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Remarks to the Winners of the Bicentennial of the Constitution Essay Competition

September 10, 1987

Well, Chief Justice Burger, ladies and gentlemen, I want to start out by congratulating you contest winners. You have all accomplished something very fine, and you have a right to be very proud. I'm sure your families are proud of you.

History's no easy subject. Even in my day it wasn't, and we had so much less of it to learn then. [Laughter] But one of the most valuable benefits of a study of the past is that it gives you a perspective on the present. I think it's probably true that every generation, every age, is prone to think itself beset by unusual and particularly threatening difficulties and to look back on the past as a golden age when issues were not so complex and politics not so divisive and when problems didn't seem so intractable. Sometimes we're tempted to think of the birth of our country as one such golden age: a time characterized primarily by harmony and cooperation and reason.

Well, in fact, the Constitution and our government were born in crisis. As I'm sure you all discovered in your research, the years leading up to our Constitutional Convention were some of the most difficult our nation ever endured. The economy was near collapse. Trade disputes between the individual States threatened to send it over the brink. A steadily increasing number of farm foreclosures led to an uprising of poor farmers in Massachusetts led by a former Revolutionary War captain, Daniel Shays-Shays' Rebellion. Meanwhile, pirates from the Barbary Coast plundered our shipping, seemingly at will, and our young nation was surrounded on almost every side by none too friendly neighbors.

To many, by that time, it was clear that the Articles of Confederation could not hold our nation together, and as Henry Knox said: "The poor, poor Federal Government is sick unto death." Well, even so, there was in 1787 no general agreement in our land as to how a stronger Federal Government should be constituted or, indeed, whether one should be constituted at all. There were strong secessionist feelings in many parts of the country. In Boston, some were calling for a separate nation of New England. Others felt the 13 States should divide into 3 independent nations. George Washington himself was amazed to find in New England continuing strong sentiment in favor of a monarchy.

It wasn't the absence of problems but the presence of vision that won the day in 1787. And it wasn't the absence of division but the presence of something higher-those self-evident truths for which so many had recently had to fight and die—that allowed men to transcend their differences, to come together to produce a document that would change the world.

It was then, in 1787, that the revolution truly began; for it was with the writing of the Constitution, setting down as it were the architecture of democratic government, that the fine words and brave rhetoric of 1776 took on substance, that the hopes and dreams of the revolutionists would become a living, enduring reality. All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—until that moment, that was just a high-blown sentiment, the dreams of a few philosophers and their hotheaded followers.

But could one really construct a government, run a country, with such idealistic notions? But once those ideals took root in living, functioning institutions, once those notions became a nation, well, then, as I said, the revolution could really begin not just in America but around the world. A revolution to free man from tyranny of every sort and secure his freedom the only way possible in this world: through the checks and balances and institutions of democratic government.

Wasn't it Daniel Webster who said at one point to maintain our Constitution, "for if the Constitution should ever fall, there would be anarchy throughout the world"? That revolution has been so successful that even those tyrannies that, in practice, reject every ideal and moral precept upon which our country is founded—even they put on the pretense of democracy, aping our Constitution and its democratic forms.

We know only too well that the ideals of our founders still wait to be fulfilled throughout much of the world. We read the headlines. We see the great problems, the divisions, and some lost hope. But in 1987, as in 1787, success will not depend on the severity of our problems but on the strength of our vision, the courage of our beliefs.

There's a favorite story of mine on the Constitutional Convention. Toward the end, when it appeared that the Convention would be successful, Ben Franklin observed to several of the members seated near him that he had often looked at the picture of the Sun painted on the back of the President's chair. "I have," he said, "often looked at it without knowing if it is a rising or setting Sun." And then he said: "But now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun."

One of the great pleasures of my present job is that it so often brings me in events such as these in contact with the young people of America. And I can't tell you how often I've had the same certain knowledge that Ben Franklin had, because I look out on this your generation and see that it's one of the finest groups of young people this nation has ever seen. And I know that with young people like these the cause of America and human freedom is rising and will continue to rise until it floods the whole world with its light. And in closing, I want to thank the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States and those whose generosity made this event possible.

And the moment you've all been waiting for: It's time to announce the national winner. Apparently, there were two essays that were so good the judges couldn't decide between them. So, they very judiciously decided to award two prizes. And they go to Liza Johnson and Mahbub Majumdar.

[At this point, the President gave the competition winners their awards.]

I just want to leave you with one little word that I've used sometimes with young people before when I've faced them about this Constitution. And now that all of you, through your efforts, are so familiar with it—maybe you've already figured this out, but if you haven't, just let me tell you.

I've read a number of constitutions of other countries, including that of the Soviet Union, and was astonished to find guarantee of freedom of expression and assembly and so forth in all of those. And you find yourself thinking, well, then, what makes ours so different? Why does ours work the way it does? And the answer is so simple that it almost escapes you. And yet it is so great that it explains the whole difference: three words—"We the People." All those other constitutions in the world are documents in which the government tells the people what they can do. And our Constitution is one in which we the people tell the Government what it can do, and it can do nothing other than what is prescribed in that document. So, if we can get the rest of the world to switch around someday, it will be heaven on Earth.

Thank you all very much. And congratulations again.

Note: The President spoke at 10:54 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to the Winners of the Bicentennial of the Constitution Essay Competition Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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