Last Friday marked the 30th anniversary of Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court. His calm and often silent presence conceals a stubborn commitment to judicial conservatism.
One way to commemorate his birthday is to admit something up front: I believe Clarence Thomas has the most compelling and deeply American biography of all living Americans.
Such a claim requires careful consideration.
For years, many friends had said that his acclaimed autobiography, My grandfather’s son, was one of the most intriguing and satisfying autobiographies of any living person. With the world shutting down in March 2020, I have had more than enough time to finally read Thomas’ bio. Rare is the time when I can’t put a book down. It was one of those occasions.
The book confirms that one of the stories Americans live by is indeed true, and that is the path of meritocratic mobility. The virtues of hard work and personal responsibility can truly lead to success. It is neither healthy nor fair for Americans to see themselves as linked to a permanent economic subclass or caste. Clarence Thomas embodies the American spirit.
Born into great poverty and with an absent father, Thomas encountered the cruelest forms of racism one would expect to encounter in the southern United States of the 1950s. Undeterred and supported by a determined set of grandparents, Thomas and his brother learned that people are responsible for their own destiny and that perpetual victimization is good for making excuses, but not for personal advancement. Thomas’ childhood was defined by Christian virtues, hard work, discipline, and no expectation of entitlement.
This ethic would pay off, as Thomas excelled in school and eventually made his way to Yale Law School. With a law degree in hand, Thomas will work in the Missouri attorney general’s office. He worked as a senior executive for Senator John Danforth and the Department of Education. Later he was chairman of the Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities. He was catapulted onto the national stage when President George HW Bush appointed him to the Supreme Court. Then followed its tumultuous confirmation on October 15, 1991.
Does that mean her life is flawless? Never. His autobiography is filled with confessions of moral failures, from alcoholism to a failed marriage to his own guilt over having been an inadequate father to his son, Jamal. But it is also the story of a huge victory, punctuated by a desire to challenge the demands of group thinking. As the nation would learn, Judge Clarence Thomas possesses a fierce streak of intellectual independence.
To court observers, Judge Thomas is known for advancing the conservative tradition of originalism, the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted by what its provisions meant when they were passed. He is a textualist who believes that the actual words and grammar of the Constitution are important. He is a conservative Catholic who attends mass regularly (Catholic friends notice that they show up to mass and are shocked to see Clarence Thomas kneel beside them). He is openly pro-life and an intellectual supporter of the importance of the Christian natural law tradition to the Western legal tradition.
He is also in contact with the common man despite his membership in the echelons of the American elite. As he relates, Thomas and his wife enjoy traveling the country in their RV, setting up camp across America when the country’s highest court is not in session. Taking advantage of his anonymity, when other campers ask him what he does for a living, he casually remarks that he is just a government attorney in Washington, DC Along a similar vein, he thinks that the Constitution should not be left to specialists, so he was careful to phrase his opinions in an idiom that non-specialists would understand. As he memorably put it in a maintenance with Bill Kristol, “Genius takes a twenty dollar idea and puts it in a two dollar sentence.” It’s not about taking a two dollar idea and putting it in a twenty dollar sentence. This is wise wisdom not only for lawyers, but for all writers.
Justice Thomas cannot sit on the Supreme Court forever. Time does not slow down for anyone. As his career enters its final stages, we must see Judge Thomas as the embodiment of both an American and Augustinian paradox: through reverse may come triumph, and through courage and independence may come a recovery of America’s constitutional ideals.
After reading Judge Thomas’ biography, I dared to write him a note of appreciation. I didn’t expect him to answer. But, to my amazement and gratitude, he returned me a handwritten note of appreciation, which is now one of my most precious possessions.
I joke with friends that if I could have dinner with any living American it would be Judge Clarence Thomas. So Judge Thomas, if I’m ever in town and you’re reading this, dinner is for me. You may tire of my endless questions, but you will never tire of my admiration and appreciation. Every American owes you both.