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Remarks at the Swearing-In Ceremony of Don W. Wilson as Archivist of the United States

December 04, 1987

The President. It's an honor to be here in this place dedicated to our history with all of you who do so much to preserve the record of that history and to make it come alive for your fellow Americans. Special greetings to the Wilson family. We all share your pride and joy at this moment. And if I could just interject a word to all of you who work in this building, I want you to know that I have a special fondness for this place. You see, behind me is the Constitution—200 years old, and also behind me, the Declaration of Independence—211 years old. And I can't help thinking that around here I'm just a young whippersnapper. [Laughter]

But we've come together today to witness an important event in the history of our National Archives: the swearing-in of Don W. Wilson as the first Archivist selected to manage the National Archives as an independent agency. Mr. Wilson is more than qualified, as you've already heard, for this high post, both by academic background and years of experience. He holds a doctorate in American history. He served as Historian and Deputy Director of the Eisenhower Library in Abilene. He has held the post of associate director of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. And since 1981, Mr. Wilson has served as the Director of the Gerald Ford Library and Museum in Grand Rapids.

Perhaps most important, Mr. Wilson has a vision—a vision of what the National Archives can become. He has said that he would like the Archives to grow into a national cultural resource as treasured as the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. And he has stated—and here I quote: "Traditionally, our foremost concern in the National Archives has been the historical researcher. While this will, and should, remain undisturbed as a basic mission, many of us recognize that the Archives could serve a larger audience—a history-minded public excited about their country's past." With that in mind and conscious of the documents that are with us in this room, I wonder whether you would join me in considering three moments in the history of our nation.

First, it is 1787. Fifty-five delegates have gathered in Philadelphia from the newly independent and united States, charged with revising the weak Articles of Confederation. The men inside Independence Hall are worried. Just a few years before, many had risked property and life itself in signing the Declaration of Independence—that very document. And now they faced a sobering question: Had they and their countrymen overreached? Could this raw, new Republic survive? Or would it be torn apart by disputes between the States, lack of finance, pressure from the great powers of Europe? The delegates faced those challenges and surmounted them, producing the Constitution of the United States—that very document-now two centuries old, in reverence and honor.

Now it is February 1861. Abraham Lincoln has been making his way slowly eastward from Springfield to Washington to take the oath of office as President. And like the men of 1787, Lincoln faced a question. Once again, that question: Could the Republic survive? Before dawn on the 22d, he spoke to a crowd that had gathered to catch a glimpse of him. He had often asked himself, Mr. Lincoln said, what great principle or idea it was that had held the Union together for so long. "It was not," he said, "the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland." And as the great man pondered the deeper meaning on America, he referred to a document. Instead, he said, it was "something in that declaration giving liberty not alone to the people of this country but hope to the world. It was that which gave promise that in due course the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men."

Well, the final moment that I'd like you to join me in considering requires no imagining. It is now, the present. Like the men of 1787, like Lincoln in 1861, indeed, like every generation of Americans throughout our history, we, too, face the question: Will this nation, founded in freedom, flourish? Will it continue to extend the hope of liberty to all the world?

It's my belief that during these past 7 years we've done much to restore our nation—restore our economy and defenses, restore our basic values, even restore a sense of our own fundamental goodness as a people. Yes, I feel certain that despite the challenges that beset us, this nation of freedom will flourish.

But if we're to succeed in the future, we must learn our own past and learn to look at these and other documents and hear the echoes and sense the greatness and draw strength. For to study American history is, in a sense, to study free will. It is to see that all our greatness has been built up by specific acts of choice and determination, and it is to see how very fragile our nation is, how very quickly so much that we cherish could be lost.

All this is really only a way of elaborating what I suggested at the beginning: that what you at the National Archives do is of tremendous significance and that Don Wilson's vision for the Archives is a vision of national importance. And to all of you, my thanks. And to Don Wilson, congratulations.

[At this point, the Archivist was sworn in.]

The Archivist. President Reagan, distinguished guests, colleagues, first let me say that I am both excited and very honored to assume this office as Archivist of the United States. I thank each and every one of you for being here today to share with me in this important occasion. I believe it pays tribute to the National Archives and honors it as an institution. A special thank you to President Reagan, to Dick Cheney, to David Matthews, and Bob Warner, for taking time out of their very busy schedules to participate in this ceremony.

Before I give a very few brief remarks on a couple of goals that I have, there are two other people I want to publicly recognize today. The first is Dr. Frank Burke, whose able leadership as Acting Archivist over the last 32 months has kept the institution growing and has provided many strong foundations upon which we can continue to build. Thank you, Frank. The second person I want to recognize is my wife, Patsy, whose personal strength and confidence in my abilities have often times exceeded my own over the past few years. It is her love and faith that were major ingredients in making this day possible for us. Thank you.

Independence for the National Archives, I believe, provides an unparalleled opportunity to expand the agency's impact. To lead the National Archives at this important juncture is a personal and professional challenge which I accept enthusiastically. First and foremost, I believe we must remember that the National Archives is more than this beautiful building gracing Pennsylvania Avenue midway between the Capitol and the White House. It is truly a national agency, with over 3,000 dedicated employees in more than 30 locations in 14 States. It has the potential to influence every area of archives and manuscripts in the United States and most of the world. I believe the time has come for this important agency to serve a broader audience and develop an expanded mission. The bicentennial celebration of the birth of our government and our forms of government and their institutions provide a unique opportunity for the National Archives to begin to grow in this area.

Another future opportunity for the National Archives leadership lies in formulating a national archival collecting policy. It is, it seems to me, time for the Nation's largest and most significant archives to move beyond concern for its own records and play a leadership role in determining a policy for documenting our national heritage. I am convinced that the National Archives can articulate the national interest and identification preservation in making available the archival records at all levels of government. I think that the National Archives can energize. It can coordinate, promote, and consult without centralizing or seeking to control. Generations of specialized researchers and ordinary citizens will benefit if we are now able to establish a sound and thoughtful national records policy.

I believe all agree that the basic mission of the National Archives is to preserve for posterity our nation's most important documents. As Archivist of the United States, I intend to fulfill that mission by providing the agency with aggressive, creative, professional leadership, to work to give the staff of the National Archives the resources needed to carry out the responsibilities given us. I believe that innovation and the ability to adapt to present-day needs must be among the agency's highest priorities.

The tasks facing us are both enormous and challenging. The National Archives today requires leadership, ingenuity, and a long-term professional commitment to record-keeping and public service. Now is a time when there is a greater awareness than ever before of the needs of the National Archives. Today we have more concerted, collective support and appreciation of its mission by users, by constituent groups, by the White House, and by Congress, than any time in its history. That makes now a time of opportunity as well as great obligation. As seventh Archivist of the United States, I am prepared to fully commit myself to these challenges and these responsibilities. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:31 a.m. in the Rotunda at the National Archives. In his remarks, he referred to Representative Dick Cheney of Wyoming; David Matthews, director of the Kettering Foundation; and Robert M. Warner, former Archivist of the United States.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Swearing-In Ceremony of Don W. Wilson as Archivist of the United States Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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