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Remarks of the President, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and Speaker of the House Carl Albert at a Ceremony Opening the American Revolution Bicentennial Era

July 03, 1971

THE PRESIDENT. Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, and our very distinguished guests:

We are, in this room, in the presence of some immortal phrases: All men are created equal; government derives its powers from the consent of the governed; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These are familiar words--perhaps too familiar. Because the real meaning of the words of independence is the meaning we give them today, in our own lives, and the love of liberty and equality that we pass on to our children.

The American Revolution was not something that happened two centuries ago; it is something that is happening today. Behind it is a spirit of adventure, a spirit of compassion, a spirit of moral courage--the "Spirit of '76." In that spirit, as President of the United States in this 195th year of its existence, I declare the 5 years until our 200th anniversary to be the Bicentennial Era. In this Bicentennial Era, let us rededicate ourselves to the principles set forth by the men whose faces can be seen in the magnificent murals in this room--rededicate ourselves to the principles set down in these documents.

One of those principles is the separation of powers. So it is fitting that we have with us tonight leaders of the other two branches of Government. First, to speak to you about the meaning and spirit embodied in our Bill of Rights--the Chief Justice of the United States.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE. Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Commission, fellow Americans:

When we celebrate 200 years of the Declaration of Independence, in 1976, we will honor a period in the life of our country rather than a single historical event.

July 4, 1776 was a great occasion in our history and in the history of mankind, because it was the beginning of 15 years of startling developments. In that very brief period--the time it takes for a boy or a girl, today, to go from primary school to the third year in college--a handful of men in our small country, with a population of only a few million people at that time wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and literally shook the world with a new idea in government.

These three remarkable documents that we see here tonight gave the oppressed people everywhere in the world new heart, and the world has never been quite the same since that time. These men created a new form of revolution--one that ebbs and flows but never ceases, and it never needs force or violence.

Many of the men who framed these great charters of liberty were young men. Thomas Jefferson, the prime author of the Declaration, was 33; James Madison was only 25. When the Constitution was later written at Philadelphia, almost one third of the active working delegates to that Convention were under 35.

But even after the Declaration and after the Constitution, there was such a deep concern that the people be protected from arbitrary actions of government, that in 1791 the guarantees of the Bill of Rights were added to the Constitution. These guarantees made more certain that the promises of the Declaration would be fulfilled and that such great rights as freedom of worship, freedom of expression, and due process of law could never be withdrawn from the people without their consent.

These were revolutionary ideas, and with them we Americans began a very special kind of revolution. And that revolution has gone on to this very day. Those who are impatient for change should see that no nation in all history has ever given so much power to the people, and no people have ever used that power more often and more wisely to improve their lives and secure their liberties.

Even though this revolution of ours will soon be 200 years old, it is still youthful and vital. Everyday is the beginning of a new phase in this kind of revolution--it is steady, slow, often silent and almost unseen, but it is a revolution that works constantly to improve the quality of life. It will always work that way if we make it work.

That is the American way.

THE PRESIDENT. Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.

One of the great purposes of our Constitution was--in its words--"to form a more perfect Union." In the halls of Congress, that process of forming a more perfect Union--of improving our laws to make them more responsive to the changing needs of our people--has been going on for nearly 200 years.

Here, to speak to that subject, is the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

THE SPEAKER. Mr. President, Mr. Chief Justice, my fellow countrymen:

Amid the dissension that sometimes amounts to hate in our country today, it behooves us to remind ourselves that we are a united nation where every individual, regardless of race, color, creed, or economic status, is under our system clothed in the dignity that befits the image of his Maker.

America's first form of government was a confederation of States, loosely organized, but with the Articles of Confederation came chaos and black despair. There could be no liberty without union, no independence without strength. And so it was that in May 1787, a group of earnest men, representatives of the American States, assembled in the city of Philadelphia and formulated a constitution providing for a more perfect Union and guaranteeing the individual rights of men to themselves and their posterity.

In forging that Union, they constructed a system of government rigid enough to preserve its basic principles, flexible enough to be applied to any new conditions brought in the tide of time, conservative enough to protect the individual from the fickle winds of popular impulse. Forged to protect and to secure individual liberty, that government is yet ever responsive to the will of the majority; for by empowering the people with the right to elect their representatives, it gives the people the right to make and enforce the law and to control and operate their whole machinery of government. By dividing responsibility between an executive, a legislature, and an independent judiciary, that government prevents tyranny over men.

After nearly 200 years, that government still stands tall and rugged. It emerged from the Civil War unimpaired. It emerged from the two mightiest wars in history, grand and glorious. It has survived depressions and riots and troubles of all kinds, but it yet stands a monument to that spirit of forbearance, compromise, and self-restraint that has kept our Constitution vibrant. That same spirit will allay the divisions which haunt us today and will ensure for ourselves and our posterity not only the blessings of liberty but a still more perfect Union.

THE PRESIDENT. My fellow Americans: We share tonight a great moment, the beginning of the Bicentennial Era. In this room, so rich in our most precious heritage, we look back across two centuries with pride and gratitude to all the brave and dedicated Americans, some famous but most unknown, who made it possible for us to be here today.

But on this day, like the men and women who brought these United States into being 195 years ago, let us look more to the future rather than to the past. What kind of country do we want to be 5 years from now on America's third century as it begins?

Above all, we want the world of 1976 to be one in which Americans can live in peace with all the peoples of the world, and at peace with themselves.

We are already taking the first long step toward that goal by ending the difficult war in which we are engaged; in a way that will contribute not only to peace in the Pacific but to peace in the world, not only to peace for our generation but to peace for the next generation. But we can reach that goal after Vietnam only if America continues to meet its responsibilities of leadership in building a structure of lasting peace in the world.

