

version of e pluribus unum in our classroom. In fact, one student asked to be in my class because she was a new citizen originally from Venezuela and had only ever heard great speeches by dictators. She got in the class.


I had a Chinese student who had changed his American name to Winston, as in Churchill.

He got in the class.


Two years ago, I had a Marine ROTC student who told me he’s never heard a convincing

speech by a commanding officer.

He got in the class.


A month ago, I was teaching speechwriting and the lesson was on using vivid, concrete

language. And writing for the ear, not the eye. I don’t want academic jargon, which they

have all mastered — what I call “term paper language.” I tell them speeches do not have

footnotes or bibliographies, and no semi-colons separating long clauses.


I showed an example of vivid, concrete language on the big screen in the classroom,

which was a quote from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous speech at West Point. Here

are the two paragraphs I showed them:


Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country.

Always their blood, and sweat, and tears,

as we sought the way and the light and the truth.

And twenty years after, on the other side of the globe,

again the filth of murky foxholes,

the stench of ghostly trenches,

the slime of dripping dugouts,

those broiling suns of relentless heat,

those torrential rains of devastating storms,

the loneliness and utter desolation of jungle trails,

the bitterness of long separation of those they loved and cherished,

the deadly pestilence of tropical disease, the horror of stricken areas of war.

Their resolute and determined defense,

their swift and sure attack,

their indomitable purpose,

their complete and decisive victory —

always victory, always through the bloody haze of their last reverberating shot

… the vision of gaunt, ghastly men,

reverently following your password of Duty, Honor, Country.


That is not term paper language.

So I turned to a student who shall remain unnamed, a fourth year student in Army ROTC,

who will be a commissioned Army officer in less than six months, and said, “I’m sure

you’re familiar with this speech by General MacArthur.” He looked at the screen, and

then back at me.

“Never heard of it,” he said.


This is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

My hope is that by learning about the great speeches of American democracy, that the

next generation will learn how to build up, rather than tear down, the institutions that

nurture it — much like Western Civ classes used to do, before they all got cancelled a

few decades ago.


I believe that we are now reaping the consequences of our young people not being taught

the greatness of American values and the exceptional nature of the American founding —


instead, they learn what a growing majority in academia see as our “systemic” racism, the

“evil” of free enterprise, and the “dangers” of free speech and open inquiry.

It’s fine if you’re going to teach that, but we have to have students hear the other side as

well, and let them decide for themselves.


That’s why viewpoint diversity is so important to a great college education, and why free

speech and open discourse are vital to our American democracy.


I’d like to suggest that the next generation of students here at UVA could be what the

writer Bari Weiss calls “the new founders America needs.” That’s the title of a great speech she gave recently urging students to follow in the footsteps of our nation’s founders — more than a dozen of whom were under the age of 35 — and begin to lead us out of the un-American revolution we are living through today. To do that, she argues, young people must start by being grateful for all that we have in America, defending the rule of law and freedom of speech, rejecting moral relativism, ending political litmus tests of your friends, and saving what we love rather than killing what we hate.


I say all the time to my students that politics wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have

to stay this way. All it takes is good people to step forward and go into public service —

whether that means running for office, joining the military, volunteering for a good cause,

or even teaching Western Civ.


The Sons of the American Revolution has been inspiring young patriots since 1889, and

your work with young people to help shore up the institutions of American freedom,

respect for our national symbols, and the unifying force of e pluribus unum is needed now more than ever.


That’s what makes this award from your organization so humbling to me, and why I can’t

say thanks enough. It means the world to me.


God bless you, and God bless America.

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