In the Ashbrook Scholar Program, students learn to speak and engage with each other as equals. To improve their public speaking, Ashbrook Scholars are required to participate in the Henry Clay Speech Competition.
This semester, Ashbrook Scholars addressed the question “Why is America Worth Preserving?” for a panel of faculty, staff, and peers with four-to-six minute prepared and practiced speeches
The winner was Joshua Jasmin, who drew on his personal experience growing up in Mexico to highlight how America stands apart among all the nations of the earth. He made a compelling case that despite the problems America has faced since her Founding, she is worth preserving because of our unique “American spirit” that drives us to seek a “more perfect Union.”
Grey Johnston, a freshman from Texas, won second place. Third place went to Mikayla Gypton, a sophomore from Arizona.
A video of Joshua’s first-place speech and transcripts of all three winning speeches are available below.
1st Place: Joshua Jasmin
What is America? We live and go about our lives every day, but seldom do we pause to think about the country in which we live. What difference does it make that we are here and not in some other part of the world? Would our lives be different – would we be different? Many people like to claim that America is special, that no other nation on Earth is like it and it should be preserved as a light for mankind. But is America really any better than the rest of the world?
America. A nation which over a period of several hundred years enslaved thousands of Africans, a nation which proclaimed liberty to all mankind while at the very same time keeping a specific portion of mankind in chains. Is that same America worth preserving?
America. A nation which historically disenfranchised voters because of the color of their skin. A nation with a strong history of racism, a legacy which pervades the country even today. Is that same America worth preserving?
America. A nation which claims to hold the torch of liberty out to all peoples of the earth yet often has been filled with anti-immigrant sentiment. A nation that asks the world to send its tired, its poor, and its freedom-yearning masses, yet often fails to follow through in welcoming them.
Is that same America worth preserving?
My answer is a resounding yes. The same country which possesses these problems also possesses the spirit to solve them. Great statesmen fought to abolish slavery until that end was finally achieved; strong men and women have defied unjust laws and racial stereotypes to eventually change the culture around them; despite an often unwelcome response, immigrants have continued coming to America, counting it the world’s greatest privilege to become an American.
Unique among all nations of the earth is this, the American spirit: a constant quest for improvement. Embedded in the social and moral fabric of America is a determination to seek out problems and to fix them.
No people is perfect. No nation is without its faults. What distinguishes America from the rest of the world is our willingness to admit the very existence of these faults, our commitment to better ourselves no matter what adversity faces us. Furthermore, and above all else, we have the actual freedom and power to effect change wherever we see it necessary to do so.
The first words of our Constitution embody the American spirit: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union.” Power is vested in us, the people, to constantly work towards our own betterment. We are not defined by perfection, but rather our quest for perfection, a quest that we have the freedom to pursue. We as Americans are able to effect lasting change in our country without resorting to violence or leaving the rule of law. Such freedom and the power it gives is a defining characteristic of the American experience.
In my time as an Ashbrook scholar, I have come across a story which perfectly captures the value of what we have in America. A woman from Hungary had immigrated to America with her family years ago. One day, she received a traffic ticket and was required to present herself in court. She went to the hearing and paid her fine, and when she left, her son noticed that she was crying. When he asked her what was wrong, she told him how blessed she was to be in a country where the law and its officials treated everyone equally, regardless of who they were or how they looked. America was such a wonderful place to her that even such an inconvenient thing as a traffic ticket had become one of the best experiences of her life. Who was that woman? She was the mother of Peter Schramm.
Is America worth preserving? You are the answer to that question. It lies within each and every one of you, young or old. You are today’s Americans – the worth of America as a nation depends on your willingness to continue what every generation before you has preserved. I leave you with this quote from the man who inaugurated the very Ashbrook Center in which we stand right now – “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on to them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America where men were free.”
2nd Place: Grey Johnston
There has never been a day since the conception of our nation that our fundamental proposition has not been questioned. Do the blood, sweat, and tears that we have dedicated to this republic return some good worthy of their sacrifice?
Why is America worth preserving?
Her truths. Those self-evident truths that all men are created equal. That sweet song of freedom which rings in the hearts of men: truth. That freedom which rang from the hallowed battlegrounds of Gettysburg, that freedom which rang in our Declaration. And that freedom which now rings in the minds and voices of millions of Hong Kongers today is a true song and a promise. No other nation has had their flag raised as a symbol of freedom, liberty, and justice for all in a far off land. For freedom rings when truth is spoken.
Alexander Hamilton asked us a question, whether man is capable of making good government based upon reflection and choice. Everyday we choose how we will answer that question, to carry on the struggle or allow a lack of courage to end the experiment? Whether the principles and the truths of the laws of nature and of nature’s God can be imbued into the bones of a nation and the spirit of her people? If America fails that one nation under God, which fired a beacon of light into the dark, will have been nothing more than one which could not prove her truth. That is our nation.