The stakes are much higher for us than they were for the Founding Fathers. One hundred and ninety-five years ago, what America did or did not do could have little effect on the peace of the world. But today we hold the high trust of free world leadership, and if we fail to meet our trust the danger of war will be enormously increased.

The future of the peace of the world is in our hands. We cannot and we shall not fail.

Whatever mistakes we have made in foreign policy, we can be proud that in four wars in this century Americans have sacrificed their lives not for domination or conquest, but always to help others to enjoy the freedom which we ourselves gained in 1776. We shall never betray that tradition. We shall always use our strength to keep the peace, not to break it, to defend freedom, not to destroy it.

The peace we seek is not merely the absence of war, but the building of an open world--a world of open borders, open hearts, open minds, where people with different cultures and different systems of government can live side by side and draw strength from their diversity; a world where all men can devote their energies to the works of peace rather than to the weapons of war. This is the world our foreign policy, a foreign policy in which we emphasize negotiation rather than confrontation, seeks to build.

And what of our Bicentennial goals for America at home? Here, too, we must aim high, for we already have achieved beyond the dreams of many other nations in the world. Americans today have by far the highest standard of living in the world, but even more important, we enjoy more freedom, we have more opportunity than any people in the world's history. Even the man who is poor by America's standards would be rich in most other nations of the world today.

And yet we have no room for self-satisfaction. There is still so much to achieve in this country. Over the next 5 years we can confidently hope to achieve these high goals:

--Full employment without the cost of war.

--The restoration of our heritage of clean air and water which our forefathers enjoyed two centuries ago.

--A nation in which we again have respect for law and freedom from fear.

--Better education, health, and housing for all Americans.

--Reforms of our Government to make our Government more responsive to the needs of our time.

--Unlimited opportunity for every American citizen, whatever his background.

These are great goals, but we could reach all these material goals and still not be worthy of our heritage unless we have the "Spirit of '76."

The new United States of America 195 years ago was a small nation of only 3 million people, as the Chief Justice pointed out. It was weak militarily, poor economically, and yet in the face of all that, Thomas Jefferson said, we act not "for ourselves alone, but for the whole human race." And the wonder of it was that the world believed him !

America caught the imagination of the world in those days, not because she was strong .or rich but because the young Nation stood for something far more important. It had a flaming idealism, a high purpose, a free spirit that has come to be called the "Spirit of '76." The American people believed in themselves, in their country, and their ideals. America 195 years ago was weak in arms and poor in goods, but rich in spirit. Let it not be said of our America today that we were strong in arms and rich in goods, but poor in spirit.

For we are not poor in spirit. The American spirit which inspired these historic documents around us here in this Archives lives today, hard at work, stronger than ever. We have been reminded eloquently of it by the Chief Justice and the Speaker, and as we celebrate the Fourth of July tomorrow, on Sunday, we will be reminded of another great source of America's continuing strength -- our deep religious faith.

To look at America with clear eyes today is to see every reason for pride and little for shame, great cause for gratitude and little for regret, strong grounds for hope and none for despair. The crucial challenge now is to hold the high ground of confidence, courage, and faith that is rightly ours, and to avoid the quicksand of fear and doubt.

If we are to measure up as Americans, and if America is to measure up as a nation, the commitment which each of us makes to freedom cannot be less than the total commitment made by the 56 patriots who put their names to the Declaration of Independence so long ago.

There is a famous painting of these men which hangs in the Roosevelt Room across from the President's office in the White House. It is unusual because for some reason the artist never finished it. Many of the figures in the background of the scene are only sketched in or left blank. That painting reminds us of a profound truth. The American Revolution is unfinished business, with important roles still open for each of us to play.

The message of that uncompleted painting is this: Any American can be a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. We write our names with the lives we live. One of America's new voters, Miss Cynthia Frink, 18 years of age, signed her name to America's highest ideals in her high school valedictory speech a few evenings ago. Her message is for all of us on this Independence Day. Listen to her:

"I think the time has come to defend America. I simply feel that on such an evening as this, thought should be given to the goodness of America, to the freedom it provides, greater than anything else anywhere on earth, even the liberty to attack the government which makes that freedom possible. We are truly man's hope. No country has stood more firmly than she; been more just as she is just; been more generous than she has been; or is more deserving of the praise of her people than America."

We are going through a period when it is not always easy to keep a clear perspective about ourselves, our country, and our future. Day after day voices are raised to tell us what is wrong about America. We should, and will, correct what is wrong, but let us never allow what is wrong [to] blind us to what is right about America. The time has come to answer the false charge that this is an ugly country.

Let us love America. Let us love her not because she is strong and not because she is rich, but because America is a good country, and we can make her better.

One hundred and twelve years ago, in one of the most tragic events in America's history, John Brown, after the bloody raid on Harper's Ferry, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang.

On his way to the gallows he rode in a wagon with his own coffin right beside him. As he rode through the Virginia countryside that day, speaking to no one in particular, he said, "This is a beautiful country."

If John Brown, with his own death imminent, just before the tragic War Between the States, could say that, then even more we today can truly say: America is a beautiful country, and we are privileged to be the generation that has the magnificent opportunity to make America more beautiful for the generations to come.

Note: The ceremony began at 10:30 p.m. in the Exhibition Hall at the National Archives. Sponsored by the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, it was broadcast live on radio and television.

Richard Nixon, Remarks of the President, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and Speaker of the House Carl Albert at a Ceremony Opening the American Revolution Bicentennial Era Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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