Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Marking Independence Day with John Quincy Adams and Ronald Reagan

At the Reagan Library
Twenty-six years ago, during the twin celebrations of Independence Day and the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty on the occasion of its centenary, President Ronald Reagan made a series of speeches about American history and American values.

On Saturday, July 5, 1986, in his pre-recorded weekly radio address, President Reagan mentioned two issues -- immigration and taxes -- that remain salient today (and one name that he probably could not have predicted would still be in the news nearly three decades later):
The immigrant story has been repeated millions of times, stories such as that of one man who passed through Ellis Island years ago. A 15-year-old Italian immigrant who spoke not a word of English. Little did he imagine that his son, Antonin Scalia, would be appointed to the highest court in the land, there to uphold and protect our Constitution, the guardian of all our freedoms. Just one of many stories that shows us that every time we swear in a new citizen, America is rededicating herself to the cause of human liberty.

In these last couple of weeks we have rededicated ourselves to liberty in other important ways, too. Recently, the Congress has passed two landmark pieces of legislation that I'm sure put a smile on the face of our Statue of Liberty. The first was our historic effort to reform our nation's tax code, to make it simpler and fairer, to bring tax rates down, and to give families a long-overdue break. Throughout human history, taxes have been one of the foremost ways that governments intrude on the rights of citizens. In fact, as we all learned in school, our democratic American Revolution began with a tax revolt. Our forefathers knew that if you bind up a man's economic life with taxes, tariffs, and regulations, you deprive him of some of his most basic civil rights. They have a wonderful phrase describing economic liberty in the Declaration of Independence. They call it "the pursuit of happiness." Well, with tax reform, we're going to make that pursuit a lot easier for all Americans.
The night before, speaking from the deck of the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy in New York Harbor on Independence Day, Reagan remembered two of his predecessors:
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 then 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 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 5-1/2 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.
That last sentence echoed the words of another president, John Quincy Adams, who as Secretary of State had addressed the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4, 1821. (It's hard to believe today, but Congress in those days did not go home for a district work period to mark Independence Day with their constituents.)

The second President Adams took this opportunity to define America's role in the world in words that should be taken to heart today. The United States, he said,
has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.

She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.
Then he added these admonitions and warnings:
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.

But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.

She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force....

She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit....

[America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.
As we Americans celebrate our independence this week, we would do well to remember the words of Presidents Adams and Reagan.

(Cross-posted to Bearing Drift.)
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