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Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural address

Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Inaugural Address

The following is the inaugural address that Ronald Reagan gave on January 20, 1981, when he began his first term as President of the United States.

Senator Hatfield, Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. President, Vice President Bush, Vice President Mondale, Senator Baker, Speaker O’Neill, Reverend Moomaw, and my fellow citizens:

To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.

Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know how much you did to carry on this tradition. By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other, and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.

The business of our nation goes forward. These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.

Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, human misery, and personal indignity. Those who do work are denied a fair return for their labor by a tax system which penalizes successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full productivity.

But great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.

You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we’re not bound by that same limitation? We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding: We are going to be begin to act, beginning today.

The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.

We hear much of special interest groups. Well, our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we’re sick — professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers. They are, in short, “We the people,” this breed called Americans.

Well, this administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share in the productive work of this “new beginning,” and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world.

So, as we begin, let us take inventory. We are a nation that has a government — not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.

It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.

Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.

If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.

It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope.

We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they’re on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They’re individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.

Now, I have used the words “they” and “their” in speaking of these heroes. I could say “you” and “your,” because I’m addressing the heroes of whom I speak — you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.

We shall reflect the compassion that is so much a part of your makeup. How can we love our country and not love our countrymen; and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they’re sick, and provide opportunity to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?

Can we solve the problems confronting us? Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic “yes.” To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I’ve just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world’s strongest economy.

In the days ahead I will propose removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity. Steps will be taken, aimed at restoring the balance between the various levels of government. Progress may be slow, measured in inches and feet, not miles, but we will progress. It is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. And these will be our first priorities, and on these principles there will be no compromise.

On the eve of our struggle for independence a man who might have been one of the greatest among the Founding Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, president of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans, “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of… On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

Dr. Joseph Warren

Dr. Joseph Warren

Well, I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children. And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.

To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment. We will match loyalty with loyalty. We will strive for mutually beneficial relations. We will not use our friendship to impose on their sovereignty, for our own sovereignty is not for sale.

As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it, now or ever.

Our forbearance should never be misunderstood. Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will. When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.

Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.

I’m told that tens of thousands of prayer meetings are being held on this day, and for that I’m deeply grateful. We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free. It would be fitting and good, I think, if on each Inaugural Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer.

This is the first time in our history that this ceremony has been held, as you’ve been told, on this West Front of the Capitol. Standing here, one faces a magnificent vista, opening up on this city’s special beauty and history. At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand.

West Front of the U.S. Capitol

West Front of the U.S. Capitol

Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental man, George Washington, father of our country. A man of humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence. And then, beyond the Reflecting Pool, the dignified columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Beyond those monuments to heroism is the Potomac River, and on the far shore the sloping hills of Arlington National Cemetery, with its row upon row of simple white markers bearing crosses or Stars of David. They add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

Each one of those markers is a monument to the kind of hero I spoke of earlier. Their lives ended in places called Belleau Wood, The Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno, and halfway around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, and in a hundred rice paddies and jungles of a place called Vietnam.

Under one such marker lies a young man, Martin Treptow, who left his job in a small town barbershop in 1917 to go to France with the famed Rainbow Division. There, on the western front, he was killed trying to carry a message between battalions under heavy fire.

We’re told that on his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf under the heading, “My Pledge,” he had written these words: “America must win this war. Therefore I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”

The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.

And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.

God bless you, and thank you.

Statue of Liberty

Ronald Reagan at the Opening Ceremonies of the Statue of Liberty Centennial Celebration

Ronald Reagan was a presidential candidate who sometimes used the slogan, “Make America great again” as part of his campaign. But as I read through his speeches, I can’t help but contrast his desire to unite Americans and portray America as land of freedom and hope, with the current candidate who uses the same slogan, yet seeks to divide Americans and close off America by “building a wall.” There’s a stark difference here, from candidates of the same political party, just 30 years apart.

In May of 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed Lee Iacocca, Chairman of Chrysler Corporation, to head up a private sector effort to restore the Statue of Liberty. Fundraising began for the $87 million restoration under a public/private partnership between the National Park Service and The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. On July 3, 1986, the Statue was unveiled and illuminated during Liberty Weekend, which celebrated her centennial. On July 5, 1986, the newly restored Statue reopened to the public.

