Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States (1801–1809), and one of the influential framers of the Constitution, was the first U.S. president to be inaugurated at the Capitol in Washington D.C., a city he helped plan. In his first inaugural speech, delivered on March 4, 1801, he said the famous words that are paraphrased in the Norwich University mission statement: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union …, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which … opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
I bring this up because I received some negative feedback not long ago in response to the news that our Regimental Band and Drill Team would be performing in President Donald Trump’s inaugural parade. Now mind you, the vast majority of the feedback we received was overwhelmingly supportive of our students, but there were some detractors who were upset that our students were participating at all, and others who were unhappy with the statement that our students were “representing Vermont.”
We live in a country where, thankfully, difference of opinion is tolerated. It is our right as American citizens to think as we choose—a right that many have fought and given their lives for. But it is important to remember that opinions are not the same thing as principles. Two sentences prior to the above quote, Jefferson says: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” I believe he is alluding to our Constitution, which comprises several principles, among them, the sovereignty of the people, the limitations of government, the separation of power, checks and balances, and so on. It is these democratic principles which guarantee Americans their freedoms and unify us as a people, regardless of our differing opinions.
Whether our students were consciously aware of it or not, these unifying principles were front and center at their performance on Jan. 20, 2017. They marched not just for Norwich University, but also for our democracy, for our founder, Alden Partridge, and for all Norwich alumni since Alonzo Jackman, our first graduate. With heads held high, they marched absent of any political agenda, and with only pride for their regiment, their university, and their country.
As Norwich University’s president, I could not be prouder of our students for continuing this Norwich tradition—one that dates back to the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. At least one member of the class of 1963 who marched in that parade recalls being starstruck as he caught sight of the young president—so much so that he stopped beating the bass drum. In true Norwich fashion, the other band members continued on in perfect step, not missing a beat, until the bass drum struck up again two measures later. Such opportunities as this bring honor and prestige to our university, and help to form the Norwich bonds and memories that last a lifetime.