To unite us, we have not a Romulus, or royalty, or common blood, but instead, we have a common mind: An American mind, and that mind is free to all. Whether you live in the slums of Ukraine or the streets of New York, the deserts of the Sahara or the tyranny of Pyongyang, if the mind is free, so to the man shall be.
Never before has there been a nation that everyone could call home. Never before has there been a nation whose fathers are “our fathers.” Never before has there been a nation dedicated to the proposition, promise, and truth that all men are created equal. And perhaps, never again. The Union and the Constitution are, as Lincoln put it, “a picture of Silver framed around that Apple of Gold” which we have the well-earned privilege to call the truth of liberty and equality. It is for that privilege that we fight, that we persevere, and for that privilege that America must be preserved.
A nation where any man can speak his mind because it is his God-given right to do so. From the 1st amendment to the 27th, from the Declaration to the Constitution, from that day in 1776 to this day. It’s a nation founded upon those principles. Born in those principles. Conceived in those principles. Forged in those Principles. If this nation fails, it’s not just the nation, it’s the principles that die too. Many are the nations who have no soul based in truth. It’s not a fight for our land, or our government, or our people. It’s a fight for our soul. The soul of our nation is the American mind. If dies the body, so dies the soul.
So why is America worth preserving? To save the soul of freedom, equality, and liberty. To save the soul of new republics, that they might be born free. To save the soul of the truth of the American Mind. It is needed in the restaurants of Red Square, in the Market Places in Tehran, in the docks of Hong Kong and the Streets of 5th Avenue. It is needed by all people, at all times, of all creeds. For truth is a song, and her melody is freedom.
Why is America worth preserving? To carry on the struggle—to light the torches—to defend the soul of the American mind.
3rd Place: Mikayla Gypton
We assume that America is worth keeping, but we don’t consider what we mean when we say “America” and which parts of America might not actually be that important. When we ask why America is worth keeping, not only are we already asserting that it is; we are also not clarifying whether we are talking about the place, the people, the principles, or a combination of all three. As Ashbrook Scholars, we are familiar with discussions and know that both how you phrase a question and how you define your terms are very important. Don’t get me wrong, I love America, and I believe that the ideas behind the conception of this nation are a unique ray of hope to all the world. But these concepts are separate from America as a place and separate from us as a people. If we forget this, we risk losing what really does make America worthwhile. So, what then are we trying to preserve when we claim that we will either “nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope on earth”?
Our Founders recognized that we are endowed by our creator with inalienable rights, and that these rights exist by nature. Jefferson claimed that the intent of the Declaration of Independence was not to say anything new, but to recognize what already was and state it in terms proper for use in America. The document didn’t give us the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If that is what the Founders were trying to say they would have been terrible hypocrites because then those rights would also be able to be taken away by the writers of the document, and this inability was in fact the Founder’s point. Why do so many now believe that America was inventing something entirely new? The principles are important to America, but existed because of nature’s God before the founding of our nation. Inalienable rights don’t not exist without America; America, or what we in Ashbrook, hailing the very Jefferson that claimed to not be saying anything new, have come to label as the American Mind, doesn’t exist without inalienable rights. This is an important distinction when analyzing whether it is the place, people, or ideas that we are talking about when asking why America is worth keeping. Again, inalienable rights don’t exist because of America, America exists because of inalienable rights.
That being said, America is unique in how it has expressed and defended these natural rights. Just because the concepts that inspired our Founders exist outside of us as a people does not mean that our nation isn’t worth keeping, as long as we maintain those principles. America has played a significant role in providing an example of freedom to the rest of the world. As Lincoln so beautifully stated we could not have the nation we have today without the Constitution and the Union but, and here I quote:
. . . even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all” — the principle that clears the path for all — gives hope to all — and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. . .without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. . .The picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture.
Lincoln explained in 1861 that our nation is worth keeping because of the principles it encompasses, principles that while contained within the Constitution also exist without it. This is the part of America that is worth keeping. This country has been a ray of hope to the world because it has espoused these principles and it should continue to do so. These eternal principles are what make this country great, not something inherently tied to the place or the people.
The dirt and trees and—I’ll use an Arizonan example—Gila Monsters, while special, don’t make America worth keeping. Someone could live their entire life without visiting Arizona and seeing a Gila Monster or saguaro, or any other plant or animal that only lives in the United States, and still have inalienable, natural rights. That person could still understand the claim that all people are created equal and with that claim fight all kinds of injustice, no matter where they were. Likewise, someone could spend their entire life working American soil on a family-owned farm that goes back for generations, and if they do not believe in inalienable rights, be American in blood but not in spirit. Again, we see that it is not the land or the blood that we are talking about when we ask why America is worth keeping, it is the spirit and belief in the concept of inalienable rights that makes this nation a light to the world. This is a light that needs to be saved.
We assume that America is worth keeping because when we say America, we assume that we are talking about the freedom we are born into, and the equality we strive for, based on the inalienable rights that our government was formed upon. These, not the land and not simply the people, are what makes America worth keeping.