These are President Reagan’s remarks at the unveiling ceremony, given on July 3, 1986 at 9:28 p.m. on Governors Island.

Thank you. And Lee Iacocca, thank you on behalf of America. President and Madame Mitterrand, my fellow Americans: The iron workers from New York and New Jersey who came here to begin restoration work were at first puzzled and a bit put off to see foreign workers, craftsmen from France, arrive. Jean Wiart, the leader of the French workers, said his countrymen understood. After all, he asked, how would Frenchmen feel if Americans showed up to help restore the Eiffel Tower? But as they came to know each other — these Frenchmen and Americans — affections grew; and so, too, did perspectives.

The Americans were reminded that Miss Liberty, like the many millions she’s welcomed to these shores, is of foreign birth, the gift of workers, farmers, and shopkeepers and children who donated hundreds of thousands of francs to send her here. They were the ordinary people of France. This statue came from their pockets and from their hearts. The French workers, too, made discoveries. Monsieur Wiart, for example, normally lives in a 150-year-old cottage in a small French town, but for the last year he’s been riding the subway through Brooklyn. “A study in contrasts,” he said — contrasts indeed. But he has also told the newspapers that he and his countrymen learned something else at Liberty Island. For the first time, they worked in proximity with Americans of Jewish, black, Italian, Irish, Russian, Polish, and Indian backgrounds. “Fascinating,” he said, “to see different ethnic and national types work and live so well together.” Well, it’s how we like to think of America. And it’s good to know that Miss Liberty is still giving life to the dream of a new world where old antagonisms could be cast aside and people of every nation could live together as one.

It’s especially fitting that this lessons should be relived and relearned here by Americans and Frenchmen. President Mitterrand, the French and American people have forged a special friendship over the course of two centuries. Yes, in the 1700’s, France was the midwife of our liberty. In two World Wars, America stood with France as she fought for her life and for civilization. And today, Mr. President, with infinite gentleness, your countrymen tend the final resting places, marked now by rows of white crosses and stars, of more than 60,000 Americans who remain on French soil, a reminder since the days of Lafayette of our mutual struggles and sacrifices for freedom. So, tonight, as we celebrate the friendship of our two nations, we also pray: May it ever be so. God bless America, and Vive la France!

Normandy American Cemtery

The Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, overlooking the English Channel

And yet, my fellow Americans, it is not only the friendship of two peoples but the friendship of all peoples that brings us here tonight. We celebrate something more than the restoration of this statue’s physical grandeur. Another worker here, Scott Aronsen, a marble restorer, has put it well: “I grew up in Brooklyn and never went to the Statue of Liberty. But when I first walked in there to work, I thought about my grandfathers coming through here.” And which of us does not think of other grandfathers and grandmothers, from so many places around the globe, for whom this statue was the first glimpse of America?

“She was silhouetted very clear,” one of them wrote about standing on the deck as their ship entered New York Harbor. “We passed her very slowly. Of course we had to look up. She was beautiful.” Another talked of how all the passengers rushed to one side of the boat for a fast look at their new home and at her. “Everybody was crying. The whole boat bent toward her. She was beautiful with the morning light.” To millions returning home, especially from foreign wars, she was also special. A young World War I captain of artillery described how, on a troopship returning from France, even the most hard-bitten veteran had trouble blinking back the tears. “I’ve never seen anything that looked so good,” that doughboy, Harry Truman, wrote to his fiance, Bess, back in Independence, Missouri, “as the Liberty Lady in New York Harbor.”

And that is why tonight we celebrate the mother of exiles who lifts her light beside the golden door. Many of us have seen the picture of another worker here, a tool belt around his waist, balanced on a narrow metal rod of scaffolding, leaning over to place a kiss on the forehead of Miss Liberty. Tony Soraci, the grandson of immigrant Italians, said it was something he was proud to do, “something to tell my grandchildren.” Robert Kearney feels the same way. At work on the statue after a serious illness, he gave $10,000 worth of commemorative pins to those who visited here. Part of the reason, he says, was an earlier construction job over in Hoboken and his friend named Blackie. They could see the harbor from the building they were working on, and every morning Blackie would look over the water, give a salute, and say, “That’s my gal!”

