Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Dedication of the James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress

November 20, 1981

We live with history in this community, and Nancy and I never cease marvelling at actually living in the history of that home. Madison was the second to occupy it; the picture of Washington that Dolley saved hangs in the East Room. And there's a portion outside of the White House, not seen by too many people, where you can see the smudges of smoke on the stone from the fire when the Executive Mansion was burned.

I feel a great affinity with James Madison. I'm told that his worry over the size of the national debt drove him to distraction. [Laughter] I could sympathize; the debt was not of his making either. [Laughter] But I am proud to participate in this dedication of the first national memorial to James Madison.

The leadership of men like Madison gave shape to a nation that would become the greatest the world has ever seen. Our Founding Fathers began the most exciting adventure in the history of nations. In their debates with the principles of human dignity, individual rights, and representative democracy, their arguments were based on common law, separation of powers, and limited government. Their victory was to find a home for liberty.

Madison knew and we should always remember that no government is perfect, not even a democracy. Rights given to government were taken from the people, and so he believed that government's touch in our lives should be light, that powers entrusted to it be administered by temporary guardians. He wrote that "government was the greatest of all reflections on human nature." He wrote that "if men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government," he said, "which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and next oblige it to control itself."

Led by Madison and Jefferson and others, the authors of the Constitution established a fragile balance between the branches and levels of government. That concept was their genius and the secret of our success-that idea of federalism. The balance of power intended in the Constitution is the guarantor of the greatest measure of individual freedom any people have ever known. Our task today, this year, this decade, must be to reaffirm those ideas. Our Founding Fathers designed a system of government that was unique in all the world—a federation of sovereign states with as much law and decisionmaking authority as possible kept at the local level. They knew that man's very need for government meant no government should function unchecked.

We the people—and that is still the most powerful phrase—created government for our own convenience. It can have no power except that voluntarily granted to it by the people. We founded our society on the belief that the rights of men were ours by grace of God. That vision of our Founding Fathers revolutionized the world. Those principles must be reaffirmed by every generation of Americans, for freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It can only be passed on to a new generation if it has been preserved by the old. And that's what I meant last January when I spoke of an American renewal—a rededication to those first principles.

Let it be said of this generation of Americans that when we pass the torch of freedom onto the new generation, it was burning as brightly as when it was handed to us. Then we will have kept faith with Madison and those other remarkable men we call the Founding Fathers. And we will have kept faith with God.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:20 a.m. in the James Madison Memorial Hall.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Dedication of the James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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