Statue of Liberty Kiss

Tony Soraci kisses the forehead of Lady Liberty during the statue’s restoration in 1986

Well, the truth is, she’s everybody’s gal. We sometimes forget that even those who came here first to settle the new land were also strangers. I’ve spoken before of the tiny Arabella, a ship at anchor just off the Massachusetts coast. A little group of Puritans huddled on the deck. And then John Winthrop, who would later become the first Governor of Massachusetts, reminded his fellow Puritans there on that tiny deck that they must keep faith with their God, that the eyes of all the world were upon them, and that they must not forsake the mission that God had sent them on, and they must be a light unto the nations of the world — a shining city upon a hill.

Call it mysticism, if you will. I have always believed there was some divine providence that placed this great land here between the two great oceans, to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world, who had a special love for freedom and a special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, leave their friends and their countrymen, and come to this new and strange land to build a New World of peace and freedom and hope. Lincoln spoke about hope as he left the hometown he would never see again to take up the duties of the Presidency and bring America through a terrible Civil War. At each stop on his long train ride to Washington, the news grew worse: The Nation was dividing; his own life was in peril. On he pushed, undaunted. In Philadelphia he spoke in Independence Hall, where 85 years earlier the Declaration of Independence had been signed. He noted that much more had been achieved there than just independence from Great Britain. It was, he said, “hope to the world, future for all time.”

Well, that is the common thread that binds us to those Quakers [Puritans] on the tiny deck of the Arabella, to the beleaguered farmers and landowners signing the Declaration in Philadelphia in that hot Philadelphia hall, to Lincoln on a train ready to guide his people through the conflagration, to all the millions crowded in the steerage who passed this lady and wept at the sight of her, and those who’ve worked here in the scaffolding with their hands and with their love — Jean Wiart, Scott Aronsen, Tony Soraci, Robert Kearney, and so many others.

We’re bound together because, like them, we too dare to hope — hope that our children will always find here the land of liberty in a land that is free. We dare to hope too that we’ll understand our work can never truly be done until every man, woman, and child shares in our gift, in our hope, and stands with us in the light of liberty — the light that, tonight, will shortly cast its glow upon her, as it has upon us for two centuries, keeping faith with a dream of long ago and guiding millions still to a future of peace and freedom.

And now we will unveil that gallant lady. Thank, and God bless you all.

After his speech, President Reagan presented Medals of Liberty to Henry A. Kissinger, Franklin Ramón Chang Díaz, I.M. Pei, Itzhak Perlman, James B. Reston, Kenneth Clark, Albert B. Sabin, An Wang, Elie Wiesel, Bob Hope, and Hanna Holborn Gray.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan – Independence Day, 1986

On July 4, 1986, at 9:50 p.m., President Ronald Reagan gave the following speech from the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy in New York Harbor.

My fellow Americans:

In a few moments the celebration will begin here in New York Harbor. It’s going to be quite a show. I was just looking over the preparations and thinking about a saying that we had back in Hollywood about never doing a scene with kids or animals because they’d steal the scene every time. So, you can rest assured I wouldn’t even think about trying to compete with a fireworks display, especially on the Fourth of July.

My remarks tonight will be brief, but it’s worth remembering that all the celebration of this day is rooted in history. It’s recorded that shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, celebrations took place throughout the land, and many of the former Colonists — they were just starting to call themselves Americans — set off cannons and marched in fife and drum parades.

What a contrast with the sober scene that had taken place a short time earlier in Independence Hall. Fifty-six men came forward to sign the parchment. It was noted at the time that they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors. And that was more than rhetoric; each of those men knew the penalty for high treason to the Crown. “We must all hang together,” Benjamin Franklin said, “or, assuredly, we will all hang separately.” And John Hancock, it is said, wrote his signature in large script so King George could see it without his spectacles. They were brave. They stayed brave through all the bloodshed of the coming years. Their courage created a nation built on a universal claim to human dignity, on the proposition that every man, woman, and child had a right to a future of freedom.

For just a moment, let us listen to the words again: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Last night when we rededicated Miss Liberty and relit her torch, we reflected on all the millions who came here in search of the dream of freedom inaugurated in Independence Hall. We reflected, too, on their courage in coming great distances and settling in a foreign land and then passing on to their children and their children’s children the hope symbolized in this statue here just behind us: the hope that is America. It is a hope that someday every people and every nation of the world will know the blessings of liberty.

And it’s the hope of millions all around the world. In the last few years, I’ve spoken at Westminster to the mother of Parliaments; at Versailles, where French kings and world leaders have made war and peace. I’ve been to the Vatican in Rome, the Imperial Palace in Japan, and the ancient city of Beijing. I’ve seen the beaches of Normandy and stood again with those boys of Pointe du Hoc, who long ago scaled the heights, and with, at that time, Lisa Zanatta Henn, who was at Omaha Beach for the father she loved, the father who had once dreamed of seeing again the place where he and so many brave others had landed on D-Day. But he had died before he could make that trip, and she made it for him. “And Dad,” she had said, “I’ll always be proud.”

And I’ve seen the successors to these brave men, the young Americans in uniform all over the world, young Americans like you here tonight who man the mighty U.S.S. Kennedy and the Iowa and other ships of the line. I can assure you, you out there who are listening, that these young are like their fathers and their grandfathers, just as willing, just as brave. And we can be just as proud. But our prayer tonight is that the call for their courage will never come. And that it’s important for us, too, to be brave; not so much the bravery of the battlefield, I mean the bravery of brotherhood.

All through our history, our presidents and leaders have spoken of national unity and warned us that the real obstacle to moving forward the boundaries of freedom, the only permanent danger to the hope that is America, comes from within. It’s easy enough to dismiss this as a kind of familiar exhortation. Yet the truth is that even two of our greatest Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once learned this lesson late in life. They’d worked so closely together in Philadelphia for independence. But once that was gained and a government was formed, something called partisan politics began to get in the way. After a bitter and divisive campaign, Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency in 1800. And the night before Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams slipped away to Boston, disappointed, brokenhearted, and bitter.

For years their estrangement lasted. But when both had retired, Jefferson at 68 to Monticello and Adams at 76 to Quincy, they began through their letters to speak again to each other. Letters that discussed almost every conceivable subject: gardening, horseback riding, even sneezing as a cure for hiccups; but other subjects as well: the loss of loved ones, the mystery of grief and sorrow, the importance of religion, and of course the last thoughts, the final hopes of two old men, two great patriarchs, for the country that they had helped to found and loved so deeply. “It carries me back,” Jefferson wrote about the correspondence with his cosigner of the Declaration of Independence, “to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us and yet passing harmless… we rowed through the storm with heart and hand…” It was their last gift to us, this lesson in brotherhood, in tolerance for each other, this insight into America’s strength as a nation. And when both died on the same day within hours of each other, that date was July 4th, 50 years exactly after that first gift to us, the Declaration of Independence.

My fellow Americans, it falls to us to keep faith with them and all the great Americans of our past. Believe me, if there’s one impression I carry with me after the privilege of holding for five and a half years the office held by Adams and Jefferson and Lincoln, it is this: that the things that unite us — America’s past of which we’re so proud, our hopes and aspirations for the future of the world and this much-loved country — these things far outweigh what little divides us. And so tonight we reaffirm that Jew and Gentile, we are one nation under God; that black and white, we are one nation indivisible; that Republican and Democrat, we are all Americans. Tonight, with heart and hand, through whatever trial and travail, we pledge ourselves to each other and to the cause of human freedom, the cause that has given light to this land and hope to the world.

My fellow Americans, we’re known around the world as a confident and happy people. Tonight there’s much to celebrate and many blessings to be grateful for. So while it’s good to talk about serious things, it’s just as important and just as American to have some fun. Now, let’s have some fun — let the celebration begin!